One of the things I appreciate about role playing gaming is how it can create a space for everyone to let down their guard and enjoy telling a great stories together. I was quite disturbed to read about Mysty Vander’s experience at her local gaming convention. (Here and a follow-up Here.) I felt furious reading about how Mysty was treated, but not at all surprised. I think my lack of surprise is the part that bothered me the most because I have run into the kind of jerks who belittled Mysty at gaming conventions and even in local gaming groups. As a cis-white-male I am never the target in the same way as Mysty experienced, but I have felt the unmistakable arrogant response to misunderstanding a rule or choosing a non-optimal move. The bottom line is that people who devalue the experience and contribution of others are a big problem in gaming and really have no place at the gaming table. Gaming is one of those hobbies that celebrates diversity and creativity and it should be a safe place for all people to have fun and feel normal no matter what other turmoil is going on in their lives. No one can let down their guard and join in a great story if they feel unsafe.
I am planning on running a number of games at CanGames this year. Always on my table you will find an X-card. John Stavropoulos’ X-card lands on my table whenever I play role playing games with new groups of people. What the X-card does is allows any player to redirect the story should they feel uncomfortable with how it is unfolding. I’ve been using the X-card ever since my friend Jason Pitre introduced it during a running of Dread. He dropped the X-card within reach of everyone at the table and told us that we just needed to touch the card and whoever was telling that part of the story would simply adjust the details away from whatever was triggering the gamer who touched the card. In fact it did get used that game. Dread is a horror/suspense RPG that brilliantly uses a Jenga tower instead of dice to resolve situations. It is a fantastic game, but it can be somewhat dark at times. Jason was describing a harrowing escape by a player and mentioned that the big bad took a swipe and ripped their clothes. The player found that a bit uncomfortable so they reached for the X-card. Jason masterfully re-framed the scene and omitted the ripped clothes part. It was an easy fix, but had there been no mechanism to know that player was uncomfortable their experience of the game and even the convention might have been spoiled. Better yet, no one at the table felt off put by making that one player feel safe. In fact I think seeing the X-card in action was liberating to the players, allowing them to let down their guard and lean into the story. Personally, I’ve only had the X-card used once at my own table in several years of gaming with it, but every now and then I do need to re-direct the narrative a player starts to weave. The point is that there are always ways to make the gaming experience safe and inviting for all.
The last comment I’ll make about Mysty’s experience is that I have observed that often the worst offenders are those gamers who feel marginalized and socially awkward outside of their gaming community. For some twisted reason they take the acceptance of the gaming community as permission to make the gaming experience unsafe for others. All of us at the table are a bit insecure. All of us have some degree of social anxiety. All of us arrived here because we found acceptance and camaraderie. When we do not pay the graciousness of the gaming table forward when we make the experience unsafe. I happen to think that creating safe accepting spaces is worth fighting for. I want my gamers to feel safe enough to let down their guard and enjoy telling great stories. I want them to have a space where they do not have to justify their existence and participation, simply wanting to be there is the price of admission. So if you treat people with disdain at my table please expect to be asked to leave.
The picture above is me running Dungeon World at a local gaming convention, I am pretty sure this is from before I discovered the X-card. I love the diversity of players that end up at my gaming tables. The photo was taken by Richard Dufault.