Story vs Game: Integrity, Safety, and Gaming

Sometimes someone challenges the way you think and instead of having a witty comeback your brain stops and you go "huh." Well, that's been happening a lot to me recently as I get more and more into the various conversations around gaming. As one friend said, "welcome to the discourse." Well, it wasn't my intention to stumble into any discourse, but I guess I'm talking about stuff and that's entering into the conversations about our gaming space.

Awhile ago I made a post about the X-Card and how I love it. That hasn't changed. I'm still a big advocate for safety in gaming. Yet my conversations around the X-Card have challenged some of my thoughts and perspectives on the safety tool. Most of the big questions that people new to the card ask "Well, what if someone abuses it?" Now, they don't ask it that way. They ask what do they do if someone's x-carding a big bad because they just don't want to fight a big bad, or some other douchey thing.

Yes, people are worried that people will power game the X-Card. I've always found this an interesting concern that for one, says a lot about the people you game with, and two, suggests an obvious disrespect for the idea of safety in games. Who am I to judge, though, the kind of people you play games with? If someone's gonna use the X-Card to their advantage, I don't know that I'd really have room for them at my table.

There's another question the X-Card sparks that I hear a lot: "But what about the integrity of my story?" I honestly don't know how to talk to these people because we inherently value different things. It's something I can't honestly understand. I have never written any scenario for a game that was so precious I couldn't switch it out for something else if it meant someone felt safer or more included at my table. People get hung up on this and I give a lot of examples when I'm teaching the tool to people, which makes them tend to see it differently.

Still, there's a question of "What if someone x-cards a core part of the game?"

This is the question I've been tumbling around in my head for awhile. Partly because it's a very valid question, and partly because I'm designing and writing games that have heavy topics as an integral part of the game. My games are about othering, rape, body autonomy, privilege, rape culture, and other uncomfortable things. What if someone sits down at my table and X-cards nonconsensual sex while I'm running the Arena? What do I do then? Because there isn't a lot of consensual sex in that game.

There are some games that have key components that are made to encourage discussion and bring uncomfortable topics to the table. When I'm playing Urban Shadows, can I X-Card vampires? What's within my rights to X-Card? Of course, the answers to these questions were juxtaposed against what I truly believed about inclusion and safety. My answer immediately was "You can X-Card anything" and also "You can't remove a core element of a game."

So, as you can see, my two answers didn't work together.

This sparked a few conversations with a lot of different, awesome people. I wanted to think on the answer to it because I valued inclusiveness and safety above other things. In the same breath, I valued artistic integrity because, having written some games myself (not yet out because life is hard) that were designed a specific way to make a point about the lives these people lived in. Could I X-Card gender violence in Night Witches?

My conclusion eventually came after I was watching Sarah Doombringer/Richardson run the famous Bluebeard's Bride as an online game for Big Bad Con. I had looked over the play materials for the game and had immediately went "oof" because the content is so intense. To be honest, I didn't go "oof" I went "Jesus fucking Christ" but who's counting? Bluebeard's Bride has moves like "teach the Bride how to pleasure her husband" and "make her conscious of her body" and other ones that made me cringe.

Sarah, of course, had an X-Card to use. And when I spoke to Marissa Kelly about running the game, she also brought up the X-Card and how important it was. When I sat down to play most of the games at Metatopia, an X-Card was included. Yet it wasn't the X-Card that Sarah introduced at Bluebeard's Bride that got my brain excited. It was the way she introduced the game itself. She said, "Please be aware that this game is a mature horror game. It has the theme of feminine horror. This means that some themes may be addressed such as sexual assault, child abuse, drugs... and I really like to describe terrible things in detail, so if you find this kind of content concerning, you may not want to watch this."

Now I don't want to lie, but I had watched this before I went to Metatopia and my brain lit up. Of course this is how you handle this situation. So when I sat down to run the Arena, a game about gladiators and slavery, I opened by detailing what the game is about, what themes may come up, and gave people the option to opt out if the content made them uncomfortable. That being said, I also had an X-Card at the table, as did Sarah for her game of Bluebeard's Bride.

Why this warning? It let my players, and in Sarah's case, the viewers of the youtube video, know what they were in store for. While it wasn't guaranteed anyone would be triggered, it gave people a chance to know ahead of time what kind of game they were getting into and what kind of themes would be addressed. It let people tap out before hand because they could know the game would upset them before dice even hit the table.

