Tuesday, January 27, 2015

Stacy Dellorfano--Building The Best Online Con in RPGs

At D&D With Porn Stars women in gaming is a subject that comes up a lot and playing RPGs on-line over Google Plus also comes up a lot, too.

Since it just so happens that the best, most has-its-shit-together on-line tabletop RPG convention is one that anybody can be part of but that's run entirely by women. I figured I'd talk to the lady in charge: Stacy Dellorfano of Contessa. 

So what's Contessa?

ConTessa is a year-round virtual convention and community where women execute all the games and events. 2015 is our third and most exciting year so far. In 2013 and 2014 we ran annual conventions over long weekends. In 2015, we've turned into an 'always-on' convention, and will be running several events over the course of the year. 

We've run contests, tournaments, panels, games, seminars, art jams, board game sessions, and just about anything you can do via Google Hangouts or the greater internet. 

Aside from the difficulties anyone faces trying to squeeze a hobby in between real life stuff, what have been the hard things about running Contessa?

I'd have to say that learning how to ignore the haters has been the most difficult thing about running ConTessa for me, personally. I can make the technology work when it fails, herd the hell out of cats, figure out how to do what we want to do on a budget of nothing, deal with flaky game developers who don't answer their emails, and still run my own events while juggling all of those balls, but I sucked at tuning out the negative and focusing on the positive. 

ConTessa has largely changed that for me. It's still a bit of a struggle from time to time, but I have a much better perspective now than I've had since the convention's inception in late 2012. I and/or the convention have been attacked for not being political enough, being too political, using a word that people didn't like (apolitical), choosing graphics and a design theme that was 'too cutesy', being 'part of the problem', ignoring women's issues, whitewashing women's issues, making too big a deal out of women's issues, excluding women we don't agree with, discriminating against men, not allowing men to be members of staff, run games, or run panels, and we got attacked for not saying certain things. 

I've been threatened with blacklisting more than once, my staff members have been told by people several times not to talk about ConTessa in their space, people have refused to work on projects if they're connected to ConTessa, and I got yelled at by a previous-year sponsor for allowing a 'competitor' to also be a sponsor. 

On top of that, I got severely ill at the beginning of 2013 while simultaneously dealing with a job layoff, and the fallout of a lot of very damaging personal shit brought on by my family. I sank into a depression so deep there were days I thought it would never, ever end. I wanted to die. I didn't want to kill myself, but I wanted to die. While the attacks didn't cause all of that, they certainly didn't do anything to make me feel better about myself as a human being. 

When I thought for sure I was going to give it up, something amazing happened. People showed up and told me stories about how ConTessa helped them get into GMing online, then in-person, then at conventions, then writing their own material, publishing themselves, and getting freelancing jobs for some of the best publishers out there. They told me about other women that they, in turn, inspired with their stories. They told me that their daughters couldn't wait until they were old enough to participate, and they kept asking me when the next convention would be. 

There were days during the worst of the depression when getting out of bed and getting ready for work seemed too hard, even seemed not worthwhile at all. On those days, I had a steady mantra that went through my head. One foot in front of the other. Keep moving forward. You may not see the end of the tunnel, but it's there. Keep walking. I made sure that stuck for ConTessa, too, and I've become a stronger person for it. 

I think the turning point was when a prominent blogger took an offhand comment I made and blew it up into an entire lie about our policies while trying to make the point that if I wanted success, I needed to invite men to run games. I corrected him in the comment thread of his post, but he ignored it and never even responded to me... then, the very same people who attacked me for being 'part of the problem' were suddenly on my side because a guy with MRA tendencies was attacking me. 

It was absurd. After both crying and screaming in frustration, I finally sat down and started laughing. There were all these people getting all worked up over a convention they did not have to attend or participate in wherein people were mostly going to sit in front of their computers and play pretend. 

Now, I'm on a much more even keel. I've finally found some much-needed perspective, and I'm glad for it. While talking about this interview with my husband the other day, I said, "You know what? I should probably thank all those people for giving me perspective." 
Eyes courtesy of D&D W/Porn Stars' very own Mandy Morbid.

How do you see Contessa fitting in to the larger game scene? The larger discussion about women in games?

