The genesis of this blog came from an article that I wrote for See Page XX examining prevalence of sexist depictions of women in different areas of gaming. Before you read anything else here, you should really go read the article. (Yes it’s important enough to link twice.) If you find yourself wanting to argue with the article, please read this post here elucidating common arguments against my findings and clarifying some points regarding my criteria and methods.

My goal is to make this a place you can point people to regarding specific issues pertaining to sexism in gaming.

If this is your first time visiting my blog, welcome! If you don’t want to read chronologically, consider checking out this guide on how to use this blog. If you’re a feminist or ally looking for a specific post to use as a reference, then visit this guide here.

You say hello

I don’t tend to be someone who dwells on my achievements and accomplishments much. In fact, I have friends who like to troll me by telling me statements of fact about myself and watching me writhe in discomfort as I attempt to disclaim those facts. There’s also the issue that I prefer to avoid things that could be seen as gloating, because there are lots of people (dudes) out there who already think I’m “conceited” and “arrogant” enough without me adding fuel to the fire. But today marks the sixth anniversary of my very first post on Go Make Me a Sandwich, which is the sort of landmark that provokes a fair amount of introspection. And while I can deflect compliments with the best of them, it’s impossible to deny that this blog has made a difference, and that I have achieved a number of things through writing it that I will always be proud of.

In the six years since I started it, Go Make Me a Sandwich has amassed more than 2.3 million views. Since ending my hiatus in 2014 and restarting this blog as a Patreon-supported blog, I’ve gone from an initial 17 patrons to a current count of 105 patrons – which puts me in the top 4.7% of all creators on Patron (43,788 total creators at the time of writing this post, according to Graphtreon) by number of patrons. The things that I’ve written here have been read and promoted by a variety of industry thought leaders – publishers, activists, and critics.

The visibility gained through this blog has helped me accomplish a number of things outside of this blog that I’m even more proud of:

  • The things I’ve written here have affected how publishers approach art direction. I’ve worked directly with Paul and Shannon Riddle on improving art for Undying and am currently doing art direction for Katanas & Trenchcoats. I’ve also done consulting work for Wizards of the Coast regarding portrayals of women in D&D products. And those are just games that I’ve talked directly with the creators about.
  • The post that I wrote about my experience of sexual assault at GenCon led to me being able to connect with GenCon leadership, who subsequently implemented a harassment policy. I’ve also worked with Pelgrane Press and co-authored their 13th Age event harassment policy.
  • While I certainly can’t take credit for something that took years and the hard work of many to accomplish, I know that the posts that I’ve made here and the conversations that I pushed around diversity of GenCon’s Industry Insider lineup were part of the reason why GenCon was able to smash the old gender disparity of its Featured Presenters in such dramatic fashion this year.
  • My work here also enabled me to actually be an Industry Insider this year, where I sat on panels with game industry and culture luminaries like Wes Schneider, Katherine Cross, Ken Hite, and Nicole Lindroos.

All of that is great! And incredibly satisfying! But that stuff isn’t nearly important to me as the conversations I’ve had with women who have given me their sincere thanks while telling me heartbreaking stories about themselves and their experiences in the community. I struggle with imposter syndrome and lack of self-esteem, so in my lowest moments I have a tendency to dismiss my own work as angrily yelling my feelings at the internet – which is something that anyone can do. (I mean, just look at Twitter.) But that is doing myself a disservice, because there is something inherently radical about being a woman who expresses feelings about games openly and without apology. I know, because there are so many women who have told me that I have said things that they either didn’t have the ability to say, the courage to say, or the words to say it in. And that means more to me than all the rest, because those big quantifiable achievements feel remote and abstract, whereas the real human feeling behind these conversations I’ve had is something that feels “real” and important.


While it is undeniable that my blog has resulted in positive change in some parts of the games industry and community, that change has come at tremendous personal cost. First and foremost, it’s cost me my reputation; because of this blog, I will always be “controversial”. Go Make Me a Sandwich started as a personal project, something that I started as a hobby because I wanted to write about something that was a growing area of interest for me. By the time it took off, the damage was done; my Google Rank has inextricably tied my name to feminism forever, and that can be dangerous. It’s certainly translated into a level of difficulty in my meatspace life that I never anticipated before starting this blog.

Writing this blog has also taken a tremendous toll on my mental health. The backlash that I’ve faced because of what I do here has been terrifying. When the level of rhetoric being used against you is the same as what was sufficient to launch a hate movement against Zoe Quinn, that is incredibly unnerving. When there are men who seriously argue to their fans that I am a bigoted anti-gay lunatic, that I am literally destroying gaming, that I am an evil cancer on the games industry that no moral person should support… When professional artists sic their fans on me to get me to shut up and stop criticizing a thing that they like and I get 29,000 views in 24 hours from people desperate to tell me what an ignorant judgemental cunt I am… When someone hates me so much that they write 11,000 words in a single week about what a terrible person I am… It’s impossible not to look at women like Anita Sarkeesian and Brianna Wu and know that however bad what I’ve gone through feels, it has the potential to get a million times worse. And really, there are only so many times that you can read horrible things about yourself before it starts to take a toll – especially when the things people say are so detestable. The misogynist backlash I’ve gotten isn’t the only thing that caused my anxiety, but it was definitely a primary factor in me developing anxiety. Anxiety which I now get to keep, which will be with me for the rest of my life.

For those of you with no experience of anxiety, it would be impossible for me to convey to you how immense a cost that is. Anxiety is a hole I have spent two years climbing out of. It has damaged friendships, tested my marriage, and at times makes me too physically sick to function or take care of myself for weeks on end. I wrestle daily with wanting to get back to the person that I was before anxiety and knowing that person is gone forever. The genie is out of the bottle, and anxiety is my life now.

So the question becomes: how do I weigh the good that this blog has achieved in the face of everything that it has cost me? And increasingly, I’ve been feeling like the benefits that this blog achieves are not worth the costs, and I know that it shows in my work. When I first started writing Go Make Me a Sandwich, I wrote because it was a subject that I was passionate about – and my earliest work, while it reflects a lot of problematic ideas and lack of education around certain issues – reflects an energy and enthusiasm for the subject I haven’t felt for a long time. Over time, however, that passion was eroded in the face of misogynist hatred, and comedy became a tool that I used less and less, because it just got too hard to find the humor most of the time. When that happened, I still stuck with it, because I believed that my blog was important and because I was helping to make a difference. And when that stopped holding water as a reason to keep moving forward, I tried to hang on to my sense of obligation to my daughter – to make gaming a safe space for her to exist in and play games in – as a motivation to keep going.

But the reality is that I’m only one person. The years of sexist abuse for the simple crime of being a woman who has opinions about games have taken their toll, and for the past several months I have been wrestling with the dilemma: do I go or do I stay? Because much as I believe in what I do, I’m only one person, and my resources are finite.

Wrestling with all of this is why I recently observed on Twitter:

Real talk: the gaming community is misogynist. It grinds down women and spits them out. Especially women who do work as creators or critics. The backlash you get as a woman for daring to take up intellectual space is horrific. Inevitably, some women reach a point where they can’t take anymore and they quit and/or leave the community altogether. But it’s not a “loss” when a woman decides to leave. She is not obligated to sacrifice her health for the perceived greater good.

To which I received this incredibly cogent response:

And friends? That is some cold, hard, brutal, honest motherfucking TRUTH right there. And it is exactly why the idea of trying to keep up the good fight feels hopelessly futile. The known abusers? They’re all still here. They’ve harassed people out of the industry, or out of the community entirely – lots of people. Good people, whose voices I still miss keenly and whose absence is a blow to the state of game design. But the abusers are still here. Still lionized, still engaged with, still celebrated, still excused. If I had a dollar for every time I’ve heard apologists for my primary harasser begin a sentence in his defense with “he’s an asshole, but…” I certainly wouldn’t need to worry about pinching pennies quite as often as I do now.

There are SO. MANY. PEOPLE. Who know that the harassers and abusers are harassers and abusers and just don’t care. Because, you know, they do good work and it’s not a problem that affects them. You have to separate art from the artist and all that. Anything to justify the fact that they are actively rooting for the status quo, and the status quo is one that harms and traumatizes women and other marginalized people right out of gaming.

Or because they just don’t have a horse in the race. They don’t want to pick “sides” or get wrapped up in “another argument on the internet”, so they say nothing and their silence speaks for them. My internet is full of the silence of men who can’t be bothered to defend the targets of this kind of abuse. There are so many men in our community who know about the treatment I have received and who have never said anything publicly, not even once. In their ringing silence, I hear only indifference to my suffering and am reminded that I will always be seen as less because of my gender, and I will never be able to change that. And because of that, it will always be my responsibility to fight my own oppression.

There are also those who know about the abuse and choose to believe that the abusers aren’t the problem. The real problem is me: my feelings about my experiences of marginalization and harassment and how I express them. There are many in our community who think that it’s a bigger problem that I’m not nice about my feelings toward my abusers than it is that I’m being abused. So instead of holding the abusers accountable for their abuse, which is known and well-documented, they instead decide to publicly castigate me for committing the womanly sin of having feelings about a thing incorrectly.

All of that shit right there is why writing this blog feels like pissing into the wind. Because for the abusers, there are no negative consequences. They’re able to leverage the controversy generated by my existence into increased sales and awards, while for me the consequences are always negative. There is only ever a progressive, steady toll on my health, sanity, and relationships. I might succeed in changing things behind the scenes at a few gaming companies, or at affecting the lineup of speakers at a single convention, or seeing harassment policies implemented at a handful of conventions and events. But none of that does anything to change the daily lived reality of what it means to be a woman in games.

People have told me more times than I can count that I’m “brave” for writing this blog. I’m “brave” for being open about my feelings and experiences, and I’m “brave” for saying what I think without apologizing or minimizing in any way. And to them, I always say the same thing: I’m not brave! I’m stupid. Doing what I do is like beating my head against a brick wall on a daily basis. Every once in a while, I might knock a tiny chip off the wall, and people may applaud and say, “look! Progress!”. But ultimately, nothing I do is every going to seriously harm the wall, but it will seriously harm me if I keep at it long enough.

Worse than the abusers, the indifferent, and the apologists, however, is getting blindsided by people I trusted. People who I thought had my back, who told me that they wanted me to succeed and then threw me under the bus because it was politically expedient. I’m controversial, after all. And a self-admitted crazy person. And I’m not nice.

