Cayla (she/her) is a nerd of every flavor, including western comics, manga, video games and table top with a passion for cosplay, writing, world building and drawing.
Today she is a host, player and producer of multiple TTRPG podcasts and in involved in more games than she can count. You can find her on Twitter @veranox, read her webcomic Blackburn, and listen to The Human Exception podcast, where Nathan, Halli, and Cayla go on wild trips down the rabbit hole that is human history and the Internet.
Cayla, how long have you been playing D&D? What has your experience in the TTRPG world been like?
I started in my early teens, but it wasn’t something that really took over my life until the last five years when we began DM’s Test Kitchen. With the goal to try and play as many different TTRPGs as possible, it has really opened up the TTRPG world! We have met some truly amazing people (like Jessy!) because of this and for the most part my personal interactions have been very positive.
As a pansexual woman, have roleplaying games helped you explore or express your queer identity?:
I have always felt pretty comfortable being myself while gaming, but I think the thing that has made a difference for me is the community. There is a really large and compassionate community of queer folk that made me feel a lot more comfortable finding my place there. Being pan in a “hetero” relationship, it’s easy to not really feel like you’re part of the LGBT world or like an “imposter”. But the community is incredibly positive and encouraging of bi and pan individuals, and it really gave me more confidence as a queer.
From our conversations, it seems like you are intense in your love for nerdy hobbies. What does it take for a project to hook (and keep) your attention?
Well, I think a big part of my intense and multi-faceted nerdom can be traced back to my ADHD. I don’t know how to dip my toe in, I just go headfirst into pretty much anything that catches my passion. I think the thing at the core of all my projects/hobbies comes back to stories and storytelling.
When it comes to cosplay, I pick characters that I identify with or really love the stories of. “Recently” (aka the last costume I worked on pre-Covid) I made a costume that I have wanted to do for decades: Laurana from the novels and TTRPG setting Dragonlance. I grew up on those books and the story meant a lot to me. So yeah, my love for Dragonlance led me to do a 100+ hr cosplay build.
Even my comic Blackburn which I have been working on for 3 years now started with a single drawing. Whenever I draw I am telling a story to myself the entire time, and I decided to draw this punk drow character. As I was drawing, I asked myself why she was the way she was, what led her to be that way and what kind of world she lived in. In the end I wanted to find these answers out and that’s ultimately what led to Blackburn.
The main game I am running now, that I started like 2 years ago? Is a completely custom setting built from the ground up that all spawned from the phrase “feast or famine”. I was actually planning a one-shot for something else, when the phrase popped into my head and I couldn’t let it go and immediately wrote up an outline where I explored the idea of what a world controlled by this concept of feast or famine would look like. I came back with this idea of a world with only two seasons. Feast: Where everything was lush and grew wild, threatening to consume villages and Famine: where nothing grows and disease and monsters become a major threat. How do people live in a world like that? What does that look like? Why is it that way?
That’s pretty much a summary of how all my passions start, with a single idea that gets lodged in my ADHD-riddled brain that I can’t let go of. Just a spark for a story that I want to share or tell.
What nerdy interests are you most excited about right now?
My biggest focuses right now are my giant Pokémon cross-stitch that I showed you. The final canvas is probably going to be like 4’x7′ and will consist of all the sprites from Pokémon gen 1-5. I love Pokémon, have ever since I was a child. And ever since I learned to cross stitch as a child I entertained this idea of making a giant Pokémon tapestry, but never knew how I would do it. The idea showed up again a month or so ago when I saw an ad on Facebook where you could submit an image to a website and they would make you a custom cross stitch kit. I looked at all the options and wasn’t really satisfied with the services that were out there. I stumbled across a free online pattern generator that allows you to upload an image and it will make a pattern for you and provide you with a list of all the colors you would need. Well obviously I needed to do that, and pretty much ordered everything the same day.
I also kickstarted a Horizon Zero Dawn board a while back, and the last of the assets finally arrived, meaning I have dozens of minis to paint and I am so excited!
