GM Tips is our series to help Storytellers and Game Masters improve their craft and create memorable roleplaying experiences. Last week, we talking about turning botched rolls into wins, and this week we pivot gears to talk about handling tragedies and tough issues in games.
There is no right way to handle tough issues in games, but there damn well is a wrong way—and that’s ignoring it. While gaming is one of our greatest forms of escapism, storytelling and tabletop gaming are (by their very nature) multi-party events. Your local tabletop game may be filled with like-minded individuals, but if you’re running larger events or at cons, you’ve to handle a wider variety of people.
The nice thing about being humans, is that we can empathize, change, and evolve ourselves. When times change and new techniques are discovered, we update our tool sets and move along. Storytelling is no different, even though these tips aren’t exhaustive, they might save your table from becoming embroiled in out-of-game drama that nobody signed up for.
Creativity Always Wins
Urban fantasy as a genre thrives off taking modern day events and incorporating supernatural elements into them. Things become offensive and problematic when you erase the victims or criminals involved, or minimize any impact of the event. World War II has been twisted in so many game lines and at this point it has become history, but it holds up as good vs evil every time. Modern day events like politics, financial crashes, genocide, and terrorism are rough topics to include in your game. I myself, dabble in thinly veiled Union propaganda in some of my tables and even I’ve had players crack jokes at it. Yet all of these things are the affairs of humans, and in our games, we don’t need to write ourselves into corners of specific events.
Rather than twist a setting about the real-life atrocities dealing with sexuality, robbing it of its purpose—the affairs of the supernatural can be far more alien. Create far more world — or even setting-specific — tragedies and play off those.
Eclipse Phase is filled with great writing about tragedies that happened in their fictional universe (you even play people dedicated to stopping more). Real-life bigotry and hatred can still be called out, but leave it as what it is, bigotry and hatred. Your villains should have motives according to them, not cookie-cutting a real-life event and chopping it up. In the Eclipse Phase example, an Immortal CEO who owns multiple Hyper-Corporations and is throttling the oxygen of several space stations for an experiment is far more immersive than knocking off a real-world event.
Quest for an Editor
As a long time storyteller, I’ve been blessed in seeing gaming (and LARPing) rise and fall in attendance over the years. Currently, we are on a massive upswing and I hope it keeps exploding like it is—gaming is more diverse and widespread now than it has been in years. If you’ve got a killer storyline in your brain, bounce it off a friend for feedback first! Pick someone outside of your normal group if you can, and someone with different backgrounds and tastes than you. When you’re a writer, you are used to having editors tear through your work (hi Teri!), but as gamers—we forget.
Storytellers are all content creators. Pound-for-pound, table-by-table, every game you run is the generation of content for an audience. Organizations like The MES, or Adventurer’s League may try to streamline it and incentivize GMing, but it doesn’t detract from storytellers being content creators. When you look at it this way, you’re beholden to provide your audience with quality content instead of a wet fart. Before you unveil this storyline of fascist wizards to an unsuspecting audience at your local game store—ask a friend. Get your work edited and you may find that your storyline is enhanced, but also highlights tragedy and sticky topics the right way.
Respond to Your Players & Pivot Instantly
The past two tips have been ideas that can be prepped before gameplay starts. But what about during the game? The X-Card, by John Stavropoulos is one tool you can use at your table to better read your players when the content of your story is making them uncomfortable, and it’s extremely useful as a tool that allows you to edit whatever content is making your players uncomfortable in realtime. It’s empowering for them, as well as for you. Here’s how the guide for the X-Card suggests you introduce it to your games:
“I’d like your help.”
“Your help to make this game fun for everyone.”
“If anything in the game makes anyone uncomfortable…”
[ draw an X on an index card ]
“…just lift this card up, or simply tap it.”
“You don’t have to explain why.”
“It doesn’t matter why.”
”When we lift or tap this card, we simply edit out anything X-Carded.”
”And if there is ever an issue, anyone can call for a break and we can talk privately.”
“I know it sounds funny but it will help us play amazing games together…”
“…and usually I’m the one who uses the X card to protect myself from all of you!”
There’s more guidance available for using the X-Card, but it’s a very useful tool for GMs.
For example, instead of a late-night vampire feeding scene that has made players uncomfortable to the point where they’ve raised the X-Card, you can edit out that moment from the story and instead pivot to have a flash photograph go off. Suddenly the paparazzi are on the character’s tail and the ensuing chase scene and now conspiracy cover-up alters the mood, the problematic content has been edited out of the scene, and you can continue in a different direction rather than you creating a larger snowball.
When the game session ends, you can take stock of what happened – RPG aftercare is a thing. Turn those moments into learning moments and build trust and connections instead of walls.
Has any troubling issue ever crept into your table? How did your GM handle it? Let us know in the comments below!
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Image Credits: Vampire: The Masquerade Second Inquisition, Critical Role
Rick Heinz is the author of The Seventh Age: Dawn, and a storyteller with a focus on LARPs, Wraith: The Oblivion, Eclipse Phase, and many more. You can follow game or urban fantasy related thingies on Twitter or Facebook.