No Thank You, Evil!/X-Card and Kids
I wish I could jump ahead five years and see how raising a little roleplayer with good safety tools in place will turn out.
In No Thank You, Evil!, the players can always use that phrase in play to stop and rewind something that makes them uncomfortable, scared, or otherwise unhappy. The classically trained gamer in me scoffs: suck it up, kid, you don’t always get what you want. I’m the boss and you’re not getting a participation trophy.
But lately I’ve been thinking long and hard about that classical training: AD&D in 5th grade, run by the “older kids” (middle schoolers or high schoolers, usually). Me, playing a paper-thin magic user with peer players who have no idea how to collaborate, coordinate, maybe you know fucking protect the magic user if it comes to that.
In their defense, the “older kids” who ran my earliest games didn’t have any idea what they were doing either. Either they were running modules and strictly following instructions, or their homebrew campaigns and nudging and shaping events to fit the arc they wanted to play out. But at no point was there really any awareness at all of what we think of now as safety. I mean, it’s all make-believe, right? So your dude died, suck it up, make a new one.
The first time a character of mine died, it was that paper-thin magic user and his…whatever, 10 hit points. I was 11. I don’t even remember the circumstances. But I was 11! I cried and cried. And rather than sympathy or even just a little space, the “older kids” thought it was the height of comedy. Then the peers got the message and joined in.
I think we all understand, especially for kids, that it’s not as simple as accepting that you’ve opted into a game so now you must accept literally anything that’s thrown at you. There are lots of subtle and not-subtle pressures to conform, to go along, to keep showing up even when you don’t really want to but your friends are there and that’s the important thing.
Really the problem was the inevitable evolution of the DM/GM role as absolute authority at the table. Oh, even as a kid I’d heard about college kids playing through scenarios with the Dungeon Master playing more of a referee role, willfully neutral arbiter between the game materials and the players.
My solution of course was to become the DM. Problem solved! Caves full of goblins weren’t my character, whatever, they can die by droves. Hey, I’m not the one killing your party, it’s the trap as written. Look at how willfully neutral I am.
I know this is an utterly cliched story and many folks went through it. I also know many folks did not, had a healthier relationship with the game and the power/authority/credibility dynamic at the table. But their experiences don’t disprove my experiences, so let’s not do that.
Anyway, back to the modern day.
I’ve run NTYE! three times for my daughter, who has just turned 5, and my wife, who has played a few mature games (Sagas of the Icelanders, Firefly, Fall of Magic) but is basically devoid of my “classical education” in early-80s dysfunctional gaming.
I treat the “no thank you, evil!” safeword sequence as absolutely inviolable. Not once do I fight her about it, raise an eyebrow, or even slow down. She knows she’s only to use it if stuff gets intense. And to her credit, she has never abused it just because things were a little intense or just not to her taste.
When the heroes show up at Ghoul School, they discover there’s been forced integration at the school. There are the ghouls and the old scary teachers, but now there are also ghosts at the school also learning their trade. There’s a whole racism undertone to the thing that she’s not sensitive to, but my wife is and we play with it a little.
Well so the ghouls eat ghouly things in this Hogwarts-esque dinner setting: boiling green pots filled with fingertips and barf. But the ghosts can’t eat that stuff. Instead, they get bowls marked “memories” and “sadness” and “dreams”. The bowls look empty.
My wife, in character, is excited to try ghost food. Iris, my daughter, is totally not. She like…vigorously shakes her head and her eyes get huge. But my wife’s character dips into “memories” and comes away with a flashback scene of their own parents, outside their house, pregnant with my daughter’s character. She is fascinated by this scene but no way no how does she want to try it.
“Do we need to stop?” I ask her.
“No, it’s okay, I guess my little sister is braver than I am,” she says, referring to my wife’s character.
So it’s interesting, right? I know as a former X-Card denier/skeptic, my instinct was that players would regularly abuse the rule to get out of uncomfortable or “losing” scenarios. But of course you can always cook up another scenario, right? It’s not a get-out-of-jail-free effect, it’s just a reframe. You can still introduce discomfort. And in my kid’s game, I totally do.
I can’t wait to see what becomes of her when she hasn’t been fed a steady diet of viking hats and weird power/authority stuff.
And I wonder how much different I’d have turned out if I hadn’t had to adapt to the dysfunctional power stuff that kids inflict on each other. Some of me suspects I’d be less good at the hobby now. Some of me suspects those sorts of thoughts are just there so I don’t think too much about the worst parts of a hobby that’s taken up my entire conscious life.