Consent and Horror Gaming, Quick Thoughts

We, as people playing story-games and RPGs, often assume that our fellow players are on the same page as us. We assume that other players want the same things, have the same tolerances, fears, and interests, or at least don’t differ in ways which would surprise us. These assumptions are frequently wrong, to varying degrees. Worse, unless they’re examined these assumptions interfere with players building trust and giving informed consent.

Players’ trust, consent, and buy-in is important regardless of the game, but it’s critical in games dealing with uncomfortable material… like horror games. There’s a much larger conversation to be had around gaming and consent, but this piece will focus on consent in horror RPGs.

Quick note: when I say “players,” I include the storyteller. As the storyteller, you’re not only doing a bunch of work, you’re also participating in this story world that you’re creating with and for your fellow players—if people are pulling the game into territory you’re uncomfortable with or which you really don’t want to cover, that’s important too! Don’t sacrifice yourself for the sake of other players, or at least not any more than you want to.

Trust is a simple word and a complex subject. Too complex for me to cover in depth in one post. You can’t build consent without a modicum of trust between people involved; for consent to be meaningful, there must be trust that other people will respect the boundaries set and will act promptly and responsibly on feedback they receive. The depth of that trust governs how readily groups can achieve consent, and influences how willing people may be to experiment with their boundaries. One person may have varying levels of trust for different people or topics, and the only way to learn those levels is to ask and observe. So pay attention to those around you, ask for and give feedback freely and without judgement, validate reported discomfort, and resolve that discomfort to the preferences of the uncomfortable person.

Informed consent is another large subject, but at its simplest I’d call it agreement without coercion or surprises. I mention buy-in earlier because I think enthusiastic participation and shared investment is the obvious next step following informed consent; it’s important to have players’ consent, but you really want their buy-in as well. But without laying the groundwork with your players, you’ll only achieve consent and buy-in by luck; ideally, we want to get there by design.

What might that groundwork look like?

The first step is for someone (usually the storyteller) to offer or request a specific kind of game—for our purposes, we’ll assume that people want a horror game. There may be some back and forth here, until there’s a sufficient body of excited players to support a game.

The second step is when a storyteller should warn their players about what underlying kinds of discomfort are likely in the course of the story: a narrative version of “side effects may include,” where you might mention character death, fallible perceptions of reality, gaslighting, decaying sanity, things that go bump in the night, etc. Whatever is particular to your game. You (the storyteller) can also take suggestions from your players here! There’s an art to crafting that warning, given that many horror games revolve around the unknown: I strongly suggest that you touch on broad themes more than specific perils. The specific perils can come up in the next step.

Once you’ve warned folk about what underlying themes you may play with (and asked what themes they might like to add), ask what specific things they’d like to see in the game and what specific things they don’t want. Here the terminology of lines and veils is useful: lines are hard vetos against specific content showing up in a game, while veils are a request to fade-to-black around that content without excluding it entirely. There’s an excellent explanation of lines, veils, and some other safety mechanics here.

Double check to make sure that you’ve heard people’s requests, and that they’ve heard your underlying content warnings.

In the course of play, take breaks! Check in with people, preferably one on one, about how things are going for them and whether there’s anything that they’d like to update in terms of lines, veils, or other requests for the game. I suggest checking in one on one because it’s easy for people to unconsciously pressure others (or themselves) into not speaking up about discomfort. To quote from the link above, a good interaction might look like:

“Ouch!”

“Oops, sorry. Let’s fix that.”

You can also use those check-ins as a means of getting useful feedback on your storytelling, or on the character you’re playing. These are good opportunities to discuss bleed, or any other things that have come up for people through the course of the game. It’s also worthwhile asking the group as a whole to check-in, so long as you’re addressing people’s needs and concerns individually as well.

And remember that trust, consent, and buy-in are all things which can change! None of those established preferences are set in stone, and people’s needs may change. Use safety mechanics (some linked here) to make sure that people don’t feel that their consent has been abused, or their trust diminished. Stoplight check-in vocabulary (green = more of this please, yellow = this is on the edge don’t push further, red = NOPE) is valuable for making this process easier, and having something on the table that people can use during scenes without interrupting game is very helpful. That on-table tool could be an X-card, or several differently colored circles.

