Monday, August 12, 2019

"Edgy" Games Require Trust

There are some players out there who like simple, cut-and-dry games. They like to be heroes, doing heroic things... or maybe just adventurers doing whatever comes their way that they can make a profit off of. But there are some gamers who like to push the envelope when it comes to subject matter. People who like to descend the dark staircase into the taboo, the wicked, and the macabre.

Those kinds of games aren't for everyone. However, if you expect people to play them with you, then you need to establish some kind of trust with your group. Otherwise you're not going to get anywhere.

Open yourself up to the knife. Trust me.

Maturity Applies To The Players and Storyteller, Too

We're all adults here (or, at least, we like to think that we are), so I'm going to use a metaphor to make a point. Stick with me, this will make sense by the time we get to the other side.

A standard RPG is like having normal, conventional sex. Maybe you were awkward your first time, you weren't really sure what all the bits involved did, but you were having fun and you wanted to keep doing it. Then you figured out how it worked, what you were good at, and what you could bring to the game.

Edgy games, though, are more like a BDSM encounter. They tend to be darker, and seen as more taboo. They cater to a very specific kind of play style, and include elements that you usually won't find in conventional games (psychological trauma, more brutal depictions of violence, sexual themes... you know, 18+ kinds of stuff). The most important way that these more mature, adult games are like BDSM though is that you need to open up to the potential of the story in order for it to actually affect you... and to do that, you have to trust the people you're playing with.

Without trust, this whole thing falls apart.
Take Vampire: The Masquerade, for example. The game has a Humanity tracker, which is actively affected by your actions, and how you struggle to maintain being the person you were while filled with animalistic hungers. The game often deals with the loss of self, with the struggle of the human mind to cope with the idea of infinity, as well as the sheer body horror that comes with having your skin warped, bones restructured, and your form remade by an angry Tzimisce.

That's far from the only example, either. One of the central themes of Werewolf: The Apocalypse is the balance of trying to turn Rage into a weapon against your enemies, and to avoid it splashing onto your friends and loved ones. And if you lose control of that Rage, you might truly turn into a monster; brutalizing those you care about, and in some circumstances feeling compelled to dismember them, eat them, or to sexually assault them (in case you think I'm making that up, it's in the Thrall of the Wyrm section for Metis characters). Changeling: The Lost deals with the question of identity and losing your grip on reality as you witness (and sometimes commit) atrocities, and try to find your place in a world you know is a half-truth at best, and an outright lie at worst.

My point is, there are a lot of games with dark themes, horrible subject matter, and which are meant to dig around in the bleaker parts of the human psyche. That's not a flaw... that's the feature! And even games that aren't expressly meant to touch those darker places can still be made to do so. Drow cities in Dungeons and Dragons, the existence of dark gods like Zon-Kuthon and his cults in Pathfinder... you get the idea.

However, you can think of these games as the collars, the whips, the paddles, and all the other accessories that come with a BDSM-style session. They're the most visible part of the play that's going on, but too often people mistake them for the play itself; as with any good tabletop game, the play is going on inside your mind. In order to have the proper experience, you need to open yourself up to it. Play along, in other words. That means making yourself vulnerable to the experience, because without allowing it to get inside you and affect you, you're missing out on what it's supposed to do. At that point it's just words, dice, numbers, and a whole lot of empty wind.

What's Trust Got To Do With It?

It's a common misconception that if you put a crop into someone's hands that you want them to beat you with it. Sometimes you just want the threat of it looming over you as a potential for punishment. Maybe you want to be teased with it, but not actually hit. Or maybe you want a sharp strike, but just enough to sting, and not enough to do any permanent damage.

Ugh, guy, are we still talking about roleplaying that actually involves dice?
The crop, in this case, is a metaphor. For example, say you're playing a Werewolf game, and to increase the dramatic tension you have a kinfolk partner who's your responsibility (kinfolk, for those not in the know, are normal people related to lines of werewolves, so they aren't affected by their presence the same way other humans are). Maybe the two of you even have children. Now do you, as a player, want your character's family to be at-risk, but not really harmed (a driving threat, but something you can prevent fairly easily), do you want them to be in danger (the potential for something bad to happen to them that will be tough to avoid), or do you want that sensitive spot to be lashed (your spouse is killed or crippled, or your children kidnapped, etc., etc.)?

