Some time later this year I'll be releasing a revised version of It's Nothing. The heart of the scenario hasn't changed, but this new version is much easier to facilitate and uses pre-written scenes.
Additionally, I plan to release two followup scenarios: It's Not Over explores post-separation abuse, and It's Normal explores life after abuse, including recovering from symptoms of abuse. It's Not Over will probably appear shortly after the revision of It's Nothing, while It's Normal might be a little while. My hope is that It's Normal will actually be able to conclude this series on a hopeful note.
Recently I’ve seen lots of talk about the use of player safety techniques in play. I decided that I ought to formalize my thoughts in writing since I haven’t actually done that until now.
I’d like to begin by saying that I am a huge advocate for the use of player support tools to help us make our games and play communities safer and more compassionate. However, I am disappointed by our current tools (and I certainly include the tools I’ve developed in this statement). I think we, as a play culture, are overdue for an evolution in our support practices. Much of my experience stems from X-Card play culture, this being the most widely used tool in my experience, and it may seem that this essay is a criticism of the X-Card specifically. While that isn’t exactly incorrect, it is much more accurate to say that this is a scrutinization of safety-related cultural values that are widely practiced in part through the use of tools like the X-Card. My criticisms also apply to other similar tools, though I encounter those much less frequently. I’m also a bit surprised to say that I am currently much more satisfied with modern player support techniques currently found in larp, though my commentary largely applies to Cut and Brake as well. I was first introduced to these tools in early 2012 (I “arrived” on the story game scene in late 2011), and at no point have I ever felt that the tools on offer satisfactorily met the challenges that I observed in my play experiences.
Why I’m Writing This
First of all, I understand that I am in a minority opinion and that my views on this issue might be unpopular. By only having half the conversation - that I’m unsatisfied with a given tool - I do myself a disservice. I hope that by writing this the full scope of my perspective can be understood because I have often felt misunderstood in conversations on this topic. There is rarely enough time to go into every detail, after all.
Second, I am frankly tired of literally having the same conversation over and over. I feel that the issues with the current tools have existed since their inception and have seen little to no development to address those issues. I am not the first to draw attention to the limitations of these tools. In any case, I want to be able to direct interested parties to this in the hopes of having new conversations about this topic.
Third, I want better tools. I recognize that my needs from player support tools are not every person’s needs. I most enjoy playing high-impact scenarios that ask for a lot of vulnerability from the players. These kinds of scenarios often explore real-life social issues either directly or indirectly; subjects which must be handled with respect and responsibility. Though I think that the X-Card and other tools adequately support low-impact play, I have seen these tools consistently fail to support the players in high-impact play. I hope that as a community we can continue developing tools that help us go deeper more conscientiously.
[EDIT: Here are some helpful definitions. The impact of play refers to the affected emotional experience of play. Casually, it's the "intensity" of the play and subject matter. But it can be very subjective (personal relationship to the subject matter, personal/local playstyles), too, so an objective measure of "intensity" isn't always accurate. High-impact play is play in which the playgroup is intending an emotionally deep/affecting play experience typically in which a game/scenario expressly facilitates said experience. It's when you play to engage. Low-impact play is more or less everything else. It's when you play for entertainment.]
Finally, I want to lay all this out in a space where nobody is frustrated (or what have you). Many times a conversation regarding the shortcomings of support tools comes immediately after an experience in which one or more people feel failed by the tool in question when emotions are already high. Further, some of the conversations I’ve had about this have been bad experiences in their own right.
I would also like to take a moment to say what this essay is not.
It is not a call-out against anyone or anything. If we have had a conversation about this in the past, even if it was a difficult conversation, this is not a criticism of you. Our relationship has survived, and I’m glad that we’ve been able to have thoughtful (if spirited) discussion on important matters.
It is not a rebuke of the X-Card, anyone who was involved in its development, or anyone that makes use of it. I’m glad for what this tool has been able to do for our community, even if I think that more still needs to be done.
On Current Tools
Before I get into the issues, I would like to recognize a few points about our current tools. In this essay, I’m going to reference the X-Card the most because it is by far the most widely used tool found in the table-top indie story gaming community in my experience. As a point of clarification: I am discussing the tools as I have seen them practiced first and they are described in text second; these two don’t always match up and the tool in practice is more important to me.
I fully expect that basically any tool is composed of carefully considered compromises. I don’t expect any single tool to be a magic bullet, or for any single tool to be the best fit any given circumstance or community (I do, however, expect the same concession when I say that the X-Card, for example, doesn’t support my needs or the depth of play that I enjoy). I do not hold those compromises against the tool itself.
I think that the X-Card does a lot of things well. It’s probably close to enough for a lot of people and a lot of games. It’s commonly familiar to lots of people. It’s easy to make and explain. Just having the conversation covers a lot of ground as it is. It has a relatively low barrier to use. These are all good things.
However, I see this as a first step; an admirable and necessary first step (maybe it’s actually more of a second step). But we need to take the next steps. I have no doubt that these tools will improve and expand on what came before it, and we should welcome and celebrate this.
My thoughts regarding Line and Veils, and the Oly-Seattle Veil are much the same, and the differences don’t really apply here. Cut and Brake, as practiced in many larp cultures, has their own set of issues. Chief among them being that they are almost never used in practice. Because of that, the impact that Cut and Brake has had on play culture seems to be minimal. I find Largo to be a small step in the right direction, and I’m a big fan of the OK Check-In. All of this is to say: it is simply the most relevant and most convenient to use the X-Card as a vehicle for talking about this.
Breakdown of Issues
My observations fall under four main categories of issues: the method of establishing and maintaining consent, circumstances in which use of the tool causes harm to a player, contact points with toxic behaviors, and recurring phenomena found in the wider play culture that appears to accompany the use of the X-Card.
Model of Consent
The first and most glaring issue with the X-Card and similar is that it practices a “well they didn’t say no” model of consent. Honestly, why this isn’t enough to justify the use of other tools I have no idea, as it is insufficient in principle. This is not a model of consent I want to rehearse at all, much less hold as a standard. I want my tools to be grounded in affirmative consent, end of story.
The most common defense of this I hear is “but we don’t know what’s going to come up in play; asking first is impractical.” Yes, this is technically true, but ultimately I disagree. We do know what content is central to a game before we play it, or at the very least we should. Except in cases where I or the facilitator didn’t bother to fully investigate/present a game, I have always had a clear idea about what content we would be exploring, what topics are adjacent to that and may or may not come up, and what topics are either unnecessary or inappropriate. Are there grey zones at the edges? Absolutely. But the point is that I actually know quite a lot about what a game will entail prior to play.
Following this, a frequent rebuttal is “but facilitators make mistakes and we still need tools for that” and “what if we don’t agree on content for whatever reason?” Yes, these things happen. But human error applies to other areas of tool application as well, and everyone seems to be willing to accept that. Why can’t we hold ourselves and facilitators to higher standards when it comes to content advisory? Aren’t we making a similar ask when we employ a tool in the first place? And if we do discover a disagreement, why can’t we just have a conversation about it? If the answer is “well, that may be difficult if a player feels vulnerable,” then my response is that they are already exposed by making use of the tool anyway.
These rebuttals feel much more like excuses to me because:
- The complaint is selective by way of ignoring the same shortcomings already present in the tool.
- The tool is already asking for similar (though not equivalent) exposure from the players.
- The argument is for resisting a change to a reported concern, aka maintaining the status quo.
When I see this pattern emerge in rebuttals against criticism of the X-Card I immediately suspect that there is something else at the root of these rebuttals. I grant that this isn’t entirely fair, because I’m always on high-alert for that kind of thing. I will revisit this later.
A concern that I have much more sympathy for is “but we don’t always know how we will be affected by fiction in the moment.” I’ve been here, especially as someone who wasn’t always very aware of my own boundaries. This is a moment I expect a tool to support. However, the X-Card offers only a very specific kind of support for this instance. If you need to not talk about it and move on, the X-Card does that. But if you need literally anything else - a conversation, a break, a distraction, intentionally staying with it - it doesn’t, and the possibility for harm skyrockets when there is an expectation at the table that issues will be handled in only a certain way.
And this is where the “well you didn’t say no” model completely fails the playgroup because it firmly places the onus on the injured party to make use of the tool. That isn’t care; it’s survival. It places the responsibility for using the tool - or not using it when they “should have” - on the person who is already in an emotionally activated state; probably the person who is least able in the moment to actually make use of the tool anyway. This dovetails into all of the usual trappings of victim-blaming: the player in question may feel guilty for using or not using the tool as the case may be, they may feel responsible for their own negative experience, of this all may be so confusing that they dismiss whatever they are feeling about the incident (it’s not a stretch to say that this results in the player gaslighting themselves).
And again, the common rebuttal “but you can use the tool on behalf of someone else” and “well I’d just check in with a player if I noticed something like that.” Ok, sure, but now we are back to relying on on-the-fly interpersonal judgment, which is exactly what we were all doing (or not doing) before we had tools, which means this moment is no different than not having a tool at all. But it’s actually worse than that because you also have an illusion of safety on account of the tool being present.
One could argue that though the tool has shortcomings, it has increased the scope of comfortable and consensual play. I think that’s true, but I think it has also increased the likelihood of creating certain harmful situations. This is particularly relevant to high-impact play in which those circumstances are more likely to manifest.
Personally, I don’t find it worth it. I’m not sure that I’d say that it would be better to have no tool at all, but I have often considered not playing at all rather than playing a high-impact game with an X-Card, and I for sure consider developing and implementing alternative tools for those situations.
Before I move on, I also want to mention another common complaint about the use of player support tools: “you are hacking the game.” In general, I do not share this view, or rather if a game does not offer sufficient player support I think you should hack it so that it does. I will concede however that I think it is hypothetically possible for an imported tool to subvert consent and support techniques that might be hardwired into a game’s structure. I can’t think of an example of this, but it seems possible to me. Again, this isn’t completely fair, but I have to wonder if this response is a defensive reaction to the implication that a given game or a style of play isn’t sufficiently safe in some cases.
Harm in Application
The following sections details instances in which use of the X-Card or similar has resulted in avoidable harm that I have personally witnessed. This is not to say that I haven’t seen it work without an issue on numerous occasions - I have. But even so, these failure points still need to be addressed.
Trauma and Alienation
I am not the first person to mention this. As a person with trauma who also suffers from PTSD, I can say from my personal experience that use of the X-Card not only does nothing to assist a player experiencing distress but places them in a situation that is even more distressing (please understand that I am in no way speaking for every traumatized person). I do not believe the X-Card was developed with this in mind; my understanding of the X-Card suggests that the tool was designed to navigate boundaries in play, not to help players through emotional turbulence. I don’t think it’s right to criticize a tool for simply not being something it isn’t, but my issue here is that the way in which it navigates boundaries creates situations are even more distressing. This is especially troubling because many tout the X-Card as being particularly useful to people who have trauma when in reality it is a very mixed bag at best. That the tool works sufficiently for some people with trauma and exceptionally poorly for other folks with trauma suggests to me that the tool is “trauma agnostic” and therefore should be presented as such.
The first issue here is that the X-Card requires encountering the unwanted subject matter before it can even be used (with the hope that you can avoid it entirely in the future). You can’t prevent this situation every time, but I am a little dismayed by the fact that the default function of the tool requires a fail-state of sorts before it can even be used. People who exhibit a freeze response might become pretty passive and quiet - which looks like consent in this model.
