Once again with feeling

Lorenzo Bertini asked me for some discussion about Lines and Veils, specifically, and the general concept they’ve been folded into. (Context: Lorenzo is Claudio Freda’s partner-in-crime regarding their game in design Inquest; Claudio is present in the video as well for clarity and sometimes translation.)

I’d asked Lorenzo first to check out Conversation: Safe spaces [Games and Education], to avoid repeating myself and possibly to move the discussion beyond its usual introductory points. You’ll see him referencing it immediately at the start of the conversation. Toward the end, I discuss Stefano Burchi’s Stonewall 1969 regarding several complex points; Gay Power was my post about consulting for this game. Please follow the Lines & Veils category link to find more nuances regarding other games and play-experiences.

The core concept for the present discussion, prefigured by all of the above, is very simple. In Sex & Sorcery, 2003, I proposed that Lines and Veils operate to expand the functional range of role-playing, specifically via individual/group dynamics. In follow-up discussions at the Forge, Meguey Baker proposed specific social frameworks in which this may occur (No One Gets Hurt, I Will Not Abandon You).

  • All of these were stated in terms of what functioning groups already arrive at, and as historical realities of play, rather than novel additions to play.
  • None of them were proposed as safety tools as this term was later constructed by others.
  • All of them explicitly included expanding the range of participation, real-world topics including sex and gender, and content. (You may call this extreme or problematic; more accurately, it is authentic, ambitious, and cathartic.)
  • All of them were agnostic as to precisely when the standards or practices were established by a given group, but they absolutely did not specify an explicit, legalistic contract prior to play.

Lorenzo understood all of this prior to the conversation and I hope we were able to get further into the topic from there.

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14 responses to “Once again with feeling”

  1. Further reflection really brings home to me how distinct the shift was – what Lorenzo asked about specifically, “how did it change.” In many ways, I think that question would be better addressed to others, specifically the perpetrators of the change, rather than to me. How could they possibly have identified play itself as a toxic, traumatic space, such that it requires constant vigilance and shaming? What does healthy play look like to them, in which both No One Gets Hurt and I Will Not Abandon You are functioning, easy, and above all desired by everyone involved? How could they not see that it would be precisely those with marginalized histories, physical otherness, and gender dysphoria who would lead rather than sit and tremble, waiting for rescue?

    The one thing I can say is this: that asking for examples in play is perfectly reasonable, but this historical shift in context distorts and perverts it into a bad question. We should be asking, “how did Lines, Veils, or any related concept expand the range or facilitate the ease of finding our collective desired ‘zone’ of content,” but instead, I’m being asked “how did [these things] solve a problem, ease someone’s hurt, correct a fault, salve a wound, at the table.”

    This is terrible. It concedes the field to the distortion. It identifies adjusting fiction only when the human interaction is itself violated (hurt, damage, triggering). After all, the fiction itself is in the very process of shaping, so “adjustment” isn’t even the right concept. It’s better conceived as discovery or a hands-on-one-another connection.

    I’ve taken a couple of days to realize how badly conceived, how broken, is P. H. Lee’s presentation of the PTSD techniques, to the point of moral offense (yes, this is the right word) to the real-life people with experiences and use of them.

    • I’ve reviewed all the videos and post related to this conversation.

      First, this distinction between “safety tools” and “danger tools”, and their relationship to the two different model of values of the table, is fundamental to my comprehension of what lines and veils are, and how they should be used.

      Every time I had a talk about line & veils, it is in the implicit context of a debate between “No one gets hurt” and “I will not abandon you”. It was like those conversations suffered from being epistemological debate (the two Baker models) but addressed through methodological level (lines & veils, x-card, etc).

      The first time I was confronted to lines & veils was exactly how it is criticized here and coming from the gauntlet: a spreadsheet with boxes to check of 44 topics who could be veiled or forbidden.

      I think I can understand the social dynamics of considering play as an hurting activity, at least through in my own experience.

      My experience of roleplay was through group of old friends – with toxic behaviour. The culture of play I’ve encountered until 2015 was : the independant variable was the “group of player”, old friends playing together various games. You want a new game? You bring it into the table and you’ll struggle with the social dynamics to gm it. If your group was functional, no big deal. If, as I used to experience, the group had toxic behaviour, well you were stuck with it.

      Something changed with the years – maybe the extension of the hobby to non “hard geek” people, the extension of internet play facilitating the discovery of new people and groups, etc. I don’t know. But for me the idea that you won’t be struggling to find players and that the activity itself became the independent variable was a new phenomena.