I started ConTessa specifically because I want to see more women get into the creator side of the hobby. I strongly believe the best way to get more diverse content is to have more diversity in the people who create that content. While there are women out there creating games, there aren't nearly enough. We want to add more women to the pool, which will benefit everyone in the long run by giving us a more well-rounded group of creators who add their own unique perspective and identity to the work they produce. 

That doesn't just help women, that helps everyone. With the rise of independent game publishing, we're seeing more and more new games and supplements coming out that challenge our preconceived notions of what a game can and should be. Adding more voices, more perspectives, and more lives to that mix can only improve what we're already doing. Diversity helps everyone, hands down. 

The hurdles that women face getting into game design are different than the hurdles that men face, but instead of actually addressing that fact, we keep shoving women into the same box that the men have been partying in since wargaming's origins in the late 19th century. Or, we do something really stupid and lower the hurdles that men have to go over, thinking that helps women. It isn't that we need the path to be easier, it's that we have completely different hurdles to jump over. 

ConTessa addresses the hurdles that women face more often than men, and we do it better because we are women. We've either already jumped those hurdles, or we're in the process of jumping those hurdles, and we're more than happy to share the secrets of our success and the things we've learned through our failures with one another. Support networks are absolutely crucial to any creative environment, and doubly so when facing an environment where you feel so very underrepresented. 

Women come and GM at ConTessa because they feel more comfortable knowing that they're not the only woman there. They then take all of the confidence built up doing that and they funnel it into creating some magnificent things. ConTessa makes the entire community better by giving women what they actually need to succeed instead of just dumbing everything down. 

You said that women in games have a distinctive set of hurdles to jump over-- what are these? Or some of them?

Navigating male culture. I'm not talking about harassment or anything to do with sex, either. Most women are raised to communicate in a passive manner, while most men are raised to communicate in an aggressive manner. That has a lot to do with the fact that girls are raised to be nice, and boys are raised to (or at least given permission to) be aggressive. It's great to talk about and think about an ideological world where both sides come closer to the other, but we have to deal with how people are now in order to get more women playing, running, and creating. 

What that looks like in many gaming groups is one or two super aggressive neckbeard-types talking over, interrupting, making decisions for, mocking, and just plain disrespecting the one or two women at the table who get quieter and quieter, then eventually don't play at all. I don't see this addressed. Ever. Worse, I see men making excuses for their overly-aggressive players, and doing nothing to prevent the women at the table from getting walked all over. This, more than anything else in gaming, is what has to change. 

Experience. Many men my age started playing Dungeons & Dragons when they were children. They were either given it to them by a parent, or they learned of it from a friend. In that era, girls were given dolls, and boys were given war toys. D&D is a war toy. Plus, a lot of us had segregated play when we were young. We played with only other girls, so we didn't hear about this nifty thing called roleplaying games until we got older and started to develop male friends. 

As a result, a lot of women get started in gaming when they're adults or near-adults. That's usually a minimum of a decade worth of experience the guys have that the girls don't, and that's an important distinction. 

Permission to act like a kid. I've always felt weird being around a group of male friends with wives who don't game. They always say things like 'my wife won't let me play', 'thank goodness my wife pulls me away from gaming', 'my wife reminds me to spend time with the kids', etc. The default assumption seems to be: Boys can continue playing with toys well into their adulthood, but girls have to grow up and leave their toys behind so that they can 'mommy' their husbands. 

When I was working in the video game industry, I even encountered situations were women managers either had to act like mommies to their direct reports, or they chose to act like mommies. Many of the women I met who managed men (and there were very few of them as it was) kept toys, candy, and other kid-like things in their offices not for them, but for their men they managed. 

Women need permission to keep their toys throughout adulthood and play with them whenever they want without judgment. What this ends up looking like in our world is a reluctance by women to do anything that involves 'play' lest they be considered immature. 

Risk-taking and bouncing back from failure. As a result of that whole passive vs. aggressive communication style thing, a lot of women are also risk-adverse. Competitive sports, video games, and even roleplaying games given to children at a young age teach them the value of perseverance. That play didn't go as well as intended? Try again! Died fighting the zombies on level 23? Start over! TPK? Roll new characters! 

Zombies of Walmart--Stacy's very own attempt to kill you with zombies on level 23

Girls, on the other hand, are subtly and not-so-subtly told over and over again that we're not competitive, which is really a chicken and egg thing. Liking or disliking competition isn't a personality trait that's ingrained into your being. If girls played more sports and games at a younger age, they might not be quite as adverse to competition, which then translates into having less fear of taking risks, and a greater ability to bounce back from failure. 

