Actually, It’s About Ethics in Media Consumption


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Anyone who has ever been part of a subculture knows the bright red sting of controversy.  Sometimes the controversy is low stakes like the general fan rejection of Dungeons & Dragons 4th edition. Sometimes controversies go to the core of a community’s values like the ongoing controversy about whitewashing in Hollywood, and more specifically, to the likely interests of this blog’s readers, the continuing whitewashing of Asian characters by Marvel comics.

Boycotts

Over the years I’ve seen a number of calls for boycotts over these types of issues, and I’ve wondered how useful this tactic is.  Recently, I’ve heard similar calls within the role-playing community over a variety of events that have been litigated enough in the public square that I’d rather not discuss them here, but I do think it’s worth talking about the broader concept of “boycotting” work, especially work in a tightly integrated media landscape like the role-playing industry.

While many people find the idea of a dramatic boycott satisfying, how we make day to day media consumption choices within our hobby and why those choices may or may not have an impact on the industry has the potential to be a much more productive conversation.  Think of it like going on a binge diet, or trying to make long term adjustments to the way you promote health through food choices.  Binge diets do more harm than good, but holistically training yourself to eat in a healthy manner one step at a time is a path to healthy consumption habits. The same thing applies to the commercial choices we make.

Does that work for RPGs?

Role-playing games are unusual media beasts in a lot of ways.  With the exception of Dungeons and Dragons, which is in the hands of a wholly owned subsidiary of Hasbro, RPGs are generally produced by small companies, and in many cases aren’t produced by their IP owners.  The majority of new White Wolf games are produced by Onyx Path Studios, or By Night Studios.  Chill is produced under license by Growling Door Games.  Shadowrun is produced under license by Catalyst Studios.  While there are also plenty of titles being produced that aren’t under license, several of the biggest names in RPGs are developed in this manner.  This complicates any situation where you want to use your economic activity to influence the behavior of a corporation, because it often puts you in a position where you may well be punishing a company you feel behaves in an exemplary manner for the behavior of an only vaguely involved IP owner.

So first let’s address the elephant in the room.  Trying to influence companies through consumption patterns gets a really bad rap because in many cases it’s a lost cause. Ethical consumption is all too often reduced to a marketing opportunity.  Free  Range and/or Pasture Raised chicken, Fair Trade Coffee and Chocolate, and any variety of attempts to patronize kinder, gentler, more labor friendly corporations tend to fall apart upon particularly close inspection.  It takes such massive bad press to impact the bottom line of most big companies that being seen as ethical is at best a matter of appearance and branding for most companies. So the question becomes, why bother?

Ethics?

Setting aside the issues with ethical consumption of non-media products, and even ethical consumption of AAA media, the situation is a little bit different in the world of the RPG. No matter what behavior you want to promote in the industry, it’s fair to say our dollars count for a lot more to a company selling a product like Numenera that had a mere 4,658 backers on its original Kickstarter, or even moreso, a game like Chill that had 793 backers on its original Kickstarter, than Kellog or Dell.  Losing a handful of customers hits most RPG producers in a way it just doesn’t hit the other companies we tend to give our money.

The impact of of our economic choices is amplified for those of us who choose to run games, as opposed to just play in them.  I’m going to be dropping cash on Exalted Charm cards in the near future because a close friend of mine chose to run Exalted and I want to have those cards during game. So, he has effectively made a sale for OPP without spending any money by running that game, and some of my fellow players may follow suit once my cards arrive. The question that has been nagging at the back of my mind is, given the influence we have, what choices will have the most positive impact on our hobby, and how should we interact with those who make different decisions?

Making a Difference

The first question is in many ways easier to answer, though it is far from simple.  The most significant way we can make a difference with the gaming money we spend is by focusing on supporting the creators and narratives we want to see flourish in the world.  Unlike consumption of things like food where we may or may not have the economic affluence to afford the most “ethical” options out there, the money we spend on RPGs is by its very nature disposable and we are not lessened by devoting some of that money to more experimental and inclusive media.  That might mean supporting something entirely new but somewhat traditional, like Ehdrighor because it dramatically expands the potential of big book role playing games, it might be supporting something completely experimental like Bluebeard’s Bride, or it might be supporting a company producing for an established product line telling inclusive stories in a more nuanced way than their lines have been known for in the past. Conscious engagement with these choices help us shape the gaming industry we will enjoy in the future, albeit in small ways.

The other question I posed above is a more difficult one to tackle.  In the past couple months I’ve seen several people upset at events in our community make personal decisions about who they would and would not give their money to and then openly shame others for making different choices.  Often those different choices were well thought out, and a reflection of different ethical priorities.  These choices were not based on willful ignorance or ethical laziness, and even if they were I have yet to see shaming someone for not sharing one’s values change a mind or even inspire greater thoughtfulness on an issue.  I feel that as our hobby grows there is a vital place for discussing our values and who we want to be as a community. While we will never be a monolith, that discourse is a vital part the growth of any community, and with events like the inclusion of game writers in the SFWA, and White Wolf pushing to produce more mainstream World of Darkness related media there is no question that we are growing. We can expect to face several of the same problems other fandoms have struggled with as they have moved out of obscurity and farther into the mainstream.  

Balancing Act

As that happens, it is important to engage with other fans who are thinking about these dynamics in good faith in the spirit of discourse, and not as though they are an enemy. Many people make an unfortunately meager livelihood producing the games we all love so much, and part of our ethical calculus should be the collateral damage of saying we’re going to pull back from supporting a given IP owner and every company that licenses from them.  Some people will care more about drawing a line in the sand based on corporate actions, others will care much more deeply about that collateral damage, and neither group is necessarily wrong.  If we choose to try to effect change through the media we consume then we should try to be aware of the good and ill caused by all our choices, and recognize that the choice to try to effect change through consumption is imperfect, and opinions on its validity will vary.  We should all go forth and be ready to be the change we want in the world, but know our view on that process is not a monolith, much like our community.

Dark, Deep, and Scary: Horror Games

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What’s Wrong With Horror?

Dark horror games often have tropes, concepts, and downright terrible elements that make them rife for abuse by the wrong people. At the same time, games that are willing to address and be open about addressing injustices in our world, through the horror lens, often have created the most inclusive communities in our hobby. These two elements coexist uncomfortably in the same space.

Horror makes us uncomfortable, and that can be an amazing tool to help wake us to systemic problems in society. The recent movie Get Out is a great example of this. This movie is about the visceral fear that many Black members of American society experience in all-white spaces. Some may wish to dismiss that fear, but that will not eliminate it. This method of entertainment allows us to to understand experiences in a way that simply telling may not effectively communicate. Horror games allow us a similar window. For the time in-game, you are living the experience of your character and this can be eye-opening. It can teach through immersive simulation.

Investment

Years ago, Piers Anthony wrote a book called Killobyte, which has a segment that occurs in a digital recreation of Beirut. At the time of writing, Beirut was in the middle of a 15 year civil war which ripped apart society. The characters in the book are stuck in various VR simulations of different worlds. One of them is this digital recreation of Beirut. The players of this game have become invested in their various roles in their simulation. They empathize strongly with the real struggles of the people they are portraying, and even some that empathy bleeds over into the real world.

RPGs may not be Virtual Reality worlds, but they are shared imaginative experiences that allow us to empathize and experience the lives of others. We can experience bleed, having actual emotional and intellectual reactions from our experiences in-character impact us out-of-character. The danger inherent are those players and game masters who use this capacity to abuse, harass, or ignore the real experiences of those they are gaming with. Or, to perpetuate behavior that negatively impacts members of various communities in and out of game spaces.