Further, speaking again from my own experience, by the time I encounter a trigger it’s pretty much already too late. Even talking about it can be difficult, so discussing it in advance is not an adequate solution either. I make a personal calculation about how able I am to be okay with these specific people, on this specific occasion, when I choose to play a game that might introduce subject matter that is triggering to me; I decide if I can invest that kind of trust in my fellow players. However, if the X-Card is used by another player at a time that I’m in distress, and we just move past it, it has a disastrous effect on me. What I need in that moment is to stay connected. When we just move past it like nothing ever happened it rehearses my condition prior to beginning the healing process. A big part of my healing has been letting it hurt, so to speak. When we just remove the offending fiction it takes me back to a time when the wound was fresh. It hurts, and it’s scary. Additionally, the sudden switch is very similar to gaslighting - at the level of the fiction, it literally says “that thing never happened” - which introduces a whole new level of distress in me even I’m reasonably sure that’s not the intent.
When I become aware that nobody else is understanding what I’m experiencing (or if I’m having the emotional response of being gaslit) I experience alienation. My sense of connection and trust with the other players is shattered. I have become estranged from the playgroup because I know that I am either not understood or ignored and that they are unwilling or unable to support me in my experience, all while feeling that I should be connected to the group (because they’re all fine) while also being treated as though I am still connected to the playgroup even though I know that I’m not. At this point I recognize that my trust in the playgroup was misplaced in that I will not be supported should I find myself in a moment of need. It’s a confusing place to be in which you pretend to pretend in order to continue. I don’t know how to say it better than that; it is genuinely confusing.
Going beyond the moment of alienation, the connection and trust were probably required for my consent to participate in the first place (and is again a crucial healing element that is now painfully removed). The entire game is scary now, trust is uncertain, and - most importantly - questionably nonconsensual (though I grant that this aspect of consent in play is rarely discussed in advance, but it is most certainly included in the “indie intimacy” rhetoric that is widely used to discuss and promote focused roleplay experiences). I’m certainly not ever going to mention anything about it now, because that would make me more vulnerable and more distressed. This entire sequence of events and emotions could take place in ten seconds. This experience is so painful. Looking past the emotional harm caused, the play environment is now in no way suitable for sustained personal and creative vulnerability.
All of this gets tangled up in feelings of guilt and responsibility inherent in both trauma and victim blaming, and it’s awful. Challenging the use of the X-Card isn’t socially acceptable at all, even if you had the emotional fortitude to do so. And this isn’t to mention the range of other emotions that a triggered person might be experiencing.
I haven’t even touched on bleed yet, and this is a much bigger topic that I can’t fully go into here. So here is a very short version. A player with trauma has a potentially complicated bleed experience to navigate. Trauma and triggers can be understood as a bleed-in experience (past emotions/experiences bleed in to the play experience). Alienation as a result of tool use also has the high potential for a bleed-out experience in which the disconnection and distrust felt in play bleeds out into their personal relationships outside of play. This is obviously detrimental to the individuals in question and is damaging to community health as a whole. As if that weren’t enough, finding belonging in a community is often critical to a person’s healing process when recovering from trauma; this experience, therefore, compromises their access to a primary source of healing to some degree.
Long story short, what the X-Card does is literally the last thing I actually need when I encounter triggering content in play; its use makes a bad situation worse.
People with trauma aren’t the only ones who encounter this. Deep alienation is by far the most common emotional injury I’ve seen from high-impact play, though the result may not be as extensive as a trauma response, it’s very similar. Having another player use a tool to pull away from a moment that has deeply affected you can result in a total disconnection from the other players (especially when all of the other players also pull away when the tool is invoked, which is a pretty typical response) because a sense of trust in the playgroup is in question once you know that you are alone in your experience, that your experience will not be supported, and that there is little you can say or do about it (should you even want to do so) because use of the tool must always be respected. I’ve been here too, and I’ve seen others be put in this spot as well. It’s ugly, and it has the potential to turn away from the activity entirely. I know my taste in games is not most people’s taste, but I swear I’ve seen this result more often than I have seen the X-Card address the issues it’s supposed to address (beyond acknowledging that safety matters in the first place).
What would be much more helpful is a tool that reaffirms connections to others while letting one stay grounded in that moment. This might mean breaking play to talk about what we are feeling and why. It might mean letting that moment be as real as possible. But, the X-Card actively discourages this kind of support. Yes, lip-service is given to “we can talk about it if you want to,” but in every single implementation of the X-Card I’ve ever seen there has been a spoken or unspoken emphasis on “we’re not going to talk about it” which makes giving and receiving this kind of support the exception to the rule. Also, I’m very tired of hearing things along the lines of “then you should have used the tool sooner,” which is yet another concoction of deflecting responsibility, victim blaming, and gaslighting.
Lack of Nuance
One major pitfall of these tools is a lack of nuance. With any tool that is comprised of nothing more than a full stop, there is little support for carefully navigating a boundary. This is related to the fact that the tool in question can’t even be applied until a boundary is crossed. In addition to backing away from a crossed boundary, what we also need is a tool to avoid crossing the boundary in the first place.
With the X-Card, you basically have only “red lights” and “green lights.” In live action play, we at least have Brake/Largo, which serves are a kind of “yellow light” function. I think this is the area we need to expand the most when it comes to developing more nuanced tools. Not to mention that asking for a change of narrative direction before a boundary has been crossed is far easier to do than telling someone that they have (accidentally) crossed a line.
Further, simply tapping the X-Card or shouting “Cut” doesn’t actually tell the other players what is needed. Sometimes it’s obvious, but other times you are left with the choice of either guessing or possibly asking unwanted questions of someone who is already feeling vulnerable. There are so many things that might result in a person using a tool that the mere use of it imparts little information. Was it the subject matter? Was it the treatment of the subject matter? Was it actually something that happened a few minutes ago but they went with it anyway and now it’s even worse? Was it something that wasn’t in the “foreground” of the fiction? Do we need to remove it entirely? Do we need to handle it differently? Is it a matter of something problematic that might escape the attention of someone who is less aware for whatever reason? Was it the attitude of another player? There are no clear answers to these questions. I can think of no other case where safe words are used that leave this level of ambiguity - because this kind of instruction is often necessary in order to be able to proceed.
Further, if it was obvious, then it probably shouldn’t have happened in the first place. A tool with a middle ground could have helped avoid this completely. This is not to say that what is obvious to one person is obvious to everybody, but in a great many cases these kinds of situations could have been avoided.
Potential for Bullying
Though I don’t think the mere fact that a person might choose to abuse a tool is a fault of the tool (that is the abusing person’s fault), we would be remiss to fail to acknowledge the potential for abuse. Using the X-Card to bully another player is a concern that has been voiced on and off by some over the last few years. Like others, I’m not sure that I’ve seen this, but I’m not sure that I haven’t, either. Use of the X-Card provides an unchallengeable alibi that can conceal bullying.
Using the X-Card to bully another player would involve one player using the X-Card to repeatedly censor another player’s contributions to the fiction, or otherwise use the tool as a vehicle of criticism. Victim stance is often a component of abusive behavior, so using the X-Card in bad faith is not out of the question. In my experience, this looks less like one player using the X-Card against another for spurious reasons multiple times in the same game, and more like one person (or more than one person) using the X-Card to censor the target’s contribution during climactic or interesting moments across many games. Repeated use of this also serves to give others the impression that something about the way they play is unsafe, thereby gaslighting the victim as well. This can be incredibly difficult to spot since it happens over longer periods of time, probably under multiple facilitators and/or playgroups in which instances of this can appear to be isolated instances.
I don’t know really that I’ve witnessed this or not. I have certainly felt that I have noticed targeting behavior that involved inappropriate use of the X-Card, and there is no way to tell. Abusive behavior takes advantage of both the plausible deniability and the fact that the use of the tool is placed above criticism, generally speaking. This actually makes this kind of targeting more accessible with the tool than without. This is not a ridiculous concern.
Relationship to Toxic Behaviors
Below I discuss areas in which use (or misuse as the case may be) become similar too - and sometimes indiscernible from - actual toxic behaviors.
Lack of Communication
In every pitch of the X-Card I’ve heard, there has always been an emphasis on “and we don’t need to talk about why.” I am fully on board with judgment-free environments, and players deciding how exposed they are willing to be. But I also feel that whether it’s intentional or not, the message that gets across is that “we’re not going to talk about it.” There are two problems with this.
For starters, it is entirely consistent with a “the game must go on” value system that makes players feel guilty for “ruining the fun” for other players. The text for the X-card literally says that by not having a big ol’ talk we leave more time for play. This view prioritizes the game over the well-being of the players. Granted, part of this probably comes from an effort to seem unobtrusive so that reluctant gamers will still give these tools a shot. I can understand, even if I don’t agree, with this approach. However, a tool that’s supposed to care most for the people at the table should present “we are happy to talk and listen” and “we will understand if the game needs to stop entirely.” But these options are either not mentioned at all, are mentioned as completely secondary, or they are tossed in as an afterthought. I must ask myself why this tool aligns so closely with toxic values and passes on clear opportunities to embrace more compassionate values? And if it’s not the tool itself, why is it used this way?
Additionally, communication is good, healthy, and necessary. In fact, one of the touted perks of the X-Card is “since we have this tool we don’t have to talk about what we don’t want ahead of time.” The entire function of a safety tool is to facilitate communication (especially when it’s difficult). Why isn’t this incorporated as a feature of the tool? Why aren’t there a variety of options presented for more vulnerable conversations? Why aren’t we helping players talk about what they are feeling? If the X-Card was used it even adds a social barrier to talking about the incident later.
Let’s be honest - many of us participate in geek culture, and we’re famously bad at this. As a culture, we need the assistance, not discouragement. As a bonus, the lack of communication makes catching abuse of the tool exceedingly difficult.
One form of gaslighting is the denial or distortion of past events in an effort to skew the events in favor of the gaslighter (whatever that means for them). Use of the X-Card can look an awful lot like gaslighting because it literally says “that thing didn’t just happen” and then moves on as if it’s true. Is this a procedure we want to be practicing, in the name of safety no less?
As someone who has experienced extensive gaslighting first hand this is very difficult to deal with. My brain instinctually sends the klaxons blaring. Because triggers aren’t strictly rational (for lack of a better word), the context doesn’t matter - the resemblance is all it takes.
Coupled with that response is a rush of doubt. I immediately begin feeling that I have lost trust in the other players. There are so many reasons this is a problem. Among them is the fact that I sure as hell aren’t feeling like talking about what I’m experiencing because not only am I not feeling like I can trust the other players, but I also can’t shake the fact that I feel actively messed with, and also it’s not appropriate for me to initiate a conversation on why someone else used the X-Card in the first place. By this point, you’ve entirely lost me. Heaven help me if we are three hours into a high-impact game.
One could say that the purpose of the X-Card is to give players an out to avoid interacting with fiction that contains elements they don’t want to engage with for whatever reason. For many, this means using the X-Card to avoid fiction that contains, say snakes. But for someone who has experiences gaslighting this can be like forcing an actual snake upon them - not just a fictional one. I’ve seen little empathy for this problem.
Though somewhat less troubling that the connection to gaslighting, use of the X-Card can also literally be tone policing. As in, “you must do this differently in order for your contribution to be accepted.” I’ve seen this most as a form of gatekeeping used by established community members against younger community members as a means of getting the younger member to do things “their way.” Again, I must ask myself if this is a behavior we want to rehearse.
