So I’ve recently started GMing a game with a friend and his daughter on said daughter’s last summer before starting high school, since after this she’ll be way too busy to do this kind of gaming again for a long while. She’s playing a hippo morph with a goofy robot companion named “5T3V3.” It is the best.
But as much as I’m loving running this game now that it’s launched, I don’t think I have ever been more nervous in the planning of a game before. I’m running a weeknight game with seven players, they’re all new to this system and setting and we’ll have regular and unpredictable player outages for a short-run campaign with a hard-set end date.
The odds are definitely not in our favor.
Add to that the likely disconnect between a 13-year-old player and a table that otherwise averages three times her age, and things are looking tenuous at best. Especially high here is the concern over content.
There’s always some consideration of content for the audience at the table, but I’ve been blessed with players with iron stomachs for everything from body horror to social discourse in gaming, so it hasn’t been a huge limiter for me up to this point. My list of don’ts is suspiciously short and largely involves content triggers and other things that I feel should never, ever hit the gaming table at all.
When you add a barely-teenaged player to the mix, that list merits some serious reexamination.
We can talk all day about what kids “should” or “shouldn’t” be exposed to, the point is that I’m especially careful what messages the game I’m putting together is going to send to the still-cooling magma of a teenaged brain, because it simply has a stronger impact neurochemically than it will to my 30-something players. Hiding or completely avoiding troubling concepts isn’t always fair to the player, but that’s not to say that the way certain concepts come into play shouldn’t be handled very delicately.
One serious consideration for me was how to handle violence in the game. I’m embarrassed that I hadn’t put serious thought to hosting a largely non-violent game before – most of mine involve quite a bit of it. Whether it’s more cartoon mallets or practically a Tarantino film, I’ve seldom had players who were content with any game that didn’t involve a healthy dose of violence of some sort.
But when so many game systems lack ‘punch’ (pardon the pun) around anything but their combat systems, how do you run a non-violent game that isn’t also stale and repetitive? System aside, how do you corral long-time players from always taking the violent course of action when they run into conflict? What becomes the go-to conflict resolution method for your group when they’re not in the mood for clever and complex solutions?
Luckily, as usual, I’m not the first person to go down this road. Quinn Murphy’s spectacular New Rules of Fantasy series includes a wonderful reframing of the classic notion that combat is the only action in games by finding new ways to approach and describe conflict that lend toward active and blood-pumping moments without there needing to be fists or bullets involved.
Like Quinn, my players and I (even the youngest one) have been absolutely inundated with violent media, and it seems naive to try and pretend like violence doesn’t exist, but being able to change the shape of it and/or greatly reduce is as the go-to solution is still a huge improvement in terms of demonstrating that there are often other ways to get around a problem.
The current game is Eclipse Phase, meaning space, and also meaning that death isn’t as final as it often is (which in turn means the threat of physical harm isn’t as effective a motivating tool as it is in other settings). That lends to all sorts of new challenges that don’t involve shooting, kicking, or the like. Luckily, the system has robust rules for both hacking and investigation, and the rest falls under a lot of classic chase situations or social combat, so the switch to nonviolent conflicts is already supported by interesting mechanics.
But that only controls my contributions. When it comes to the other players at the table, there’s still plenty of opportunity for things to go a little From Dusk Till Dawn in a hurry. Avoiding that could be as simple as asking the adult players privately not to go from “hello” to “high-explosive” in the usual short interval, but I’d like to reinforce it through the game itself.
Since the group will be working for a clandestine organization, the obvious in-character constraint is that a given mission requires a zero kill count. Under those conditions, most players see it as an extra challenge. There might still be violence, but at least it’s non-lethal, which is a very small step up.
The next step is just reshaping scenarios so that violence is either not an option or so ineffective a path to the solution that players would have to be especially obsessed with their bloodthirstiness to make it their first option.
Making it not an option means missions where the challenges are forces of nature, security systems (traps, computer systems, etc.), time, or social engagements where any violence means the loss of critical information.
Making it the least viable option means littering the landscape with quicker, more interesting, or more subtle means of getting to the same solution, while stacking a host of negatives on the violent option (jail time, alarms sounding, increased security later in the same encounter, or bad guys with a ‘bug out’ solution that could make the whole mission a waste of time if they aren’t quiet about it).
The best method is still talking with the players in this instance, but I also want to reward them with a game that doesn’t leave open gaps where the combat they’re used to should be. And there will almost certainly be combat from time to time, it just won’t be the wanton and often unnecessary parade of it that most of my other games tend toward.
Perhaps it’s past time for that tendency to change.