Stacy Dellorfano, the founder of the ConTessa gaming convention, took a little time out of her busy schedule to talk with me about organizing online conventions and Gen Con events for women gamers. The ConTessa blog won the Gold ENnie award for Best Blog last year at Gen Con. This year they will be back at the convention to run another daylong event for gamers. A long time gamer, Dellorfano brings her love for tabletop role-playing to what she does and works diligently for a space for those who identify as women in the tabletop role-playing communities.
Let’s start by talking about your background as a gamer. How old were you when you started gaming, and what games did you play?
I was doing some freeform gaming via text with my girlfriends as early as my sophomore year in high school. My girlfriends and I would exchange notebooks during breaks between classes, and take up writing where the other left off, giving each other twists and turns and obstacles to get over each time. It was kind of a cross between roleplaying and fan fiction.
I didn’t get into my first true tabletop RPGs until later, though, around my junior year in High School. I was a band geek, and class was right after lunch, so many of us would hang around the music room during lunchtime. The boys in the group I hung out with were constantly talking about AD&D. When I asked about it, they were eager to lend me their books, and I was sucked right in.
I started running AD&D when I was 18, shortly after I moved out of my house. I also played on a number of MUDs (Multi-User Dimensions or Dungeons, the text predecessor to MMOs) that functioned off similar rules. There were many, many late-night gaming sessions in that first studio apartment of mine.
As a young adult, I did a crap job with managing my finances, which is to say I bought a whole lot of gaming books. Right around then (the mid-90s), White Wolf was becoming a thing and World of Darkness books were all the rage. I think it was on a MUX (similar to a MUD, but more roleplaying) where I first heard about Vampire: the Masquerade. AD&D didn’t get much attention after that…
We’re in a couple of weekly online games together, and have gamed together for a few years now. What sorts of games do you play now?
Monday nights, I’m switching off between running Werewolf: The Apocalypse every other week and playing Worlds in Peril the weeks I’m not GMing. Werewolf is one of my favorite World of Darkness games, and Worlds in Peril is only the second Powered by the Apocalypse game I’ve ever played before. Tuesday nights, I’m playing Runequest 2, which I’m still dubious about, and Friday nights, I’m running Corporia by Mark Plemmons. I’ve been doing some one-off playtests of a Swords & Wizardry adventure I’ve been working on as well.
My happy spots are definitely in Werewolf and Corporia. My Corporia game, especially, is my jam. It’s a live hangout game, and Mark regularly comes by to watch either while it’s going on or later. He’s actually written some house rules for us and is working with the wizard in the group to devise some new rules for potions. It’s really awesome to get to enjoy games this close to the creators, and it’s even more awesome to have creators who are so involved in their communities.
What is ConTessa, and how has your experiences as a gamer lead to your creating it?
ConTessa is an organization dedicated to fostering leadership opportunities for women in gaming in an effort to get more women GMing games, running workshops, moderating panels, and otherwise becoming creators in this hobby rather than just consumers.
I started ConTessa for many reasons. I always say that it’s because I got tired of only ever being asked to talk about my experience as a ‘woman in gaming’ instead of gaming or designing, but that’s a really simplistic answer. I love running, writing, and creating games. I don’t see many women doing it, and I really want to pull them in and show them what I love about it so much. Not only that, I want to see more women writing games and working at game companies, and making new things, and I firmly believe GMing is a gateway drug to designing.
We do a lot of what we do in public. When we’re running online events, they’re live through Hangouts on Air. When we’re at Gen Con, we’re in the biggest room in the con, filling it to the brim with women GMs. This tactic is to give other women as many examples of people like them doing something they may be interested in as possible. This came from personal observations. Before I engage in a task that is going to make me vulnerable, I like to watch other people do that thing. I learn what to expect, see how someone else does something similar, and gain confidence by watching. This is amplified when the person I’m watching is like me, so we’re building a library of videos and as many in-person opportunities to catch women GMing as possible.
It works, too! Women who come into our events as players or observers often leave with the bug to GM, and our events have often been the deciding factor between women deciding whether or not they should get involved with GMing.
I should point out, too, that ConTessa’s events are open to all genders. Women lead our organization, lead our events, and often lead our games, but a majority of our content is open to all genders to sign up, and we’ve had people of all genders appear on our panels.
The ConTessa blog won a Gold ENnie Award last year, do you felt that helped more with exposure of what your group of organizers had done or was it more of a validation of the work?
To be honest, I think it’s a bit of both. The voting process really raised what ConTessa is and what we do in the consciousness of the gaming world. That process alone provided us with an enormous jump in our audience. Going to Gen Con and actually winning the award was validation of all the work. Not just of the blog, which my staff did a wonderful job with, but also of the work we’ve been doing.
