Emotionally Heavy Games, X-Cards, and Comfort at the Convention Table

I recently attended Breakout Con in Toronto for the first time; it’s a close enough drive to be almost local and I had quite a few friends who were making the trip as well. It was an amazing convention, and I thoroughly recommend it to anyone who could possibly make it to Toronto. But I did something unusual at this convention that I don’t normally do – I played some really emotionally heavy games.

Normally, as much as I love the concept, I don’t play many games that really require you to tap into a difficult emotional center. I’ve stayed firmly in my wheelhouse of sweet/whimsical/silly games. I know, as a GM and as a writer, that’s where my strength is. It’s what I do best; I’m damn good at whimsy. But it’s good to branch out and experience different types of games that tell different types of stories. I very occasionally play horror games – I don’t run them, because I don’t trust that I’d provide a high quality horror experience for my players, but I sometimes play them. But I think there’s a difference between horror and this other kind of emotional investment.

The few horror games that I do tend to play in a given year are typically Call of Cthulhu games run by my brother, Bill Adcock. Where my talent lies in whimsy and silliness, his lies in a blend of the suspense and cosmic horror that’s found in CoC. At Running GAGG, a convention we both attended earlier this year, I played in one of his games where my character (very foolishly, but I didn’t want to meta-game!) put on a dive suit and went outside of the submarine to repair something on the hull. I – of course – got attacked by horrific fish monsters, and they dragged my character into the depths. Bill and I played this out by actually having him come up behind me, put his hand on my throat, and drag me down. To be exceedingly clear: there is no other GM I would trust enough to have that kind of physical interaction, but he is my brother and I trust him. And he wouldn’t have done that with any other player either, but I’m his sister and he checked with me beforehand and he trusted that I trusted him, if that makes sense.

This was, in truth, a perfect demise for the character specifically as played by me, because I tend to get so invested in my characters – and even moreso in horror games because I myself am easily frightened – that I have really physical reactions. My heart races, I sweat, I cry, I make myself small. I struggle to detach myself from the character. This is part of why I don’t play that type of game very often, and when I do, it’s with a literal family member – I don’t like to have that kind of reaction around strangers that much, and I worry about not being able to control it. I mean… I’m just a crier. I cry at the drop of a hat. The act of crying represents at least half of my emotions, good and bad. And it took me a long time to accept that crying in front of other people wasn’t inherently a bad thing.

So, if all that is the case, why did I agree to play two games at Breakout that came with reasonably extensive disclaimers regarding their content and the emotional effect it might have on players – especially at a convention, in a public space, with strangers? Well, there’s a few factors, but let’s start with what the games were in the first place. The games in question were Heaven’s Collapse, run (and edited!) by Wendelyn Reischl and One Child’s Heart run (and written!) by Camdon Wright.

One thing that always concerns me with some of the content of these games is that it’ll be like a video game – you’re removed from it, the emotional punches don’t land, the severity of the events are toned down specifically to keep a player from having the type of emotional reaction these games intend to evoke. I know that isn’t so much possible in a roleplaying game where you’re acting as one of the people involved, but it still concerns me. I have a whole host of concerns related to emotionally difficult games that were pretty much assuaged when I met Wendelyn and Camdon, due to their being wonderful people. Knowing the person behind a game makes a huge difference, for obvious reasons.

But I think, honestly, the biggest factor in my comfort playing these games? The enforced usage of safety tools at every table at this convention. Not only was there an X-card present at every last table, the cards had listings of other safety tools (lines and veils, cut and break, etc.) which the GMs could choose to utilize based on their preference and the game in question. Moreover, the cards weren’t just physically there – GMs had to prove their knowledge of the safety tools they were using. Before my first game began, a convention volunteer came to me and gave me a little pop quiz on the X-card and lines-and-veils (my two preferred safety tools). So while I was taken aback at first, this ultimately reassured me that the convention administration took these things very seriously, as did every other GM I encountered at the con.

Before, I might’ve said that mandatory safety tools wouldn’t fix certain problems, and no, it still won’t fix everything. But it helps so much more than I realized before I attended a convention that had them. Knowing that the X-card on the table wasn’t just lip service put my mind at ease enough to get into some dark emotional territory (and of course, I’ve known Kate Bullock for a few months now; I knew that she isn’t the type to pretend at enforcing safety. But it’s another thing to see it in action).

