Archive for the ‘gamerculture’ Category


Building a play network

June 10, 2019

My current RPG gaming schedule is 3 games a week.  I’m sure if I had the energy, I could probably be running/playing 5 days a week, if I wanted, given how fast people jump up when I put out an offer.   This is… astounding, really.  For 20 years of my gaming career, a great deal of the problems dealt with finding people to play with and keeping it together in the face of logistics, etc.  But once you hit a critical mass, things get a lot easier.

Gamer Adjacency

First, my social networks at this point are primarily people of color who are geeks.

The general geekdom effectively creates a “gamer adjacent” group – some have played an rpg once or twice when they were younger, some bought books but never played, some were always interested but couldn’t figure out an entry point, and some are completely fresh.  Gamer adjacency is a far, far, far larger group than RPGers, so it makes sense to look there first.

The other part, and probably what I would have told younger me, is to have not wasted as much time as I did in white gamer spaces.  If the network is what allows you to play, walking into self-segregated spaces that are full of microaggression (or not so micro ones) are basically poisoned wells in that regard.

So.  Find the geek spaces that you are comfortable in and have lots of good social interactions between baseline treatment and common geek interests.  That starts the social part of things.

Low Commitment Entry

Second, it helps to have low commitment play options to start feeling people out and establishing yourself and the circles of people you want to play with.

I find 3-6 game sessions of 2 hours of duration tend to be the right number for me.  It gives everyone enough time to feel out the group dynamics, feel out the game mechanics, and, of course, get a good idea of their character.  It’s also just enough of a taste of longer play that people can start deciding if they’re into it or not.  (this duration is also how I often run game arcs in larger campaigns, which allows people a little easier time if they need to drop out for various life reasons or just not being into the game anymore).

One shots, I’ve become less a fan of, if only because there’s an overhead of teaching rules and communication and that becomes a lot of work for relatively little play payoff.

Pitches and Setting Expectations

Geeks talk about things they love.  So.  You already can start looking at overlap and figuring out which games might work best from there.  If everyone is into superheroes? Pitch a superhero game.   Epic Fantasy? Lord knows there’s plenty of game systems for nearly any sub-genre or type of story, go with that.

Pitches are best put forward in 3-5 sentences.  “I’m thinking of running (GAME) which is (Geek Media) but with (Different Unique Thing) based around (General story/campaign premise). The game rules really support (epic space battles/intense character drama/long term planning/whatever).  Is anyone interested?  Here’s a link to the quick start rules.”

No point in doing a lot of work until you see if people are interested or not.  Sometimes people won’t be interested, but WILL tell you about what they’re interested for instead, and you can see if there’s a second or third option you’d prefer to run or play.

Also, in doing this, you set expectations since any given geek fandom might have very different takes on the same thing – it’s a good point to see if what makes you excited about (Star Wars / historical religion / post humanism) is what makes them excited  or if it is completely different.

Smoothing Entry

For most games I write a “quicksheet”, a short front and back reference sheet of basic rules and ideas to keep in mind.  I will often include best practices (“If you do X, you get a bonus die, so you should try to do this a lot.”).  If the game’s setting is also important, I might write a separate sheet for that of 1-2 pages.

I often ask what people are thinking about for characters, in order to help guide people on what might fit their idea (“Look here in the book and maybe these options would work for what you need?”) and also to help in case someone is doing something that might not fit this particular story run, especially if it would be disruptive or genre breaking for this game.

But not just your games!

The other thing you’ll start to see as you build your network is other people either are playing, are talking about stuff they’ve played in the past, or will be thinking about running a game of their own.  Encourage and promote that.  If you know someone is about to run a particular game one of your friends probably would enjoy, point them that way.

The more folks who are talking about playing and what fun things happen, the more it self-propagates.  But this has to be based in the real love of what you’re experiencing.  Real games, real fun = real interest being generated.

Migrating Spaces

Geek spaces come and go – some of this has to deal with social factors and glue, sometimes your forum is bought out and shut down by a major company or whatever.