      Once new people were in contact with “old gamers” to “know what a rpg is about”, they could encounter the toxic behavior of toxic people in “the group of friends”. There is some kind of shift from the juxtaposed layers of “this is an activity of self expression that I want to do” + “and this is done with this old group of rpg friends” to the disconnection of those two variables and the focus on the first one. Once this disconnection is done, only you can think of line & veils as danger tools. Ron you were very aware of that as it’s explicit in the advices of how to organize a game in Sorcerer.

      Encountering Adept Play was a step in that mutation. It was the first time I could “do the activity for what it is, as a life priority”, with games, and with people who “wanted to do that game”. The whole “I need to convince my group to play that new game”, which involved various toxic behavior like trying to find the mistake in the game so one can show how this game is finally not so good, “as I told in the first time”, disappear. No need for a list of behavior like that – they are all subsumed into the concept of “Power relations in the social dynamic of the group”

      I know people who never encounter that during their all life and I’m glad they didn’t. I know a lot of group who were, and are still into those dynamics, with various reconfiguration through the advancement of life and in maturity of their members (as me).

      If it’s the only context you know, well, you want those safety tools once the activity becomes more open to new players and those behavior are more public.

      I think it’s relevant to note that the phenomena of safety tools is not limited to roleplaying games. Universities and political events are also the places for claims of “keepers of feeling”, where specific subject will have to be avoided and that asks for safety tools too. This phenomena is generally badly analyzed, I think, and only criticized by right-wing conservatories through a simplistic lens. So I think this discussion is highly relevant for societal reasons too.

    • Also, think you’re right that any discussion about RPG is based on the assumption of a failed state of the interaction at the basic social level. Assuming the conditions where you start (a functional social dynamic, in a group of player who reunites to do that activity as a priority, and to do it with, at the minimum, a self-consciousness of a a creative goal with its own tools) seems to be an edge case that very few people consider. Everything that we do when those criteria are met is then reinterpreted and rediscussed through the lens of situations that doesn’t meet those criteria.

    • Part I: Questions About Toxic Culture

      I think the questions you’re asking are related to something that’s been swirling in my head lately. Where did the paternalistic idea of the GM come from?

      I’m being very specific. I don’t mean the provider of contained content. An adventure that’s basically a linear or branching set of relatively fixed, but aesthetically enticing encounters leading into a pre-planned climatic boss fight is consumerist but it isn’t paternalistic.

      I mean specifically the idea that the GM is responsible for managing the players’ disparate personalities, interests and willingness to engage so that everyone has their piece of fun. The idea of the GM as the peacekeeper among untrustworthy, unruly players. The person responsible for making sure one player doesn’t piss in another player’s cheerios. GM as the dispute arbitrator.

      Related: Where does the humor in the Knights of the Dinner Table comic come from? Humor that basically persists into current D&D memes all over social media? Why is that humor regarded as a jocular celebration that makes gamers feel “seen” instead of a horrific condemnation of a toxic culture?

      You take, whatever the fuck, created all that and you combine it with the unconstructed, your-turn, GM-for-the-day, say-anything “story games” culture and I suspect you find yourself wishing you had an emergency brake too. Especially, in the absence of a clear paternal figure meant to keep everyone in line.

      Interlude: My Own Experience

      I used to run “My Life with Master” at my local convention. Unfortunately, the game attracted a guy who DID NOT GET IT. He basically just wanted to revel in being evil, happily doing the Master’s bidding in the worst ways he could think of. After the first couple of times, he started bringing friends who all wanted to do the same thing. They would try to one-up each other on how awful their minions could get.

      Ultimately, I stopped running that game. They ran me out. I didn’t run them out. Why? Well, I’ll cop to it being partly cowardice. I was younger and a little more people please-y. But it was also because I didn’t trust the convention to have my back.

      If you ask them about whether GMs can eject players from their event (and a lot of us asked) you would be met with this deep sigh and told in this kind of side-eye way that if it were really truly that bad, you can do whatever you want with your event. But the subtext was definitely, “These are paying customers, and you’re providing the product, and you should try to accommodate them as much as possible.” Basically, you were scolded into your role as the paternal GM. Please, just try to keep everyone happy. We don’t want complaints or have to issue refunds.

      Now, if I had had the X-Card would it have helped? I don’t know. I do suspect those mechanisms when explicitly on the table tend to chase away those kinds of bad actors (not keep them in check. They just don’t show in the first place). But more importantly by making them part of the rules of the game they provide social cover. If I had had an X-Card someone ELSE could have tapped it when those guys got out of line and I, in my impartial paternalistic role, could cite the rules of the game. I’m not just being mean to a paying customer. In fact, I’m honoring a paying customer’s execution of the game rules.