Lack of Equity
The X-Card is completely agnostic when it comes to the differences between players’ needs. Every time the X-Card is used the result is more or less the same regardless of what the player is experiencing. Though there are some benefits to this, there are also some serious downsides.
The most significant problem in my experience is when there is a large disparity in privilege between players at the table. In short, the tool places the preferences of one player on the same level as the well-being of another. This “everyone’s opinion is equally valid” approach is problematic in many consequences. The scenario I see play out over and over again is a cishet white male claiming their discomfort is an equal priority to the kinds of discomfort, discrimination, and harm trans/queer/POC/women/non-binary individuals experience in the same spaces. This is the result of privilege blindness; the person with more privilege in this case really may not understand that there is a difference in severity between what they experience and what less privileged people experience. This becomes a real problem when a less privileged individual used the tool for the sake of their own well-being, and then more privileged people use the tool to “get their way” - because that’s what they see the less privileged person as doing. This dynamic upholds the status quo by raising the importance of more privileged experiences above that of less privileged experiences.
This dynamic doubles over on itself when we consider the selling point “this tool allows you to push harder.” Pushing harder in play is generally riskier for people from marginalized groups (who are more likely to have endured trauma at the hands of those more privileged than they), especially when playing with people who are more privileged. I’ll get more into this in a later section, but forming the tool as “you don’t need to worry so much because they have an out” places both the risk and the responsibility on the most marginalized and most poorly served players. If privilege blindness has perverted the meaning of the tool at all this is very dangerous in play.
The tool also tends to mistake who needs support the most. As has been observed many times in the past, it’s often the players who are playing antagonistic roles that need the most care during and after a game. Use of the X-Card against a player in an antagonistic role/moment often drives the impact of that moment (in which they are probably feeling some kind of in-character self-loathing) beyond the fictional to the personal, thereby increasing the harm the player is experiencing and also increasing their need for care - which they are not receiving now (and probably won’t later, either). I have never seen a situation like this in which the X-Card could have possibly helped. This is one of the observations that suggests to me that the X-Card was not intended for high-impact play; the tools application simply does not understand the needs of high impact play.
Avoidance of Accountability
With all of these issues taken into consideration, I’ve come to the conclusion that the X-Card and other tools do a much better job at helping people avoid accountability for causing harm than they do at actually preventing harm from being caused.
Everything I’ve mentioned up to this point supports this conclusion, but to briefly summarize for the sake of clarity:
- The model of consent places the responsibility on the injured party
- Coupled with “but we couldn’t possibly know;” an excuse often used by sexual assailants
- A boundary must be crossed to implement the tool
- Almost nothing is done to avoid crossing a boundary
- Using the tool literally suggests that a “thing didn’t happen,” which is itself a statement that avoids accountability
- Communication is subtly or overtly discouraged
- This method of application can be actively harmful to those with trauma
- The tool is most accessible to people who are more comfortable and less vulnerable
- Thereby taking voice away from people who face marginalization
- “Push hard without worry” is often the selling point
- The tool often mis-identifies who needs support in certain play circumstances
- Toxic and harmful behaviors are still viable with the use of the tool but are even more difficult to identify and intervene
At one level it’s not a surprise that our tools reflect the problems in our play culture. However, I think it’s time to really scrutinize these things. I believe that the issues I’m seeing have less to do with problematic behaviors from individuals and more to do with deep-rooted and unspoken values that have permeated our communities. I think it’s safe to say that every one of us has been marked by patriarchal values in one way or another.
This will serve as a segway into the next section because this is a mix of play culture and individual behavior.
I’ve heard of this described in a number of terms (I believe Lizzie Stark has referred to this as the “Liberal Dogpile”). In short, in communities that identify themselves by their progressive values, holding more progressive values yourself tends to get you greater social standing. The result is a judgemental community in which two things happen: community members are very critical of others (thereby keeping themselves above the people they are criticizing) and community members perform progressiveness (thereby increasing their standing). These behaviors appear at basically every level of community activity, including the application of player safety tools. When the use of safety tools becomes conflated with establishing status, our games are not safe.
Before anyone says that their community isn’t like this: I have seen this to one degree or another in every gaming community I’ve participated in, including communities that I have loved very much.
Observations on Play Culture
To be honest, I would not have examined these tools so deeply were it not for a number of negative and weird experiences I’ve had with play cultures that seem to surround their use. Hypothetical abuse of safety tools is much less of an issue if the play culture seems healthy and functional. This has not been my experience.
The Seatbelt Effect
Let’s start big picture. I saw this in my own community when we got really serious about using player safety tools, and I have heard tell from other communities that they have seen the same thing.
This is the phenomenon in question: when safety tools are first introduced to a community, players tend to pay less attention to the well-being of other players because they can now rely on the tools instead (I call this the seatbelt effect because something similar happened when seatbelts were invented: drivers drove faster, accidents were worse and more frequent because the drivers felt safer, resulting in increased pedestrian fatalities). The result is that play is actually less safe than it was before.
Granted, communities can grow out of this. But I see that as unlikely when “push harder without worry” is advertised as a positive feature. Many players play like this deliberately.
The issues here are somewhat more subtle. Relying on the tools to mediate safety and consent means that players aren’t practicing the social skills they would usually employ to navigate those concerns. This is antithetical to fostering a compassionate and caring community. Further, it seems to me that almost none of the modern progressive values regarding consent, privilege, care, and accountability are actually reflected in these tools at all, so I’m left wondering what we are really practicing in the first place.
Ultimately, when I sit down for a high-impact game with a table of strangers and someone puts an X-Card on the table, I have no idea if anyone is aware of the limitations of the tool (unless they have expressly dismissed them, in which case I know that they do not). If a facilitator thinks that the X-Card is “enough” then this is a huge red flag for me. If they try to placate me with a quick conversation so we can get on with the game, this is another red flag. If they show a lack of compassion for the people failed by the tool, this is yet another red flag. I’m left with too many doubts, and I know that this game probably won’t be safe or supportive. I end up passing on a lot of public play because of this.
Instances of Weird Play Culture Interactions
I don’t even know how to organize this section. So what you are about to read is a collection of different interpretations I’ve had in discussions about the X-Card. These are by far the most negative experiences I’ve had with the X-Card. To me, this confirms my suspicion that the values inherent in the tool radiate outward into the communities in which the tool is widely practiced.
In most conversations I’ve had, criticizing the X-Card is tantamount to picking a fight. I make no exaggeration when I say people leap to its defense. These conversations tend to become heated very quickly. I’ve had people justify the model of consent (as mentioned above, these justifications are flimsy), that if I don’t like the kind of play it fosters that I should just “be the change I want to see,” that asking first is too hard/awkward/breaks the momentum of play (“kills the mood”), that I just don’t understand how the X-Card is used, that it’s “good enough” and that no tool “is perfect,” that none of my concerns actually happen in the real world. Seriously, what the hell is this? What am I supposed to think when so many interactions involve dismissing or minimizing my concerns, immediately followed by a hypercritical attitude toward any and all alternatives?
When my concerns are met with that kind of attitude I, and the loudest proponents are those who benefit from a lot of privilege, I have some serious questions. Everything about this looks like maintaining the comfort or the most comfortable first and foremost. When the X-Card it treated as though it’s the only thing important about table consent all other needs are ignored. I can’t help but feel that this is the case when those same people are reluctant at best and mildly hostile at worst to even trying a different tool.
Some other odds and ends:
- Lack of empathy for those abandoned by X-Card use. The knee-jerk reaction to this is “No, the person using the card, their consent matters more.” While I’m not disagreeing with the importance of consent, I am troubled by touting that value as a justification for completely dismissing the abandoned person. Not to mention that the abandoned player was failed first and we just didn’t know it yet. This looks an awful lot like reluctance to perform difficult emotional labor.
- From the X-Card text (paraphrased): “GM says ‘Most likely I’m going to use it to protect myself from you guys!’” To be frank, I find this facetious. I have literally never seen anything even remotely like this in actual practice anywhere. I feel that this confuses and misrepresents both the tool and the nature of narrative games as a whole.
- Some have touted that use of the tool creates a more supportive play environment. I have never witnessed this. As I’ve detailed extensively at this point, I’ve seen a lot more of the opposite.
- When the X-Card is introduced at a table there is a palpable expectation that everybody will just conform. A discussion about this isn’t particularly viable (see next bullet) at this moment, so I often feel forced to play with an X-Card even though I feel less safe.
- There is immense pushback when I propose a different tool to use instead, even if it’s similar. As a result, the whole table feels unsafe because they are unsure of what/who they should trust. Once that seed of doubt is placed, it stays there. The attitude that accompanies this is “whatever you are doing isn’t good enough for me” no matter what alternative tool you present. This makes it almost impossible to actually develop an alternative tool.
- Finally, I am openly gaslit when someone responds to my criticisms with “You are saying that “No” isn’t important.” This is not my position, and this is not what I have said. But this is often the very first thing I hear when I voice my concerns.
I hope that you can agree that these experiences are not good. When this is more or less the kinds of behavior that my concerns predict I feel like this proves that my concerns are valid.
I’m going to be my most cynical self here for a moment. This is what I think is actually going on with all of this defensiveness. It isn’t really about the tool itself. It’s about defending the progressive status of the people and communities that use it.
That is a contentious thing to say. But it makes a lot of sense. The attitude I see propagated by proponents of the X-Card is that of “our work here is done.” And these criticisms suggest that their work is not done and that there have been some huge oversights. In essence, it questions the progressive status of the people/communities in question, something we indie roleplayers are very proud of.
We have a number of problems in our community. We can’t seem to let go of cults of personality, exclusive cliques, grudges, and all kinds of things large and small that attempt to raise one group above the rest. I’m guilty of this too. But dammit, so much ugliness in our communities comes from this; it is so prevalent. How could our safety tools not be caught up in this?
I’d like to reiterate that despite all of my many criticisms I do think that the X-Card and other tools do some things very well and that they were a good step up from what we had before (which was very little). My position here is that better tools are yet to be made and that we should actively encourage their development and implementation. Also, I’ve been pleasantly surprised to hear more and more people voice that “one size does not fit all” and that games need to have player support built into their design.
I really don’t think it’s a huge leap to say that our player safety tools influence our play culture as a whole. We should care about that.
Support vs. Safety
I think that we need to move away from the concept of safety toward the concept of support. To be clear, I see support as encompassing safety entirely. I think we just have a lot more to do. This requires a shift in paradigm.
When I say support I am talking about avoiding unwanted situations, helping people who find themselves in an unwanted situation, conscientious facilitation of challenging/sensitive/uncertain situations, and finding our most desired situations in play.
Needs and Possible Solutions
Here is what I would keep from existing tools:
- Meets the needs of low-impact play adequately.
- Relatively low social barrier to use.
- Easy to make on the fly.
- Prefaced by a support talk.
Here is what else I think a new tool needs:
- Affirmative consent. Core content of the game must be defined upfront. Play culture adopts an understanding of sticking to core content, adding secondary content thoughtfully. Ask before you push or introduce secondary content. Must be able to say “yes” and “more.” Consent must be established are “yes” rather than lack of “no.”
- Nuance. Tool must be able to navigate away from a boundary before crossing it. Must be able to navigate space between “yes” and “no.”
- Values healthy behaviors. Must encourage communication (encourage does not equal necessitate). Must recognize privilege, equity, justice. Must steer away from toxic/abusive behaviors. Have all players practice emotional labor for the individual that needs it.
