Behind the Masks: Who We Were at the Table, by Kyle Tam

This article originally appeared in the first issue of the Nerves Zine (2021). Special thanks to Kyle for allowing it to be reposted.


AGENT SKINNER

If I think back on where I was mentally, having broken up with my ex that very day, I wouldn’t have played the game. I would have canceled the game session, taken an evening to myself and had a good cry. It would suck but I’d have some time to myself to parse my feelings, maybe bring things up afterwards to my family and friends. But I didn’t. I wanted to do something fun for myself and play the first RPG I had ever signed up for, which is why I found myself passing out on the university cafe sofa and being awoken by a giant of a man that for the sake of anonymity we’ll call A. At the time, I was nineteen, A was twenty-seven.

I’d never met anyone as tall as A before, bearded and looking for all the world like a viking in a trench coat and, instinctively, I was afraid of him. But he immediately caught on to the fact I was probably not in my best state and asked 1) if I was Kyle who had signed up to play and 2) if I was alright and needed to talk and, in a moment of potent vulnerability that endeared him to me. I wanted someone to care in that moment and here was this stranger checking in on my wellbeing. It felt like a godsend but, with the benefit of hindsight, it must have been a very easy cold read.

I said I’d be fine, that I wanted to play, and it wasn’t much time at all before the rest of the group came. The game was Lacuna, a game about diving deep into the psyche of criminals in order to bring them to justice. I was playing Agent Skinner, a war veteran and torture specialist hiding my own hang-ups of divorce and relished the opportunity to be someone very apart from who I was. I wanted to dive in and escape reality by being a badass and, to a certain extent, it worked. That first session showed me the depths of emotion and the heights of excitement that  you can get out of RPGs and, even if I can’t remember precisely what we did, I can remember the sheer joy that came playing it out.

When Session 1 was over and we decided to have drinks, we began talking amongst ourselves. It was idle chit chat, getting to know you kind of stuff and with the alcohol and my mood I ended up letting slip what had happened earlier in the day. Without a hint of uncertainty A declared “He was awful and abusive and you’re better off without him.” The kind of reassurance I needed for myself, exactly the words I needed to feel inherently better about sharing this stranger’s company. But I’ve spoken with friends since then, and the consensus is what he did wasn’t normal. Stepping in, voicing that opinion so declaratively, particularly as he’s a fair bit older than I am? A red flag.

REIKO

When the offer to play Wraith: The Oblivion was extended to me after Lacuna ended, it was framed as a game I could use to work through my problems. Something A had done successfully for friends and players of his for years and—to me in the still fraught state of working through the hangups and difficulties of my relationship with my ex—seemed a much more approachable alternative to therapy. So I decided to make a character to help me explore my vulnerabilities and express how I currently felt.

Reiko was a former geisha turned prostitute, kicked out on the street for getting pregnant and had her face slashed in a jealous rage. She gave her child up for adoption, died and came to the Shadowlands while hoping to reunite with her child. I will admit the character concept was grim but considering how dark and depressing the game itself was and the hangups I was starting to develop about myself, my appearance and my own sense of self-worth she seemed appropriate. 

While playing Reiko I was somewhat lost and astray because I, as a person, was also lost and astray. Trying to come to terms with my own image, something that was dramaticized in Reiko’s own desire to hide her face. But A was there, with a word to comfort me, a phrase to cheer me up. Always. We grew closer naturally, particularly as I was the group’s youngest and most vulnerable, and he chastised those who’d prey on things I was afraid of (pictures of clowns being a common “gotcha”). It naturally drew us together.

The campaign ended in Hiroshima, with a climactic decision about whether to detonate an atomic bomb that could cause cataclysmic destruction. Maybe at this point I should have realized that it was pointedly directed at me, playing the only Asian character. I think I was very flattered that it had gone that way, that it was something that played into who my character was but it’s very surface level. It had nothing to do with her personal journey and everything in how A saw me and my character: a vehicle to fulfill the stories he wanted to tell. As a puppet, dancing in his hands. Reiko was forced to make a choice she was ill-equipped and unable to make and I remember that the ending felt distinctly unsatisfying, even though it led to a massive Maelstrom in the world of spirits. It was probably because while a lot happened to the outer world, nothing was really resolved in a satisfactory way for my character and her struggles.

