Story Games 101: Saying Terrible Things

“We expect kindness and maturity from everyone who attends and so should you.”

That’s what it’s said on the Story Games Seattle website for years. When your charter is to game with strangers every week, maturity and civility is fundamental to making that work. We did not tolerate bigotry or discrimination in any form and we expected nothing less from everyone who attended, because that’s just how civilized humans behave.

The tricky bit — yes there’s a tricky bit — is that what we do together is create fiction and portray the words and deeds of imaginary people, even terrible imaginary people. We may quite intentionally introduce serious, dark, or even horrible subject matter in our games, just like you would see in a movie or book, because fiction is a great way to explore issues we may loathe and avoid in real life.

Since we started in 2010, we used a “safe word” technique (which we originally called the Veil, later the X) so that anyone who is uncomfortable with particular material can remove it from the game. Which is crude but generally works.

But there’s another thing which can happen, which a safe word does not solve: If you play a terrible person, or introduce some dark idea or plot twist, a total stranger (like the people you’re gaming with) might think that’s the kind of person you are. They might think the words coming out of your mouth reflect the kind of person you are, which is not a surprising reaction since that’s how the world works most of the time.

It’s critical (critical!) that we can tell the difference between our real world beliefs and the stuff we’re bringing into the game. We might be okay exploring racism and sexism as issues, but who wants to sit down and play with someone who they think is actually sexist or racist, even a little bit?

I’ve seen it happen time and again, in smaller and larger degrees. And it silently kills the fun. Because in an awkward social situation like this, the easiest reaction is to disengage. The other players stop wanting to be at the table and they certainly don’t want to talk to the person they think holds repulsive beliefs. They may not storm off but the game will just limp along quietly. Which means that more often than not, you have no idea anyone is reacting this way. You think you’re bringing interesting material into the game, but you don’t realize your comrades now think you’re a monster. Good game!

Say The Terrible Thing Is Terrible

I am a prime culprit. I love bringing terrible subject matter into games. Love it. Because I want to explore the problems of society and the human condition. The last thing I want to play is a game where everyone is great and society works fine, because that teaches me nothing.

So: how do you bring in serious issues and explore the problems of society and the human condition without making everyone at the table wonder what kind of horrible person you are?

First off, assume that one-hundred percent of the time that everyone else will believe that you are what you create. Yeah you are playing a character, or describing an imaginary society, but assume that no one will see the separation between you and your fiction.

Second, embrace that as the person bringing in the tough material, it is your job to prevent a misunderstanding. If you want to go into deep water, it’s your responsibility to bring the flotation devices. And you probably should want to anyway, because who wants to be misunderstood?

Luckily the fix is incredibly easy: make the fiction (say what your character is doing or saying, etc.) and then immediately break character and tell the other players that, yeah, that’s a really terrible thing you’re bringing into the game. Then describe why it’s terrible. “Yeah, my character is being completely abusive and exploiting her husband’s feelings to guilt him into doing what she wants.” Or, “the councilor is completely confident the laws are just, but the whole system exploits the lower caste. This society is messed up.” And then I’ll go right back to adamantly defending that society in-character and argue why this oppression is good and necessary.

Say that what you said is terrible, then say why it’s terrible. Or do it the other way and preface material by saying “I’m going to add something really terrible here,” then say why it was terrible after you create it.

Is it more complicated and nuanced rather than just terrible? Then say that! “Yeah, it’s kind of horrible for him to do that, but he’s driven by some awful circumstances. Yeesh.” The whole point is to show the difference between your fiction and your real beliefs. Say what you think about it.

The hard part isn’t doing it, it’s remembering that it’s necessary. Because everyone doesn’t know you and can’t read your mind.

Even When It’s Obvious…

I use this method all the time, even when it seems completely obvious to me that what I’m describing is dark, tragic or just plain messed up. In fact the more obvious, the more I stop and say “oh yeah, that is messed up.” Because when you think something is “obvious” is usually when things go awry.

If I see someone else bringing in tough material and they aren’t communicating this way, I’ll stop and say it myself to start the dialog. It’s amazing how much you can defuse tension at the table with a quick “yeesh, this is all horrible, isn’t it?” Once we clear the air, we can enjoy exploring it as fiction rather than eyeing each other suspiciously.

And again, this is not the same as X’ing something you don’t want in the game. It’s not about the fiction, it’s about what we think about the other players at the table. If you introduce something terrible and someone bans it, the problem is not solved if they still sit there thinking you are an awful person. If anything now the issue is submerged and made worse, because we’re not talking about it.

Gaming techniques to solve social problems are a moving target. Methods that seemed state-of-the-art ten years ago feel hopelessly outdated now, and later on the same will be true of what we do now. Which is good, because that means we’re probably making progress.

In the meantime, don’t be afraid of the deep water. It’s where the big fish are.

    Ben Robbins | June 13th, 2018 | how to play | show 3 comments