Saturday 2 February 2019

Handling IC Nastiness

I am a bleeding-hearted hippy who doesn't want to upset people. I also like horror, in the fiction I consume, the larps I play, and the games I write & run. My games are full of gore and body-horror and PCs going mad, suffering horrible fates, and witnessing gruesome stuff.
Here, I compile my thoughts on how I handle stuff that might upset people in the games I run. No particular order. I'm writing this because, having recently moved cities, I'm joining a new gaming club and their assumptions are rather different to my own.

While all of this is aimed at GMs, GMs aren't the only people bringing ideas into a game. Players - through the actions of their PCs - can make things just as nasty. Look at the classic 'orc baby dilema'; that's only grimdark nastiness if the PCs decide to kill the babby orcs.

Point the first. Horror is good. Fear makes things exciting, and a good 'ewww, gross' reaction can bring people into the game-fiction brilliantly efficiently. Likewise, presenting people with genuinely difficult moral choices can make them engage with the game-fiction on a deeper level (even 'my character doesn't care about being a good person' is itself an interesting moment of characterisation). I hate media that is sanitised and scrubbed clean and made inoffensive. Conflict should be difficult, violence should be horrible, worlds and the people in them flawed. 
This is not to say that Dark Edgy Content is always good, but rather that including nasty shit in your games has an important place in the game. Used right, nastiness can increase investment in the world, add to the ooc tension, and help control the emotional tempo of the game session.
In my view, the best games have a nice balance between uplifting and unpleasant content. In grimdark games, I tend to play 'beacon of light' characters; paladins, nuns, etc etc. In more upbeat games, I play amoral rogues. The contrast is important.

People have phobias. People have past traumas. If you expose people to this stuff, they're gonna have a bad time because phobias, trauma-responses etc overwhelm the rational mind.
People have stuff they have to deal with in real-life that's just not fun when it intrudes on the game. It's not phobia-tier, but the inclusion just makes the game worse, by dragging in elements of the shitty depressing real world. A very good example of this is sexism. I can't see much benefit to having victorian NPCs treat female adventurers in an authentically belittling way; that sort of thing is what we're playing lady adventurers to get away from. Of course, that's probably far less of an issue for you if you don't have to put up with that stuff in your day-to-day life.
It's like with horror films. Everybody has their own thresholds, tastes, areas that are off-limit to them, and so on. I, for example, love the creeping ratcheting fear of something like Ju-On or The Ring. On the other hand, something like I Spit On Your Grave is just icky to me, and I'm not gonna have fun with it.
The challenge is to add the sort of nasty shit that will bring all the positives without veering into these off-limits areas.

I'll start out by saying that the X-card (and similar systems that give a hard veto on upsetting content) don't really work. Here's why.
  • At the point a player is tapping out of a given scene, it's already too late. If you need to stop the RP because that encounter with spider swarms is triggering your arachnophobia, the damage is already done. You're already having a bad time because your brain is already going into irrational-fear-response-mode.
  • These methods tend to work by shutting down the game in mid-flow. This is, by definition, disruptive to the fun everybody else is having, meaning that a (potentially badly upset) player is disincetivized from actually calling a time-out. I've played in games with such a mechanism, and mostly the player sits there not using the tools at their disposal because they don't want to upset everybody else who seems into it.
  • These techniques put the onus on the player to halt upsetting stuff, rather than on everybody else not to upset them. You get a dynamic of 'well you didn't tap out, so it's your fault'.
Combine these three points and what you get is a wonderful excuse that protects a shitty GM. The player had the means to tap out, and didn't, so whatever nastiness the GM puts in front of them is fine; the GM can then do whatever the fuck they like because the player's incredibly unlikely to actually tap out. It's unfortunate.

I think the most important thing is to know, as the game begins, where your group's limits are. Back in my old city, for the group I regularly gamed with I had this stuff down pretty well. There were a few topics I didn't really bring up because I knew these people outside the game, and knew it would be upsetting for them. With new players, you need to feel out what these limits are. Ask them directly, and also get to know them a bit before the game begins. 
By and large, there's a few areas that you can make a safe bet somebody will dislike (sexual assault, child abuse, the holocaust and other real-world atrocities that remain in living memory, stuff like that) that you probably don't go putting in your games until you've got a feel for the group and are confident it will go down fine. 
Keep an eye on how your players respond to stuff. If a player goes very quiet and looks uncomfortable, check in with them. Adapt on the fly.

If you're a player, for fucksake, be upfront with your GM about any issues you might have. Tell your GM if your arachnophobic or they won't know not to attack you with spider monsters.