- Allow for deeper exploration in play. Must help player go deeper knowing that they will be cared for. Must serve those who need it most first and best.
So what does a tool like this actually look like? Well, I’m working on a possible example and I may be talking about it soon. But in more general terms:
- It’s probably more complicated than current tools. This is a compromise in exchange for better support.
- It relies on a concerted effort during both briefing and debriefing. Players must have detailed information about the intended play experience in advance.
- It allows for communication that doesn’t interrupt the game. More specifically, it allows players to express how they are doing at any given moment, not just when action needs to be taken.
- It incorporates trust more deeply. Such as allowing the player in need to take narration rights so they can get the fiction to where it needs to be. This means taking specific directions from each other.
- It allows for a variety of applications in order to accommodate a variety of needs.
This is a tall order, but we are nothing if not imaginative. I’m excited to experiment with new ways of supporting each other better. I truly hope that we can begin to foster more compassionate communities from the inside out. Thanks for reading.
Guess I'm on a roll lately. More unpopular opinions about community and abuse incoming.
I'm pushing back against widely proclaiming the value of "always believe the victim." And it's for one simple reason.
By shouting this from the rooftops, we have guaranteed that the abusive among us have heard this. We have given them a playbook to abuse successfully. And that is: present yourself as the victim and you will be believed, always. Or even worse, we tell them that: your abusive behavior isn't abuse if you can position yourself as a credible victim.
As if victim stance, victim blaming, smear campaigns, and retaliatory reporting aren't already Abuse 101. These are all exceedingly common abuse tactics. By proclaiming "always believe the victim" far and wide we have made it very difficult to identify abusive behavior. "Always believe the victim" would be great if we could consistently identify the who has been abused and who has been abusive. But doing so is already difficult, and now it's even more difficult.
I do believe that it is imperative that we support those who have been abused. Obviously, and absolutely. For others to believe them is especially important when they have been gaslit, manipulated, threatened, coerced, and bullied.
Supporting those who have been abused is absolutely essential and we really need to get better at doing so. But crippling our investigative processes doesn't help those who have been abused.
By the time abuse has been reported, the person who has abused is already doing damage control and the person who has been abused is at their most vulnerable. What do you do with two conflicting reports? Believe the first one? What if the person who has been abused never reports (spoiler: they often don't.)? I have no idea how anyone thinks this is a viable strategy when our means of identifying the person who has been abused is so poor in the first place. Remember: confusion always favors the abuse.
How do we identify abuse as third parties with incomplete and contradictory information? How do we support those who have been abused when we don't know who they are?
I don't have good answers to these questions. But I do know that those who have abused in our communities have heard the message loud and clear, and they know exactly what they need to do to keep their cover.
This past week or so I’ve been ruminating about community and abuse quite a lot. This is another one of those times!
Unpopular opinion: I think we would benefit from doing away with the word “abuser.” Instead, I think we should focus on the behavior (the abuse) and the structures that allow/enable/encourage said behavior (the abuse dynamics). There are lots of reasons for this!
Now. I’m not saying that all abusers deserve immediate forgiveness and/or endless second chances from their victims and/or communities. I don’t have complete answers for that, and I don’t think there are *any* one-size-fits-all approaches for this. Some cases of abuse are so extreme that forgiveness and rehabilitation from the people hurt by the abuse in not - and will never be - viable. Nor am I suggesting that there should not be consequences for abuse. Nor am I sympathizing with abusers generally. Nor am I saying that we just need to be nicer to those who have been abusive. None of that is my point.
It Gets Everything Wrong
First of all, I don’t think it’s the most accurate means of discussing abuse, and the implications perpetuate misunderstanding abuse situations. Examples!
A person does not need to chronically abuse in order commit abuse in isolated instances.
Addressing abusive behavior prompts actionable solutions. If someone is just “an abuser” what are they supposed to do? Not be? (This is in fact the implication in many cases - we’ll come back to this.)
Therefore, abuse is inevitable because an abuser will always abuse no matter what.
Therefore, we communities managers can’t really do anything about abuse, and have no real responsibility in the matter.
Except maybe to make sure that we have no responsibility for the abuse. Many community policies I’ve seen do a much better job at avoiding responsibility than addressing abuse, and I have to wonder.
A person who has behaved abusively in the past may or may not behave abusively in the future. Healing is possible, if difficult.
People who have behaved abusively have often only behaved so in one area of their life.
Abuse stems from a variety of sources (more on this later). “Abuser” promotes a gross oversimplification.
Labelling someone “an abuser” based on single or isolated instances is itself abusive (this single event defines and lessens your value as a person) and it comes packaged with the justification for the abuse (they are dangerous, therefore they don’t deserve community/intimacy/etc.).
Similar: Imposing assessments of personhood and general worth upon others is pretty fucked up, and re-creates deeply problematic (dare I say abusive) social structures. Reducing someone to a label is not okay.
People have abused but haven’t been outed as having been abusive are incentivized to take one of the following courses of action:
Protect/justify/dismiss/excuse/etc. outed abuse because if this other person is “an abuser” then they are too.
Take an extremely harsh stance on abuse, because surely someone who has abused wouldn’t do that.
Bury their own abuse ever deeper.
None of the above helps anyone address an abuse situation. It doesn’t help us understand it, it doesn’t help us respond to it, it doesn’t help us prevent it.
The only use “abuser” has is to punish someone. Justice for the victim may involve serious consequences. But punishment is also a tool of abuse that “an abuser” employs to control their victims. Endorsing punishment also endorses some forms of abuse. Our solutions to abuse must do better than this.
IT REINFORCES PATRIARCHAL VALUES
The “abuser” discourse upholds patriarchal dynamics and I would argue that this discourse does more to allow/enable abuse than it does to discourage/heal abuse.
Patriarchal masculinity sucks for everybody, though it it harmful/lethal to women, non-binary people, and really anyone who isn’t a masculine male. But there is a cost: patriarchal values drive men to suicide at an accelerated rate, discourage men from seeking medical care, promotes self-destructive and high-risk behaviors, discourage men from giving and receiving needed emotional support (thereby resulting in under-reported mental illness). Men benefit from the patriarchy, but the but the benefits come at a price.
The patriarchy and masculinity are huge topics. For now, I’d like to focus on two expressions of patriarchal masculinity:
Disconnection from your family, your friends, your partners, yourself.
Clubhouse mentality. As in, as long as you “pay your dues” (in the form of performing masculinity and aggressively upholding patriarchal values) you are in the club. But if you deviate from that for even a second you are out, over the edge without a splash, gone forever.
CLUBHOUSE MENTALITY ENDORSES UNACCOUNTABILITY
The “abuser” discourse supports both of these functions. Labelling someone “an abuser” is usually an effort to ostracize them from their communities now and forever. This is understandable - the harm caused is deep and real, and may never fully heal.
But. This ostracization has ramifications. Yes, it protects your community from this particular individual. But it does less than nothing to address past abuse or prevent future abuse or dismantle abusive power structures that facilitate the abuse in the first place.
The person who has behaved abusively is now isolated from their communities, perhaps just personally, perhaps also professionally (which may come with financial complications). Community is a primary source of healing and growth, and this is now unavailable to them. Further, this (probably traumatic, even if justified) experience is likely to inspire resentment and long term conflict - a fertile environment for continued abuse.
This also clearly reinforces the clubhouse mentality. This in and of itself is so literal I don’t even know how to zoom in for greater detail. But there are also other power structures at play here too - in-groups frequently abuse/victimize/persecute/etc. out-groups. In addition to upholding patriarchal structures, you have endorsed mistreatment of the ostracized individual in the name of justice. This is again a dangerous situation where the potential abuse comes packaged with a justification.
As a side effect, the person who committed abuse now has pretty firm ground to present themselves as the “real victim” here, further complicating future matters indefinitely, because the chances that this situation has been mishandled and individuals mistreated are real. Remember that isolation is used as an abuse tactic. (This is where my “not be” comment from earlier comes from: “you are broken and can’t be fixed, so go away, and if we will warn other communities about you so you can’t be anywhere at all.”)
But that’s not all! By raising the stakes so high you have ensured that people will fight to the bitter end not to be labelled “an abuser.” If there is no recourse, no healing, no growth, not even for a single incident, then people will make sure that they are not seen as having made even a single mistake - lack of accountability is not only encouraged, it’s necessitated. Please note that the operative word in the previous sentence is *seen* - the fact of abuse is less important than being perceived as an abuser by the community in question. This results in thorough toxicity within a community.
And if that’s not enough, people within the in-group are more likely to make excuses for each other because it’s comfortable and is easier to do as a group. While in-groups are likely to huddle together to protect one of their own, they are also just as capable of banding against an individual once group opinion against them reaches a tipping point (perhaps motivated by the individuals with the most social capital). This can become bullying/mobbing very quickly.
Again: I’m not saying that anyone is responsible for the abuse committed by another person. I’m saying that solutions our current solutions don’t address the deeper issues that “cause” (a term I use very loosely in this case) the abuse. If we are ever going to do anything other than select for more sophisticated abusers in our communities we need solutions that address these deeper issues.
To summarize: The clubhouse mentality reflects the social structure of patriarchal masculinity. Since patriarchal masculinity is often to motivator behind abuse, this will never help us. Unsurprisingly, clubhouse dynamics can easily give way to bullying which is generally bad, but in the case of bullying being directed at someone who has been abusive it may serve to confuse the matter even more and/or provide a justification for continued abuse, making justice even less likely. Further, the in/out nature of the clubhouse mentality motivates a lack of accountability because mistakes/transgressions/violations are not tolerated at all and may result in immediate ostracization. In-groups are also prone to protecting/covering up for their own, hiding abuse committed by those with the group’s favor. The term “abuser” belongs to this model.
To say that the clubhouse mentality is vulnerable to abuse is an understatement; it outright facilitates abuse in every aspect because it is build upon an inherently abusive social structure.
DISCONNECTION RESULTS IN A LACK OF EMPATHY
Unaccountability is one of two necessary components of abuse. The other is a lack of empathy.
There are several levels in which patriarchal masculinity corrupts empathy in men. I’d like to cite basically the entirety of bell hooks’ The Will to Change and Terry Real’s I Don’t Want To Talk About It when I say this: disconnection is where men’s empathy atrophies. Disconnection from our emotional lives, disconnection from our mother and families, disconnection from our communities.
As mentioned above, the typical response to “an abuser” is to ostracize them. This is severing a connection with a community, increasing the scope of disconnection that the “abuser” is already experiencing. Being separated from community also separates the person from a major source of healing - something that they sorely need in order to develop a sense of empathy that does not allow for abuse.
This disconnection is fundamentally a determination not to empathize. I believe that is is one of the most central issues to masculinity and masculine violence. Reconnection is one of the most powerful things we can do as men to heal from the toxicity of masculinity. If you want to read more about this, please read hooks and Real mentioned above.
Shame is also a motivator for abuse in men, and functions similarly to disconnection in this context. Men who feel like they are “underperforming” in terms of what it is to be a man, may try to get the results that prove their worth by any means possible. Maybe this means controlling their partner so that their relationship validates their masculinity. Maybe this means controlling their subordinates in order to bolster their own success. Maybe this means lying about something, or manipulating others. Violence is often used as a means of restoration for a man whose masculinity is perceived as being in question.
