Coupling: Sherri & Lowell
How many times have you watched a movie or/and television show to see that one person in the relationship is viewed as either ‘nerdy’ or ‘geeky’ and the other ‘normal’? Oh, that lonely geek wishing for love and understanding from the so-called normal person.
In these interviews we are more on the side of celebrating the couples who share the beloved hobby of tabletop role-play. Some got the other into the hobby, others met through it, some still play, others don’t, some role-play together and some rarely do so but share a mutual love of games.
Why touch on this? Because sharing something you love with someone you love is how we can share time with one another. It’s a conversation piece, a way of bonding and possibly further understanding one another.
Seth and I often role-play together. There are a lot of ways in which both are different, but this is a hobby that we both share and love for the same or different reasons. I tend to be curious about how other couples view the hobby.
In this series we interviewed different couples and how they manage to separate their love for each other and the love for the game.
Because love is never having to say you’re sorry or explaining to your beloved in front of the party how to be a better GM.
FIRST, OUR INTERVIEWEES:
Sherri Stewart: I'm a developer with a financial institution that is a big fish in the small pond that is my home state. I am fortunate that I get to solve problems for a living. I married my GM. I am fortunate that I get to play so many games.
Lowell Francis: Freelance writer/editor and gaming enthusiast. Contributor to the Eisner Award-winning Legends of the Guard; IDW's Rocketeer Adventures; and scripter for DC's Flashpoint: Project Superman.
How long have you been playing games individually?
Sherri: I dabbled in high school and college. Loved character creation and buying my gear. The games all dissolved within the first couple sessions. The gaming groups I encountered were working out intricate interpersonal power dynamics that went like this:
"Ok--what direction are you all going to travel in?"
"Make a roll."
<after some argument about who should roll, someone rolls a 16>
"You fall off a cliff and die."
(Turns out, box text exists for a reason...)
So, we can say 30 years...but the first 10 less than satisfying. Still, I adored the idea
Lowell: Christmas ’75 my dad gave my older sister, Cat, a copy of Avalon Hill’s Starship Troopers (meh) and TSR’s woodgrain box Dungeons & Dragons (woot!). She devoured the rpg and quickly taught me how to play. I spent all of my formative years playing and running rpgs- D&D, Champions, Top Secret, Gamma World, V&V, Call of Cthulhu. We had a gamestore/bookstore which opened the same year so we always had an outlet and place to play. As latchkey kids we had a good deal of time to embrace gaming. While my sister dropped out of gaming seriously when she hit college, I kept up. I ran in college, ran when I studied overseas, ran when I came back to town and started managing at the gamestore.
How long have you been playing games together?
Sherri: 20 years. Twenty mostly-awesome years.
Lowell: I’m pretty sure it is twenty years now. Sherri got caught up in the Magic the Gathering boom. That’s how I met her. She played some Man O’ War and then decided to paint miniatures. I managed the gameroom for the store as part of my job and I invited her to join one of the ongoing campaigns I was juggling (five at a time then).
What are your favorite systems?
Sherri: For play? I haven't encountered a system that has prevented me from having fun--only group dynamics that have hobbled the good times.
There are a few systems that have changed the way I think about games:
- Hollowpoint: first game wherein I SAW the engineering in the mechanics that drove the players to a certain kind of play
- FATE: not for the narrative stuff, but for the utter transparency of the system. You pretty much had to look the story in the eye--my in-game choices couldn't hide behind mechanics or dice results. I am a better player for that.
- Microscope: Holy smacks, my fellow players are amazingly creative people!
Lowell: Microscope has changed how I play in the last several years, opening up more collaborative options. We’ve used it mostly as a tool for campaign building. I’m always stunned at the great material the group generates for me.
Action Cards is the game we play the most. It’s a card-based homebrew we started with in ’98. It has changed over time and now borrows key concepts from Fate. It’s a loose game which players able to mark up and modify their own decks ala Risk: Legacy. I know it really well so there a certain bias on my part.
We’ve had great experiences with several systems that we’ve retired from play- GURPS, Rolemaster, Storyteller. The crunchier game I’m in love with right now is 13th Age. It cuts corners and streamlines rules in exactly the right places for me.
Do any of you GM/DM?
Sherri: Of the two of us, Lowell is the GM 99% of the time. I GMed a campaign a long time ago--but I haven't circled around again to do another game. Lowell, on the other hand, has been running 3-5 campaigns simultaneously for all the time I've known him, except for one excruciating year. Damn that year!
