Metatopia 2014 Recap: Part 2, Saturday Panels

Inspired by the insanely high quality of the panels on Friday, I tried to take better notes at panels on Saturday. I also went out of my way to attend panels that were about heavier, more challenging topics than Friday’s panels.

Gaming with Younger Players

Presented by Clark Valentine, Amanda Valentine, Brennan Taylor, Cam Banks, and Lisa Bowman-Steenson.

Gaming with young players doesn’t really affect me right now but I just turned thirty this year. I’m getting to the age when my friends are having children so this is something that could very well be very common in the next few years for me.

The overwhelming sentiment at the table was that children or babies at the table should not stop the adults from playing or having fun. Clark, Amanda, Brennan, and Cam all shared stories of having babies at the table during RPGs.

Lisa came to the panel primarily as a board game designer so her perspective was focused on that. One of her big things was simplifying games for teaching purposes and then layering in the more complex rules for later games.

In RPGs expect that the children will be completely gonzo. They don’t have the same inhibitions and filters that older players do so they will be coming from left field once in a while. That said, don’t let them make disruptive choices or to hog the spotlight. Games are group activities and can be used to teach social graces to kids.

One thing Amanda is trying to work on is making conventions more kid-friendly. DexCon (I think?) has added a kid-friendly room where grownups are playing games but everyone in the room is cool with kids being around and the interruptions that will inevitably happen in that situation. JiffyCon has a similar room with a big pile of Lego for the kids.

Since Metatopia is a convention for designers, Lisa mentioned a few times that hacking games to be simpler is sometimes necessary. Don’t be afraid to do it!

Lastly, Clark pointed out that there’s a difference between competitive games and games that reward you for screwing over your neighbor. Pick the game appropriate to your audience. Cooperative games tend to be big hits with younger players so keep Forbidden Island and Sentinels of the Multiverse in mind when thinking of game night.

Gaming As Other: Moving Past Tokenism

Presented by Mark Diaz Truman, Julia Ellingboe, Misha Bushyager, and Ajit George. Moderated by John Stavropoulos.

John opened up the panel by having each of the attendees say why they chose to attend this panel. Most responses were along the lines of learning how to be better at inclusion. Mine specifically was, “I’m trying to overcome the biases of growing up in an almost entirely white community.” Growing up in northern Wisconsin, my class had two guys of Korean descent (one adopted by a white family, the other’s mother had been adopted by a white family; culturally both were Norwegian-American) and one guy of Italian descent with a dark Mediterranean complexion. Everyone else was Caucasian white, with a high prevalence of Norwegian, Swedish, and German ancestry. These were the same 140 kids I started kindergarten with thirteen years before graduation. My hometown looked an awful lot like Mayberry. My bias from that upbringing (that the default person is white) still comes up a lot even though I’ve spent the last twelve years in Chicago. I pay attention to discussions of race, sexuality, gender identity, and other social issues but I don’t often comment or contribute. Many times I’m afraid I’ll say something stupid or offensive. This fear is so deeply entrenched that I go out of my way to not label myself as an ally to oppressed groups because I don’t feel it’s something I can self-apply – only the groups who need allies get to decide who is and is not an ally. I do my best to be an ally because I do believe in equality for everyone.

So that’s me and why I wanted to attend. I’m very glad I did.

The opening remarks from the panelists were amusing. Mark observed that Quinn Murphy was in the audience and quipped, “Why is he out there? He should be up here. We’ll get him next year.”Apparently that’s how they got Julia on the panel this year.

Ajit started the panel proper with the disclaimer that this is not Gaming and Race 101. The information for that can be found online for those who are interested. This panel specifically addresses tokenism, which was roughly defined as highlighting a minority in-authentically by treating the inclusion as part of a checklist. Tokenism doesn’t bring diversity because it is not an honest inclusion.

Recognizing one’s bias is the first step toward avoiding tokenism but it is far from the last or easiest step. Giving women, people of color, and LGBTQ people equal consideration and story presence in media is the next step. This includes both the representation in the product but also representation as creators.

Ajit points out that minority representation in media has changed the self-perception of minority group members to the point that they will self-select out of communities, discussions, and opportunities based on that perception. It’s a particularly insidious form of impostor syndrome. Later in the panel Ajit pointed out that specifically inviting the people you wish to work with is the only way to get good representation. A good example of this was Evil Hat’s open call for writers earlier this year. The pitch from Fred and Rob specifically said they were looking for all kinds of voices but they didn’t get many women or people of color pitching. When they spoke to Ajit about it he explained this sort of self-selecting bias and Evil Hat took it to heart. Shortly thereafter they worked out a deal with Elsa S. Henry, a game designer with visual and hearing impairment, to write a book on disability in games and specifically Fate Core.

