On safety: you can’t have emotional safety until you remove predators from your community

A couple of months ago, I was contacted by Cheyenne Grimes about the topic of safety in roleplaying games as part of a more extensive project she’s looking to put together about the topic. I was pleasantly surprised at how thorough and extensive the questions she sent were, so I asked for permission to publish her questions and my answers.

(Given that I was preparing to publish some pretty big stuff about abuse and abusers, it shouldn’t be surprising that a lot of my answers revolve around a common theme – namely that we can’t make meaningful improvements to cultures of safety at the table without taking action to remove predators and abusers from our community.)

The interview is as follows, with Cheyenne’s questions in bold and my answers in plain text.


What is your name, and what is your experience with safety in larp and RPGs? (Please feel welcome to mention any other relevant credentials here, this is how I will credit you.)

My name is Anna Kreider, and I am a blogger who focuses on issues of games, social justice, and rehabilitating broken communities. I also design games, both tabletop and LARP that focus on emotionally challenging content. Whether it’s The Watch – a game about women and non-binary people dismantling an allegory for patriarchy, Autonomy – game that teaches men to perform female socialization and then punishes them for it, or The Straights Are Not Okay – a game about marinating in heterosexist emotional repression, the games I write tend to invoke intense and uncomfortable feelings. But obviously, I always want to find ways to do that responsibly and without harming my players, so safety is something that I spend a lot of time thinking about.

What is your ideal safety system structure, and why? (Is it a single manager? A team? A list of rotating third party consultants? An automated help-desk software?)

So, to use the analogy of things that promote safety as a tool, I think we need to stop thinking about safety in terms of which safety tool is BEST and more think about what safety tools do you need to have in your toolbox? Because not having the correct safety tools is bad, but using the wrong safety tools can actually cause further harm to someone in a difficult situation. And no one safety tool is going to work for everyone at your table or in your game. To use an example that everyone in tabletop is familiar with, the X-Card has become pretty standard at most organized events. However, I also know people who find the X-Card triggering and who prefer other safety tools. So it’s important to think of things to improve player safety not in terms of one-size-fits-all solutions, but rather than a constellation of related approaches.

In the games that I run, I do have defaults I stick to. The X-Card is at the table in all of the tabletop games that I run, partly for safety and partly because it’s an easy way to shut down sexist or racist comments during con games without getting into an argument. The LARPs I run always have The Door Is Always Open, Cut, Brake/Largo, and sometimes (depending on the game) the OK Check-In.

More crucial than even having the right tools, however, is having a genuine culture of safety that goes beyond paying lip service to the concept of safety, because without a genuine safety culture, safety tools are not useful or effective. This means taking emotional safety seriously and not denigrating players who need safety tools to engage with challenging content, or lionizing people who play “intensely” (both things I’ve seen happen in LARP especially). However, it also means getting your damn house in order when accusations of harassment and abuse come forward. There has been a lot of furor in LARP circles over dudes who talk big game about safety being outed as harassers/predators, and this shit is so predictable that you could practically set your watch by it.

No one is seriously going to believe that you care about emotional safety in your games if you turn a blind eye to predators in your games. If you don’t care about the emotional safety of survivors outside of your game, then why would you care about emotional safety inside the game? That kind of organizational double-think is a huge barrier to people actually using safety tools when they need to instead of just suffering silently.

Lastly, all of this stuff has to be talked about, planned, and agreed upon before the event. I don’t participate in blockbuster LARPs, but I’ve heard stories where the approach to safety is very ad hoc or not addressed at all, and that kind of laissez faire attitude toward safety is pretty much guaranteeing that someone is going to be harmed at your event.

How do you communicate your safeguards to your players? (A policy packet, a workshop or lecture, a website, etc)

First, I make sure that the pitch for the game is up front about challenging themes or material, because you never want to surprise someone with challenging content after they’ve signed up for your game. Once players arrive, I review the game pitch again and specifically call out the themes that might cause difficulty. For example, “The Watch is a game about women and non-binary people destroying patriarchy. During this game, we’re going to center themes of toxic masculinity and patriarchal oppression, although we will never showcase sexual or gendered violence. Is that something everyone is okay with? Great.” And then I review the safety tools being used before I go any further with explaining the rules of the game – because I want to be clear that the safety rules are the MOST important rules, and not make them seem like an afterthought or addendum.