      Part II: Anxiety As Cover For Control

      I’ve met a few of the strongest advocates for safety tools and even some of those tools’ creators. And something I have observed is their social anxiety is palpable. That on its own wouldn’t be a problem. But in these individuals I’ve noticed an undercurrent of controlling and manipulating behavior with their anxiety providing cover. ”I NEED THIS for mental health reasons.”

      It’s like the difference between a disabled person who requires certain infrastructure considerations so they can live their own full lives and a disabled person who expects you to serve them and if you push back, claim you’re being discriminatory. That second kind of person is fortunately, extremely rare, but the degree to which they exist at all, really fucks up the conversation around proper accommodations.

    • The historical cause of the “curate GM” is a very good question. There was a tipping-point in which it became more than a table-feature or personality quirk, such that play culture and text-writing in the 1990s was past doing anything else. Since texts are reflective of these phenomena, we can’t really go by a specific publication as cause, but it’s a good indicator of the phenomenon having been caused.

      Recent discussions at the Patreon and here, mostly the Q&A series, have shown me that the AD&D2 Campaign Sourcebook and Catacomb Guide was such a text, in 1989. People familiar with my writings know that I call out the Iron Crown Enterprises version of Champions as seminal to the destruction of Story Now, and it was published in the same year. We can also look at Shadowrun of that same year in terms of design (braiding the three primary rules-threads to date into a mare’s nest) and soon, at the fake rebellion of White Wolf Publishing (1991), which is a skin of Shadowrun resolution + Catacombs play-operations.

      Given the shelf-space and distributorship tactics of the Wiliams TSR, FASA, and White Wolf, I think it’s reasonable to say that an indicator (these texts) became a reinforcing cultural cause of its own very, very quickly.

      But let’s dial it back to before these indicators. By 1989, the phrasing, presumptions, and most significantly the certainty regarding curated play are too uniform, too canned, too perfected to have coalesced exactly then. I think there are identifiable events waiting to be found. Someone should really dig into Alarums & Excursions regarding this exact practice (or failure thereof) and also into the testimony, if possible, of the original Chaosium team & culture regarding The Call of Cthulhu (note who the author of Catacombs was, for instance). This someone should understand how pre-internet fan and role-playing worked (commerce, communication), and they should know how distribution, GAMA and its Trade Show, and the magazines shifted into a new cultural framework alongside comics during the mid-late 1980s. It may be premature to speculate, but for what it’s worth, I smell thought-leaders, influencers, or more precisely, blowhards, APA egos, clique tyrants at work. And the timing suggests that what should have been a minor dead-end of failure at the activity instead became its textual gold standard, or “gold,” meaning inflated promotional gas.

  2. Thank you Lorenzo, Ron and Claudio for sharing this conversation, I enjoyed it immensely. Some years ago, when I started role playing I found or was directed (really don’t remember which) the earlier conversation Ron had with Keenan Kibrick. Since then I have sometimes asked people to consider watching it, especially if I wanted to play a game because I wanted to test my boundaries. Don’t know about you but for me role playing among other things is about that, moving and testing my boundaries (lines) in a “safe environment”. Aka the table I play at. I’m not talking about any kind of convention play here, I’m far to shy and cautious for that, but about play with others that I have talked to or played other games with before. So the social context is there and to some degree established.
    This enables me to play games like Khaotic, Circle of Hands or Spione, in which the context and content are things that for different reasons are outside of my comfort zone, but which I very much want to play. How I approached playing them ranges from asking for a veil (though I might not have used the exact word) in play or flagging for a line before play to “just go for it” and see what happens (and it happened to be fine without me saying anything). Also, apart from us listening to each other we see each other. If in any given situation somebody senses discomfort or thinks there might be a potential issue – they will be asking: are you okay with this, or, do you need a break, or simply, how are you doing right now. But, and this is the most important part for me, for the most we simply play and nobody watching from the outside might even realize that we in fact are using those “danger tools” in a way that works for us.
    And when things go south, which can still happen, I for example find it difficult to “read the room” or speak up during screen play, I can be certain that the others I play with will not abandon me.
    I’m not so good at musical comparisons and I never played jazz. For me role playing with people I trust is like the adventure playground of my childhood with piles of boards, tires, ropes, metal sheets and tubes, where we were taught how to use tools and then would build our own playground over the summer and play in it. There were always some “adults” (read somebody experienced) around, and a first aid box, but even if sometimes somebody would hurt themselves, this did not happen any more frequent than on a modern conventional playground where you for “safety reasons” no longer have climbing structures, seesaws or slides.
    In other words, chances are, if you are comfortable as a group, play will be intense and awesome, not bland and boring.