At least with the abusers, the indifferent, and the apologists, I know what to expect. After a while, it gets easy to prepare yourself emotionally to read what someone is going to write about you when you know what camp they fall into. “Oh okay, that’s just the abuser party line with a few new tweaks. No big.” Or, “oh look, silence from that whole corner of my internet again, despite everything going down right now. I see where their priorities are, but whatever.” Or, “oh sure, whatever you need to tell yourself to be okay with the fact that you’d rather support a known abuser than possibly maybe have to be uncomfortable or actually do something.”

But when you think you know where someone stands, you think that they wish you well and they unexpectedly side with your abusers… that pain is indescribable. And, unfortunately, not unique. It’s happened many times in the past, nor do I have any reason to believe that it wouldn’t also happen many times in the future.

All of which leads me to an inescapable conclusion: I can’t keep doing this. It is bad for me. I have to stop.

Before Origins, I ended up crying in a bathroom as I chatted with friends online about the vitriolic response to a thing that I’d written. It made me doubt myself so much that I actually wondered if it would be worthwhile going to Origins. Would I even be welcome there? (Spoiler alert: I was.) Fast forward two months to a different crisis before a different convention, which saw me crying for more than a week in the runup to that convention. Truth is, I’ve done a lot of crying about my blog in the past year. But I didn’t let myself think about that, because I had to keep moving forward. I had to keep putting one foot in front of the other. I had to keep my head above water and just. Keep. Fighting.

Or at least that’s how I was approaching things until several weeks ago, when the final straw happened. As is the way with such things, it was so small. Such a quiet thing those most community insiders, even, probably missed. Really, it doesn’t even matter what the event was. What matters is that it represented a tipping point – the moment in which I finally had to confront the fact that I haven’t felt passionate about what I do here for a long, long time. And for most of this year, I’ve felt only resentment. That this stupid blog has cost me so much, and I feel trapped by it. A victim of my own success – forever tarnished by my connection to it, and yet dependent on the income it provides, that I require because of the damage it’s done to my reputation. (See what a vicious cycle that is?) The final straw made me realize that I don’t want to do this anymore, and indeed, that I was rapidly approaching a point where I couldn’t do it anymore.

Of course, this is made harder by the fact that I hate losing. And there will be people who will celebrate, people who call this a victory, which only intensifies my feelings of defeat. My feelings of weakness. I feel like I’m giving up, and it kills me because I’m competitive! I’m contrary! Telling me not to do a thing is enough to make me want to do the thing. I don’t give up on things and I hate losing. But in this situation, I have to accept that there is no winning play. No win condition. I’m one person at war with an entire culture, and there just aren’t enough people who give a damn, and I’m not willing to continue sacrificing my health and well-being on the altar of moral obligation. If this fight is so important, then let someone else fight it for a while.

I hate feeling like I’m letting my patrons down. My patrons are wonderful, amazing, supportive, generous people, without whose support I never would have been able to accomplish half of what I’ve done here.

I hate feeling that I’m playing into a generational story of defeat. My mother was run out of STEM because of sexism, ruining a career as a brilliant research chemist. She has her name on 12 patents! And the fact that I couldn’t persevere makes me feel hopeless. How can I tell my daughter that she can achieve anything of meaning when I have only stories of defeat to offer her? How can I tell her that she can beat the odds when her mother and her grandmother are both strong women who have been ground down into silence?

MY WHOLE GODDAMN LIFE I’ve been told that I was “too much”. Too loud. Too opinionated. Too brash. Too arrogant. Too abrasive. Too bossy. My whole life, people have been trying to shove me into a box that I just don’t fit in, no matter how hard I try – the box of proper womanhood. This blog was my place where I could be ME. Unapologetically. Loudly. Defiantly! And walking away from that feels like walking away from part of myself.

It feels like climbing into the box voluntarily.

It feels like capitulation. Like surrender.

I’m sorry I couldn’t be stronger.

A short Q&A with Whitney “Strix” Beltrán, co-creator of Bluebeard’s Bride

Bluebeard’s Bride is a game that I have been following from a distance with a good deal of excitement. Co-designed by three awesome women, Bluebeard’s Bride is an amazing tabletop game of feminine horror, and is currently funding on KickStarter. I’m excited about the game and wanted to help boost visibility, so I was happy when Whitney let me ask her a few questions:

First of all, can you give an elevator pitch of Bluebeard’s Bride for those who haven’t been following the game in development?

The game is based on the originally grisly fairy tale of Bluebeard, which was meant to be an object lesson to women to obey their husbands. We’ve turned it on it’s head and made the game an exploration of feminine horror. We’ve taken back the story as our own. Gothic feminine horror is great genre and we think it’s about time tabletop got a piece of it.

In the game you explore themes of agency (or lack thereof), delicious, ephemeral horror, and scathing sacrifice while playing an aspect of the Bride with your fellow players. These aspects are like pieces of her mind, for instance; the Witch the Virgin, the Mother, the Animus. Maybe they all work together, but maybe they don’t. It’s up the players. Together as the Bride you are trying to figure out who Bluebeard really is, and if he loves you or is simply a danger to you. SPOILER: Yeah, he’s a super bad guy.

I find it really interesting that you can choose to believe in Bluebeard or not, but if you don’t the text presents that as a moral failing on your part – it reads to me as a reflection of the social pressures that women feel to stay with abusive men. Was that your intention?
It was definitely intentional. What society wants from you and the pressure it puts on you does not always align with what is actually good for you. We wanted to evoke that trapped feeling of having no good ways out.
This game is a game of feminine psychological horror that forces the players to play cooperatively, which is really interesting and unique in tabletop gaming. In light of that, can you talk about the genesis of the game and the design decisions that were made to reinforce those themes?
I’m one of three co-designers on Bluebeard’s Bride. The other two being Marissa Kelly and Sarah Richardson. This game originated out of a game jam for women two years ago. We wanted to tell the story of Bluebeard from the Bride’s point of view, from our point of view as women who live in a a sometimes untenable world. We wanted to encapsulate our own lived experiences authentically. That meant challenging the notion of agency that players often bring to the table. This is not a game that you can “win” by beating up the bad guys. Hurting them hurts you too, and it’s not a sustainable action. We baked our worldview and our experiences into the mechanics themselves. There aren’t any “just because” moves in Blueabeard’s Bride. We also made the game very transparent. You know how it’s going to end, and it’s not going to end well. We were purposeful in making this decision, and many others.
I’m very interested in games that de-center violence as a resolution mechanic, so I was very excited by how Bluebeard’s Bride handles the issue of violence. What are your thoughts on re-framing agency in ways that gamers aren’t used to, ways that – as you say – don’t make “beating up the bad guys” an automatic solution to any problem?
There’s lots of ways to play games. This is just one, but I think it’s an important one. When you can’t solve your problems through violence, what is your world like? That simple question opens up a whole bunch of experiences that you can have in a game that you wouldn’t get in the traditional “I stab it with my sword” ethos. For me, games are about explorations of experience, and it’s my goal to make all kinds of experiences more accessible, especial those that align with the lived experiences of minority groups. I’ve said a lot about this elsewhere. I’d suggest reading my article over at Tor, “Why Minority Settings in RPGs Matter.”
Bluebeard’s Bride is a game about critically examining female roles, and there is a lot of language in the text designed to put a presumed female reader in her place. What was the thinking behind that?
We’re making a point and setting the mood. We’re attenuating the players to how the game is going to treat them. We’re getting them in the right space. This is important There were so many times when we were drafting this that we would stop, and we would collectively feel squicked out, or we would go “ewwww,” and then we would grin maniacally and keep plugging away. We are inviting people into a space, and helping them be brave enough to occupy it.
What is it like being a game designer who is a woman of color, and how does that affect your approach to design? How has it affected your work on Bluebeard’s Bride specifically?
I think I’ve said this before, but I’ve written for a lot of other people’s games. This game was the first game that was mine. I wasn’t writing to any one else’s vision or bottom line, but my own and my co-creator’s. Our work is informed by who we are and how we see the world, and my approach was to be as authentic as possible. Honestly, I think it’s worked out. The small circle of indie gamers that I surround myself with have all been amazingly supportive, enthusiastic about the game, and willing to be our playtesters. In fact, we’ve immediately sold out of playtesting spots at all the cons we’ve brought this to.  I couldn’t ask for more than that. I’ve kept my Bluebeard work unplugged from whatever else was going on in the larger gaming scene. For me, Bluebeard is led by it’s own voice and spirit, and I’ve let that guide me above industry trends.
Have you found that groups with different gender compositions approach the game differently? For instance, would a group with all or mostly women tend to play differently than a group of all or mostly men?
I think some folks are intimidated by this game. They get nervous about “doing it right.” There are definitely ways where you could play this game in bad faith on purpose, and it would make me sad if I heard about people doing that. But if you trust us, the designers, to lead your experience you’re going to have a good time. As I said, it’s all there baked into the rules and moves. Some of the most excellent experiences I’ve had with this game has been when men were running it and playing it. That being said, I do see some typical reactions. Keep in mind that I’m painting in very broad strokes here. Women often feel jazzed. They feel validated, some sense of catharsis, or like, SEE, do you see this? This is real. They have a thing to point to that maybe they didn’t before, to give shape and context to things that were undefined for them. Women will also feel more comfortable with more extreme content. Men will sometimes feel a little more overwhelmed. They’re not used to feeling so hemmed in and aggressed upon without being able to take effective action to stop it. They’ve also been some of the most moved. The bottom line though is that the game is very, very fun if you like horror, no matter where you’re approaching it from with your own lived experiences.
Thanks to Whitney for her time, and if you want to learn more, you can check out the Kickstarter here.

Curse of Strahd continued, problems with gender and mental illness [CW]

In my last post, I took a look at the troublingly racist depictions of the Vistani (who are crypto-Romani) and “mongrelfolk” in the iconic Ravenloft D&D adventure Curse of Strahd that was republished for D&D 5th Edition. Today, I’ll be looking at the other half of my analysis – which focuses on troubling things around gender, “edginess”, and depictions of mental illness.

(Before I get started, it is important to note that there is a content warning for discussion of violence against women and children, as well as ableist portrayals of mental illness.)

The one thing they got right: the core scenario and strahd’s entitlement issues

The heart of the Curse of Strahd scenario revolves around Strahd’s origins and the role that his “tragic love” for a woman named Tatyana played in his bargain with the Dark Powers that doomed Barovia and turned him into a vampire. Before Strahd’s transformation, he fell in love with Tatyana, but she loved his much younger brother Sergei. So Strahd did what any insanely jealous man would do, he murdered Sergei on their wedding day, drank Sergei’s blood, then chased after the grieving Tatyana until she threw herself to her death from the castle walls. (Like, literally chased her, not just “tried to romantically pursue her interest”.)