My Table

We often hear, “it’s my table, don’t tell me what is ok or not ok at my table.” Which, on the surface, is a fair argument. However, if you have 5-6 players and a GM who play to stereotypes, your behavior around that table becomes normalized. If you allow for players to portray stereotypes, they will begin to reinforce those stereotypes in their mind. If you encourage your players to dig deeper and understand the people they are representing, they will either begin to recognize their common connection, or choose not to portray that character’s background because they recognize they are missing some shared experience to connect over. Both appear to be valid learning experiences. Stereotypes and prejudice can be elements of game worlds, but we must endeavor to recognize when we are using them. We must also be able to recognize when they are harming people at or outside of our tables.

Horror games often include violence, abuse, harassment, stereotypes, racism, sexism, body dysmorphia, and many other elements. These elements are present because they are things that scare us as humans. Some people are more impacted by these things than others. Some of these players will enjoy other elements of these games, but will ask not to focus on things that remind them of experiences that were traumatic for them in real life. We need to listen to our players, talk to them, and encourage an open dialogue about what game elements are appropriate for the entire table to investigate.

Some Still Don’t Care

There are some people that will refuse to care about moderating these concerns. They will run scenes with sexual assault without care. They will ignore the triggers of their players and will act abusively if called out on their behavior. If you are reading this article then I’m hoping you are not this type of person, but if you are, let’s talk real quick. By acting like this, you are not being cool, edgy, or artistic. You are making it harder to convince people that horror games are a powerful, beneficial, and fun experience.

There is a fine line between pushing boundaries and negatively impacting people. Talking to your players will help you to modulate that. If you don’t care, then don’t be surprised when people stop playing your games. Don’t be surprised when people that care about player investment and consent disagree with you online and work to limit your involvement in our communities.

It is possible to play horror games and care about consent, investment, and player care. Really. It is possible to ‘tell the story you want to tell’ and do these things. It is possible to scare your players, to make them question what it means to be a monster or human, and to care about your players. It is possible to have your player’s characters breakdown, cry, experience loss, it is possible to have bleed during these events, and it is possible to care about your player’s needs at the same time. I would argue, that is is possible to invest even more of oneself, if you know that your thoughts, expectations, and triggers were taken into account during the creation process of the game.

Moving Forward

It is also possible to fail at doing so, and not lose your players in the future by acknowledging your missteps. During play, elements may come up that you couldn’t account for. Nothing will hurt your game if you stop, talk through what happened, and move forward. If there were a single underlying piece of advice to offer any gaming group? Talk, talk a lot, if something seems off, wrong, or even perfectly right, talk about it. You should talk about the good, the bad, the ugly, and then work together to get more of the good.

Don’t be afraid to write horror games, run horror games, or play in horror games. The issue isn’t horror.

Here are is a short list of horror type games I’d recommend checking out. There are dozens more, some that are better than others.

Urban Shadows
Call of Cthulhu

World of Darkness
Several from Savage Worlds

Josh is the administrator of the Inclusive Gaming Network, and the owner of this site. 

*Note, all opinions are the opinions of their respective Authors and may not represent the opinion of the Editor or any other Author of Keep On the Heathlands

Game Mastering Through Stress

Here you are running an amazing series of sessions in your favorite role-playing game… and then work calls. Then you get an email from a project that isn’t going to get funded. Classes start, the laundry needs to be done, your kid decided throwing up is the best bedtime plan. STRESS happens, we all know it. The question becomes, how do we deal with it and keep enjoying our hobby? It’s not easy, particularly as we get older and pick up more responsibilities. I don’t consider myself a grognard in personality, but I’ve certainly been playing RPGs for quite a few years.

In the old days, it was easy to play 2-3 games per week because that was all I had going on. This is a lie, the more I think about it. In truth? I was working 70-80 hour weeks when I was in my early 20’s and gaming was my outlet; it was the thing that kept me going. Stress was present then just as it is now. So, in my experience, stress is something that we’ll deal with while we are running games. Sometimes, this stress is directly related to the games we are running. More often than not though, its external stress that bleeds into our sessions.

1 – Tell Your Players

If you are experiencing stress, tell your players. “Hey everyone, I had a pretty rough day at work today, do you mind if we focus on some cathartic combat tonight?” “I’m sorry its taking so long for me to get my head in the game tonight, my son kept me running around today and getting him to bed before our session just didn’t happen. Give me a bit to really get going.” I’ve heard things like this and said them. Statements like these are helpful to helping me know how to pace things as a GM, and I personally think it helps my players understand where I’m at while running the game. Sometimes they will want a heavy RP session, but if I can’t handle that? It might be a good night to run a side session/mission or even switch up games to something that fits the mood better.

2- Take A Break

The worst decision I ever made was trying to run a full campaign during Grad School. Off and on I had run some Pathfinder during my undergraduate degree and didn’t have a lot of issues. Keep in mind, I went from the Army, to undergrad and then straight into my graduate degree as an adult in my late 20’s early 30’s. That game was over Skype though, and to be honest, I was not as focused as I wanted to be and it hurt the campaign. I should have taken a break from running and just played in a few games. Then, in Grad School, I tried to run a Changing Breeds game, and play in a D&D campaign. I couldn’t do it. There were too many things going and my brain was overloading. I tried to introduce a few new players, and I think I spoiled their experience with role-playing games. That’s not what you want, and I was clearly not in the head-space to keep going. It won’t hurt to take a break, focus on one-shots, and just chill if you have a ton of stuff going on. No one will blame you.

3- Unwind Through The Game

One of my favorite ways to reduce external stress is to find ways to incorporate what is stressing me out into the games I’m running. For example, I once worked for a person I detested. I create a character that was them in my mind, and gleefully watched my party destroy the stand-in monster. I have no idea if this is psychologically healthy… it might not be. In the end though? It really helped me deal with that person. Every time I saw them, I’d chuckle in my mind as I imagined the player characters hacking and slashing them in game. When I’m having other stress points, I try and devise ways to consider approaches to dealing with them through game play. One character, described in this blog post, really helped me break out of a serious bout of depression. They were confident, capable, and had a solid relationship life. That helped me to imagine what I would need to transform into that type of person. I think it worked.

4 – Play, Don’t Run

This advice is a little different from taking a break, but it has some similar functions. Have one of your players take over for a little while. A night, a campaign, whatever. I think it can be fun to ask a player to take over running for a single session, give them some basic ideas that fit your meta-plot and see what they roll out with. This can be stressful for some GMs, so it can’t hurt to just let someone else run something for a few weeks. This can help you get your brain back in a place that is healthy and ready to help construct the role-playing challenge you like to create.

I’m sure this will seem like basic advice. Nothing I’m saying here is revolutionary, but I’ve found its helpful to remind myself on a regular basis. A lot of this is useful to keep in the back of your mind to address the stress before it destroys your game and your love of the hobby.

Josh is the administrator of the Inclusive Gaming Network, and the owner of this site. 

*Note, all opinions are the opinions of their respective Authors and may not represent the opinion of the Editor or any other Author of Keep On the Heathlands.

How Not To Be *That* Gamer: Five Easy Tips

Remember back in the mists of time when you were just learning to play a game, hunched over a table at your Friendly Local Game Store? Trying to absorb the reams of information your friend was pouring into your brain? When you didn’t know what a con save was, or a bluff check, or a dump stat? Maybe this is the first time you had ever learned that dice came with more than six sides, or that there was more than one LOTR-type elf.


Remember when the know-it-all world-weary grognard ambled by and told you everything your friend was telling you was wrong and there is Only One True Way/Edition/Faction? Remember the crushing look of defeat on your friend’s face, and how that one person soured your affection towards the game?

Remember when you really, really wished you could jump in the TARDIS, distract yourself with a phone call, take your own place at the table, and tell that person to take a flying leap into the Pit of Despair?

That happened to some people near and dear to me this week – and someone needs to bring this up, so we as a community can stop this travesty from happening. New players are the lifeblood of our culture, and we have GOT to stop inflicting our own pet peeves and biases on new people, so they can enjoy developing their own.


