Monday, February 27, 2017

Playtest Focus: The Watch

It's not very often I stumble across a game that personally resonates with my lived experiences. It's also not very often that I leave a game feeling empowered. It's not an emotion I angle for and it's not something I often get out of a game, because I often play women, and the women I play aren't usually in situations where they're fighting. Or if they are, as in the case of a hunter, they're fighting their friends and that's not empowering, it's just painful.

Of course, the solution would be to play more traditional "going out and beating the bad guy" games. Except they don't give me the emotional payback I want. So when I was talking to Andrew Medeiros and he mentioned his new game he was working on with Anna Kreider, about women warriors being badass and fighting against this invasive force called the Shadow, I was like "Oh my fucking god, yes please!" We playtested it within the week and I've been playing sessions of it ever since.

The Watch is a game about this unstoppable force (spoilers: It's stoppable) that's invading your homelands. It turns men against the clans and distorts reality and corrupts those it touches. It's an intense, horrible force. Because men are more susceptible to the call of the Shadow, they're pulled back into the homelands and women form an army to stop the spread of the Shadow and protect the new border of the remaining homelands. This army is called The Watch.

Mechanically, the Watch is a Powered by the Apocalypse game with a lot of additional moving pieces to help create an intense, war-focused situation with beautiful, relationship building moments between missions. There's definitely a touchstone in the game from Night Witches, and it's just as elegant and interesting as its predecessor. Each of the playbooks are nuanced and clever, and offer a variety of roles to take on in the fiction.

There are some great moves in this game, including the Mission move. Much like Night Witches, there are times when you go on missions. In this case, you go on a set mission that the facilitator sets out for you, such as defending a stronghold or protecting a caravan. These smaller missions eventually let you advance the game to the next stage, which is beginning to push back against the Shadow and retake your homeland. Eventually, the game builds until you face the Shadow, and have an ultimate blow out.

Because you're at war and shit is fucking hard, there's a jaded track. This jaded track is akin to corruption that we've seen in Andrew Medeiros' Urban Shadows game. It gives you jaded moves, which naturally are badass but come with heavy cost. I didn't get a chance to play with this mechanic much, as we haven't played through a full campaign yet, but I'm excited to see my Bear deteriorate. The Jaded track also really drives home your first character probably won't be your last. The war against the Shadow destroys people, constantly, and it's going to destroy you. That you get to watch yourself become bitter and broken is part of what makes the game so evocative.

Blowing Off Steam, one of the moves that lets you deal with your broken self, really shows how much pressure these women are under and how it gets to them. A few of the other moves, like Resist the Shadow or Let the Shadow In allow you to engage in toxic behaviour, or call out toxic behaviour, in the game. This happened one time when we were playing with two guys, whose characters got into a pissing contest with each other over something. The Gm wisely went "Resist the Shadow. You're behaving like Shadow-touched men."

It was so poignant and really drove home that you're playing women in the war who are afraid of becoming what their menfolk have become. I really really dug it and I love that the game focuses on the social interactions of women and how that looks in a stressed situation. There are several games I've seen that are about women, but mostly just seem to be games about men inverted, which isn't fair. Because it turns out the social pressures on women and their gender roles are different, so a world run by women would be different (and toxic in its own way). The Watch navigates this space really really well by having the touchstone of the old world be called out through mechanics.

I've had the great luck of playing the game with both my friends, random groups, and playing it with Andrew and Anna, with Anna at the helm as a badass GM I can't wait to play with again. I've seen the game through a few variations as playtesting evolved it, and I have to say, the most recent version I played made me walk away wanting more and more. The world has evolved from "you're in clans" to "these are the clans, these are some hard questions about them, and these are the reasons they matter."

In the game, the clans have dissolved in an effort to unify and work together against the Shadow. Of course, old habits die hard and clan lines are still important to the women. The game allows for this space of historical conflict, one we find in communities working under a unified front to fight against something. It's very normal for a group of people to break down over ideologies and old issues. The fact that the game lets you play in this space is fascinating, because it gives the world life and colour.

Like all PbtA games, creation is fast for characters. You get to choose a bunch of things. One of the things that's important, is your gender. The game doesn't divide into men, women, androgynous, or transgressing, like many hacks do (and I don't think those four choices are adequate or good anymore). The Watch gives you a swath of gender choices, all more femme focused than anything else. You can be genderfluid, trans woman, genderqueer, and yes, you can be cis-woman as well. You also choose your presentation and how you're performing that gender. This game embraces that conversation, and it's one we need to see in our community more.

Having also been a GM, I can say it's a lot more work on the GM's side than other PbtA games like Monsterhearts. There's a Shadow and what it does needs to be watched carefully. You need to track the allies and what happens when the Shadow gets ahold of them. It's a lot of emotional trauma on your players, and making sure there's space to discuss that while also keeping the pressure on them. It wasn't my strongest game I've ever ran, but I really loved the challenge of doing it. I really want to run a full campaign of it once it's out.

Overall, the Watch really shines as a way to let people explore fantasy war through the lens of women*. It lets you fight a big ass bad guy with serious guidelines on how to do that. It lets you do missions, fall apart, and try to hold each other together. It also allows for a really uncomfortable space for women to be haunted by and tormented by the men they loved and may still love. It's an emotionally intensive, explosive game that promises a world of pain and victory.

I'm excited to see the final product. I want to see what advice they have for GMing this game, as it is the part I struggled with the most. It could be because beginning generation is a bit of a process, as you pick things about the Shadow and the world around you that you have to immediately grok to get into game. I think I would do this and then do the first episode later after I had time to think about it. This is the chapter I'm probably the most excited about.

I also really hope the game doesn't pull back from having an important discussion on gender, presentation, identity, and bringing its players along with it. For the sake of inclusivity and making our community a better one, this game really has the potential to have that conversation. I trust in both Anna Kreider and Andrew Medeiros to navigate that space excellently and I really hope it has the impact I want it to. I've heard so many genderfluid and trans women talk about how the game finally made a space for them to be the heroes, for them to be main characters. And that's so important to have in our gaming space. We need this.

If you want to play badass women kicking ass, taking names, and saving the fucking world, check out the Watch. Lucky for you and me, it's on Kickstarter right now and you can go and back the shit out of it. If you can't, that's okay too. I'm sure it'll be hitting a table near you soon.

Stop the Shadow. Save the world. Join the Watch.

Wednesday, February 22, 2017

Unintentional Harm: Oops, I Did It Again

Have you ever had a game go sideways and you're not really sure how or when it happened but man, oh, man, did it every go sideways? It didn't just go sideways, it crashed and burned and everyone at the table sat there in actual shock for a few minutes? Or worse, someone got hurt and didn't say anything until they couldn't bear it anymore and you feel awful but the damage is so far gone at this point there's nothing you can do but flail at them and hope they hear you past their hurt?

This happened to me recently. I wasn't the wronged party. I was the one who had stepped in shit and didn't notice I was causing the whole place to stink. Honestly, I should've seen it coming. I should have picked up what was happening but instead, I was too busy engrossed in the fiction and playing a character and feeling a lot of feels that made me incredibly (beautifully) uncomfortable.

