Mar 18

RPG Blog Carnival, Part 1: Accessibility & Social Dynamics


RPGBlogCarnivalLogoSmallThe travelling RPG Blog Carnival moves ever onwards. The March event is hosted by Jacob at Accessible Games.


Jacob’s chosen topic is accessibility in games, an important subject for the continued growth of our hobby. This is a very broad topic, as noted in Jacob’s description of the theme on his blog:


It may mean different things to different people: equal access for people with disabilities, inclusiveness in game design and representation of people from diverse backgrounds, family-friendly gaming with a welcoming vibe, etc.


To learn more see Jacob’s blog.


My Problem with Accessibility

I have a problem with Accessibility as a topic.


Quite simply, I do not have enough experience with it to write an essay. This is an important subject, and I very much want to support Jacob’s cause by contributing to the March Blog Carnival. Yet, I have no experience with the subject. As far as I am aware, I have never played a game with people who had disabilities. No Player has asked me to accommodate a problem they had accessing the game.


My own poor eyesight can be dealt with using glasses, and does not feel serious enough to merit an entire essay. I am now at the age where I need different glasses for reading and distance. Thus, either my Players or my notes are always blurred. Annoying, but not really in the same league as the issues Jacob raises.


Thus, in order to contribute to the March Carnival, I shall wrench the topic around to the problems new Players may face when joining our hobby. What issues prevent new Players from easily accessing the fun and excitement we find in gaming? I accept that this stance is not pushing the envelope as much as some essays in this month’s Carnival, but it does fall within the remit of family-friendly and welcoming games as outlined by Jacob.


Barriers to Entry

So what are the barriers to entry within our hobby? Let us assume that the novice Player has found herself a group she wants to join, and focus instead on the issues at the table. I can see four problems which could prevent the novice from turning into a regular Player:

  • Group Dynamics
  • Playing Safely
  • Searching for the Fun
  • Complex Rules


Writing this essay, I realised another problem with accessibility: I have a lot to say about my version of the topic. Therefore, I have split this article into two parts. In today’s essay, I explore solutions for the social aspects of gaming. Next week, I will turn my attention to the game itself.



Group Dynamics

Before our novice rolls any dice in anger, she has to feel comfortable with the group as a whole. Humans are naturally social creatures, so this initial problem should be easy to fix. However, the social dysfunction of gamers is a trope of the hobby.


Shyness, social awkwardness, hostility towards “outsiders”, self-centred gaming and all manner of unpleasant attitudes can manifest themselves at the table. These behaviours can equally be found in society at large, but our focus is on the gaming group. So how can we solve this problem?


Solution: The Social Contract

Firstly, there is no requirement for gaming friends to be best friends. It is possible to enjoy a great game without needing to hang out with these people every night of the week. Some people do, and that is fantastic, but this is not the only way to form a gaming group. All that is needed is a tolerant attitude, a safe space for gaming and a basic code of conduct.


The conventional way to achieve this is through a social contract. This is a set of rules agreed upon by all the Players, where gaming and social expectations are laid out in advance. Ideally, you want to have this discussion before the game has begun, as part of the pre-campaign process.


This could be part of character generation, or whatever brainstorming your group does before the roleplaying starts. If you play with a regular group, then your social contract need not be debated before every game, but it is probably worth revisiting it on a regular basis.


Discuss with your Players what behaviours are expected from them, the tone of the game you are playing and any other social conventions you wish to include within the group.


Additional topics for discussion could include:

  • Use of electronic devices
  • Procedures for absent Players
  • House Rules
  • Food and drink at the table


I have written before about my experiences with a social contract.


Playing Safely

A good social contract establishes the ground rules by which a group meets and interacts. It sets out the expectations of Player behaviour towards each other, yet often skips over actual game content. This is another area where events at the table can prove upsetting, and can create the sense of discomfort which may drive away the novice.


Even if the social contract references the intended tone of the game, there can still be unexpected surprises at the table. The conflict arises here due to a disparity of expectation. A GM may explain he is running a dark, horror game. Some Players could interpret this as being another game of bleak, Lovectraftian horror. Others might expect a gothic horror game, featuring angst-ridden vampires and storm-wracked cities. Yet, the GM runs a gore-filled game of torture and body-horror, in the mistaken belief that all the Players have signed on to this game.


Another way for this problem to arise, is where a game suddenly zags to a difficult topic. So many games try to cover a broad range of topics, characters can have all manner of motivations and the narrative my collect up events from everyone at the table. A GM can adhere strictly to the agreed tone for a game, and still something might crop up which offends or disturbs one, or more, of the Players. This event could parallel extreme real-world views, or be a recognised trigger issue.


Solution: Red Card

The best way to deal with an in-game event is with a mechanic immediately available to all Players. One popular option is to provide each Player with a distinctive Red Card, or similar tool. Should a Player find an encounter disturbing, for whatever reason, then they simply play the Red Card. Immediately, the GM moves the narrative forward to the next, unrelated encounter, and the game carries on.


The simplicity of the card lies in the ease of playing it, the speed of the response and the principle that it will not be questioned by the other Players. The GM is advised to discuss the matter with the Player later, with the aim of understanding what topic to avoid in the future. This might also be a good time to revisit the group’s social contract to align everyone’s expectations moving forward.


Of course, the hope is you never need to use the Red Card at the table. The mere presence of the cards serves to remind Players that ours is a group hobby, and everyone at the table needs to feel comfortable playing the game. Furthermore, it emphasizes to the novice that everyone has a degree of editorial control over the content of the game. By giving Players the ability to veto content, they should feel a lot more comfortable among a group of strangers.


Acess & Social QuoteConclusion

Create a welcoming gaming group with a robust social contract and a safety valve within the game to allow Players to veto disturbing content. These two techniques will encourage everyone to feel comfortable at your table, as well as align expectations of behaviour before disputes can arise.


How do you manage your Players’ expectations? Can you think of another way to ease a novice into a gaming group? How have novice Players settled into your game? Share your thoughts with your fellow GMs in the comments below.



Happy Gaming



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  1. We (in Toronto) have had some experience with accessibility and inclusivity issues. WRT accessibility – we have gamers with poor eyesight, and I have seen fellow gamers gladly assist with reading dice, reading spell descriptions etc. At one table, the DM was equipped with not one – but two fresnell magnifying lenses for those of us who have difficulty with fine print.

    Local game conventions use the X card system (similar to the red card system mentioned).

    Overall, I find a great degree of tolerance for diversity in mental, gender and physical “different” folk. That said, there is still a “bro”-ish feel to the chatter at a lot of game tables, where casual sexism is artlessly flung about, the occasional “so gay” comment is made, or players talk a little too long and loud about “wenching” for my comfort at a diverse table. Frankly, for me this is not about “political correctness”. This is about respect. However, I can also say that the person running a game has a lot of control about how conversation flows. I have many times inserted a little comment that has ended a conversation flow that I deem inappropriate, leaving the perpetrator with no doubt about my opinion – but also leaving them able to continue the game with their manners under better control.

    As our hobby has become more mainstream, we must be more vigilant about exclusionary practices, and cliquey language. I personally look forward to a time when 50% of our game tables are women, and the tables resemble the world outside in diversity of all types.

      • Phil on March 22, 2016 at 9:15 am
      • Reply

      Hi Dominic,

      “Bro”-ish chatter is a great way to describe the way some Players talk.I have heard far too much of this in my time, too.

      Well done for being able to bring conversation at the table back to a more comfortable place. I suspect I lack the tact, or mental agility, to do this politely enough.

      Thanks for shaing

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