You see it in imposter syndrome, women who are terrified of self-promotion, women who are afraid of GMing, women who insist they don't have the talent/skill/etc... to even start making games, and a whole laundry list of things that keep women out of leadership roles whether we're talking the boardroom of a huge corporation or as the GM at a D&D table. 

Here's another thing about that... women are much more likely than men to attribute their successes to outside forces (luck), and their failures to internal forces (I didn't work hard enough). Men are much more likely to attribute their successes to themselves (I'm awesome), and their failures to outside forces (I'm still awesome, there must be something wrong with everyone else). I see this all the time... 

Woman GMs a game that goes south, she blames herself not doing enough prep, knowing the system well enough, or creating a compelling enough story. 

Man GMs a game that goes south, he blames the system, the players, the adventure, the time of year, anything but him. 

There's good reason to believe that even when dudes are totally wrong about where the failure lies, it works as a shield to protect them from having constant drops in confidence when things don't go well, and choosing to try again. 

None of this is going to be changed by showing fewer scantily clad pictures of women in gaming books, adding harassment clauses to conventions, or changing the subject matter of adventures. Rather, all of those things will start to resolve themselves once we take the time to address the actual things preventing more women from getting into - and staying involved with - gaming. 

How have things gone recently?

Really well. I mean, really well. I have three fantastic staff members who have been cranking out some awesome content and coming up with great ideas. We just re-launched the website for the third or fourth time, now (I've lost track), and we've got a great group of staff writers putting out some great posts about gaming, interviews with game developers, and some round tables that have been really fun to write. 

We've got some new events coming up and a lot of momentum to keep putting out new events very nearly monthly. We've been refining the process as we go, so setting up events is becoming less and less about the logistics and more and more about the actual events. After the last annual convention, we decided to get rid of a lot of the extraneous goodies that were taking up too much staff time and taking away from our ability to produce events. Sponsors, door prizes, and contests were eating up all of my time. Now that we've dropped those aspects, my time is freeing up so I can do more events like the random dungeon tournaments I like so much. 

I'm really forward to what we have coming up around the bend. We've learned so much in such a short amount of time, and I feel like we're just beginning to hit our stride. 

What are some examples of events that went really well?

Both of the random dungeon tournaments went phenomenally. My only regret is that I don't really have a link to a page that describes them in detail. That should change with this round of tournaments. The first year saw two teams going head to head in different hangouts, but the same randomly generated dungeon. The second year saw two pick-up teams on one day and two organized teams on the second day. I'm now to the point where I want to have them every few months, starting with the elimination bracket tournament on Valentine's Day. 

Back when Rachel Ventura was still with Frog God Games, she held a panel for our first ConTessa on marketing your RPG that had a rather large viewership and quite a bit of interaction. I was watching it live while I watched the comments came in, and loving every minute of it. 

Lastly, the I Hit it With My Axe reunion panel I ran was probably the most fun of all the panels I've run. And no, that's not kissing ass. That panel was one of the really rare intersections where the people involved actually did a really good job drumming up interest in the panel and gathering a live audience that asked a lot of questions. That also happens to be why Rachel's panel was so successful. 

Come to think of it, maybe we need a post on how to be a good panel participant. 

What's an example of an article that went up that you really like (yes, you have to pick one)?

Ariana's in-depth look into forum roleplaying from her perspective: Typing in Character: All About Play-By-Post. While I've done some freeform roleplaying via MUSHes and MUXes, the Play-By-Post phenomena has largely passed me by. It's great to get a peak into something I don't do (and likely won't start doing anytime soon). That's the biggest benefit of bringing on more writers. 

I know you said one, but there's another one coming up that Sarah wrote about how she preps for Dungeon World games that I also think is great. It's not scheduled for release until 2/10, though, but I think it makes a pretty good example of the kinds of things we're going for. There are many different ways to do all the things we do, and I value being able to see through the eyes of others. 

What kinds of games or ways of playing games has running Contessa introduced you to?

Convention gaming as a whole, and running one-shots. In 20+ years of GMing, I always thought that one-shots served no purpose for me. It was a full-blown campaign or nothing. Plus, running for a group of people I only meet once seemed too intimidating to actually do. It tends to take me a little bit of time to warm up to people. 