Also, I’m always careful about how I frame the need for safety tools. So rather than saying ‘this lets us remove problematic content’ – a framing I’m not particularly fond of, I’ll say “obviously we love and care about each other and want everyone to have a good experience, but we don’t know each other’s backgrounds and play preferences, so this is a tool to help us play bravely and engage with challenging content while still having compassion for each other. I promise that I’ll use this tool if I need to, and I hope that you’ll do the same, so we can all have a satisfying play experience”.

Do you provide outside safety resources to players? If so, what resources and how?

Because most of the games I run are one-shots at conventions, usually not? Although for the last several years, all of the games that I’ve written have included links to additional reading about safety tools and safety resources.

How often, if ever, would you consult professionals during the process of handling reports?

Sorry, I’m not quite sure what you mean here?

What are some of the most important things to keep in mind when writing safeguards?

While I design games, I haven’t done anything with designing safety tools themselves. I find it’s easier for me to use and adapt already existing tools than to develop my own, although I’ll often refine the script as to how those tools are introduced and framed.

What is your experience with whisper networks? Under what circumstances do you trust them, and why?

Whisper networks are simultaneously extremely flawed and extremely vital, and they’re not going away any time soon because they are a direct reaction to our inability to remove predators from our communities. As long as we continue to enable predators and punish victims, we are going to keep having whisper networks.

Obviously whisper networks aren’t perfect, because inevitably the warnings about missing stairs don’t reach everyone who needs to hear them – especially people new to the community, which is why predators often target people who haven’t been around long enough to know about their history of abuse. However, I myself am part of several active whisper networks, and on more than one occasion have reached out to share private warnings with someone I thought needed to know them. Sometimes this has happened because I have not felt safe to talk openly about bad experiences with an abuser/predator/bad actor with a lot of social currency or power. However, sometimes this has happened because I know things about an abuser/predator/bad actor that are not my story to share, and the person who told me those things in confidence is not willing to be public about their story.

As someone who has tanked on issues of social justice and has taken a stand in directly naming several abusers, I can tell you from painful personal experience that there is a very real cost to openly naming abusers, and it is not a cost that everyone can afford to pay. And the more marginalized someone in a community is, the higher the cost for speaking out becomes.

That said, whisper networks are not perfect and anonymous accusations can be weaponized for the sake of personal vendettas. That’s why I place more weight on something I hear through a whisper network when it comes with a name attached, and I’m able to speak to the person to verify that they stand by that allegation. An individual anonymous accusation is something I treat more as a data point – potentially useful, potentially not, but requiring more information before any meaningful conclusions can be reached.

How do you protect your safeguards and safety systems from misuse cases?

I mean, there’s the $64,000 question, right? Because one of the primary tools in the abuser’s toolkit is DARVO – Deny, Attack, and Reverse Victim and Offender. It’s something I’ve personally experienced, when my harasser claimed that because I was open about the abuse he perpetuated against me, I was actually harassing him and was thus an evil abuser who needed to be ousted from the community. And put that way, the logic seems laughably transparent, doesn’t it?

And yet, despite that I was one of dozens of people he harassed this way, it took the better part of a decade (as well as four women coming forward to accuse him of rape and gendered violence at the same time) in order for people to finally remove him from their circles. Prior to that, when his bad behavior became an issue and the allegations of harassment were raised, people would point to his DARVO rhetoric as an argument that my accounts couldn’t be trusted. That because there was controversy, it was better to give him the benefit of the doubt.

So it’s great to theorize about how you protect your system from misuse by abusers, but given how bad we are at actually believing survivors and removing predators when they throw out these DARVO tactics, I think it’s a problem that we don’t have enough collective knowledge in how to solve yet.

How do you keep your safety systems from being infiltrated by abusive people? Do you have a plan for that?

Honestly, the culture of fear and silence around abusers is so widespread that I think it’s impossible to prevent abusers from infiltrating safety systems entirely. Until we have normalized people speaking openly about abuse and making abusers actually experience consequences for their abusive actions, it’s unrealistic to think that we can design systems that will exclude abusers from infiltrating them. Especially since establishing credibility as a safety expert makes a great cover against accusations of abuse. “Well so-and-so can’t possibly have done those things because they’ve done so much work to improve safety in our community!” Etc etc.

