Handling difficult material as GM or facilitator: Part 1

Before I get started, a note about my previous post:

Some asshat on the internet[1] wrote a screed about my last post calling me human feces and an actual lizard person. Why? Because I had the nerve to blog about a game that I’m making, with a MALE co-designer, btw, that has feminist themes. And somehow me and my SJWness and my making games about feminism is DESTROYING GAMING and will KILL D&D FOREVER.

Which, look internet MRA gamerbros. Calm your testes, okay? Literally no one is forcing you to think about, buy, or play my game. The existence of my game doesn’t THREATEN ALL OF D&D. Jesus. Calm down, okay? I wish I was that awesome, but I’m not.

calm-your-testes

Also, worth noting that a good half of his screed (when he wasn’t talking about what a pox I am on gaming) was devoted to bitching about how I CAN’T WRITE A GAME ABOUT TOXIC MASCULINITY BECAUSE I’M NOT A MAN. Which, you know, conveniently ignores the fact that I specifically gave credit to my male co-designer (the eminently fantastic Andrew Medeiros) at the end of the first paragraph. Whoops.

ANYWAY. Moving on.

Handling difficult material in game spaces you are responsible for

I write a lot here about how to be a responsible publisher, in terms of creating diverse and inclusive game content that doesn’t fuck up with regards to reductive stereotypes. I also write a fair bit about how to be a good ally, by way of common ally traps and how to avoid them. But a few months ago, a friend pointed out that she wanted to read about how to be a responsible GM – especially when running games for players with marginalizations that she doesn’t share. Between GenCon and being a full time student, I haven’t had as much attention to devote to blogging as I would have liked. But now that I find myself with a bit of breathing room, it’s a good time to look at the issue of safer gaming spaces and how to facilitate those spaces even when you’re handling difficult, intense, or potentially problematic content.

This post expanded a bit beyond what I was expecting, so today focuses more on safety tools and the space itself. Next time I’ll get into a bit more nitty gritty detail about techniques for GMs.

Also, I wasn’t able to work them in to the outline of this post, but Meguey Baker has written pretty extensively about two cultures of safety in play called I Will Not Abandon You and Nobody Gets Hurt. Most of the discussions around this are buried on forums like Story-Games and happened a long time ago, but I would be remiss in not acknowledging Meg’s work, as well as the work of others, in starting this conversation in the first place.

First: Always use safety tools

The three safety tools that I always, always, always use when running games are:

I don’t run games without them anymore; even if a LARP doesn’t mention Cut/Break or The Door is Always Open in the facilitator instructions, I still always introduce it to the players as part of the rules, because that’s how strongly I feel about it.

However, just having safety tools doesn’t actually solve anything. The use of safety tools at the table in convention spaces is getting to be pretty common; at GenCon we had printed X-Cards at every table, the files for which we actually got from Kate Bullock who runs Breakout Con. And every LARP that I’ve ever played at a convention has included Cut/Brake and The Door Is Always Open as part of the instructions on how to play.

And yet, despite the increasing prevalence of safety tools, we haven’t actually solved the issue of player safety. Simply putting a safety tool on the table (either literal or metaphorical) and telling people how it works IS NOT ENOUGH to get someone to use that tool when they need it. Because…

Second: People need to feel they have permission to USE safety tools

One thing I’ve noticed is that how I approach safety tools in games tends to vary widely based on who I’m playing with. For instance, in convention games, I’m far less likely to use safety tools, even when I’m not having a great time or am feeling uncomfortable with content that is coming up. I’ve written previously about an experience that I had running Zombie Cinema at GenCon 2014 for a brunch of bros who made sexism a running joke in the game. And despite introducing the X-Card during the game introduction, and despite that the sexist jokes were really bothering me, I didn’t say anything.

Similarly, also at GenCon in 2014, I played in an Apocalypse World longcon than ran all three nights of the convention. And it was an amazing game, but there was a moment in particular that stood out for me as deeply, starkly uncomfortable. There was this weird psychic contagion, and at one point one of the players failed a roll against an NPC. The GM had made it clear that if this happened, the psychic contagion was going to take control, and after the roll he gave the player a choice: either you’ll have to kill her or have sex with her. And I was really not okay. Because after a previous bad experience at GenCon, even implied possible sexual violence in a roleplaying game in a convention space was something that got close to some ugly emotional scars. But I let it go to see what the player would do, and he chose to kill the NPC, and play moved on and I didn’t end up using the X-Card.