EM

By this time, A was starting to become a trusted friend and confidante. We met up at society events every week and outside as well, hung out and talked constantly about our lives, families, some shared interests and dreams. It was like having a big brother, which was nice because I was the eldest sibling. I appreciated having someone to lean on. To rely on. At the same time, he was starting to make it clear to me that maybe my friends and family weren’t being very good to me. When I was upset, I was in the right and the people around me weren’t being very thoughtful or considerate. Isolating me, pushing me to rely on him more. And so began the second game of Wraith, a deep dive into the Labyrinths of the afterlife and the human psyche.

Em was an atypical concept for the second game of Wraith, having been a girl scout in life (literally) and choosing to take on the role after dying at seventeen because she believed in its core values. Duty, honor, respect. Unfortunately, my friends made characters that were very much anti-authoritarian. Rough and tumble. Completely dissimilar. I was not dissuaded from my choice, but was very much made to suffer for it, with the character being constantly berated and insulted in-character by other players frequently. These were behaviours enabled and encouraged by A as part of “natural character conflict,” and I frequently cried after sessions, with him reassuring me that the other players were just playing their characters and it only meant I was getting deeply invested.

Em grew miserable and I grew miserable, angry when I grew angry. I found my mood genuinely tied to hers. It became bad enough that I had to beg off sessions or ask for their delay with excuses about tight deadlines for school because I was miserable but too attached to A’s world and too worried about disappointing others to properly quit. Things came to a head during a final confrontation where Em endured a Harrowing where she was described as nude and tightly bound in a sexualised manner. At this point I broke character and felt a part of myself breaking.

“You can’t. She’s seventeen.”

I was beyond horrified, A quickly assured me he’d change the description, that he had merely done it for effect demonstrating her difficulty in “growing up” as a conflict. But that had never been the central arc I’d desired for her and this sexualisation was something I would NEVER consent to. The fact that it was sprung on me and used to describe a character I was projecting onto heavily, lingered very uncomfortably inside my thoughts. But quickly those fears were allayed and I told myself that it hadn’t been intentional. That there had been a misunderstanding somewhere previously. Because he wouldn’t do that to me, right?

ROGER

It was around the time of A’s third campaign of Wraith that the game was becoming emotionally and physically exhausting. I played it to be among friends but, primarily, because both within the club and among our group of friends A had assumed a stance as a leader of sorts. An older figure and advisor, something which was very appealing to those of us who were young and vulnerable. He’d corral us somewhat during events, although by this time the more savvy were starting to be aware of his antics. Still, I tried to have faith in his good intentions, even as I found myself increasingly isolated from my peers. Family and friends from home were far away and, at A’s advice, I had kept myself away from many “bad influences,” becoming emotionally distant even if outwardly social.

Roger was the first male character I played in one of A’s games—and the first character who I got a sense that A disliked. I can’t speak to what his state of mind was like, but I don’t think he appreciated that I was moving into slightly “sillier” characters. That is to say, characters whose stories were bittersweet rather than totally depressing. Roger was both a linguistics professor and stage magician, whose goal was reconciliation with his daughter and dealing with the sudden memory manipulating powers dying had given him.

When compared to the treatment my female characters received, NPCs were far more hostile and dismissive of Roger from the very start. Many sneered at his bookishness, his quirkiness, thumbing their noses at him and mocking him to his face. I tried to keep up a good attitude but once again I felt my mood taking a nosedive every session. Playing the game stopped being fun and started being an exercise in misery, which was at least buoyed by a much better environment between player characters. We had also stopped making use of the Shadows as much, realizing that for the most part they made everyone upset beyond what a game should do to you, which meant it was only A utilizing them in order to upset us.