Summary: by enforcing disconnection and piling on shame on someone who has abused you might be giving them even greater impetus to abuse, or to refine their abuse tactics so they don’t get caught because they are now even more desperate to to have their masculinity validated. This increases the likelihood of future victimization, and decreases the likelihood of the person who has been abusive ever healing.
Perhaps this is why the end of abusive relationships are the most dangerous time. Perhaps this is why people who have endured abuse are afraid to report abuse. Perhaps everything pertaining to how we respond to abuse is broken.
WHO RECEIVES A PASS?
This also raises a question of who forgiveness is for, who gets the benefit of the doubt. This is of course related to the clubhouse mentality comments above.
I think we all already know the answer: people with lots of social capital, people who have cultivated good will for themselves through performing selflessness, people who are fun, (for gaming communities) people who make games that we like. The people with power. This is exactly what we are told to expect of people who abuse: charismatic, well-liked, pillars of the community, seemingly good actors, and so on.
It doesn’t matter if these people with social capital do literally the same kinds of things as those with less capital, forgiveness/excuses/second chances/benefits of the doubt are available to them that are not available to the rest, from the same people no less. It’s hypocritical double standard from everyone involved. It’s no wonder we still have abuse in our communities. Don’t forget that violence is used by those in power to maintain their power, and that social violence is violence.
Ultimately, the “abuser” discourse cannot be separated from people that are communually allowed to make that assessment, and it is just about always by the people with capital and power in a way that reaffirms that capital and power. Maintaining current power structures is the problem, and continuing doing so will never will never solve the problems it has created.
It’s interesting to note that connection is still allowed for those with social capital who are guilty of abuse whereas connection is not allowed for those guilty of abuse without the social capital. This is perhaps another reason why people who have endured abuse often don’t report it: it’s clear that the guilty party will not be treated as “an abuser” even if their guilt is acknowledged. If almost nothing will happen, what's the point in reporting if doing so will so will increase the risk of retaliation?
The community model that we generally practice doesn’t actually filter for abuse because it protects some people who have abused - often the people with the greatest opportunity to commit and conceal abuse. Nor does it filter for specific abusive behaviors, because it endorses the very same behaviors it condemns when applied by the right people. What is does do is filter by social capital: who is in and who is not, who is allowed to transgress and who is not, who defines abuse and who is beholden to that definition.
I’ll say it again: it’s no wonder we have abuse in our communities.
WHERE DOES THIS LEAVE US?
This is ultimately the way in which the “abuser” discourse encourages abuse: because the stakes are super high and even a single incident is enough people are encouraged to never be accountable or else. Imposing further disconnection via ostracization is at best unhelpful for restoring a sense of empathy, and at worst encourages victim stance/victim blaming as well as continued abuse. Social capital holds more sway in determining the outcome of an abuse situation than does the abuse itself. The result is an environment that is vulnerable to abuse, and endorses abusive mindsets, and facilitates ongoing abuse.
This doesn’t mean that it’s any one person’s job to rehabilitate someone who has been abusive, especially not the people that have been hurt by the abuse. But if we’re going to do anything other than brush it under the rug, if we are ever going to actually reduce the abuse in our communities, somebody has to do this work.
So what then?
Within the communities that I participate in, I see two kinds of abuse most regularly. The below are not clinical terms, just distillations of my personal observations.
Abuse from entitlement is perhaps the most common form of abuse. One could could also refer to this as “patriarchal abuse.” Men controlling the behavior of women in their lives through whatever means necessary falls into this category. So does parents abusing their children, and employers abusing their employees. Forms of institutional abuse probably also fit into this broad category, but I’m not ready to climb up on that soap box just yet as I suspect there are some unique nuances to that. The source of this kind of abuse are distorted beliefs regarding what is owed and what actions are justified if the things owed are denied. Many of these people are in fact sincere at some level even if they end up resorting to violence to maintain control. As in, someone who feels entitled to certain treatment does actually feel wronged when they aren’t treated that way even though they are incorrect, and abuse as a means of “righting that wrong”.
Narcissistic abuse seems less common to me, and is the result narcissistic personality traits. I’m not an expert in this from a psychological standpoint. Many of the characteristics in question are similar: inflated sense of grandeur, a need for admiration, believing in their own infallibility, placing their own feeling above those of others, unwillingness to empathize with others, power seeking behaviors. Those who abuse from narcissist are rarely sincere, and in some cases may not even be capable of sincerity. As in, they know that they are exploiting others as they are exploiting them, and abuse as a means of demonstrating their superiority or simply because they see an opportunity to seize some benefit. (I fully admit that I only have surface level knowledge of this; I’m sure there are folks out there with more sophisticated knowledge on this subject.)
Though these two can look similar, the difference is that one stems from a the promises to men made by the patriarchy, and the other stems from pathological inclinations. What’s important here is how you address these different kinds of abuse. As a former domestic violence interventionist I can tell you than men who abuse from entitlement *can* be reached. It’s difficult, yes, but connection to their emotional lives can be restored, empathy grown, and accountability established. But those that commit narcissistic abuse? I don’t know what to say other than good luck. You might manage to convince them that abusing others is not in their self interest. To the best of my knowledge that's about the most you can hope for.
These two groups need very different kinds of intervention and support. Lumping all forms of abuse into the “abuser” discourse is not helpful because not all abuse is the same, thereby interfering with our ability to understand and address the abuse in the first place.
Please drop this term “abuser”. It doesn’t help. It makes every aspect of dealing with abuser more difficult. It’s inaccurate. It’s convenient for those in power. It’s especially convenient for those in power who have abused others. It avoids doing the hard work of addressing abuse beyond single incidents. It upholds the same patriarchal values that endorse the abuse in the first place. If we are ever going to do any better than incremental progress in addressing abuse, we have to drop this discourse and the entire social structure it belongs to.
What should we do instead? I don’t know for sure. I don’t know how to balance the needs of justice for the victim with the needs of compassion for those who are reckoning with the harm they’ve caused.
I suspect that it will have to be done on a case-by-case basis.
I suspect that compassion, reconnection, rehabilitation, and forgiveness will be involved because the patriarchy doesn’t care for those things.
I suspect that shame, punishment, exile, top-down power structures, dominance, devaluing people, condemnation, and vindication will not be a part of it because that is the language of the patriarchy.
But I don’t have specific answers.I do have a few starting points though.
Focus on and address the behavior rather than the person.
Those with power/social capital should not be the ones defining and judging what is/isn’t abuse if at all possible.
There needs to be opportunity for growth after harm is caused, coupled with accountability.
Acknowledge that the patriarchy has touched all of us, and that all of us need to decolonize our minds of patriarchal beliefs.
Men, I don’t want to hear that you have “never abused anyone.” There was certainly a time when you were not aware of acting from a place of patriarchal entitlement, and you were certainly a willing participant in social structures that perpetuate abuse if absolutely nothing else. We have all been complicit at one time or another. But there is a way forward, and that’s what’s most important.
Men, working with other men is one of the most important things we can do. Who will work directly with those who have abused if not us, the beneficiaries of the patriarchy? Is there a better way for men to reconcile the harm they have caused than helping other men to discontinue their own harmful acts?
Consider this a call to action. What we are doing isn’t working. Be critical of our social structures. Imagine something better.
Please forgive me for generalizing and simplifying these things. This is already long as it is! Also, I have no doubt that I’m wrong about something and that my thinking on something will evolve. So you know, this is an ongoing process. Thank you for reading.
After Living Games I've been thinking about community. I was delighted to hear so many compassionate and thoughtful people share the lessons they have learned over the years. But there are still many areas in which we need more answers. Because of course there are.
As an organizer, if you don't know how to identify damage control by someone who has engaged in abusive behavior then you are vulnerable to being actively complicit in abuse. That is, not "merely" allowing the abuse to take place, but continuing to abuse the victim.
A person who has abused will go to their personal friends first - the people most likely to take them at their word - to do damage control. You, the organizer, have personal friends. If someone is doing damage control by going to you, then it's probably going to be coming from one of your personal friends. Someone who has exploited another relationship is almost certainly not above exploiting you to protect themselves - especially if the abuse was severe. Further, victim stance is a common tactic employed by those practiced in abusive behavior, not only are many very good at it but they also benefit from the situation being as confusing as possible. But that's not all - because the victim is probably justifiably scared of retaliation and probably hasn't said anything. So all of the above? The person who has abused probably spoke up well before the victim did, if the victim ever speaks up at all.
To review: when you encounter damage control it will probably come from someone who you think is your personal friend, whom you are already sympathetic to, who is adept at taking victim stance, who is willing to exploit your relationship to protect themselves, who make the entire situation confusing and benefit from it. That's a lot of different vectors of vulnerability that works in the favor of one engaged in abusive behavior. What's worse is that the more severe the abuse is the more difficult it can be to expose, thereby increasing the danger dramatically.
Further, the damage control will be used to discredit the victim* in order to conceal the abuse at minimum. Beyond that, it can be used to isolate the victim from community and support, monitor the victim through others (enabling stalking), and tarnish (if not terminate) the victim's personal and professional relationships. These are all means of punishing the victim, and every one of these things can be traumatic. This is abuse: isolation, emotional abuse, psychological abuse, social abuse, potential financial abuse. Remember that the end of an abusive relationship is the most dangerous part. If stalking is involved, then physical abuse is also possible. It could take years, if not a lifetime to recover from this.
Are you, organizer, prepared to identify damage control? Probably not, because you are vulnerable by default. That, and as far as I know, there are few reliable techniques to do so, and even then require ideal circumstances or for the person who abused to make a mistake.
Our collective discourse on this needs to evolve. Until it does you, organizer, are potentially a tool for abuse. You may already have been and don't even know it. The damage could already be done.
I don't have answers, not good ones anyway.
*Side note: I use victim here because the abuse is not over yet and therefore has not yet been survived.
With Fastaval in the rearview mirror, I'm now thinking about the future. Right now there are a lot of things I want to do.
The Wounded King has gone through another revision, and is ready for robust playtesting. I'm thinking that this will be ready to release into the wild soon.
Murder Penis, which I have felt reluctant to approach, has seen a major overhaul. I'm liking how this one is shaping up. I believe that I'll have a draft ready right as I finish up playtesting The Wounded King, which means this will be right on it's heels. It's been a long time since I was actively developing a high-impact scenario.
I have recently been incredibly inspired to develop Magnum Opus as a huge, fifty-player three-day larp. I cannot tell you how urgently excited I'm for this! But, it's a larger project than I've ever attempted before, and it will be a while before it's ready to premiere. I'm going to begin playtesting the movie making techniques later this month, but this is still a long way out.
I think the Peaceful Play tool is close as well. More playtesting is needed, but so far, so good. I may release a beta version soon.
Following my experience at Fastaval, I intend to make some final adjustments to Redshift before formally releasing the pdf. Nothing major, but now that I've seen it in action in a different play culture, I have some tweaks in mind. Ultimately, I'd like to produce a reusable boxed set. But before that...
Opera Buffa! needs to be reformatted for public consumption. This delightfully stupid game is perhaps the only project of mine truly suitable for general audiences. I'm envisioning a large card-based presentation, a DVD with music and workshops, and papercraft props.
Though I haven't actually begun working on this, I have a follow-up scenario to It's Nothing beginning to brew, currently titled It's Not Over. I'd like to give that scenario a fresh coat of paint, incorporate updated support practices, and re-release it with It's Not Over included. This is not a particularly urgent project for me right now, however.
This is shaping up to be an active year for me, so stay tuned!
