“Hey, I was at Value Village the other day and I saw a new game shop had opened, thought you might want to check it out, looked really cool!”
“Yeah? What’s it called?”
Already I’m divided. New shop in Nanaimo! Different stock from the same old same old at the local (unfriendly) Magic vendor, maybe some older release packs, different sleeves…and yet that shadowy, ever present concern in the back of my heart that it would be another stereotypical game shop. A dim place full of dark corners and mouldy copies of Fangoria on mismatched shelves, a washroom of doubtful cleanliness, and the obtrusive male stares and snickers that have been my game shop experience in two decades of gaming.
Age 6: “Give me that controller, this is a boy game.”
Age 9: “You got lucky, that’s all, give back the controller.”
Age 11: “You cheated, no one wins Clue that fast without peeking.”
Age 12: “I don’t think you want to play this, Magic is really complicated, there’s a lot of math. The girls are playing with ponies at the other table, if you want.”
Age 14: “Are you someone’s girlfriend? Oh. Roll a character if you want, I guess.”
Age 16: “Playing goblins, yeah, girls always go for the easy tribal decks.”
Age 18: “Are you single?” or uncomfortable stares, sideways glances, and the silent assumption that I must be waiting for a boyfriend or picking out a gift.
Age 20: (during a complicated interaction my opponent doesn’t un
derstand) “Ugh! Judge! Can I get a disqualification? This chick doesn’t know the f*#$%(* rules!”
Age 23: “I can’t believe I just lost to a girl!”
Age 25: “Have you played Magic before? You’re really pretty for a gamer chick.”
I pick a Sunday afternoon and go. I tell myself as I prepare for battle, “Maybe it’ll be different.” I know I can emerge victorious with at least one booster pack and a set of pretty new sleeves for a green-black elf deck I’m brewing, but that’s not really the battle for which I need to steel myself.. The door swings open.
I am dead wrong about everything I had preconceived about this place.
The room is open and bright. There’s a deep red couch in front of an old tube TV, 80’s all the way, with two primary school kids taking their first romp into Mario Bros on an original NES. I waver, not quite believing what I’m seeing. There are rows and rows of comics, from My Little Pony to Deadpool and a thousand shades of glorious storytelling in between. Board games, Dungeons and Dragons, practically a swimming pool full of gem coloured dice glimmering in the late autumn sunshine. There are two women playing Boss Monster at one of three kitchen-style tables filling the rest of the room. There’s an entire wall section covered in Magic. Boosters, sleeves, spin-downs. My jaw almost hits the floor. There is simply no way this place was real. It’s too special. It’s too friendly. There are other women here and they are not here with guys and they are playing a game I love!
“Can I help you find anything today?”
Now, I’m a talker. A chatterboxing, glad-handing, elbow-rubbing, shoulder-bumping extrovert of the first order. James McIlwraith — the store’s welcoming and magnificently bearded owner — and I talked for at least half an hour about Magic, gaming, my history as a gamer, the shop, Star Wars, and sushi. In spite of that, I was so flabbergasted that I don’t remember a thing that I said to him outside of a half-stammered, “This place is amazing,” and, “Absolutely, what do you need?” At some point I told him that I’d been gaming since I could remember, playing Magic since I was 12, that I was a teacher in training, and at completely loose ends for anything to do on weeknights. Before I knew it, I was going to open a chapter of the Lady Planeswalkers Society (LPS, about which I knew nothing), hold regular meetings and events, and help create a community in the store that was open and welcoming to women and anyone else who wants to draw some cards or roll some dice.
How did this happen? James is very, very convincing. I also believe he has magical powers in his long dark ponytail.I’m going to let James tell this part of the story because he remembers it better.
“I met Tifa Robles (founder of The Lady Planeswalkers Society) at Emerald City Comic Con in 2015 before we had opened The Two-Headed Giant. The purpose of LPS matched perfectly with ours, put simply, everyone is welcome and no one is a dick about it. I immediately knew I wanted to open a chapter once the store was up and running. However, I would need to find someone to run, it felt slightly odd and presumptuous to run a Lady Planeswalkers Society as a man, even though everyone is welcome. Enter Leigh Fryling:
Coming in roughly a month after open, she was boisterous, engaging, fun and, most importantly, ready to approach and teach anyone who walked through the door. I think she had been in the store for maybe an hour playing Magic the Gathering when I asked her if she would be interested in opening a chapter of LPS. Happy to take on the responsibility, we arranged for an introduction, a draft, and mapped out several weeks of activity.”
