— I am giving this post a content warning for various issues of abuse and such, because I’m about to write stuff I’ve not written or talked much about before. —
I’ve been really enjoying the game overviews that Seth Harris has been writing on his blog (PopCulture OCD) the past few days. My enjoyment comes partly because he’s my friend, partly because he’s just a damn good writer, and partly because I was at the table for most of the games he’s been covering and I like comparing his impressions to mine.
This one about playing Bluebeard’s Bride is especially good. It turns out to be a great launching point for one of the things about the game – and the specific session we played – that I couldn’t quite articulate properly until Seth wrote his post and unlocked some blockages in my noggin.
Here’s a link to the post. I’ll continue my riff after the link: Origins 2016 – Bluebeard’s Bride – via PopCulture OCD by Seth Harris
In the penultimate paragraph of his post, Seth wrote this:
“A good GM would need to be agile in making sure the content strongly affects the players without venturing into territory that would bring up personal traumas.”
My purpose here is not to disagree with that statement but rather to riff off of it a bit.
First, I’ll say that yes, I believe that anyone who wants to competently run Bluebeard’s Bride needs to be pretty darn agile, and should avoid intentionally mashing peoples’ trauma triggers without permission. But in general, the idea of venturing into territory that would bring up personal traumas is something over which the person running the game has only a little control – which is why there is the X Card.
When she ran the game for us, +Sarah Richardson made a very explicit point to encourage the use of the X Card. In fact, instead of just putting one in the center of the table she put one in easy reach of each player, reducing the potential barrier of someone feeling too embarrassed to have to lean in and reach across the table. And she made it very clear that shit was very likely to get real and we NEEDED to use the card if we got more uncomfortable than we thought was safe. Never in any of my games has the intended safety net of the X Card been so clearly and explicitly pointed out.
Later I discussed this with +Marissa Kelly and she explained that both she and Sarah had been burned in previous Bluebeard’s Bride game sessions they’d run by people who chose not to use the X Card – even though it was available – but still got upset after the game and complained of being traumatized.
Anyhow, Sarah’s very clear and explicit groundwork-laying was a very big part of what made me feel like I could finally really just open my brain to the psychic maelstrom of play. And it isn’t so much because I felt like I might need to use the X Card, but because I was able to trust, thanks to Sarah, that anyone else who needed to use it would do so in the event that I did or said something unintentionally shitty.
I’m going to open up about some stuff here in the hopes of pointing out how a proper use of the X Card – and a really clear laying of the groundwork for its purpose, especially in games like this – can free people up to explore in a very “I will not abandon you” kind of social contract way. My decision to write about this comes from the part of Seth’s statement quoted above where he says, “without venturing into territory that would bring up personal traumas”.
The thing is, Bluebeard’s Bride, I think, is built to explore traumas, to engage them, and to maybe even therapeutically work through them as a group, in some cases. And the game we played last week at Games on Demand specifically reached right into some of my own personal traumas. Big Time. Like, I’m not kidding. And I ended up being very okay with that.
Here is a very oversimplified surface exposition of my childhood experience.
1. Abandonment by my mother before I was old enough to remember her.
2. Excessive physical violence in my childhood household, including physical abuse from my father.
3. Childhood sexual abuse from a “trusted” caregiver
4. Emotional abuse that was rife with threats for me to side with this or that family member in their constant war with one another over whatever the hell they wanted to fight about.
5. Other stuff that was scary and traumatic, resulting in a lifetime of me needing therapy to try to cope.
Overall, as a little kid I was in a space where I had no adults I could really trust, no real safe space to hide (except in books and fantasies) and no way out of it. It was a helpless and hopeless situation.
So yeah, I know what it feels like to be live in a highly unstable nightmare-scape where every door you open or every move you make might mean a fist or a belt or a tirade about your failure to have been born a girl like everyone was hoping.
When we played a scene in the game where The Bride gets held down and forcefully impregnated, well, I don’t know what it feels like to be impregnated but I know the rest of that scenario. And when we played a scene where one of the ghosts was a woman who tried to placate Bluebeard by being proper and pretty, that tapped into something I’ve got some personal familiarity with, too.
Before I go on, it’s important to me that I point out I’m not trying to equate my experience with the experience of non-men who endure these kinds of things. Because the difference is, of course, that I got to grow up and get out of the situation, so that even though it’s still a big issue for me internally, my white maleness allows me the privilege of not having to keep experiencing it as a societal imposition upon my selfhood, whereas women and other non-male people continue to have to face it as an ongoing thing. So yes, it’s a big friggin deal to me but it doesn’t give me the right to jump into conversations and throw my pain around and it CERTAINLY IS NOT meant to be taken as me saying that if I can have this shit happen in my childhood and don’t need trigger warnings and all that, then why does anyone else need them? I repeat, I am not saying that and I don’t believe it. Everyone’s journey is their own, and where you set boundaries, I will do my very best to respect and honor them.
That being said, I, personally, actually crave situations where my traumas – and those of my peers to the level of whatever boundaries they choose – can be pushed on and prodded and worked through in a trusting space through play. It feels kind of odd using the word “play” in this context but I’ve learned from good people that that’s what it is. Play is an important way of practicing for life. And although it is generally supposed to be fun, it can also often be challenging and even difficult.
I’m not entirely sure how to wrap this up, except to say tha tBluebeard’s Bride was one of the very momentous and significant experiences of my gaming life thus far, and I owe that to Sarah and Marissa and +Whitney Beltrán for making this incredible exploration into the kind of horror and trauma that this old French tale represents. I also owe it to Sarah for running it so masterfully and so invitingly. And I owe it to my fellow players as well. Finally, I want to thank +Seth Harris for writing his post because it was an essential component that unlocked my ability to talk about it the way I have above.
And unlike Seth, I absolutely would play it again. Maybe I’m a glutton for punishment, I don’t know, but yeah, I would, and I will.
But only with the right people.