Wednesday, May 24, 2017

Just Say No

Content note: brief mentions of rape and sexual assault, violations of consent.

French translation:
Cards from Archipelago, a game written by Mattijs Holter
“Yes, and...”

This is the statement I see encouraged endlessly in game introduction texts, at game events, at game tables. This is what is supposed to be the key of play – the center of improv, the best way to have good dialogue and storytelling in games.

But like… no?

Don’t get me wrong, I did improv for years (surprise!), and Yes, and is a huge part of it, but even when I did improv, it wasn’t always the best tool. Sometimes, it leads to consent issues, others, it waters down the story. I want to talk a little about important things that go against the passionate promotion of “yes, and.”

There are alternatives to Yes, and: Yes, but...; No, but...; and No, and... Here’s the thing: most story gamers are familiar with these already. They’re Powered by the Apocalypse/Apocalypse World move result structures.
10+ - Yes, and 
7-9 - Yes, but 
6- - No, but (or) No, and
Some of this comes up in many stratified result systems in games ("success at cost"), but we don’t really talk about that, I think, and it might not be brought into player-to-player interactions.  They’re pretty simple and can be easily understood and taught. Most are familiar with “yes, and” (I accept your fiction and build on it), so here’s the rest:
  • Yes, but – I accept your fiction, except this piece is more difficult. Basically Archipelago’s “That Might Not Be Quite So Easy!”
  • No, but – That doesn’t work, but you still get something out of it.
  • No, and – That doesn’t work, and this is why/here’s how it’s different.

No, but and No, and function similarly to “Try a Different Way!” in Archipelago. To be honest, Archipelago is one of my favorite RPGs because it is so beautifully developed for building rich stories and really flavorful and intense social interactions because the ritual phrases are gorgeous and work really well.

The option to say no (and add to it, or give good reasons why) can make some cool things happen. It can keep things in tone, or allow players who are being left out of controlling the plot to take charge. I also have some problems in general with Yes, and that impact play in a very important way.

Yes, and can impact consent. Oh, no one is being forced to accept something in a story, but if you start playing with the assumption that an idea can be pitched and has to be accepted or else it will negatively impact the story, it can make people feel like they have to give in or they’ll ruin the game. It feels to me like a bad writer’s room gig. Like, why did Tasha Yar come from a rape gang planet?
Writer: Here’s this cool lady character I made for the show, she’s a security officer. 
Random Creepy Executive: Yeah and she totally has sexual trauma that made her so cool. 
W: Um… I… I guess so? 
RCE: And what if there were rape gangs! That she had to run from! 
W: If that’s what you think would be cool? 
RCE: We’ll have an episode where she’ll have to relive it! It’ll be awesome!
And so on.

How many women in games can say that someone didn’t try to introduce shit into their backstory like this? How many just felt pressured to let it happen even without a Yes, and culture? Now imagine with all of your cool friends saying that you should accept people’s ideas because otherwise stories get boring.

That, and it can lead to the most enthusiastic, outgoing people to controlling the story. Who suggests the most ideas in your group? How much of the time do they dominate it? Now bring in a shy player and say “hey, in this game we play like improv, and when someone suggests something in game, you’re supposed to be like ‘yes, and’ and play on it.” What if they have an idea? If the dominant player pitches them an idea, do you think they’ll feel comfortable being like “hey, that actually doesn’t fit my character, let’s try it a different way.” What if that person has good ideas, but they feel pressured to accept whatever someone throws at them?

Improv is great, by the way. But, improv itself can be harmed by exclusive yes, and culture. Especially in regards to consent! When I was taught improv originally, Yes, and was highly emphasized. I was 15 (I did improv at events until I was 18), and over our practice I struggled with it, but hey, my trainers knew best. So when a 35 year old guy grabbed my arm and started licking my hand and talking about how he was my lover, I was afraid to say no – almost as afraid of the situation. I eventually pulled my hand away and denied it, but that guy – also an improv actor – knew that we were in a culture where I was supposed to say yes. I have felt this way in RPGs, too. Abusers gonna abuse, but they sure as hell can do it better when peer pressure helps it along.

But it’s also important to remember that not all games require improv. We aren’t on a set stage without freedom to ask questions, or step back. One of the reason my safety measures in Script Change suggest talking before you continue is because prioritizing immersion and story over the comfort, safety, and enjoyment of everyone at the table is not only uncool, but also pretty boring. In games where there’s combat and strategy, being able to step back and be like, “hey, is this okay?” is useful. In games without… it’s also useful.

I’ve heard people condemn out-of-character discussion as metagaming and saying that rejecting other people’s ideas stifles play. I don’t agree with that. There are degrees of metagaming that aren’t unreasonable, like pausing to check in with people before moving the story forward, or someone saying “hey, that is a way gorier way for my character to die than I’m okay with, can we rewind and try again?”

 I think controlling the narrative is part of the beauty of RPGs, and part of that is being able to say “no.”

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