Compare this with my use of the X-Card in campaigns with my local gaming group – the one I’ve been playing with for almost two years now, and you get a very different picture. During a campaign of Urban Shadows, I perma-X-Carded a friend’s demon clown character, who transformed into demon form by ripping off their skin and generally doing a lot of body horror shit. I told that friend they could mime their actions or do sound effects, but not both[2]. Or another time I actually X-carded how a scene had played out because I was having a really rough time with my anxiety and needed the session to end on a positive note.

Both of those instances are “smaller” uses of the X-Card – things that made me feel more comfortable but weren’t things that affected my overall fun or ability to feel emotionally safe. I could have managed just fine with the demon clown descriptions by plugging my ears – it wasn’t something that would ruin my fun completely. Similarly, X-carding how a scene wrapped up at the end of a session wasn’t something I needed to feel safe. But in both instances, I knew that my friends would understand that these were things that would make me feel more comfortable.

The difference between how I approach the X-Card in home games versus how I have approached it at conventions comes down to having a pre-existing relationship and having trust in the GM and the other players. Often, the situations where people need safety tools are not the situations where they feel they have that relationship with someone. When I run a tabletop campaign, I know my players. I know that I can narrate X in a way that will skeeve out player Y, but I also mostly know where to stop.

But I mostly don’t have that kind of relationship with players at con games. So when I introduce safety tools, I do more than explain how it works. I explain why it’s there.

For example. One of my favorite games to run at conventions if I have to do a two-hour slot is The Shab al-Hiri Roach at Hogwarts. The Shab al-Hiri Roach is a game of dark comedy in which you play bad people doing bad things, and transplanting that game into Hogwarts – a setting which canonically includes children, has the potential to cause some bad times. So when I’m introducing the game to folks, my X-Card speech looks a little something like this:

“Because Hogwarts is a setting which canonically includes children, I want to emphasize that we’ll be playing with the X-Card firmly in place. The X-Card is a safety tool that anyone can lift, point to, or tap whenever content comes up that makes them uncomfortable or they’d rather not see, and we’ll edit out that content without any judgement or recrimination. I’ll say right now that I’ll X-Card anything that involves harming children, but the X-Card can be used for anything – big or small.

I say all this not to be a downer, because The X-Card is actually a really important tool to help us have fun. When you’re playing a gonzo silly game at a convention, there’s no way you can know everything that makes the other players uncomfortable. So the X-Card is our safety net, in case something comes up, so that we can put our energy into playing and having a good time and not worrying about something that might come up and ruin our fun.”

Similarly, I was really glad when I ran a session of Unheroes when a player asked during setup if anyone had an issue with him playing very intensely, because he liked high-intensity, high-bleed experiences. I was able to say something like, “that’s a great question! I’m glad to hear you like to play that way but are aware that it might cause some people some issues. Here are some tools we’ll be using to help manage those issues, so you can feel comfortable playing intensely and other people have the tools they need if they start to feel uncomfortable. That way we’ll all be able to have fun together.”

So to break it down, I use language to sell why it’s good to have, if possible I include an example of content that I would use a safety tool for, and I talk about why everyone benefits from the use of safety tools in gaming spaces.

BUT. Even then it’s important not to forget that…

 

Third: The existence of safety tools don’t negate the need to keep an eye out for player safety

In the debrief after the Apocalypse World longcon where that really uncomfortable moment of “kill her or have sex with her” had happened, I talked about how uncomfortable that had been for me and that I had been really close to not being okay. And the GM nodded and said, yeah, I could tell. And I was so, so grateful that he’d picked up on it! Just as I was then really upset with the person who spoke up in response and said that if I hadn’t been okay, it would have been my fault for not using the X-Card.

And that was such a completely bullshit response that I couldn’t even. Because sometimes the situations making people feel unsafe are rooted in real, actual trauma, and one of the responses to trauma that is pretty fucking common is for people to freeze up or shut down. For me, my experience of being sexually assaulted at GenCon made the possibility of narrative sexual violence in a convention space feel very threatening. And luckily, in this instance, the triggering element in the game was something I could see coming, so I could prepare to X-Card it if it got too close. But sometimes triggers come at you hard and sideways, too fast for you to react, and you can find yourself shutting down and unable to use the very tool to get you out of the situation.

Which is why it is SO IMPORTANT as a GM to keep an eye out for this. And I promise you, you’re already better at this than you think.

As GMs/Facilitators, part of learning our craft is learning to recognize when your players are having fun. If you’ve been GMing for any length of time, you know the difference between a good con game and a bad one. When someone asks how your game just went, it’s the difference between “Eh, it was a B- game. Two players really loved it, but the third player really wasn’t feeling it” and “it was totally great! Everyone was super into it! The energy was high and we all had a great time!”