After this game exploded and the GM wisely called it, I felt powerless to fix the mistake I had made. I tried giving an apology and it wasn't wanted or welcomed, and I stopped, because I wanted to respect that the wounded party wasn't interested or willing to hear me out. And that's fine. We can't really ask people to listen to us after we've done something that's hurt them. I sat there, stunned, and hurt. I wasn't hurt because people had hurt me. I was ashamed and saddened that I had participated in and done something that made someone else have a shitty table experience.

Sometimes, we don't see this coming. Other times, we can head it off at the pass. There isn't a much more shitty feeling than knowing you've burned a bridge before you even knew it was a bridge. As I retreated from the game and ran back to the hotel room to try to figure out how I had fucked up so badly, I began to tumble down the rabbit hole of anxiety around gaming. I strive hard not to hurt people and not to silence them, but clearly I had made a mistake.

It's easy to do. Many of us, even conscious of our privilege, end up doing or saying something unintentional. We use a slur we didn't know was a slur, we make an ableist character, we minimize someone's experience, we talk over people with less power than us, we dominate at a table instead of creating space, we misgender or use the wrong pronouns, we sexualize when we shouldn't... we fuck up. There's no way around it. We. Fuck. Up.

There's no graceful way to recover from a fuck up. You done bad, boy. And as shitty as you may be feeling, it is not the job of the wronged party to make you feel better. So even if you want to explain it wasn't your intention or that you didn't mean to hurt them, they don't have to listen to you. As much as I wanted to sit there and explain the fuck out of myself, I knew it was a bad idea. We were past the point of no return and there was nothing I could say that would make them like me again. I had burned a bridge. I didn't mean to. But that doesn't matter.

The internet is host to a lot of articles on how intention doesn't matter. This concept is incredibly hard for people because we are largely raised in a world where intention does matter. We grade how bad of a murderer you are on intention. Our movies and television shows are riddled with people who didn't mean it but did something awful but understandable. How many super heroes didn't mean to kill someone when they did? Do you think that someone's family cares if the hero meant to do it? No. They don't fucking care.

And neither does the wounded party. While this isn't necessarily true, your intention doesn't matter. Not because you don't matter, but because the trigger has already been pulled. You've already shot the gun. All you can do now is try to deal with the consequences. In the moments after a gun is shot, we worry about who got shot, not if the shooter is bleeding. After someone has been hurt, we worry about the hurt party, not the person who hurt them. And they're hurt. Even if you didn't mean it, they're hurt and it's time to deal with that, not try to make yourself feel better by saying "I didn't mean it."

Once it's clear you've hurt someone, I do tend to believe offering an apology matters. If they dismiss it, then don't try again. It's okay to be dismissed by someone you've hurt. Try to remember, always, that it's no longer about you. Right now, it's about them and what you did to hurt them. Don't minimize their experience by saying it was no big deal. Don't tell them it was just a joke and invalidate their response. Don't tell them they're crazy and reading in to it which is gaslighting. Listen. Honestly listen, and hear what they're saying.

When I've hurt someone, I don't tend to ask how until after the fact. At the time, I tend to apologize and then ask if there's anything I can do to help them or support them. Asking someone who's hurt to explain to you what you did wrong is asking them to focus on you instead of themselves. It's asking them to do the emotional labour of helping you understand what you did wrong. It is actually work for them to focus on you and tell you what you did wrong when they're trying to deal with all their own feels.

So instead of asking what you did wrong, give them space. Ask if you can help, and if they say no, fuck off and do something else. Go decompress yourself. This weekend, I chose to leave and let the GM handle the situation as I felt it was clear that I wasn't wanted to talk about what happened. I wanted the hurt player to do whatever they had to in order to feel good and safe at the convention again, and I knew I was not part of that picture. In fact, I actively avoided spaces with that guest for the rest of the convention, wanting them to be able to be comfortable.

There's probably no way I can actually make amends for what happened at that game. I've left them alone and I've sat down and gone through the game with a fine toothed comb to see where I fucked up. I have an idea of what I did wrong, but I won't actually know until I reach out to the person I hurt. The trouble is, I don't know them beyond that one experience. So do I reach out? Could I have stopped this whole fiasco from happening?

Yes. I could have. All this means is paying more attention at the table and checking in with quiet players to make sure they feel okay. As soon as that player started to shut down I should have reached out or made space for them at that table. There was no way I could read their mind on what was bothering them, but I could have pulled back and asked them what they wanted in the game more than what I wanted. I could have invited conversations or asked for a break when they seemed disinterested. I could have done all these things, and had I been GMing, I probably would have.

Not being the GM isn't an excuse to go to default behaviour though. If you notice a player going dark, check in, see what they want to have happen at the table, and make it happen. Get them engaged again, or, if they're not feeling it, ask if they want to take a break and talk about it. There's no harm in inviting conversation. When you make space for them, don't talk over them or tell them that they're wrong. I tend to ask questions like "How would you like to see this resolved?" or "How can I help make this happen for you?" I want actionable answers because those are clear things I and other players can act on.

Don't force anyone to talk about stuff they don't want to. If they're too far gone or the game isn't working, call the game, create some space to unpack, and try to make sure everyone's feeling heard, if not okay. Check in with the wounded party, see if they want to talk about it, and if they don't, then back off. It's key that you're listening and not trying to make something better just because you don't feel good about it.

I try to give a few days. If this happens at a con, keep con crash in mind when you think about approaching them. Generally I reach out with a "hey, I wanted to apologize for my crappy behaviour during this game. I wanted to check in, see how you're doing, and see if you'd be up for unpacking it at some point. No worries if not, and I get it if you don't want to talk to me. Thanks so much." It's gentle, allows for space, and gives them a safe out in case they want to hit the eject button immediately.

The most important thing to remember is to not make you hurting someone about you. Sure, you can and will feel like crap, but the important part is you don't make the person you hurt do the labour of making you feel better. Go talk to friends, unpack it yourself, or do what you want to cope. Make sure you own the fact that you hurt someone, but also don't take on any responsibility for things that aren't your fault. Analyze what happened, actively listen to what they tell you, and do what you can from there.

No one usually sees it coming. We don't know we're about to open our mouths and smack someone verbally. By creating safe spaces, reaching out, calling in, and owning our shit, we'll make each time this happens a little bit better for all parties involved. We can make the effort to have conversations about our fuckups, to learn from them, and to go forward with the intention to not do it again. Learning from a fail is how we get xp, right?

From what happened at Dreamation, I've learned a lot. I've processed a lot. I've been sad a lot. I can't take it back and I can't fix it. It will forever be a thing. But I can use it to make myself better, and hope that it won't happen the next time I sit down with people at the game table. Growth is important, and sometimes we forget the lessons we've already learned along the way. I'm not thrilled I had to be reminded. But I will strive to be better.

Wednesday, February 15, 2017

Breaking Down Tropes: The Alpha Male

There was an article recently published on the toxic belief that wolves have a hierarchy that is controlled by an alpha male. In human society, specifically American culture, the alpha male has come to represent something between the man men want to be and the man nerds hate with a passion. Most of can conjure some sort of image of the alpha male, and just how often he appears in pop culture, specifically nerd pop culture. And yet, he doesn't seem to be welcome at the game table, either as a character or as a player.