Oh my goodness... I was not expecting this. Redshift did not take home the award, but the scenario that did truly deserved it.
Thank you to all who believed in this project - even though I at times had my doubts. I truly could not have done it without you.
That aside, I had a remarkable time at Fastaval. The gameplay highlights were Birkenau (Jewish musicians are prisoners in a concentration camp, forced to play in an orchestra for the Nazis), and Gone (a semi-autobiographical scenario about a family struggling to cope with the mother's dementia). I left feeling a renewed excitement and returned home with fond memories of powerful play moments and heartfelt conversations with distant friends.
Fastaval never fails to deliver!
This was a very busy convention for me, but it was also my favorite Metatopia to date.
I playtested The Wounded King, Redshift, and held a discussion group on MURDER PENIS. All of which yielded great feedback.
The Wounded King is paradoxically the closed and furthest from completion. It's props and procedures work well, but it is missing some pretty fundamental grounding that's required to delve deeper into the game's themes. Thank goodness I had some very strong players that could navigate that. This was one of those playtests that was simultaneously rough and encouraging, but there is a clear path forward.
Redshift went very well. Everything seems to be working as intended, which makes me very glad. Truth be told, I was expecting this playtest to be rough. I had to scramble to get it in a playtestable state, I woke up late and had no time to mentally prepare, and this is just a more ambitious project than my other works. But, despite all of that, it went fine! I'm looking forward to doing some full playtests, which is the next step for this project.
I decided not to do a proper playtest of MURDER PENIS and instead opted for a small discussion group. This was the right choice. It's an explicit scenario and it's difficult to fully inform players in convention settings. We talked through it and discussed options to refine the techniques, and I think this will make the game much more approachable.
I also got a few opportunities to introduce Peaceful Play, and impressions were favorable. I didn't get to see it used much, but it seems like it's on the right track.
Finally, I sat on three panels - Going Dark: On the Value of High Impact Play, Ally 101, and Harnessing the Healing Power of Play - but I'm going to talk on those subjects in greater depth in the near future, so stay tuned.
Redshift is my top priority since it has a deadline in early January, which means that in all likelihood The Wounded King and MURDER PENIS will have to wait until early 2018. I do hope to formalize Peaceful Play into something releasable before the end of the year though (it's a pretty lean project, relatively speaking).
Though Metatopia comes at a time of year that is usually difficult for me personally, it's a bright spot that sends me away with encouragement, insight, and enthusiasm. It's one of those events that I recommend to anybody who is even just thinking about game design. Mark your calendars, and I'll see you at Metatopia 2018!
Wow. I really never expected this. I have a lot of feelings to process.
It's Nothing has been nominated for the Indie Groundbreaker Game of the Year 2016 award by the IDGN!
I never imagined this game would receive this kind of recognition. I am so grateful for everyone who gave me critical feedback while this game was in development through 2015 and 2016. Thank you to everyone who beleived in this project!
What is a Scenario?
Defining scenarios can be a little tricky because the term encompasses a wide variety of games. For many people, this variety is one of the best things about scenarios!
This is my definition of a scenario:
“A scenario is a narrative, in-person game with a specific fictional premise that employs limited but extremely focused game mechanics that are custom-fit to themes of the game and provide a sensory play experience.”
As a game designer, scenarios offer the greatest freedom to challenge assumptions about play in many exciting ways because nothing is implied about which techniques are used, or what kinds of subjects can be approached. And because scenarios are so focused, not only are no two alike (more or less), but they are less time consuming to create; which means there are more and more new scenarios - and new scenario authors - each year. There is alway new stuff to explore!
The Essential Elements
Game: a structured form of play undertaken for enjoyment or enrichment.
Narrative: players create fiction as they play.
In-Person: play usually requires more than one player, and they play face-to-face (though sometimes other techniques are explored).
Specific Premise: the scenario presents situations, characters, subjects, themes and tone up front.
Focused Mechanics: game mechanics support and explore the stated theme and tone of the scenario first and foremost; there are no extraneous play elements that comprise or distract from the stated premise.
Sensory Experience: play is designed to be experienced comprehensively with the goal of creating an emotionally potent play experience whether it be happy, sad, scary, reflective, or otherwise.
Few features are universally true of all scenarios. Many scenarios make use of roleplaying as a means of creating fiction. Many scenarios are live-action or semi-live, in which players move about the play space in real time, or are played out in a sequence of scenes. Many scenarios use dramatic resolution to mediate fictional conflicts in game. Many scenarios explore serious social issues or express lived experiences. But then again, some use other techniques to build fiction, some take place around a table or through some digital means, some employ resolution mechanics, and some are very silly.
You’ll recognize pretty much every element from other kinds of games, media, and entertainment. Scenarios are like...
Improv and Theater because players are portraying characters without a script, but are different because there are game rules guiding player decisions and interactions.
Film and Literature because they follow specific characters and stories - which often have a message and are quite moving - but are different because everyone is making up the details as they go.
Escape Rooms because you are interacting with a play environment in real time with other players, but are different because there is a strong narrative element to play.
Murder Mystery Dinner Theater because of the strong narrative premise and participant interaction, but are different because there isn’t any secret information or hidden plots to discover.
Make Believe because everyone is lost in their imagination and are playing pretend very loosely, but are different because there is a bit more structure and may explore some more serious subjects.
Story Games and RPGs because players are telling stories together and roleplaying characters, but are different because they are less complicated and are typically have specific situations, themes, subjects, and play styles; nobody has to create a whole bunch of content before play.
Freeform and Larp because play is live or semi-live and is highly sensory, but are different because they are transparent about what’s going on, take only a few hours to play, and because they explore subjects that are stated up front. It’s true that many freeform games and Nordic larps are also scenarios; there is a lot of overlap with these traditions! In fact, the term “scenario” was first used in Scandinavian gaming communities to describe focused roleplaying games and chamber larps. Sometimes these terms are used interchangeably.
Lizzie Stark, primary author of the blog Leaving Mundania, has posted some very useful articles that introduce freeform, American freeform, larp, Nordic larp, and jeepform if you are interested in reading about these styles in greater detail.
There are several events at which scenarios and similar games are played.
Years ago, I used to write game reviews for a now-defunct site called Robot Lasers. This was one of those reviews.
IT'S YOUR QUEST TOO
I have to admit, sometimes I’m bad at social media. I heard of Gamergate only a little while ago (which has been a colossal failure of basic human decency), though I had heard a lot about Depression Quest before then. Anyway, on Friday I decided that now was the time to check out Depression Quest, in my own little stand of solidarity with Zoe Quinn, and so yesterday I did just that.
Depression Quest by Zoe Quinn is a text-based computer game about the experience of being depressed. The objective of the game is to spread some awareness about what it’s like to be depressed. Having empathy for depression is important for everybody, but it might be somewhat more urgent for those who are trying to understand the struggles of their loved ones.
In Depression Quest you play a person suffering from depression and you try to live your life. As play progresses you see the effects of your depression on various areas of your life, and you often don’t have the energy to take the healthiest courses of action as you try to cope with your situation.
In a nutshell, that’s the game. Pretty straightforward really. It does a great job of simulating the experience of depression, especially when you know what the best course of action would be, but you lack the energy to actually do it. But, Depression Quest isn’t just a good game that achieves its goals, it’s an important game. And none of this has anything to do with Gamergate.
I have only recently begun to gain ground on my battle with depression. The last few years have been exceptionally tough. I got divorced. I was trying to change “career” paths. I was on the verge of homelessness for over a year due to sudden unemployment, barely scraping enough together to make ends meet. It was a really scary time. Several important people in my life moved away. Many of my friends were in terrible situations themselves. My intimate relationships imploded as I couldn’t really be very present. In a short while I was in perpetual financial crisis, had deteriorating physical and mental health, I was isolated from a dispersing support network, and I was experiencing little validation in other ways. Many of these circumstances have now changed, but I wasn’t coping with them well at the time.
There was nary a screen in Depression Quest that wasn’t something I had lived at some time during this stretch. Its lists of courses of actions, with some crossed out because you just didn't have it in you for that option, really resonated with me. I recalled the difficult conversations I wanted to have in various crumbling relationships, but I just couldn’t pay the emotional cost of risking having a breakdown. I needed to keep job searching and such. I couldn’t take the risk of being emotionally put out of commission.
HEART TO HEART
The mere fact that this game was similar to my depression isn’t what makes this important. As the game progressed I eventually began to win small victories against the forces of hopelessness. I could see how this or that took bravery and honesty, I could see how difficult it is to take even small steps. I looked back at my own life and thought to myself “Man, that was hard”, and I found myself celebrating my strength through that time. This game showed me that even though I was depressed, I was strong, and brave, and vulnerable. Until that moment I had only thought of myself through this time as weak and broken. I cannot express how precious and uplifting of a gift this little, fragile moment was. I saw a value in myself that I literally had never seen before.
The last line of text in the games says something to the effect of “thanks for being willing to play a game that was something other than ‘fun.” These days we see more and more games coming out that aren’t about “fun,” instead focusing on sharing the life experience of one group of people or another. Play is becoming a medium for more than just entertainment. In the article Death of the Gamer, Ian Williams (https://www.jacobinmag.com/2014/09/death-to-the-gamer/) Ian Williams discusses the fallout of corporate gaming. I won’t summarize that article here, but it is worth reading. However, extending William’s conclusions about the culture creating properties of the corporate dialog of gaming, it stands to reason that the indie dialog has an opportunity to stand against those trends, and create a culture with intentionality and awareness - one that doesn’t allow for things like Gamergate.
By making games that cannot be measured on the corporate gaming dialog’s rubric of “fun” and “entertainment value” indie designers can take advantage of that opportunity. It should not be controversial to suggest that our play may have value beyond mere entertainment; that it is demonstrates the importance of games that do.
Another piece to take away from this is that your personal experiences - even the sucky ones - are valuable, and are a welcome topic in the dialog of indie gaming, where they probably aren’t in the dialog of corporate gaming. In fact, I would assert that the corporate dialog has made it very clear that it doesn’t welcome those experiences at all.
But it goes even further than that. Depression Quest did not require millions of dollars and hundreds of staff people. It’s a clean looking game that suits its needs and objectives, creates an atmosphere conducive to those goals, and that’s about it. It does not have flashy graphics or physics engines. Technically speaking, though it’s an effective effort, it’s relatively modest effort. It’s not “fun,” but it is a powerful and thought provoking experience. The real brilliance to Depression Quest is its idea, not its execution, programming, or its features. This means that you too, without a lot of money, without years of training, can make a game. All you need is an idea. That’s it. And since you’ve had a life’s worth of personal experiences, you probably have several ideas.
IT'S A NEW DAY
Depression Quest is a game - and it’s not the only one - that challenges all of the assumptions of the gaming industry. Games like this blow the door wide open for lots of people. This is how Depression Quest, and the whole indie gaming dialog, is your quest too. In a very real sense it’s about you, your life, your creativity. It belongs to anybody and everybody who participates, as players, or game designer, or otherwise. The corporate side of this equation will never be like this by its very nature, and that leaves us with a great opportunity and an important responsibility.
When I sat down for my play-through I was wanting to do something for me with my time. I was looking for fun, but I was also feeling guilty for not doing something worthwhile with my time. I also had a pint of ice cream, and I was also feeling guilty about that, since it was totally unnecessary, and was just going to make me fatter. Feeling guilty for everything is a habit I developed over the last few years, a part of the accelerating downward spiral feedback loop that was everyday of my life. But Depression Quest taught me something: this pint of ice cream is what it takes for me to be strong.
