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 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”.

Kat Jones’ Revived: “Zombies are a metaphor for everything”

One of the things that I was most looking forward to about this year’s GenCon was the chance to play lots of LARPs (freeform roleplaying LARPs that is, not WoD or boffer LARP), and that hope was realized in full. I played in no less than four LARPs, but without a doubt my favorite was Kat Jones’ Revived. It was was smart, compelling, and intense. But more importantly, the issues that came up in play mirrored so many of the conversations that I had at the convention surrounding issues of diversity that I found myself chewing over the game for a good week afterward, processing what I had gotten out of it.

So today I’m going to be writing about Revived, what made it so compelling, and why it’s an excellent tool for illustrating privilege to the “uninitiated” (as it were). Before we get started, however, I’ll note that Revived is currently in external beta-testing, to be released at a later date (you can contact her here for details, website forthcoming in the future). If you’d like to see more of Kat’s work, you can find the much-more-light-hearted There’s a Fanfic For That here. (It does pretty much exactly what it says on the tin.)

Premise: Zombies as a metaphor for literally anything

On the face of it, the premise sounds a bit absurd – in Revived you all play members of a zombie support group. But as the success of media properties like iZombie, In the Flesh, and Warm Bodies demonstrate, zombie fiction where zombies themselves are the protagonists and not just shambling nameless horrors is fertile ground for rich, dramatic storytelling.

The setup of Revived most resembles In The Flesh[1], in that there has been an outbreak of zombie-plague which wreaked havoc, but a cure was found and zombies are now simply normal people with a chronic condition that needs managing. However, characters in In The Flesh – which is naturally set in the UK – where there is universal healthcare. Whereas Revived takes place in the United States, where issues of inequality of access to healthcare make the premise instantly more complex, and forces players to be much more socially aware. To be fair, In The Flesh does touch on issues of inequality, such as assimilation, passing-privilege, and acceptance movements like Pride. But adding in the extra complication of unequal access to care has the potential to put every type of inequality on the table, depending on what the players are interested in tackling. Because, as Kat pointed out to us in the setup, zombies can be a metaphor for everything.

Now because there are so many widely varying, and often mutually exclusive, tropes surrounding zombies, before play we all worked together to create a “FAQ” about zombies. Ostensibly, this was to ensure that everyone is starting on the same page, but it didn’t take long for us to veer from “how zombies behave and think” into “systemic injustices that zombies have to deal with”. And that is the real brilliance of Revived; in a typical convention game it would be typical to have mostly or entirely white and cisgender players. In such a group of gamers, an overt conversation about privilege and systemic injustice would probably go… badly. (To say the least.) But through the lens of a game about the real-life struggles of zombies? Players can feel free to explore otherwise forbidding territory, because of the familiarity of the tropes involved.

Revived
Here’s what our “FAQ” looked like, minus a few notes added in Act 2.

In play: Exploring intersectionality with zombies

In our game, the setup wound up looking pretty bleak once we were through with it. Some of the major setting elements we came up with to start with:

  • There are two types of drugs needed to manage the “condition” – antivirals and antimicrobials (to prevent decay). The government provides antivirals to all sufferers free of charge, but antimicrobials are expensive and not covered by most insurance plans.
  • Many conservative religious groups actively advocate against “zombie rights” and religiously motivated violence against zombies is common
  • Only 2 states have protections for zombies in hate crime legislation, whereas Arizona (which, due to its climate, has seen a huge influx of zombies) is developing a registry
  • The zombie rights movement is splintered, with political activists, militant activists, and violent extremists all disagreeing on the best way to fight injustice.

And it got even bleaker in play thanks to the characters we saw in play: (my character) a homeless Mexican kid whose parents had declared him an abomination and thrown him out when he tried to come home, an “undocumented” zombie struggling to pass as living while navigating the difficulties of undocumented life in the US, and a zombie cop trying to do his job despite persecution from his fellow cops and lack of access to antimicrobials.

Of course, the foil for all of these characters is the facilitator character (or “counter player”) – the woman in charge of the support group. She is also a zombie, but has been essentially adopted by the state and is having all of her housing and medical needs provided, including antimicrobials. Of course, this means that she’s almost entirely insulated from the injustices that the other characters face, which makes her the White Feminist[2] of the post-zombie world.

Interestingly, however, it didn’t turn out to be the three players versus the counter player in terms of conflict. (Or rather, it didn’t until the very end.) The differing privileges of the three characters meant that they conflicted with each other in ways that highlighted intersectionality in fascinating ways. I clashed with the undocumented character over my refusal to assimilate or even attempt to “pass” as living. The zombie cop in some ways was the most powerful, given his position as a cop, but was also the most affected by the illness, as the only one without access to some form of antimicrobial – which meant that he was the one highlighting issues around disability and access. And no one could agree on what the best approach was with the living to best achieve progress be it civil disobedience, militant activism, violent resistance, pride movements, or appeasement.