Here’s a brief checklist of how not to be *That* Gamer:

 

Point the First: If you see someone explaining a game to someone else, and the party of the second part looks confused – mind your own damn business. Let the person doing the explaining do the talking, unless you know them. In that case, ASK IF YOU CAN HELP. Do not, repeat, do not, just assume that everyone wants to hear your opinions.


The one caveat to this follows: If it is a game you love, if there is a natural break in the conversation (Point the Second will address this), you can politely say “Oh, you’re talking about Warbling Mongooses! I love that game! It’s really fun. Welcome to the community. I’m *Name*. Let me know if you’d like a game or if you have any questions.” Then walk away unless invited to comment more – but wait for the invitation.

And for the love of spice, remember to introduce yourself. There’s nothing worse than being approached by a random person that you will likely run into again, but you can only remember them as “that guy in the Metroid T-shirt” or “that lady with the purple hair”.

If you mention this game, and I can hear you… I’ll probably say how much I love it. It’s an awesome game.

Point the Second: Do not interrupt someone explaining a game to a new person, particularly if your interruption involves some obscure bit of trivia that is not relevant. This creates a lot of confusion and, frankly, makes you look like an ass.

Example: “Oh, Warbling Mongooses? You know, in the second errata of the third edition, they ruled that female mongooses can only warble in the contralto register on the second Thursday of a month without an R in it.”

 

If there is a natural lull in the conversation, you can politely (that word again, I know) ask if you can contribute something to the explanation. Be prepared to accept “no” as an answer.

 

“Hey, I heard you guys talking about Warbling Mongooses. New player? That’s great. You’re lucky to be starting now, the rules are so much simpler after the second edition – no more twelve hour game sessions! After you’ve learned the basics, let me know if you’d like to play a game or two. Always glad to meet new people.”

Be positive or be silent.

Take Notes Folks

Point the Third: So, the grizzled veteran (GV) and the eager young convert (EYC) are sitting at the FLGS table, playing a hand of Warbling Mongooses – and the new person looks like they are getting the hang of it. DO NOT walk up to the table and start pointing out how the new person (or the veteran, for that matter) are playing it wrong.

 

WRONG:

GV: Plays a contralto Warbler during a half-moon phase.

EYC: Plays a contratenor Warbler during the same half-moon phase (illegal move).

You: (as GV is opening their mouth to correct their student) Oh hey, you can’t play that, it’s the wrong phase. Contratenors can only be played during waxing crescent. You shouldn’t be playing contratenors anyway. Mezzosopranos are so much better! I’ve got a wicked Mezzosoprano deck that just beats faces all day long. Oh, by the way, if you play that baritone in the next move and follow it up with a second tenor, you’ll win in the next turn.

RIGHT:
GV: Plays a contralto Warbler during a half-moon phase.

EYC: Plays a contratenor Warbler during the same half-moon phase (illegal move).

You: *silence*

GV: No, wait, you can’t play that during this phase. See the moon phase icon on the card? You have to match that to the indicator on the table.

EYC: Oh, right. Yeah. My bad.

*Game continues*

 

Most people learn best from one source at a time. If you aren’t that source, wait until you are asked for assistance or a natural break in the game to add a comment. No one likes to be told how to win – part of the joy of gaming is figuring out your own win conditions.

 

Point the Fourth: So the EYC has become a convert to Warbling Mongooses, and you see them playing with their GV mentor. They are doing okay but still making some mistakes, maybe not playing with an optimal deck. You are at your FLGS and see them playing. You approach the table, and:

 

“Dude, that deck sucks, and contratenors are always weak against basses and contraltos. You should be playing mezzosopranos and second bass against that match up. Have you seen my deck? I’ve put like $1,000 and ten years into my deck! It kicks so much ass! Make this play and this play and this play and you’ll win right now.” *

 

*Change the subject of the sentence (sub a particular faction of minis in a popular war game in for the Mongooses) and this is a faithful transcription of what I heard. I wish I was exaggerating.

 

Shut up. Shut up right now. Do not pass go, do not collect $200, and do not use your love for a hobby as a brandishing weapon about how much disposable income and free time you have. Go home and rethink your life if you think this kind of behavior is even marginally acceptable.

 

Repeat after me: Everyone was new once. Everyone was new once. Everyone was new once.

 

Instead, after the game is over, you can walk up to the table, introduce yourself, and offer to help.

 

“Hey, I’m *Name*. Saw you were playing Mongooses and having a little bit of trouble – that was a tough match. I’ve been playing for forever and I might have some extra cards that could help you out. Interested?”

 

Again, be prepared to accept “no, thank you” as an answer. Sometimes people don’t want help. It’s not your place to ram it down their throats. That being said, I have never seen a sincere offer turned down. Often, the new player will ask the person making the offer for advice or suggestions. Voila, there’s a bit of camaraderie to add to the community. Good for you. You get a gold star and/or a cookie.

 

For new players that tend to be a bit on the defensive side (like me): This is the time where you get to mind your manners as well. If someone is legitimately offering to help you, not trying to wave their more-gamer-than-thou card in your face, the least you can do is give them a polite answer.

Unrelated Clouds

Point the Fifth: Thou shalt not condemn anyone’s choice of faction – or means of choosing a faction – especially when they are just getting started! There’s no faster way to crush a tendril of interest than to be told everything they find intriguing is bad or stupid.

 

We’ve all heard of the, poorly named, “girlfriend method” – where the person picks their faction (or equivalent, say, their Commander for M:tG) based on what they think is pretty.

 

There’s not a damn thing wrong with this. In fact, my gaming mentor specifically mentions this method to all people he introduces to his gaming drug of choice. It’s simple logic: you’re going to have to be looking at them while you are playing them, so you might as well choose something you find aesthetically pleasing.

 

Most people get into a game by choosing a faction they loved (or one that was handed to them), using it to learn the game, and then upgrading to a “stronger” faction when/if they decide to become a more competitive player. For example, I learned to play Commander using a prebuilt 2013 Commander deck that I would never willingly choose to play again. Now I’ve built my own and I love it, despite its flaws.  

 

They may never progress beyond a casual player, but they at least will enjoy looking at the models/cards they have chosen. If they ask for advice, and they might, especially if their mentor/teacher shows that your opinion is worth listening to – then you can provide your opinions in a constructive way. “I really love playing contraltos/sopranos, because I love tricksy combos, but if you want a more aggressive, straightforward deck, you might want to look at…”

 

No one, and I mean no one, decides to walk into a game store and become a world-champion player of anything the first time they play it. Let the neophytes choose their doom in whatever manner they choose. It’s no skin off your nose.

 

Bonus Point the Sixth: Compliment a game well played, or a clever play, or a well-painted miniature, or a cool playmat. Say something nice to a new player; don’t cross the creeper line. When you are meeting a new player for the first time, be friendly, offer a compliment, but nothing you wouldn’t say to a stranger on the street.

Also Unrelated, but a cool picture

For those of you in the socially awkward demographic, an example:

 

“That’s an awesome *insert fandom* T-shirt/hat/lanyard/patch!” “That’s a really pretty playmat!” “I haven’t seen that variant of that model before – that’s cool!”

 

These are okay. Any comments on a gamer’s appearance that you wouldn’t say in front of a judge are NOT okay.  Just keep that simple rule in mind and you’ll likely stay out of trouble.

 

Also, as a side note: remember and respect personal space. You’re at a FLGS, not squeezed on a Tokyo subway. Give people room to breathe and to not feel like you are cornering them or pinning them against a table. Be aware of your presence.  

 

I know this sounds like a lot of “mind your own business”, and that sounds antisocial. It’s not, really. You want new players to feel comfortable in your gaming locale of choice, and it can be intimidating as hell to be in an unfamiliar place surrounded by strangers. If that new player walks into a store to laughter and people having fun, gets greeted by smiles and open acceptance – well, a good first impression works wonders, as they say.

