- Assholes and Game Spaces February 16, 2019
Everyone has met, and has had to deal with, assholes. They’re everywhere: in our workplaces, in our families, in our neighborhoods, in our online spaces. They are, unfortunately, also in our game spaces.
Game spaces are supposed to be places where friends gather to enjoy going on adventures together, to tell stories to each other, to enjoy each others’ company in realms of imagination. They’re places where people should feel safe, places that should ideally be free from assholery.
But, thanks in part to human nature and in part due to the famous Geek Social Fallacies, this is not the case. These social fallacies developed because of the difficulties many geeks experienced growing up and being into “weird shit.” They boil down to this:
I am who I am, you should like me for who I am, your friends should like me too, we should do everything together, and you can’t turn me away if you start disliking how I behave because that’s just who I am.
By subscribing to one or more of these fallacies, we make it difficult to identify the assholes among us and deal with them appropriately. We start to think that we should accept toxic behavior because if we don’t we’re the bad guy.
But the “weird shit” we were into as kids is now mainstream culture (Comic-book movies making billions, D&D articles in Forbes, fake dwarven beards sold in well-trafficked novelty shops). And just like that has been a sea change, so too should we begin thinking about how we should change ourselves and our acceptance of toxic behavior among geek circles.
Why is this important?
Assholes make you feel emotionally exhausted, demeaned, or disrespected. When you are around an asshole, you feel inadequate and off-balance, as if you suddenly don’t know up from down . You have to dodge a thousand and one landmines in their presence, draining you and making you dread being around them. When you’re around an asshole, you might even find yourself being an asshole when otherwise you don’t behave that way.
All of these things kill our ability to effectively socialize with each other, enjoy each others’ company, and have fun gaming. Assholes are the bad apple that spoil the bunch.
And your gaming group will be influenced by any assholes within it. Social groups are influenced by what they accept, and make implicit statements to others based on the behaviors and people they accept. Four out of five players in your group may be great people, but from the outside, that fifth makes you all seem like assholes.
Knowing is half the battle. We must be able to accurately identify the assholes among us before we can feel confident in taking action about them. Here’s how you can identify an asshole:
- They identify themselves as an asshole. These are the proud assholes, the ones who wear their bad behavior as a badge of honor.
- They are rude. They talk over others while they are speaking, they shout when there’s no need to shout, they don’t clean up after the messes they make, they’re ungrateful for kindnesses offered by others, they treat others condescendingly, they’re passive aggressive, or any other of a variety of obnoxious behaviors.
- They antagonize others whether it is for their own amusement, to prove their superiority, or simply because they don’t care. Even if this is unintentional, it speaks to a lack of empathy common among all assholes.
- They excuse their behavior as roleplay. “My character would do it” as an excuse for horrible actions in a game is the sign of someone who is testing the group’s tolerance limits. And they will keep doing it, pushing the line farther and farther. Being okay with “my character would do it” as an excuse for crossing boundaries is also the sign of an asshole.
- Make sure, though, to separate roleplaying a character who is an asshole from a player who is being an asshole. If the objectionable behavior is confined to the character’s in-game attitudes, and the player is willing and accepting of other players’ boundaries even over their character’s behavior, this is not the sign of an asshole player. It is the sign of a player-of-assholes 🙂
- They are self-centered. Everything is about them, and they play constant games of one-upmanship. Whenever you tell a story, they tell a bigger, wilder story. And if you don’t do what they want? They consider that a personal attack.
- They think others are out to get them. Because they see others as trying to ruin their day specifically, trying to make them personally unhappy, they react to everything as an attack because psychologically, to them it is. And this poisons their ability to react with kindness and moderation – they instead treat everyone else as an enemy in disguise.
- Their reactions are outsized. When something negative happens, you’d think it’s the end of the world. And sometimes, when something really positive that benefits them happens, you’d think it’s the second coming.
- They find fault with others incessantly. Assholes like to correct the people around them, even if it’s meaningless to do so. They will often refer to things they don’t like or understand as stupid, and say the people who engage with such things are dumb.