It was subsequent to this that Strahd was killed and rose again as a vampire, as a fulfilment of his bargain with the Dark Powers. This is also when Barovia became its own isolated demiplane of existence – in which all souls were trapped and could not move on to any sort of afterlife – which means that Tatyana’s soul was eventually reborn into a woman named Marina (who looked just like Tatyana). Strahd pursued Marina, but she was killed by another man. And now, in the “present day”, Tatyana’s soul has been reborn again into a woman named Ireena (who also looks just like Tatyana). Strahd, being the monster that he is, reasons that because Tatyana should have been his, Ireena actually belongs to him because he is entitled to her soul in any incarnation.

…which is fucked up, for obvious reasons.

And here’s the thing. It would have been easy for that to be incredibly problematic in presentation. But the scenario presents this motivation as one of the key features of Strahd’s monstrous inhumanity. Strahd’s obsession with Ireena and inability to let go of his “love” for Tatyana – who never wanted to be with him – are only ever presented as things that make him monstrous. In the scenario, Ireena is an NPC who can end up traveling with the party, and it is obvious from the beginning that if she is traveling with you, you are to help keep her free of Strahd’s influence. Which is great! It was great to see Strahd called out in the introduction as an abuser, and to see that consistently depicted in the scenario itself. Ireena represents a trope common to gothic literature that is cleverly subverted – she gets to be Mina Harker without being reduced to a human McGuffin.

Which is why the disastrous execution on the stuff that follows was so disappointing. And it also highlights why I’m being so hard on other things in the book, like the depictions of the Vistani and the mongrelfolk. There is a difference between critical examination or subversion of a harmful trope and mindless replication thereof. Strahd’s obsession with Ireena is the former, while everything else I talk about in this post (and the previous post) is the latter.

Problem #1: Strahd as vampire and his “brides” as spawn

The original Curse of Strahd module has been pretty influential on subsequent editions of D&D. For instance, in the 5E Monster Manual, the entries for “vampire” and “vampire spawn” are obviously inspired by Strahd and his “brides”. So rather than re-explain things I’ve written about previously, I’ll start by quoting myself:

This art is taken from the 5E Monster Manual, NOT Curse of Strahd
  • The man is depicted as an aspirational monster – a monster a PC might want to become, while the woman is crazy and clearly can’t be reasoned with – the sort of monster you don’t want to become
  • The man is depicted as reasoned and intelligent while the woman is shown as bestial and insane (bitches be crazy, amirite?)
  • “He’s talking to you, she’s stalking towards you. Also note the exaggerated hip/shoulder twist, is she doing a runway strut?”
  • The man is a person. The woman is not.
  • They reinforce social power dynamics; the man is a human-looking noble, the woman is a ragged, filthy-looking peasant
  • The woman is “spawn”, and is depicted as clearly inferior to the “original”
  • Given that the “spawn” is unreasoning and feral, the woman is clearly subject to the control of the master
  • Which makes it pretty fucking gross how sexualized the woman is; if she is feral and unreasoning and subject to the whims of her “master”, the degree of sexualization also implies some pretty rapey stuff about how her “master” could use her for sex
  • Especially because when you think about the process for becoming a vampire spawn in the first place, obvious rape metaphor is obvious
  • And there’s definitely a subtext that this is what happens to women who have sex, because she couldn’t resist his sexual advances and now she is damaged goods

(Many thanks to Laura Hamilton, Paul Czege, Joanna Piancastelli, Andrew Medeiros, Mikael Andersson, Arlene Medder, Sean Nittner, Brianna Sheldon, Brand Robins, Steve Dempsey, John Stavropoulos, Josh T Jordan, and Chris Chinn for helping me [make this list].)

Now it’s important to note that the depiction of the vampire spawn in Curse of Strahd is sliiightly better, but not much. The spawn in CoS aren’t depicted as being bestial as the example from the 5E Monster Manual. Instead, the female vampire spawn are all depicted as being very elegantly dressed and regal in bearing – if still monstrous in nature and completely subservient to Strahd. However, this is because they are all Strahd’s “brides”, whom he marries, turns into vampire spawn, and them locks them into crypts beneath his castle. So. That’s not great.

It’s also important to note that not all of the vampire spawn in Curse of Strahd are women – although the ultimate fates of those Strahd turns into vampire spawn seem to depend entirely on gender. Escher is a male vampire spawn created by Strahd who is free to roam about Strahd’s castle. The other male spawn named in the book is Doru; Doru ends up locked in a church basement, but it’s his father (a priest) who imprisons him, not Strahd – which, again, implies a degree of freedom to Doru’s movement that Strahd’s “brides” certainly did not enjoy.

Unfortunately, while Curse of Strahd portrays Strahd’s belief that Tatyana’s very soul belongs to him as being monstrous, the “brides” of Strahd are not depicted as centerpieces in Strahd’s depravity. They are relegated to one or two paragraphs provided for tragic color, and their transformation and confinement isn’t examined critically, which is unfortunate.

Problem #2: using murdered children to make the scenario grimdark and “edgy”

While it’s not ever said that Curse of Strahd is attempting to be “edgy”, the sheer number of murdered children in the book argues for at least a semi-conscious attempt to go for shock value – and that sucks. It sucks because fridging women and kids for the sake of cheap shock value is gross, and because things that are “edgy” or done for “shock value” are almost always done in ways that happen to reinforce the patriarchal status quo, as I recently had occasion to gripe on Twitter:

The other reason it sucks is because it’s just plain lazy writing. And it’s especially lazy writing when that same “shocker” is returned to over, and over, and over again – as it is in Curse of Strahd.

There are a number of children whose murders you can prevent:

  • Arabelle (7) – the kidnapped Vistani daughter of Luvash, is murdered by Bluto – a drunk villager who believes that killing a Vistani will make him lucky – unless the party stops it. However, this is pretty hard to prevent as Arabelle is tossed into a lake while in a burlap sack – the text says that she can’t be seen while in the boat, and there is a DC Strength check of 15 to rescue her in time once she’s been thrown in – which will be pretty hard for most adventurers to pass if they’re wearing armor. If you fail, she’s dead.
  • Morgantha, a night hag disguised as a witch, takes Lucian Jarov as payment for her dream pastries (more on that in a second) unless the party intervenes. The party can stop her, but unless the party kills her it says that she’ll just come back for him later.
  • Morgantha and her two daughters, also night hags, have two captive children in cages that they are fattening up to eat – Freek (7) and Myrtle (5). You can free them, but once you do they’re effectively orphans, since it was their parents who sold them to the night hags in the first place.
  • The Barovian werewolves have a number of children that they keep penned up, waiting for gruesome battles to the death – after which the “winner” is bitten. You can set them free or not.

There are also a number of children whose murders just happen as part of the background color of the setting:

  • Kiril, the leader of the Barovian werewolves, has been making children fight these duels for a long time, and the “winners” are traumatized as a result (obviously). There is a child transformed this way named Kellen that is specifically mentioned.
  • Rudolph Van Richten – the famous vampire hunter – has his son Erasmus stolen by Vistani and delivered to Strahd, who transforms Erasmus into a vampire spawn. Van Richten “saves” his son by murdering him. It’s not explicitly stated that Erasmus is a child when this happens, but it’s strongly implied.
  • Morgantha and the night hags require “bones of the innocent” in order to make their dream pastries, and they require the bones of children who have souls. (Because of the whole “souls can’t go to the afterlife” thing, a lot of people in Barovia are born without souls because… reasons?) They test children by poking them with needles to see if they cry (children without souls don’t cry), then get their parents hooked on dream pastries to the point that they’re willing to sell their kids for more dream pastries. Morgantha and her daughters also eat the children before using their bones.
  • The optional level 1-3 module at the end of the book – Death House – has two child NPCs named Rose and Thorn, who plead with the party to destroy the monster that lives in their basement. Only it turns out that Rose and Thorn are actually ghosts! Their parents were evil cultists who locked them in the attic and “forgot about them”, so they starved to death. The adventurers find their skeletons still in the attic of the house – despite the fact that Rose and Thorn also have crypts in the family cemetery. (Which is sort of baffling, but whatever.)

And. You know. I’m not saying that no one should ever write content about the death of children. It happens, and it’s hard and traumatic and awful. But trivializing it to the point of “murdered children in indeterminate numbers as setting wallpaper” in multiple instances is just really gross.

Problem #3: so. many. murdered. women.

I’m not going to go into why fridging female characters sucks. That’s pretty 101-level territory, not to mention that I couldn’t ever do a better job of explaining it than Anita Sarkeesian already has. So we’re going to take that as a given and proceed from there.

There are seriously so many women who meet violent ends at the hands of men that it’s a little bit sickening:

  • Tatyana, the object of Strahd’s desire and the reason he murdered his brother. Technically she kills herself, but only because Strahd won’t stop pursuing her – and one has to question what he was going to do with her once he caught her. The implications of that smell pretty rapey to me.
  • Varushka, a maid in Castle Ravenloft, took her own life after Strahd began feeding on her because she didn’t want to be made into a vampire spawn. Again, I’m pinning responsibility on Strahd, since he forced himself on her. And again, the situation is pretty rapey.
  • Marya is a woman who is murdered by a noble named Endorovich by accident; bitter that she had chosen another man over him, he tried to poison her lover and poisoned her instead. Endorovich gets a crypt in Castle Ravenloft, but it’s not said what became of Marya’s remains.
  • Petrina Velinkova was a dusk elf wizard who wanted to marry Strahd so that she could increase her own power. Her people got wind of her plans and her brother and the rest of the dusk elves murdered her to keep her from being corrupted by Strahd.
  • In response to Petrina’s murder, Strahd subsequently murders all of the female dusk elves in Barovia so that they can’t reproduce and will eventually die out. Because, you know, genocide is totes okay, as is reducing women to their reproductive capacity. (uggghhh)
  • Marina – the second incarnation of Tatyana – is seduced by Strahd, then murdered by her family to keep her from being turned into a vampire spawn.
  • The nursemaid in Death House (who is never named) was having an affair with the murderous, child-neglecting master of the house when she got pregnant with his child. Despite that he cared so little for his own children that he let them starve to death in the attic and never retrieved the bodies, he was so incensed when she miscarried his child that he and the rest of the cult all stabbed her to death.
  • Lastly, the Abbot at the Monastery of Saint Markovia is a corrupted deva who has embarked on making a flesh golem bride for Strahd, whom he names Vasilka and is giving comportment lessons when the adventurers encounter her. Elsewhere in the abbey, you can find a collection of dismembered female body parts – discards from the process of making Vasilka. It’s not explicitly stated that women were murdered for the pieces, but it’s strongly implied.