D’aww. Give me a moment to blush. Ok, we’re back. As most life changing events do, it happened quickly: “Want to do this thing?” “Yes I do.” “Awesome, do the thing.”
I went home to look up what exactly LPS was and figure out what the heck I was going to do. I immediately wanted to do everything I could to make our chapter of Lady Planeswalkers Society success. I also learned about another organization with the same mission but a slightly different focus. Planeswalkers for Diversity (P4D) is the sister organization to LPS. Both groups work to ensure places where Magic is played are welcoming to women as well as all minorities, LGTBQI folk, and anyone else. I felt, and still feel passionately, that something was finally starting to shift in game culture. The joint chapter of both LPS/P4D was a manifestation of changes I had been quietly hoping for my whole life.
There are two really wonderful advantages James and I had in creating our LPS/P4D chapter that others may not. First, the store was brand new and James had a very clear vision for how he wanted his community to look and feel. Second, both organizations have websites with very clear mission statements for what they intend to achieve, but not how it has to be done. Do not go to the website expecting “On Saturdays you will run an 8 person draft of the latest release and on Tuesdays you will have your new player recruitment events.” Instead, what LPS & P4D lay out as their mission is almost verbatim what James and I discussed; create a safe, welcome, inviting place for literally anyone who comes in the door, but most especially for the young, the new, and the fringe. There are no rules in the mission about playing Magic, or membership, or events, or anything. Just that wonderful driving goal of ‘make it great for everyone’.
This is how we did it.I’m sure it looks different from every other chapter because every chapter has their own community and needs. We had the double-edged sword of not knowing who was coming or what they would need. I sat down with paper and pen and asked myself the following questions:
“If I could go back to 12-year-old me and show her the amazing things that could come out of gaming, how would I introduce her to this world?”
“How would I teach her the games that I grew to love but also teach her how to appropriately handle other gamers and the challenges that sometimes come with belonging to our particular hobby?”
This was going to be about more than explaining the stack — it was about behaviour, protocol, winning and losing with grace, and having patience for everyone. Phew.
Step One: Doing
I decided that the best approach would be a series of workshops, a sampler of staple games (D&D,Magic, Munchkin, etc). Gamers who were curious about Dungeons and Dragons could come and try it out but disregard the Magic nights if that wasn’t their thing. I could take a Magic night and focus on just one aspect of the game, such as deck building or the stack, so new players wouldn’t be so overwhelmed with ideas and information. The list looked something like this:
Newbie Tuesday: Intro to Deck Building
Wednesday: P4D Nerdcrafting! Make your own life counter!
Saturday: Beginner Draft 12:00 with “How to Draft” training, Open Draft 4:30
Newbie Tuesday: Intro to Dungeons and Dragons- character creation
Wednesday: LPS MtG; Deck Building Basics and Strategies, all welcome!
Saturday: Intro to DMing – build dungeons, make adventure happen!
I deliberately placed the focus on the words ‘Intro’ and ‘Beginner’ when making the workshop list, balancing those with ‘open’, ‘free play’ and ‘Nerdcrafting!’ days. Those gamers who were dipping their toes would have dedicated time and guidance, but more advanced players would also be welcome and have a chance to engage with the new players. For example, our opening day was a double draft. One specifically for beginners with time set aside for explaining the format and a slower pace, followed by an open draft. Because the two drafts happened one after another, players who enjoyed the first draft had the chance to play again with the more experienced players, and experienced players who showed up early caught the end of the beginner draft and would sometimes help out with advice and pointers.These were specifically not sanctioned events, which kept the pressure of winning off and made sure the focus remained on the game. This was key in setting the tone for future events. We made it clear that the idea was to mingle beginners and advanced players. The beginners could feel comfortable and supported and the advanced players were welcome and encouraged to help. Since no one knew what they were doing on craft nights before I showed up with craft glue and glitter and balsa wood, everyone was on level ground being creative and having fun.
After approving activities and times with James, the next step was setting up a Facebook community and connecting it to the Two-Headed Giant page so announcements and events could pass easily between the two. A permanent schedule was pinned on the Facebook group with some TBA dates included so that in future members could request games or strategies they wanted to focus on for an evening. We also made sure that LPS/P4D nights and events were clearly posted in the shop. James and Scotty (the beaming co-owner of Two-Headed Giant) made mention of it to every new player that came through the doors and — more importantly — to parents. There were also plenty of little parties, drafts, and celebrations that kept things lively. Halloween was a real doozy! But, as ever, the focus was on the balance between introductory and open play.
