Note: this post originally appeared on my personal blog; it's been reposted here as I've decided to keep all of my articles in one place
Maslow’s hierarchy of needs is a fairy tale of privilege.
If it was just an ancient psychological theory, I wouldn’t care, but thinking that agrees with it continues to shape people’s judgments about motivation and acceptability.
Let’s break it down.
"Social media is a toxic cesspool of hate and has no value"
"We all like and play games...a social hobby. Why does this keep happening?"
I only started really participating in online TTRPG communities in the past eight months. In that short time I've lost track of how many events led to escalating arguments that always seemed to end in hurt feelings, factionalization, and abuse of some sort (name-calling, dog piling, cursing out, all the way to targeted harassment and doxing). Listening to people who have been around much longer, this seems to be "normal."
Frankly, I find that horrific and about two months ago decided I need to rethink participating in any TTRPG community or designing games for the TTRPG community.
But cut-off isn't usually my first tactic, so I decided to step back a little and take time to analyze what I saw, in myself and in these larger community dynamics.
The dynamics are complicated. I quit writing my first draft of this blog at 20 pages because my response was spanning too many words and too many topics and still leaving out important factors.
So now, instead, I want to focus down on one specific dynamic I haven't seen discussed much: the commodification of community and the way that shapes interaction.
This post is the third in a series acknowledging key influences on the development of Karma in the Dark. As part of my design post mortem, I want to highlight and acknowledge different (often unknown) contributions to the process.
Adam Koebel uploaded the first episode of Hack Attack to Youtube on Mar 27, 2015. I started my first game hack in June 2015. Almost exactly a year later, I began work on Karma in the Dark. Those events were all closely tied together.
What Was Hack Attack?
Back in 2015, Steven Lumpkin (a professional video game designer) was running a hexcrawl game called The West Marches with a rotating cast, using Dungeons & Dragons 5th edition. Adam Koebel, co-creator of Dungeon World, played several times on the West Marches show. The combination of a non-traditional D&D set-up, a game designer GM, and a game designer player, resulted in conversations about the mismatch between the rules as written and how Steven wanted the game to play.
So Steven and Adam started streaming a show about how to hack a tabletop RPG, using Steven's West Marches campaign as their first example. They streamed a new episode whenever one of them had a relevant game design problem or question. It ran for a total of 7 episodes from March 2015 to April 2016. In the course of the show, they discussed gameplay loops, how to incentivize player behavior, the reward cycle, different approaches to hacking game mechanics, consequences of changing one system within an existing game, introducing new systems to an existing game, and non-traditional roleplay situations like running two groups within the same campaign world.
This post is the second in a series acknowledging key influences on the development of Karma in the Dark. As part of my design post mortem, I want to highlight and acknowledge different (often unknown) contributions to the process.
I have a long list of people to highlight in my gratitude posts. My mom belonged to the first Army ROTC class that allowed women, so on this Veteran's Day weekend, it seems appropriate to highlight her. Karma in the Dark would not exist without my mom's support and model.
I am incredibly grateful for my mom. When I was young, she introduced the game "Hero Quest" to our family and took on the Dungeon Master role as Zargon. We bonded as a family by exploring the various campaigns, fighting our way through hordes of monsters. My mom made sure to buy the extra female figures, so I could play a bad-ass female barbarian killing skeletons. I think that was one of my earliest, if not very first, experiences with a RPG game. Her support continued throughout my childhood, as my brothers and I tried out TTRPGs like Shadowrun, Middle Earth, and Star Wars. She encouraged my brothers and I to spend time roleplaying. Even at our nerdiest (writing a newsletter about the escapades of our stuffed animals in our Star Trek equivalent "Anifleet"), she listened, read, and encouraged. She doesn't play TTRPGS, but she read multiple versions of Karma in the Dark, often within in days of being sent the file; she was the first person to offer editing feedback on the last version.
She continues to support gaming as a family experience. During holidays, we split our time between cooking food and playing games. Last Christmas when she came to visit, I wanted to try out the This War of Mine board game. Despite its complexity and dark theme, she agreed. We ended up playing almost every day of her visit, including most of Christmas Day. There were presents, and food, and then hours of us desperately trying to keep our shelter people alive throughout the war. And yes, we had to read the stories and make decisions based on roleplay...because that's the kind of players we are. The mechanics of that game ended up crystallizing several design struggles within my current draft of Karma, and provided the final pieces I needed to finish version 3.
This post is the first in a series acknowledging key influences on the development of Karma in the Dark. As part of my design post mortem, I want to highlight and acknowledge different (often unknown) contributions to the process.
It was the fall of 2015 and I was exchanging emails with Brie Sheldon about Native American representation in the Shadowrun: Anarchy game. They had sent me interview questions for a feature on their blog. I responded to some questions and sent them back. The last question or two, I had sitting in my Wordpad window, open, for weeks.
I never finished the answer and I never replied to that last email.
I'm writing this design post mortem after being up all night writing and editing, so it might not be the most coherent thing ever. I am sure it is full of typos.
But I feel like I need to process the labor of the past nine months before I sleep. Or more accurately, walk my dog, feed the animals, and then sleep.
I Feel Proud
That is a weird statement to make about a creative project of mine. I know there's a 100% chance in the future I will see all of the flaws and unfinished work. But right now I feel like this version of the game represents a huge step forward. I feel like the biggest improvements fall into 4 categories:
This is going to be a different type of blog. This is why I play and want to design games.
I work as a trauma therapist and specialize in working with violence. I have worked with victims of violent crimes and perpetrators of violent crimes; survivors of war crimes and perpetrators of war crimes; refugees from war and soldiers from war. My research was on a condition known as perpetration induced traumatic stress, the little discussed reality that perpetrating violence is one of the biggest risk factors for developing PTSD. Even when people believe their cause is just, they remain at high risk for severe symptoms after harming others. Those who deny or avoid those symptoms often have the dysfunction come out in other (destructive) ways.
I have been doing this work for so much of my life I start to forget that what I've seen, listened to, and come to know about humanity is not normal, even for other psychologists. Yesterday I spent the first hour at work debriefing a difficult case with a professional who has specialized in extreme trauma for over 30 years. We started discussing the worst cases we've seen in our careers.
Needless to say, it put me on tilt for the rest of the day. There are some things I don't want to remember, and some things no matter how much time and processing and self-care I do, will always be dark and heavy. There are some things you can't make meaning of or process through, you just learn to carry better.
This blog is a mix of game design analysis, commentary on issues affecting indie dev spaces, and some personal reflections.