When I began to do some research into alpha males, it wasn't because they were a problem for me, or ever have been a problem for me. It was because of that stupid wolf article. I'm a huge fan of werewolves. They're my favourite supernatural being. But I hate how it's always very male centric feeling (yes yes, Gingersnaps), because it's always this person who has a hard time containing the animal, and they get aggressive and pretty toxic and they could hurt you if you're not careful, which really sings the abusive dude vibe to me a lot. Also, they need to dominate, be in control, and for the most part, are often men in media.

Except, we know that wolf packs don't function that way. We know there's a mom and a dad and baby wolves and that's their family unit. Years of bad dog training came from this misconception, and years of bad werewolf fiction about aggressive, dominant assholes who're gonna show you what's what. And if you stand up to them, well, buddy, you better be ready to be put in your place.

As I began to do my research and engage the gaming community on their feels around alpha males, one thing became clear: there was no solid understanding of what was an alpha male. Long debates started about pop culture characters who would fall under the alpha male category and who wouldn't. One thing was clear though, people didn't like alpha males. There were lots of stories of encountering this mythic man at the table as a player, and even sometimes as a PC.

What is an alpha male? Urban dictionary describes an alpha male as: "The alpha male is an act that is performed by males usually in their teens and twenties who act tough, are loud, and have to be the center of attention or they feel insecure. When a man is successful and in his thirties he no longer acts this way because he has grown up and realized that the entire alpha male act is phony. When was the last time you saw a rich, successful man try to pick a fight??? Never. The only guys that do this are the losers that go to bars to take their anger out because they are angry inside for going nowhere in life."

The key features seem to be confidence, arrogance, entitlement, aggression, and dominance. This guy doesn't want, need, or like your advice and he isn't going to let anyone tell him he's not in charge. He'll maintain that control any way he can, with dominance, bullying, and abuse. He's the man's man, exuding manliness (toxically) at every turn. He's Wolverine. He's Kirk. He's Shane and Merle from the Walking Dead. He's in your face and there's nothing you can do about it if you don't want it to end in violence.

Because we're nerds, there seems to be a particular hate for this trope. This guy is usually the bad guy. He's not usually a player character, he's usually an NPC designed to be stopped. The few people who said they had encountered PCs like this openly said it made them uncomfortable and it often broke the game. What is it about this trope that makes it impossible to be more than a bad guy, or at best, a problem player/character?

Inherently, he is a man who wants to maintain control at all costs. If we think of Shane from the Walking Dead, we can note how he became violent whenever control over a situation was slipping, and he valued his wants and needs or what he thought others needed (regardless of their autonomy or agency) over anything else. This need to keep control and be the head of the pack alienates those around him and makes them feel threatened if they were to disagree with him. There's an implied violence to the alpha male that is threatening.

This need for control can lead to inter-party conflicts that aren't fun and often bring people back to school days when bullies roamed the school yard. It can make players feel like they aren't valuable and that they're bound to get into a fight with the alpha male. This toxic level of conflict, of course, tends to make these characters unplayable. No one wants to play the bully they experienced in school. No one wants to be that guy.

And yet, the alpha male can be dynamic, interesting, and compelling, if we let them be. That isn't to say the trope itself isn't toxic. The ultimate expression of what is considered "manliness" is of course, toxic, because it sets up really bad gender performance expectations. But since it is a stereotype some men aspire to, and some have personally experienced, how can we safely and compellingly engage with this during game? Is there anything here worth salvaging and why?

My initial reaction to alpha male characters, especially in werewolf fiction, was to burn it to the ground. Yet after some long discussions, I found myself defending alpha male characters because they can be complex, vulnerable, and compelling. Some folks and I spent awhile dissecting what made a good alpha male, if such a creature exists, and if an alpha male shows vulnerability, are they still, in fact, an alpha male?

I'm going to say they do exist. But they are, inherently, problematic. They are bullies. They are toxic. They have a hard time leaving space for others, which often puts them into the role of antagonist. But I do think there's a gem of something interesting here that allows players to play with toxic masculinity and dominance in an interesting and compelling way. And yet, if we pick up this character to play, it presents us with a unique chance to break down some toxic alpha male behaviours and unpack just how toxic masculinity is presenting in the alpha male.

What makes them compelling? Vulnerability. Men aren't really allowed to be vulnerable. Alpha males are extra not allowed to be vulnerable, because this looks like weakness in men. And yet, the best written alpha males are full of foibles and vulnerabilities. The Punisher is a great alpha male, who's heavily flawed and fragile in the Daredevil Netflix show. Colonel Saul Tigh from Battlestar Galactica is one of the most vulnerable characters on that show, and yet displays and acts as the ultimate toxic male.

These vulnerabilities are the layer that can be added to make our alpha male suddenly human and not just a toxic asshat. Whether it's dealing with latent emotions, addiction, insecurity, or even love, the compelling alpha male has something that is a weakness and it's something that the player engages with instead of shutting it down. We get to see the facet of the character this way, and we end up almost rooting for him. An ultimately toxic alpha male would just take control of the vulnerability, often with violence. See Shane trying to rape Lori in the Walking Dead. Whereas the Punisher talks about what happened to him and opens up to Karen. This is the key difference.

Now when he shows his vulnerability, does the alpha male have to turn over his man card and become a more 'beta' character? This became a long discussion when I started asking about alpha males, and while some say yes, I heartily disagree. I think he can exist as the alpha male who's dealing with vulnerabilities, but still occupies the space of aggressor and controller. Tigh was still insisting he knew better and demonstrating as much to other officers in BSG, but couldn't control his wife or their relationship, and struggled with this in a really compelling way.

One thing that needs to be noted is the space that alpha women occupy. They are more than allowed (and expected) to be flawed and vulnerable and to explore those. But when they do, they still don't need to turn over the alpha card. This is because they're women. They're allowed to be in an emotional space because women are allowed to be emotional. The alpha male, however, has his alpha status questioned when he shows emotion. Because of this rather toxic double standard, I think it's important to create alpha male characters who can explore vulnerability and still maintain their alpha card. At least for awhile.

It's true that in a usual alpha male story, the alpha eventually learns he can't be in control all the time and learns how to be a team player. That growth and story, and how he figures that out, can be a fascinating thing to watch. But it's not necessary. We're all still going to watch Wolverine be Wolverine, toxic masculinity and alpha male amped to 11, even though he doesn't really show weakness or vulnerability. In a group setting, though, Wolverine can be too intense and too much. Or he can be well diluted by other characters who call him on his shit and show contrast to his need to fight and be aggressive.

Those relationships can become layered, complex ones and can lead to some really amazing moments between characters. Now, that being said, not everyone is going to be comfortable with a bully-like character at the table. If you're going to pick up this pretty toxic trope to play around with, I do recommend talking about it before hand and saying what you want to try out. Talk about what vulnerability you want to explore, and how you want that to manifest. Make sure you have some connections to other players that aren't just roles you dominate in. Have a rival, for sure, but have someone you genuinely care about and someone whose agency you try to respect. Make it complicated and hard, not just for them, but for you too.