Things happen and the specific venue moves, so now you need to find another venue to keep up the network.   This is not necessarily something that happens overnight – communities fragment and reform maybe 6 months or a year later, even.  So, keep in touch with the tight base of people you know, and be willing to look at the other spaces as they form up.

This is something you should consider as a matter of “when” not “if” and consider things like having a spreadsheet with people’s email addresses or some other means of contact if you find one day things have suddenly come apart.


So… yeah, that’s basically what I’ve learned from the last 4 years or so.  I’ve got a lot of gaming with a lot of different people, and easy access to a lot more if I wanted.

I think a network of people who want to play is more resilient to disruption and allows more variety in play… and probably is the better way to start if your goal is to build the eventual long-term game group, rather than trying to manifest that from the start.

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The continuing problem

April 3, 2016

This woman recounts several instances of violent sexual assault, harassment, and racism in tabletop gaming, both roleplaying and minis, etc.   Trigger warning.

Tabletop Gaming has a White Male Terrorism Problem

The common thread across all of this is: a) The act of violence, b) that there are witnesses or a community which dismisses the victim and protects the abuser, c) and whatever authority she turns to, also does the same.

It’s the commonality of B and C which makes this a community action, as opposed to “one rotten individual”.

Notice also that she doesn’t go into the details about the online harassment, but it’s there.  The desire to do emotional harm and physical harm both base in the desire to do harm.  That’s the problem right there.

Until you fix that, Hatebros will thrive, and the rest of us will continue to leave.



What we need to play

September 27, 2015

There’s a few common failure points to successfully running a game, however, the solutions to these mostly boils down to this decision tree:

Did you talk about it and come to an agreement?

A)  No, we didn’t. – > Go talk about it and come to an agreement.

B) Yes, we did.  -> Talk about what went wrong, or changed, and come to a new agreement.

C) We can’t come to an agreement – > either play a different game or play with people whom you can talk and come to an agreement with.  (also: don’t play games or with people you can’t come to agreements with.)

Keep this idea in mind – it applies to all of the following steps which are crucial to being able to run a tabletop roleplaying game.

Social Commitment: Can I even fit this game into my life?

How long is each session? How long is the expected campaign?  How important is steady attendance? How well can it adapt if people get busy, get sick, or schedules change?

The question underlying all of this is: “Can I even fit this game into my life?”

This is a question people don’t ask, yet it’s really the biggest question to start with – if people can’t make the time to play the game, maybe you need to play a different game.

And, if the game is bigger than a single session, you have to figure out what to do when it comes to life intruding.  Not having this conversation doesn’t mean “things just work out”, it means the game just stops after a point.

Agenda: What’s the point of the game?  What’s the fun part?

Note that if you play a superhero game about fighting villains and the fun part is strategically using your powers to win tactically and the same premise but the fun part is roleplaying the drama of balancing a secret identity with obligations as a hero – the focus of play, what you do in play, is very different.

If you don’t talk about this, then people may show up with all kinds of mismatched expectations and start trying to force each other to “play right” without ever agreeing on what “playing right” is.

Setting: What do we need to know about the fiction to play?

What’s the genre? The tone? The setting?  What kinds of characters make sense to go into this setting?  What kinds of decisions, or behaviors?  What kind of outcomes and conflicts?  Do you need to know the Culture of Vampires and Elves?  Do you need to know The Third Age?

This helps us create together as a group.  If we don’t know what we’re working with, some folks may make references or meaningful statements while the other players have no context at all.  If it is expected to be known, how much reading or “homework” is it, and again, can players fit it into their lives?

System: How do we find out what happens?

The actual rules.  How much do you need to know to play comfortably?  How much is it ok if you look it up during play or have someone handhold you through the process?  How do you, as a player, try to make things happen in play the way you want them to?

I mention “the actual rules” because a lot of games suffer from people saying, “You can do anything you can imagine” and then find out “Actually the GM has preplotted everything and you can’t really do much really” and similar issues.  Jono’s Big Flowchart of What Game Are We Playing? is a great example of a terrible and common issue.

