(Author’s Note: I haven’t posted anything on this blog in a couple months, and I know it’s been much longer since the weekly release schedule I’d been maintaining from November to February was in effect. This post should help explain what it is I’ve been working on.

Also, I haven’t updated this blog since I’ve started to come out to friends and family as a woman. Hi. I’m Dawn. Lost Again has been host to a lot of the fundamental essays that helped me work through my genderqueerness when I was first coming out as non-binary. However, in the years/months since I made those initial transitions, I’ve become more aware/accepting of and excited by my transfeminine nature and the way I feel about myself and the world around me as a trans woman. My pronouns are she/her.

In all likelihood, I’m going to try to find the pieces from this site that I want to save and migrate them to a new host for my essays and delete everything else at some point soon. I have over 1200 pieces on this site that I’ve written over the last seven years. The vast majority of the essays/reviews/recaps on this site were written when I was first learning how to write and also when I still identified as a man. I want the public face of my writing to be more polished, but I do want to keep the content that I’m still proud of. Thank you to everyone who has been a reader all of these years.)

Orchid began on my 29th birthday.

In late February, my partner Nic and I were in the first couple weeks of our cohabitation. Neither of us were in healthy economic circumstances. For my birthday, The only present Nic could afford was dinner. We got (delicious) mall hot dogs. Nic felt bad about the meager celebrations. I tried to assure them that spending my birthday with them was more than enough, but Nic kept asking if there was anything else they could do. I was riding the high of the early glow of our relationship and so I worked up the courage to ask Nic if they wanted to write a story together.

Orchid is a trans/queer-centric urban fantasy serial, and it has been an experiment from the start because it isn’t a conventional serialized tale.

As we drove back from our mall hot dog feast, Nic and I were having conversations about fan fiction. Although one of my favorite films, Fantasia, is fan fiction for classical music and I am a firm believer in/supporter of fan fiction as a creative outlet, I haven’t been exposed to much of the genre… unless you count superhero movies or Shakespeare or Kieslowski’s The Dekalog or any modern adaptations of fairy tales or comic books after the original author of the character/property has left. I’ve got plenty of experience there. However, as fan fiction is traditionally understood — which is to say, queer/women/trans/poc amateurs working within an established intellectual property — my exposure has been minimal, bordering on non-existent. Nic, on the other hand, has at various points been deeply submerged in the Dragon Age fandom and its corresponding fan art and fan fiction.

Since I already knew that Nic was open to one unconventional form of literature, I figured I’d pitch them a different type of fanfiction. I wanted us to write a serialized, prose adaptation of a tabletop roleplaying campaign whose world and characters we would create together from scratch. The agreement was that we would allow the mechanics of these tabletop games to resolve any moments of uncertainty in our story’s plot.

We’ve been working on Orchid ever since.

I’ve been wanting to publish a story like Orchid since last summer. After I finally graduated from college, my gender dysphoria and financial situation were both so dire that I had to move in with my mom and stepdad. They lived thirty minutes from the closest medium-sized town where I  eventually got a job, and I spent at least an hour of every weekday listening to the podcast Friends at the Table as I drove to and from work.

Friends at the Table is an actual play podcast hosted by Waypoint editor-in-chief Austin Walker. To quote the show’s intro, the series “focuses on critical world building, smart characterization, and fun interactions between good friends.” Whether you’re a fan of Ursula K. Le Guin, William Gibson, Cowboy Bebop, Haruki Murakami, or Bruce Springsteen, there is a season of the show that you might enjoy. While Friends at the Table is a group of friends playing a tabletop roleplaying game, complex, textured characters and rich, political narratives are the series’ main hook. Getting used to the regular interruptions (which later episodes and later seasons pare back) as the group discusses rules/mechanics takes some adjustment, but when Austin, Art, Jack, Janine, Ali, Andi, Nick, Andrew, and Keith get into their best story and character rhythms, Friends at the Table is transportive magic and I haven’t even mentioned the wonderful music Jack de Quidt makes for the show.

The first season, Autumn in Hieron, runs on Adam Koebbel and Sage LaTorra’s heroic fantasy RPG, Dungeon World. I was listening to that season on those initial drives from the rural West Virginia hinterlands to work. I spent that summer (and the following fall and most of the following winter) in a suicidal haze that I can barely remember. The details of that story though — of its orcish archivists and theologically confused paladins and monarchs with grand, necromantic ambitions — are seared into my mind. Almost nothing else from that same time frame except my little sister’s wedding can match the intensity of those memories. Friends at the Table‘s romantic undercurrents are only equaled by the sense of loss and tragedy that pervades nearly every part of the story’s world.