Much like other hard topics, I think the alpha male presents an opportunity to unpack toxic masculinity, male gender performance, and break down some really horrible ideals around manliness. When you decide to play him, I think you should think about that. Why are men supposed to get into fights when emotions and betrayal are on the table? Why fighting? Why bullying and harassment? Why, even, rape? Why own and possess? Why do we tell men these things and how can you playing the alpha male help break those down and explore those topics? Don't choose them all. Just a couple things. It's a great opportunity to break down something we don't talk about often, which is how conforming men have to be to live up to the manly ideal.

The alpha male is packed full of problems. All of them harmful to others and himself. His expectations are too much and his fallout is potentially deadly. If we take this trope and break it down, it becomes a golden opportunity. Always play safe, always check in with others, and always remember you can tap out if you need to. I'd love to see some games and characters that tackle this trope with thought and empathy.

As always, I urge everyone to challenge themselves in a safe way and to play around with stuff we normally write off as boring, done, or too broken to do anything with. This is our chance to examine some serious gender culture and break it down while telling a compelling story of growth. Be vulnerable as fuck when you play the alpha male. And as always, stay fierce.

Wednesday, February 8, 2017

Putting Rape on the Table: How to Play Safe, Push Boundaries, and Break Barriers

I'm going to start this by putting a big content warning on this article. I didn't when I wrote about abuse in gaming, and I hurt people. That was shitty of me. So in case the title didn't give it up, this article is going to contain a conversation around rape. In this article, I will discuss the inclusion of rape as a theme, a trope, and a tool in gaming, and a bunch of stuff around that. If this will make you hurt or uncomfortable, I recommend not continuing. If you feel comfortable, please proceed, but with caution.

When I was eighteen, I met a guy. He saw me, he liked me. We became a couple. He was abusive. Physically, emotionally, verbally, and eventually, sexually. I had to do things for him to be able to just walk by him. He'd hold me down when I was sleeping and rape me. I didn't know this wasn't normal. We broke up. I started casually seeing someone. We had sex. We got drunk a lot. I said I don't want to have sex anymore. I got drunk. He had sex with me after I said no. 

These are two types of rape. I experienced them. I was told I was lying. I was called a lot of things. I was isolated. I was dealing with trauma for a long time after. I'm not telling you this so you can feel sorry for me. I have had enough sympathy from people to last me a life time. I'm telling you this so you know I'm not an impartial party coming to the table to tell you what to do, and that I'm coming at this topic with sensitivity, experience, and layers of thoughts around it. It's not an easy topic and it's not going to be one everyone agrees with. Now this being said, my experience is unique to me, just like all victims, and my experience is not universal. It does not give me the right to speak on behalf of rape victims. I speak on behalf of me. That's it.

When it comes to problematic content, I've heard the gamut of responses from a variety of people. Everything from "I can do what I want, it's my game" to "we're making art here, we do what we need to do that" to "nope, never, not okay" and finally to the most common "I don't know, maybe?". While I don't fundamentally agree with some of these opinions, none of them are inherently wrong. I can't tell people what to do or how to do it. I can offer some insight as a rape victim who's said all of those things at one point or another in my almost twenty years of gaming. There are people who believe some topics are just immediately off the table and some who believe they should be included because nothing is off the table and some who think that it can be included but they don't know how. A smaller crowd still thinks problematic content can and should be included, and they have an idea of how they would want to see it.

The question of rape in RPGs came up after I was recently added to a group of designers who are making challenging and politically focused games on hot topics to fight back against the influx of Trump-era politics. Everyone chose topics near and dear to their hearts. I had already been working on a game that meant a lot to me about rape culture, and I naturally gravitated back to it. As I worked on this game, I wondered how okay it was to have a game about rape. Was it okay at all? Was I forcing something that I shouldn't?

In my other two games I'm actively working on, Crossroads Carnival and The Arena, rape is, well, part of them too. When I played a Monsterhearts game awhile ago, I brought in statutory rape as a conversation piece. In my new Monsterhearts game, my character is in a semi-serious relationship with a man in his 40's and he's grooming her to be his partner. I'm not fighting this. It's uncomfortable territory and I know it's got some gross undertones. In an Urban Shadows game, my character was drugged and had sex with someone, who was actually possessed by an ancient wizard. I didn't really think of it as intensely at the time, but I knew my character had been damaged by that. It was rape. And she had put it to the back of her mind to figure out later.

Why was I bringing so much rape to the table and why was I okay with that? For the longest time, I was part of camp "no way not ever never" and was adamant that rape not be in games. I thought rape in games normalized rape culture and helped enforce the gross stereotype that happens in more traditional games with female PCs getting raped by male PCs. I thought it would legitimize the narrative of raped woman as plot device for male PCs, as seen in pop culture, and I never wanted to see that in a game, not ever.

Me on my first date with my rapist
When I first played games, rape was something that was part of the culture but not really discussed. It was just present. It was assumed in ways I hadn't noticed. I was part of this. I had assumed certain characters I had had been raped and it never really crossed my mind. At that time, I hadn't been a victim of rape and it was in media everywhere. Buffy was almost raped by Spike but she still loved him. He just had done it because he loved her and wanted her. Rape was in media. It was normal to see. It was bad, sure, but it made for common story telling.

After my rapes, I began to notice the themes a lot more. I began to notice when a bad guy was painted as extra bad by just noting he raped women. I noticed when the threat of rape was a motivator for male PCs to save a woman. I noticed when it was used as a plot device, often a revenge story, for a female character. I don't think I ever saw rape used against a male character as a plot device, other than against a woman in the man's life. I noticed it, and it hurt. It stung to see people use it as a trope, as a device to make someone more evil. It wasn't like that in real life. People who rape weren't seen as evil. They were justified. They were given validation. So why in games, then, was it so different?

I became someone who spoke out against rape culture shortly after. I began to learn more and more, I found other victims, I found other people who got it. I wouldn't ever be the same and it took me years to figure out some stuff in my head around it. But I knew that games shouldn't have rape. I knew that they shouldn't have that kind of topic at the table. I knew that I was going to fight against rape culture forever and one way of doing that was removing rape as a topic in gaming. It shouldn't be for entertainment. Ever.

Lines and Veils became a thing. We talked about things we wanted off the table to begin with and thus began my eight year history of immediately listing sexual assault as a hard line for me. Every game. Every single game. Sexual Assault. I wrote it out time and time again. After a few years of writing, I said it out loud.

A Monsterhearts game I was in resulted in the Ghoul's hunger, having sex with my character, coming up as he became his darkest self. There was a pause. The player looked at me and grimaced. I looked at him in perfect understanding. In that moment, I was okay with it happening. It was a new moment. I was okay with my character being the victim of rape. Why? I was ready to talk about it, I suppose. I was ready to tackle what had damaged me so much in game.

The X-Card hit the Toronto scene hard. I began to feel safe at the table. It was a tool that immensely helped me create a space I felt I could tackle stuff in. I stopped saying Sexual Assault when lines and veils came up unless I didn't feel ready at the time to tackle it. I had found a way to begin to explore content that I wanted to deal with, but at the same time, wanted a way out of if it felt too much. The X-Card was the solution to me and it changed how I gamed.

