On the Boundaries of Game Runners

(Photo by Bret Lehne from Velvet Noir Run 2. This week’s blog is by fellow game runner, designer, and player Halden Ingwersen. Check out her various flash fiction, musings, and tiny games at her blog, and occasional rambles on her twitter. She previously wrote for us about letting go of unnecessary baggage in gaming. Today, she brings another important topic…)

Hot Take: LARP Staff Need Consent Mechanics, too

I can’t remember a time when, in my capacity as a storyteller or a game runner, anyone asked me about my limits.

Let me back up.

The live action gaming world frequently talks about limits. They may not call them the same thing – you may know them as boundaries or triggers or red light topics.

It’s a GOOD thing that we talk about these things! Vital, actually. In games where consent isn’t at the forefront, things can get squicky very quickly (looking at you, “rape-as-a-plot-point” games.) The emergence and growing popularity of consent/negotiation mechanics have made LARP a safer and more inclusive space. I firmly believe that things like the look down, the “Okay Check-in,” and in-play verbal negotiation make LARP better.

But these things seem to, by some unspoken measure, be reserved for players. They’re for the benefit of those who are attending, the ticket holders, the people portraying their own characters and signing up to put their good time in your hands. It seems these things are made for the people who have come to live in the organizer’s world, not those who are making it. 

Here’s My Hot Take:

I want to propose something a little controversial: game runners (including organizers, designers, moderators, staff, casted characters, directors, and anyone else serving in an OOC non-player role) need and deserve safety mechanics, check-ins, and consent negotiations just as much as players.

Because staff members are often in a position of, one, teaching safety mechanics and, two, portraying antagonists and “big bads,” they may be more focused on using those mechanics for the benefit of the players. But game staff have limits, too, and not only do they need to feel comfortable using mechanics to create space for their own boundaries, players need to respect when they do.

As Ericka remarked when I brought up this essay to her, “Staff members’ emotional safety shouldn’t be discounted just because they are in a position of power in a game.”

I’m expecting some pushback here on a few fronts, and I want to address them.

Of Course it’s for the Players

You might feel that obviously these mechanics are mainly for the benefit of players, as players are the ones in the proverbial trenches of the game, there’s more of them, and they’re putting their fun and safety in the runners’ hands. And yes, players are choosing to be here and will outnumber the staff of a given game. But that doesn’t mean that the needs of the team are less important than the needs of the players. I think these mechanics should be used to benefit everyone.

Doesn’t the Staff Have Setting Control?

Some pushback might be because of the assumption that no game runner would introduce content that they aren’t comfortable with into their world. This assumption isn’t unfounded, but it’s not always accurate.

In networked and franchised games, for instance, the people running a given game likely aren’t in control of the game’s overall content. That’s part of why you frequently see individual franchised games leaning into some areas of their fictional universe and away from others.

In games where there’s a staff of multiple storytellers you’re likely to see some folks introducing content that others on the team aren’t as up for, and whatever compromises the team might make end with at least some of that content remaining in the world.

And there’s also the content introduced by the players themselves. Things that were never codified, were never even mentioned in the original source material, can still end up as a big part of a story after being introduced by the participants. It’s very easy to be blindsided by triggering topics that you never knew were present in your own game – take it from someone who’s been there.

Staff Knows What They’re Doing

Another pushback is that the game running team signed up for the job so shouldn’t they be ready to handle anything and everything the players throw at them?

To an extent, this is fair. If you’re getting into a staff position, you can expect to be faced with a lot of responsibility. You can also expect to have to deal with issues you weren’t expecting. (I’ve said more than once that game running is just solving problems you didn’t know could be problems.) But when a trigger is outside of the source material, or is uncommon, or is not seen by the general populace as a trigger, is it still fair to expect game staff to just be prepared for it?

I’m not sure how I would have reacted if someone had said to me, “Hey if you run this game, you will, more than once, be last-minute asked to portray someone’s mother. Sometimes this will be healthy and sometimes it will be abusive, and you won’t know which it is until they’ve already started talking to you as their mom. Your options will be to go through with it and feel gross after or stop the scene and potentially ruin your player’s experience. You’ll have no time to make this decision as this will come up fully in the moment, so you won’t get the chance to negotiate about it in any way.”

