When Saturnina Alers was being honest with herself she’d begrudgingly admit she didn’t particularly like Jacqui Green, but in the middle of a war she never got much time for self reflection. Under the service of Aria Joie, most of her days were in meetings, oiling the joints of old mechs, making sure people were exactly where they should be, when they needed to be there. The Divine Rigour, Aria said (Ms. Joie, Saturnina corrected herself), is more thorough than they could ever hope to be. So Saturnina took it as a personal insult whenever she caught guards asleep, when anyone slacked in their duties. It was an insult to Ms. Joie, their leader, their only hope. In her most private moments, she would think, how could anyone disrespect someone as beautiful, honest and kind as Aria?
Human beings love to make shit up. We’ve been doing it for as long as we’ve been around, basically. As a self involved teenager I got it in my head that I was gonna be another one of those great storytellers. A regular Homer, that would be me. The problem is sixteen-year-olds don’t really have the depth of experience to understand how to move people.
I needed fiction and wanted to be a participant in that system because I didn’t understand myself, didn’t understand the world around me. It wasn’t quite escapism—maybe a sister to it—but I need the high drama of genre fiction to make sense of the mundane. I needed Hermione Granger to understand why other kids don’t like know-it-alls. I needed Sailor Moon to understand that there are many different ways of being feminine, and that none of them were better or worse than the other. I needed Blair and Serena from Gossip Girl, or at least the first three seasons of Gossip Girl, to know the value of female friendship.
Right now, I think what I need to to be playing more tabletop games. I want more companionship, sure, and it’s no secret that I’m a big nerdo. But after listening to last season of the podcast Friends at the Table, I know more specifically what I’m seeking. I need to be telling stories again. I don’t know if you’ve noticed, but 2016 has been a pretty weird year, and it feels like there’s a rock on my chest. But that is the privilege of fiction, after all. It lets some of the pressure off. It helps us understand ourselves. Tabletop gaming is just another way to hang a frame around the world, to sit back and be awestruck at its beauty, or gobsmacked by its horror.
It wasn’t that Jacqui is disrespectful, Saturnina thought, strapping herself in to her Rigger. But she seemed distant in a way that bothers her. Counterweight, this whole planet was in the balance, but Jacqui always looked a thousand miles away, didn’t respond to Ms. Joie’s gentle touches, didn’t even notice that Ms. Joie lets her take extra helpings at dinner. Saturnina robotically started up her mech, checked in on her soldiers, waited patiently for all their call signs. The moment before take off, she allowed herself one thing: she imagined, for once, Aria’s cool hand on her face.
Friends at the Table is a roleplaying podcast DMed by Austin Walker about critical worldbuilding, smart characterization, and fun interaction between good friends. It’s also a weekly exercise in listening to my friends make me laugh and break my heart. It’s also the podcast to overtake Car Talk for the number one spot on the Games & Hobbies section in iTunes. They’ve just started a new season and I’m loving it so far, especially the clarinet-centric tunes from the incredible Jack de Quidt, writer for developer Crows Crows Crows. But the cyberpunk-themed second season, Counterweight, is a bright and brilliant jewel.
I mean, they had me from the moment Ali Acampora described her character, Aria Joie, as “It’s like if Han Solo used to be Beyoncé.” They went into this season hoping to mix the best parts of Gundam with the best parts of Cowboy Bebop and they exceeded all of my expectations. Austin Walker is pretty much an ideal GM and they’re just a perfect mix of collaborators. When Austin introduces Jacqui Green, a bounty hunter sent to kill Aria, Ali ends up tricking him into letting Aria and Jacqui date. Art Tebbel can describe a form of communication as “like Newtype vision,” and everyone nods along. When Keith Carberry names an NPC Lazer Ted, Austin will launch into a pitch perfect Riff Raff impression (stay wavy).
Roleplaying games are about are making stories together, and the yarns the people on Friends at the Table spin are beautiful. It helps that the games they choose—in the first two seasons they mostly play games based on the Apocalypse World system which eschews a lot of dice rolling for roleplaying—are particularly suited for making up good shit. The mechanics of these games, at least how I like to play them, are mostly for ratcheting up the drama. A bad roll can throw a wrench in any well made plan.