- They must voice their disapproval. If you indicate something you like, they will find something about it to dislike. Even in things that require no consensus, such as your favorite movie, they will chip in their disagreement unbidden with phrases like “we’ll have to agree to disagree.” Because…
- They do not have conversations. A conversation requires a good-faith effort to talk to, listen to, and understand each other. It requires active listening. Assholes tend to listen only for information they can cherry-pick later to reinforce themselves or erode you. They are interested not in what you’re saying, but in what they choose to think you’re saying, because…
- They argue and nitpick at the drop of a hat. Assholes can’t generally admit they’re wrong, making it impossible to win an argument with them or compromise with them. They will misrepresent opposing claims, and attack straw men to try and prove they are correct. They will try to invalidate any opposition with first-year logic and rhetoric terminology, or try to devolve the argument into semantics. They will exhaust an entire evening of gaming fighting over an obscure rule rather than admit defeat. Because…
- They think they’re better than other people. Racism and sexism are obvious indicators of assholery, but classism is often less obvious. Part of their need to criticize others comes from a place of elevating themselves and demonstrating their superiority. They might even try to use this to jockey for a higher position of relative “status” in the gaming group.
- They “tell it like it is.” Richard Needham said, “The man who is brutally honest enjoys the brutality as much as the honesty. Possibly more.” Honesty from a non-asshole isn’t brutal: it is kind, it is compassionate, it is hopeful.
- They make fun of you as a joke. This might come in the form of light mocking or outright belittling, but make no mistake: this is another form of knocking you down a peg or two, and expressing their own feeling of superiority. Which leads to
- “Just a joke,” “Just kidding,” and “You need to lighten up” are frequent parts of their vocabulary. These are deflective statements, intended to move the eye of criticism away from them when they’re called on their bad behavior. In an extreme form, they become gaslighting: making you question your own ability to critically judge the behaviors of those around you and your feelings about those behaviors.
- They are hypocritical. While they might be able to mock you as a joke, if you do the same to them they will reveal one-ply skin and act as shocked and wounded as if you’d physically assaulted them.
- They see boundary-setting and assertiveness as assholery. The reason for this, of course, is that those boundaries are usually to rein them in, and they know it. And they read any form of assertiveness as a personal attack on themselves because they want you to dance to their tune, they don’t want to dance to yours.
- They do not acknowledge their behaviors are hurtful. Either they complain about “political correctness,” or they say their “right to free speech” is under attack. They say they are who they are, and that that can’t (or shouldn’t have to) change. They’re just passionate, not hurtful. And there are so many other people in the world who are so much worse than them, they can’t be that bad. Which leads to
- They ignore requests to stop hurtful behaviors. If their behaviors, to them, aren’t hurtful then they shouldn’t be hurtful to you, either. In fact,
- They ridicule requests to stop hurtful behaviors. They may even tell you that you need to grow up, man up, stop being a such a woman (there’s some sexism creeping in there), or stop being a baby.
- And even if they do apologize, they do so insincerely. Assholes will make it absolutely clear they think the fault is yours, avoiding all responsibility for themselves: “I’m sorry you were offended” rather than “I’m sorry I offended you” or “I’m sorry my behavior was offensive.”
Everyone’s a little bit of an asshole from time to time. No one or two of these, in isolation, is an indicator that someone is a full-bore asshole. But if several of these apply a lot of the time, then you’re probably dealing with an asshole.
Asshole or Abuser?
There is a razor-thin line between an asshole and an abuser, and a lot more mixture between the two than many people care to admit. Every abuser is an asshole, but not every asshole is an abuser.
Someone can be an asshole within a certain context or to a specific person without being an asshole to everyone and in all cases. This might just be a sign of people who dislike each other. But if the behavior is one-sided, this is often a sign of mental or emotional abusiveness.
Try to notice behavioral differences toward different people in the gaming group. Abusers and assholes alike tend to groom their situations and character witnesses as energetically as they do their victims. Do not allow an asshole to turn you against your friends by getting you to offer unaware testimony on their behalf.
Dealing with Assholes
Assholery can be a result of anxiety and stress, medical condition, poor upbringing and socialization, trauma, or it can be a deliberate choice. The asshole may be working on changing their behavior, or they may not. It is up to you to decide whether its origins mitigate it or whether you want to stick around while they try to sort themselves into a kinder person.