Jesus. That is a lot of murdered women, and all of them murdered by men because of male entitlement. Especially distressing are the women murdered by loved ones because of being “contaminated” by Strahd – Petrina, Varushka, and Marina. Because the obvious rape metaphor of Strahd feeding on lovely young women is obvious, the implication is that once a woman has been raped, sorry, “corrupted” by Strahd, she is damaged goods and is of no further use to anyone. And that is some seriously damaging victim-blamey shit.

Problem #4: depictions of “madness” and what happens to people labeled as crazy

Lastly, we have the issue of how madness is depicted and what happens to people labeled as crazy. Largely, people who are “mad” are locked up for the protection of others, and are never let loose again. The Monastery of Saint Markovia is now home to hundreds of mongrelfolk, all of whom are said to be mad. They have been imprisoned in the Monastery in order to “contain their madness”, and the conditions that they are kept in are horrifying.

The descriptions of the rooms read straight out of the worst stereotypes of the Bedlam mental hospital. Worse, in the courtyard there are nine sheds, and in each there is a “howling or mewling” mongrelfolk who is chained in filthy conditions. And the mongrelfolk are not fed on a regular schedule, which leads to a perpetual state of panic over food and starvation.

The worst part of all of this is that there is never any serious discussion given to what would happen if you were to free the mongrelfolk from their tormenters. The text says in multiple places that the mongrelfolk are irredeemably mad, and just sort of takes it as given that of course you’d just leave them there. I mean, they describe it as “a madhouse overrun by wickedness”, so even though the only wickedness described is the Abbot’s, I mean, just lock them up and throw away the key, right? Even outside of the Monastery, there is a theme of “person goes mad so they are locked up” running through the book, which – as someone who has been told that I should be involuntarily committed for daring to have opinions while mentally ill on the internet is just seriously offensive.

Additionally, nowhere does it ever detail what happens if you let them go free, but it does detail what will happen if you attempt to take toys or other obvious objects of comfort from certain NPCs. Which. Come on. Jesus.

There’s also a serious issue with who the label of “mad” gets applied to, at least for human NPCs, and what happens to them – because it is very gendered and not okay:

  • The Abbot – a deva who has been twisted by Strahd and the Dark Powers into twisted and depraved actions – isn’t “mad”. He’s been “corrupted”. You know, despite thinking it would be a totes great idea to make a flesh golem bride for an evil vampire wizard and then give it comportment lessons, because what’s most important in that situation is proper feminine behavior.
  • Stella Wachter, the daughter of Lady Wachter, goes “mad” after Victor Vallakovich – whom Lady Wachter wanted Stella to marry – was mean to her: ” In fact, he spoke such unkind words to Stella that she went mad, and Fiona had to lock her daughter away” (page 110). Which. …really? She’s so fragile that a boy being mean to her is enough to make her go “mad”? So of course, because she’s a woman and FEMALE MADNESS IS A THREAT TO EVERYONE, she gets locked up, obvs. Never mind the fact that her “madness” is that she thinks she’s a “kitty” – BETTER LOCK THAT BITCH UP SO SHE DOESN’T SHED ON SOMEONE.
  • Victor Vallakovich, on the other hand… When he’s not being so mean to young heiresses that he breaks their hold on reality and makes them think they’re felines, has been teaching himself magic from an old spellbook. Currently, he’s trying to build a teleportation circle that will allow him to leave Barovia, but so far he’s just screwed it up – as he discovered when he tested it on some servants. He’s disintegrated two servants already, but, you know, DISINTEGRATING PEOPLE and not showing any remorse isn’t at all crazy so let’s just not say anything and let him roam around free. What could possibly go wrong?
  • You know who else isn’t crazy? Baron Vallakovich, who has decided that being happy is the key to getting rid of Strahd and has been throwing mandatory festivals every week for the past several years. He’s started locking up malcontents, or even people who just aren’t happy enough, but that’s totes normal behavior right? Not at all insane, nope.

So when men are crazy, no one calls them crazy – they’re just allowed to roam free and do whatever. Chop up women for flesh golem parts, disintegrate servants, imprison people for not being happy. Whatever! It’s all good. But women who go crazy? Even inoffensively crazy in ways that don’t harm themselves or others? Well shit, LOCK THAT BITCH UP.

…and, look. Calling women crazy has been the number one way of dismissing women for millennia. It’s literally where the word hysteria comes from, because the ancient Greeks believed that the sheer act of having a uterus is enough to make you crazy, and that crazy belief has pretty much stuck with us for a couple thousand years. (And yes, not all woman have uteruses – I’m simply referencing the origin of the stereotype here.) So all of this is a nice little gender cherry on an ableist shit sundae.

Am I saying no one should play Curse of Strahd? No.

One of the things that got me to look into this again was the fact that a friend asked me about how feasible it would be to adapt CoS so that it didn’t have all the horrifying anti-Roma bits. And for all that I think there’s a lot of replication of terrible stereotypes, a modicum of preparation by a reasonably skilled GM would be sufficient to overcome this book’s shortcomings.

For example:

What would happen if the PCs decided to free the mongrelfolk from captivity? How could you encourage the party to act humanely in that situation?

What would happen if you switched the gender of certain characters to subvert particularly awful tropes? What if Strahd’s spawn were equally men and women, and you made it more about him needing to derive nourishment from ensouled people than just an obvious rape metaphor with Strahd dominating a large number of pretty young women?

How could you change the Vistani to make them not offensive crypto-Romani caricatures? Could you remove them altogether?

A savvy GM could map out the bits of the module they want to use, then modify appropriately to preserve the flavor of the setting – which is very evocative! – while still delivering a story not rife with unsettlingly problematic stereotypes.

Curse of Strahd: correctly labels Strahd an abuser, yet troublingly racist

Several months ago, I got an email from a reader – Daniel – who asked me if I would be willing to take a look at the republished Curse of Strahd for D&D 5th Edition, because he was concerned about how Curse of Strahd depicted the Vistani – who are a thinly veiled analog of the Romani people.

Daniel’s concerns were namely that:

  1. The Vistani were depicted according to current and historical negative stereotypes about the Roma people. They are shown as drunks and thieves, charlatans and cheats, and child stealers.
  2. The Vistani are depicted as having fortune-telling ability and can cast curses and the evil eye.
  3. With one exception, all of the Vistani characters in the book are either neutral or evil, while many (though certainly not all) of the non-Vistani villagers in the book are either good or lawful good. Furthermore, a large proportion of them have the keyword “bandit” as their creature type.
  4. As the Roma are one of the most abused and persecuted minorities in Europe, a perpetuation of such stereotypes might still be harmful.

Those all sounded like really compelling reasons to want to look at Curse of Strahd – especially since something that I have always felt very strongly about is the fact that mindless replication of harmful stereotypes is in itself harmful. Unfortunately, between one thing and another, I ended up flagging Daniel’s email as something to look into, and then didn’t get around to actually getting my hands on a copy until a few weeks ago.

Originally, I was just going to scan through for mentions of the Vistani. But things kept catching my eye and making me go, “really?” – to the point that I ended up reading through the book twice and taking notes. And. Man. It turns out that I had so much material it will have to be split into two posts. Because despite the fact that the foreword was actually quite encouraging in that it called out Strahd, and the historical person of Lord Byron – whom characters like Dracula and Strahd are heavily modeled on, are nothing more than serial abusers, Curse of Strahd is incredibly problematic when it comes to gender and mental illness. Additionally, its problems with racism go deeper than just the Vistani.

So! Since the Vistani and concern over racist tropes is what got me started looking into Curse of Strahd in the first place, I’ll handle that today and come back to gender and mental illness next time.

Before I go any further: an important note

It’s important to note that the Romani, or Roma, are often commonly referred to as “gypsies”. However, the term “gypsy” is an ethnic slur, and as such I have taken pains to use Romani or Roma when referring to real actual people – past or present, or Vistani – when referring to fictional characters in Curse of Strahd.

That said, there are a few places where I will reference supporting material that uses the term “gypsy”. This is for two reasons:

“gypsies” are a common literary trope in Gothic fiction (and British literature as a whole) and

It’s impossible to talk about the visual stereotyping of fictionalized Romani/Vistani characters without linking to material that uses the word “gypsy”, because the stereotypical “gypsy” costume is a fictional construct that doesn’t actually exist. Linking to resources that depict traditional dress of Roma people would be misleading, because traditional Roma dress does not look like the stereotypical “gypsy” costume. So I want to make very clear that I don’t in any way endorse the use of the word “gypsy”, or its commonly used derivative “gypped”. (Yes, saying you got “gypped” is racist.)

End note.

Problem the first: the Vistani

The first dodge that will inevitably be used to claim that the Vistani are not problematic is the fact that they’ve been renamed. However, this argument is cheap sophistry, because any person who reads through the material will recognize the Vistani as being Romani.

First, the descriptions of their clothing and the artwork in the book depict the Vistani in stereotypical “gypsy costume”:


And no, this piece isn’t an isolated example. Compare the Google Image search results for “gypsy” and for Vistani, and you’ll see what I’m talking about. Everything about how the Vistani are depicted in artwork heavily references stereotypical depictions of “gypsies”. Further, if the authors of the book didn’t want the Vistani to be read as being Romani, they shouldn’t have used an actual Romani word to refer to the Vistani wagons. Vistani wagons are called vardos, which is the real life Roma word for traditional Romani wagons. Additionally, descriptions of the Vistani vardos adhere closely to the real-life Romani vardos.

In other words, if it walks like a duck and quacks like a duck, it’s a duck. Any reasonable person would recognize the people being referenced by the fictional Vistani as Romani. WHICH IS A PROBLEM, given that the Vistani in Curse of Strahd adhere closely to just about every negative stereotype ever used to persecute actual Romani people. Such as:

The Vistani are criminals who menace good honest society:

  • Adventure hook – Mysterious Visitors, p19-20: “[the duchess] voices her concern about a band of wayward travelers camped outside the town’s walls. They seemed harmless at first, but Morwen has received reports that they have begun harassing townsfolk and other visitors as they come and go, demanding money and wine, and threatening to put hexes on anyone who doesn’t pay up
  • Random wilderness encounter – Vistani bandits, p32: These evil Vistani march through the Barovian wilderness … they are searching for graves to plunder or hunting small game.”
  • Vallaki Lore – p96: “There’s a Vistani camp in the woods soutwest of the town. The Vistani there aren’t very friendly. Vistani aren’t welcome in Vallaki.”
  • Lady Wachter’s Wish, p124: Lady Wachter has a letter delivered to the Vistani camp “that asks the Vistani to dispose of the characters once they have left town. The Vistani burn the letter after reading it, as per Lady Wachter’s request”.
  • The keywords used for Vistani NPCs are almost universally villainous keywords. There is one mage, one group of commoners, the chaotic neutral fortune teller Madam Eva, and Ezmerelda D’Avenir – who is a chaotic good vampire hunter. Aside from those exceptions, all Vistani are either assassins, bandits, bandit captains, or thugs.

