The Importance of Compassionate Game Design

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I got a very interesting present for my birthday this year. A very good friend of mine got me Dialect: A Game About Language and How It Dies and upon reading it I came to two conclusions:

  1. This is extremely my thing and I’m genuinely surprised I hadn’t heard about it before.
  2. This game has some utterly fascinating design elements and I need to talk about them.

For context on the first point, I did my higher education in English Language and Culture primarily focusing on literature and, relevant for this article, linguistics. So seeing a tabletop game about exactly that excited me to no end. The crossover between those two interests is one that I never saw coming to be honest but I’m really glad it exists.

As for the second point: I came to that particular conclusion after reading the rules of the game. My background in tabletop RPGs comes from some of the more traditional systems: things like Dungeons & Dragons, Pathfinder, Scion, and Monster of the Week. These are all games in which violence is a fairly normal assumption in the games’ design. There are mechanics for non-violent solutions, but ultimately you’re going to be fighting a big evil villain or some kind of monster to save the world.

dialect1

Personally, I don’t think there’s anything inherently wrong with that. These games are designed with that kind of gameplay in mind and they all have relatively well-developed combat systems to facilitate that. I enjoy playing those sorts of games, because I’m a big fan of the kind of exciting and high-stakes storytelling that tends to go hand in hand with combat-centric games. Dialect caught me off guard because the entire concept behind the game was so new to me that I wasn’t really prepared for exactly how it was designed. See, not only does Dialect not have any combat (that wasn’t the surprising part, for the record), but it takes great care to make sure all of its players are able to engage in the game in a manner which they find safe and comfortable.

I pride myself on trying my best to make my gaming table a safe, fun, and inclusive place to play games. I ask for people’s pronouns, I check to make sure the adventure I have prepared doesn’t cross any boundaries for people and, most importantly of all, I listen to my players and am prepared to immediately drop something if it makes them uncomfortable. I consider all of this pretty basic stuff that everyone should be doing, especially when playing for the first time with strangers or newcomers to the game.

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That is not to say that the aforementioned games don’t have anything like what I’m talking about. Take Dungeons & Dragons as an example: page 34 of the Fifth Edition Dungeon Master’s Guide does make a point of mentioning that you should consider what style of play you want out of your game i.e. are you okay with moral ambiguity, mature themes, or gritty realism? But as far as I’ve been able to find that’s about where it ends. By contrast, Dialect has multiple instances throughout the book, both in its rules explanations and the examples given for those rules, where you are asked to not only make the game safe for everyone, but explicitly ask consent from other players before proceeding with an idea.

You see, Dialect is a game about human interaction and how it affects the development of language. It tells its stories through the way the players communicate with each other. A story may have violent themes but there is no combat. You work together with your fellow players to build a small piece of a bigger world, describe how certain words come to exist in that piece of the world, and then explain why those words disappear. You do this by occasionally drawing cards, but mostly by simply talking about it with the other people at the table. And in order for everyone to enjoy themselves, they need to be on board with what’s going on. This is an intensely collaborative game that can get extremely personal sometimes, so catching people off guard with something that might make them uncomfortable or could even be triggering to them is something you want to avoid at all costs, and I’m so happy Dialect makes such a strong point of repeatedly emphasizing that.

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Monte Cook Games did a lot of legwork for other companies by creating a free handout called Consent In Gaming. It covers a wide variety of topics that could potentially show up in an RPG campaign and asks you to state your comfort level with that topic. I’ve personally never used it but I have applied its principles to my own games by explicitly asking my players if there is anything they don’t want me to bring up or use at all. There are a number of lines I won’t cross because it personally makes me uncomfortable as well, so I’d never include those in my games. For example, I’m never going to make one of my NPCs homophobic or transphobic just to make them less likeable. There’s too much of that in the real world already, and I don’t want to confront my players with that.

I want to see more of this. As someone who runs a lot of tabletop RPGs I feel it’s my responsibility to take care of my players, because if everyone is happy and comfortable then they can better engage with the story and have more fun. I’m not saying I want less mature content or violence in tabletop RPGs. I’m saying that I want there to be more safety measures for players so they aren’t blindsided by something they really don’t like. It’s also just a good habit to get into in general. It might take a bit of work but it will make your games better and your life kinder. We could all use a little kindness right now.

One comment

  1. Dear Hylke,

    Again a very good description of a game I have never heard of. I reaaly like to know more about it.
    Please continue writing Hylke, yoy really are very talented!!!

    Warm regards,

    Jarig

    Liked by 1 person

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