Because gaming is fundamentally about escapism. Real life can be difficult, even traumatic, and we escape into fantasy in order to live out our dreams of a better world, a world where we can have meaningful impact on a grand scale. Gaming, unless you’re a licensed therapist, should not be about fixing your damage or the damage of others.
That’s why tools like the Same-Page Tool, the X Card, the Game Charter and other forms of social contracts are so important. They may not be such a big deal among friends who’ve known each other for years, but they are tremendously important when bringing a new person into an established gaming group or when gaming at a table with strangers. The point of them is to help folks discover the missing stair.
If these tools aren’t enough to prevent assholery from entering your game space, you’ll have to deal with an asshole. Here are some tips to keep in mind:
- Divorce your emotions from them. Many assholes get a thrill from seeing the upset they have caused. Locking down your emotions and keeping in mind that this isn’t personal, they would do this to anyone if given the chance, can help keep you in control of your emotions and robs the asshole of their key manipulation tool.
- This is not to say that your emotions are wrong or that you are wrong to have them. It’s always okay to have emotions, and when dealing with an asshole you’re going to have a lot! But it’s not always helpful to your goals to express them in particular ways or given a particular context. In this context, it won’t be helpful to give the asshole their satisfaction. (Special thanks to Trey Causey for helping clarify this point.)
- Draw a Line. This is your boundary, beyond which behavior is unacceptable. You do not have to explain why this is your boundary; everyone has traumas in their past they do not wish to be reminded of, and you do not need to explain yours in order to receive basic respect.
- You may explain why the behavior is unacceptable, if you wish. And you may have to do this more than once, for specific and individual behaviors, because many assholes see the world in terms of disconnected elements and try to “game the system” by following the letter of the rules rather than their spirit. You must decide whether it’s worth your effort to keep correcting them, or whether doing so will turn you into an asshole while you deal with them.
- Sometimes it’s wiser to just say “We don’t do that here.” This is not an explanation, and cannot be rationalized or argued away because it is a statement of fact.
- Be aware of DARVO. This is an acronym for Deny, Attack, Reverse Victim and Offender. This is a common tactic among assholes and abusers alike, first to deny their assholery, then to twist the facts to try and make it seem like they are the victims. This may even lead you to comfort them in the midst of confronting them about their own bad behavior.
- Check in with the other members of your group. This should be done privately, to see how everyone is feeling and to offer comfort and support where necessary. Remember that your gaming group is a group of your friends, and if someone is being an asshole to your group, then they are no friend of yours.
- Remember you’re not a court of law. Assholes will often try to fall back on the idea that you can’t think badly of them, or give them negative consequences for their actions (“punish them”), because you don’t have enough evidence based on some cursory understanding of the law. They will remind you that it is a free country, that they have freedom of speech. This is a fallacy they use to prevent you from cutting yourself off from them.
Whether or not your evidence rises to a level that could convict someone in a court of law, the court of your opinion is yours. You don’t have the power to incarcerate someone, remove their ability to vote, or garnish their wages: that’s why there’s a higher standard for conviction in the courts.
It is a free country. And that means you, too, have freedom. Even if the rest of the gaming group decides they are more interested in their relationship with an asshole than they are in their relationship with you, you still have power over yourself.
You can think critically. You can make your own judgments. And you can extract yourself from the situation if you must. Because it’s a free country, and you have freedom of association, and you do not have to associate with someone you do not want to associate with.
We wish you the best of luck enduring all the assholes in your life, and hope you find the advice in this column helpful.
- 2018: A Forthright Year In Review December 29, 2018
2018 was a good year for Forthright Open Roleplay. We were nominated for an ENnie for Best Free Game, we published Home of Lost Hope, our first adventure, and just recently released some errata for the game that tweak some issues we’ve encountered post-launch.
But it also wasn’t a stellar year. Back in April, we’d announced plans for two more books, Antagonists and Allies I: Demihumanity and Guidebook I: Battlefield of the Mind. Those books were going to be smaller texts, maybe 32-96 pages, at a fairly low price point. But we discovered with Home that the cost of producing such a small book, compared to the amount we’d want to charge for it, would keep us in the red.