Dungeon World is a hack of a different tabletop RPG called Apocalypse World by D. Vincent Baker and Meguey Baker. Apocalypse World is an immensely modifiable and elegant system for crafting and focusing post-apocalyptic role-play narratives. The core of the Apocalypse World engine (and, by proxy, Dungeon World) is a simple roll of two six-sided dice. The conversation of play and storytelling is broken up when characters attempt to do something whose results would be uncertain. No one has to roll dice to open a door or walk down a set of stairs, but if your Halfling rogue needed to pick a lock before goblins reached her position or your elven wizard had to run down a flight of stairs as an ancient magical tower collapsed around them, you would roll. There are different “moves” with different variations of this same principle, but the majority of Powered by the Apocalypse rolls boil down to the basic rule of a 6 or less being a failure that allows the GM to complicate the players’ lives/hurt them as much as the established fiction would allow. A 7-9 means the players have a partial success or there is a significant but not insurmountable complication to their actions. On a 10+, the players accomplish what they set out to do and the GM doesn’t get to make their life more difficult… yet.

That Powered by the Apocalypse framework translates across genres. Dungeon World ups the mechanical complexity a bit because that game is an unapologetic love letter to old-school tabletop RPGs like Dungeons & Dragons, but, outside of combat, DW embraces the 2d6 system whole-heartedly. Designers working in urban fantasy, cyberpunk, space opera, 70s exploitation cinema, feminist gothic horror, teen superheroes, and a truly absurd number of other genres have made games that are Powered by the Apocalypse, and I knew after listening to Friends at the Table that I wanted to try my hand at a long-form story in that system as well.

I spent that summer and fall accumulating notebooks full of character and world scribblings for stories I wanted to tell that ran off of different PbtA games. I spent an unhealthy amount of money on PbtA rulebooks. I am prone to compulsive behavior when my mental health isn’t great. I did an extremely in-depth storyboard of a full volume of a Buffy-esque story set in Florence, Italy that I had started turning into prose, but I was still too unstable emotionally to maintain the project. I also realized that these stories don’t work as well when you’re controlling every chess piece on both sides of the chessboard yourself although I know that concern won’t stop me from trying to return to some of those nuggets of creativity again in the future.

When I pitched the project that Orchid became to Nic, I let them pick which game we’d play, and they settled on the political urban fantasy game, Urban Shadows by Andrew Medeiros and Mark Diaz Truman. Nic and I both have a lot of love for urban fantasy. The first three seasons of True Blood are on my shortlist for the most underrated TV HBO ever aired. I was weaned on Buffy and Neil Gaiman novels. Nic adores The Magicians (the show… not so much the books or the politics of the author of said books) and watched far too much Supernatural over the years. I figured that between the two of us, we could evoke a deeply queer, transfeminist spin on urban fantasy tropes and place it in a nuanced Appalachia/Rust Belt that you rarely see in the genre outside of something like Night in the Woods.

Our hard work these last five months has given me a confidence that Nic and I can accomplish our goals. It also doesn’t hurt that the core mechanics of Urban Shadows (and Apocalypse World and another game we were also playing, Microscope) ensures that neither Nic nor I can plan with any certainty where the story will go or how any individual uncertain action may turn out. Chapter 2 of our story ends on a note of shocking violence that neither of us had planned. A major supporting player has his wrist broken by a vengeful, voyeuristic ghost, and that set off a chain reaction of events that will be felt in our story for a long time to come. That sequence in a certain Fae nightclub became so much more exciting and inspiring to me than it would have been if I had charted those plot beats out note for note myself.

However, I realized how excited I was to start sharing Orchid when Nic and I were playing out the scene that became our prologue.

Nic and I used a non-linear history building game called Microscope to flesh out Orchid‘s world before we started our Urban Shadows campaign in earnest. This is another idea I stole from Friends at the Table. The prologue is one of those Microscope scenes. Urban Shadows is a game that features vampires and werewolves and plenty of other supernatural creatures and folks with magical powers (Orchid doesn’t have vampires or werewolves), but it’s also fundamentally a game about personal and political obligations and how those obligations cross demographic divides. I felt like I needed to know more about the world our characters inhabited before we started to tell a story in a city that is supposed to be dynamic and full of folks with designs that might run parallel to or interfere with the plans of our  protagonists. Nic agreed, and we spent several weeks playing a dice-less RPG about fake histories, and when we played the scene that became our prologue — a house party at a co-ed frat for mages with the scene centered on a transgender oracle with PTSD and her half-Fae NB best friend —  I knew that we had started to make characters whose internal struggles with identity and trauma were mapping powerfully into a narrative universe that we had finally started to grasp.

Nic and I have chapters queued up on the website where we’re hosting Orchid that will carry us through the middle of August, and we have several months worth of content storyboarded out that we still need to turn into prose. We know where our story is going in the short term, and we have ideas of where things could potentially go in the future, but the part of Orchid that has Nic and I both the most excited is that, like our readers, we don’t know how this story will end. We don’t know what the next major arc is going to look like, let alone our series’ end game. We’ve been waiting to show people our work for months now. We can’t wait to bring all of you along for the rest of that ride.