Out of sheer spite for that irrational guilt, I ate the whole damn pint.
Undergo the Depression Quest at http://www.depressionquest.com/.
Years ago, I used to write game reviews for a now-defunct site called Robot Lasers. This was one of those reviews. The Kickstarter campaign was ongoing at the time.
A BRAND NEW SEASON
So. You may have noticed that my reviews so far have been positive. I will admit that I like sharing things that I think are awesome. This review is going to be another one of those. But my next one will be more critical. Honest! It's in the works. But for now I'm going to sing the praises of Primetime Adventures, because the long awaited new edition is now on kickstarter (https://www.kickstarter.com/projects/1801630747/primetime-adventures), and you need to know about this. Seriously. Because Primetime Adventures is one of the smartest story games ever made. Well, the second edition is.
I should say that I fully expect the coolest parts of this game to carry over to the new edition. But I'm getting ahead of myself.
Primetime Adventures by Matt Wilson is a roleplaying game structured as a television show. By default Primetime Adventures does not adhere to a genre, or even a theme, but rather to a method. So, it doesn't really matter what kind of flavor of game or story you are looking for - Primetime adventures can do it. The tag line is "the best tv show that never was" and ain't it the truth. Let's be clear though. I pretty much never enjoy generic gaming systems. Primetime Adventures is the sole exception. I almost cannot imagine a stronger endorsement.
This brings us to the first reason Primetime Adventures is brilliant. It's based on television. If you are the "average American," then television has been more involved in your life than your own parents. We know what we like to see, who know when a show or episode sucks, and when it sucks, we often know why. In recent years television consumption has been even more customizable with services like Netflix and Hulu. What I'm trying to say, is that for many of us, if you look into our eyes, you see tv reflection off of our shows. Primetime Adventures taps right into your narrative instincts, and even people new to story games will be pros at the game table in no time. Seriously. I've seen it happen.
In my opinion, many story games and roleplaying games bear a stronger resemblance to a tv show than to other forms of fiction, so that genetic similarity makes for a pretty good translation as well.
Alright, how is Primetime Adventures like a television show? At a basic level, you will have one Producer (GM) and however many Protagonists (PCs), and the game takes place in scenes. But the real answer is seasons, screen presence, spotlight episodes, "next time on", budget, and fan mail.
A game of Primetime Adventures consists of a season divided into a number of episodes. An episode is a single session (though sometimes episodes can be two-parters), and there are long and short season arcs. Each protagonist has a screen presence for each episode, which determines how much they can affect the turn of the story, and serve as a cue to the other players as to who is most important right now. Each player has very detailed information about how to pace the game. Even though the script is improvised by all players, nobody is blind.
Additionally, every Protagonist has an issue and a spotlight episode. The issue is what their story arc is about, and the spotlight episode is when they will, for better or worse, confront that issue. Turns out it's super easy to share the spotlight when you know you will get your turn like everybody else. Instead of it being up to the whim of the GM or the social dynamics of the group, the game itself has a metered mechanic for doling out screen time and plot significance.
THE FANS HAVE SPOKEN
Look. I've played a lot of D&D. I've wanted it to deliver on the story front since I first cracked open those books. But it could not do it consistently. With stuff like episodes and screen presence, you would have to be deliberately sabotaging the game in order to lose the narrative structure of the game.
When I played Primetime Adventures I was the Producer. There is so much subtle information in the screen presence chart you make at the beginning of the game. It's abstract, sure, but seeing the lay of each Protagonist's arc against each other gives you a lot of guidance on how to handle each character in game. It sounds weird, but you'll see what I mean.
The next major structure of the game is the budget and fan mail systems. So, Primetime Adventures uses cards instead of dice (side note: closed systems like cards are way cooler and better for storytelling than open systems like dice most of the time in my experience). The Producer gets cards for making adversity when they spend budget, and Protagonists get extra cards when they spend fan mail. Typically these are spent at times when the players care about or are excited about, what is happening in the game.
The Producer's initial budget is based on the total screen presence of the episode. But players are awarded fan mail from the Producer's discarded budget by other players when they do something cool that the awarding player would like to see more of. It's encouragement with mechanical influence, and it signals to all players what you like to see in play. Which they will try and satisfy because it will get them cards. Finally, when fan mail is spent it sometimes gives the Producer extra budget.
Take a moment to appreciate how awesome that is. All players are incentivized to pay attention to each other, to learn what they like, and to deliver on those tastes as often as possible. Just by participating in fan mail, your game will be better because it calibrates the tone and style of the game at the social level. And then it gives the Producer extra budget to make conflicts even more dramatic. It's a positive feedback loop of pure awesome and your game will just get cooler and cooler the more you feed it. The fan mail system in one of the most elegant, beautiful, and effective mechanics I have ever seen in a game.
There is one last thing, and it will seem small compared to fan mail and screen presence. At the end of each episode, all players get to describe a "next time on" vignette that the Producer and the other players are then obliged to incorporate in the next episode. It's small, but it gives each of the Protagonists a chance to directly author fiction outside of their character's actions.
The sum of these parts amounts to something rarely seen in games: consistency. I can't say that on many other games. Grey Ranks had more powerful moments, but Primetime Adventures has a higher batting average. It is all killer no filler, hardly a moment to spare, and leaves you with a sense of nostalgia for your show once the end credits roll. Our play of a short season (a better length than the long season, I think) took almost thirty hours of play, and not one could have been cut.
FIX IT IN POST
All of that said, there are still some things you ought to do if you want to have a great game.
First of all, the second edition is definitely not a one-shot, so I would just hunker down for a full season from the get go.
Second, it is important that all players are invested in the premise of the show (sometimes it's easier to find players for a premise than it is to find a premise for the players). This goes double for the Producer. Also, pick something focused and coherent, in which all Protagonists are actively involved in each other's lives. I tried doing a game with some far-flung Illuminati thing, and it didn't work at all. I mean at all. Later, in a small podunk town facing the inevitable end of human life it was no problem. This is essentially a character drama, so be sure you have that solid before you craft some high concept experimental show. There are other games for that.
Third, focus on what you see, exactly as if you were describing a tv show to somebody. Use every tv technique you've ever seen.
Finally, Producer, have a big conflict early. In the first scene of the episode if at all possible. You want to get some spent budget out there so they can let the fan mail fly as soon as possible.
Earlier I said that this game wasn't thematic, but the truth is that players will have to bring that with them. It is possible to explore a theme here, but the game won't insist that you do.
With all of that said, go check out their Kickstarter and think about it. Even if you only play one season, it will hardly run you a dollar per hour of play for you and your friends. This is one you cannot afford to miss! And oh, yeah, it funded in like twenty-four hours and is sitting at about 400% funded at the time of writing.
Years ago, I used to write game reviews for a now-defunct site called Robot Lasers. This was one of those reviews.
SMOKE ON THE HORIZON
I know it’s a month late, but, well, here we are.
Becoming is a game about heroism and sacrifice. It was recently kickstarted. I had my eye on it for quite a while, and jumped on it at the last minute.
To be perfectly honest, I thought it sounded cool, but I didn’t have terribly high hopes for it. I’m not sure what about it gave me that impression, looking back. But I can tell you that, even though I wasn’t head over heels from the Kickstarter, having played it a couple times, it is one of the best, tightest story games I have ever played. Seriously, Becoming is awesome, and it was one of the best games I’ve ran at Ready, Set, Game this year.
Becoming is well-suited to the one-shot. Experienced players and a ready facilitator could easily play it out in three hours or less.
So. One player plays the Hero, and the others play the Fates. Each of the Fates controls an element of adversity that they use to bring threats and trials to the Hero. All players are competing for the opportunity to narrate the end of the story, as determined by a scoring system based around how corrupted or not the Hero is at the end.
I really appreciate how unique this game actually is. I usually have lots of references to other games when I get into the nitty gritty of a game’s inner workings, but not so much with this one.
Through a progression of nine scenes, the Hero faces Threats laid out by the Fates. Though rolling the dice determine what happens in the story, the real victories and defeats come in the negotiating for the corruption of the Hero’s Assets. There is a lot of inner craftiness that can take place here - there is a domino effect that can result in a Fate scoring big if they do it just right.
During our play there was an interesting phenomenon near the end of the game: the Hero realized he wasn’t going to win, so he took big deals from the player of the Fate he would rather lose too, thus helping them score. We were playing the Exodus playset, and the Fate in questions was Duty (vs. Isolation and Paranoia). The Hero realized that this was their only way to influence the outcome. It was an interesting choice to me.
BLOOD ON THE ALTAR
I have two minor criticisms to offer, however. The special moves the fates get are unnecessary. They really don’t add anything to the game. I’ve played with and without them, and greatly preferred playing without them (doubly so when running it at a public meetup, and triply so if we weren’t using a playset). Just ditch ‘em, I say.
And, the playsets in the book are super well done, but I couldn’t recreate playsets of similar quality on my own with the advice in the book. I’d really like to have that strong advice, especially for choosing Fates. And for all the Greek-inspired artwork, there is no Odyssey-like playset. What gives? That is exactly what I want to play. I tried making one, but I didn’t have enough confidence to bring it to the RSG event.
In any case, Becoming is a simply fantastic game, easy to play, and offers a surprising amount of subtlety. Very highly recommended!
Years ago, I used to write game reviews for a now-defunct site called Robot Lasers. This was one of those reviews.
IN COMES THE WANDERING RONIN
Kagematsu is a game about romance and desperation set in feudal Japan. Kagematsu is a wandering ronin who comes upon a town which is threatened by someone or something as decided by the players. The women of this town attempt to win Kagematsu's love so that he will vanquish the threat and save the town. The most interesting thing about Kagematsu is not it’s subject matter, but rather the highly gendered lens through which that subject matter is viewed.
There isn’t much to say about the game’s mechanics, and there is a lot to say about the game’s process, so let’s get this out of the way. The mechanics are clear, coherent, and simple. They do exactly what they mean to and nothing more. Even the slightest glance at the meaning of their implementation shows thematic insight (such as Charm vs. Innocence – as you lose Innocence you gain Charm, which is a statement about gender and sexuality). Townswomen will attempt to win affection from Kagematsu through either their Innocence or their Charm by making an Affection Roll.If they fail, they can try and pressure Kagematsu by committing an act of Desperation. Following the scene Kagematsu will add either a point of Love or a point of Pity, at his discretion, to his overall impression of the Townswomen.
In addition to winning whatever act of affection the Townswoman was seeking, a successful Affection Roll will reduce the Townswoman's Fear, which may in turn make it more likely that Kagematsu will defeat the threat, should a confrontation take place.
The killer app of Kagematsu is that the text asks a woman player to take the role of Kagematsu and everybody else to take the role of a Townswoman. The Kagematsu Player is “Scene Manager” and has the first and final say on scene framing, but can also delegate a portion of scene framing ability to the other players if they choose. Kagematsu can even frame the Townswomen into scenes, saying what they are doing and where they are doing it. On the flip side, the Townswomen may never speak for Kagematsu. Even if the Kagematsu player allows a Townswoman Player to set the scene, it is still up to the Kagematsu to enter that scene how he will. Finally, my reading of the texts suggests that it is not in the spirit of the game for Townswomen Players to offer suggestions on scene ideas until the Kagematsu Player asks for their input.
