This is part 2 of 3 in a series about safety tools in TTRPG's and why I chose to make Brie Beau Sheldon's Script Change Tool a core mechanic in Karma in the Dark.
Part 2: Why Karma in the Dark Needed Safety Tools
I was playing a D&D game at a con, and the GM told me I woke up in my inn room to the realization that a stranger, a man, was sneaking across the pitch-black room towards my bed. A beat later, the GM explained that he belonged to the same secret guild as my pre-made character.
In the space of that beat? I was a female player, with a female character, in a group of all men, with the image of being woken up to a dark room with a strange man moving close.
I honestly don't think the GM meant to push the "fear of sexual assault" button. It just didn't occur to him.
In the latest version of Karma in the Dark, I decided to add a "safety tool" to the core rulebook. After a little thought, I decided to put it first in the chapter called "core concepts." Part of me worried about leading with a mechanic that is controversial in some gaming circles, but upon reflection, this mechanic is probably the most foundational and important in the book. I want players to see it that way. If the idea of such a tool turns them off, I prefer that reaction to someone using my game in a way that traumatizes another person.
This topic has a lot of layers. In a series of three posts, I want to talk about the concept of safety tools, why one is required for Karma, and why I chose Brie Sheldon's "script change tool" out of all the possible options.
Part One: Why Safety Tools
Objection 1: Nothing during gaming is "unsafe", so why do you need a safety tool?
This is a common objection. I rarely like to pull my doctor card, but I've been working in trauma for more than a decade and specialize in treating trauma. So you can bet I have Thoughts on this subject.
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:
I realized I needed a mental break from Karma when the very mention of anything cyberpunk made me recoil. It's probably a decent idea to step away for a week or two so I can come back with fresh perspective.
That break has let me return to my slap-together pirate hack Corsairs. It was a pleasant surprise to go back to something I made months ago and have my first reaction be, "Wow, I want to play this," rather than my usual editor-brain critique fest.
I intended to put together a world creation system similar to Karma, but my mind went blank every time I sat to write down some world creation prompts. Next I turned to my old favorite system of random-generator charts, to see if I could hack a Star Without Number like system together for world generation.
It's important to note that:
What is gaming addiction? Is this a psychiatric diagnosis now?
One of the silver linings of being bed-ridden 70-80% of weekends for the past 5 months is being able to play video games guilt free. When you don't have the mental focus to do anything productive, and don't have the physical ability to do much of anything period, working your way through your Steam backlog feels like a solid option.
During this mass-play of games, two games lodged in my designer-mind for similar reasons: The Witness and Vampyr. While these two games are very different from each other, they share a common design flaw: design choices that distract from the game's core elements.
A speaker at GDC (unfortunately I can't remember the specific speech) made the argument that we shouldn't aim to please everyone with our games; that tactic often leads to more bland, middle of the road game design. Instead, we should design in a way that sparks conversation and controversy. If a game mechanic is polarized between "loved it vs. hated it", your design is more interesting than "everyone said it was fine."
This speech crystallized some of my dissatisfaction with certain aspects of team advancement. In v3.1 of Karma, team upgrades often follow a similar pattern: get the ability that increases our action skill, get an ability to make training xp more efficient, etc. Even the upgrades that were less optimization focused felt...dull?
So I decided to rework almost all of team advancement around a few principles:
This post is completely a thinking-by-journaling piece, so even more than normal I'm developing my thoughts as I go.
I've been listening to GDC presentations during my commute the past 2 weeks. Today I listened to the newest release, a 2018 presentation by Zach Gage called "Building Games that Can Be Understood at a Glance." He introduces the idea of a game that is "subway legible", i.e. if you play this game on your phone while taking the subway, the person next to you can glance over, see the game, and get enough visual information to grab their interest and communicate the core mechanics/point of the game. He teaches people how to create these types of games through the idea of the "3 reads".
Using the example of a concert poster, he explains that the first read is what people can see from a distance and immediately grabs their attention (e.g. the band's name in big text); the second read is when that person moves closer to the poster, seeking more details (e.g. the day, time, venue); and the third read is when people look at those much smaller details that provide the information you only need if you're going to act on the poster or especially interested (e.g. the organizer of the concert's name).
His talk is relatively brief and gives some great examples of how this applies to visual design in games, user interfaces, tutorials, advertisement, etc.
As I watched, I started thinking that this applies really well to tabletop rpgs as well.
The core question of Karma in the Dark is archetypical: what are you willing to do for power? How much will you let the pursuit for power corrupt you?
In the fantasy genre, this is presented as a pretty black and white concept. There is the Big Bad who is Evil, and the Good Guys who fight for what is Right no matter the cost. This paradigm assumes a certain black and white morality.
In cyberpunk, it is more common for compromised, imperfect antiheroes to push back against an even more corrupt system . . . or to push back against people who are doing "the right thing" but in horrific ways that undercut its rightness. This is the gray vs. grey trope of the genre. While it doesn't offer the same stark morality as fantasy, there is still this play of morally right, wrong, what falls in between, and what really determines one from the other.
In Karma, I'm not as interested in right and wrong. From a design standpoint, I don't want to enforce my morales on the player, both on principle and on an engagement level; it's hard to be engaged in a moral struggle if you don't genuinely feel invested in the moral issues.
This is part of why I want players to pick their virtues, rebellion, and team ideal. You pick your morales, and then the world holds those as true.
But I'm also more interested in exploring how these moral choices impact a sense of identity.
Two recent events made me think about the ways we react to feedback and how I was trained some 15+ years ago.
My first experience with feedback on creative projects was in an online, international poetry workshop. The workshop required you to read some basic rules about effective writing, required you to maintain a critiques-given to critiques-received ratio, tempered that with explicit guidelines on how to give effective feedback, and had guidelines about how to receive and incorporate critiques effectively.
One of the main rules was encapsulated in a FAQ question:
Q: What if the critique doesn't appreciate the art of my work and it hurt my feelings?
A: Thank them. Always.
(I am paraphrasing).
I learned the art of giving and receiving critique in that environment, and it permanently shaped how I respond to feedback. I am extremely grateful for that fact. It gave me the tools to navigate accepting criticism in all parts of my life.
I'm known for going on tangents. The only consistent thing in my life is that I spend most of it creating things: novels, games, graphics. I love taking apart how art and games work, then reconstructing my own version from the pieces. I'm also enough of a layout perfectionist to adore eraser shields.