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Six hands of varying skin tones, including a prosthetic arm, grasp one another to form a hexagon shape. In the center of the hexagon is the outline of a tabletop gaming die with a heart on it. Illustration: Lianne Hazendonk for Polygon

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Tabletop designers are making players cry, and working to keep them safe

Exploring the benefits and challenges of tackling heavy subjects in TTRPGs

People are falling in love with tabletop games that make them cry. Between Thirsty Sword Lesbians’ Ennie gold win for game of the year, an exceedingly positive fan response to Dungeons & DragonsJourneys Through the Radiant Citadel, and Yazeba’s Bed & Breakfast’s critical acclaim, it’s clear that many are interested in games that ask them to explore all sorts of deeply human processes. With games that span themes from loss, trauma, and grief to queerness, diasporic identity, and community building, the next wave of tabletop games isn’t afraid to delve deep.

I recently talked to renowned tabletop designers Jay Dragon (Wanderhome, Sleepaway), Kazumi Chin (Invincible Sword Princess, Rogue 2E), and Rae Nedjadi (Apocalypse Keys, Our Haunt), about games letting us transmute trauma, why we love crying at the table, and how to build safe play spaces from the ground up.

Many of these ideas are rooted in the format itself, they say. The point of a TTRPG is that it reacts to you, making it a unique avenue of play; video games and classic board games stick to a set of rules, possible choices, and known entities, with little wiggle room, says Dragon: “A video game is this object that exists, and your engagement with it can be one-sided, but with a tabletop game, ideally it’s something that is actively responding to the things that you’re doing.”

Chin adds that we play tabletop games “to open portals into other ways of being, and feeling, and space, with others.” A party’s choice to befriend a monster instead of killing it, for instance, can turn a typical narrative on its head, opening up avenues for atypical or unusual play. This is especially true of systems like those in Powered by the Apocalypse and Belonging Outside Belonging, which encourage players not to plan ahead but to play to find out what happens.

“Especially in recent years,” Nedjadi says, “TTRPGs really embody this idea of all of us trying to take care of each other and make sure that we’re all safe.” That’s not to say that video games can’t promote themes of community and care, but tabletop games give players the agency to decide what kind of game they want to play — and what kinds of portals they want to open together.

But how can games that promise to keep players safe deal with issues of racism, homophobia, and disability? And, by extension, why do players actively choose to engage in games that deal with these themes?

Yazeba’s Bed & Breakfast artwork
Image: Possum Creek Games

As Dragon puts it, games create an environment where things can be transmuted: “In real life, as marginalized people, we are navigating a giant series of interlocking, hellishly monstrous systems. We have these systems in our world; our society’s relationship to love, to family, to grief, are all systematic models. The appeal of play lies partially in our ability to take these things which are present in our lives and transmute them and examine them and hold them in our hands, and in doing so, taking power away from them, and giving us this space, as marginalized people, to toy with them.”

“All human experience is structured by story,” Chin says. “You can’t live a life that is un-storied; you can’t live in a world devoid of stories. So when the stories of the world don’t work for you, when they aren’t permissive of your existence, then you’re drawn into other ways of storytelling. The ‘bad things,’ and us telling stories about the bad things, are us trying to grapple with a storied world to reimagine what the bad in the story means to us.” This goes for designers and writers just as much as for players, Chin says. Play groups can choose to engage with difficult themes in their sessions, but game designers are telling stories and grappling with the “bad things,” too.

All three designers often work with deeply emotional themes: death, trauma, memory loss, coming out, belonging, and postcolonial narratives. But most of the time, Nedjadi says, incorporating those elements into these games is an accident. “I don’t think about those things in advance when I design games. It just comes out naturally — all the postcolonial feelings, all the queerness. Since I’m a marginalized person who knows so much trauma, loss, and grief, those things will come out in the things I make. But because I am also a person who, perhaps by surviving this long, had to hold on to hope, my games also feature hope.”