But now for the big question. How did I include rape in my games in a way that avoids all the stuff I hated? I know how I got here. I know my journey. And I know my identity and how it has changed because of my experiences. I know I can watch Mad Max Fury Road and Jessica Jones and feel empowered. I can see Game of Thrones and hate every second of it. I can exist with rape existing and know it should exist as a part of media and a part of games.

Why? Because it happens. I don't want it to happen. I think rape shouldn't happen. But it happens. It happens all the damn time and we have ways of sending the message that it's not okay while also exploring what rape means and how it impacts those involved. We can watch movies about it, play video games that include rape tropes, and we can read books that have all the rape. Many of these will use rape a way of showing how evil someone can be. Not many will show the impact on a victim, or how it spreads through a community and can divide a town. It won't show the house burning down when a teenager is called a liar for accusing the jock of rape. It won't show the PTSD. It won't show the people demonizing you.

In gaming, we have the option to explore really upsetting content and to break it down and tear it apart and understand it. We can play with power dynamics. We can experience identity crisis. We can feel the frustrations of body dysphoria. We can sympathize and empathize with our characters. Games allow us a platform to experiment with situations and experiences we will never experience ourselves, and allows us to break down some of those experiences and show why they're harmful. A game like Night Witches shows the hardship women fighter pilots went through. A game like Grey Ranks talks about the horrors of war. A game like Cartel lets us empathize with Mexican gangs. A game like Velvet Glove lets us rage at the system of power set against young women.

Games can give us the space to unpack this information. Now, how do you bring something like rape to the table? Well, the first step is understanding rape. I don't mean reading Game of Thrones and pretending you get it. I mean genuinely reading victim accounts, looking at the psychological and physiological impacts of rape, researching what happens to victims when they tell authorities, friends, loved ones, and reading the stats around rape. Understanding rape culture will go a long way in allowing you to play with it in your game.

Secondly, make sure it's a theme or story that everyone is okay playing, and decide how rape will be handled. It must, of course, be a good long conversation around tone, expectations, and what it will mean in the fiction. Check in, have your safety tools on hand, and make sure to do check ins after game to ensure everyone's feeling safe still. Some people won't want to play with rape in a game, and that's okay. We're making space here, not taking it away.

Also make sure everyone understands it's not a theme to be taken lightly and it's not a trope. It's not here to make someone lose agency, but to provide a pathway to empowerment and to help someone find agency. The key is in that the story is about the victim, not the rapist or those who know the victim. It's their story. Not their rescuer's story. Finally, I encourage you to play this kind of theme with people you trust. People who will call in if there are issues or will discuss their concerns openly with you.

Once it's clear people are buying into what you're setting up, talk about how the rape will happen. Will it be off screen? This is what I recommend. The rape itself isn't the part that generally wants to get played out. It's everything around the rape. It's what happens to the victim after, how they are treated, and how they respond. It's going to be more so about them, their movement forward, and their actions around it. Make sure that expectation is clear. Then talk to the person whose PC is the victim. Find out what they want out of playing that story and how you can best offer that as a facilitator or GM. We don't see the rape in Jessica Jones or Mad Max Fury Road. We don't need to. We only need to see the impact.

Understanding rape culture and what your player wants will let you better facilitate that and ensure that how people who are victims are treated is clear. Engaging this content will let you explore rape culture, how we can break down rape culture, and what it looks like in game. It will let people who have experienced rape unpack things a little, respond like they wished they had responded, or deal with something in a way they hadn't thought of before.

For me, it's been cathartic. It's let me find power in moments where I have never had power. It's let me explore being a victim from different angles and lets me feel like I'm bringing a conversation to the table that isn't usually explored. It isn't explored for valid reasons. It's totally okay to say you don't want to play with something as heavy as rape. But do keep in mind that we play with something as heavy as murder all the time. It's a regular part of gaming. I mean, we call it killing, but it's still murdering a person. If we can play with heavy things like mental illness, murder, sex, romance, and torture, why can't we play with rape?

Yes. There are people who will be triggered and harmed by bringing rape to the table. This is why consent is a big part of the conversation. You must get consent from all your players ahead of time, and if something comes up that's too intense, an escape hatch is necessary. It's mandatory. People need to be able to breathe and get air. They may need to walk away for awhile or they can quit. It doesn't matter what as long as they feel safe. Your goal should be to provide a safe place to explore this topic, not a topic you demand to play with and force others to buy into. You as a designer or GM are not god. You are there to provide a group experience.

I'm not done my journey with rape in gaming. I know now that there's a place for it, and it's something I want to explore. It took me a long time to get here. It's why I say all the answers are right, kind of. As long as the topic is being treated with the respect and integrity it deserves, as well as the consent from the players, it's a topic you can explore. We can unpack a lot of things this way, and rape is only one of topics in problematic content that gaming can tackle. If we start designing and playing and running games that deal with rape as a real issue, and unpack how it happens and how it's allowed to continue happening, we won't have games anymore where random female PCs get raped. Because everyone will know that shit isn't cool.

Because they'll have a chance to experience the trauma and impact a rape can have on a victim. They will see it, hell, they may even experience it depending on what side of the table they're on. Every chance we get to break down the normalization of rape (and other issues) is one I think we, as an artistic community, are responsible for taking.

Why am I including rape in my games? Because rape matters. It matters to me a lot. It's impacted my life directly, as well as the lives of many, many people I know. Across all genders and all sexualities and all ethnicities, rape is a problem. It hurts so many people and we remain silent on the culture that allows it to continue. We are seeing the birth of games that deal with racism, sexism, ableism, and classism. We're seeing more and more games tackle mental illness and trauma. It's an amazing time to be a gamer as we watch our artistic community take on big topics and knock them out of the park, or at least learn along the way.

Rape will be one of these topics. It's already a topic in some games, and I'm sure, as we continue to explore the deepest worlds of problematic content, more and more people will begin to see how we can use gaming as a social tool to break down problematic culture and to empathize better with those victims we may have been isolating and hurting before. We can be heroes, absolutely, and we should be by using our tools available to create safe gaming environments that let us understand and fight back.

My journey here has been long. About seventeen years long. It took me being a victim to understand the gravity of rape in gaming. It took me understanding my trauma to want to make games about it. It took me a long long time to get from where I was to here. I was raped eleven years ago. Today I am writing a game about it. This is how I'm fighting back. This is how I am choosing to make a difference. I will still be wary about playing this with people I don't trust and don't know. And that's okay. Everyone should play (or not) as they want to. That is to say, if you want to engage this theme in a way that's meaningful and not as a plot device for some non-victim character, then go for it.

I died my hair green after breaking up with my abusive ex.

What not to do? Don't make it a trope. Don't add rape just to make a bad guy more bad. Don't use rape as a tool to get players to do what you want. And for the love of all things wonderful, don't make rape jokes. If it's in the game, it should mean something. The threat should be real. And it should be treated consensually out of game. If you're going to play this, then play it. And mean it. Statistically, you are guaranteed to know at least one person who's been sexually assaulted. Don't be a douche.

There will always be space to push further and harder in gaming. We will always find new ways to relate to one another and new ways to explore problematic content. I hope you find ways to engage this material in meaningful ways, and find yourself challenged by it and growing because of it. There are always ways forward, and using our art to break down normalizing rape culture is one of them. So go ahead, be vulnerable. Stay fierce.

