Of Strings and Trauma Simulators

There’s a trend in nerd culture or fandom to attribute moral failings to the things we don’t like. It’s not enough for something to be not our cup of tea, or bad, it must also be harmful, destructive, problematic, etc. And to be sure, there is a great deal of harmful, destructive, and problematic stuff in fan culture and media. I bring it up only because that is what I don’t, in this case, want to do for some of the games (or types of games) I talk about generally here. I don’t think these games are morally corrosive or even necessarily bad. I’ve enjoyed a few, in specific circumstances. They just, generally, lie firmly on the “not my cup of tea” end of the spectrum, and I’d like to talk about why.

What I’d like to talk about today is “trauma simulator,” games, typically narrative tabletop role-playing games, that have their primary focus on imitating, playing with, and exploring various types of trauma, be it interpersonal, emotional, abusive, etc. The term “trauma simulator” sounds a bit cruel, an immediate value statement on these games, but that’s not my intent. When I’ve said “trauma simulator” before, people have known immediately what I was talking about, so for that, I use it as a useful heuristic.

I should also note that while other games have violent trauma as a core game-play loop or expression (i.e. kill monsters, take their stuff, level up) I am not talking about those games. I’m not sure why I have an easier time with games containing physical violence than I do games that explore emotional or social violence. Part of it might be my own biases and conditioning. Maybe it’s because physical violence, from my privileged position, feels so much more distant and unreal than the emotional and social violence I’ve faced in my own life. All of this is to say that if you feel like I’m giving physical violence and the associated trauma a free pass, you’re right. That’s a valid critique, and I’m not sure I have an answer for it.

I noted earlier that I’ve enjoyed some trauma simulators in my own play experience. I found what made the difference to me was that I was in a home group, among a close knit group of supportive friends who weren’t taking the more traumatic or “heavy” parts of the game as seriously as the mechanics seemed to imply we should. This seems like the most fitting way to experience these games, and I think many were designed for that experience.

However, I’ve also seen these games flourish at conventions, where the social rules are much looser, your other players are likely to be strangers, and it’s impossible to know precisely what you’re getting into. Nowadays, things have improved, as more and more safety tools, designed, I think in some ways to accommodate trauma simulators and make them less traumatic, have I think lowered the gates on these games. I’ve had mixed experiences with safety tools myself, and I’ve seen them used by players, used to a trauma simulator style of play, as an excuse to push on boundaries and limits that otherwise maybe they wouldn’t.

While I think safety tools have a place at every table, they do seem to be a bit tethered in their design to trauma simulators. It’s gotten to be a sort of metric for how traumatic the game is expected to be. One or two safety tools, the game thinks you’re in for a pretty smooth ride. Three or more, you’re going to probably be experiencing some in-character interpersonal emotional violence, my friend.

Bankuei, with his Same Page Tool, emphasized getting all the players on the same page about the game before it even started. In this way, it is almost a proto-safety tool, designed to adjust expectations for the best possible experience. One of my favorite safety tools, Ron Edward’s Lines and Veils, has a similar aim, setting up expectations and drawing lines to help create a game that everyone can have fun playing. But what about when the game your playing and the tool your using are working at opposite ends?

With trauma simulators and safety tools, the problem (if it is a problem, again, not trying to yuk anyone’s yum), seems to be the wish to both have one’s cake and eat it too. Trauma simulators make the promise of intense, emotional, and possibly traumatic play experiences with the core of their design. Safety tools insist that they can defuse that trauma, transform it into a healing experience, or otherwise correct this core issue for people who otherwise, maybe, wouldn’t be interested in these games. It would be obnoxious and silly to suggest that safety tools lure or trick people into playing games they otherwise wouldn’t feel comfortable playing, but I do feel like this central contradiction between games designed to elicit trauma and tools designed to minimize it is rarely acknowledged.

Which brings us to Strings. Strings, for the uninitiated, is a type of mechanic whereby player characters gain mechanical advantages for coercing, cajoling, doing favors for, and otherwise manipulating other characters. This is likely a very uncharitable description, and if you choose to say “this guy doesn’t know what the fuck he’s talking about”, fair. My exposure to this mechanic is mostly in reading about them in game books and a few actual play experiences. But I’ve noticed them cropping up more and more lately.

Narratively, the intent with the Strings mechanic seems to be to tie characters together. To motivate inter-character and narrative conflict in order to drive a narrativist or GM-lite plot forward. Manipulating, wheedling, and cajoling people, or invoking mechanical things to try and force another player’s hand have always been a big squick for me, and to see them show up more and more in games makes my heart sink a bit. Some safety tools try to alleviate this, with options to rewind, cancel, or otherwise forbid the exercise of these mechanics within the context they were designed to operate, and for some this likely works well enough.

But I would like to see a different mechanical direction. One that didn’t focus on interpersonal manipulation, but instead on interpersonal support and care. The games I want to play give bonuses when players help each-other, or rely on one another. Games where characters grow to know and build trust in one another, instead of trying to gain “Strings” they can later pull on to control or punish them. When emotions between characters fray or things turn sour, I want that to be a problem, one that hurts the group, and one that players can, when they’re ready, try to heal and repair.

Again, this isn’t to say “don’t use Strings” in your game, just as it isn’t to say “don’t play narrative games that deal with issues of emotional violence because some jerk on the internet called them ‘trauma simulators’.” But I would encourage my fellow designers to consider the ancestry of this mechanic, what it’s designed to do, and if it really has a place in your game. Or, even better, if there are ways to achieve the goals you want for your game in a better way.

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