So, Saturday night I ended up playing in a game of Heaven’s Collapse with Wendelyn – who I’d met for the first time the day before – and three people I had never met before. Heaven’s Collapse is a game that lays a thin fantasy veneer over a real historical event: the siege of Nanjing in 1937, part of the Sino-Japanese war. Everyone at the table knew about the actual historical event and the atrocities committed there – I’ve linked to the wikipedia article, so I’m not going into detail here, but needless to say, all of us had a lot of questions about the type of content we would encounter in the game. None of us went in unprepared, and in truth, the game revolves around the high-ranking advisors of the Queen – not the people on the ground. The horrors of this game lie in hearing of the acts being committed and being almost completely unable to do anything about it.

I think that initial phase, where we asked questions regarding the content of the game, reviewed the safety tools again, etc. We decided if there was anything we wanted to X-card right off the bat (sexual assault, then determined that it being mentioned but not explored was acceptable), and gave general warnings (“I’m a crier,” I told the others at the table. “If you see me crying, I’m okay, that’s just how I am.”). And then we began. The game ended up being less brutal than I’d anticipated, primarily by virtue of who our characters were – I played the Queen’s bodyguard and a Commander of the Royal Army. Our characters were, in essence, sequestered to the relatively safe palace. The horrors of the game were not directed at us, but that doesn’t mean we didn’t feel them. We had a responsibility to our people and to our queen.

I did end up crying, especially as Commander Errik, unable to deal with the horrors, unable to change with the times, committed suicide. We had a couple of scenes that lead up to that point, and I confirmed with the others that they got what I was trying to lead up to and that that was okay. It was tragic, but it was a meaningful scene – he died surrounded by those who had worked best to save the city alongside him and he died in service to his queen, to whom he had dedicated his entire life. He felt he had no other choices, and we explored that a little bit without pulling too much focus away from the other characters.

I’ve had characters die before – my first D&D character died in the first session I ever played her (always check for traps, kids!) – but never by their own hand. Suicidal ideation is something I’ve dealt with in my own life, but (obviously) never went through with or even seriously considered. I didn’t expect to really dive into this character in that way, but I felt confident that if things went too far, I or another player would use the safety tools (and yes, you can X-card yourself!). I almost threw a veil over it – saying that he killed himself, but not exploring how or playing it out in a scene – but I felt okay with it and no one else objected, so we went through with it (and I say “we” because it was not just my scene – everyone contributed to making it a powerful bit of story).

I expected to go to bed that night uneasy. I expected that I might have bad dreams, or be unable to sleep entirely. I ended up sleeping soundly – in the aftermath of the game, I felt secure that we’d explored a traumatic period of history without traumatizing ourselves. We didn’t make light of it, we didn’t attempt to minimize the atrocities committed, we tapped into a serious emotional core for each of us. A large-scale tragedy unfolded before us – 200,000 people killed, a dynasty destroyed, our city in ruins. But there was light at the end of the tunnel – we saved the princess, we reached a truce with the Kestrel – that we the players could see and our characters could not, which made all the difference.

The next morning, I had agreed to play in a pick-up game of One Child’s Heart with Camdon Wright and a few others. This game centers on a group of therapists/social workers/etc using a new technology to speak to an abused child in their memories – unable to change their situation or improve their lot, but giving them the coping tools they need to survive. Just to get this out of the way: Camdon has a reputation for making people cry. This game absolutely does it, but not for the reason I anticipated.

Much like the previous game, Camdon was great about walking us through all the potential triggers that would come up in the game. He told us about the child in question – Kelly Hefferden – and what would be happening during the memories where we could encounter her. At any time, we could flag any of them as unacceptable to us, and the proposed memory would be replaced with a different one. None of us in the game flagged anything, though I’ll admit that I had to give some of them serious thought before deciding I was okay with them coming up. For one thing, knowing that the child we’d be trying to help was a girl made an enormous difference to me, in deciding if some of the things she’d encounter would be too much for me. Maybe it shouldn’t have, but it did.