Fighting Back

Tuesday, January 31, 2017

This Is A Man's World: Fighting Against Bullshit

There's a dreadful moment in a feminist's life when they wake up, open their inbox, and are flooded with messages. From comments about how gaming is a male dominated hobby and women shouldn't be allowed in, or allowed to organize, or allowed to well... do much besides play, maybe? To messages about how I should be sent to Syria so I could get raped and know what true oppression felt like. Maybe I should be raped to death by a pack of dickwolves? 

What do you do when someone asks you what's giving you life and you struggle for an answer? Not because there aren't great things happening, but because so many of those great things are dramatically shadowed by the indifference to evil and the evils themselves that are happening. I'm not one to get into good and evil rhetoric. It's not my style or a place I'm comfortable being in. Yet there's a threshold where we need to start discussing what makes a person a bad person. And sometimes, when it's pushed far enough, they're just too horrible to say bad. There has to be another word.

I awoke to a rape threat yesterday. I wanna say no big deal. I wanna shrug it off and smile and go through my day. It isn't the first time I've been threatened and I know, for certain, it won't be the last time. The intolerant have been given more and more space to speak their minds. Asking for safety in the gaming community has made me the ideal victim. Combine that with the fact that I'm generally congenial and fat, there's so much for them to work with.

When I talk about what it's like to be on this end of the rape threats, the doxxing, the hate, the comments, the flame wars... people are incredibly sympathetic. I get a lot of sorries and sympathy and sometimes empathy. I get a lot of talking. Of course, I never see them take to social media and begin talking about how this culture isn't okay. It's not because the people I know are bad people, it's because the culture is so rampant with hate it's impossible to see my threat as different than any other threat.

When did we begin to accept this as inevitable? "Oh, if you're a woman and you talk about sexism, well, boys are just gonna wanna hurt you." Excuse me? And you're what, okay with that? The longer I do this the more and more I realize that the community hasn't changed so much in six years, just that I'm tougher and better equipped now. For now, I won't be running away. I won't be backing down. Waking up to the world on fire is terrifying. My small experience in it is minimal compared to what's happening outside.

The goal isn't to be sympathetic. It's to be actionable. It's to take steps forward. It's to embrace the fire inside of you that's built from rage, combine love, and to move forward with integrity and righteous anger. We can clean up our own backyard. We can stop making space for missing stairs and making excuses for people who we think are good designers but are shitty human beings. We can stop accepting that people support exclusionary practices. We can demand our designers and companies do better. We can speak up. We can act out. We can resist.

Yesterday I received a rape threat. Yesterday I fell apart. Yesterday I felt unsafe. Yesterday I cried. Today I will fight back. Today I will continue work on my game about rape culture and privilege. Today I will offer support to those who need it. Today I will not be silent. Today I will take a stand.

What will you do? What can you do? You may not know me, and you honestly may not care that I received a threat. But I hope you care that women can't exist in our gaming space and talk about their experiences without people minimizing them, silencing them, intimidating them, threatening them, and ultimately abusing them. That's not okay. And it's not okay because it's not just women. It's everyone. We've not made space for anyone who isn't a straight white dude.

Start calling shit out. Hear something racist? See some art that's just all white people? Or sexualized women only? Say no dice and demand better. Email designers. Tag them on social media. Start conversations and keep them going. Never be silent. Never let people be silenced. When you see people talking over minorities or telling them that what they are experiencing is bullshit, then call that out too.

Make spaces. If you want to make something and you need people, seek out minorities. Hire people who don't usually get offered opportunities. Help them deliver if they need it. Make space in your community for voices we don't normally hear. And when you see a project that isn't diverse or even trying to be, say that. Ask them where the diverse voices are and why aren't there diverse voices. Back projects on Kickstarter that are minority lead projects or projects that have great diverse teams. Make it a point to look for these things.

Smother oppression with your fire. Yell back until you can't anymore. Go toe to toe with the trolls, yell nonsense at them until they give up and shut up. Don't let them win. Defend people who need defending. Give love to those who are being hurt. If shit goes down at a local gaming store, talk to the owner. Tag them on social media. Ask for your local convention's harassment policy.

When you run games, add inclusive content. This just means normalizing a variety of ethnicities, cultures, genders, and sexualities in your NPCs and setting. Have those conversations if you need to but mostly make them just a normal part of the world around the characters. Make your spaces safe for minorities to enter. Have tools for increasing safety that are visible and easy to get. Make yourself a safe space. Listen. Shut up and listen. Then take the new weapon you were taught and go use it.

Con organizers can make their spaces safe. They can bring on minorities and women into their organizing team to ensure they are making it safe. They can blacklist people who sexually harass or assault people at their cons. They can own when their con is unsafe. They can make strict policies and mean them, no matter who the fuck is the person being a douche. There should be no exceptions. There should be consequences.

Designers! Make games that mean something. Make games that challenge the bullshit narrative that's going on in your own community. Make your stance on this shit fucking clear. Don't hire awful people. Don't pay them money to continue functioning in this community. Hire people who aren't given the same opportunities. Start projects and have a diverse set of writers and designers. Own your mistakes in the past. Be open to conversations. Don't dig your heels in. Absolutely use your current space to promote and talk about diverse creators. And make your games have some of this content in it to deal with. Pollute the gaming world with inclusive and challenging games.

Our resistance should be fire. It should be a virus that can't be stopped. It should spread between us and leave no room for doubt that we will not stand idle while our community and our world is under threat. Whether it's women and minorities in gaming or dealing with the "alt Right" Nazis that are ruining America or the white nationalists that are murdering Muslims, we cannot ever, ever, ever, stand idle.

You want to play games and be the hero? Today's your chance. You can make a difference. You can fight the good fight. You can hit back. You can join the resistance against this bullshit and say enough is enough. It's easy to forget that we can be actionable every day and do something every day. Every day do something to make hope, to show love, to fight back, and to squish something gross. We're fighting on so many fronts. And we need to. This is our chance to show that we will not be silent, we will not just shrug and say "that's the way it is" or "well, yeah, that happens" or "I'm sorry that sucks for you" and do nothing.

I will not let myself let the fear for my own personal safety be more important than calling out this shit and making our community better. 

I will fight every step of the way.

I will not be silenced. 

Will you?

Friday, January 27, 2017

Game Review: Witch: The Road to Lindisfarne

I choke and suffer on the smoke long before I feel the flames. Then the heat rises in waves of agony that makes the face of my murderers shimmer in a haze. They each do nothing. My last breath catches and fails. My scream is a guttering flame. Though it means my death.
           - Witch: The Road to Lindisfarne

Witch: The Road to Lindisfarne is a game where players take on the rolls of those escorting a young woman who has confessed to the sin of witchcraft to the holy isle of Lindisfarne where she is to be burned in absolution. The characters will decide whether to believe she is innocent and spare her, or guilty and burn her. Should they decide wrongly, their own fates will become as dark and twisted as the road they travel. 

I picked up Witch right before Christmas because I had heard about it on the Gauntlet and it sounded right up my alley. I used to practice WitchCraft and had studied the witch trials extensively for a project in school. It was an incredible amount of data to collect, but somehow most of it was still stuck in my head. So when a game was designed around the horrors of the witch trials surfaced, I knew I had to play it.