The Vistani are all drunks:

  • Random wilderness encounter – Vistani bandits, p32: “These evil Vistani march through the Barovian wilderness without much concern for their well-being, smoking pipes, drinking from wine skins, and telling ghost stories.”
  • Tser Pool Encampment, p36: “Twelve Vistani … are standing and sitting around the fire, telling stories and guzzling wine. They are intoxicated and have disadvantage on attack rolls and ability checks.”
  • Vistani Camp, p119: “Even at this distance, you can smell the odors of wine and horses that emanate from this central area.”
  • Vistani Camp, p119: “the Vistani have exhausted their supply of wine and are eager to obtain more”
  • Vistani Tent, p121: “Luvash is so drunk that he has disadvantage on his attack rolls and ability checks … in addition to Luvash … there are six intoxicated Vistani … lying unconscious in the tent.”
  • Vistani Tent, p122: “Luvash is unhappy because his seven-year-old daughter, Arabelle, has vanished. She’s been gone for a little more than a day. Because everyone in the camp was drunk and Arrigal was away, no one remembers hearing or seeing anything strange.”
  • Vistani Tent, p122: “he agrees to do business with them if they accomplish one of two tasks: either find his missing daughter, or procure six barrels of wine and bring them to the camp”
  • Luvash’s Wagon, p122: “Luvash’s wagon is a mess inside. Empty wineskins, dirty clothes, and mangy furs are strewn about.”
  • Wagon of Sleeping Vistani, p122: “Each of these wagons contains 1d4 intoxicated and unconscious Vistani”

What’s notable here is that the Vistani are such drunken degenerates, that a little girl went missing from their camp for AN ENTIRE DAY and nobody noticed because they were too drunk. And when you treat with her father, Luvash, you can gain his trust either by bringing back his daughter, or by bringing him SIX MORE BARRELS OF WINE. You know, because one is as good as the other to a no good drunken Vistani, right?

The Vistani are untrustworthy liars:

  • Adventure hook – Plea for Help, p19: “The letter, which seems to have been written by the buromaster, was actually penned by Strahd. … The letter is bait to lure the adventurers to Barovia.”
  • The Vistani lie about their allegiance to Strahd: page 19, page 27
  • The Vistani lie about having potions that will allow characters to travel safely through the mists: page 19, page 27, page 122

The Vistani steal children

  • Rudolph Van Richten’s son, Erasmus, was stolen from him by Vistani, who sold him to Strahd: page 230, page 238

(There’s only one instance of this in the text, but given that this is one of the most serious and pernicious stereotypes against modern Roma it’s worth calling out as a distinct stereotype.)

The Vistani are cheats, gamblers, and thieves:

  • Strahd’s Vistani Servants, p27: “They readily tell adventurers that they have a potion that protects them from the deadly fog that surrounds Barovia. Although this is a lie, they attempt to sell their fake potion for as much money as they can get.”
  • Vistani Tent, p122: “For a hefty price, he offers to sell the characters potions that allow safe passage through the deadly fog … The potions don’t work, of course.”
  • Wagon of Gambling Vistani, p123: “the Vistani are playing a dice game for wine and favors, since they have no money”
  • Tower, Fourth Floor, p171: “…a human Vistana named Yan. … Yan reveals that he was banished from his clan for stealing.”

The Vistani have mystical powers to lay curses, tell fortunes, and use the evil eye

  • There are literal actual mechanics for cursing and the evil eye on page 28
  • Madam Eva, the Vistani fortune teller, whose fortunes come true: page 21, page 37, page 44, page 233-234

And. You know. So what? Who cares? This is just a roleplaying game, right?

EXCEPT. 250,000 Roma people were executed during the Holocaust because of racist views about the Roma. Today, Neo-Nazis harass Roma people here in Canada, partly because Canada has been accepting larger numbers of Hungarian Roma refugees and asylum-seekers as anti-Roma persecution in Hungary continues to escalate. Also, French authorities removed a five-year old blonde girl from the care of her Romani caregivers – who were raising the girl with the permission of her Bulgarian birth mother – because she “didn’t look Roma”; despite proof that the girl hadn’t been abducted, she will NOT go back to her adoptive Romani parents.

When the stereotypes of Roma people as murderous criminals, child-stealers, no-good gamblers and drunks, and a general menace to good and honest society are the reason why European Romani face tremendous persecution and violence, mindlessly replicating those stereotypes is just gross and irresponsible.

Problem the second: Miscegenation!

(Miscegenation is an ugly term referring to “the mixing of the races” through breeding.)

In Chapter 8, which details the village of Krezk, one of the key locations is the Abbey of Saint Markovia – which has become an insane asylum for mongrelfolk – humanoid creatures with random animal features who are all incurably insane.


Which. Okay, we’ll skip over the grossness of “lock up the mentally ill and throw away the key” until next time and just focus on the mongrelfolk for now, starting with the name. Because “mongrel”? Is a racial slur meaning someone with a mixed-race background, with a pretty disgusting history:

“…in the ugly history of racism, “mongrel” has been used to demean couples of different ethnicities and children of mixed race.

This last sense of mongrel invokes another nasty word, miscegenation, which is a derogatory term for couples of mixed race who marry and have kids. In many states anti-miscegenation laws made it a crime for two people of different races to have a relationship or engage in intimate activities. The Supreme Court found these laws to be unconstitutional in 1967.” —source:

You have a literal mixed race with random animal traits, which are referred to as deformities. Most mongrelfolk can’t speak Common, or they speak fragmented Common “mixed with various animal cries and nonsense”, and “aren’t sophisticated enough” to use the animal sounds they produce as communication. And where it gets extra gross, almost all children of a mixed mongrelfolk/human union will be mongrelfolk: “about one child in every hundred is born looking like its non-mongrelfolk parent”.

So why is all of that so terrible? Let’s break it down.

First: the mongrelfolk are inherently inferior subspecies of humanoid. Their nature as a mixed race adheres to the historical panic over miscegenation, which stems from the idea that the superior humans are those who are racially pure. (And, you know, white.) The fact that they are called “mongrels” is what ties the backstory of the mongrelfolk to deeply ugly historical anti-Black racism in the United States.

Second: The fact that mongrelfolk can’t speak Common intelligibly and lack sense enough to use the sounds they can make as communication with one another is mirrored by deeply racist anti-Black stereotypes about the intellectual inferiority of Black people. These stereotypes were used to justify the existence of slavery in the United States (and elsewhere) prior to the Civil War. More important, these stereotypes still persist today. No less a personage than James Watson (of Watson and Crick fame, who stole Rosalind Franklin’s data and with it the Nobel prize she should have won for discovering the structure of DNA) said in 2007 that Africans are less intelligent than Westerners.

Third: the fact that 99% of babies born to mongrelfolk/human couples are mongrelfolk has a historical analog in the One Drop Rule, which held that only one Black ancestor, no matter how far back in your family tree, was required to make someone Black. This rule was made into law across the American South during Reconstruction and Jim Crow, and was part of the DNA of Jim Crow Segregation laws. This by itself might not be so bad, but together with the previously mentioned mirrors to anti-Black racist stereotypes might just make the mongrelfolk the most racist thing I have ever seen in a roleplaying game. (It’s hard to say – I’ve been doing this for several years and there are a lot of examples to choose from.)

So. You know. Slow clap?

And that’s about enough for today.

Next time I’ll tackle CoS’s problems with gender, mental illness, and use of “edgy” tropes.

I don’t have sympathy for 101-level questions because men exhaust me

[Hi, folks. I apologize for the radio silence; the start of a new term is always a hectic time. I’m currently finishing up the research for a 2-parter on Curse of Strahd – the republished version for D&D 5th Edition (OMG, folks, I have so much to say about this book…), but in the mean time, I wanted to take a moment to address something that I’ve been thinking about since last week.]

Recently, in an online community that I participate in, there was a post discussing community standards which included the word “trolling” in the list of intolerable behaviors. Someone expressed concern that some people might not know what “trolling” means, to which I replied (rather bluntly) that if someone participating in an online community doesn’t know what a word that has been around so long that it has passed into the common parlance means when used in reference to anti-social online behavior, that’s their problem for not taking the time to educate themselves. (I mean, that’s why Google exists, right?) And apparently, my comment was perceived by at least one person as bullying.

Which. On the one hand, sure. I’m a bitch, and have long since stopped trying to be anything other than a bitch; no matter what you do, no matter how hard you try, someone is always going to think that you’re a bitch if you’re a woman, since “bitch” pretty much only means “woman that I don’t approve of”.

And yeah, I don’t have much empathy for ignorance about 101 level issues, which isn’t always the best – especially when I’m dealing with people who are part of communities that I’m invested in. In those sorts of situations, bridge-building is important, and it’s not something I’m terribly good at. While I look up tremendously to the women in my circles who are bridge-builders, I know that’s not ever going to be me. I just don’t have the patience.

On the other hand, though, I’m pretty annoyed that saying forthrightly and without apology that people need to be responsible for educating themselves is something that someone can feel “bullied” by. I have been both 1) bullied and 2) a clueless white person who couldn’t buy a clue to save her life, and I can tell you from personal experience that the pain of learning that you are ignorant about social justice and need to do some work around educating yourself does not even come close to the pain and life-long trauma caused by being the victim of bullying. NOT EVEN A LITTLE BIT.

Learning how ignorant I was about social justice and the level to which I needed to educate myself? That sucked, sure. It’s painful realizing that you’ve been inadvertently reinforcing systemic injustice, because everyone wants to believe that they’re a good person. Being bullied? Left life-long scars that I won’t ever recover from. Saying that you feel “bullied” by someone telling you to do your own damn work in educating yourself about important issues just shows how much marginalized people are expected to do the work of teaching their oppressors how not to be oppressive. Marginalized people are expected to hold their oppressor’s hand while gently stroking their hair and whispering softly in soothing, dulcet tones about how their behavior was oppressive, but it’s okay because they didn’t know and they’re still a good person.

