19 August 2013

With Great Power…

Friday morning at Games on Demand, I’m sorting dice out for a round of Hollowpoint and my first two players sit down.  They’re a couple, looking fresh and well rested.  There’s a Star Wars T-shirt involved. I give them my great big GM grin and say “Hi! Here for Hollowpoint?” 

“We sure are,” one of them says.

“We’ve never done this before,”  the other one says.

“Never played Hollowpoint?”  Most of my players have never played Hollowpoint, although some of them have read the book; occasionally a whole table or most of a table has read the book and that is what led yesterday to a demand to “Play it straight, like maybe Cold War era?”  and some frantic Wikipedia searching before running an impromptu setting of Berlin: 1988 in which the E Street Band was rescued from the Russians.

( I love my players very much for bearing with me when I did not know off the top of my head that a Sig Sauer was a Swiss gun and entirely inappropriate for the KGB, and thank you to the substitution of a Makarov.  You are what makes this game worth running. )

“We’ve never played an RPG at all,” he says.

“We’re tabletop virgins,” she says.   They’re both wearing smiles on their faces and they look excited and they are sitting at my Hollowpoint table and inside my mind the Imposter Syndrome reel started running a countdown.  Cue the sound of an LP going in reverse. 

Holy shit these folks are sitting at my table and they’ve never played a roleplaying game before and they want to play Hollowpoint.  What are they going to thinkI almost asked them if they were sure they wanted to start here.  Now.  On Friday morning with me.  On this particular game.  Maybe they should grab a GM who was good at explaining things.

And then I took a deep breath and told the Imposter Syndrome reel to Fuck You.  And what I said was “You’re going to need some dice.  About 5-10 six siders.  I’ve got loaners if you need them.  And a pencil.  Which I also have if you need one.”

They needed dice.  I handed them a couple little boxes of spare dice.  He complimented my dice.  I complimented her shirt.  We made small talk – they’re getting married soon and want to put some geekery in it; my sister in law made edible D6’s for my daughter’s birthday cake out of gummi bears which was awesome – and the table filled up around us.

I handed out place cards.  I asked if anyone had played Hollowpoint.  Nobody had.   I introduced the gaming newbies.  I gave the ten-second talk on what roleplaying games are ("When we were kids, we played games with other kids.  I said ‘I shoot you’ and you said ‘No you didn’t, you missed’.  Now we have dice to help us decide who misses).  I said “I will be helpful.  I want you to understand this game.  I will not be gentle.  My job is to attempt to kill you.  Repeatedly.  Please don’t hesitate to ask for help.”

Everyone laughed.   I brought out the X-card as part of the introduction to Hollowpoint: “This is a game about doing bad things.  There will be blood.  There will be moral bankruptcy.  There will be violent.  If something is getting too intense or killing your action movie buzz, or if you just really hate spiders and the game isn’t fun with spiders, this is an X-card.  Tap it or lift it, draw our attention to it.  We’ll take out the spiders and go around the problem, no questions asked.”  No big deal.  No pressure at all.  Fuck you, That Girl GM Syndrome. 

I didn’t play it, but I brought it up again in character creation: “If you ask me ‘Hey Nykki, do we have pineapple grenades?’ I will say ‘I don’t know, do you have pineapple grenades?’  If you ask me ‘Hey Nykki, do we have flying dragons?’ I will X-card you.”  Everyone laughed.

I threw out a handful of settings, including last year’s Film Noir – Magic Kingdom, and that’s what they voted to play.  I had a brief flash of Imposter Syndrome at that as well – here you are, and your first con game ever is a dark humor setup about a bloodbath in Disneyland – and then I remembered how well it had gone last year.  How well it always goes. 

I have my Hollowpoint con game down to a pretty solid 90-minute run: I can add or subtract encounters as need be on the fly, but normally we get in four encounters and some skill checks, as well as some solid roleplaying, and hit the Principal scene at the 30 minute light flashing.  The newbies, as Steve Segedy so aptly predicted during our warmup, were fantastic.  It took them only a few minutes to get into the swing of things, and by the time Tinkerbell ditched them at a mud puddle in the woods (“Youse guys, you get inna throne room, you say ‘Bibbidi Bobbidi Boo’, I’ll be there.  Bam.  I’ll get you the money.”) there was no stopping them.