Clearing these hurdles

Effectively what my Same Page Tool does, is take several standard RPG play tropes and sort them into categories to make it easier for a group to talk about and make a decision on everything except social commitment.  The problem I’ve always pointed to is that games should already tell you what the point of play is and how the system works and an idea of how to use the fiction and genre tools they give you to play – you pay for a game to tell you how to play it.

A well designed and well-written game makes these issues trivial – you are able to easily come to agreement because the game either sets the parameters or gives you tools to decide between the forms in which it operates.

So this fixes everything?  Not quite.

There’s two common problems this doesn’t fix.  However, these are fundamentally unfixable problems.

“What if people are dishonest about what they want out of a game?” 

Well.  In a game medium that exists through conversation, if someone is lying to you, about what they consider fun, in a game about elves, cyborgs and vampires or what have you – think about how deep the distrust has to be for that to be a reflexive behavior.   Someone who can’t be honest about what they find fun is someone you can’t find fun with.  Move on.

“How can I make people like what I like, want the same kind of game that I want?”

You can’t.  You can’t make people like music they’re not into, you can’t make them enjoy flavors they don’t like, and so on.  If you know that you have incompatible goals – don’t roleplay together.  Play games or do activities that you all DO enjoy, and leave the roleplaying to the subgroup that has the same tastes.  It’s ok, you’ll still be friends.

Having an honest talk will reveal both of these situations rather quickly.  Either the agreements fall apart in play because someone is dishonest, or you can’t come to an agreement in discussion because what you want is fundamentally different.   These are the hard truths people don’t like to deal with, but there it is.  Once you recognize these, you can stop wasting time and focus on people who want to play a game with you and have fun.

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Toxic Commitment Design

January 21, 2015

This talk from Raph Koster on subscription/microtransaction service videogames has some really important parallel issues for tabletop RPGs.  The relevant stuff starts about 9 minutes in, particularly the points of how to keep players engaged in your game (in a long term hobby sense, not moment to moment of play):

What’s really interesting is at 12:11, there’s a list of emotional drivers – which is the key point of what I’ve been thinking about.

Emotional Pressuring

You’ll notice that guilt is the first thing on Koster’s list.  I don’t think it was intentional on his part, though it certainly is a major tool for keeping people into high commitment activities – you can see it appear in church attendence, exercise programs, community groups, and so on.


First, there’s plenty of games which have pages upon pages of an identity based on a form of One True Way-ism to cover for bad design, espousing what “good roleplaying” looks like, “good roleplayers” and how “creative and special” gamers are, often with jabs or insinuations at what the opposite is like.

This makes the text itself, in communicating how the game works, the philosophy and the goal of the game, a form of propaganda in this way.  “This is what good gamers are like, therefore you must do these things to be a good gamer, or you’re a BAD gamer.”  Simply parroting the ideas creates a pressure between actual group members as to a value system – identical to any other cultural formation.

Questioning people’s self esteem to “dare” them into doing what you want, or hitting on emotional triggers to reduce people’s critical judgment skills in decisions is well known to anyone who’s worked in aggressive sales, advertising or done media studies, and taken to more extreme levels shows up in abusive behavior and the emotional manipulation tactics of con artists and “pick up artists”.


But most of these games don’t stop there, they also will often include specific advice to socially pressure the group – the easiest example is the “punish the character to passive-aggressively force a player to change”.  Advice on how to lie to players, or similar, also can be found.

These behaviors are about pressure and conversion – and unsurprisingly the behavior pattern is the same as religious fanatics.  If you talk about a different way to game, or even play in a way that is different than their chosen One True Way, they fall into projection and assume that you are trying to stop them from playing however they want to play, and will take it away from them.

Selling “identity”, not design

Together, both the text and behaviors encouraged produces a situation where people are trying to live up to a standard of “good gamer” and a social responsibility to the group, which isn’t necessarily built on fun.  It’s an easy way to dodge out on having to live up to better game design.  “The game isn’t broken, you are.”