Lowell: I’m the primary GM these days- I run both online and f2f. We game apart infrequently- usually when I run superheroes. In the last couple of years we’ve gotten the chance to both play in other GM’s games- 13th Age and Rolemaster. Sherri ran a short but amazing Rolemaster campaign. It had everything I want in a game- the sense of a larger & greater arc, sandbox play, tons of NPCs, interesting shorter episodic breaks to help refocus things, difficult choices. But it was the first game she’d run and her ambitious work crashed against bad players. She had to deal with a selfish player, an angry douchebag, and a socially off-key dude. Not the best experience for a first game while trying to figure out how manage a table.
How is the dynamic GM/DM vs player?
Sherri: Lowell is a gracious, clever player. As a GM, I counted on his off-table feedback.
But there is a THING. If pressed for time at the table, whichever one is the GM will give the other the short shrift and then apologize later. There's an ethos that both of us take on the obligations of the host if one of us is the GM. As I am usually the player, I am familiar with the short shrift--and it is one of the continuing negotiations in our relationship--how much bypassing is too much, when does it matter and when does it not. It makes me laugh that this is the one big issue as a couple--and it's not even that big, just an occasional adjustment.
I do know him really well. I catch on to his foreshadowing and the tells in his characterizations. Some people might mistake it that he has told me about his plans--but it's just twenty years of familiarity.
Lowell: Sherri’s answers right on the money. I’ll add that in general our games have shifted to being more and more collaborative, even when we’re playing more traditional games (RM, GURPS) which shifts away from an oppositional relationship in games.
How do you make it clear that you are not playing favorites when players know or find out you’re a couple?
Sherri: Yuck. If I've learned anything in twenty years of gaming, it is that GMs that seek to demonstrate that their SO is not a favorite almost always overdo it and are downright shitty and unfair to their partner. Awkward. And on the other side of the coin, if any player wants to think that the SO is a favorite, there is no way to prove otherwise. People just...see what they want to see. If there are new people at the table, I do tend to make sure my randomizer is visible and I say what skill or capability I'm using. But I am a capable player and I'm not going to suffer any doubters.
Lowell: In my experience, some people- generally dudes- make this into a thing. When Sherri and I became a couple, we started to get some push back. I had a couple of friends who I’d played with who made it clear that they didn’t think this was cool. That got expressed through some weird petulance and offhand comments. One of those players we’d much later excise from the group after they bald-face said they didn’t like “assertive women.”
But that’s whole thing was more explicit and easier to see. More subtle was the pressure I felt to demonstrate that I wasn’t playing favorites. So I went the opposite direction. The instinct was strong and sub-conscious. And even when Sherri pointed it out in the first couple of years, I dismissed it. But at some point I got better. I’m not sure how or why I managed to see and shift my behavior.
And over the years we’ve seen this happen with married couples, with male GMs. They overcompensate trying not to show favoritism. As a result they cut off their significant other, shut down their plans, or act like a jerk to them in order to demonstrate that they’re cool. We still laugh at the Exalted game where the GM’s wife was grabbed by a giant tree thing, with a roll. “I escape!” she shouted and proceeded to roll something like a dozen successes on her break-out attempt. “OK, but you’re still held,” he replied and went on the next player.
What are your feelings when someone expresses romantic interest in your significant other’s character in game? If this is okay- how do you let your players know this?
Sherri: My husband does wonderful NPCs. By the time another player has decided to let their character fall for with one of his NPCs, I've seen it coming- and I cheer on the player's bravery to put their character out there. I have witnessed tons of in-game crushes and romances -- and the resulting tragedies, reunions, breakups and misunderstandings. I am a big softie--so I think it's pretty clear I'm rooting for happy ending and squirming when there are rough patches.
Lowell: As a GM I generally discourage inter-party romances for campaigns. Obviously if I were running a game with some of that baked in (Monsterhearts, Apocalypse World), that would be cool. But I’m running pretty traditional long-term campaigns (Changeling the Lost, Supers, Various Fantasy, L5R). Part of this comes from worry that one player will make another uncomfortable with that proposition. Part of it comes from worries that we’ll get some weird bleed-over.
All of this comes from a handful of bad experiences that made me gunshy. Like the time I had a great woman player tell me she didn’t want to play with someone else. He was a great buddy of mine, married, and a cool player at the table. But until she pointed it out, I hadn’t noticed all of the joking flirting and subtle pressure he’d been putting on her. Or the players who built a romantic relationship into their character and then later became a couple. And then would bring their personal fights to the table. Or the GM who secretly inserted a version of himself into a modern campaign to woo a married PC at the table.