In the end, each of our characters – even the facilitator character – wound up crushed by systemic injustice. My character was homeless and living under the radar due to his activities as a militant activist for zombie pride and illegal dealer of street antimicrobials. The zombie cop was weeks away from total disability due to lack of access to antimicrobials, that is if he didn’t first get tossed into the industrial shredder the police used to dispose of “ferals” and zombie malcontents. The undocumented character was trapped in a system that didn’t recognize his rights as a human being and ended up on a watch list for potentially “non-compliant” zombies – a one way ticket to resettlement in a feral compound, a trip through the shredder, or worse. And the facilitator character saw her one chance at government-sponsored change crumble, due to the failure of her pilot program, not to mention the potential loss of coverage and housing.

Post-Game reflections

Revived wound up being a very strange experience for me, in that playing my character was very much informed by the bullshit I’ve had to deal with as a result of my feminism while simultaneously allowing me to access an experience (however vicariously) of oppression that I will never face. As a white, cishet, able-bodied middle-class Christian, I will never have to worry about passing, or pressure to stay closeted, or dysphoria, or assimilation, or racialized violence – and yet all of these were things that wound up being very important to my character.

The things I found myself getting most angry about – assimilation, pride, refusing to feel guilty about my identity – were issues that I will never have to fight against in my daily life. But the language that I used was very much the language of intersectional feminism that I try to practice here on my blog, and the frustration that I felt felt toward the other characters felt incredibly familiar. I found myself saying things like “it is not my job to educate you”, “you do not get to prioritize your feelings over actual injustice”, “I refuse to not express anger about my lived experience of injustice”, “you do not get cookies for being a decent fucking human being”, and “this is about the radical idea that I am a person who deserves to exist” – all things I have actually said in conversations about feminism on the internet.

All in all, it was a strange and eye-opening experience, even (or perhaps especially) for someone who devotes a lot of time to writing about these issues. I sincerely wish there was some way to make this required material for all gamers, because this was hands-down the best and most accessibly illustration of privilege that I have yet experienced.

[1] If you haven’t seen In The Flesh, I can’t recommend it enough – even if you’re normally not a fan of zombies. It is amazingly compelling and hard-hitting and is just wonderfully acted.
[2] Please note that I say this as a feminist who is white; there is a difference between feminists who are white and White Feminists.

Now on YouTube: Lady Event Organizer Roundtable

I’ve never been a fan of status games, but my least favorite is this: there’s this thing that happens in the tabletop world where designers occupy the top of the status pyramid and are considered to be solitary geniuses who pull games fully formed from their brain meats.

This is deeply problematic, because it erases the contributions of women in many ways. Game design is not a solitary pursuit, you cannot make a good game without the input of other smart, insightful people – and I know a lot of women who rock at giving playtest feedback that helps to solve design problems for games still in playtesting! It also sucks because there is an ongoing impulse by certain high-status members of the community to gatekeep what “counts” as “a game”, and coincidentally a lot of the work done by women somehow manages to consistently get disqualified in these “conversations”.

But mostly it sucks because it plays into gendered narratives surrounding what is important to our hobby and what is trivial. Game design is seen as a male activity and is thus valued more highly than stereotypically “female” activities – even when those activities improve the hobby as a whole!

It’s something I’ve written about before in my post about a Twitter-flap over women in non-design roles in D&D:

…there are an awful lot of women out there in non-design roles doing work that is vital to the community. Convention organizing! Event organizing! Community building! All of these are vital! Gaming is a hobby that requires community, and that requires a space and a time to happen. Without the women doing this work, our hobby wouldn’t be what it is.

And it’s something that I’ve been wanting to write about for a while. Event organizing is vital because event organizers are literally creating the spaces where gamers can meet new people and interact with new ideas – which is what is needed to keep our hobby innovative and vibrant. So I’ve been wanting to talk about the work they do and maybe counter some of that for quite a while now. Because the gendered narratives surrounding whose work is valued in our community suck!

The problem that kept me from doing so is that I’m most decidedly Not An Event Organizer. I do pretty okay at keeping myself organized and on task, but event organizing is not (nor is it likely to ever be) one of my skillsets. So I decided that I would recruit some of the awesome women that I know who do event organizing to have a roundtable to highlight their experiences and why what they do is important. (Spoiler alert: it went super well!)

The hangout

Normally this is the sort of thing that one might publicize beforehand, but honestly this was agonizing for me to put together as I was dealing with all of the imposter syndrome. Which is why I put this together, made it happen, and decided to publicize after. Thankfully, all I had to do was let the awesome ladies I assembled talk and say really smart things. It went really well, even if I did say “awesome” too much.

Of course, the process of putting this together made me really appreciate just how much work event organizers do and how invisible that work usually is. This is something that I started trying to put together in January and only just managed now, and I can tell you that even for something this simple there were a fair number of things that I overlooked. (Thankfully everyone was super gracious about it.)

The team that I assembled to help me talk about this ended up being:

(You can also find Krista White and Strix on Twitter.)

Many thanks to the ladies who made this possible. Given how well this went, I might consider doing this in the future if I find myself wanting to spotlight a topic that I don’t have a lot of personal expertise in!