Back in 2006 when I wrote my “Fun Now Manifesto”, people got very, very angry – some people saw me saying “play with people you like” and claimed “Chris wants me to get rid of all of my friends!!!” (… … …wow… …).  But when you look at it in this lens of building a gaming identity off of some kind of duty or identity to live up to, and not… actual fun, it makes sense why they are so vehemently upset – all the sunk cost of effort and unpleasantness they’ve had to put up with just to be “good gamers”, I’m saying is worthless and senseless suffering.

It’s why “No play is better than bad play” was such a revolutionary idea – it shifts the point of play back onto what it should be – fun, not some obligation to suffering. (or, the fact that suffering should be considered normal in roleplaying as an activity anyway…)

Love, Community, Creativity

There’s a lot of other emotional drivers on that list that tabletop RPGs can hit quite well.  It’s a lot easier these days with the power of the internet and cheap computers – you can share the things you love about your style of play, your chosen game – you can make a blog where you come up with new monsters, spells, dungeons, robots, campaigns, etc.  You can record your game sessions or write up actual play reports.

This has been the reason open source design, free rules, fan-wikis, and so on has been a net positive for many roleplaying games – it allows fans to become the promoters and build their own community.

Easy Alternatives

When you make it easier to play a game – easier to start, shorter expected commitment, you don’t need to shame people into sticking into it.  Because it’s easy to get into, people have an easier time getting into play, and they’re not left unable to play for months on end because they “can’t find anyone”.

Second, when you have compelling design that does something fun, people will start talking about it.  People become fans and advocates all on their own and they push your game for you.  It’s also worth considering that many games are not in competition for exclusive play – many people enjoy both Monopoly and Chess – as boardgames, it’s not like people are choosing between the two, and in the same sense many roleplaying games can provide unique enough experiences that you can build a network of potential players without having to fearfully indoctrinate people against playing other games.


Platforms, Voice, and Toxicity

July 24, 2014

Modelview Culture has been putting out a ton of great articles on videogames and the tech scene.  Today’s article covers the issue of how platforms (programming languages, tools for building games, online organizing tools, etc.) end up being used by marginalized folks who end up promoting the platform, but at the end of the day, the same social circle that benefits the most can’t be bothered to open the door in return…

Here’s a common pattern:

  • Male programmers builds a platform out of code.
  • Platform is adopted by a huge user base of marginalized people.
  • Those people drive widespread adoption and popularity of the platform.
  • Original creator turns out to give no shits about oppression, happily takes all the credit without mention of these creators.

Many of the POC, women, queer designers I personally know have had situations where they haven’t been paid, had the credit for the work they’ve done lifted in projects, or had people out and out plagiarize their work for profit.

Who is community?  Who gets to be human?

Although you’ll always run across cases of unethical exploitation, what is more problematic and worth talking about is the overall community that allows this kind of thing to thrive, and the fact that only some folks are targeted for that abuse.

What the article points to is the fact that these platforms, just like an RPG system, or a play style movement, or a social scene – all of these rely on a network of people to gain viability… and the question is how much does that serve the people who form the network.   Or rather, WHICH people get to be served in that network.

Ten years ago, I went to my first GenCon.  I remember someone said something to me that encapsulated the problem in full:  “Why should we care about people of color?”

The idea that, as a gamer, involved in the scene, that I had to prove myself UP to being worth considered equally as any other (white) gamer?  Oh, well, there’s the problem right there.   The disconnect was that “people of color” didn’t equal “people”.   “Prove to me that you are people” is the underlying assumption.

Questions we shouldn’t have to answer

Just as much as you have to navigate whether your money is going towards someone who wants you literally dead, the other parts you end up having to navigate as marginalized person are:

– Will working in this (rpg platform/community/etc) help me by creating outreach, or will it just promote people who will exploit then throw me away after the fact?

– Will participating and promoting this particular geek thing be fun, let me engage with other folks and “finally prove” to people we’re also part of the hobby?  Or will it just be promoting a scene that will shit on and harass me?