Instead, you need to plan for what happens when someone on your safety team is accused of abuse. How do you evaluate that claim while making sure that the person bringing forward that claim isn’t unfairly punished for doing so? How do you make sure that the person accused of abuse has no ability to marginalize or intimidate their accuser, while also leaving yourself open to the possibility that the accusation might be personally motivated? Also, how do you deal with a situation in which a relationship has spun out of control and both parties have abused each other? Because that situation is WAY more common than we like to think, especially when mental illness and trauma are involved.

Now, all of that said, I’m going to add that just because the accuser is of a marginalized identity doesn’t always mean they’re acting in good faith. Just as queer white people can still be racist, not everyone who brings forward accusations is acting in good faith. I’ve personally seen things like a marginalized person who accused a cisdude ex-partner of abuse as revenge for a relationship dissolving because they know they’ll be believed and their partner won’t. Or a marginalized person accusing an ex-partner of abuse as a cover for the fact that they were abusing their ex-partner. So there are definite edge cases to be aware of and be cautious of.

That said, the statistics of who speaks up about abuse, the veracity of their claims, and how many additional people stay silent are very clear. Most of the time, if someone comes forward with a claim of abuse, there is at least some merit to the claim. And very very often, if someone comes forward with a claim of abuse, there are other additional people who have had similarly abusive experiences but who don’t feel they can be public in naming that person until other people step forward first.

What are some red flags you look for that may indicate someone is abusive or manipulating a situation?

I mean, many, many, many words have been spilled about how to recognize abusers, so what I’ll say is this. Believe actions, not words. And pay attention to patterns over individual incidents. Abusers are very, very good at using the right words to make you believe in their good intentions. So you always have to consider the full context and history of someone’s actions.

As far as specific red flags? I mean. Most people know what inappropriate behavior looks like when they see it, and most people are able to discern when someone is uncomfortable. (This is not true for all people on the autism spectrum, but it’s true enough to be a useful generalization) Very often when someone is outed as an abuser, it comes out that there were lots of red flags about that person’s behavior, but they were either excused, rationalized, or dismissed by the community, because it would be inconvenient to deal with that person’s inappropriate behavior. (Very often, abusers invest heavily in building social capital exactly as a defense against people seriously examining their actions or behavior. While not all abusers are prominent and powerful, many are and this needs to be remembered.)

So believe actions, not words. Believe patterns over individual incidents. And if someone in your organization brings up the same red flags over a long period of time, then commit to having a genuine conversation with the people you have seen made uncomfortable by that person, and commit to having a conversation with the person tripping those red flags.

What resources do you use to inform your own decisions in these matters?

Because of my history of being abused by popular narcissists who get the community to sanction their abuse of me, frankly I don’t have anything to do with any kind of official decision-making when it comes to these sorts of community interactions. It’s too exhausting and triggering for me. I know it’s important work, but I’m frankly too jaded to engage with the process with the good faith that is required for meaningful and helpful outcomes.

What is your process for getting to the bottom of reports of bad behavior?

See above.

What is your ideal process for a participant reporting bad behavior? What information do you require, and how should they submit it?

In a past life, I actually developed a concise 2 page document that sets out how conversations about allegations of abuse should be handled to ensure that everyone remains safe. It’s a bit hard to summarize, but that document is here: https://docs.google.com/document/d/1Guy32eOGJvreHoqRgnvOzCmzxyjHnE19L3rvxx2G9Xo/edit?usp=sharing

What would you change about the current safety culture if you could?

I will shout this from the rooftops until I die, apparently, but honestly I think the two biggest problems are:

  1. People who believe that the push for safety in games are whiny entitled snowflakes who are ruining everyone’s fun. Safety tools actually increase people’s ability to engage intensely with challenging content and promote everyone’s fun, not the reverse.
  2. The rank hypocrisy of people who want to address emotional safety in games while also turning a blind eye to powerful people who abuse people, or actively dismissing reports of abuse as personally motivated or unreliable. Until we address the issue of our communities actively sanctioning abuse and punishing people who speak out, we’re not going to make serious headway in addressing the problem of protecting players from harm during emotionally intense games.
Do you have any advice for people who want to make their community more safe?

Educate yourself about abuser tactics and psychology and become familiar with the abuser playbook. You can’t make communities materially more safe unless you learn how abusers think and act.