Just because you’re playing a horror game doesn’t mean that you should run roughshod over your fellow players. The experience of horror should be in the game and in response to the game, not because your friends were assholes to you in real life.

p.s. the earliest mention of Lines and Veils I could find while writing this today was here, in this thread from 2004.

Prince of Outcasts, by S.M. Stirling

prince_of_outcasts_cover

I want to finish this book. I do. But I’m struggling with it, in a rather painful fashion, for the best possible reasons.

I’ve struggled with Stirling before, and found my way through. Yet even taking into consideration the thoughts I had about milieu and Stirling’s fiction, and how that helped me with previous entries in this ever-expanding series, I’m still having trouble. And it’s all because my friend Caroline ran one of the best Call of Cthulhu campaigns I’ve ever had the pleasure to to play, and Stirling is trying to make use of the same material.

I played Caroline’s game, her modified version of Tatters of the King, more than seven years ago. I still think fondly of the characters in that game (yes, mine, but also those of my friends), but more to the point I think of Caroline’s campaign as a benchmark for slow-growth horror games. Her storytelling, the way in which she introduced us so gradually to the madness that is The King in Yellow, and the way in which she carefully cultivated our own personal experiences of horror until we felt enmeshed in our characters’ insanity, has stood for me as a constant reminder of what good horror storytelling feels like.

Some of this must be the glow of nostalgia. But I know I loved it at the time, too. Otherwise I wouldn’t have kept so many pages of notes in my tiny, cramped handwriting. I wouldn’t have so obsessively catalogued events such that Caroline agreed that my investigator had created his own occult tome.

And for me that intensity, that devouring mystery and too-late dismay, is what it means to traffic with The King in Yellow.

Stirling can’t touch that. For someone else, someone who has not experienced this particular branch of horror mythos in the same way, Prince of Outcasts may be just fine. But for me, Caroline got there first.

Sorry Stirling. I read your book and instead think of that campaign.

I don’t think I’m going to finish this book. Not any time soon at least.

Flash Fiction: Unwelcome

Yet another post inspired by Chuck Wendig’s weekly challenges. I took the “three-sentence challenge” and decided to push it a little bit; I have used five sentences from those provided, and included a modified version of a sixth. I’ll include a list of the sentences I used at the end of the post. Until then, enjoy!

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Flash Fiction: “Ricky’s” Shell Game

Noir Body Horror. That’s the subgenre combo I got for this week’s flash fiction challenge from Chuck Wendig. With that in mind, I’ve left you a bit of something to puzzle out through implications and scant description. It’s in the same setting as When Dawn Broke, so brain transplants and advanced surgery and donation practices are the norm… as are criminal tissue transplant enterprises and such business establishments as “chop shops.” I’m afraid I went a tiny bit over the word limit, but it’s very nearly 2k.

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Flash Fiction: What Have I Done?

This week’s (second) flash fiction is brought to you courtesy of Chuck Wendig’s challenge on terribleminds. I rolled randomly and got “An accident occurs which may be no accident.” My first attempt started going somewhere but ultimately bored me. My second attempt was, I think, much better. Also potentially disturbing.

Enjoy.

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Flash Fiction: Hot Mess

I started writing a piece last week, and now I’ve finished it.  Or, well, I have a new first draft that tells the story I wanted to tell.  That’s usually what I mean by finished, here.  This piece is in the same setting as Trouble Close Behind and Bloody Expanse, though it’s a bit different.  This one was inspired by Chuck Wendig’s X Meets Y Horror prompt.  Read on past the break!

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“Flash Fiction” In Progress

This is a little piece that I’m writing for Chuck Wendig’s most recent challenge, an X meets Y horror story.  I, of course, got Psycho meets The Muppets.  We’ll see.  I wanted to get some of it done for you today, which is why there’s any post at all, but now I need to go back to doing my actual homework.  You might recognize the setting from Trouble Close Behind and Bloody Expanse.  Enjoy!

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Last Days of Loneliness: Revisions

Hey folks.  No flash fiction for you at the moment, just another piece of story from Last Days of Loneliness, the YA horror novel that I’ve been working on for a while.  Here’s the most recent piece I posted.  I think I’ve rewritten this scene about five times now, but this opening for it just came to me while I was lying in bed last night, so I had to give it a try.  Enjoy!

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Last Days of Loneliness: Crucial Exposition

I’ve solved some of my problems in Last Days of Loneliness, I think.  If you read my earlier posts about how things were terrible and how I couldn’t figure out why Amanda knows to kill the eggs with fire, rest assured, I’ve stumbled across an excellent workaround.

