Let me set a scene for you.
Picture an athletic woman in her late 20s with white hair and gold eyes, wearing leather armor dyed in blues and purples. This is Hannah Zelicia, the Dungeons & Dragons character I played while I was in college.
I’ve been playing tabletop since I was 15, about 12 years now. I’ve played a lot of characters in that time and I still carry an intense fondness for nearly all of them. The more I reflect on the characters I’ve created and roleplayed as, the more a thought occurs to me. As a frequent tabletop gamer, time and time again, I have designed characters who have been forced to learn lessons that I myself have needed to learn. And I’ve done it without even realizing what I was doing! Many of us pour a lot of ourselves into our PCs; I certainly do. It makes sense that we would sometimes find our characters struggling with the same kinds of things we struggle with in our real, more mundane lives.
As my longest running character, Hannah saw and lived through many trials. In fact, she had been through my entire first campaign with me, eventually helping put an end to the reign of the mad king Zeromus, a powerful psion who had enslaved the minds of all his subjects. At the beginning of our second campaign, her own psionic powers awakened and she became a powerful psion herself. She often worried that she had accidentally become too much like him.
I remember the day that Hannah felt the worst about herself. She had just broken out of prison and she needed to help the rest of her party escape. Breathing deeply and trying to stave off panic, she looked at the crown she was holding in her hands, a crown not unlike the one Zeromus wore, which she had been carrying with her and carefully not using for many months. When she put it on her head and used its powers to dominate the minds of all the prison guards, setting her friends free, it was like looking at a painting of her former nemesis. She was just like him. She even looked like him now. Shame washed over her like an ocean.
At the time, Hannah’s struggles with internalized shame and guilt didn’t resonate with me on an extremely personal level. It was a good story, interesting to think about, fun to tell, but it didn’t reflect a struggle I thought I could specifically relate to.
Over time, I watched Hannah grow and slowly muster up the courage to face the things about herself she was ashamed of. She met a village of other psions who were nothing like her enemy, living together on the fringes of a society that didn’t have room for them. She used powers that she didn’t want to save and protect her friends. She learned to rely less on the crown. Eventually, she even took a psion name, Zelicia, although it was with a twinge of sadness that she honored her difficult journey by choosing a name that meant “blind.” In a way, I was growing with her. By the time her adventure was over, I felt like something about me had changed as well, but I still didn’t think I needed a lesson about internalized shame.
Over the course of the next few years, things started to click into place and it became clear to me why I needed the lessons that Hannah had helped me learn. I came out as trans when I was 23, and suddenly some of Hannah’s internal dilemmas felt incredibly relatable. Her progress accepting herself was hindered at every turn by people who bought into the narrative that psions were all bad. “Maybe if all these people think I’m bad,” I could feel her thinking, “maybe I really am bad.” This is a feeling I got to know all too well. Maybe there’s a reason that strangers want to call me a freak. Maybe I am a freak.
In the wake of all that happened in my life in my mid-twenties, it’s not totally surprising to me that I had to learn this lesson again.
Let me set another scene.
Picture a small, nervous-looking boy in his early twenties, with puffy brown hair and thick, round glasses, wearing a sweater that’s too big for him and tinkering with a customized green and white quadcopter drone. This is Owen Liakos, my most recent Vampire: the Masquerade character.
By blood, Owen is part of House Tremere, a clan of sorcerers whose history is defined by politics, tradition, intrigue, and the bloody betrayal of the other vampiric clans. But Owen, who was embraced by a rebel, has never actually been a member of the Pyramid, the strict hierarchy of the Tremere. He keeps his heritage and his magical aptitudes a secret from allies and enemies alike. On the run from the other Tremere, he fears if they ever discovered him, he’d be killed—or worse, assimilated, supernaturally forced into loyalty to his family. Similarly, he fears the potential backlash if his friends in the Anarch movement found out about his history with the clan that caused many of them so much pain and strife. How could they trust that he wasn’t just another Tremere fascist?
Of course, he had always suspected that there must be others like him who felt trapped by Clan Tremere. But the first time he met other Tremere face to face, he was going into battle against a group of rogue sorcerers, other defectors from the Pyramid who were attempting to seize more power for themselves. Even after he and his friends won that fight, Owen was overcome with an immense sadness. Yes, they were also defectors like him—but they were trying to usurp the hierarchy, not escape from it.
This was the day Owen felt worst about himself. The Tremere really were horrible, he decided. Even other clan traitors weren’t like him. He felt truly alone in this world.
Both Hannah and Owen have something about themselves that they need to come to terms with. They both have only had bad experiences when it comes to meeting their own people, which has caused them to internalize deep shame about who they are. They’re both telling lies because that shame is burning within them and they feel like others will think less of them if they know the truth. They both feel defined, in a bad way, by what they are—and feel like it’s overshadowing who they are.
And that feeling wears on you. That’s what makes internalized shame so hard to overcome. It burrows deep inside a person, accumulates on itself and becomes more and more entrenched. Every time Owen meets someone else who has been wronged by clan Tremere, that gets added to the mountain of shame he carries around inside of him.
Though he walked a similar path, the realization that Owen had to come to was different than Hannah’s. She had to come to terms with the fact that she was the victim of an unfair stereotype and unlearn the internalized bigotry that tried to convince her that a psion was a bad thing to be. Owen, on the other hand, wasn’t wrong about Clan Tremere’s bloody history or the fact that he’s safer if he keeps his identity secret. He has to come to terms with the fact that he can’t change how he was born. All he can do is try not to let it define him, to choose his own path and try to rise above his heritage. And while Hannah’s redemption was internal, accepting her whole self for better or worse, Owen’s redemption has been more external. He has to prove to people that he’s not like the other Tremere. For him, that means finding others who are like him and helping them escape from the Pyramid. Not only is he helping others, but he’s also finding a sense of pride in who he is by redefining what it means to him to be a Tremere.
So what does this mean for me?
Hannah’s lesson resonates deeply with me: It’s okay to be trans. It’s okay to be yourself and live your truth. If society wants you to feel like you’re a freak, then society is wrong.
But I see more of myself in Owen, feeling small and alone and scared what his friends will think of him. Watching him heal by helping others in similar situations is wildly inspiring to me—and giving back to the trans community, through advocacy, education and monetary support, has been a huge source of healing for me as well.
It’s also fascinating to be able to look down on Owen’s whole life and all his relationships from a bird’s eye view. I get to watch him fret about being honest, worried that his friends will cast him out if they know the truth, while I have insider knowledge about how unlikely that is to happen. I know that his friends don’t care about what he is because they already care about him for who he is. It’s taking Owen time to make it to that realization, but I think he’s getting there.
Being able to separate Owen’s insecurities from the actual reality he lives in has been deeply helpful for me in unexpected ways. When I’m feeling anxious, worrying about how my friends will react to me or feeling insecure about coming out as trans to someone, I am Owen. If I could step back and see it from the outside, like I can with him, maybe it would look very much the same. It’s an extremely helpful reminder that how I feel about something doesn’t always reflect reality.
This kind of mindfulness is what makes tabletop feel like more than just a game. I pour a lot of myself into the characters that I play, and they’re important to me. The fact that I get something back from them in the form of life lessons makes my relationship with my characters satisfyingly symbiotic. It feels good to gently guide them through difficult times and troubled waters and see them come out stronger and more mature on the other side. And it feels even better to realize that I’m growing with them, becoming stronger and more mature at the same time.