Of course in the midst of the game, someone could tap the X-Card and say "I don't want my character to be raped." In a one shot, that's fine. You switch it up, end the scene, fade to black, whatever. I usually ask "Do you want this to not happen at all or do you just want to fade to black, but it still happens in the fiction?" Many times it's the fade to black answer, but not always. So in a one shot, it's easy to say "Sure, no rape, no big deal" and continue on your merry. It should be done this way and I recommend you take a hard look at yourself if you just went "But why can't I include rape even if it makes people uncomfortable?" I'm going to assume that question isn't one you have and move on.

But what do you do when someone X-Cards rape, in a game about nonconsensual sex, and it's a campaign? What do you do in that moment? What if someone tried to X-Card violence against women in Bluebeard's Bride? Or gang violence in Cartel? Or slavery in the Arena? What do I do when someone X-Cards an inherent part of what the game is about?

Well, you change it, of course. No no, hear me out. In the episode of the game your player realizes they don't want that content, you fade to black or do what you need, and finish the episode. There's no need to end the session prematurely, although you can if you want. Just do what you can to get to the end of the session playing with the bits that haven't been removed from you. Once the session is done, you pull aside X-Card player and ask them why they joined the game, what they were hoping to get out of the game, and if they think the game is still for them.

This doesn't have to be an aggressive, irritable conversation. If face to face makes them self conscious, maybe think about inviting the conversation via an online medium, as that's often a more safe space for people to chat. It's entirely possible your player thought they could hack it. Only to discover they can't and decided to end the game's parts that felt unsafe as soon as they could. This is called an escape hatch. A way out. But at the end of your game that day, serious questions need to be considered by the player. Most often, I find they decide it's not the game that they want to be playing.

Maybe they won't though. They may stubbornly insist they want to stay in the game. It's then the hard conversation of telling them that what they don't want in the game is, in fact, a core part of the game and if they find that upsetting, it's probably not the game for them. This sucks. It's a hard conversation and I never want to exclude someone from the table, but it is important to also be able to play the game you wanted to play to begin with. If you value the person being there more than the game, it's probably best you switch games, or continue running the game not as intended.

How you decide to deal with the person who removes the game content from the game is up to you. I do encourage you do it with kindness, understanding, and clear, open communication. It's important to keep people safe and respected, it is also important to communicate what our games are about, especially as more and more of them begin to explore intense content that could be upsetting to a good number of people. Safety should be first, and I still maintain that, but consideration for what you're playing is also partly the responsibility of the players. I wouldn't sign up for Golden Sky Stories if I hated the idea of a Care Bears RPG and then get pissed when the GM ran a Care Bears RPG... that would be silly.

As for those people who still say they can't change their story as they've written it, because their story is just soooooo important the way it is, I still can't buy it. Maybe one day someone will ask me a bunch of challenging questions around it, like Mark Diaz Truman did around the X-Card with me (and yes, he used it at his games at Metatopia), or maybe someone will be able to articulate to me why they feel the story they wrote (not the game they designed) was more important than one person's safety at the table. I'm not ruling it out. But so far I've not encountered anyone who's convinced me it's necessary.

I think we should make upsetting, challenging games that are amazing and harsh and horrifying. I can't wait to sit down and let Bluebeard's Bride break me. But I want the X-Card there. Not so I can stop content from happening, but so I can use it to take a break if I need it. That's been another thing I've been using the X-Card for. When I was playtesting the Arena, I said what content the game included and let people have a chance to back out. Once we were playing though, I was clear they could tap the X-Card if they just needed a breather to walk away from the intensity of the content. This has happened a couple times.

As I work on a game directly about rape culture and cyberbullying, I'm careful around the language I'm using for the X-Card. It's a chance to tap out, not to remove content around what the game is demonstrating. It also talks about ending the game early if people are too upset, and welcomes not playing the game if the concern about being triggered is too high. Because honestly? I don't know if I can play my own damn game.

Overall, we always need that escape hatch, like Jason Morningstar said when I was talking about this on G+. We always need a way to stay safe and tap out if we need it. We also need ways to ensure we're playing games whose content is on the table and obvious. And we need to be loving, gentle, and kind to one another as we play games that challenge our ability to handle the darkness we're exploring.