I had very similar conversations with Ben and my brother Nate about how to solve my narrator’s knowledge problem, in which they basically said that I should make someone else in the town or cult tell her to use fire to kill the eggs.  I, of course, resisted their advice at first.  I’d had similar thoughts many times previously, and always dismissed them because I thought it made no sense for someone to break the cult’s taboos and try to warn Amanda.  But after talking with both Nate and Ben, who both made it sound so plausible, and then reading some of George Buckenham’s rules for making games on Rock Paper Shotgun, I decided what the hell; I’d go ahead and do as Buckenham suggested.  So I tried the stupid/simple solution.  And I liked it.

Go figure.

What follows is the scene that I thought wouldn’t work, but did.  It comes some time after a scene in which Amanda goes to the police station and overhears an interesting conversation, and long before her ultimate recognition of the information that she is given in this scene.  Enjoy.

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Work In Progress: Last Days of Loneliness

I’ve shared my thoughts on this with you before (here too), but I have some more material.  It turns out that I still haven’t solved some issues I was nattering about back in November:

So, I’m still seeing this big problem looming in front of me.  I’ve got this wonderful ending all set up at the moment, with Amanda and Doug Felber working together to try to burn the eggs in order to destroy them.  I really like the whole idea of the flamethrower, and think it’s pretty awesome.  But WHY THE HELL WOULD THEY KNOW TO USE A FLAMETHROWER?

That’s one big issue: I don’t presently have a reasonable path for them to follow to even discover that fire would be necessary to kill the stupid eggs.  Nor do I have a reason for why anyone would tell them this.  Nor do I have a reason why they would think that the whole town might be destroyed, nor do I have a reason for why they might find out that destroying the eggs would result in destroying the town.

To sum it up:

  • No reason to know to kill the eggs with fire
  • No one with a reason to *tell* them to kill the eggs with fire
  • No reason to know that killing the eggs destroys the town
  • No one with a reason to tell them that killing the eggs destroys (or might destroy) the town.

In some ways, that last one is the easiest to solve.  If one of them tells someone that knows the Mother about the plan to destroy the eggs, that person might wig out and tell them that it’s a stupid idea.  Problem is, anyone who did tell them it’s a stupid idea would also then know that they were thinking about destroying the eggs.

All of that is potentially solved through sufficient idiot-balling, with Amanda fooling Rick/friend into thinking that she’s going to join the cult and getting a tour of the eggs and asking questions (“If they’re so important, why aren’t they better protected?  What would happen if someone broke them?”).  But that feels like it could be more than Amanda would be willing or able to pull off, and it would require the other person not to twig to the very suspicious questions.  Don’t like that idea.  See top for previous intro of this concept, which I’m now mostly dismissing.

Should I just kill my darlings and do away with killing the eggs with fire, and even do away with having the town be destroyed?  What would that look like?

Ditching both schticks

Amanda goes to town on the eggs with a sledgehammer, breaks them open and kills them, the town’s covenant is broken and the cult’s connection to Mother is destroyed (or maybe the cultists were all just crazy to begin with and that was all just them being super fucked in the head).  There’s a big anti-climax in the massive-wreckage department (have to rewrite the beginning again).  Amanda then has to burn down her house or something in order to ensure that her parents don’t try to come home, and flees town.  Another option would be going home and hoping that no one knows that she’s the one who broke the eggs, but that seems really boring because it doesn’t resolve the panic and tension of risking being discovered.  Which has been building since the middle of the book.

Ok, this seems possible, but the only interesting version of this that I can see at the moment is having Amanda burn down her house to force her family to move afterwards, and there’s just not as much horror there (unless, maybe, she murdered some people in the course of breaking the eggs, in which case now she’s also wanted for murder).

Quick question: what’s freakiest?  I think the most horrific option, and the one which best showcases her determination and how far she’s gone in terms of leaving conventional morality, is for Amanda to KNOW that she will (or might) kill everyone in town if she carries through with her plan.  She could find this out at the last minute, which wouldn’t change how bad what she does is, but knowing further ahead of time leaves more of the blame on her.  There’s no argument for the “heat of the moment” defense or whatever.