 

Remember, everyone was new once. We should always be open to inviting new people into our hobbies and our gaming dens – and we need to police our own. If an LGS isn’t welcoming to new players, or tolerates behavior that ostracizes players, vote with your feet and your dollars and go somewhere else. We are all responsible for our community and the members within it.

 

May all your 20’s be natural,

 

Georgia

 

Georgia is a writer, editor, gamer, and mad culinary priestess who masquerades as a courier and personal cook while her plans for world domination slowly come together. She lives in Tacoma, Washington, with her husband and Feline Overlords. She can be reached through Facebook at In Exquisite Detail or on Twitter at @feraldruidftw.

X-Card and Fade to Black Mechanics

*Trigger Warning: violence, and clowns

Crack… slurp… slarhp… shoooweekk

As I creeped down the hall, I couldn’t close my ears. The sounds surrounded me, like a bag thrown over my head. I had to step around the corner, I had to face this thing. Yet, the longer I waited the longer I felt like I had a chance to escape the horror I knew would be on the other side. I knew what I was stalking, I knew what my chances would be that those sounds were just… chicken bones.

As a player, I reached out and tapped the X card. I knew what the description was going to be, we were hunting down a killer clown and the description of the sounds were bad enough. I couldn’t handle a deep description that I knew the Storyteller was about to provide. The ST saw me, nodded her head and shifted the narrative. The clown ran out from his hiding place, and we fought. When the fight ended, she gave an overview of what we found and excluded the gorier details based on the discussion we had about descriptive preference before we started playing.

X–Card

X-Card

What is the X card? The X Card was created by John Stavropoulos. It’s a mechanic that allows players to opt-out of something in a scene that is uncomfortable. Even the Game Master/Storyteller can perform this edit if a player is adding description that they would prefer not to engage with. This is a great mechanic for convention games, and that is where it sees the most use. In a public game its less likely that you’ve had significant conversations about needs, wants, and gaming interests, so the X card helps to control the game content in an easy to understand way. Now, some folks worry about this mechanic being misused by players hoping to avoid in-character consequences for their actions.

From my experience with similar mechanics, I usually ask a few follow-up questions if I think someone is trying to take advantage of ANY situation or mechanic in an unhealthy way. I don’t ask these questions in an interrogative way, just in a clarifying way. “I’m happy to edit the scene, which elements would you like me to remove or cut out? Is this a player comfort concern or a character comfort problem? How would you run this in a way that you would be comfortable? I think we can work together to make the scene work for everyone.”

Fade To Black

This is one version of what I consider, Fade to Black mechanics. These are mechanics that support player enjoyment and safety. Fade to Black is a movie trope that cuts away from horrific elements. These elements are known, there are enough hints that explain what is happening, but they are never stated explicitly, to ensure that viewers do not have to see something particularly heinous. In some ways, there is more positive emotional impact from keeping certain elements off-screen, and this is true in games as much as movies and TV.

Fade-to-Black

A great article was released today that talks about using consent strategies in LARP, and I think these are wonderful and can also be used in table-top environments. In the end, we want our players to keep player, right? Working with things like the X card will help us to build our community which means more gaming!

What Fade to Black mechanics have you used?

Josh is the administrator of the Inclusive Gaming Network, and the owner of this site. 

*Note, all opinions are the opinions of their respective Authors and may not represent the opinion of the Editor or any other Author of Keep On the Heathlands.

Is She Hot? The Question Female Gamers Dread

As a female bodied gamer, character creation can be difficult sometimes. No, I’m not talking about the sexist view that women are bad at math, or that complex rules are too hard. I am talking about the answer to the question that I feel most female gamers or female presenting gamers dread. This loaded six word question that means something different when it is asked of a female presenting gamer.

 

Question: What Does Your Character Look Like?

Yes, when a male presenting gamer is asked this question it means exactly what it means, no hidden subtext. Does Valeros have brown hair or black hair? What armor is Harsk wearing? What instrument is Lem carrying today? All of these are perfectly normal questions with normal answers. However when this question is asked of female presenting gamers, it usually does not just mean ‘What does your character look like’ but another question instead.

 

Real Question: Is She Hot/Attractive?

How much skin is Seoni showing? What size are Feiya’s breasts? Is Alahazra’s Charisma high? These are a few of the many subtext questions asked of female presenting gamers. Everyone at the table wants to know if our characters are sexually attractive, and if their characters can get with ours. A fantasy takes over in their minds where they feel if they can befriend our character and get with them, that they can get with us in real life. I know many relationships have come about from first starting an in game friendship (including my own!) but that relies on attraction between the parties being mutual, instead of one sided.

 

Perils of Attractive Characters:

My PFS character Kita (and crappy photoshop skills!)

My PFS character Kita (and crappy photoshop skills!)

Take for example my character Kita. Kita was a Sorcerer in the Pathfinder rules set, so it was beneficial for Charisma to be my highest stat. My first PFS module was The Overflow Archives and I was excited to play in a game at my local gaming shop. In the module there was a section with some fey characters that you could either talk to or fight, and I chose to talk. It was then the party at the table realized my character had high Charisma, and even though they were annoyed I chose to talk instead of fight I was suddenly much more popular. One of the orcs gave me a ride on his shoulders in a flooded part of the dungeon. I got healed almost instantly when I was hurt by the party Cleric.

After the game was over, the Orc player asked me to coffee. I told him I don’t drink coffee so I’d have to decline. Then it was lunch at a restaurant I luckily did not like, so I said no again. Then he asked where I’d like to eat and I walked away, and have not returned to that gaming group. At no point did I learn anything beyond this player’s name, and they knew nothing of me other than my name and that I played a cute female character. They didn’t even ask if I was in a relationship or anything else before making it clear they were looking for a date.

 

Freedom of Unattractive Characters

darkestdungeon.com

Ragin Jane Scarlett, the Woman With No Neck

Conversely to the above, I once played a pirate in the Skulls and Shackles adventure path named Ragin’ Jane Scarlett. She was a Barbarian and guard of her male friend and partner in crime Thomas Stringer. It was often said of Jane that she had no neck, just muscle. She was gruff and unattractive, and had no romantic interest or motherly feelings, and was nothing but platonic towards her adventuring partner. They formed a strong pirate crew and made terror on the high seas for those unfortunate enough to cross them.

No one at this group asked me to coffee, no one flirted with me in character as a veil for out of character. The only ones who made passes at me were a couple NPCs that I scared into submission. It was freeing and refreshing. I’ve played several more unattractive or not specifically attractive tabletop characters, including just playing men instead.  I find that most GMs and players leave alone male characters when it comes to their looks and don’t bring it up as often if at all.

 

Attractive/Unattractive Characters and LARP

Rook (and more crappy photoshop!)

Rook (and more crappy photoshop!)

At one point in my LARP career, I played an attractive Brujah named Gianna (not pictured) who was a prostitute in her mortal life, inspired by Ros on the Game of Thrones show. Gigi, as her coterie and bloodline called her, wore short shorts that I shyly wore to game with tights under. I posted a selfie in the shorts after game, proud of wearing them. Almost instantly there were comments from the other players about the naughty thoughts they had and what they wanted to do with me. I did not ask for a review of how I looked or how nice the shorts and tights made my butt look. I deleted the picture because of how uncomfortable the comments made me, but I and many female presenting gamers deal with these comments constantly. Some can’t even post pictures of new Pokemon slippers without commenters asking for nude pictures.