When a player switches from “having fun” to “not”, you should always check in – especially if that transition is sudden or abrupt. The reason could be entirely mundane – their blood sugar could have bottomed out, or they could have a headache coming on, or they might feel they’re not getting enough spotlight. But it could be something bigger.

You don’t need to make a big deal of it. Something as simple as “hey, you got kinda quiet, everything okay?” between scenes can make all the difference.

And that is where I stop for today

All of this was laying the ground work for the question I actually wanted to answer, which is – how do I include problematic content safely and inclusively? So we’ll get that next time.

However, because I don’t want “calm your testes” to be the preview image, have a picture of a baby rabbit:

[1] I won’t provide links, but his title image was a bald eagle in front of an American Flag, and his bio describes himself as a culture warrior. The self-satire, it hurts!

[2] They reminded me recently that I ALSO banned them from describing their actions while they acted them out, and I was like, “what really? I don’t remember that”. And then they started miming pulling the flesh off their face while also describing it until I was like “NOPE NOPE NOW I REMEMBER OKAY STOP YES I SAID THAT”.

5 thoughts on “Handling difficult material as GM or facilitator: Part 1

  1. Totally agree, great article.

    Also pretty ridiculous that someone would get angry about a game with mechanics to prevent toxicity at the table. As stupid as people who don’t think the X card services a vital roll at the table–even if it’s just to have that conversation and social contract when you introduce it.

  2. @ Wunder:

    Huh. For the first time reading your blog I find myself disagreeing with the issues/discussion/sentiment you’re raising here, specifically regarding your third point.

    I’ve participated in story games at cons (where the role-playing tends to be more intense) that included an X-card at the table, and I’ve checked in with female players during games OOC both before and after actions on my (character’s) part that had the possibility of being offensive/misogynistic in order to make sure everything was “ok” and to make sure lines were clearly drawn.

    But being responsible for other players’ issues, as a GM, when I’m trying to run a game? Being responsible for policing potential “minefields” that might come up in a game where a substantial part of the expectation might be horror or violence or “bad stuff?” Having to take THAT on, while doing the work of running…for whatever reason, that raises some sort of mental gag reflex for me.

    Maybe I’m a jerk, or maybe it’s some sort of blindspot I have (whether from being privileged or insensitive)…but I have an assumption that people who come to the table are going to be open to a certain degree of intimacy and intensity that is part of the draw and power of role-playing. There’s an assumption on my part of informed consent…that people will raise objections in game if they find something objectionable. The rules are there, the tools are there, and there’s a certain degree of player responsibility. I’ll reflect on it, but my initial reaction here is, yeah, it kind of IS your fault if you don’t use an available X-card. As a GM, I help FACILITATE the fun, but I’m not going to be the one SOLELY RESPONSIBLE for the fun at the table. If a person isn’t having a good time, and doesn’t address it despite the safeguards in place, that’s on ME?

    I’m going to have to reflect on this a but, because I am interested in being a “good steward of gaming” and being inclusive and helping grow the hobby by showing folks the fun of these games. Maybe I have some sort of subconscious hang-up I need to get over, but right now I’m balking at even accepting this idea.

    [by the way, I get the traumatic experience = shut down response thing. I do. My gut feeling though is that people need to know what makes them uncomfortable BEFORE they get into a game, and opt out if they can’t handle it. But, again, maybe I’m being insensitive here to “surprises” that crop up in game…still, that’s the deal with the safety tools.]

    [also, I do make a habit in checking in with players AFTER a game to see how it went for them and get ways to improve my GM’ing. But I do “check ins” DURING the session, between scenes or during breaks or whatnot. That may be my bad…but again (dammit) there’s only so much I want to be responsible for!]

    Sorry. Like I said, I usually am fully on board with your posts. This one bugs me.

    • Keeping an eye to my players safety was a thing that I had issues with at first, too, like an unnecessary extra burden, until I realised that it’s already a common thing. It generally exists in the form of dice fudging, keeping an eye on things that would ruin a player’s gaming experience mechanically. Now, folx often will say they don’t want to do that because they want the dice to fall as they may, but it’s never really seen as a burden to attend to in any way.

      It’s really just another form of keeping an eye on whether the players are having fun or not, just making it about safety specifically as a component of that fun. It’s pretty easy to keep a set of issues you keep Ann eye specifically toward: race things, gender things, sex things, but mostly if someone looks like maybe they’re not having fun, a thing you probably look out for anyway, just do a quick think about whether it might be a safety issue. A quick, “you okay? All good?” And that’s it. Your have is safer with no significant effort. Likely scenario is that every single time you ask it you get a “yep”, but it’s that one time that you get a “well actually…” that makes it worth it.

Comments are closed.