Despite my better judgement, I decided I would also run the game at a public meetup with a bunch of strangers I had never met let alone gamed with before. Now, this means it probably should've gone horribly awry. Yet it didn't. Most players came to the table ready to commit to what this game was about. We had an even gender split as well, and if the player who was sick would have been healthy, then it would have been 4 women to 2 men. I thought this was interesting, because it meant my game attracted the most women. A game about burning a woman.

The game itself doesn't allow for a lot of wiggle room. It's honed in on exactly it wants to do: It wants to give a group of people an ethical and moral decision. These people travel together, while framing scenes in each location, and eventually come to a decision about the fate of the witch. This is very heavily a story game. There are no real mechanics besides "frame some scenes, play them, read these things out loud." It ensures that each player is control of a specific type of character, and reads specific parts of the game. 

Mechanically, when conflict arises, you play it out until you need to decide the outcome. Then you discuss what should happen, and that happens. If you can't decide, you toss it to the table and they vote. There are no notes on what happens in a tie. Fortunately, it never came up at our game. Everyone narrated, and while I tended to facilitate a little more than the game suggested, it made sense, because I was playing the witch.

Character creation takes a few minutes. People pick which of the six characters they want to play and then answer the questions on their sheets. They talk about their characters. Then all the characters except the witch, Elouise, introduce their character in a poignant vignette that describes who they are at the core. The witch doesn't get this scene until the scene before she burns. This tends to show you how far she's fallen, how many awful things have been done to her, and what it means to be the witch.

After this, there's a map you follow to your ultimate destination of Lindisfarne. Each character takes a turn to frame a scene within each map location. There are tones to each location to give you an idea of what the scene should kind of feel like, and really random scene cues on the bottom of each character sheet. My players and I struggled with the scene cues, but using them did give a certain grimness to the feel of each scene. Things like "Unholy mutterings from a corpse in a hanging cage" or "A mangy dog, with a human hand in its mouth." 

At the last location, Elouise is gagged and bound (thus ensuring she can't speak or do anything unless another character frees her) and the rest of the characters read text unless they decide they're not going to burn her, and then it turns into freeform play from there. There are epilogue scenes, which can be coloured by the witch if she was wrongfully burned or released. 

Play is smooth. Once you get the rhythm of what you're doing, it goes really well. I was advised to inform everyone on the consequences of getting the burning wrong, which made players engage with the witch more, as they were trying hard to figure out if she should be burned. It lead to really interesting scenes between everyone, and really intense arguments in character. I loved all of this. So much did I love it. 

The game itself really follows a tight narration so that you can't really escape from the grimdark feel of the setting or what's happening. The language it uses to set the scenes is incredibly evocative and always paints the bleakness of the age. It ties in the fear of the supernatural in medieval Europe with the holy wars of the Crusades and presents a picture of what it meant to live in those times and believe in true evil.

I loved playing the game. I played the witch, mostly because I felt the witch was more of an npc than an actual character, especially with how she is discussed in the game book. They game refers to the characters a lot, and then adds on talking about Elouise, not in the same breath that it refers to all the other characters. Even in the text, Elouise is treated as different, and honestly, less important than the dramatic ethical struggle the other characters are in for.

Elouise knows if she's guilty or not. The player chooses innocent or guilty, folds up the paper, and places it in the middle of the table before play begins. Once play ends, the truth is revealed. As I was playing Elouise, I found I was taking on the role of facilitator and gm a bit more than other people, possibly because I was the one who knew the truth and could paint the world around that. 

Within the rules, the game also makes space for asking players to push harder, to make the scene better, or to back off because it's making them uncomfortable all with one mechanic called Raise the Alarm. I'm not a fan of the fact that their version of an x-card is also the same thing for saying that the narration isn't strong enough or that you don't like something story-wise that's happening. This game is heavily based on horrible things that happened, by and large, mostly to women. That, and the movie Season of the Witch.

Without getting into the problematic content of the game, it's a game I want to play again, a few more times. It's a game I find fascinating and it's beautifully simplistic. It takes a few minutes to do one read through and then you're ready to go. Print a few things, cut out the character sheets, and start playing. No dice. One token. All done. I do recommend a tone conversation before you play this game and clearly stating the intent of the game before you get going. 

Now. For the part that concerns me. It's clear the designers saw Season of the Witch with Nicolas Cage and Ron Perlman, and then gamified it. Whether they stopped to figure out how to make the game a little less sexist or not isn't clear, but as a woman playing the woman in this game, it struck me very clearly that this was a game with some big issues popping up in it.

All of the characters other than the witch are men. All of them. The game is about, and is talked about in the game itself, as a journey for men to decide whether to murder a woman who may or may not be guilty of witchcraft and it's up to these men folk to destroy her because she's a witch or to liberate her because she's not a witch. Elouise is, by and large, a plot device. No one would have to play her. She could easily be done by other players as an npc or as a facilitator/gm role. She isn't the important part of this game. And the rules really demonstrate that by the way they talk about the game.

"While exploring the characters' pasts and motivations we will decide the ultimate fate of a young woman who has confessed to witchcraft. Is she truly guilty of witchcraft or is she just an innocent victim of a Church desperate to give the people justice? Even if she is guilty, will the characters truly condemn her to death? How will the characters' own secrets and agendas influence the final decision?"

This is the text that talks about what this game is doing and what this game is about. It's a tiny game with minimal text, so there's not a lot to go on but the few paragraphs that don't talk about how to play the game specifically. Although Elouise is technically a character, she is treated as Other and as the plot device to the other, more important, male characters. Her struggle, which there isn't one of other than to hopefully confuse and convince the menfolk enough that they don't burn her, isn't the focus of the story. The focus of the story is what's happening, often internally, to the men.

If you've seen the movie, which ... well, you do you, you'll know that in it, the witch is legit a witch. Well. She's a demon. And it results in this big fight scene and everyone dies but the baby knight. The movie revolves around the men as well, dealing with their pasts and using what happens around the witch to talk about their pasts and their issues that are brought to the table. The game emulates this so heavily I'm not sure the designers necessarily stopped to consider how this would look. In the game itself, one of the instructions on playing Elouise is this: "Don't shy away from using love or sympathy. You are a young woman in a cage, after all."

Several women players of mine made off handed remarks about how the game emulated a time when feminism hadn't happened, about the hundreds of thousands of women who were killed in the witch trials, and how the game didn't really address that so much as it addressed how the men felt about that. Now keep in mind, these were women I had never met before. I hadn't made any feminist jokes or wise cracks. They didn't know me from anyone else, but felt like they needed to say something about this game. 

That being said, everyone at the table dove in and said they had a good time. And I would, as I've said, play it again. It does a great job of doing what it wants to do. Could it be a bit more inclusive and a bit more about having a conversation that doesn't revolve almost purely around men? Yes. It could. I don't think there's anything wrong with having stories about men. I think stories about men are important. I don't think stories around men need to use the murdering of a young woman to be their plot hook, necessarily. 

