When I finally got to the Indie Palace area at Lucca, in the Palace Hotel, Beatrice Da  Vela and Filippo Zolesi, the latter a.k.a. our very own Pippo Jedi at the Patreon, came to see me with their game Quella Volta Che. It’s not funny or cute, but head-on, headlong into the thick of sexual harassment as experienced by anyone. It’s intended to be published with a collection of survivor/testimony accounts of harassment. The title is a little idiomatic, meaning “the time when …,” or I guess, “that time when it happened,” “at that moment,” or similar.

They didn’t expect that I’d respond to them by beginning to play, which I suppose is the occupational hazard of game design when I’m around. As with the briefer play of Blood Red Blossoms, this was held in the noisy room, so the poor Yeti mike had to work overtime. It did heroically capture our voices clearly, but the background is still pretty bad. You’ll see that I switched cameras in the middle too, as I’m still figuring out the right strategy for my tech.

The topic itself is certain to prompt all manner of rhetoric, but since anyone can find the standard rhetoric anywhere on the internet, at this site I’d rather attend to the structure and play of this particular game. Especially since it is wonderfully clear of all such blather. You might not believe it, but I think it captures very well the difference between responsibility and blame – if a person thinks either that harassment only occurs because bad people do bad things, or that harassment is some arbitrary accusation that can be flung casually at anyone acting in any way, the game will go far to show the tem wide-ranging, shadowy reality between these fantasies.

I especially appreciated how the standards for the boundaries are themselves constructed from the input and response of actual people at the table, without negotiation or tedious discussion. I drew heavily on my own experiences as a college grad student and prof, and felt OK with taking them farther in the fiction than they went (for me) in reality, due to the boundary methods that threw “stop” points to the table rather than left up to me.

The “enough” mechanic looks a lot like one of the Witness’ mechanics in Shahida, but it also differs in that it allows a brief spin-back in the fiction itself, so that the circumstances occupy a fine knife-edge between what the first person said and the second one responded to.

Now, I might have this wrong, so correct me if necessary, but I think the rules about pauses and similar Veil-ish, Line-checking techniques are inspired from what Stefano Burchi is doing with Stonewall. However, since play was followed by a phenomenal conversation about such things, I’ll mention them here. Specifically: that these two designers, Stefano, and evidently quite a few others comprise a veritable revolt against the X-card. Beatrice was especially firm, stating that the latter technique is a silencing and violent act, not merely “poor” or “weak,” but literally bad.

I’m agog with admiration for that. Cue plans for a Monday Lab as soon as possible. This makes my criticisms during my talk with Keenan Kibrick look positively mild.

Hey, something else that occurred to me as I was typing here. In the first part of play, several possible protagonists (or victims, or survivors, whatever term you’d like) are created, but only two are used in the harassment phase, and the rest are removed from play. I’m probably making this up, but it seems to me as if “something happens” to them too … but we never learn about it; they’re the invisible instances.

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5 responses to “Boundaries”

  1. Afterthoughts – About X-Card and boundaries, how to cross them

    Hi Ron,
    first of all: thank you so much for the experience and you're right, we did not anticipate at all to playtest the game right there! It was a wonderful time.

    Really tons of stuff to discuss, for starters I'll stick to what you mention in your commentary. (sorry for the wall of text)

    1) X-Cards and boundaries – Safe Spaces.
    You're right about the connection with Stefano Burchi's game "Stonewall 1969".
    I playtested it with him the week before the Game Chef 2018 started and it deeply influenced my thought and inspiration process. I also explicitly asked him for help on the matter and we had a conversation about that.

    So yes, I think that X-Card may be good on some instances: when there is the possibility of crossing with topics no one, the author or the players, want to address in a game. Like when you want to have a light-hearted game so you have some lines and plot armours by author design and you give players the chance to draw lines and / or use the X-Card, which is always a rather crude tool, but if it's clear from the start we want to stay away from certain topics it works. I can understand that for some scenarios, like conventions when you play with unknown people or such, it may come handy to build a relaxed and safe space.

    Now, if you have a game, like ours strives to be, whereyou want to address heavy and/or mature topics… then you want a game space that is not "relaxed", it cannot be! How can you be "relaxed" in talking about topics like sexual harassment, abuse and assault? you should not be "relaxed"!
    A player should be feel the game space to be safe not in a "kindergarten safe way" but in a "we are adults talking about difficult topics, we are being respectful and caring to the topic and to the people involved in the conversation" way.
    So giving the players the tool to say "no, I don't want to play this topic" is antithetic to the common stated goal: address the topic.