I currently play Rook (pictured above), a Nosferatu that I have written about before. Once when visiting a game, I showed up already in costume. No one flirted with me in character because they found me or my character attractive. I looked unattractive with a gaunt face and giant cloak. I enjoyed an evening being able to be unharassed. Once the game was over, I stood up straight and revealed that my body is in fact female. I had several people whom I did not talk to all game tell me that the RP with me was good. They were all male presenting with surprised looks on their faces that I was female bodied. Up to that moment they disregarded me because they couldn’t see my female body, and I loved it.

 

The Answer: It Doesn’t Matter!

When I’m asked what my character looks like, I sigh.  I am always ready for them to follow up with “Is She Hot?” when I fail (on purpose usually) to mention their attractiveness. I tend to ask them why it matters and most of the time I find that it doesn’t actually matter. These are my experiences, and yours may be different. I feel that if you ask your female presenting friends you’ll find similar patterns of behavior towards their characters. When they play ugly or unattractive characters they will be treated normally. Female characters that are attractive are targeted by others who want to push their fantasies on the character. Perhaps keep this and the follow up article in mind next time you want to ask “Is She Hot?”


Anna uses she/her pronouns and is an avid LARPer.. Outside of LARP Anna is a feminist and part of the LGBTQ* community. She’s a console gamer, and is the proud owner of two loving cats. She can be found on Twitter at https://twitter.com/squeenoodles

*Note, all opinions are the opinions of their respective Authors and may not represent the opinion of the Editor or any other Author of Keep On the Heathlands.

Into the Vault: Torg: Roleplaying the Possibility Wars

From the Vault: Torg: Roleplaying the Possibility Wars

torg

This week we’ll be going off on a bit of a tangent. I will be highlighting one of my favorite RPG’s from “back in the day.” This idea struck me as I saw both Jack Benners  Savage Worlds article and Jim’s Deadlands articles.  With the multitude of RPG’s out there, it is easy to lose track of what has come before. During the 1990’s a multitude of games would hit the markets. Some would be huge (Vampire: The Masqurade) some would cause controversy (Kult) and others would find a niche following that blossomed into cult status.
One of these later titles was TORG. TORG was originally an acronym for The Other Roleplaying Game. It was originally a tile used by the in-house development team. TORG was published by West End Games and came in a box set with the rulebook (pictured above), an Adventure book, and a Worldbook. As of 2016, Torg is under license to Ulisses Spiele. Plans for this new version of Torg will be released under the name Torg: Eternity. I am excited to see this updated both in rules and setting of the game.

 

The Setting

 

TORG is a pan-dimensional setting where different realities have invaded various parts of the earth. Per the cosmology of TORG, there are different cosm’s and each cosm is separate from every other cosm. That was until The Nameless One created different darkness devices. The Nameless One gave these darkness devices to different High Lords. Each High Lord has their own Darkness Device, each one different in design but all are Made of an obsidian material. The function of the Darkness Devices was to allow the High Lords to access the different Cosm’s and capture the possibility energy of each world.

When used to invade other cosms the darkness devices would open up gates leading back to the invading cosms home and begin to influence the invaded world changing it into a mirror of the invaders world. Thus a low tech, high magic cosm that was invading a high-tech non-magic cosm would find that their guns didn’t work most of the time, while the invaders had access to spells that worked, giving them an advantage.

 

Of the High Lords to get a Darkness Device one of the most prolific was The Gaunt Man. He is the High Lord of Orrosh, a Gothic horror realm with a Victorian setting. The Gaunt Man had successfully overtaken dozens of other cosm’s. Then he came across  Earth. What he found was that that Earth contained more potential than any other cosm he had previously discovered. He knew that he would not be able to take Earth alone. He set out to make deals with other High Lords and together they invaded parts of the Earth draining it of its possibility energy. The following are the starting realms for the game:

 

Core Earth– This is “our” Earth. This is the basic reality. Core Earth had slightly better tech than what one could find in the real world which also included access to faith based miracles and magic. To start, Core Earth had no High Lord, however the United States government was ruled  by a shadow cabal known as the Delphi Council.

 

Living Land – This was a Lost World style realm. Jungles, dinosaurs and low to nonexistent magic ruled this area. Centered in the United States on both the East and West Coasts, and a bit of Canada, this realm was ruled by humanoid dinosaurs. At the start of the game it was ruled by the HIgh Lord  Baruk Kaah. His darkness device was Rec Pakken, a large copse of trees.

 

Aysle – This was the “D&D” fantasy realm with high magic and low tech. It was centered in the United Kingdom. At the beginning of the game it is ruled by Uthorion in the body of Pella Ardinary. His darkness device is Drakacanus, a large crown

 

The Cyberpapacy – This was a cyberpunk setting messed with religion. Centered in France, it is ruled over by the Cyberpope Jean Malreaux I. Originally, a realm of jazzed up churches and religious artifacts it melded with a virtual reality on it’s way to invading earth giving way to the VR know as the Godnet.. Jean Malrequx’s darkness device is Ebenuscrux, a glowing cross both in reality and as a VX presence in the GodNet

 

Nippon Tech – This was an ultra-capitalist realm centered in Japan. Ruled over by 3327. This realm blended in so well at first that core Earthers didn’t realize what was going on until it was too late. 3327’s Darkness Device is Daikoku, a laptop computer

 

The New Nile Empire – This was the pulp hero realm ala Indiana Jones. Centered in Egypt it was ruled over by Dr. Mobius. Known for high tech “gadgets”. Dr. Mobius’s Darkness device is Kefertiri, a crocodile-headed idol.

 

Orrosh – This was the Victorian horrors setting. The name itself is an anagram of horrors. This realm was centered in Indonesia and ruled over by the Gaunt Man. The Guant Man’s Darkness device is Heketon, a stone heart

 

What made it different

Torg had a lot of things that set it apart in the over saturated market of the early 90’s. Among these were a ambitious living campaign, the multi-genre setting, and an innovative rules system including a drama deck of cards used in combat.

living-campaign

Living campaign

Torg attempted to do a living campaign right from the outset. Included in the original box set was an infiniverse guide explaining the state of the world and a form that players could mail into West End Games to let the publisher know how the players did. This in turn would influence the ongoing plot of the game world.

This was very ambitious in scope. So much so that while the Infiniverse campaign updates, one of which is pictured above were done throughout the run of the game. The idea of mailing in your updates fell off after about the first year.

what-made-it-different

The multi-genre setting

As covered above Torg had a very interesting setting that allowed for “cinematic style” games .Being able to play a magic slinger next to Doc Savage and do battle in a vampire crypt was great. No other game at the time (to my knowledge) was doing this.

 

Innovative rules system

Torg’s combat system was very interesting. For most conflict resolution you would roll a skill and look to hit a particular difficulty number. You would compare the number you rolled to a chart printed at the bottom of all character sheets. This number would be your bonus to your role. In addition to this if you rolled a 10 or a 20 you rolled again adding the rolls together. This is a mechanic that many games are implementing these days from AEG’s Legend of the Five Rings roll and keep system to Chronicles of Darkness exploding 10’s.

For me though, the best part of Torg was the drama deck. This was a deck of cards that were used in combat. It dictated many different things. From initiative to actions you could take, and even special plot points for characters to pursue.cards

This is an example of the a card one would get from the drama deck. The Orange top boarder was used for the GM. It told him what actions were available. The Grey side was for the PC to use. At the start of a session each player would get five cards. These could be used both in and out of combat.

The box set came with a set of drama cards and subsequent sourcebooks had more cards released with them. The drama deck assisted in bringing in the cinematic style of gaming Torg was aiming for.

 

Drawbacks

Torg did a lot right. The setting was compelling, the system as originally released was solid and different. The living campaign was ambitious and something not  done in pen and paper RPG’s at the time. That all being said, the game was not without its faults.

 

Chief among these were the lack amount of quality control with regards to the system. As the game line progressed core systems introduced in earlier books (including the original boxset) were thrown out and replaced with new rules sets and those in turn would be glossed over or simply ignored in other supplements.