It’s just not affordable for us to create small books, because our costs don’t scale down well. But they scale up very well.
Additionally, we discovered that adventures don’t sell well to our core audience. Which makes sense when you think about it, Forthright is all about the idea of ease of creating content, and adventures tend to be more popular for more complex systems where it’s harder to create content. But we had to lose money to figure that out, so…ouch.
I also discovered that, personally, I’m not really engaged by writing “monster manual”-style content. And I was creating sub-par work as a result.
So we’re cancelling Demihumanity and Battlefield of the Mind. Instead, we’re going to be producing the Toolkit.
The Forthright Toolkit is going to contain the following:
- New Boosts
- Rules for creating your own Boosts
- A new Boost Type, Monstrous: appropriate for Antagonists, maybe not so much for Protagonists
- For example, Vampiric Attack: When Grappling a Target, you may drain 1d6 Luck from the Target and heal for the amount drained.
- New Rules Options
- A new Injury system that requires less effort in the moment
- An expanded Vehicle system
- Horror Rules Options
- Inventory-Management Rules Options
- Magic Rules Options
- Psionics Rules Options
- Civilization Rules
- How to operate in a “civilized” gamescape where the Protagonists aren’t able to do just whatever they want
- How to change and transform civilizations over time
- How to form your own coalitions, and more detail on Faction creation
- Burden Rules
- Allows characters to have drawbacks that impact the story
- Allows the manufacture of items / rituals that cost less because they’re more difficult to produce
A lot of what the Forthright Toolkit will contain is material that was developed for the other two books, along with a whole bunch of new material and content that would have gone into monster manual-style books. But rather than presenting monster abilities attached to the monsters, we’re just going to detail the Boosts that need to be applied, so Guides can mix-and-match abilities as appropriate.
Overall we think this will be a better option for you, our fans, because we never want to give you subpar products. Nothing gives me, personally, more pride than seeing a well-loved copy of Forthright in somebody’s hands that’s been flipped through, folded, marked up, and the like. Because that tells me the book is useful.
We’ll have more announcements and previews in the coming months, and are expecting to publish this book around midsummer.
We’ve also been busy with our first Gamescape, Parliament of Worlds – a science-fiction universe focusing on culture clash and exploration. This setting is going to be huge – I’ve already got about 180,000 words in it, and I feel like I’ve just scratched the surface. We’re looking at publishing that in 2020.
Additionally, since Google+ is shutting down, we’ve moved the Google+ Community to a Facebook Group that you can access here.
See you in 2019!
- LESSONS LEARNED: NDAs Aren’t Worth It December 9, 2017
When we first started Room 209 Gaming, we tried to do everything by-the-book by following accountant and attorney advice. One of the things we were advised to establish was a Non-Disclosure Agreement for playtesters. This NDA was intended to protect our intellectual property and reputation, and would also ensure that if we discussed game rules or the like with playtesters, they could not come back later and claim they owned IP that was discussed during a playtest or retrospective. At the time, it made a lot of sense.
After the first session of public playtesting, way back in 2012, we had a playtester attempt to vacate the NDA. Ultimately the NDA stood, but it hit us directly in the wallet. Afterwards, we largely withdrew from public playtesting and went invite-only. Frankly, we couldn’t afford to have that happen again. I was personally so angry and disgusted that Room 209 Gaming almost ended before we’d published a single word.
It was all very frustrating and very dramatic, but it taught us one very important lesson that we maintain to this day: For a tabletop designer, unless you are working on a licensed property, an NDA is not worth the hassle.
Why do I say this? After all, I have an experience with an NDA situation in which Room 209 Gaming came out on top. Why would I advise anyone else to avoid them? Well:
- Copyright law only protects the specific expression of game rules, not the game rules themselves. So, for instance, if I have a mechanic I call the Midgard System that uses the middle of 3d10 to determine the value of a die roll, there is nothing in law that prevents anyone else from using the same mechanic and calling it the Mediocre Triad or something else. Your exact words are copyrightable, your engine isn’t.
- Even if someone takes your mechanics, they haven’t taken your game. First, the game-buying public in general frowns on design-thieving to that degree, and whoever does it will in short order find their reputation ruined. Second, the thing that makes your game unique is your specific expression of the rules. Even if someone else takes your mechanic, they can’t take the fundamental way of looking at it that only you possess.