These are the sorts of questions the person running this game should be asking. Just because someone wants to play a more "mature" game with darker themes, that doesn't necessarily mean they want you to strap them up on St. Jacob's Cross and go whole hog on them. You need to judge what your players want, what they don't want, and you need to discuss areas that are off-limits.

Just because you're all right with implied torture and some psychological distress being part of the game, that doesn't mean you're down with literally having your character flayed and made into an amputee when you get captured by a villain. There are degrees of awfulness (or "maturity" as I guess we'll continue to call it), and you can think of it like a hot sauce scale at a wing restaurant. Just because a player wanted something with a little spice, that doesn't mean the next order should be spiked with the Atomic Tongue Melter just because they were enjoying the heat from the Mildly Dark sauce you gave them.

If Players Don't Trust You, They Won't Open Up

If you can't get your players to trust you, they aren't going to engage with the game you're running. For darker themes to work, players have to be participating. Not just present and taking actions, but allowing it to wash over them. It's like a horror movie; if you're only half paying attention, you don't really care, and you take out your cellphone anytime the angry cello starts threatening to eat you, then it's not going to affect you. Even if it's a visceral, horrifying experience to some people, if you're not engaging it's just a mildly upsetting piece of background noise.

"You can feel your bones break as he... Brandon, are you even listening?"
The same thing happens if you handle the mature elements of your game poorly. To go back to our example, if your players hand you a crop, and you immediately start beating them with it without a lead-in, a discussion of what's okay, and what isn't, then it is very likely that all you're going to do is ruin their fun. This is especially true if you just start hammering on red buttons to purposefully try to get a reaction out of a player. If someone tells you not to push something, don't push it. You have other tools to work with as a storyteller.

And if something does go wrong, and you end up introducing an element that upsets a player? You stop the game, apologize to them, and assure them that it's okay. You make sure they know you take their concerns seriously, and that you respect them as a part of your table. What you do not do is shrug your shoulders and say, "Well, that's the rules. Why did you show up to play this game if a little bit of blood/trauma was going to make you cry?"

The storyteller is not the antagonist, and shouldn't make it their goal to upset their players. Because they're not here to be upset. Scared, maybe. Tense, sure. On edge, definitely. But the goal of these games is the same as their more conventional cousins; to tell a story that everyone at the table enjoys. If people at your table are not enjoying your story (or even just the way you're telling that story), then it's on you to fix it.

If your players aren't having fun, they aren't going to stick around and keep playing. And if they don't trust you to handle that crop, they aren't going to make themselves vulnerable to it. As soon as that happens, you can't affect them anymore, and the whole thing just falls apart.

How Do You Get Players To Trust You?

I've had my share of experiences at the head of more mature-themed games, and there are some things I did right, and some things I did wrong. So I'll end this article out with some tips that I'd recommend taking to heart to help prevent unnecessary awkwardness and problems at the table.

- Put Together a Character Creation Document: These things are lifesavers when it comes to getting a complete look at a PC, and you can ask right on the form what your players' no-go topics are, which ones they're lukewarm about, and which ones are absolutely okay. Provide a list of examples (torture, sexual assault, gore, traumatic events, children being killed, etc.) and pay close attention to the results. More about these at 10 Questions To Put On Your Character Creation Document.

- Communicate: Reach out to your players, and talk with them about the content of your game, and their characters. Ask them the sorts of directions they want to go with their backstories, and provide examples. Be pointed (so, your PC's dad is missing; do you want him to come back, do you want him to be dead, do you want him to be a villain... what are you thinking?), but don't just give the game away entirely.

- Give Some Warning: In the groups I've been in, it's considered good form to let the group know, "Hey, the chance of your character dying tonight is a serious one. Gird yourselves, we're getting serious!" The same thing should apply if you're going to unusually dark places. Let your players get into the proper mindset, and make sure they're down for that sort of content that night. Because they might be having an off night, or just one where they aren't ready for that fast ball. It's better to know that before the game starts than to realize it in the middle of your scene.

Like, Follow, and Stay in Touch!

That's all for this week's Moon Pope Monday. Hopefully you enjoyed, and if you've used run these kinds of games before, leave us a comment to let us know what worked for you!

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