Which. You know what? No.

Now I am talking generally and not a specific person, just to be clear

It’s no secret that this is and never has been a 101 level blog – it’s right there in the sidebar. I delete comments pertaining to 101-level questions and issues, because there are so many better places on the internet to educate yourself. There are two reasons for this that I give whenever I am asked about the policy:

  1. Something I learned in the first few years of running this blog was that if I tried to answer all of the 101-level questions I got, I would never get any real actual work done. If I did all of the work around educating clueless privileged people that I was expected to do, I would never get to write about the deeper issues that are my real passion and focus.
  2. I am tired of having the same damn 101-level conversations over, and over, and over again. Explaining the basics of social justice 101 is fucking exhausting and aggravating to me, and I just don’t want to do it anymore.

But if I’m honest, there’s also a third reason. One I don’t talk about much, because it’s hard to address it without sounding like a complete and total bitch: I don’t have empathy for the 101-level struggles of men because men fucking exhaust me.

I’m not proud of it. As much as I make jokes about misandry and male tears, I’ll cop to the fact that those jokes are more of a coping mechanism for dealing with the shit I get because of writing this blog than an actual desire to laugh at men’s suffering. I would like to be able to respond to these situations with empathy and compassion, but that’s just not possible, because I have suffered too much from men too often. When my daily life is full of struggles that reinforce the fact that society sees me as less because I am female, I just don’t have the energy to feel empathetic about a man’s pain that a woman is refusing to educate him about the basics of the basics of the basics of social justice.

Specifically, I don’t have empathy for men who need education to understand that patriarchy exists. When daycare costs in Canada are forcing women out of the workplace and back into the home… When the male-domination of the tech industry means that tech towns are also areas in which women suffer the greatest economic inequality… When, at my last job, I made 78% of what my husband makes, despite having a higher education level than he does… When my life is full of glass ceilings and invisible barriers that I have been beating my head against, with no perceptible progress, I can’t have empathy for a man who is blind to the daily indignities that I face.

I don’t have empathy for men who need education to understand that you are accountable for your sexist actions. When I worked for several years for a company at which the sales bros could talk openly in the office about strippers, call women bitches, and engage in other sorts of misogynist language without any penalties or repercussions… When that same company literally broke the law in regards to condoning a hostile work environment and doing nothing to change it when it was reported to them, and I was told that I had no real legal recourse… When I once temped as an assistant to a high-powered real estate broker who was so condescendingly insulting and patronizing that he made me cry on multiple occasions, and I later found out that I was his fifth temp in four weeks… When my life has been full of men who have harassed, insulted, or harmed me with sexist words and actions, I can’t have empathy for a man who is blind to the fact that only you are responsible for your actions.

I don’t have empathy for men who need education to understand that the male gaze exists. When IGN had a section of their website devoted to covering booth babes at E3 (before booth babes at E3 were outlawed)… When games like Soul Calibur and Dead or Alive offer up sexualized depictions of women who are reduced to a collection of titillating body parts… When Bayonetta is sold as an empowered and liberated “strong female character”… When the hobby that I love reduces women on a daily basis to the sexual pleasure and gratification that they can provide to the only “real” gamers – straight men – I can’t have empathy for a man who is blind to the fact that objectification of women is a problem.

I don’t have empathy for men who need education to understand that rape culture exists. When all the girls I went to high school with wore shorts under their uniform skirts because the boys would flip up our skirts to “see if we were wearing underwear”… When truck drivers coming into the office of the company I used to work for would routinely sexually harass the women in the office… When I have been pursued by men who are only dissuaded by me making a show of the ring on my finger… When literally every woman I know has at least one story about unwanted sexual touching by a man at some point in their life… When there are now 50 women who say that Bill Cosby raped them and there are still people who say those women are just looking for attention… When I have to exist daily in a culture that commodifies my body and tells men that they are entitled to use it for their sexual pleasure, I can’t have empathy for a man who is blind to the ways in which our society excuses rapists and blames the victims of rape for their own rape.

I don’t have empathy for men who need education understand that rigid gender roles are bad. When my four year old daughter thinks that women can’t fly planes… When my daughter wants to grow up to be a princess who gets saved from a monster by a prince, marry that prince, and have babies, despite my husband and I telling her she can do anything she wants with her life… When a friend’s five year old son gets bullied for wearing his favorite skirt to school and cries because of it… When the daily reality of parenting my four year old daughter is trying and failing to combat the social programming she internalized when she was TWO that she is less because she is female, I can’t have empathy for a man who is blind to the ways in which gender essentialism and binarism are harmful.

So that’s where I set the bar of “you must be at least this enlightened to be worth my time”. Make of that what you will.

When games are written by straight men for straight men: the problem with Emily is Away [CW][TW][spoilers]

[Note before I start, that I get pretty shouty about gaslighting, manipulation, and rape in this post. So please proceed with caution and care.]

One of the (many) problems of the male as default protagonist in any form of entertainment is that it’s left me cold for vast swathes of media, even media that is critically acclaimed. We’re told that male protagonists are more “relate-able”, and that men can’t be expected to identify with female protagonists. And leaving aside the blatant unfairness of that statement, it is true that women will identify with male protagonists – to a certain point. However, after a while, it just gets hard to care about media obviously aimed at men. For most of my life, I consumed stories mostly about men, but past a certain point you start to ask – why am I never reflected? Why should I care about this story about Yet Another Chapter In the Continuing Adventures of Manly Mans Doing Manly Things when the purveyors couldn’t give two shits what I think?

So. Hold that thought a moment.

I’ve been meaning to write about Emily is Away for a while now. I’d heard great things about it from various sources about the game and how the unique interface delivers compelling gameplay through moments like watching your typing errors be corrected or watching yourself delete or revise your comments. My vague impression of Emily is Away was that it was supposed to be a charming love story about two people whose relationship is witnessed through AIM, and that it was supposed to be well executed.

That was something that I was really interested in! I’ve written previously about how I wish that AAA gaming would make more games that aren’t just violence simulators with awesome graphics. And given that I met my husband online in a newsgroup, then migrated to having conversations via ICQ and IRC… the whole “relationship by AIM” thing was nostalgia that I was interested in revisiting. I felt like I was in the audience that this story was targeting – people who chatted on archaic chat platforms of the 90’s who have had an internet romance.

Unfortunately, when I actually played Emily is Away, I had the rug pulled out from under me, because once again I discovered that I’d been suckered into playing a game that was emphatically Not Written For Me. That frustration only got worse the more times I played it, trying to explore the different branches, because the more I played, the more it hit home that this was a game written by a man for an audience of straight men. Moreover, this post took days to write because I discovered that I have a lot to say about that. So.

Let’s dig into what I mean when I say that this game was written by a man for an audience of straight men. Starting with:

Problem #1: The men in this game are people, the women are props

At no point in this game do we ever get a feel for what Emily as a person is like. She never says anything personal about herself that isn’t about her connection to another dude. She’s going to Travis’ party. She’s getting messages from Brad. She’s dating Brad! But she sure asks lots of questions about YOU – the dude protagonist. (And yes you can put in a female name at character creation. It won’t change the fact that you’re still a dude, but we’ll return to that.)

Emily asks what you chose as your major, but you never ask about hers – nor does she ever talk about what she ends up studying. In the game, you talk about classes, about group projects, about what school is like for you – but YOU NEVER ASK EMILY and SHE NEVER TALKS ABOUT IT. Even when she opens up and says personal things, the only things she talks about relate to her connection with YOU, the protagonist, or her off-again-on-again boyfriend, Brad. Emily isn’t a person. She doesn’t feel “real”. She’s a shallow cardboard cutout. An obvious stand-in for the ultimate Nice Guy fantasy – what if my female friend actually did have feelings for me all along?

Worse, the only other female character in the game, Emma. And she gets ONE out of THREE possible character traits: kind, funny, or hot. Emily at least gets to have a second dimension through some trivial personal details, like the fact that she likes Coldplay and Snow Patrol – which is more than Emma gets. Emma exists in one dimension, because that’s the only dimension she’s ever given. NEITHER of them gets to be a real, three-dimensional person. Even more frustrating, it is VERY HARD not to have a romantic relationship with her.

Emma is depersonalized to the extent that at the end of the game, it’s revealed that you don’t spend time with Emma anymore; if Emma was someone you were pursuing romantically and you chose to go down the path that leads to a romantic encounter with Emily (which we’ll get back to in a sec), Emma rightly kicks you to the curb for ditching your plans with her to make a booty call with your friend from high school. (Seriously, major dick move.) But even if you don’t! Even if you don’t ditch Emma, or you and Emma are nothing more than friends, the ending is always the same. At the end, Emma starts dating someone else and doesn’t have time for you anymore.

Which, really, is the ultimate Nice Guy fear. That a woman they like will find someone else, someone who contributes more than just not being a shitty human being who sees her only as a sexual goal to be attained, and stop spending time with them.

In Chapter 5, when Emily asks how Emma is doing, and you reveal that you don’t see her anymore, you literally don’t have an option that indicates that you’re sad about not seeing her anymore. Even if you and Emma are really good friends who talk all the time earlier in the story, the only possible responses show a breathtaking lack of regard for Emma as a human being:

And that? Makes me pretty furious. Because I have BEEN the woman surrounded by men who are unable to see me as a person. I’ve been the woman that men call an ignorant judgemental cunt, or a fat jealous lesbian, or who say that I’m raising my daughter to be a dysfunctional lesbian – just because I have opinions they don’t agree with about games. I’ve been the female friend who realizes that her male friend, the friend that she felt close to, never actually cared about her – he just liked having someone around who admired his work and stroked his ego. And I’ve been the woman who had use her relationship status (“taken”) to fend off men she’d rather not speak to. Because I’m not enough of a person to have my wishes respected, but my husband is.

I have a lifetime of experience of being the fake woman, the cardboard cutout, the prop in a man’s self-centered reordering of the universe to be all about him. And maybe it’s completely unfair, but my knee-jerk reaction is that of course only a man could look at how Emily and Emma are presented and see the situation as “charming” or “romantic”, because so many men aren’t used to thinking of women as real people anyhow.

Problem #2: the game is NOT gender neutral

Technically, you can put in any name you want. There’s never any pronouns used, so the protagonist can be any gender the player wants… TECHNICALLY. In practice, however, the game and all the dialogue read as YOU ARE A HETERO DUDE.


