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