As a point of note, you've got no obligation to run a game you aren't into yourself.
Say you've got a player who simply cannot be around anything that reflects predatory sexuality. Fair enough. However, if I'm running Vampire the Masquerade, my response to that player is 'I don't think this is the game for you'. I'm not going to take the sexy predators out of vamp because that's what the game is about. It's going to be dark and sexy and uncomfortable and that's the fucking point of vamp. Likewise, if a player comes up to me saying they don't want to deal with the catholic church in play, that's gonna be involved with a lot of the plots I run in a lot of my games. Nuns are a recurring motif, as are reliquaries. If you don't like that, my game is probably not the game for you.
Other games more suited to your tastes are available. 

The most important thing is to be up front with your players about what you're likely to include, and to take on board things they say they don't like. Talk to your players like a grownup, adapt to feedback. Reliance on any system to "protect the players from unpleasant content" will fail and is trivial for bad actors to twist to their advantage.
The single most important thing is that everybody engages in good faith.


  1. Up front communication is huge. In pretty much every regard. And yeah, some games and/or settings just aren't going to be a good fit for some players. Best to know that ahead of time and not jump in than get blindsided by it.

    I'd also note that there's some stuff that falls in between. I am not going to be able to deal with spiders, no matter what. But heights (yes, even when just described, with no visuals), while they can mess me up if they catch me by surprise, I can deal with if I can get myself settled first. Suddenly teleport my character a thousand feet off the ground, and I'm out, but if the party has planned out that next week we're going after something in the Very High and Steep and Treacherous Mountains, I can roll with it.

  2. The part about tapping out is so true. It’s too late.

  3. I'm curious as to what your thoughts are on this regarding stuff like LARP. I definitely agree on your points regarding the x-card in a tabletop, but what about tapping out in a LARP? I've seen the very helpful "break" call pop up in a lot of the better American ones.

    1. Most larps I'm involved with have an OOC call that signals 'a health and safety issue has arisen, pause the game', and many use that same call for mental health stuff.
      That said, the tools you use for 2,000 strangers in a field is very different for when there's four people who know each other reasonably well sat at a table. I understand the more nordic side of larping have interesting tools they use, but I've got less experience with that because, frankly, I like hitting people with fake swords.

    2. This comment has been removed by the author.

    3. wow apparently I suck at blogger comments. I was trying to edit that and accidentally deleted it. Anyways I had just said that we use essentially the same thing in the states, although typically we split the call into a "Hold" for medical/OOC emergencies and a "Break" for "this is triggering a traumatic moment for me and I need to sit the scene out". Break doesn't get called too often in my experience but it's usually only in smaller scenes where it does, and it's been very helpful.

      I definitely agree that the main reason one works and the other doesn't is the size of the group. In a LARP with so many GMs and players, it'd be impossible for every participant to be aware of what sets off traumatic moments for other people at the game, where that could be much easier in a tabletop.

  4. A+ post. Great points about the X card. Never thought about that.

  5. Like obviously if a player signals that 'this is upsetting for me we should stop' then you do that because you're not a fucking sociopath. But having that mechanism in place can't be your only (or main) tool, and prioritizing it over an approach that's more holistic will likely lead to bad outcomes.

  6. I've been hedging my bets on honesty. Unicorn Meat is definitely not going to be everyone's cup of tea, so I've settled on the elevator pitch of "It's LISA the Painful + True Detective S1 + Lord of the Flies, but with a unicorn factory farm in the horribly swampy backwoods". If that doesn't let people know what they're in for, I don't know what to do.

    1. Honestly, that seems reasonable. If everybody goes in knowing what to expect, then they're given a chance to make an informed decision about it. Making sure the tone you're going for is one everybody will be OK with is the single most important step, I think.

  7. Probably one of the best articles I’ve seen written on this topic ever in my gaming experience. If not the best.

  8. "Tell your DM upfront" is a good idea – if you already are aware of everything that might affect you.

    I do DM Call of Cthulhu at cons. Being a horror game, sensitive issue teand to crop up. Therefore, I often prepare a sheet with a list of potential trigger subjects, always including a number of triggers that are not planned for the session along with the potential danger spots.
    I still remember a session in which all players initially had indicated they had no problem with the themes suggested. During the session, however, I noticed one of the players seemed to really have a hard time coping with the way one of the events was developing. So I decided to lead the investigation through a hairpin bend and into a completely different direction.
    Afterwards, said player came up to me and told me, "Thank you for noticing, I had not realized how much the subject still affected me. I was on the verge of jumping up and leaving when you suddenly turned the story around."
    I was really lucky to have noticed what was going on, as the whole scene was quite intense and I had been concentrating on getting it across correctly.

    In addition, people might not realize that they will be affected by something, not because they think they are "over it" like in that example but because they have never before been confronted by it or realized exactly what they are triggered by. I once had a player go through a quite serious panic attack after I surprised everyone with a "bump in the night" by loudly knocking on the bottom of the table with a hard object. This person had never realized or been diagnosed as having a severe case of ligyrophobia. When I met this person later at a different con, I apologized for triggering him/her and he/she told me himself/herself that the phobia had finally been diagnosed in the meantime. Of course, this still left me feeling bad