The balancing act between useful network and meaningful connections vs. harassment and exploitation is one each person has to navigate for themselves.   Much as I said before, the options often boil down to suffer in silence, suffer more for speaking up, or walk away.

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Those who want you dead…

July 5, 2014

 I heard an accusation. But what she and my Dad were trying to make me hear was their question:Why do you love a thing that won’t even let you exist within their made up worlds?

Pam Noles -Shame

The issue for marginalized folks in any geekdom is navigating this issue, all the time, every time: how much of my money do I want to give to people who literally want me dead?

Your options come down to three choices, all of which are terrible:

Speak no evil

Participate, enjoy to what you can, try to endure or avoid and say nothing.  You avoid some drama, but you’re always subject to microaggressions, and nothing changes.  Enjoy feeling like you contribute to people prospering who want you to die.

Disengage completely

Walk away.  You do not give money or fame to the people who hate you.  You’ve been driven out of a geekdom, fandom, gamer space and have cut out yet ANOTHER thing you love, out of your life and the question of how much of this is you making good boundaries vs. them controlling your life sits at the edge of your mind.

Speak up and be a target

Participate, but point out the problems.  Suffer the inevitable backlash and harassment.  The more outreach you get, the more violent and neverending the backlash.  People defend dehumanization with… death and assault threats, harassment, stalking, and attempting to destroy your job and life and mental health.

All three of these are terrible choices.  There’s not even necessarily a “right” choice, as all of these are coping mechanisms in the face of what clearly is a hostile and fucked up social problem.  It’s not just because there’s people who want you dead, there’s people who are OK WITH people who want you dead.   Is that really a space in which you can have fun?

Watch people demand you define which choice you take, and justify it, while never making the same effort to demand the people spewing hate shit to justify anything.

There’s a fourth option, and the only one I’ll condemn every time:

Defend it and pretend it’s a reasonable situation

Whether that’s an out and out denial, or “Well, this one person is a problem” while ignoring the fact 200 people sat by and did nothing while the one person spews their shit, or, worse, they supported them.

And I can see how people get to this point; they don’t want to admit the fact the whole thing is fucked up.  These people they thought were friends, they thought they had community, but in fact, all of this isn’t true.  When your humanity is partial, being abused is normal and you are expected to take it without complaint to “be accepted” in a community?

The heart of the whole situation is the same old racism, sexism, heterosexism, transphobia, etc. that you find in society in general.  The only thing geekdom does different is it’s target: they want to destroy your imagination.

And I think a lot about what kind of mentality refuses to even let you find joy in imagination, and moreso, the mentality of the people who are ok to watch these people do what they do…

ETA: Almost a year later, we can see people writing parallels about leaving Reddit as it has become a haven of violent white supremacists.


Eclipse Phase RPG kicks MRAs off their forum boards

May 31, 2014

Pretty much what the header says right here:

Every single one of us at Posthuman Studios stands in support of feminism’s basic principle: treating women as people. As can be gleaned from our books, we’re a fairly left-wing group, and we don’t hide our politics or claim to be unbiased. We believe we live in a world where patriarchy and male privilege are real, ongoing problems, and equality for all people, regardless of sex, is a worthy goal.

As a group, we at Posthuman find the politics of MRAs to be toxic, offensive, and completely removed from reality. We have also found the conduct of MRAs on our forums to be far from ideal. We do not appreciate that MRAs are driving other fans away from our forums.

It’s pretty nice to see a space take up the basic stance to NOT support the group of fans who shit on, harass and insult other humans in some vague handwavey BS “free speech” mumble (which, really always boils down to, “Too lazy to step up and kick the assholes out”, if not, “Well, we agree with them”).

This is actually why I don’t spend too much time on too many online spaces these days – I assume the default is going to be “most people are ok, but the few assholes will get to run wild and no one will do anything to stop them, or, tell you why it’s ‘ok’ for them to insult and harass people”.

Anyway, here’s to hoping more game companies clean up their spaces and make them inviting for the REST of the world, too.