Step Two: Open and Outreach
Key 1: Be willing to be the face of your chapter. We talk about LPS and/or P4D at every opportunity; what it is, why it is, what we are doing, where, when, who, and to anyone who comes into the shop. Several of the regulars turned up to the Chapter Opening day just because they’d listened to us talking about it day after day and wanted to know what the fuss was about. They became some of our staunchest supporters and allies. Anyone who came in the doors was fair game, especially if there was an event later that evening. Talk, talk, talk!
Key 2: Invite everyone. At all times. Interrupt games. Give up your spot to a new player who has just walked in. Introduce them to everyone even if you only met everyone else three minutes ago because the same thing happened. As the organizer, you’re there to facilitate the community. It starts being open, welcoming, and friendly if you are these things also. James and Scotty giving new players free D20’s and occasionally booster packs for brand new players didn’t hurt, either. It’s about generosity of spirit, but that needs to start with you. Everyone is invited to the table.
Key 3: Keep it friendly. I don’t just mean “Have cookies.” Take the competitive edge off as much as possible; that’s what FNM is for. This is the game for the love of the game, for whomever wants to play. We all scoot down and make room for the seven-year-old who can’t remember how many mana anything costs, but gets excited when he plays any card at all. Play mistakes are laughed over and gently corrected. Players are allowed to take things back or take as long as they need to plan their move. Mechanics and strategy take back seats to just playing and enjoying each other’s company. There can always be specific times when those things are the focus, but in general the joy of the process is the point for all levels.
Step Three: Prosper
Both the chapter and the shop have grown and thrived. One or two players who had a great time on Tuesday night became three or four on Wednesday night. Players who came in once in awhile came in once or twice a week (or once or twice a day, in some cases), always sure that they would see a friend in the shop and strike up a game of something. The more they played, the better their decks became, and the more cards and sleeves and boxes and mats came off the shelves. Board games people brought to share at LPS/P4D nights turned into purchases of the same games from the shop, and strangers a week ago were now meeting up to play them once a week. Members of their own accord started inviting new people to play, even when the organizers weren’t there. What was good for the group was good for the community, good for the shop, and good for everyone.
And it continues to be good. There’s a bittersweet part to this, though. After four months it was time for me to move back home to Michigan, which is about a thousand miles away from this community we built love.The core group of middle-just-past-high-school kids came in night after night to learn, to share, and to play, who made ridiculously cool and silly crafts and more importantly created strong and lasting friendships.
Most importantly, the community has continued to grow and reach out on its own. Though I cried when I left, I’ll admit that I cried harder the day that James called me to tell me that the kids had started taking on the role of the organizer. They had begun inviting new players. They were greeting the people coming in the doors, making new friends and connections. They were teaching the strategies, smiling at mistakes, and offering kindness and advice.
I want to tell you more about them in the future, because that journey and those transitions are moving and worthwhile (and hilarious) and I’m sure that I will, but I want to close with this:
The LPS/P4D community we built was important for two reasons that feed each other.
First, it significantly helps the shop. Not to sound mercenary, but more people staying l
onger means more money. We all loved the shop so much that most people would buy something at least once a week (some of us with a pack-a-day habit). Hanging out at the shop is free, and so is the coffee, but there was the understanding that it was our responsibility to help make sure the shop stayed open so we could keep our home. There are more than a few members who helped upsell a game or bring new players to our favourite mental addictions, and continue to support the store in any way they can.
Most importantly for me, they were good for each other. People who barely made eye contact or spoke above a whisper in September were leaders and cornerstones of the shop by December. Kids who struggled to make a friend suddenly had new ones every time they walked in the door. I never saw a fight or bad sportsmanship. I saw stumbles and mistakes and tense moments, but as time went on the LPS/P4D crew learned to laugh through those moments and then reach out to each other.
I miss it every day. I know I’ll start another chapter, and someday my own shop. James keeps on me about making sure I don’t give up on that idea, and I was lucky to find two such stout friends in he and Scotty. We’re in contact every day, and I get regular updates about the shop, and how the LPS/P4Der’s are doing. “Wonderfully,” is the answer. There are few things in my career working with youth that I’m more proud of than the Nanaimo chapter of Lady Planeswalkers Society and Planeswalkers for Diversity; and there’s nothing I’m more excited for than our next adventures.