But “accidentally” destroying the town is pretty bad too, especially if she appears to feel little remorse.  And that opens up some potentially interesting scenes.

So then…

Keeping the “TOWN IS DESTROYED” schtick

I could keep the whole ‘town is destroyed thing’ and instead have it come as a surprise to Amanda.

Maybe she still planned to leave town because she thought she’d be discovered and killed, along with her family, so she sent her parents to NYC for their date, and then planned to burn down the house.  Turns out she didn’t have to burn down the house and tries driving away instead of sticking around for an earthquake that seems like seriously bad news.  Not as horrifying because Amanda doesn’t intentionally kill the whole town, but still pretty good overall.

OR

She thought she could get away with it and didn’t have plans to leave the town, so she just set up a date to distract her parents while she runs around all night.  If the date was in town, she finds them and hustles them into the car or desperately tries to convince them to leave (maybe at gunpoint).  If the date wasn’t in town, she just books it from town?

The ‘parents at gunpoint’ scene sounds pretty good, but the rest of it doesn’t feel like it has as much tension.  This would extend the physical threat of the climax, but (apart from holding her parents or others at gunpoint) wouldn’t do much to heighten the emotional climax.

One thing I definitely *don’t* want is for Doug to know that the town will be destroyed while Amanda does not.  I also don’t want him to know that it could happen and then inform Amanda.  That makes him as much (if not more) a villain as she is, and makes him just as complicit in the destruction of the town.  Besides, if he knows all these things, why hasn’t he acted on them?  If he would destroy the eggs himself, Amanda becomes at worst passive and at best an instigator rather than a decisive actor.

I do like the ‘holding parents at gunpoint thing, and I like the ‘town is destroyed’ thing, and I especially like her knowing ahead of time that the town will be destroyed (though I still would have to solve that stupid problem of it making no sense).  What about killing it with fire?

Pros / Cons of KILLING IT WITH FIRE

First of all, the scene (which has changed a good deal) originally came to me as something that involved a homemade flamethrower.  There was something almost too horrifying about having Amanda kill people with the flamethrower, something that really made the scene stand out in my mind.  Plus, if you’re looking at Cthonian eggs according to the relevant source material (which is fictitious bullshit anyway, so who cares), it’s made pretty clear that fire is definitely the best way to kill them.  Thinking about what you’d have to do in order to break a round, smooth-ish, and occasionally squirming rock… you’d be pretty likely to see your sledgehammer bounce or deflect in some possibly vicious ways.  For all that it requires more work beforehand and is more complicated overall, killing it with fire is definitely a lot simpler in the actual execution.

Are there any real story or scene benefits to having Amanda use a flamethrower vs. Amanda using a sledgehammer or something?

I guess I had an easier time imagining her using a flamethrower just because it would require less active upper body strength, but I already know that she does martial arts and has for quite a while, and I’ve definitely had female friends who are quite capable of and enjoy using sledges.  So using a sledgehammer certainly passes the plausibility test.  It also fits with the whole “Amanda is a hardcore badass” thing I’ve got going.  Fighting people with one is a little more difficult, but she’s still got the same things going for her.

I would be sad to see the flamethrower go, because it’s a fear-weapon as much as anything else.  There’s something especially upsetting about having Amanda kill people with the flamethrower in the course of achieving her goals, and I like that.  It isn’t as easy as using a gun, and feels more personal while still being scary.

Thinking a little further, I was going to mention that a sledgehammer allows for Amanda to use her martial arts in the middle of the fight while the flamethrower doesn’t, but that isn’t quite true.  It would certainly make it easier for someone else to rush her and for her to then get in a physical fight with them, but that’s still possible with the flamethrower; her having a flamethrower just means that the people facing her have to be more desperate, or the situation has to allow them to get next to her without her burning them.

What if Amanda and Doug plan to use the sledge, but bring the flamethrower as a fallback plan?  This is good, and gives an opportunity for Amanda to try breaking the eggs in the mine and fail… but it doesn’t serve tension in any meaningful way (if there’s a flamethrower, the writer will *use* the flamethrower, thank you very much).

This reminds me of a side problem, namely that I’m not sure why Amanda isn’t trying to break the eggs while still in the mine.  My original thought on that involved her taking them elsewhere to kill them in a special way or with a time delay that would let her escape town, but *that* was predicated on knowing that killing them would result in the destruction of the town, which is still a problem that I haven’t solved.