 

The other two big issues Torg had to deal with were cross over ability between cosm’s and overtly anti-Japanese and anti-Catholic sentiments. The crossover ability stemmed from lack of support in published adventures and sourcebooks allowing for overtly customizable characters. For example, a pulp hero from The New Nile Empire that also had cypertech and knew how to cast magic would be left having to  house rule almost every aspect of their character.

 

The concern over anti-Japanese sentiment was raised due to the portrayal of Nippon Tech and the perceived view of Japan dominating U.S industries during the late 80’s and early 90’s. With the Cyberpapacy, perceptions were that the game had a anti-Catholic slant as well. West End Games did state that was not the intention behind either of these settings, however they continued to release product that many found distasteful.

 

In Conclusion

 

Torg was and is very entertaining. The overarching storyline still gives me ideas and I find myself wanting to try and run the entirety of the gameline. With the use of a very fun combat system in regards to both dice mechanics and the Drama deck the game moved very smoothly and upheld it’s cinematic style.

 

Even it’s faults from system, to tone to anti undertones of certain races or creeds can be seen as a product of the time they were a part of. This is not to say they are okay. Part of inclusiveness is the bad as well as the good. Torg’s cannon characters included a Priest that fought against the High Lords for example. The evolving rules perhaps could have been better suited to a full new edition. A 1.5 edition was released in the late 90’s though it didn’t make much impact nor did it fix many of the storyline issues.

 

Scott is a true analog gamer doing everything from pen and paper RPG’s to board games and everything in-between. He started out with Advanced D&D 2nd edition at the age of 10. From there he likes all genres and types, from the well known big names to smaller indie print publishers. Scott is Vice-President of The Wrecking Crew

*Note, all opinions are the opinions of their respective Authors and may not represent the opinion of the Editor or any other Author of Keep On the Heathlands.

OFF LIMIT THEMES? SOCIAL CONTRACT – PART 5

kult

Kult is a controversial Swedish RPG

Welcome back to the final installment of this series. If you have been reading each of these much thanks! The topic for this week would not be the last thing you discuss with your group , but will  be discussed multiple times during this whole process. So, the topic I want to cover in the final article is how to have these ( sometimes very intense)  discussions and make sure that the GM is able to run the game they want while respecting any boundaries. Again , as I always say , please comment and let us get a good discussion going!

 

Topics

No, I am not going to list topics that are controversial here. Most of these would be self evident and,  most of the time, the ones that players may have an issue with are ones that may not be so easily identifiable. With that being the case , it’s more of a way to have a discussion, make sure that every player is heard , and the best time is had by all.

The most straightforward way is to open this talk up is to put it out from the get go is to s imply ask your group what topics or themes they don’t want to have present in the game.Be prepared that a lot of people will simply answer that they can’t think of anything that would offend them that needs to be left out. Trust me on this , everyone has something that they don’t want to be included in a pen and paper RPG. The job of the GM is to make sure that they DO answer you.

In my experience ,  the best way to do this is to let them know they can reach out to you privately via text,  Facebook , or other means away from the group , and let you know what they don’t want to see in game. Even in the most close knit groups , people don’t like to be the reason for not having something included. Normally , for my current groups , any time I am running a game (even after all these years) I state the same thing “If anyone has any topics, themes or other things they want left out of the game please let me know. You can do so here or reach out to me privately. I won’t share what is discussed and I won’t say who does or doesn’t reach out to me.”

Surely you may say  ‘Scott , you don’t have to do that every time. Especially with your home groups. They have already answered this before”   I thought that way too friends and I was so very wrong that it taught me to always ask this very question. My group actually has a rotating roster of GM’s , which I have mentioned in previous entries here , and as such , sometimes a good chunk of time may go by before I run a game for my group.

In addition to this people change from day to day , not to mention from year to year. This means that a topic or subjec t that may once have been ok, could now be an issue. It’s just a polite and considerate thing to ask. Let me explain this in context of a story . Out of respect for the people mentioned I am changing names of those involved.

fire

A few years back , I was running a particular splat in the Chronicles of Darkness world. I had worked with the players on making the characters , and as such I mentioned , as I always do , “If anyone has any topics, themes , or other things they want left out of the game  please let me know. You can do so here , or reach out to me privately. I won’t share what is discussed , and I won’t say who does or doesn’t reach out to me ..None of the players mentioned anything at the table, and no one reached out to me afterwards

We come to the game and , after making the characters, we had one character who had a very graphic scene in their backstories. Now I do want to make it noted this didn’t happen in game it was completely in the backstory , before the game even began. So, with all that being said we start the game. Towards the end of the session in an attempt to bring the PC’s together I corner them and make it so that they are not able to leave a room they are all in.

One PC at this time starts to lash out , and is very adamant  in getting out of the room. Explaining to the player the reason  behind the scenes backfired, as they felt the group as a whole,  and this included me, were attacking them and making them feel like they didn’t have freedom of choice.

We ended the session shortly thereafter. The next day  I reached out to the player and asked what the issue was to make sure that it didn’t happen again. What they told me was that the graphic act that occurred in the other players backstory made them uncomfortable and they felt like that was going to happen to them when they were not allowed to leave the room during that session.
This was not at all my intention of this scene
  and was not anything close to the feeling I was trying to invoke. I assured the player that this was not my intention. Building off of this , I asked why they didn’t mention this topic being off limits at the beginning of the game when I asked the group  and    said “it didn’t occur to me as something that would come up.”

That last statement should be repeated  “it didn’t occur to me as something that would come up.” This is why i always ask. Always. Also, this goes to show you that no matter how much you give people the ability to speak up , they still may not until the are directly confronted with a topic or issue.

Compromise

compromise

So we have a discussion going. That is great.How do we make sure that all parties are equally heard?  Well , that is where compromise comes in. This,  from time to time, will mean that we have to drop a theme or plot thread if absolutely needed. However , let’s not jump to such  a extreme conclusion right  off the bat.

This really becomes a bit of a negotiation in which you will have to use active listening to ensure that both parties (GM and Player) are on the same page. Ask the players what themes they want to avoid. Once they have provided a list ask followup questions in regards to those themes.

“Ok, I’m hearing you want to avoid sexual assault and violence in this game, keep in mind some of these elements are part of the Vampire world, do you want to avoid these completely, or do you want to avoid those interactions with your character?” “Just my character, I’m fine if they happen off-screen with someone else.” “Ok, I can work with that, how do you feel about feeding as a scene we run occasionally?” “Well, I’d like to avoid that usually, but I think my character would try and find willing victims, so if we did run a scene like that I’d like to have consent be important.”

The important thing to remember is during this entire exchange you want to get active consent. This means getting a firm yes from a player. If there is any wavering, be prepared to listen to concerns and if needed remove the theme. If you can’t get active consent, you can present the themes as you play, and then ask again before we delve fully into a scene to ensure a player is comfortable.

When I last ran a Vampire: The Requiem  mini campaign , I had a player who was very against having to roleplay out the scenes were their character would feed. The player decided that, to get around this, they  would have a herd , which in Vampire means they have a group who is willing to let the PC feed off of them.

I explained to the player that I would not make them roll out every single feeding , however I did mention to them that at times I wanted to have them try it out , as feeding in Vampire is a core part of that mood and theme the game presents.I asked that they allowed me to do at least the first feeding for them to set a tone. T  and over time got more acclimated to roleplaying out the feeding scenes.  I still didn’t have it at the forefront as I did with other players , and at times did push back on the player to still play out the scene  as per the rules Herd, just gave him a bonus on feeding ROLLS it didn’t give him a guaranteed to feeding with no issues.

The above example shows active listening. It shows that I addressed the players concerns with feeding and made sure to set an expectation with the overall theme. This also shows getting active consent during the scenes we would run with this player. I would downplay more of the sexual violence of the feeding while still playing up the theme of being a monster.