Halfway through the season I convinced my then boyfriend to GM a game of The Sprawl for me and some of my friends (Kotaku’s own Riley MacLeod joined us and he was, as ever, a delight). I let myself be self-indulgent — I just made Rihanna, but if she was an openly bisexual bounty hunter in the future. The Sprawl is the system that they were using on Friends at the Table that season, and it was perfect for our ragtag group of infrequent tabletop RPG players.
The GM of that game is no longer my boyfriend and I think that world is now dead, but it was beautiful for the moments we had it. My friend Sara played a character she’d later describe as Ilana Glazer from Broad City, but a murderer. My friend Robert was a beleaguered reporter working as an indentured servant for StoneSlab, our BuzzFeed of the future. As we brainstormed factions to work with and oppose, we landed on a venture capitalist immortality cult which we did not realize would be prophetic. In a harsh winter and a rough spring I’d needed desperately to make something, and what feels so good about tabletop RPGs is that there’s always someone to hand you a rope when you feel stuck. There’s no writers block when you’re always able to bounce ideas off other people. When we played together, there was just laughing, boundless energy, and joy.
I suffer from Seasonal Affective Disorder and this winter was maybe the worst I’ve ever had. It’s not fun to wake up crying, it’s not fun to constantly be bargaining with yourself about whether you’ll commit suicide. Playing The Sprawl allowed me a chance to make my best self. My spin on Rihanna, Kirby Mattix, was everything I like about myself, and a few things I don’t like. She was stubborn, she was selfish, she was too honest, but she was also a woman who had been burned by a system of capitalism that wasn’t going to let her succeed. The GM, my fellow players, and I were making a world where she was finally going to be allowed to get what she deserved, a world where perseverance pays off. A world where, hilariously, she’d be able to pay off her college loans.
At a certain point in the game I’d noticed that we’d all made people who live on the fringes. Riley’s character was a charismatic sort-of cult leader, mine was a disillusioned killer for hire, Robert’s was trapped in a dead end job and under a pile of debt, and while Sara’s was cheerful enough she was still hardened and unbothered by her skill at murder. There is no way to get around the fact that the narrative we were making would center us. We were telling a story about how the people who live on the fringes still matter.
And yes, this winter, that was the story I needed to tell.
Rigour was more monstrous than Saturnina could have ever expected. A mountain in the shape of a man, unthinking, unfeeling, beckoning, beckoning for you to join it in an eternal labor. She’d heard more than one soldier throw up in their helmet that day, and she’d heard more than one of them as they died. But Saturnina does not cry, because Ms. Joie needs everyone to be strong. She kept The Regent’s Brilliance in her view at all times, until the final push when Saturnina recognized three things of equal importance at once.
The Friends at the Table game of The Sprawl was better than our unfinished one, but being able to be an observer in their process felt incredible. Another reason humans love to tell stories is to share them with others. And as they explained in their post mortem, this game ended up being a weird way for them to exorcise some lingering demons. What is the monstrous, mind controlling, inhuman mech Rigour but a vision of exploitative labor, something that has touched each of these friends, has touched me? What better a place than Counterweight, the jewel of the Golden Branch, to explore it?
This is what stories are for, anyhow. They’re a deep lake with a mirrored surface for you to swim in, and when you emerge, you know yourself and the world a little better than you did before.
When I play games like The Sprawl I get to be the very best that I can be. Apparently, my best self is Rihanna from the music video for “Needed Me,” which is incredibly telling. But it felt so good to sink into that skin, even for just a few hours every week. It helped clear a fog. It was a reason to get up every day.
It’s like that line that repeat over and over on the second season of Friends at the Table. Sometimes they say it in jest, sometimes to underscore the drama, but it’s effectively a tagline given the frequency. It’s about the mechs but it works here, too: We could have made them look like anything, but we made them look like us. That’s why we all keep doing this. We need to see things that look like us.
First of all, Saturnina knew she would die, and she did not regret it. Aria’s Rigger had faded from view, following Jacqui to a clearing, where they’d landed, gotten out, held each other. This was the second thing: That was where Aria had needed to be, and it was where she was going to stay. Saturnina revved her throttle, hoped Jacqui was kissing back, for once, that she had finally opened herself in the way that Saturnina had always been open. And before she closed her eyes and let herself feel this, let a tear roll down her cheek Saturnina understands what she’d overheard between Aria and Jacqui weeks before: You can’t save everyone. But you can try.