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.
I came home and watched Wonder Woman the movie randomly, because it popped up on my Amazon video feed. I'd forgotten I'd even bought it months ago. The Wonder Woman movie was exactly what my soul needed. The entire movie is full of quotable lines about the darkness in our world:
"I've touched the darkness that lives in between the light. Seen the worst of this world, and the best. Seen the terrible things men do to each other in the name of hatred, and the length they'll go for love. Now I know. Only love can save this world. So I stay. I fight, and I give...for the world I know can be."
"What one does when faced with the truth is more difficult than you would think."
"It is not about what we deserve, but about what we believe. I believe in love."
When her family wants her to stay safe on the island: "Who will I be if I stay?"
After looking up some Wonder Woman quotes, I came across this comment by Patty Jenkins who directed Wonder Woman:
"Did you say cheesy? Cheesy is one of the words banned in my world. I'm tired of sincerity being something we have to be afraid of doing. It's been like that for 20 years, that the entertainment and art world has shied away from sincerity, real sincerity, because they feel they have to wink at the audience because that's what the kids like. We have to do the real stories now. The world is in crisis.
"I wanted to tell a story about a hero who believes in love, who is filled with love, who believes in change and the betterment of mankind. I believe in it. It's terrible when it makes so many artists afraid to be sincere and truthful and emotional, and relegates them to the too-cool-for-school department. Art is supposed to bring beauty to the world."
How does this connect to gaming?
Gaming is why I can do my day job. Helping people recover from violence is rewarding, sure, but rewarding isn't enough to keep going in life. You need fun; you need joy; you need to laugh and joke with other people. Before my job, I spent a lot of my time writing novels, but writing novels is solitary. I needed space to be creative socially. Tabletop games and especially tabletop RPGs gave me that.
I know a lot of goodhearted, earnest young people. I know many who want to change the world. You know who has changed my world the most?
Everyone I've played games with, including my mom and brothers.
Everyone who inspired me to return to TTRPGS as an adult, like JP "itmejp" McDaniel, Adam Koebel, Steven "Silent0Siris" Lumpkin, Brooke "Dodger" Thorne, the entire crew of Misscliks, Nadja "Tristarae" Otikor, Margaret Krohn, Kaitlyn "kaitly_n" Richelle, Andrew Gillis and Austin Walker . . . and so many more.
I really, more than anything, started work on Karma in the Dark because I interacted with so many people who loved Shadowrun and wanted to play it, but couldn't find the fun. GMs, players, non TTRPG fans--a wide group of people loved this fictional world, wanted to play in it, and couldn't.
I wanted them to have fun. I wanted them to be able to laugh and plot and propose ridiculous solutions to overcoming impossible odds. So I made a hack of Blades in the Dark and Shadowrun that would let them do that better.
But a thing happens when you become a creator: your mechanics shape the experiences gamers have. I don't know how people can do that without recognizing the political implications.
For me, it all started with the fact Shadowrun uses the term "shaman," originally for Native American inspired magic, and that term isn't actually accurate for Native tribes. Continuing that misrepresentation bothered me. Then it became about the fact Shadowrun flavor text is all about oppression and depending upon other people to survive, but most of the mechanics and reward systems ignore that. So I began to think: how do I make the gameplay experience actually create the world and environment they say exists?
Once I began to realize how much game mechanics can evoke particular experiences and inspire specific roleplay stories, my mind opened and the question became: what experiences do I want to evoke?
In Karma in the Dark, the karma tracker and campaign structure is a large part of that. As players violate their self-chosen ideals, the karma tracker advances, the campaign gets closer to its end point, and the game world gets darker in response. Players can have their PCs act however they want, but at least at the end of each session they have to ask themselves: how do our actions line up with our stated beliefs?
I'm not interested in dictating behavior, but it is interesting to me to have people reflect on their actions.
I think it can be fun and interesting for a group to challenge themselves to a pacifist run by picking the peace ideal. I would love to see groups lean into protesting against the dystopia with the protest ideal. I equally love the idea of players ignoring their ideals, rushing to the end of the campaign, and realizing that their group has no impact on the world. It's not that ignoring your ideals is innately "wrong" in this gamespace, it just means you have perpetuated the establishment.
Beyond all of this remains the driving principles of the game: I want people to have fun. I want people to tell stories with each other. I want people to spend time with friends and build relationships.
To bring it back to my opening, we have saying in working with violence: “What is broken in relationships must be repaired in relationships.”
TTRPGs have expanded my social circle to people I would never meet otherwise; they have led to hundreds of hours of fun with people; they have let me connect to the creativity and humor of others. Anything that builds positive relationships changes our world for the better.
This blog is a mix of game design analysis, commentary on issues affecting indie dev spaces, and some personal reflections.