Then, I ran a one-shot of Precious Dark for the first ConTessa, for a group of people who I didn't know, in a convention setting (even if just virtual), and followed that up by building one-shot dungeons for the dungeon tournaments. 

Now, I'm sold on one-shots, and have started building all my games to be modular in that fashion. One of the adventures I ran for the last Precious Dark campaign I put together 'Zombies of Walmart', I've now run three times, and I'm thinking about doing it again for Gen Con. It's great fun to see what different ways people approach the exact same adventure... and, well, I added my own touch of uniqueness to each experience by using a shit ton of random tables. 

How can women participate?

Now that we run year-round, we've got several different ways that women can participate: 

  • At larger ConTessa events. We're planning a handful of mini-convention gaming weekends and panel days throughout the year. The exact dates will be communicated on our blog, and at the ConTessa community. You can check our submissions page for the events we're currently taking submissions for. 
  • By writing for the ConTessa blog. We've got about a half dozen women currently writing for the blog. We like interviews, gaming materials we can share, how-to articles, regular columns, and pretty much anything that has to do with gaming. If you'd like to be a staff writer, drop an email to stacy AT contessa.rocks, and I'll get you hooked up. 
  • By running and participating in one-off events. We're just beginning to roll out some one-off events. These might be games, panels, or interviews... they're mainly opportunity events that we pull together whenever someone has a good idea. If you'd like to run one of these events, drop an email to stacy AT contessa.rocks, and we'll talk about getting it done. 
  • By creating your own recurring event / recurring series. For example, I'm currently running a campaign weekly of the game I'm developing, Precious Dark. It ties into a series of blog posts about developing the game as well. Ariana and Sarah are running a series of events where they ask the developer of a game to come and run the game for them, and the ConTessa crew all together is working on a monthly podcast complete with guests. We're up for anything like that. If you've got an idea, and you think it'll encourage more women to create, we want to hear about it! Again, drop an email to stacy AT contessa.rocks.
We just moved into our new website, and we're just getting rolling with events this year. As we get going throughout the year, we'll be adding more to what we have to offer and how best to get involved.  

How can everyone else participate?

Signing up for events involves going to the event in Google+ and leaving a comment. GM's then confirm their groups before the big day, and keep track of who might be an alternate. We're listing all of our events on our events page at the ConTessa website, where you can find a link to the corresponding sign-up event on Google+. If you want the news of new events as we set them up, follow the ConTessa Page and/or join the ConTessa community. It also doesn't hurt to follow myself, Sarah RichardsonAriana Ramos, and Solange Simondsen. The four of us make up the staff that runs ConTessa, so we share events and talk about ConTessa frequently. 

Are there any upcoming events?

Yes! Here's what we have coming up virtually: 

  • Wednesday nights at 6PM Pacific, I'm running Precious Dark live, on air, as I develop the game. I'm joined by a group of women who are eagerly jumping into the campaign. Their first adventure has so far involved befriending a group of psychedelic snails. I'll be recording the sessions live, then blogging the session notes and my development notes. 
  • On Sunday, January 25th at around 12PM Pacific, some of our staff will be playing Liz C's new game, WITCH in a ConTessa exhibition game. (Zak's note: sorry, this already happened before I could get the interview up--maybe Liz C has another event coming though?)
  • On Saturday, February 14th, I'll be pulling out the random dungeon tournament for the third time. This time, I'm shooting for 20 players so we can run a 4-team elimination round, break for dinner, then come back and run the winners of the first events through one more dungeon for a championship. 
  • Saturday February 21st, and Sunday February 22nd will be our first Game Weekend. We're currently accepting submissions from any women who want to run events on that weekend at the ConTessa website. This will be similar to the annual conventions, but instead of running both games and panels, we'll just be running games. 
  • Then, on March 14th, we'll be having a Panel Saturday. We'll do our level best to shove as many panels into one day as we possibly can. The same submission form above can also be used for panel day as well. 
We've got a pretty aggressive schedule lined up already, and we've barely gotten started. We're also spreading out to face-to-face conventions, starting with Gen Con. We've submitted one event already, we're getting our ducks in a row for the second, and we're planning on throwing a party. 