Survey of marginalized designers, running through December 8th

Since the death of G+, I’ve been thinking about the impact on the ability of marginalized game designers to have space to talk about design. I think I’m not alone, so I made a survey.

Click here to take the survey!

Much of conversation around game design has drifted back to private channels like forums or Discord servers, which pose notable barriers for marginalized designers. But we can’t talk about solutions without knowing the scope of the problem! Hence this survey.

This survey will remain open through Sunday December 8th. You are not required to provide a name or identifying information. If you choose to provide optional text answers, your answers may be quoted, but I will not share survey results with anyone.

To be clear: when I say game designer, I mean ANYONE who designs ANY kind of game, including small hacks, free games, design feedback on playtests or drafts, LARP design, or intentionally playing RPGs not as written. You do NOT need to publish games to count.

Thank you.

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”:

vistani

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.

dca9mongrelfolk

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: blog.dictionary.com

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.

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”.

How our game about women is inspiring conversations about masculinity

I’ve got a lot of things to catch up on post-GenCon, including assembling notes about my experience as an Industry Insider Featured Presenter so that I can write in detail about that – since it was an amazing experience. But today I wanted to take the time to reflect on some compelling conversations that I’ve had about masculinity as inspired by The Watch – the low-fantasy game about female and female-of-center soldiers fighting to retake their homeland from a nebulous threat called The Shadow that I’m currently co-designing with Andrew Medeiros[1].

Explanatory sidebar:

What is The Watch? Well, to go into a bit more detail, here’s how I’ve described it previously:

The Watch is a low-fantasy game about women (and other female-of-center people) who are fighting to retake their homeland from the Shadow – a darkly sorcerous threat that has the power to possess men and use them for its own violent ends. So much has already been lost to the Shadow – land, loved ones, and traditions. But your people have come together, forming a new fighting force from those able to resist the Shadow, which they call the Watch.

That you will defeat the Shadow is never in question. What you are playing to find out is how much will it cost you? On the day of the Shadow’s final defeat, who is it that you will say should have been standing beside you? Which of you will burn bright and fast, and which of you will hunker down and see this thing through to the end?

The Watch is a game that is Powered By The Apocalypse, meaning it uses the Apocalypse World system – albeit with a ton of hacks, modifications, and innovations. It’s currently in beta testing, and Drew and I will be looking to KickStart it in 2017.

[/sidebar]

Between the two of us, we ran a whopping seven sessions of The Watch, and I’m pretty excited about the fact that the people who played it were mostly male – by an overwhelming margin. (30 out of 35 total players, if you’re keeping score.) Admittedly, there’s always the potential for things to go a bit sideways when you have mostly men playing all female characters[2] (especially at a con game, where investment tends to be lower), but the guys who played it were super engaged with the premise – which was really gratifying! Especially in light of the difficulty that I’ve had getting men interested in playing The Starlit Kingdom, which is also kind of explicitly about women.

And sure, it would have been nice to have more women at the table. Both of the sessions I ran had five male players, and I always feel more comfortable when I’m not the only woman at the table. But there’s a pretty wonderful thing that happens with The Watch when you have a lot of men at the table because of this lovely little rule called Resist the Shadow.

PCs have to roll to Resist the Shadow “when [they] give the Shadow an opening into [their] heart by engaging in toxic behavior”, which is a reflection of internalized misogyny and the toxic scripts that people of all genders – not just men – internalize. But…

Well. …can you keep a secret, readers? Of course you can. I can trust you.

See, what I never actually say when I run the game is that the Shadow is actually patriarchy. Instead, I do a bit of a shell game when I introduce the game to men at the table – I tell them that the Shadow is toxic masculinity, and that’s why the men in this world are so vulnerable to the Shadow. Because the idea of “man” is what makes them vulnerable to its influence. And all of that is true!

But! Something that I’ve observed through running this blog and having conversations with men in other feminist spaces is that sometimes, it’s easier to get men to engage with conversations about patriarchy through coming at toxic masculinity. There can be a defensive impulse when conversations are framed around patriarchy, an impulse to say “not me – that’s other men”, because it’s hard to admit that a key part of your identity causes you to be complicit in harming others. I find that calling out behavior as “toxic masculinity” can make some men much more receptive, because that is more evocative of how toxic ideas of manhood are personally damaging. In other words, some men are a lot more willing to accept that unconscious attitudes cause you to harm yourself than they are to accept that those same attitudes cause you to harm others[3].