How did all of that lead to a ConTessa game day at Gen Con last year?
I’d decided we were going to do something at Gen Con 2015 while I was at Gen Con 2014. In my mind, we’d do about a half-dozen games one night of the convention, and that was it. It didn’t take me long to find the first six, and while I was working on that, [Gen Con Event Manager] Derek Guder contacted me and asked if ConTessa would be willing to put on some events.
I leapt at the opportunity, and what started out as a half dozen events on one night ended up 22 games on one night, plus a workshop on designing your own system, two panels, and keynote addresses by Shanna Germain and Margaret Weis.
It was awesome, too. We got so much exposure from Gen Con last year, it was wonderful. We hit demographics of gamers we’d never been able to find online, and connected with a whole lot of women. The best part of it for me was getting to talk to all these women that come from so many different backgrounds and have so many different takes on running and playing games. There’s a whole lot of passion for gaming in the women who come to ConTessa, and it’s catchy.
What did you learn from your experiences organizing ConTessa at Gen Con last year that have helped with putting together your events at this year’s Gen Con?
Organizing for Gen Con last year was crazy nuts because we had no idea what to expect. Derek was fantastic and gave us a lot of great advice and pointed us to a lot of fantastic resources that helped us prepare, but talking about it and doing it are two completely different things. We have some organizational changes we made based on some stress points at last year’s convention, but other than that this year’s organization has been much easier.
That’s in large part also due to the exposure we got last year, as well. This year, we’ve already filled up the 22 games we can have at the big game night, plus we’ve added a Saturday morning event sponsored by Playground Adventures geared towards family-oriented games that presently has another 8 games. Plus, over Friday and Saturday, we’ve got 2 LARPs, 4 panels, and a women-only workshop on system design. Our entire run of events was chosen by the women running them. It’s a fantastic and amazing collection of events.
Do you see yourself organizing more events on the physical side, perhaps a ConTessa convention like OrcaCon or GeekGirlCon?
Most likely, yes. Organizing events online is great, and I want to get back to it soon, but we get the most traction and have the biggest impact when we’re at conventions. The major thing holding us back right now is funding. Since ConTessa isn’t a gaming company, we don’t have any real products to sell, so we rely on donations and the selling of merchandise with our logo and mascots to pay for the events we run. Traveling to conventions is expensive, so we’re most likely to stay closer to home until we start earning enough to afford trips elsewhere.
But, yes, I really enjoy the in-person convention events, and I want us to do a lot more!
I know that you get a lot of people asking you why there is a need for something like ConTessa. Why do you think that something like Contessa is needed in gaming?
It’s needed because women in gaming are few and far between. We’re scattered, and we don’t often get to talk to each other, meet each other, exchange notes, or help each other. Organizations like ConTessa allow women to find one another, and that allows us to build support networks with people who go through many of the same things we do.
Overall, though, I hate the word needed. I do get floated that question a lot, and the answer is… it isn’t needed. Not in the sense that we need air or food or companionship. Women don’t need ConTessa to become GMs or do amazing things. They want ConTessa because they want to spread their passion for gaming to other women like them, they want to meet other women like them, and they want to be the change they want to see in the world.
You’ve also done a couple of issues of a gaming zine, what do you think that those contribute to gaming as opposed to a blog, or more traditionally published supplements to games? Why did you want to do that?
I have a personal affinity for tangible paper things I can touch, feel, and examine. Zines are a wonderful medium in that they’re like little time capsules. They’re dated periodicals that go out, and they represent what the people writing it were thinking and doing at that given point in time. A blog post or a published supplement doesn’t have the kind of moment-in-time intimacy a zine does. The fact that they’re fan-written is even better because you get to look at what the fans were thinking at the time. I imagine it’s a lot like looking at old issues of Dragon.
What is your dream gaming project? In an ideal world, if you could have a shot at doing your definitive version of any game what would it be, and why would you do it?
Werewolf, Mage, and Vampire were my first true loves, and I’ve kicking around lately a lot of ideas on what my version of those games would be, but with more of an urban fantasy / paranormal romance feel rather than the gritty World of Darkness. Actually, I think the modern world is plenty dark and gritty.
I love the idea of playing with the concept that in the modern era it’s nearly impossible for supernatural creatures to remain a secret. I’d love to explore all the possibilities around that. There are so many different types of stories you could tell in a world like that, I’d want to create a robust system to go along with it that allows the GM to run whatever kind of game they want.
Thanks for taking the time out of your organizing for Gen Con to answer some questions.
Happy to oblige!