We ended on time.  Everyone was laughing.  Ink was flowing (what, you expected blood from a Toon?) and the Magic Kingdom was saved.   We wrapped up (“That’s Hollowpoint, everyone, at the IPR booth #1310 in the exhibit hall along with Many Other Awesome Indie Games) and I made sure to tell the newbies to come back and play something else.  Try them all! 

“We’ll be back,” she said. 

“Sure thing,” he said. 

It was a great game.  I hope they came back. I didn’t get your names, anonymous couple who used the color of your markers for your character names and started a trend that went around the whole table, but thank you.  Seriously.   Because you made my GenCon a little more awesome. 

02 August 2013

The X-Card

There's this really awesome idea that I first heard about from an interview with +John Stavropoulos: the X-card.

His explanation is probably the best, so I'll link to it (linky!) and just summarize it here: The X-card is left on the table as a go-to place for anyone in the game to use when content makes them uncomfortable. You just tap or lift the card, the group edits the content to get past or around whatever is problematic, and the game moves forward. John even includes a pretty awesome little intro speech (with choreography!) that you can use to introduce the X-cards into your game.

This year, for GenCon, I am saying a great big "I can't hear you" to my Imposter syndrome and volunteering as a GM for Games on Demand once again. I'm going to be offering two games: +Brad Murray and +C. W. Marshall's spectacular Hollowpoint, which is a game about bad people killing bad people for bad reasons, and Magpie Games' Our Last Best Hope, which is a game about classic disaster movies, focusing on personal sacrifice in the face of overwhelming odds.

These are games (like every other roleplaying game I've ever played) that have the potential to take a hard ninety-degree turn into the darkness. These are games where having an X-card is not only potentially beneficial but where it might be almost a necessity. I have GM'd Hollowpoint with strangers before -- last year at GenCon -- with men and women and one older teenager with his parents. I didn't know about X-cards, but I knew about checking in with the table in advance, asking about language and "grown-up themes" and trying to watch my players. Even then, I encountered situations where I wasn't sure if we were still telling a story or if we were just trying to see who blinked first.

The problem is this: I'm a woman running a hyper-violent roleplaying game at a major gaming convention. (One day, I was a woman in a Buttercup costume running a hyper-violent roleplaying game at a major gaming convention). I'm constantly concerned that if I mess this game up, it's not going to be because I made a mistake: it's going to be because I'm a Girl GM.

Yeah, this is that post about being a woman in a traditionally male-dominated enterprise. It's about feeling like I'm not representing just me -- because, really, nobody is going to remember my name if I screw up one two-hour gaming session -- but they're going to remember that That Girl GM couldn't keep her NPCs straight. They're going to remember that That Girl GM failed to deliver two hours of rollercoaster entertainment. And they're going to remember that That Girl GM threw the X-card.

You see, John suggests that as the GM, you close out with “…and usually I’m the one who ends up using the X card to protect myself from you all!” and follow up by throwing the X-card on yourself early on. If it gets gory, or scary, or whatever, you laugh, and X-card yourself, to show it's no big deal.

I'm totally behind this concept -- as the GM, it's my responsibility to set the bar. When I GM a game I'm going to influence its tone, its pacing, and the direction of the plot -- even in GM-less games like Our Last Best Hope it's my table, and that means something. I want everyone to be comfortable, and have an awesome time, and go away telling stories about all of the amazing things that happened at Nykki B's table.

But when I'm throwing an X-card I'm afraid I'm not going to be Nykki B. I'm going to be Nykki B That Girl GM who couldn't cut it. And that's exactly what I'm supposed to be preventing by setting the example, aren't I? I'm supposed to be the one who makes it no big deal. And John, he's awesome, but he's never going to be That Girl GM, and I don't know if I can explain what it feels like, being aware that what I do isn't just about me.

It's just a con. It's a really big con that sells out the entire downtown hotel block of a major midwestern capital city, but it's just a con. And I'm just a GM and a woman and a gamer and a geek, and I'm not responsible for shouldering the entire con experience of women in gaming.

So yes I am going to bring the X-cards and I'm going to copy down all of John's awesome speech about using them, even the bit about protecting myself from my players, because fuck you imposter syndrome I am a good GM and I owe the best game I can possibly run to my players.

And I run a damn good game of Hollowpoint. Even if sometimes it means I blink first.