At Gen Con, we hope to do the following: 

  • A panel on creating and running virtual gaming events. I've asked Gen Con if we can get an internet connection, and we're renting a projector. If all goes well, I'm going to put up a hangout while we're at the panel for a live demonstration, and so that people not there can join us. Hopefully, it'll all come through! 
  • A ConTessa game night. We're pulling together GMs who want to run games with ConTessa. For this first time, we're planning on one four-hour block where a number of ConTessa GMs all run their different games in the same basic area. 
  • An Meetup. A group of us are renting a house in Indy for Gen Con large enough that it can handle social events. So, we're going to have a ConTessa meetup away from the noise of the convention. Depending on how many people we have, it may just end up being an informal game night. 
I can probably only afford the time and money to do Gen Con and possibly some local SoCal conventions. We're hoping that as we go, we'll be able to find women in other parts of the country who want to run ConTessa events at other face-to-face conventions.


Anonymous said...

Excellent stuff in this interview, sounds like they're moving fast in very cool directions.

I keep meaning to get into video chat gaming but I just never do :/

Socrates_Is_Mortal said...

That is the most interesting gaming article I have read in a very long while. Three areas moved me to comment.

(1) “Risk-taking and bouncing back from failure” and the possible connection to reluctance to self-promote was interesting. For years now I’ve observed a number of skilled competent women I’m very close to struggle with self-promotion, but I had not previously considered it in this particular context. This gives me another way to look at and discuss the issue. THANKS!

(2) I found the section on success attribution interesting.

“Here's another thing about that... women are much more likely than men to attribute their successes to outside forces (luck), and their failures to internal forces (I didn't work hard enough). Men are much more likely to attribute their successes to themselves (I'm awesome), and their failures to outside forces (I'm still awesome, there must be something wrong with everyone else).”

James C. Collins, in his book Good to Great, examines what distinguishes great leaders and great companies from the merely good leaders and good companies. One of the key aspects of great leaders (or what Collins calls level five 5) is that they do exactly what the women you mention do. They attribute success to uncontrollable environmental factors and failure to internal and controllable factors. One result is that they anticipate, adapt, learn, and change in ways that level 4 leaders do not. Interestingly level 4 leaders better fit what you label as the male attitude.

(3) I found the focus on removing specific barriers to women a nice change from the quest by some to claim that we need to fix our entire society as a way to improve a tiny, niche hobby.

“What that looks like in many gaming groups is one or two super aggressive neckbeard-types talking over, interrupting, making decisions for, mocking, and just plain disrespecting the one or two women at the table who get quieter and quieter, then eventually don't play at all. I don't see this addressed. Ever. Worse, I see men making excuses for their overly-aggressive players, and doing nothing to prevent the women at the table from getting walked all over. This, more than anything else in gaming, is what has to change.”

Something I’ve done in my games for a long time now is turn taking. I didn’t do this specifically to help women. I did it to encourage and engage quieter players; to ensure a degree of realism, just because player A can declare five actions before player B declares one action it doesn’t mean that character A can do five actions in the time it takes character B to do one action; and just for general fairness in play. Coincidentally that may have created an atmosphere that was more welcoming to women. (For almost 35 years between 25% and 100% of my players have been women. Perhaps this is not entirely coincidental.)

That was a great article with well thought ought ideas. Based on the article, I sent the link to Contessa to a good friend of mine who GMs but who currently doesn’t have a play group. Maybe she’ll be inspired to GM something.

Renegade Paladin said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Renegade Paladin said...

I play and GM Pathfinder Society. Early in my Society career, a young woman walked into a session and the local shop and sat down. I was a player that day, not GM, but ever since I've regretted not stepping up and forming another table, the fact I hadn't properly prepared a scenario be damned. Because, you see, that put us at the table size limit (seven players) and there was a trio of assholes there who always played together, talked over everybody, acted the part of murderhobos with their characters, and were generally disruptive. She was handed a cleric pregen and then marginalized for the next two hours, until she got up and left mid-session, claiming she had somewhere else to be. To my knowledge, she was never heard from again. I chewed them up and spit them out after that, but it couldn't fix her lousy play experience.

I sincerely hope she found another game. I doubt it, but ConTessa's existence gives me hope. Being male, I don't qualify to GM, but I'd be honored to play sometime.

Renegade Paladin said...
This comment has been removed by the author.