    If you want to address such topics you must give players the ability to touch and cross gently each other's "lines". The "Enough" mechanics (for the reader: it's what is required to say to initiate a conflict in order to change what's happening) is this: I know that when something happens to my character that I don't want to happen I can say it and I can do something against it, so "it's in the accepted rules" for everybody to cross into each other's sensitive territory.

    That leads to a second branch of the topic

    2) X-Cards and boundaries – learning from crossing boundaries.
    I think that something that maybe is somewhat not under the spotlight enough is the question: what we learn as human beings from using this or that in our gaming experience?
    Even with games that have no stated educational purpose we still learn something.
    Our game has explicitly a educational purpose in the broader sense, so it makes sense to me to address the topic.
    What I learn when I'm using the X-Card in a game?
    I think that the main message it's that is ok to tell people you are not comfortable with some topics, which is really a big thing since rarely people do that… or I must correct myself in saying that rarely MEN do that because it's not manly to be disturbed by something, we must endure hardship or we're not manly. *rolleyes to heaven
    At the same time other players must respect your x-card, which is not a small thing to do.
    You learn to set boundaries, you learn not to invade a person boundaries, which is good, really.

    So, yeah: in that light you learn something good… but if that's you only tool at your disposal for all your gaming situations…
    well, I'll go out and say it: to build an attitude that says "I will never talk about sensitive topics" it's not Healthy.

    On the other hand with tools like using veils, pausing the game to address bleed with the support of other players, the ability to stop the game to talk what's going not as intended…
    You learn not only yours and other player's boundaries, but you learn why they're there, how to let others cross them or how cross other's boundaries… in order to connect to them.
    THAT is in my humble opinion the big thing: why the hell are we doing all of this?
    To CONNECT to each other: X-Card does not allow it by it's nature, it has another purpose.

    So it come almost naturally that to play a game about sexual harassment, abuse and assault, you NEED tools that allow the players to connect to each others, not to shut each other out.

    In connecting with others we can improve understanding in an empathic way.

    • Thank you for that

      Thank you for that explanation: Your advice and observations are clear, and they are filled with common sense and compassion. There is not a single answer to the question of what procedure is best: It all depends on the type of game, the audience, and the situation. Nuance, intelligence, and flexibility are key.

      One challenge I'm facing: What do you with a game whose level of frivolity or seriousness can vary? With Stonewall and Quella Volta Che the tone is, by necessity, always going to be serious so the x-card in that situation would be undermining the purpose of the game. On the other side of the equation, you might have a frivolous party game where the x-card would be fine. In that case, the x-card might almost be a formality that would not really ever come into play because the subject matter and tone are so light.

      But then there's a game whose subject matter and tone have a wide range: You can play such a game for silliness and laughs, or you can play it for grit and bite. In that case you almost need a kind of dial that you can set before the game starts. Depending on where you set the dial at the outset, your safety device would change or modulate. I'm curious as to how exactly one would set up this kind of modulating safety dial in practical terms especially with players who might be new to such types of games and who have picked up this type of "chameleon" game and have decided to play it. 

    • Filippo, that’s great and

      Filippo, that's great and very refreshing to see. To respect boundaries, we need to address them, not to avoid them.

      I also suggest that we examine how social groups deal with this all the time, in terms of which movies to choose to watch with which friends. It is not considered exclusive or wrong to be selective when doing this, rather, to the contrary, it's considerate and positive.

      The point that's always brought up when I say this is "what about convention play?" By which, after some questioning, I find people to mean that anyone should be able to sit down at any table to play any game with anybody. Nice and beautiful as that assumption may be, I suggest that it is foolish. No other human social activity subjects itself to such an assumption, particularly not one in which personal input and (broadly defined) performance are involved. I don't see why role-playing should either.

      Replace "anyone" with "someone," and the other terms in that assumption with equivalents, and it makes perfect sense and becomes actually inclusive.

      Someone should be able to sit down at this table to play this game they might like with these people who like this game. That makes sense. It requires honesty about what this game is and how these people play it, and about who you are.