However, the Townswomen decide which affection they are going for, which is resolved by a die roll. Which means that Kagematsu has no say over that – only how it comes to pass (if it does) and what he thinks of it after.
PLAYING WITHIN AND AGAINST CONSTRAINTS
There are a number of observations one can take from those data points.
First of all, it is a very gendered statement. Kagematsu has all the narrative power, and the Townswomen just have to fit it however they can. However, Kagematsu also has the responsibility to frame scenes. Let me tell you, Kagematsu is looking at framing probably forty to fifty scenes. Half that would be exhausting. Which means, that despite the asymmetry of power distribution between the genders here, it actually sucks - in one way or another - for everybody. This is a play critique of gender inequality and how, by performing this form of oppression as a culture (which we certainly do) we do harm to the whole of our culture.
Second, it is also interesting to note that for all of his narrative power, Kagematsu does not have control over his fate. It’s dice rolls all the way down for him, and his success or failures are blind to his input. He may color his actions, but ultimately he will be ushered through his destiny with no choice and no voice. Even the Townswomen get to choose whether or not they die, but not Kagematsu.
The Townswomen, however, ultimately succeed not based on the die rolls, but based on Kagematsu’s Love for them, which is completely independant of the Townswomen’s success at the die rolls (though Desperate actions may inspire more Pity than Love).
In fact, winning an Affection Roll has two mechanical effects, lowering Fear (which helps Kagematsu, not the Townswomen) and Acts of Desperation (which, if used to win a roll, are somewhat more likely to each Pity instead of Love for the Townswomen, and actually work against her), and neither directly help the Townswomen. The only way a success on a die roll helps a Townswoman is if the fiction described afterwards changes the tone of the scene so that the Kagematsu Player chooses Love over Pity. But, since Kagematsu gets to say how that transpires, Kagematsu would be leading the conversation in which he convinces himself that he loves this woman. So I am going to maintain that the outcome of die rolls has only a small effect on the overall success for a Townswoman.
Which means that the Townswoman finds her success in her fictional actions and the actual roleplay by the player. Which means that her actions in game do have a direct impact on her success. For not having any voice in other parts of the game process, the Townswomen have the only voice here! This “judgement mechanic” that weds the fiction to the eventual outcome is super slick. That it is also used in the inverse of the rest of the mechanics to complete this gendered statement is quite remarkable.
THE LEGEND IS PASSED DOWN
I have only one gripe about this game – for a one shot, it takes quite a while to play through to it’s natural conclusion. if you hunker down for a full play, expect six-ish hours. This is one of the rare cases where I think deliberately limiting play to four hours actually improved play. We effectively added a rule that at 9:25 Kagematsu abandons the town. This really encouraged the players to frame strong scenes and play right to the point. It was very tight and had more energy that the full “natural” play I was in a few nights later. It’s not exactly to the spirit of the game, but it did focus our play to a very beneficial end.
I would highly recommend this game. There is a reason Kagematsu has a legacy of influence in the story game world. This one is definitely staying in my bag as a go to game from here on out! As long as the players remain conscious of the deliberate division of player responsibilities then you are likely to have a wonderful game. This was quite possibly the best one-shot game I played in the last several years.
WELCOME TO THE UPRISING
A few days ago our Grey Ranks game came to a conclusion. Each of the last several chapters of play were brought on strong and deeper emotional reactions than the last. It was exhausting, cathartic, and changing.
Grey Ranks, by Jason Morningstar (who also wrote Fiasco), is a story game set in the Polish Uprising of 1944 in Warsaw. You will play a crew of the Grey Ranks. The Grey Ranks were teenagers not yet old enough to join the army. A game of Grey Ranks is played in ten chapters over three sessions. In this time your characters will undergo personal transformations and endure great hardships as the fight to repel the German occupation and save Warsaw. They will fail.
Grey Ranks is a GM-less game that passes responsibility for scene framing and conflict presentation around as play progresses. Though you cannot and should not prepare for a game of Grey Ranks, all players should read the game text and watch a few of the suggested movies. The mechanics are very light and simple and are only there to guide your play. Though this is a game set in World War II, you will not find tactical play of any kind here. This is about the personal lives of these child soldiers, and the tragedies large and small that befell them.
Grey Ranks is also an award-winning game, having won multiple awards in 2007, and most notably, the prestigious Diana Jones Award in 2008.
Grey Ranks is very deliberately a strong experience. Obviously, the setting contributes a lot to that, but the gameplay also steers the narrative in a way that highlights the features of the setting. I’d like to examine how Grey Ranks does this beyond just setting the game in a particularly tragic moment in history.
DEATH AND ROMANCE IN WARSAW '44
First of all, you can’t win this war. Warsaw is going to get demolished. You can’t change that. This story is not about winning or losing, it’s about how you cope with loss and the meaning of futile action. That’s a big pill to swallow on its own. But that’s just the beginning.
The core mechanic of the game revolves around moving on the Grid. The Grid monitors your character’s emotional state along two axes; Love - Hate, and Enthusiasm - Exhaustion. Each character begins the game in a different location. During a chapter, your character will move based on how they perform in their mission and personal scenes. The flow of the Grid tends to spin characters outward toward the corners. The corners signify Martyrdom, Nervous Breakdown, Derangement, and Suicidal Depression. The second time a character visits the same corner, they get written out of the game, be it through death or some other means.
As mentioned, in each chapter each character has one mission scene and one personal scene. However, since each character begins in a different spot, this means that each player will want to win or lose these scenes differently. And this is aside from whatever you want to see happen in the narrative.
This is the first instance of the strong theming in Grey Ranks. You can pretty much never have everything you want. In this case, you will often find your narrative desires for your character at odds with the mechanical stakes in regards to how the Grid is mapping out your demise. You can’t have both, and heartbreak will happen either way, so which is it going to be? Does this make it meaningless, or is there still purpose? This is your last cubic centimeter of freedom; what will you do with it?
But it doesn’t end there! Each chapter your character has two dice; one for each scene. But you get to choose which die goes to which scene. If you want your larger die for your personal scene then you will be left with your smaller die for your mission scene. Again, you can’t have everything, you must choose.
But even then, the dice for the mission get pooled and rolled together at the end of the chapter. So when you make decisions about dice, you aren’t just choosing for your own character’s fate, but for that of your whole squad. And then, you still may not get the desired outcome since everybody wants to move on the Grid differently.
And even then that’s not all! When you contribute a large die to the mission, you have to narrate failure on your mission scene (and visa versa for smaller dice). So, even a successful mission is rife with disaster.
These conflicted choices that are both good and bad layered throughout the design of the game are the key method Grey Ranks uses to create a strongly affecting tragic experience through play. When you make these choices you can’t do it simply based on winning or losing, because that’s unclear (and ultimately futile). You make those choices because you, the player, care about something because you find particular value in some detail of the situation. Or else you do it because you have to.
In these cases, the experience of making these choices is pushed onto the player’s personal values, who then has to make an active choice in the decision. Were these choices not conflicted, the player would be making a mere passive calculation for optimal result, and the spell would be broken.
I must admit now that I lied a little. Sometimes you can get everything you want… but only if you lose in some deeper more personal way. Each character has a Thing Held Dear, such as their faith, first love, or country. These are their core motivation for fighting, no matter the odds. These Things Held Dear can be Invoked, Threatened, or Destroyed in order to re-roll any single die rolled in a scene (if you want to lose) or replace a die with a d12 (the largest die in the game if you want to win). But here’s the catch. Only you can Invoke your Thing Held Dear, which grants you your trump die, if you will. But once you do, any player can Threaten or Destroy your Thing Held Dear, and they get the trump die. They might do that because they’re desperate, or because they don’t want to jeopardize their Thing Held Dear. Or perhaps for some narrative reason.
Your Thing Held Dear is your most vulnerable asset, and having it Destroyed is the worst thing that can happen to your character. Everybody knows this, and the decision to pull the trigger is in the hands of all players. This is crucial because everybody understands what it means. This is a very obvious point of empathy and sympathy for the character’s loss. The threat against your Thing Held Dear looms over you as it stares you down from the middle of your character sheet the whole game. And when it finally happens… well, the final chapters become so difficult that even when you get the d12 you still have only a one in four chance of success, but that's better than one in ten, or zero because the dice are just not large enough at the end. Near the end of the game, Things Held Dear are your only hope, and even then it probably won’t be enough.
This point of empathic contact is very significant, because this is a historical game, and as horrific as these circumstances were, they were the real lives of real people. The subject matter of the young lives within one of the greatest atrocities of modern history deserves to be treated with respect. Had this game been designed without the required emotional investment and the points of empathy I would wonder if these events were being used simply as a point of entertainment largely for people far removed from the reality of those events. Thankfully, Grey Ranks does treat the subject with the appropriate handling.
JOINING THE RESISTANCE
This summarizes the core of my Grey Ranks experience. It is a highly acclaimed game and is deserving of your time if any of this interests you. But if you do, here are five pieces of advice that we learned the hard way. I wish I had them at the beginning of our play.
When you are creating characters, read the criterion carefully. One quality they must possess in order to be a legal character is that they must be capable of hate. You will not be engaging with the subject matter if you are resisting it my disallowing your character to be pushed. This provides context for your character’s Reputations, which begin as immature traits that others see in them, but over time develop into a more mature expression. Mature does not mean good or positive, it means more conscious. These kids grow up very fast, after all.
The questions in personal scenes should be aimed at relationships. As in, changing them or developing them. The Grid handles your character’s inner state very thoroughly. While you’re at it, get to the romance often and early.
As a side note, my character’s strange hateful romance with another character was the most complex and real relationship I’ve ever witnessed in a story game before. Seriously, this game can do it, but you have to follow the rabbit down the hole.
Pursue your Grid-based objectives tenaciously, but do not collaborate with the other players. Let it be deliciously heartbreaking when it just barely doesn’t work out. Near the end of the game, or when one or more characters are close to being written out, it’s good to check-in and make sure everybody is okay with what’s transpiring on the Grid. It might be weird if a character gets written out before chapter six or so, and you may want to try to avoid that.
The advice for creating a mission is insufficient. When planning a mission, discuss as a group all of the interesting scenes you might play in that chapter, roughly in order. Things will go much more smoothly if you practice transparency in this department. You don’t have to know exactly whose scene will be in which order, but if everybody knows the outline then they will be able to time their personal scenes more effectively as well, and everything will be better for it.
Along those lines, a failure could mean “a costly success” or “a success with consequences” instead of “a failed or abandoned objective.” Sometimes you will need to make the objectives in order for the mission to remain coherent.
Check in with your fellow players often about how they feel about what is happening in the game. You will better understand how to involve the other players, and it will help clear the air if something particularly vivid happens in play. [Trigger warning: mention of animal abuse.] For example, early in our game some horses were slaughtered in the road to create an obstruction. This would end up being one of the most affecting scenes in the game, but it was only okay because we checked in first to ask if everybody was comfortable being pushed in that way. Remember, your characters are by definition capable of hate, and they are desperate and locked in a futile struggle. [End trigger warning.]
This is worth doing even if it means breaking the three session structure as prescribed by the text.
Though this is a serious game, I believe the experience is valuable I encourage you to try it. This was one of the highest payoff games I’ve ever played, and I have played many games. Gather some like-minded friends and brace yourselves, and give it everything you’ve got.
You can learn more about Grey Ranks here: http://www.bullypulpitgames.com/games/grey-ranks/.