Crying eye with fantasy landscape superimposed

With graceful fins and cruel sharp teeth, I have waited for years for this moment. Finally my revenge is nigh—the woman who sold me to a circus, once my love, is once more within reach of my ill tended tank. I have just cut a deal, sacrificing myself, to ruin her as she ruined me. As she succumbs before me, she asks me why I am doing this. She was here to save me, to bring me back; she couldn’t protect me but the circus could, just for a while, until she could get me back. And at the game table, I, a normal human, stare at the GM of this game (the masterful Kate Bullock), with tears streaming down my face at the cruelty in this world of pretend. After the game, I am so impressed with her for the intensity of the experience. I need a hug, and I can’t stop talking about the game, it was just so darn good. I can’t wait to play like that again.

I remember a time not so very long ago when I would have been horrified by this experience at the table. Expressing that much vulnerability was a scary and uncomfortable experience, and the emotional work involved in quashing it was intense. For that version of my gaming self, this game would have been a disaster, and yet it’s now the experience I can’t forget in the best possible way. So what makes these experiences possible for me?

  • Safety – tears do not necessarily mean stop for me, but some triggers still do.
  • Consent/Buy In – everyone at the table needs to be playing for the same experience.
  • Trust – I need to know everyone will abide by our agreements.

The Safety Dance

There are many tools for safety in gaming, and I know I still haven’t played with all of them. I play with an X card these days even in games where I am not expecting high levels of emotion, simply because it makes me, the GM, feel safer. I have messed up before, and I have messed up even with the card on the table, but it’s at least a basic net. Lines and veils are the next line of defense, and if you know your triggers and want to avoid them in play, then setting them up before the game is key. We all sometimes play in to unexpected situations, though, discovering things that we didn’t know were going to cause feelings in a bad way, and this is where we come to two other schools of thought that play in to emotional gaming: No One Gets Hurt and I Will Not Abandon You.

The theory behind No One Gets Hurt is that if you start dancing around someone’s triggery spaces, they tell you, and you back off and move on, draw the veil, fast forward, whatever is necessary to get out of that space. The theory behind I Will Not Abandon You is that you agree as a table to push at triggers, maybe intentionally, to experience those emotions, but that no matter what happens at the table, you stay for each other and remain emotionally available.

 Being open to the empathetic experience of a character, no matter what the circumstances create might mean telling my fiancé I’m a vampire, or telling my daughter to report her boyfriend to the police, or realizing I’ve sacrificed my immortality for revenge on a woman who did truly love me after all. 
I have found that my real comfort zone is almost the merging of these two. There are feelings and discussions that honestly belong with my therapist and not at the table, and those triggers for me function as hard limits. I am simultaneously willing to invest very heavily in these games, and be very vulnerable in them; I am playing to push at boundaries and have intense emotions. There is a difference to me between having a strong emotional experience and the terrible panic fear of a real trigger. Being open to the empathetic experience of a character, no matter what the circumstances create might mean telling my fiancé I’m a vampire, or telling my daughter to report her boyfriend to the police, or realizing I’ve sacrificed my immortality for revenge on a woman who did truly love me after all. They are strong feelings, and they’re not feelings that feel good in the moment; anger, fear, social anxiety, regret, guilt, and hate are not things I enjoy experiencing in my day to day life. Experiencing them at the table is intense, and offers the release of feeling them and then allowing them to go again, washed away by the end of the game. These limits, not wanting to feel emotions I usually consider “bad,” are much more soft limits, if you will. It’s these soft limits that I find catharsis in pushing.

Yes Means Yes

Okay, consent is important for pretty much everything, and the gaming table is no different. Consent and buy-in in a game work hand in hand for me—do we all consent to have this experience together? Having consented, are we all buying-in to the same scenario, and type of safety? If you’re playing No One Gets Hurt and I’m playing I will Not Abandon You, someone is going to get hurt. Being on the same page and buying-in to the same experience is key to making these games work for everyone.

Trust me, I’m a Gamer

Now I’m sitting at the table. I know how we’re handling the safety in the game; I know we’re all on the same page. I still have to trust the folks at this table, whether these are my friends or people I’m just happening on at a convention, that they will abide by our group decisions about safety and play, and that they will respect me and my emotional output in the game.

I don’t want to have this experience every time I game, nor do I want it at every table I game with. In the same way that many people enjoy haunted houses, scary movies, or intense TV dramas, I like to take my pretend with a side of catharsis that I can revel in when I, personally, feel safe. It’s akin to the ancient Greeks, watching tragedies to indulge their emotions in the same way they indulged food and drink. I am playing to indulge my emotions, safely. Sometimes it’s all about the tragedy . . . and sometimes, I just go back to wanting a comedy.

Do you play high emotional intensity games? Why or why not? What’s your favorite?