The last big Harrowing, and the last session of this campaign I remember, involved Roger’s Harrowing. Roger had left behind his daughter Miranda, his Mindy, and she was deep in the throes of grief and guilt at possibly causing her father’s death. Normally, when seeing one’s grieving relatives it might be sensible to comfort them, send them good tidings or show them all is well. But my thoughts, and therefore Roger’s, were to remove her memories. If she couldn’t remember, she couldn’t hurt. Cutting off the bad influence, cutting out the pain, she would be whole. It’s a deeply unsettling thought now and I recognize what an awful state of mind I must have been in then, but at the time it made perfect sense.

My character did this, and A immediately crowed and told me my character had failed. I didn’t understand why but, as Roger’s Shadow, he spelled it out for me: “Cutting out her grief and her memories isn’t going to help. All she’ll have is a giant gap where that warmth should be and in its place it will be filled with nothingness. You’ve not saved her—you’re dooming her.”

And then it hit me. She was me and A was Roger. Only instead of trying to help, he had deliberately and intentionally told me to cut people out, with the knowledge that he was stating back to me sitting in his mind. Forcing me to rely on him, likely to feed his own ego in a way I wouldn’t truly understand until years later. But he hadn’t realized how valuable the insight he gave me was or the fact that for our friendship it was the start of the end.

THE FIRST MARIA

In a series of events unrelated to all of this, I’d managed to get myself elected as the President of the society we had both joined. A saw an opportunity and asked if I would be willing to endorse a vampire LARP he wanted to run, one that he hoped would have longevity well past his time at the school. I indulged him, because we were friends, and because I was offered the title of co-GM. The chance to flex my creative muscles and to help shape a world of collaborative play.

This is what truly cemented his control freak tendencies in my mind.

What was billed to me as collaborative GMing and storytelling very clearly became his story, told his way, with me on to help take on some of the heavy lifting of character resolutions and playing female characters. I could suggest NPCs but, for the most part, I only played one and a half original ones. The original was a Toreador Sheriff who was “acceptable” because she was manipulative and somewhat generic but the half was a character who had originally been a cinephile Giovanni and somewhat bland. I saw it and knew that it wouldn’t square with me, so I decided to make a child vampire/necromancer named Maria. Someone cheerful, off-kilter and extraordinarily fun for me to play.

The LARP attracted several comers, and I became privy to a snide snobbishness about quality of roleplay, character concept and lack of adherence to tone regarding A’s perception of what the World of Darkness should be. His preference among player characters were those who had firmly settled into the grim and nasty side—characters that were manipulative, violent or both. Characters that were honorable, a little humorous or more modern/technologically inclined he met with suspicion and derision, still accepting them anyways but paying less attention to them or even IC mocking them as one of his many “intellectual asshole” NPCs. I listened to all of this but didn’t fight back, having had much of my own willpower on these matters eroded over time.

As we “co-GMed” together an interesting pattern of behaviour in the players began to emerge. Less and less of them went to see his NPCs, of which there had been a fair few to start but kept being retired as it was clear they were not being utilized. More began to flock to me for my NPCs, but also for little interactions and character work. At first this seemed coincidental: he’s the GM, so they’ll prefer him for conflict resolution. But in private, what I’d been told was that they often felt stonewalled, frustrated or sometimes even insulted by A. On the other hand, I played characters that had distinctive feelings and could be toyed with or manipulated, be pleaded with, bribed, convinced. Reactive characters who engage how players played in a way people seemed to really enjoy.

This is why I was heartbroken and furious when he took my characters for himself.

I understand that in the grand scheme of things and compared to everything else he’d done to me, this is small. It might feel silly. But these were characters I had taken the time to put heart into, whose relationships I had played out with the players, and who were now being used as mouthpieces for A’s decisions. The first time, I didn’t mind—it was a character who was a drifter, a loner, and was originally male. It was unfortunate A’s iteration wasn’t popular, although I think he resented that once he’d taken him on that character immediately lost popularity. The second time, however, he’d used an Archon whose personality I had crafted myself in order to put out a hit on a player-devised NPC who was running for Mayor. One who had had significant plot impact up to this point and whose existence I knew A resented bitterly for reasons that are still unclear to me. As a character, she would never have done this—too showy, too obvious and far too vulgar. As a GM, it was unthinkable: incentivising players to destroy things that others had created out of your own selfishness. The NPC died, the character tied to him forced to go underground, tricked into pledging to spend the rest of his days as Maria’s playmate.