I like playing immersively, so I used my name. I also decided that for my first playthrough, I wanted to just be Emily’s friend. And, you know, mostly that worked until about halfway through Chapter 3. Emily is sad about a bad breakup, which has cost her all of her friends – who sided with her ex, and reveals that she used to have feelings for the protagonist.

Which. You know. Nice Guy fantasy. But also, it is the most boringly cliched hetero romance moment ever, that I simply could not take seriously the idea that the protagonist was anything other than a straight dude. Seriously:


And look. I get it. The stars are romantic. I, too, have gone for a walk with my beloved and marveled at the stars. They’re large and unfathomable and we are but tiny ephemeral things whose connections will never matter on a cosmic scale. I get it.

But. That doesn’t change the fact that this is a literal retelling of a thing that happens in every other movie about a hetero romance movie ever[1]. Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, Scott Pilgrim, The Fault in Our Stars, Gregory’s Girl, A Beautiful Mind, My Girl… the list goes on and on.

Anyway, the moment where things go from mildly frustrating to totally fucking gross what the actual fuck just happened here occurs in Chapter 4, in response to events from Chapter 3. Which brings you to:

Problem #3: This game makes you a rapist, then tells you asserting healthy boundaries is JUST AS BAD AS THAT

See, during that conversation in Chapter 3, after Emily reveals that she had feelings for you, she asks if she can come visit you THIS WEEKEND OR NOT AT ALL, and you have several shitty options: 1) say no, you don’t think it would be a good idea, because Emily just told you about her past feelings and she’s coming off a bad breakup, so she can’t visit you AT ALL NEVER EVER. 2) Say “yes you can come visit” with no qualifications 3) Say yes you can come visit, but only as friends.

Because I was trying to play someone who didn’t have a relationship with Emily, I made the most neutral responses that I could when she was revealing her feelings to me, “I didn’t know you felt that way” and “you should have said something”. But when she asked if she could come visit, I said sure! Because she needed support, and in at the beginning it’s established that the two of you are best friends, even if the protagonist is too chickenshit to say it outright. (“You’re my best friend” is one of the things he deletes and corrects.) And sure it meant canceling on plans to do stuff with Emma, but I reasoned we’re all adults and Emma should understand “best friend is in trouble, needs support” – because it’s the compassionate thing to do.

After agreeing to the visit, I even said (the first time around) ‘sure, bring your booze’ when she asks about alcohol, reasoning we’d hang around campus and do shit and just get drunk enough to have fun and feel better about a shitty situation. There have been lots of times where I’ve hung out with friends in shitty situations and got drunk with them to help them feel better.

Which, you know, yay! Until Chapter 4, which opens a year after that visit, with Emily apologizing for not messaging in a while. She says she’s felt weird about things between you, and when pressed responds with the following:

I felt sick. Actually sick. “Of course I didn’t plan that” was the least skeevy response it would let me make, and it was still defensive and not okay. But then it went even further. Emily tells you about how in retrospect, it all seemed so planned. That you introduced her to all your friends, then took her back to your dorm room and got her drunk and you “hooked up”. And she’s felt weird and not okay about it ever since. And no matter what response you make, the protagonist types “you wanted to hook up”, then erases it and replaces it with “I don’t know”.

And THAT? That was like a bucket of cold water. Because “you wanted it” is what rapists tell their victims.

Literally nothing about how Emily describes the situation reads as consensual to me. The defensive responses, the fact that you can even claim to ‘not have noticed’ that things were weird, the fact that your initial impulse is to tell her that she wanted it. This doesn’t read like a misunderstanding between star-crossed lovers. This reads like a woman who is hurt and traumatized by something that she knows wasn’t okay, something that violated her trust in someone that she loved, and she’s trying to confront that without being ready to call what happened to her “rape”. Not yet.

While this whole thing played out, I couldn’t help but remember stories that I’ve heard from other women about having their trust violated by a friend who told them that they wanted it. I’ve heard and read so many stories, so many stories where a woman talks about being raped by a man that she loved and trusted, who told her that she wanted it, and who refused to accept that what he did was not okay when confronted later. And they read uncomfortably close to how this scene plays out. This scene that is supposed to be “romantic”. This scene where you find out that you are a rapist, and it happened offscreen, and you couldn’t do anything about it.

So I went back and replayed it. Made the same choices up to that point, but then told Emily not to bring booze. But that still doesn’t make much difference. You still hook up, things are still weird and wrong, and in dubious consent territory. And this time when Emily calls you on it:



BEFORE SHE VISITED SHE WAS CRYING TO YOU, LITERALLY CRYING ABOUT HER BREAKUP AND HOW SHE HATED EVERYTHING AND HER SCHOOL AND ALL HER FRIENDS HAD DUMPED HER. SO. NO. THAT IS WRONG. “I don’t know” is such a fucking disingenuous response, because the entire situation that led to this visit? The fact that you and Emily talk all the time, and have this long past together? You know. You fucking well KNOW she’s not okay. How could you not?

The only saving grace is that at least this time around it’s not rape, because Emily was sober and capable of consent. But this is some skeevy emotional manipulation bullshit, and then the fact that the protagonist claims ignorance of her emotional state after the fact? No. NO.

I’ve had my body used for the gratification of a man in a situation that I didn’t consent to. I shut down. I froze, I didn’t move or speak. But when I confronted my attacker later, he at least had the grace to be ashamed and own that what he did wasn’t okay and apologize. Because he knew. HE KNEW and he did it anyway, because in that moment what he wanted was more important than my safety.

And I’ve had men gaslight me. Men who I thought were friends and confidants, who turned my world upside down, tried to convince me that I was a monster because I insisted on trying to get them to see themselves in a critical light because I cared about them and wanted them to be better. Men who decided it was better to betray my trust and destroy my confidence in how I saw myself because it wasn’t compatible with them seeing themselves as the HERO OF THEIR OWN STORY.

So yeah. No.

[ahem] So that’s shitty option number 2. What about shitty options #1 (no you can’t visit ever) and #3 (yes you can visit, but only as a friend). Well, if you opt for #1, at the beginning of Chapter 4 Emily mentions that she had a breakdown after you wouldn’t let her visit and blames you for abandoning her in her time of need. Which. I mean. Fine. You know, having Emily be so emotionally fragile that she falls to pieces and goes crazy the instant a man isn’t there to validate her self-worth is shitty, but at least “you said you’d support me and didn’t” is a legitimate grievance, even if the situation that is presented is so stereotypical and gendered that I can’t even.

And if you opt for #3, Chapter 4 opens with Emily berating you about how things will never be okay because you “missed your chance” and “that was the moment” you could have gotten together and YOU BLEW IT. And the anger and recrimination is just as strong in that situation, the situation in which you asserted a healthy boundary and didn’t take advantage of a woman you cared about who was deeply vulnerable, as it is in situation #2 – in which you can become an actual rapist[2].

Because the problem, THE REAL PROBLEM, is that Emily has feelings toward the protagonist that aren’t positive. It doesn’t matter if they arise from a legitimate grievance, or you “not making your move”, or you taking advantage of her and possibly raping her. The outcome is always the same, because the protagonist’s actions don’t matter. What matters is that Emily is rejecting you, and that is the REAL tragedy.

Problem #4: No matter what choices you make, in the end you are always The Sad Nice Guy Abandoned By That Girl Who Should Have Chosen Him Instead

Chapter 5 opens by being the only chapter in which you have to message Emily first to talk to her. And during that conversation, Emily is obviously doing a slow fade. She’s not pulling her weight in the conversation, making terse responses, and not trying to keep it going.

Though of course the one exception to this is when she asks, unprompted, about Emma and the protagonist has the aforementioned hissy fit about how she had to get a new boyfriend and doesn’t spend time with him anymore. And it’s ironic that this, THIS, is perhaps the only thing that the author gets right. That dismissal of Emma as a person who has worth independent of her willingness to satisfy your boner is the moment when Emily shuts down and stops trying. You pepper her with questions about stupid shit. Concerts, summer plans, whatnot, and she gives you the soft rejection. Because that’s what women learn to do with men they have reason to be afraid of, to let them down easy so they don’t get stabbed.


But even then, he comes at it all wrong – because the tragedy isn’t what a what a sad, miserable human being you are. The tragedy isn’t that you’re an entitled dickmonster incapable of seeing women as real human beings with hopes and dreams and aspirations. The tragedy is supposed to be that you are SAD and CONFUSED and ALONE, and you don’t understand how you could be graduating college WITHOUT A WOMAN. Because our culture PROMISED YOU A WOMAN.

It’s infuriating to play through a game that misses the point so completely that it ends up in an entirely different universe of NOT THE GODDAMN POINT. And it’s disappointing, because honestly – I’ve had friendships fizzle out where one person stopped caring, friendships that have played out over messaging. And it sucks. It hurts, and it’s painful, and it leaves you bewildered and wondering what you did wrong. So that game? That game I would have played and enjoyed. But not this. Never this.

Emily is Away isn’t “touching” or “romantic”. It’s a disturbing highlight of how entitled men feel to women’s time and attention, and how willing men are to dehumanize someone in the pursuit of achieving their own romantic desires.

[1] And before you ask what makes that seem so hetero, looking at the stars is just romantic, right? That might be the case if Hollywood didn’t make the few gay love stories they produce tragic like EVERY GODDAMN TIME. Hedwig and the Angry Inch, Brokeback Mountain, Rent, Love is Strange, Carol, Cracks, Aimée & Jaguar, Blue is the Warmest Colour (not death)… you get the idea

It’s pretty fucking impossible to think of a movie about a gay romance that ends happily. …like, to be honest, I’m a movie buff and I literally can’t remember one.

[2] And yeah, I know about Kyle Seeley’s response to Emily Short’s review, in which she raises the issue of ‘um, you are describing rape’. And in that response, he starts by telling Emily ‘she’s wrong’, ‘it’s not rape’. And then he handwaves and says well you know, he’s not saying Emily’s feelings are wrong or whatever. And then he fails to stick the landing with an ‘I’m sorry if you were offended’ nonpology. (“I’m sorry to anyone who interprets the story that way”). So no, if anything he just dug the hole deeper.

Handling difficult material as a GM: part 2

A few months ago, the ever-fantastic Kate Bullock (who also has a Patreon for her blog that you should check out) said that she wanted to see someone write about this question: “How do I, as a person of privilege, include problematic content in my games safely and inclusively?”

And that is an excellent question! A really big, excellent question! So big that I ended up writing an entire post about player safety in regard to tabletop games and LARPs just to lay the groundwork for this post – because everything that I want to say about how to include problematic content responsibly hinges first on the concept of safety.

