Sensitivity in RPGs is a topic I’m well familiar with. I’ve written lots and lots of words for White Wolf, after all, and whether you believe them when they say “Games for Mature Minds” or not, there’s no denying that you wouldn’t run a game of, say, Demon: The Fallen or Vampire: The Requiem for the same group of people that you’d run, say, Mermaid Adventures.
My experience has been that a not-insignificant percentage of gamers have triggers, topics that they don’t want to hear about in a gaming (or, sometimes, any) context because it’s emotionally traumatic. Child abuse and rape are probably the most common ones, and if you look at the numbers, it’s not surprising (I’ll take a moment and say this to my fellow male gamers: Something like 1 in 4 women have been sexually assaulted. If there are four women in the room with you, odds are one of them has been sexually assaulted. Rape jokes aren’t funny. They’re not.). If I think I’m going to be running a game that will include horrific or violent elements, which is often, I usually ask if there are things I need to avoid.
And then there are subjects that aren’t triggers, exactly, but can still cause discomfort and heightened emotional response. Just to differentiate them from triggers (and this distinction is entirely mine; if this sounds like I’m making this up as I go, it’s because I am), let’s call them “buttons.”
Kids are a button for me. Including children in a horror game is uncomfortable to me, because I’m a dad and one of my recurring fears (the only one, really) is something bad happening to my kids. I’m going to guess that any parent reading this gets that. Hollywood knows this – you want to establish someone as the bad guy, you can show him being mean to a kid (or an animal) and boom, we know his role. This means that when kids do get hurt or killed in movies (Mimic and Sleepy Hollow leap to mind), we notice. It’s out of the ordinary.
What about RPGs? I played in a game of My Life with Master a few years back at Origins, and the GM asked about triggers before we started. I said that I didn’t want harm to come to kids, which is usually not something I specify, but see, in that game, you’re the bad guys’ minions. I can play a character who hunts down people who harm kids, and it’s going to change the tone of the game for me, but I can do it and enjoy the game. If I’m the one who’s doing the harm? It removes so much moral ambiguity for me that I can’t really get into it.
So it’s a button for me. I was never abused as a kid, and my experience with child abuse has been secondhand (remember, I work in an elementary school). In RPGs I’ve run, I’ve occasionally included abuse or neglect as a plot point, but I’m pretty clear on where the moral lines are drawn there. I don’t mind pushing buttons, because it’s almost like poking at a bruise. It hurts, but sometimes it’s a good hurt.
Which brings us to curse the darkness. People die in this game. The system is not forgiving to PCs. You can play kids, but you don’t get special consideration (either for or against) for doing so. And that means that if you’re playing a kid, your character might die in play. Does that make for a compelling story, or is that just uncomfortable? I suppose it depends who’s playing…but it’s a button I don’t mind poking, in the safe space of a game.
Here’s a picture from the interior artwork of the book (photograph taken by Steve Karpinecz, digital manipulation by Sarah Petrie). The model is my daughter, Teagan. She’s not really afraid (I don’t believe in method acting, certainly not for kids), she’s just really damned good at conveying emotion (wait’ll you see the other shots with her).
This photo is one 10 in the book, and together they illustrate the example of play. That example goes to some uncomfortable places for both me and my wife (Michelle Lyons-McFarland, who’s also my editor – her two sons are in the book, too), but at the end of the day, it’s a button. I knew when I started working on this game that I wanted it to have the potential to push buttons. And looking at this photo, I think it will.
Watch this space. Kickstarter coming soon.