So. When I’m starting the game, I’ll read a few paragraphs of setting introduction, to explain the world and the situation. And then I’ll say to the players something like, “and spoiler alert – the Shadow is toxic masculinity”. People will nod, and we’ll move on and get right into playing, and then I get to sit back and watch for something fucked up and toxic. And when the men outnumber other players at the table, the chances are pretty good that I’ll get to tell someone to Resist the Shadow at least once[4] – which I love.

My favorite example of this from GenCon was an incident that happened in the first session I ran. I had used Shutterfly to print a bunch of photos off of Pinterest for players to pick a character image from at the table. One photo I included in the set was this picture, which I’d intended to set aside for a villainous sorceress – only I forgot and a player selected it for their super weird character. So when I introduced the sorceress character and described her in a way that was very similar – porcelain white skin, white hair – one of the players immediately jumped on it. His character started acting suspicious, then recruited the other PCs into helping him corner the weird PC – whereupon they started trying to interrogate the poor woman.

So I leaned forward and asked, “so just to be clear, you’re getting your other squad mates to help you police her behavior because of how she looks?”. The player in question agreed that was an accurate summary, so I said, “awesome. That’s super toxic. Please roll to Resist the Shadow.” The player looked surprised for a second, then nodded his agreement and rolled the move, and afterward we had a pretty cool conversation about it!

Another notable example happened a couple months ago where I was running (again at a convention) and one PC – played by a guy who looked to be in his early 20s – challenged another PC (played by Drew, actually) to a fight. So they started squaring off against each other, with all kinds of macho posturing for the benefit of the audience of NPCs surrounding them. Again I stepped in before things went any further. “Hey, guys. That’s some macho dick-measuring nonsense you’re engaged in. Roll to Resist the Shadow”.

Again I got surprised looks which were followed by nods of agreement. The rolls happened, and afterward we had a great conversation about macho posturing and about the difference between masculine bonding-through-insults versus bonding through real emotional intimacy. And it was during that conversation that Drew said that this game that we made to tell stories about women has actually been teaching him some great things about what toxic masculinity looks like – which mirrors my experience to a certain extent.

Obviously I won’t ever be able to fully understand what it means to experience toxic masculinity as a man. But through running this game so much and having these conversations, I’m getting a better feel for what it looks like. Which means that as a GM, I’m getting better at using The Watch to prompt those moments of introspection and reflection on patriarchy and toxic masculinity, and how it shapes our interactions. And that’s exciting! It’s a wonderful feeling, as a designer, to be able to run your game in a way that lets people have fun while also learning to see something that is normally unconscious from a different angle.

It’s also a cool feeling when you write a game intended to highlight a given issue, and you end up learning more about that issue than you’d expected. One of the great things about roleplaying game design is that roleplaying games are structured as a conversation. They only work well when everyone takes a turn talking and listening, and when everyone remains open and receptive to the experience and to each other. That kind of openness means that when you play with someone who comes at a familiar issue in a different way, it has the potential to put even concepts that feel like old hat into an interesting new light.

And all of this is just one of the many reasons why I’m excited to be working on this game[5]! I’m also excited about developing a game that requires you to tell stories of heroic military adventure starring women and non-binary people. And I’m excited to be writing a game that encourages queer content! And I’m excited to finally be working on a game that people actually want to play, unlike my weird harsh shit like Autonomy! Seriously. The Watch is already so good, and it’s not even done yet. I can’t wait to see what happens, and what awesome conversations it inspires next.

[1] Who, it should be noted, won a Silver Ennie at GenCon for his work as the co-designer of Urban Shadows! Well done!

[2] Several years ago, I ran a game of Zombie Cinema where some bros were playing women and they were the worst, most reductively stereotyped characters ever, and it was just painful.

[3] And, you know, that’s understandable. Privilege makes us believe that we aren’t complict in that harm, and even when we see the harm it makes us believe that our intentions (I didn’t mean to hurt you) matter more than the end result (I hurt you).

[4] Not because men are clueless or malicious! Simply because men are unaccustomed to doing the sorts of emotional labor around maintaining nontoxic group dynamics that women are commonly socialized into believing that they have to take on by default.

[5] Not to mention that Drew is generally an awesome collaborator who is fun to work with. That’s kinda nice too. I guess.