So. Let’s take it as a given that you read all of my previous post (if you haven’t, now would be a good time to do so), and move on.

Advice for people making games

I only have one point to make here, but it’s a biggie:

Talk to the people you’re writing about

Because I don’t like repeating myself, I’m going to quote myself from this old-but-still-totally-relevant series I wrote about how to write inclusive settings:

This is probably the scariest part of the process, but it’s also the most important. If you’re going to write about a group of people that you don’t belong to, it is imperative to speak to members of that group. This can be nerve-wracking for those who have privilege, because so often people in positions of privilege are fearful of examining that privilege. But it’s important because without this step, you’re just engaging in more thoughtless cultural appropriation.

So get a second opinion. And more importantly, listen to that opinion. They might tell you something that you don’t want to hear. You need to hear it anyway. Or they might give you the thumbs up. You don’t know until you ask!

If you are writing about people who don’t look like you (and you should be, at least sometimes, because only ever writing about people who look like you is boring as shit), you need to talk to the people whose stories you are going to tell. So if you’re writing a game about women and you’re a man, you need to talk to women. If you’re writing a game about mental illness, but are not yourself mentally ill, you’re going to need consultation from people who do have mental health issues. And if you’re writing a game set in a foreign country that you are not from and are not connected to (ie you’re writing a game set in India and are a white kid from Chicago, to use a hypothetical example), you need to talk to people from that background – after you do your research.

Because that’s the other thing to remember. If you are seeking someone out, you need to remember that they are the ones doing you the favor. Because no person from a marginalized group is OBLIGATED to educate people from outside that group. That’s what the internet is for. Do NOT go to someone and expect them to do all the heavy lifting with regard to teaching you about their culture just so you can do them the “favor” of writing a game about that culture, because that is bad allying. Instead, do your homework. Don’t write your first draft before you’ve done good, solid research. Once a draft is done, highlight areas of possible concern, and only then approach someone about getting an opinion – because handing someone several thousand words and asking for an opinion without any sort of focusing questions is not a good way to earn goodwill.

Lastly, when approaching people, remember that their time is important – you wouldn’t think it wasn’t important if you didn’t want their opinion, after all – and be prepared to offer some kind of compensation in return for their time. If it’s a friend or acquaintance, you can feel free to get creative – “hey, do you think you’d mind taking a look at a draft of a game I’m working on? I’m concerned about [things x, y, and z]. I’d be willing to trade babysitting so you and your partner could have a night out” is something that I would probably not say no to!

However, if no one in your immediate circle of contacts has the background that you need, consider that you may have to pay someone real actual money. Because nothing will get me to delete your email faster than sending me content unsolicited and expecting me to give you an opinion on it. And yeah, it can be scary pouring money – even a little money – into an early game draft when you don’t know what will come of it, and maybe that can be a reminder of why it’s so important to cultivate a social network of diverse, non-homogeneous designers.

That’s not to say that paying people to consult on a game draft can’t have benefits! being prepared to put your money where your mouth is is a great way of making a first impression, and if you are open and receptive to the conversation that results, the chances are pretty good that the consultant will go to bat for you later when it comes to helping promote the finished product.

Advice for people running tabletop games

Tell your players upfront if there are elements of the game that are problematic

Don’t be cute and hide things from your players to give them a more “intense” experience, because that’s a dick move. Tell them up front.

For convention games, this starts with putting a small disclaimer in the description of your game. Ie “this game deals with issues surrounding sexual violence” or “this game deals with bodily autonomy” or “this game deals with toxic masculinity”. When players are looking over the list of games, trying to decide which game they want to play in during a given time slot, that is shit they need to know. However, by the same token, don’t assume that they actually read the description. Maybe there was a scheduling mixup, or maybe a friend dragged them into the game at the last minute. Maybe the game they were scheduled to play got canceled and the organizers just tried to find them something to replace it. Which means you’ll also need to tell the players when they sit down what they’re getting in for.

Providing content warnings about problematic elements in your game isn’t “coddling” your players, or “insulating them from reality”. Providing content warnings lets people prepare themselves so that when the problematic content comes up, it isn’t a horrible surprise.

Of course, providing content warnings means that you need to have enough self-awareness to be aware of the shortcomings of a thing you love; just because you love a game doesn’t mean that it’s good for someone else. Be open about the pitfalls of the game you’re running without apologizing for it or being ashamed of it, and let your players make the decision that is best for them. Speaking from personal experience, a lot of the time I’m a lot more willing to engage with problematic content that gets close to uncomfortable areas for me when it’s labeled as such and disclosed up front, because that shows respect and concern on the part of the GM or facilitator.

Lastly, a lot of LARPs can have big twists or reveals. But if you’re running a LARP with such a twist, it’s still important to find a way to disclose potentially painful themes upfront and let people opt out. Because having triggering content sprung on you as a surprise is doubly awful in a LARP.

But – don’t put up with problematic behavior at the table

It’s important to note that some players will see content warnings as an invitation to be as “dark” and “edgy” as they can, or to treat the problematic content as a joke. If you have a player that is making light of what is meant to be a serious issue, X-card it hard and fast. And if they keep doing it, call them on it, and kick them out if you need to.

It feels shitty, but a bad player can be just as harmful as an irresponsible GM.

Don’t just replicate injustice. Be critical of it.

To use an example that drives me nuts, I hear lots of people say that Game of Thrones is feminist because it has lots of strong female characters. Which. No.

First, simply having strong female characters DOES NOT make something automatically feminist. But even more importantly, just replicating injustice is not the same thing as actually criticizing injustice. Without some sort of change that turns the situation on its head, all that you’re doing is reinforcing toxic social norms that already exist. To return to Game of Thrones, when you have entire plot threads that center on things like rape, sexual exploitation, and white saviors saving the awful brown people from their barbaric culture without any hint of irony or even the thinnest attempt at trope inversion, that is not criticism. That is mindless replication.

An example of a game which does do this well is Dogs in the Vineyard – a game about Mormon gunslinger teenagers in the Old West. You could play it as a mostly vanilla Western if you wanted, but the thing that makes Dogs special is the fact that the text covers gender and racial divisions in Faithful society and how they can lead to injustice – which is why it’s easy to use Dogs to create game content that focuses on social issues.

One of the best bits of GMing I’ve ever done was when I wrote a Dogs town where the heresy was literally feminism. (More specifically, there was a heretical cult of women who believed that women were people who got to do things other than have babies.) I had the cult leader take that feminism to monstrous extremes and left it to the players to decide how the hell they were going to sort everything out, which leads right into:

Related: If you’re going to engage in social commentary via moral dilemma, make it an open ended dilemma

IF you are engaging in social commentary by way of moral dilemma, DO NOT pre-play by deciding which option is the “right” option, because then it’s not a dilemma anymore. What you have is just high-handed preaching, which is boring as shit at best and condescending and insulting at worst. Putting the choice in their hands makes it engaging and thought provoking!

Present a moral dilemma and be prepared for what happens if: 1) your players choose side A 2) your players choose side B or 3) your players try to walk a middle ground, and then let the chips fall where they may.

Advice for people running LARPs

A lot of what I’ve said above applies to running LARPs too. But as facilitating LARPs is a very different beast from GMing tabletop, there are a few specific points to be made. Most importantly,

Remember: victimizers often need as much aftercare as victims, but they might not feel they have permission to say so

Some LARPs, especially Nordic LARPs, cast people in roles that are explicitly roles where they are villains, oppressors, or victimizers – and those can be really hard and emotionally challenging roles to play! This is especially true when what happens in play ends up mirroring a form of oppression that the player of an oppressor character has themselved experience. Often, this can be just as traumatic as playing a character who is themselves the victim.

In writing about my experience of playing Autonomy, the LARP that I wrote about teaching men to behave like women, women to behave like men, and then creating a situation where women punish men for their gender for forty minutes, I described it this way:

actually playing the game was agonizing. Because here I was, replicating an experience that has literally made me sick in the past, and I was doing it on purpose.

The instant the game was over and we sat down for the debrief, the very first thing I did was to cross my arms and ankles as I all but folded in on myself, going from masculine to feminine body language in an instant, and the very first words out of my mouth were a plaintive “I’m sorry”.

Because I should have known! I should have known that being “men” wouldn’t be “better”, because hurting someone the way that you’ve been hurt just because you can is a terrible feeling.

So it’s important to make it clear that players of villain characters will get just as much support and care as players of victim characters. It’s probably best just to state this as a ground rule of the debrief.

During debriefs, make sure everyone gets to talk, and that no one has their experience invalidated by someone else

The group of people that I LARP with have standardized how they run debriefs somewhat to include the following:

  1. Everyone gets up to 3 minutes to talk about how they felt during the game and how they are feeling now; only individual statements, no conversations or responses
  2. People can’t use their 3 minutes to invalidate or argue with someone else’s experience
  3. General conversation happens only after everyone has had a chance to speak, and is highly structured. The moderator enforces turn taking and keeps one person or one group of people (men[1]) from taking over the conversation

Number 2 is more important than you’d think! The worst debrief experience I ever had was after a LARP in which themes of sexism were very prevalent. During the LARP, there was a moment in which two men – one of whom was physically much larger than me – stood over me and shouted at me until I stopped talking. So when it was my 3 minutes, I talked about how threatened I felt, and about how having masculinity intentionally performed at me is something I find very anxiety provoking.

When it was another male player’s turn to talk (this was not one of the two men who had done the shouting), he said that masculinity hadn’t been performed, gender had never been a part of that situation. Meaning, by extension, that my feelings and everything I talked about were all in my head. That they weren’t real.

I. WAS. FURIOUS. I ended up leaving the debrief – the first and only time I have ever done so.

Thankfully, the facilitator was receptive when I told him how I was doing afterward. And conversation with him and his partner, who is the owner of the space and organizes the games that we play there, led to including rule #2 as a default, to avoid future repeats.

If shit gets real, make yourself available for conversation after

Something that I have seen done by facilitators, and something I have done myself, is as simple as handing out cards with your contact info if one of your players feels like they need help processing the experience later, after they have left the game space. That’s not to say that it’s required, but if you feel comfortable at least handing out an email address, it’s something worth considering.

Some of the best, most educational conversations I’ve had – the ones that have opened my eyes to other perspectives or helped me see things in a radically new light – were conversations that happened well after a particular game had ended.

I don’t know how to end this but I think I’ve said enough.

If you made it this far, congratulations. I promise to get back to stuff with lots more pictures after this.

In the mean time, have a kitten in a pocket:

[1] If you feel like you need to argue this point with me, just. Don’t. I will throw science at you and you will lose