 

In Conclusion

So, that will wrap up this topic and series. I again appreciate anyone that took the time to read even part of these , and for those of you who read all of them through , thanks very much.

The contract that is made in a gaming group is very interesting and rewarding. By having these discussions , you will see your games become enriched for the better. As mentioned , please let me know thoughts or any questions and let’s get a discussion going.

Scott is a true analog gamer doing everything from pen and paper RPG’s to board games and everything in-between. He started out with Advanced D&D 2nd edition at the age of 10. From there he likes all genres and types, from the well known big names to smaller indie print publishers. Scott is Vice-President of The Wrecking Crew

*Note, all opinions are the opinions of their respective Authors and may not represent the opinion of the Editor or any other Author of Keep On the Heathlands.

WHO’s THE GM? SOCIAL CONTRACT 4

Social Contract 4: Who will be running the game if a Game Master (GM) is needed?

tabard

Welcome back, once again! This week the topic is all about that very important job. The job that not everyone wants to do. The one that for some people is shrouded in mystery and veiled by a screen. Of course, this is the role of the esteemed GM or Game Master. However, whether you refer to them as DM, GM, Storyteller, Judge, or any of the other long list of names it all comes down to the same thing. They run the game for the group. From setting up the plot, creating interesting situations on the fly, to not flipping out when things go off the road, the GM is a role with many hats.

Of course, that is, if a GM is even needed for your game. In these days GMless games are gaining in popularity and merit a look as well.

So, this week we shall break down what one is really getting themselves into when they sign on to be a GM, from a one-shot, to a campaign. As with other weeks I will intersperse examples in italics. Looking over the duties of a GM, what all is really needed? What exactly does this position entail?

Judge

judge

Like the esteemed Judge Reinhold , the GM must make quick and fair decisions on the fly with a strong regard for the rules.

This doesn’t mean they have to know all of the rules and I will tell you a little GM secret, listen closely now, we don’t know all the rules.

We don’t and that is okay. However, we DO need to understand them enough to interpret situations as they arise. Interpreting dice rolls and understanding WHEN to call for rolls is a large portion of a GM’s roll (ha!). This will be largely influenced by the game being ran.

D&D has a different way of handling things then say, Burning Wheel. In D&D, by the book will tell you that you need to roll for just about everything, if there is a CHANCE for failure. However, with that in mind, this works well for the D20 engine and that is an important thing to keep in mind. Many times I have heard the following conversation from groups:

I don’t like game X because it uses the X system and that system is bad.hero

This is a very basic way of determining if a system is good or bad. Look, I personally am not a fan of Hero System

That is MY personal preference. However, I can APPRECIATE what it does. With six editions under its utility belt it does what it does well and has a rabid fan base. The system allows you to create just about any kind of character you can think of. That is its goal, and in that, IT SUCCEEDS!

Why the short diatribe on this? Because, from a GM standpoint it helps to run a game you overall understand and feel comfortable with, as well as making sure it is something you ENJOY! When you enjoy a game, learning the rules and helping others to understand the rules will be easy. You will enjoy teaching the game to the group and that enthusiasm will show in the game in other ways as well.

So, know the rules. Use the rules. Know when not to use the rules, as well.

For some groups part of the first session (besides character creation) is going over the basic concepts for the game, usually rules and setting.

My friend Metal put together a powerpoint presentation for our group to go over and explain Hero System as none of us had ever played it, or even looked at it before. This allowed us all to understand how to make a character and get used to the game system.

So again, know the rules in depth. Not all of them. You never will, and that is okay, however, know them and understand them enough so that you can use them and discard them as needed.

Gameworld

Aside from knowing the rules, the GM will have to create the world and situations the players encounter. Some games have established settings and some don’t. This is really your first question. Will you run a pre-printed setting/module, run your own game within the established setting, or run your own setting all together?

This question isn’t really as daunting as it may at first seem. From a creative standpoint you will know if a published adventure or settings grips your imagination or if the rules make your imagination swim with possibilities.  In either case, the GM needs to make the world feel real and tangible to the players. They make the PC’s the center point of the story and have their actions produce consequences that will affect the world they inhabit.

This short section helped us setup the next, which is time spent prepping the game.

Prepping for the game

prepping

You have decided on the date, the time, the place, the game, the world, and spent time reading and learning the rules. Now you need to get the plot outlined and ready to run the game. How much is too much?

Let’s discuss that, shall we?

Before looking at this further I want to share something about how I prep for a game. I do this to show one way of doing things. There is no right or wrong way. Find what works for you and use it. For me it starts with the end; more specifically, a scene. I take that scene and figure out how to use it in a game. I then work backward from there. From that scene, I look for a good theme and mood to apply to the whole game.

The mood and theme help me to direct the story I want to tell and give me a focus to come back to once the game starts. KEEP THAT IN MIND!

NO AMOUNT OF PREP WILL SURVIVE THE PLAYERS. ALL OF YOUR HARD FRAUGHT WORK WILL COME TO NOTHING. In fact, Victor wrote about this a couple of weeks ago in his convention game write up

Keeping things honest here, I was the person who ran the Changeling game he mentions. I will come back to how I could have planned that better. (SORRY FOR THE FRUSTRATION ON THAT, VICTOR!). He also mentions that the Numenera game went off the rails when the GM’s plan for the plot escaped them.

So, to keep this at a minimum I plan a skeleton of a plot and have certain scenes that will happen. I think of these as set pieces rather than hard and fast things that have to go off as planned.

So, really the “prep” for a game will depend on your style. Different people plan differently. Like I mentioned above, I tend to have an overall framework for the story I want to tell. This goes for convention games as well. By not over-planning, I allow the players to really engage the world, and no matter what they do, my story can continue and hopefully the players all have a grand time.

Other GMs I know will have pages and pages of story and plot, and playing will be more reminiscent of the old classic Call of Cthulhu adventures.

This is a true “railroad” game.

cthulu

This is not a slight on CoC adventures. I LOVE Call of Cthulhu. However, it is a different game than what I normally run. Those who do run games like this have a very hard and fast plot that will happen no matter what. Players will find that they only a few real choices. Again, this is fine if that is the game your players have agreed to play.

My friend Ray ran a Star Wars game that was very much railroad in style. Now, we understood this going in, and to Ray’s credit, when we asked to have more freedom as a group, he gave us that freedom. He had full on handouts and backgrounds for all the NPC’s we would be interacting with, and a very detailed knowledge of the worlds we visited. It was impressive.

On the other hand; unlike my skeleton plot points and Ray’s handouts, there is my friend Bob.

Bob is currently running our group through a Burning Wheel game. Bob will let an idea sit and percolate for a long time. Like a year. He will jot down notes as they come to him. From there, he will then do a character creation session to get the players roles set up for his story. With that done, his real prep is complete. The week to week prep is really just noting 4 scenes he wants to try to work into the game. It takes him all of 5 minutes. It is truly amazing to see him do it.

As you can see, these are very different ways to prep and set up a game. All of which are perfectly legitimate ways to work the GM magic. The point here is to know how much time *you* as the GM will need to put into the game from getting the basic ideas running around in your old hamster wheel onto paper and all the way to getting to that climactic showdown with the adversary and the aftermath.

So, to GM means putting in extra time and effort and keeping up with the ongoing story. It is a demanding role, to be sure. However, it is one that is also incredibly rewarding. Next week we’ll wrap this whole thing up with a discussion on how to make sure the topics covered in the game are not offensive, while still being true to the theme and mood that the GM is trying to bring to the game.

As always please comment and let me know your thoughts either bad or good. Let’s get a good discussion going, and of course, thanks for reading!