So, yeah, gunshy.
What games do you enjoy playing together the most?
Sherri: All of them? RPGs--all genres. Video games. Board games. But if I have to choose one game, I'd have to go with...the next game Lowell runs. (So sappy.) He is always surprising me. Things I thought I'd hate--loved 'em. Things that sounded interesting--better than I imagined. Things we've done before--new twists and a thousand little details that enrich the previous game too..
Lowell: All of them. We can watch each other playing RPGs on the TV, even while we’re twiddling away on a DS. Often we’ll swap out plays if we like a game particularly. One of us might start a game and then the other takes over. We did that with Dragon Age: Origins and Final Fantasy XII. We also play board games together. She likes Legendary, Dominion, and we just started playing Mice & Mystics. I probably dig BGs a little more than her, but she’s willing to try anything out and give her honest assessment of it (i.e. Agricola stinks).
But I love playing tabletop RPGs with her. She values many of the same things I do in games, but she always has new approaches. She remembers the names of all the NPCs, even when I forget them. She recalls all of the plots. She puts the pieces together.
How often do you discuss games with each other?
Sherri: All of the time. In the car. At meals. While preparing meals. While shopping. Before the game. After the game. We are in the midst of a continuous dialogue on games and ideas related to games, except while we are gaming and for the two hours a week in which we sort out all the mundane particulars of modern life: mundane particulars that we have carefully minimized so that we can play more games.,
Lowell: All the time. All the time. Keep in mind we don’t have kids. We have some other hobbies and interests, but generally we enjoy all the aspects of gaming: rpgs, video games, board games, painting miniatures, checking out online communities, etc.
Are you able to separate personal feelings when gaming?
Sherri: Usually. As I mentioned above, we are usually in host mode (or guest mode if neither of us is GMing) while gaming. So personal feelings are secondary to group dynamics at the table--but our feelings are part of the discussion about games. I am a very analytic person, but I would be the last one to discount the importance of emotional reactions to what happens at the game table--be it a reaction to the story or to the interpersonal dynamics. These things are PART of the game whether intended or not. So I tell myself the beautiful story that my personal feelings are not affecting the game while recognizing that they may, but primarily in just more guarded play than in outbursts or obvious resentment.
Lowell: I think so. We’ve gotten good at talking about problems and issues. We’ve figured out how we want to talk about problems. That wasn’t always the case, I’ve been unreasonably defensive about my games in the past. Sherri’s generous not to mention that in her reply. We had some issues at the table- NPCs being particularly shitty, ignoring her characters’ stories, a hostile fellow player- that took some talking. And each time my first reaction was to bristle at the suggestion. And then realize that the situation/behavior/problem she pointed out was actually happening.
Sherri’s a generous fellow player and she’s my best advocate for an excellent game for everyone.
I might have gone off-topic there.
What do you feel like you’ve learned the most about your significant other by role-playing together?
Sherri: That we are two really different people that happen to agree on most things--so many things that it is genuinely surprising to us when we don't agree. We come to many of the same ideas from different directions and a lot of discussion. What just naturally seems right to me, what changes my mind, what key point illuminates an idea for me--those things are well-nigh alien approaches to him--and vice versa. It's why games work for us--at the crossroads of rules and the conventions of drama & genre--we have a ton to talk about and a shared interest in coming to an understanding.
Lowell: I’ve learned that she underestimates her own articulateness and skill with playing. It stuns me when she downplays how good she can be with those elements.
What games do you recommend couples playing if they wanted to start gaming together?
Sherri: Microscope...with other people that you are thinking of playing games with. I think Microscope is one of the greatest 'discovery' games of all times:
- As a group, you explicitly talk about what you want and don't want to have in the game.
- You get to see how clever and creative people can be. It's one of the most feel-good, esteem-boosting exercises to see how people add their own shape to the ideas out there or bring new ideas into the game.
- You see who struggles with the limelight or performance pressure or keeping quiet when someone is struggling--and you work through that because the rules explicitly address those things, And typically you see people manage to get past their initial fears & impulses and succeed at laying down an idea or dealing with their unease.
- You get to practice building on the other players' stuff. You're seeing what's important to them and you can react to it then and there.