I’ll be real: that wasn’t content I’d banked on encountering in this way while running a game about zombies. I’m not comfortable with “mom” plot in a game. It brings up a lot of gross feelings and can put me into a really negative headspace. Given the choice, I prefer to completely avoid parenthood dynamics in LARP. Usually I’m very successful in this, but that’s not a well-known trigger, and the players couldn’t have known to avoid it without knowing that about me.

Where it Gets Messy

Could I have used a thumbs down? In theory – it’s an existing mechanic in that game. But the space was dark. So if I wanted to stop the scene, I needed to put a verbal hard stop to it. And as a game runner, that’s tricky. The power imbalance between a leadership figure and a player makes the rejection of a leadership figure sting all the more. If I’d stopped the scene, those players would have felt terrible.

I chose to go through with it all three times it came up, but it caught me by surprise each time. In each instance, I believe my players had a good time with the scene, and I’m not mad at them for bringing up what is, for most, a totally normal situation. But I still wish I’d been at least warned before it was dropped on me. I wish any of them had initiated one of the check-in mechanics present in the game. I wish there’d been an opportunity to negotiate it.

Sometimes it’s easy to put a clear stop to content that’s widely triggering (such as sexual assault or child death), but with less common triggers it’s not as clear cut. Do you forbid spiders from your game because one team member has a phobia? What about clowns? What if it’s not a phobia, they just really hate them? Do you tell players that their entire story arc needs to go, or do you tell that team member to just try and avoid that content?

Is it the responsibility of a team member who has experienced a trauma to reveal that trauma to the whole player base just in case it comes up? I doubt many people would feel comfortable with that. I certainly didn’t – for that or the other trigger that also came up unexpectedly while I was running this game. (Or for the time I was made part of someone’s kink without my knowledge or consent – yet ANOTHER reason that checking what a staff member is ok with is vital!)

All three of these incidents happened in my game’s black box mechanic scene. The space is very dark, rendering an OK check in or a look down quite useless. These scenes demand prior negotiation, and I made a point to work hard to create a very complete, private, individualized consent negotiation and emotional care space for that reason. I always asked my players if they had any squicks, triggers, or things to avoid for any reason, with the specification that they never had to tell me any details or a reason why.

At the time, I didn’t question that this was a one-way conversation: they give me info, I take it in. Now I believe that was a mistake. Scene negotiation needs to be a conveseraton where both staff and players are able to express their needs. Staff needs the space to present their own boundaries, and players need to listen.

The Upshot

Checking in on folks at games makes them feel seen and appreciated. It reinforces that the human is more important than the character. It’s frustrating that the same courtesy isn’t often extended to the people who are there to work in addition to the people who are there to play.

Acknowledging that the staff of a game is also human, is also fallible, also has a real life with a real history not only helps the game runner, it helps the player base. The weird gutter/pedestal dichotomy of how people treat gamerunners (an important and massive topic many others have written on already) is not helped by maintaining the illusion that they are somehow “above” providing or revoking consent and needing check ins at their own game.

To put this whole thing in a metaphorical TL;DR: I’m not a fan of hugs with people I’m not close to. You might see me hugging a friend and think I’ll be ok with hugging you, too. If I run a game you’ve played, you may feel closer to me than I feel to you, so you don’t see why I wouldn’t love a hug. It’s not that you’re assuming I’m cool with all hugs, you’re not being malicious, it’s that it hasn’t crossed your mind that there might be a boundary. If you rush in to hug me after game, I might hug back because I’ve been put on the spot and don’t want to let you down, but I’m still feeling super uncomfortable. However, if you slow down and ask, “Hey, are you ok with a hug?” I’m given the space to assess my own state and choose if a hug sounds good right now or if I’d rather just fist bump.

So… what am I hoping to gain by writing this? Just getting a statement out there: check in on the folks running your game. Not simply to nag them about eating and sleeping, but to confirm they’re ok with an upcoming scene. To acknowledge that your backstory or black box scene may contain triggering elements. To check that they feel safe with an element you’d like to introduce to the narrative, just as you’d check with a fellow player.

After all, everyone at a Live Action Role Play is a person with needs. That’s kind of the whole “Live Action” bit.

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