Over time it got worse, and he made me come up with excuses to have my characters exit the city “in order to focus on PC vs PC gameplay.” What he meant was PvP gameplay, as he further pushed and gave advantages to those characters and players who had his favor. Allowing them to take on risky actions, to allow blood-bonding plots that would keep others in chains, basically enabling them to take overwhelming power over the city. I tried to push back in what little way I could, by giving the character bound to Maria a chance by having him learn a little necromancy and providing him with her protection. But instead of trying to play around this, one of A’s favored players called it “completely unfair” because no one could touch the PC she cloaked. This was ignoring the fact that she had a child’s mindset, could likely be tricked or negotiated with if a player had the inclination. But no, I was told she had to leave the city, and predictably as soon as she left her playmate was executed for “crimes against the Prince” in a kangaroo court.

I saw it, and I despaired, because I saw myself in that interaction. Someone so attached, so pained about this perceived injustice in the game that it caused genuine emotional distress and A smoothing it over and telling her yes, yes, she was absolutely in the right. What were his intentions? How much did he want, did he need her to trust him? Who or what had I enabled?

MADAME PAPILLON 

There was a point where A decided to take a break from running Wraith, passing the Storyteller’s mantle to me. I was both delighted and honored, particularly as I’d had an idea brewing in my head that was both an original setting and a thank you homage to all of the work A had done. Even though I know now that he didn’t deserve it, at the time I wanted to give his campaigns a brilliant send-off. I figured that, as an experienced GM, he might be a very manageable player. He’d understand how difficult the role was, so hopefully he would be kind.

How laughable that idea was.

He played his character like he played every other: an aggressive, conniving asshole. There was not a single NPC he met, a single NPC that I played, that he treated with the slightest modicum of respect. He snarled and sneered and, despite my characters constantly attempting to shut him down, he always reacted with arrogance or thinly veiled superiority. When his Shadow Player quite rightly tried to use the role’s mechanics to call him out or force him to confront this behavior, A flat out refused and said “No, you can’t do that to me. It’s not fair.” This, the man who had put my characters through Harrowing after Harrowing in ways that caused significant mental strain to me, the player, and he had the AUDACITY to say that. 

Things were good with the other players, who took to the world and places I created with a certain excitement I hadn’t seen them possess in A’s campaigns. But whenever they received focus, or when his character was rebuffed for the umpteenth time, A would sulk. And I tried to reconcile with him, tried to understand where the problem was, even as I found myself watching the clock and dreading those two to three hours where I had to contend with a fictional ego in full force. Eventually I called quits on the campaign partly through, partly to assuage A’s wounded pride and partly because dealing with his antics was draining. It was exhausting and painful to see that a world and story I had put so much of myself in meant nothing to A if the story he wanted wasn’t told in his way. In hindsight, I should have cut him, but I was soft. I don’t like hurting people, and that’s what ended up biting me.

THE SECOND MARIA

At the start of a new year A decided he wanted a slightly different game to run, and decided to take up Vampire: The Masquerade by running a Sabbat campaign, stewed in blood, death, and drama. I think I signed up because I wanted to give him the benefit of the doubt even though, by this point, I was exceedingly bitter not just about our so-called friendship but also about his abilities and habits as a GM. But I wanted, desperately, to believe this would be better. You could even say that our friendship was going to hinge on how this campaign turned out.

As expected, it turned out poorly.

The second Maria was also a necromancer but disinterested. Jaded. Interested in her books, interested in bodies and able to hear the voices of the dead. At this point I wanted a character who would fade into the background and observe but still be useful. Unfortunately, without really wanting to, I got thrust into the limelight. A’s characters had already been rude before but for some reason they were even worse now. Universally mean-spirited and dismissive of all of our characters, except one.