- It takes work and money to transform any mechanic or idea into a functional, published game. The chances that someone will steal your idea, then also have the work ethic and cash to beat you to the punch in publishing that idea as a game, are virtually nil.
- It takes work and money to enforce an NDA. And that work and money are better spent on your part making your game rather than worrying after what other people are saying and doing. In our case, we could have bought 3-10 more pieces of art with the amount of money we spent on attorney’s fees.
- You’re specifically spending money and effort to get people to not talk about your game. Word-of-mouth is absolutely essential for building hype and community involvement. By trying to protect what’s virtually un-stealable, you’re shooting yourself in the foot by preventing your audience from growing.
Licensed properties are their own special thing. These usually have a brand or franchise manager, and they’re very careful about what gets out and about because they want to ensure the franchise grows and isn’t damaged by incomplete information. In these situations, it’s my understanding the brand owner will cover at least some if not all of the legal costs of the NDA (they are, after all, the ones demanding it). And when they’re handling the NDA, they can do whatever they want with it without expending the designer’s time and effort.
In the end, having the NDA did us no favors. It cost us extra money (four figures, for creating and enforcing it), it damaged goodwill between us and others, and the kicker is: nothing of that initial playtest session’s ruleset made it to the final game. It was entirely pointless.
So please, learn from our expensive lesson. If you’re considering an NDA, if you’re thinking someone might steal your game … let those anxieties go. They can’t steal the fundamental you-ness that will make your game what you imagine it to be, and there are way more cons than pros in creating an NDA. Save your money. Save your hairline. Design your game.
- Metatopia 2017 November 9, 2017
Hello and welcome! It’s been a few weeks since my last non-announcement post because we’ve been terrifically busy. Not only is Forthright Open Roleplay now available (and a silver seller!), but Sarah and I moved to a new house (and corporate office, I suppose) and I headed to New Jersey for the one-of-a-kind Metatopia. I didn’t bring anything of my own, because my goal this time was to give back to the community that made Forthright possible by playtesting as many other games as I could.
It’s taken me a while to sit down and write this because, alas, my flight back to RDU from Newark was cancelled due to clouds. Like, apparently, seriously terrifying clouds that shut down almost all traffic out of Newark this past Sunday night. So I had to cancel my flight and drive home…an 8-hour drive…starting at 8pm. I am not a young man anymore, that was hard.
Anyway, my brain seems to be fully-functioning again, so let’s talk Metatopia!
Metatopia is in a big way a networking convention, and this year I think I met and had wonderful conversations with more people than the previous two times I’d been to Metatopia. I think that’s mostly on me, as my previous visits were with Sarah and Ray and if I’ve got somebody I know I tend not to branch out to meet people I don’t. But I was also previously burdened with a severe case of impostor syndrome, like I didn’t really deserve to be there, and that anything I had to say was pointless and dumb compared to the gaming greats around me. Combined with a compulsion to stay entirely focused on the then-unfinished Forthright, I don’t think I was in a mind space to fully appreciate what Metatopia had to offer in this regard.
This time, I arrived with confidence – we had developed Forthright and gotten it to publication, and people in general liked it. That pushed impostor syndrome right out of my head – I had done something. And I got to hang out with a lot of great people and really enjoy myself as a result – and I thought about listing them all here, but that feels strangely like name-dropping oh look who I got to hang out with. So…next!
I only attended two panels this year, one of which I was on. From Idea to Product: Your First Game was a panel I was on with John Adamus and Laura Simpson. It was a really interesting experience to share advice with a room full of people, and hopefully the mistakes we’ve made will help some of those fine folks avoid making the same ones. And I got to meet Laura Simpson, who developed Companion’s Tale, a game I’d not heard of but am now dying to play!
Generic But Indie was a panel I attended at the urging of Jason Pitre and boy, am I glad I did! This panel had Jason, Brennan Taylor, and Hannah Shaffer talking about the difficulties of creating, marketing and sustaining a generic product with supplements. I’m really glad I went to this panel, because that was very much the original business plan for Room 209 Gaming: create Forthright, then do a bunch of game-setting products. We wanted to avoid the pushback Fantasy Flight experienced by repackaging the same rules over and over for Star Wars.