A large part of this game is just… talking. Your characters are trying to break through to this kid and have a sincere emotional connection. The hardest part for me, personally, is the warning that you can’t make any promises to this kid, because they will carry a broken promise with them for the rest of their life. I came close more than once and had to be pulled back. And somehow, that’s not when the tears start. The tears kick in (or at least, they did for this group) at the end of the game. We had a reasonably successful game – we helped give Kelly the tools she needed to make it through the foster care system and make her own way in life. We all narrate how she went on to help other children, how she kept in touch with the teachers who made a difference in her life, and so on. That’s the point when we all started crying, not from sadness but from hope and relief (I’m tearing up just writing this). We were able to help her. We made a difference for this child. It’s an emotional catharsis you don’t get in real life, where you never know, really, if you were able to help or if you made a difference at all. The waterworks really started flowing for me when Camdon revealed that each time he runs this game, he has a unique child – our group was the only group who will interact with Kelly, we were the only ones who were able to help her.

Again, I felt able to do this and to really invest in this emotionally because of the safety tools used. Extraordinary care was taken to protect people, especially given the subject matter of this game. Talking about it with Camdon after the fact, we discussed the “goal” of games like these – like One Child’s Heart, like Heaven’s Collapse – and how (no matter how much it sometimes seems like it) the goal is not really to make your players cry. It’s to encourage them to make a real emotional connection with something fictional, with something that isn’t happening to them. It’s to get people into a headspace where they can treat this imaginary child with care and concern and to feel genuine sadness and happiness at their fate. Real emotions for fictional events and people, almost as a primer for real emotions for real events and people. Crying is just a physical expression of that, for some of us.

Senda Linaugh, co-host of the She’s a Super Geek podcast, recently made a note of X-cards, lines-and-veils, and other safety tools as comparable to the seatbelt in your car, and I think that’s a really apt comparison. “When you get in my car, you have to put on your seatbelt. When you play at my table, there will be safety tools.” To take the comparison a bit further, different intensity levels in games might be comparable to driving at different speeds. I might be okay moving my car to a different parking spot without my seatbelt (think games like Costume Fairy Adventures, No Thank You Evil, games aimed at children), but it’s almost habitual to put it on anyway. Something like One Child’s Heart might be more like flying down the highway at 95 mph (150 kph for my new Canadian friends!) – if you go without your seatbelt or your safety tools, something is going to go horribly, horribly wrong.

“Art should comfort the disturbed and disturb the comfortable,” is an idea that’s pretty easy to dismiss as being overly trite or too simple, but I actually like to take that idea and apply it to roleplaying games (which, in my mind, are indisputably a form of art anyway). Using safety tools allows you to immerse yourself in the world of the game, however disturbing it may be. You can do so without fear (or without as much fear, perhaps) of being truly discomfited. At the same time, it can provide an emotional release to a situation that might otherwise lack one; the catharsis being almost essential to the story (to any story). In one game, you can both comfort and disturb, and I think that very fine line is what lends so much depth and sincerity to these types of games. And while you’re walking that high-wire, your X-card is the net below you.

4 comments for “Emotionally Heavy Games, X-Cards, and Comfort at the Convention Table

  1. March 26, 2018 at 12:01 am

    It was actually Phil’s article on Gnome Stew about safety tools that started the analogy—but it’s a darn good one and you said it really well!
    This is how I have fallen more and more in to highly emotional games.

    https://gnomestew.com/game-mastering/gming-advice/why-safety-tools-are-important-to-me/

  2. March 26, 2018 at 8:47 am

    hi jennifer. i’m jim. the guy who made heaven’s collapse. i think you captured and understood all the underlying subtext of the game, without actually saying it. this was a really thoughtful critique. and i thank you for playing and allowing yourself to be affected by the material. i made the game to do a few things, but i’ve never explained the meaning behind my design choices. just know, i think you get it.

    all the best

    – jim

    • Jennifer Kathleen
      March 26, 2018 at 8:50 am

      Hi Jim – thank you for making such a moving and powerful game!

      • March 27, 2018 at 8:05 am

        no. thank you. (this could go on a while)

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