    • Your views about this are important, as they demonstrate the awareness which I think is missing from most of the presentations and discussions of the topic. Specifically:

      1. “No one gets hurt” and “I will not abandon you” are completely valid, working, different ways to address content. They don’t compete or oppose or anything of the sort; one of them is operating in order for play to work, and that’s that.

      2. Functional specific moments toward this end (either one) operate informally and in the moment, or they don’t work at all. They might include pre-play statements or agreements, or not, but that’s a secondary variable in comparison to what actually occurs as we go along. I especially appreciate your point that sometimes, merely knowing that someone is asking how you feel is enough to feel OK.

      3. No one is talking about any guarantees. The playground analogy applies really well. Things might happen. The question is whether and how the overall place/space operates, in terms of what they mean.

  3. Something that has increasingly struck me when thinking about “safety tools” is- well, I’ve spent most of my adult working life in environments like chemistry laboratories and nuclear power plants where safety principles are ideally drummed into the people working there. And one of the key diagrams for working with hazardous chemicals is an upside-down pyramid. The top layer is labeled “Elimination”, then we have “Substitution”- if the substance isn’t necessary, get rid of it. Don’t keep random canisters of sodium cyanide around if you don’t need to.

    And everything after that- engineering physical barriers and protections, administrating work and handling procedures to limit exposure, and, finally, the lab coats and latex gloves and respirators, is all predicated on the hazard being necessary for the task at hand.

    So “safety tools” is mildly annoying now, because in my mind, that ought to refer to the (metaphorical) guards and exposure limit rules and cut-resistant gloves you’d want to handle a fraught, sensitive, difficult, etc. issue knowing that it was agreed to be part of play. And to a large extent, the focus when discussing “safety tools” has been on rejecting the premise that you’d use them in that way as opposed to having a hard shutdown on certain topics.

    Which to my mind raises the question- just what can this kind of gaming support emotionally if the assumption is that the environment is always low on trust?

    • I like this concept of the hazardous chemicals diagram a lot, and it seems to me to have a lot of instructive, communicative power. I’ll be leading with it the next time the topic’s raised in a course or workshop.

  4. I’m re-reading some of bell hooks’s works. Two things makes me think of this discussion.

    First, this quote from “All about love” : “The practice of love offers no place of safety. We risk loss, hurt, pain. We risk being acted upon by forces outside our control”. Playing “I will not abandon you” share some characteristics of love as imagined by hooks: it includes trust, it includes exposing its own vulnerability by expressing something authentic (although through the fictional medium), and it includes listening authentically – in the sense of comprehensive, non-judgmental understanding of the others.

    Then this quote from hooks’s “Choosing the Margin as space of Radical Openness” :

    “Our living depends on our ability to conceptualize alternatives, often improvised. Theorizing about this experience aesthetically, critically is an agenda for radical cultural practice.
    For me this space of radical openness is a margin – a profound edge. Locating oneself there is difficult yet necessary. It is not a ‘safe’ place. One is always at risk. One needs a community of resistance.”

    Two notions seem to have arose from that idea : Safe space and brave spaces : https://www.anselm.edu/sites/default/files/Documents/Center%20for%20Teaching%20Excellence/From%20Safe%20Spaces%20to%20Brave%20Spaces.pdf

    I didn’t follow closely the recent development of this literature, so I can’t say if it’s an authentic theoretical development that came from real social considerations or just consulting marketing, but this distinction seems to fit nicely Meguey Baker’s conceptualization. Are we playing in a safe space or in a brave space?

  5. This conversation (still only halfway through) in combination with the previous one linked, has helped me come to the realization that I have been unconsciously avoiding using lines & veils because I have erroneously come to believe in the up-front delineating conversation as a necessary part of it. Where did I acquire this understanding? How did I let it go unexamined for so long? Who knows, but I’m glad I’m on the other side of it now.

    Another thing to note is that I have been avoiding that up-front conversation because of fucking course, who knows all of their lines & things they want to veil up-front? Having to consider all the paths play might go on and all poasible triggers is completely enervating. My new understanding of l&v is totally energizing.

    • I’ve been thinking about your second point a lot, because it might herald opening up play to previously inaccessible areas, or it might permit a “hey, I’ve been doing it anyway all along” realization – either being a good thing.

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