But, as it turns out, indie games tend not to suffer that pushback because they’re small enough that they offer additional growth opportunities rather than a burden. So that’s led to a shift in how we’ll be developing Gamescape products in the future.
The last time I attended Metatopia (2015), the con had grown to a point where there was friction between developers and players. Designers were expecting more robust feedback than they were getting, while players were expecting a more traditional con experience. I’m happy to say that this year, that did not seem to be the case – Double Exposure printed up packets for all the game tables that explained the roles and responsibilities of the devs and the players, and provided handouts with some great tools for structured feedback. I was pretty impressed.
And I got to play some really interesting games. “Take two stats and add numbers into a single die pool to roll” was a favorite mechanic this year, at least at the tables I gamed at. Some of the highlights (in alphabetical order):
- BLOCKBUSTER! was the last game I got to play, from Duffy Austin, and it was an absolute blast. You take on the roles of egomaniacal actors who are swinging a directionless movie production back and forth to give themselves spotlight. It only needed a couple of tweaks, and I can’t wait to play this game again.
- Harnessed by Ian Jarrard is ostensibly a sci-fi game where players powers stolen from an ancient cosmic evil to fight that same evil when it returns. In the state it was when I played it, it was still a fairly traditional game, with lots of things that it didn’t need because they weren’t what it was about. But Ian was very receptive to feedback, and this is the one game I can say I wrote that a mechanic was too damn fun, so why wasn’t the whole game revolving around that? Fortunately, Ian is going to be reworking it more into “Doctor Strange in Space,” which is kind of what it was, and I’m looking forward to the next iteration of the game.
- ISSUES! The Comic Book Continuity Building Game, from 9th Level Games, was a surprise for me because, while it was kind of a roleplaying game, it was also kind of a storytelling card game. The players got to take on different roles in a comic book company, building comics together based on card prompts. I think this is going to be a great party game when it’s done.
- Pasion de las Pasiones, from Stop, Hack and Roll, was not a playtest I participated in. But damn do I wish I had! This was in a lot of ways the star of the con – everyone I encountered who played it was talking about it, talking about it passionately, and talking about it positively. In it, you play both the characters in a telenovela and the family at home watching the show. It is designed to be raucous and hilarious, and the volume from the playtesting tables certainly attested that it’s doing its job!
- Project Violacea from Wrong Brothers Gaming (I love that name) is an interesting one. It’s marketed as a biopunk dystopic future about underrepresented demographics fighting against the controlling elites. I was fairly nervous about the quality of feedback I could give on this one, but overall the playtest turned out pretty well. It uses an interesting d100 mechanic with Fate-like aspects. This was an alpha test, but the mechanics are sound and I’m looking forward to seeing how they approach the world.
- Retrievers, from Saddle Shaped Games, had a very interesting tension mechanic that built and released tension over the course of a heist-style game. I’m interested to see where James Dagg goes with it.
- Save The Universe by Don Bisdorf is a PbtA-style game where the players are Guardians of the Galaxy-style heroes who are facing off against a galactic menace. This game was very polished and tremendous fun, but what really stood out for me was the rearranged die mechanic. Rather than 2d6+Bonus, higher better, Don has rearranged the difficulty curve, adding more entropy by making the face of the die matter based on your character’s strengths and what you’re attempting to do. Very impressive, I’m looking forward to playing more.
- Space Ice Hauler Heartbreak, from James Malloy, is about two lovers – the Lighthouse who stays behind and the Hauler who heads into space – changed by their long-distance relationship and the ravages of time dilation. While emotion-games aren’t usually a thing I go for, the potential in this game is tremendous. This was another alpha test, and even in this rough state I could see how beautiful it could be when it’s finished. Rob Donoghue as my Lighthouse telling me I need to stay away from caramel apple empanadas because the doctor says so was a highlight of the convention 🙂
Overall, Metatopia 2017 was another successful convention from Double Exposure and a great opportunity to play some great new games in their infancy. I hope I was helpful! And now, if you’ll excuse me, I’ve got to go get a caramel apple empanada XD