    • Robbie, I suggest that tone,

      Robbie, I suggest that tone, as well as its related subset, silliness, are a completely different issue. We could play a game of Quella Volta Che or Weighting Rooms with a great deal of comedy or even slapstick parody, without them losing power, and even gaining it in many cases. All the other narrative arts do this all the time. "Funny" or "light" doesn't mean non-serious in terms of relevance or pointed impact.

      When people disrupt or undercut play by cutting up and making jokes, they aren't just changing tone, they're changing the topic, no matter how much they claim they were "just" being funny or lightening the tone.

    • Hi Robowist and Ron,I’m

      Hi Robowist and Ron,
      I'm crosspoting with Ron here with a lenghty post, sorry but I consider myself no expert at all so I feel the need to explain yself a lot… I think I adress the same points of Ron and I agree with him. The following in direct answer to Robowist comment but applys to Ron's too.

      I think you are somewhat off road: I am somewhat too so I hope to disentangle  a knot.

      I don't think it's a matter of frivolity or seriousness, but a matter of "why are we playing this? to what end? in what context?"
      I have played D&D recently and sometimes my char or another would do things that could have been motive for being emotionally or thematically charged in another game. We "played over them" as nothing of it mattered.
      We were there to slash monster and grab stuff, we did not concern over moral issues, I was among friends and we were not "removing the issue", we just all agreed it was not was that game was about at that time.

      I would never have had the same behaviour in a D&D demo at a game convention with people I knew nothing about and who knew nothing about me.

      So the answer to your question should lie on focusing on two things: "why the hell are we doing all of this?" and "what's the intended context of play?".

      The tone or the "dramatic register" (hoping that's the right expression in English) of play can vary a lot in many games but the WHY we are playing a particular game is, or should in my view, be a constant in a particular instance of play.
      Take Fiasco: in my experience the tone is always Grotesque, silly or nonsense situations that end depicting human frailty or misery… but the focus of play is rarely the exploration of a particular theme or dramatic premise, it's more about constructing that grotesque story.
      So in my experience there was never the need for safety mechanisms…

      On the other hand, if we take a game which focuses on addressing and exploring a particular topic then well, you may need them.
      It's very hard for me to imagine someone who wants to explore a particular topic that uses the x-card. X-card gives the player the ability to set uncrossable lines in play: how can you explore things if you cannot address them?

      Based on this one should assume that in story now games rpg one should never use the X-Card and I think that's true, but you have to consider another fact: the intended context of play or the marginally occurring one.

      For example: I'm a high school teacher (ages 14/19), I would never let 9-10 graders play Quella Volta Che without an adult guide present, x-card or not, other safety mechanisms or not. I may change idea on this as the game develops but… it's like I, as the game author, am x-carding a whole context of play by design.

      That is to say that safety mechanisms always assume a context in which a play occurs, which is in a way part of the System.

      So, I think one could have two very different set of rules in the same game to address potential context issue:
      1) you are playing in a environment that requires a strict control on what kinds of topics are addressed, like students at school for obvious reasons, and you, as author set a bunch of lines on them
      2) the game takes place in environment where the sensibilities on some topics could be very different, the expectations on what is a rpg are wildly different… so you give the players the right to invoke the x-card to set boundaries.

      So I think 1) is Ok, while 2 really is not: at the start of the game the social contract should be always be cristal clear "The game could be addressing sensitive topics, so there are rules to manage how we address them, if after we introduced you to the rules you don't feel comfortable, then do not play".
      The only instance when 2 would be good, that I can think of, is when you think that a specific environment has people that cannot handle properly each others boundaries… that is
      a) kids and young teenagers as they are learning and growing up… and in that specific instance of play or specific game you dont' want to "teach" them all of this…
      b) fucked up people that seem to be so common in the internet. But I don't want anyone to play with morons: the problem is not invoking the x-card or not, is how to spot and eliminate from a gaming session morons.
      So barring the latter problem…

      The good thing about techniques like Slow Down, to force players to use a Veil, and the Pause, to allow players to address Bleed, is that they are flexible in play: so each gaming group can set their boundaries for that particular gaming session and can find during play the right way too cross them.
      If the play has a more light hearted phase then you won't be invoking them, but they are still there building up a healthy safe space, but if the game goes deeper in the emotionally charged stuff that we want to play the mechanics are there.

      So I think those tools really do their job.

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