Witch: The Road to Lindisfarne promises a shit tonne of bleed and it delivers it. You'll be forced to decide whether you murder a woman and what that means to you and how you feel. There will be really horrible moments and intense moments and sad moments. You'll be asked to deal with some serious questions about morality, ethics, and power. It's worth the journey and the ending, regardless of outcome, is satisfying. It's a beautiful full story in one go with pretty much no preparation. Be prepared to be a victim, if you are to play the witch, and be prepared to challenge each other's ideas of what it means to be the ones who are responsible for another's life.

Price: $20.35 for Print and PDF
Players: 6
GM Work: Minimal. Read the game, which is small.
Materials: Printed materials, one token.
Feel: Grimdark, horrific, medieval
Rating: 4/5 - It does everything I want, but fails to address that the description of this game is "a bunch of men decide the fate of a woman and how it will impact the men"

Friday, January 20, 2017

Emotionally Charged: Adding Some Feels to Your Play

The easy solution to every problem in an RPG is to kill it with fire. Or swords. Or guns. Or hell, rocket launchers if you're into a Resident Evil style game. Regardless of your personal weapon choice, the fact of the matter remains: we default to physical action as consequence or conclusion. We take tiny steps and there the conclusion of physical action lies. Now, if you're playing a game, it's pretty likely that your course of action will draw blood of some kind.

When did violence become so casual to us gamers? When those dice hit the table and they roll up snake eyes or the dreaded critical fail one, we turn our anxious gaze to our GM and fear but anticipate their next move. You know it's gonna be real bad. You fucked up real good, son. Something is about to hurt. And you want it. Like a submissive who can't quite get enough punishment, we pony up to the table and ask our GM to make our lives hard.

The GM will smile. Maybe smirk. There's probably something in their head as a direct consequence. Now, if your GM says something like "You drop your weapon" or "The orc hits you, take *roll dice* 7 points of damage" or "the vampire bites you, take a wound" or "the dragon breathes its fire all over your fucking face" or "you hear the snarling of creatures in the dark and eyes begin to illuminate around you" then you're probably not all that surprised. You may even be annoyed because now you have to waste a round picking up your stupid sword and someone's gonna get an attack of opportunity on you.

Those consequences are traditional, boring, and violent. Some of them, granted, are necessary and follow the logical progression of fiction. But a lot of hard moves aka consequences of a failed roll are focusing on actionability on a physical level. GMs are told that what they say must be things that are actionable, things the players can take action on. Most of the time, violence is pretty fucking actionable. Someone hits you, you hit them, repeat. Someone dies. Victory party. Repeat.

But what if we challenge that narrative for a minute? 

I don't want to say that violence isn't interesting. It totally is. To me, the interesting part of violence is how it makes us feel. And yet, more often than not, I see people pass up the emotional feedback of violence around them (at least in gaming) and go straight for the physical. I see GMs ignore emotional choices and go for physical things that lack complexity but are immediately actionable.

And yet, so many people keep asking me how to add or facilitate emotional play. So much so that it's become a thing I'm doing almost daily. How I became a random expert on emotional play is a baffling mystery to me, (and true story: I'm not an expert) but it is a question I usually have an answer of some kind to. When I spoke on The Gauntlet about facilitating emotional play, a lot of great conversation happened. Still, I knew there was more in my head I wanted to push out.

It was the topic of consequences. Consequences in games are the perfect time to talk about emotional play. So many times have I played a PbtA game and the response from the GM has been non-emotional. Let me give an example. Because I feel like examples are great for this sort of thing.

I was running Monsterhearts. The fae wanted to seduce a werewolf so he wouldn't get in trouble with her. So he rolls, and despite being a hot as fuck fae, rolls a bad bad bad fail. The obvious answer was to get him in trouble, have the wolf shove him against a wall and do a bit of damage, because fae suck at that. Instead, I had them have sex and decided then and there that werewolves mate for life, like real wolves. That was the hard move. An emotionally impactful hard move that would continue to be a thread.

Had I chosen to just beat up the little fae lover, he would've taken some harm, but really, not much would've come of it. He'd be afraid of the wolf, probably avoid her, but play would pretty much continue on. Instead, I tried to see how I could make the outcome of the move emotional for him. How would the fae feel when someone fell in love with him and wanted to be with him forever, would get hurt protecting him, and would try to be there for him without being a stalker?

That small choice, that moment of choosing the emotional over the physical, gives you and your players a chance to explore more emotional play. You can change the flow of narration by making your decisions emotion based. Ask yourself how will it impact your characters on an emotional level, and hell, after something happens, pause and ask them "How are you feeling now that this werewolf has chosen to be with you forever?"

Remember that asking questions like crazy brings your players food for thought. If you add to the narrative questions about their feelings, they may sit with it for a minute to suss that out, but they then may also start thinking about using it to guide their response. And when you start adding emotional consequences, play can shift from a game that focuses a lot on the actions of violence and abuse and more on how those things impact your characters.

There have been several games I've been playing lately that have focused on how characters feel, and using emotional consequences. So when my vampire attacked a guy, she didn't mean to kill him but totally did. The consequence? That a friend of mine saw and knew I was a monster. The dead guy wasn't important. That someone I cared about was afraid of me was a consequence. It was an emotional consequence that still dramatically impacted the story, and also made my next set of actions something other than more fighting and violence. It made me pull back and try to assure them, despite their terror, that I wasn't a monster. Even though I was.

In all fairness, sometimes those emotional consequences may take a second to think about. They're more subtle than the over the top responses of aggression and anger. They impact the story in more meaningful but often less theatrical ways. If you're game is about badass fighting, then throwing in emotional consequences all the time won't do much. It'll make people annoyed that the action isn't continuing. But if you sprinkle them in here and there, it adds some great layers to an otherwise action packed game.

How do you think of emotional consequences? For me, I try to imagine how the people seeing the violence or horror or whatever would feel. How would I feel if the person I loved just hurt someone? How does violence make me feel? How does witnessing tragedy make me feel? It's easy for me because I have way too much empathy, but in general, I try to let those conclusions come out. If you say something mean or hurtful, the person you hurt will be hurt. They'll be disinterested in helping you. They won't want you in their lives.

I also try to make sure that if the PCs are abusive, that people eventually tell them they are. I want them to feel it when someone they trust distances themselves and when called on it goes: "I'm afraid of you. You scare me. You hurt people." When my one PC was told she was abusive, my heart hurt. I liked my PC, I thought she was a good guy, and she was. Except she was also a bad person. And I had to come to grips with that and see how I could make her realize her own abusive patterns.

Emotional consequences are a part of the real world. We struggle with them daily and they had depth and meaning to our lives. Adding them to your games is a way to ensure that the world feels real, what the heroes do matters, and that they aren't impervious to emotional hurt. It will amp up your play and increase the stakes when they roll. How people see them, interact with them, and trust them should impact them. Make sure their actions have physical, mental, and emotional consequences.

These aren't all the things you can do to improve your emotional experience at the table. This is just something that I'd like to see more of and something I'm implementing more and more into my own GMing. There are a tonne of other things you can do too, but this is one of the easiest and fastest steps you can take to immediately up the emotional risks your players and you take at the table. Make them vulnerable. Make your NPCs vulnerable. And make their emotions matter. Make it have consequence. Bring emotion and life to your games.

You can do it. I believe in you.