The favored player from the LARP, was still favored here. Who got along with the NPCs just fine and almost too smoothly. She played a Tzimisce, very much in line with what A perceived to be the tone of what White Wolf should be. She became our pack’s spiritual leader and constantly argued with the pack’s elected leader (effectively leader in name only) played by the guy whose PC had been under the first Maria’s protection. It was very clear who was favored and who was disliked in the dynamics at play. My character became the pack’s leader out of necessity, due to the lack of respect the current leader had. Even then, it meant very little in the grand scheme of things, as I played a character unequipped for politicking in the face of mean-spirited, manipulative elders. 

The overarching tone of that campaign was us being pawns in other NPCs plots, being shunted back and forth on fetch quests and assignments to accomplish… something. At some point I couldn’t even remember what, only that we were doing things as A demanded them of us, not because we really wanted to. There were cool little moments when we as a pack stopped and shot the shit with each other, where we were allowed to be our characters and ourselves—exhausted and small, wanting a little peace and quiet. Nothing was really satisfyingly achieved and nothing in particular was gained. We were small pieces in a big puzzle put together by people we didn’t know or care about. 

Meanwhile, A was taking his favored player out to hang out. To the movies, to concerts, museums and displays. At this point he would have been 29, and she would have been 20. I kept thinking back to the time A and I had spent together. To the trust I had in him. She told me in confidence that no, she wasn’t interested, on a bus ride back to our respective homes after a house party we both went to, but that she trusted him dearly with her problems and her pains. I held my tongue about his manipulative behaviour out of some stupid, misguided respect for our friendship and asked her only to be careful. Thankfully, someone else decided to tell her on my behalf. The fun thing about that was that he turned around and accused me of doing it anyways. This, after I had given him my pain and unhappiness, and I was the first person he’d chosen to point the finger at.

Needless to say our friendship deteriorated greatly after that. I went to sessions not for him but for the company of other and my character became bitter, jaded, and kind only to those within her Pack, ironically endearing her to many of A’s NPCs. Too little, too late. The conclusion rang hollow, with A fundamentally misunderstanding why we’d wanted to get rid of his most obnoxious NPC in the first place. It petered out with a whimper, not a bang, as he left in the world’s most awkward sendoff party by delivering a speech that began with “Goodbye children, I’ll be sure to enjoy the time without you” and ended with everyone pretending he hadn’t said it.

EPILOGUE: YUKI

I didn’t get to play Yuki in a game that A ran, but in a way she was my answer to everything he had demanded and wanted me to be. The LARP he ran was transitioning to new Storytellers and I had turned down the offer to run it. But I wanted to take a chance as a player and poured all of my anger into someone new. She was a vampire but brash, loud and a firm believer in camaraderie. She felt kinship, not antagonism, with other Brujah. She was Japanese-American—burning bright, blazing strong. And she was me, too, who had endured too much bullshit to put up with anymore.

To play her I dyed part of my hair bright pink, wearing jeans, boots, a band shirt and leather jacket. When I looked in the mirror before heading out, I was a little astonished to see who was reflected there. My eyes weren’t watery or hollow and I wasn’t dreading the session to come. I was relishing the idea of it. I wanted to be seen. I wanted to be noticed, involved. And it was so strange to me, how much I was looking forward to a game without A’s presence. The white wolf, without the predator at my doorstep. 

Most of those campaigns are lost in my memory, likely my brain doing me a kindness by suppressing the mind-numbing hours that had often left me sitting in bed and staring at the wall, wondering why my characters’ pain affected me so badly. I wish I could say that I remember the good times, the laughs I’d had and the jokes I’d shared with friends at those tables, but when I try to recall anything that happened I can only recollect the pain and bitterness that tinged each play. I didn’t find out until some time after that I wasn’t the only one, that he had a habit of finding vulnerable young people and isolating them so that they would rely on him, feeding whatever selfish hero complex existed inside of his mind. 

But each time I look in the mirror and think about A, I think of Yuki instead. The bravery I wanted to have and keep within me now, to remember that I am more than the characters at the table and more than the role someone else wanted me to play in his desire to be wanted. I’m not someone’s plaything, someone’s hero story, somebody’s shot of dopamine or private therapy doll. I am my own self, more than the characters on the page and more than A would ever make of me. And that, I think, makes all the difference.

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