Scott is a true analog gamer doing everything from pen and paper RPG’s to board games and everything in-between. He started out with Advanced D&D 2nd edition at the age of 10. From there he likes all genres and types, from the well known big names to smaller indie print publishers. Scott is Vice-President of The Wrecking Crew

*Note, all opinions are the opinions of their respective Authors and may not represent the opinion of the Editor or any other Author of Keep On the Heathlands.

LET’S TALK ABOUT THIS CON GAME THING PART 2 THE CHALLENGES OF PLANNING PUBLIC GAMES

2016-10-15-11_24_22-valorcon-2016-exhibitor-sponsorship-guide-pdf

Part 3, Part 1
In my last article on con games I talked about my experiences playing at Gen Con, and designing two con game modules with a focus on making them approachable to new players at Valor Con.  I’ve talked a lot about the fun, exciting aspects of the con game format, but con games also come with some very unique challenges that I think are worth exploring.  The con game format turns the subject of the Social Contract between gamers that is being explored in depth in Scott E. Vigil’s series on the subject on its ear, and much of that is connected to these specific challenges.

Scott talks in his last article about finding a space that’s acceptable to everyone, and choosing a game that everyone wants to play.  At a con game all of those questions are swept away.  The con tells you where you will be playing, likely including a specific table assignment.  Whoever submitted the session pitch to the con decides what game will be played.  This person may or may not be the storyteller.  So in many ways the social contract for these games is templated and packaged for you when you take part in a con game.  One of the topics Scott mentions in his first Social Contract of Gaming article was very much in play at my Valor Con games though, “Are there any topics or themes that are to be off limits in the role-playing setting?”.

There is a lot of talk in all corners of the internet about representation in media, both the need for more representation, and the damage that can be done by poor representation of groups that have a history of being stigmatized by negative stereotypes and systematic oppression.  The tension between representation and quality representation weighed much more heavily on me than it normally does when I’m planning a game.  The potential for sloppy representation to cause damage either through someone feeling unwelcome at my table, or by reinforcing a negative stereotype, albeit unintentionally with a completely random group of players is significantly higher than with the troupe I usually play with.  I know my friends well and have an understanding of how they will engage with my content.  At Valor Con, I was walking into a situation where I would be running Wraith: The Oblivion, which is one of the darkest games I have ever played, with a completely unknown group of players.  As I developed my modules, the complexity of these dynamics became abundantly clear to me.

Zero to None by Lydia Burris

Zero to None by Lydia Burris

For readers who are not familiar with Wraith, you play ghosts who are still tethered to Earth by some form of unfinished business, which is a classic theme in ghost stories from several different cultures.  The society of the dead though, is something entirely unique to Wraith, and poses a series of significant problems for the type of game I wanted to run.  Wraith society is based on an economy of souls.  There is a vibrant slave trade, and the vast majority of “physical” items in the underworld are made of smelted down souls.  While it appears at first glance that this is cheap shock horror, there are very compelling reasons for this atrocity, and the game is deeply founded in inspecting the human potential for atrocity in high definition, and really grappling with it.

I am the only person in my immediate gaming circle who has ever run Wraith for more than a few sessions, so I know the lore fairly well, and I love it dearly because I love stories that shine a stark unflinching light on the darkness inherent in the human soul and don’t give into the aggrandizement of “humanity”.

I wanted to set the game in my neighborhood of Uptown, Chicago because Valor Con has a very strong local Chicago brand and I wanted to incorporate that brand into my games.  Chicago is one of the most segregated cities in America, except for Uptown.  In a city where almost everyone lives around other people who look more or less like they do, Uptown stands out as a diverse neighborhood with representations from a variety of nationalities, sexualities, and economic classes  This is a big part of why I love living in Uptown as much as I do and I really wanted to highlight my neighborhood.  I wanted to tell a story about Wraiths from the different generations, and communities that have built Uptown into the neighborhood it is, and who have connections to major changes in Uptown’s history.  There is a large African immigrant community in Uptown and I was halfway through making the character I wanted to represent the local African Diaspora community when I stopped typing and thought about the core themes of Wraith and how they could very problematically interact with an African character.  This was the weekend before the convention and there was no way I had the time to redesign everything before the Con.

uptown-theater

The inside of the Uptown Theatre reminds us what the shadowlands must be like.

My game focused very specifically on soulforging and the commodification of souls that is common in the underworld.  I wasn’t playing with the themes in Wraith that half justify those actions because no one is entirely good or evil in the Underworld.  I was approaching soulforging and the Thrall slave trade as intrinsic evils, but I was still incredibly concerned about the story I was about to tell.  I decided that I didn’t want to back away from the core themes of Wraith or accurate representation of Uptown because I was walking into difficulty territory.  It was time to hold myself accountable to telling this story, even in a public venue like a game con properly.  So the first thing I did was put a content warning at the top of the setting writeup that read:

wraithoblivion2ndlogoThis is a game that deals with incredibly dark societal themes.  It is fundamentally a game about the atrocity that lives deep in the human soul and can never be truly excised, it can at best be vigilantly managed.  These themes include slavery, murder, xenophobia, and a literal commodification of the human spirit.  I tried very hard to balance representing the myriad communities of Chicago’s Uptown neighborhood, where this session will be set, against those themes in an honest and respectful way, while leaning into the full atrocious horror that defines Wraith.  I am open to critical feedback of areas where that goal might not be fully realized in these writeups, or in how the session ends up playing out.  Please know that if you read the rest of this setting and the character writeups and would rather not engage in this session that is fine.  If you want to engage, but would rather I downplay certain themes I am also 100% fine with that conversation as I feel it is essential to any positive Wraith experience.

I know some people are not fans of content warnings, and I don’t want to open that whole conversation here, but in a con game setting where people want to have fun, and by the nature of the format may not know anything about the games they are sitting down to play, I feel this kind of notice about the primary themes being tackled is appropriate.  This also made it clear to my players that I welcomed them bringing up concerns as the game session went on.  When we sat down to play the game I explained the specific thematic juxtaposition I was concerned about.

I also went through my session plan before the con and made sure I wasn’t aligning the themes related to the commodification of human soul with my PC’s identity as a Black woman.  While there were abductions, and soulforging of clearly unwilling victims in the game, they did not reflect any particular racial makeup, and as I opened my game session with a frank conversation about the themes I would be exploring, I felt I had prepared the most inviting space I could for this kind of horror session.  I was entirely prepared to improv changes to the setting if anyone felt uncomfortable.  As it turns out, no one did.  We had a dynamic session, where the diverse relationships the characters had with the story and the setting came into play surprisingly well for a one shot game.  It is worth nothing, the players ended up being all white men, but they were all very positive about the fact that I opened the game the way I did, and I received good feedback on how I structured the session.

Ironically, despite the content being seemingly less fraught than the Wraith game, I ran into more tricky game dynamics in my Changeling session than I did in my Wraith session.  My Wraith game ended up being an excellent example of how to plan navigating difficult content in advance.  In my next article I will talk about my Changeling session and how I went about navigating unexpected player discomfort mid-session, and what I will be doing differently in future con games based on that experience.

Victor Kinzer has been roleplaying since he first picked up Vampire Dark Ages in high school.  He nabbed it as soon as it was released (he might have been lusting after other Vampire books for a while at that point) and hasn’t looked back since.  He role plays his way through the vast and treacherous waters of north Chicago, and is hacking away at the next great cyberpunk saga at http://redcircuitry.blogspot.com/.  He is an occasional guest on Tempus Tenebrarum (https://www.youtube.com/channel/UCvNp2le5EGWW5jY0lQ9G39Q/feed), and is working to get in on the con game master circuit.  During the rest of his life he works in Research Compliance IT, which might inform more of his World of Darkness storylines than he readily admits.

*Note, all opinions are the opinions of their respective Authors and may not represent the opinion of the Editor or any other Author of Keep On the Heathlands.