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.

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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.

Project Update: The Watch (freebie)

Hi, folks

I’ve written previously about The Watch – the low-fantasy roleplaying game about female and female-of-center soldiers fighting to retake their homeland from a nebulous threat called The Shadow – here on my blog. This past weekend at GenCon, my co-designer Andrew Medeiros and I ran a whopping seven sessions of The Watch – and we’re really happy with how it’s shaping up! I plan on writing in more detail about how that went, but in the mean time, I need help from you – my readers!

There’s a limit to how far we can take this on our own. We’re looking for some external playtesting, and we’d like to be able to get feedback by mid-fall so I can look at getting the first draft of the book finished by the end of the year.

If you’d be interested in running either a one-shot, a con game, or a small campaign for some folks and are willing to commit to getting us some playtest feedback by September 30th, then please mosey over and fill out this form so we can get you set up with the latest version of the playtest documents.

Thanks for your time and attention!

Project Preview: The Watch

Hey, folks. Today I thought I’d take a moment to preview a project that I’ve been working on. Since this past December, I’ve been co-designing a low fantasy Powered By The Apocalypse game called The Watch with Andrew Medeiros, co-designer of Urban Shadows and designer of The Forgotten, Star Wars World, and a number of other PBTA projects. And I am SO. EXCITED. Because this game is going to be SO. GOOD.

What is The Watch?

Well, to quote myself (from the current draft of the book, which I’m writing now):

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.

The story of The Watch is structured around the military campaign against the Shadow’s forces. You will tell stories of war, love, and sacrifice as your characters fight to hang on to what they have left. … The military campaign is what will give structure to your story, from the early defensive days of the campaign when the Watch is just trying to dig in and hold the new border, to the final days when you are closing in on the stronghold of the Shadow itself.

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?

In other words, if you want to play a fantasy military campaign where all of the PCs look something like this:

Watch-shirt
Illustration by Anna Kreider

…you’ll probably be interested in this game.

How finished is it? When can I play it?

The Watch is currently in limited playtesting. The first playtests at Dreamation were very successful, and the game has only been getting more polished since then, thanks to help from local groups and external playtesters who have given us lots of great feedback, and a lovely community of folks on G+. We will open it up to wider playtesting at some point, although it’s hard to pin down a precise date, since game development is a messy process and both of us are busy people. Still, we’re very much in the polishing and refinement stage. All of the mechanical subsystems are in place and working very well, the basic and secondary moves have been finalized. The game runs smoothly and it sings. Right now we’re just focused on tying off loose ends and making things as polished as possible.

We will be running some sessions of The Watch at GenCon, among other things, through Games on Demand. So if you’re super curious, you can try to find us there.

What are our plans? Will there be a KickStarter?

It’s safe to say that we are definitely going to publish The Watch as a standalone game, and like most other “finished” PBTA games it will be a book similar in form factor to Apocalypse World or Night Witches, since I’m currently in the middle of writing the book. That means there will also be a KickStarter at some point. Unfortunately, we can’t get any more specific than that. We’re currently looking into different publishing options and aren’t really sure what the final arrangements are going to look like. Trust me, when we get that figured out, I’ll be sure to shout it from the rooftops!

If you’re curious about following the project, we’ll be posting semi-regular updates on G+ using the hashtag #joinTheWatch.