The incorporation of these themes into tabletop games can also result in players engaging with them in surprising ways, offering alternate ways of understanding and processing — opening portals, once again, into new ways of being and feeling. Nedjadi talks about observing the playtests of Become One, his game about a fractured AI mech whose only memories are the ones that belonged to its pilot. The game unintentionally incorporated elements from Nedjadi’s own experience of memory loss as someone with temporal lobe epilepsy.

“It was really surprising to see people play it out, because when they were talking about their memories becoming corrupted or lost, they were having conversations that I’d had with myself, when I was grappling with the realization that I was losing my memories because of seizures. But they did it so safely. When I was discussing it with myself it was a very scary time, and it took me a really long time to process all of those things. But when I saw my friends do it, they were saying the exact same things, but they were able to talk about it in such a way that there was so much compassion, and from that I learned how to be compassionate with myself, too.”

We all agree that player safety is crucial to the successful exploration of these difficult themes. Tools like the X-Card, the Monte Cook safety checklist, and session zeroes to discuss player boundaries have all gained popularity in home games and actual plays alike, but there is some doubt as to whether the use of safety tools makes a play space inherently safe.

“Safety tools,” Dragon says, sighing, “are kind of like putting a Band-Aid on top of 500 years of marginalization, trauma, colonization, and capitalism.” They’re not enough to guarantee player safety, Dragon continues, especially when a game deals with potentially harmful elements: “The problem is that we act like it’s going to be totally fine when you take a game that was not designed with safety tools in mind, a game that was designed from the ground up to have hurtful mechanic and dangerous themes, a game that is built to play with fire, and then say, ‘It’ll be fine as long as we all fill out a checklist beforehand.’ And that’s… not true.”

The project of building a culture of safety in play requires more effort from all sides, Dragon says: “Safety tools are the first step. We’ve got this construction yard where people are dancing on the roof beams, and we’ve passed OSHA legislation.”

“Passing the legislation isn’t gonna prevent people from dying from falling off of the roof beams. It’s not gonna help people who get peer-pressured into climbing up onto the roof and dancing anyway. We need to actually build a culture of safety that understands that, you know, the OSHA inspectors aren’t killjoys.”

Three characters explore while holding a map and walking up a hill
Wanderhome artwork
Image: Possum Creek Games

The problem, according to Dragon, is that the methodology and approach of “classic” tabletop games doesn’t leave room for safety. They use Dungeons & Dragons as an example, saying that the relationship between people in D&D is based around power and exerting power over others. “If I roll a persuasion check on you, I’m effectively consulting the dice to see if I can mind control you,” says Dragon. “If I use a Charm Person spell on you, I am violating your consent and agency in some pretty big ways. You’ve got a game where that is the philosophical underpinning of the structure, and then you put the X-Card in it, as if that is going to be the thing that keeps people from getting hurt?”

Instead, Nedjadi says, games should be designed with safety in mind from the ground up. “In a lot of my games that deal with very difficult emotional themes where you are messy gay characters, I have to think about how to build quote-unquote ‘safety’ constantly,” he says. “The reality of that question is, How do I build in a sense of narrative power that’s not just in the GM’s hands? How do I build in this ability to communicate and collaborate? We have to come at it from the perspective of building safety into every single aspect of the game.”

“The project for us is not to say Yeah, safety tools, end conversation,” Chin says. “It’s thinking about how we create games where more happens to allow us to be vulnerable and to play in the ways that we want to play.

“I often enter into games with strangers, being unable to fully partake, because I do not know that [they] know how to do safety. The tools are nice and all, but safety isn’t a tool; it’s a practice that emerges through trust. I can’t be vulnerable with you until you’ve demonstrated to me your ability to recognize your own power within the game as a person.

“I don’t know what the culture of this space is, you know? So it’s really about designing games where I can trust that the game can guide me. I want the game that can allow me to be safely vulnerable from the first instance.”

“I think the best path forward is for more marginalized people to create games that tap into that vulnerability,” Nedjadi says. “It’s a long-term thing, but we’re already seeing the effects of it, considering how long indie design has been around for. We’re on our way.”