My other big project right now (that I guess isn’t really that nerdy?) has to do with our podcast HEX. Last year, Halli, one of our hosts did a story on Teal Swan, the online self-help guru and cult leader (and overall horrible person. This story and many of the attributes of Teal reminded me of a story I had read on reddit, known as the Final Fantasy 7 house. A harrowing tale of Icarus, a young trans man in college, who was struggling to figure out his identity and ended up meeting some people online that seemed to accept and love him for who he was and they bonded over a shared love of Final Fantasy 7. He would go to live with them over the summer only for him to realize he had joined a cult and he was forced to live in horrid conditions and serve their every whim.
So I put together my story and shared it on the podcast, but it drew me back in, and I began to dig deeper. Not only did I find out that this internet legend was actually a fairly accurate account of real events, I found that Icarus was far from the only survivor. I’ve talked to nearly a dozen survivors now, having tracked them down on the internet even having many come on the show (we have another interview coming out this week) giving them a chance to tell their story of survival and be more than just a victim of the woman that has been running this abusive scam since 2001 and may even be still active today.
It’s become a whole thing and a huge passion project for me, to find these survivors and give them a platform to speak out about what happened and a safe environment to do so, all with the hope that their story could maybe help someone else. All of the survivors I have spoken to are queer and the grand majority of them fall into the trans spectrum. They were targeted specifically because they were questioning and feeling alienated and unsure of themselves. It’s been absolutely inspiring to hear their stories and how they escaped and have grown into such amazing people (not that they weren’t to begin with). Being someone that is also an abuse survivor, it has been very healing for me.
Other than that, I continue to work on my Feast or Famine campaign and world building. We hope to make the campaign available as an actual play podcast in the future, and I look forward to sharing that world with the rest of the world.
What advice do you have for GMs who want to get better at worldbuilding?
It all comes back to stories. Everything you make should tell some sort of story: Do all your elves live under the ocean? Why? Have they always lived there? How do they live there? What do they eat? Sometimes the most seemingly boring questions can lead to some of the most delightful “discoveries.” One thing we had to consider for Feast or Famine is, how do you live 6 months when you can’t grow new food or breed livestock? Pickling and canning seemed like the obvious solution, but what if you wanted fresh meat? That’s how rock chickens were born.
I had this idea for chickens that came from the fireplane, whose eggs were like rocks, and wouldn’t hatch until they were put in fire, after which they would grow to maturity in a very short period. Meaning that you could have a store of rock chicken eggs that you can hatch at any time. When we were doing our session zero, I kind of threw the idea of rock chickens out there, and my players loved it, and now we’ve developed a whole thing around rock chickens. Like they taste like Louisiana hot chicken and different varieties have different flavors (even a cool ranch variety).
Which, on that note, don’t forget to bring your players in on some of the world building! It helps get them excited about the world, and bouncing ideas off each other helps develop them or come up with something you never would’ve thought of on your own! World building isn’t just about the DM. It’s easy to think of it as a solitary activity done in isolation, but a DM is only a narrator. The players are the characters, the ones that actually do things and shape the world.
There are also a ton of world building games that you can play as a group to help further develop your world. One thing we did was play a game of the Quiet Year (made by queer creator Avery Alder) to develop the town the players would start in. This led to the discovery of an underground city, a salt plague, a murder mystery and shadowy monsters that live on the edge of town. This also created a whole host of NPCs and a functional town, as the game asks you questions about how the town survives, what the dynamics are and challenges you to make decisions about the world functions.
Do you have any recommendations of queer nerdy content that you would like people to know about?
Oh man, do I! Halli (from HEX and a player in DMTK) just released her first book: Wilderwood. It follows three characters as they try to protect the small town of Wilderwood from mysterious forces. They are Octavia, the vampire baroness, who has watched over the town for centuries, Bellemy, the non-binary hunter and lover of Octavia that disappeared into the faelands 2 years ago and has suddenly returned mysteriously and Roderick, another hunter that has been drawn to town on a hunt avenge his fallen partner.
And I can’t mention Halli without mentioning her TTRPG stream Terrible Party where she and her queer cast play games, host charity streams and much more!
Thank you, Cayla!
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