- You think about the game in themes. You sew some continuity into it. It reminds you that this is part of the process.
After Microscope, when you get back together with that group of people, you know things that will interest them, You've seen enough to make guesses at how to engage with them. You've talked about GAME STUFF. Even if the next game you play with this group has nothing whatsoever to do with the Microscope game, you know more about those people and yourself interacting with these people than you would have learned in months of other RPG sessions.
Lowell: Sherri mentioned Microscope and I agree on that. For other rpgs, find a genre or property that both persons enjoy and know. And not one that one of the couple simply follows because the other digs it so much. Play something both know and can participate in imagining.
For board games play Carcassonne. It is competitive, but at the same time you’re building a lovely puzzle picture together.
Do you have any advice for couples who want to game together?
Sherri: The worst game-couple situations I've seen have been about one party condescending to the other--running a fantasy setting one loathes because the other 'will be able to understand it' or avoiding social conflict in the game because 'they wouldn't like it.'. Ugh. It's hard to enjoy anything that is so drenched in disdain.
Play what you love. Invite your SO. Don't patronize. If they're new to RPGs, lower the price of entry with pre-gens they can alter later if they wish and a few sessions engineered to demonstrate how things work. If the group you play with has eccentrics, invite them over for social stuff before you toss your beloved to the game table. If you hesitate to invite your gaming pals over, think long and hard about dragging your SO into their midst. Agree to play in games your partner loves. It is OKAY if you both don't love the same things. It is OKAY to be in different groups playing different types of games. If you can talk about what you love about gaming with each other, you are miles ahead of most couples.
Lowell: Take seriously the complaints and concerns of your partner. That’s especially true if one person’s bringing the other into gaming. Don’t dismiss things with “that’s just how Bob acts,” “that’s part of the genre,” “that’s how games like this play,” and so on. You’re not the game, so complaints about it aren’t attacks on you. If your S.O. isn’t enjoying themselves, take that seriously. Don’t jump to the conclusion that they’re doing it wrong.
What has been your most memorable role-play moment so far?
Sherri: I love those moments when my own real-world views and assumptions lead me unsuspecting into a perfectly logical and consistent game world tragedy (typically one where everyone else at the table saw it coming, but not me.) One of the first ones, I counselled an NPC to go and talk with his sister who was on the other side of a brewing political conflict and offer her proof of a Bad Thing Her Side Was Up To. In my happy-lucky-world-view, siblings stuck together, no matter what hell, high water or politics were between them. Certainly, his sister would see the light and aid us in preventing the disaster. My poor friend barely escaped alive, and the timetable for the Bad Thing moved from tomorrow to Now. I still savor the memory of absolute and genuine thunder-stuck confusion. I could not contest the outcome--I'd had all the warnings and foreshadowing a person could ask for. But the nicest thing was that Lowell, while incredulous that I had missed every possible red flag, really wanted to know why...which is basically why I had to introduce him to my family.
Lowell: Not exactly a role-play moment, but…
I was running a Changeling the Lost campaign and I made the mistake of playing narrative chicken with Sherri. One of the core mystery plots for the campaign was the death of the person who rescued them from the Hedge. At the campaign start, they found his corpse. I'd been putting little clues out, but nothing big. It was a long term plot arc. Anyway, between sessions I asked the players if they had any questions. Someone asked: “Who killed Mr. Charlotte?” (their rescuer). I replied, “Do you really want to know?” my typical answer for players who ask big questions. The player shook his head no.
Then Sherri said, “I know who killed Mr. Charlotte.” I, of course, laughed, because I hadn't given them enough information yet on that. “So tell me,” I said.
“The same person who killed Dr. Bargosian,” she answered. That was another NPC who'd died some time before they entered the scene.
“That doesn't tell you anything, you don't know who killed either of them.” I was pleased with myself. “Who killed them?”
“Lord Burn's driver.” Sherri said.
I don't have a poker face. I clapped my hands to my mouth. I've been told I leapt to my feet and shouted obscenities, to my visiting sister's amusement. I may have paced around of the room-- I don't recall. Eventually I returned and asked how the hell she knew that. Sherri carefully walked through a list of bullet points, tying together each and every clue I'd given out-- scattered and then culled from gameplay and many pages of emails-- in which he only appeared a handful of times.
She floored me. I always want to play fair with mysteries, so there's pleasure in seeing players connect the dots—even if I thought I hadn’t I'd put enough out there for them to actually discern a shape. Pretty amazing.