Another example is when Mark was working on the stretch goals for the Urban Shadows Kickstarter. He reached out to Ajit and Whitney Beltran specifically to get them to do the guides on Bangalore and Los Angeles, respectively. He wanted them to do the guides because they would provide authentic perspectives on those cities. When Whitney hemmed and hawed over it, Mark said, “Look, I can get Ken Hite to do this and he’ll do some research and write something good but he’s not an Angelino. I’d rather have him do Chicago because he loves Chicago and he’s from there. You’re from LA, you know this town, and you love it. You’ll do the best LA guide.”

Reaching out to the creators you want to work with gets the ball rolling but it’s not enough. Women and minority groups face challenges that other groups, specifically white males, typically do not have to deal with. A big one is child care. Women are often the primary caregiver and have less time than men to devote to side projects. Assisting with those specific challenges is part of helping improve representation and diversity in media.

This all ties into mentorship and providing resources that these groups may not have access to. Good mentoring empowers people to be more effective and gain authority within the field.

As the panel drew to a close, Julia wanted to point out that moving beyond tokenism has some real financial benefits. More diverse art has a larger or even new audience, which translates into more money.

The biggest takeaway I have from this panel is that I need to be deliberate in my thinking about equality. When I speak up, which should be more often, I need to make sure I’m taking my biases into account and confronting them. More than that, I need to make sure my actions reflect the ideals of diversity and inclusion. I have a long way to go but I’m happy with that trajectory.

This was definitely the most informative panel I attended. Very worthwhile.

Hacking Apocalypse World

Presented by Mark Richardson, Vincent Baker, Mark Diaz Truman, Marissa Kelly, and Misha Bushyager.

This was a fun panel that I only watched half of because I was getting painfully hungry. The panelists discussed the ins and outs of hacking Apocalypse World and Vincent shared some anecdotes about the development of the game. Interestingly, it was kind of his way of hacking D&D because it came out of playing the Moldvay red box with his sons and wanting to replicate that game play experience. Also interesting to note is that Vincent developed the game fairly publicly so there were people who were hacking Apocalypse World before he was even done with it.

Discussing the way the game can be hacked, I was very happy to see that the GM’s side of the game was covered as much as the player side of the game with GM Agenda, moves, and Principles.

Information Organization in RPGs

Presented by Krista White, Brennan Taylor, Matt Wilson, and Meredith Wrightman. (I may have Meredith’s last name incorrect, my handwriting is a bit cramped there. If so, I apologize and will correct it if someone can point me in the right direction.)

Krista has some pretty strong feelings about information organization in RPGs that come from her day job as a librarian. This panel was put together to address some best practices and improve books as both teaching tools and as play references.

First up, there’s an acknowledged distinction between a teaching tool and a reference. RPG books actually function as both and typically skew one way or the other. The current trend in RPGs is to use a “Let’s Play” example as a teaching tool. While this is a good practice it makes for a horrible reference document because the rules are so scattered.

For reference, the best tool is a good index that includes some conceptual indices that plan for synonyms of keywords. Synonyms would point back to the keyword in the index. Automatic indexing was largely derided as being terrible.

Brennan discussed how one of his games used a rules summary at the end of each chapter to aid reference. The summary was a bulleted list of important rules concepts. This dovetailed into a discussion about how to use typography and layout to improve the clarity of information being presented. Don’t bury rules in the middle of a paragraph. State the rule at the beginning and then offer supporting text.

Coming Up in the Indies

Presented by Fred Hicks, Shoshana Kessock, and Tim Rodriguez.

It is a tribute to this panel that they were so engaging I didn’t take any notes aside from the title and names of the presenters.

That said, I do recall a fair bit of the conversation. Much of it was focused on the business aspect of being an RPG publisher and how to manage the transition from being a creator to businessperson. There was a lot of useful information there and I honestly think that between that and the IGDN seminar, anyone wanting to get into self-publishing would have been well served to check out these panels. What it did show me is that I have absolutely no interest in being a publisher so when I do get Heroes Fall to the point of publication, I will be speaking with my colleagues in the industry about getting it published.

Honorable Mention: Breakfast Buffet

I would be remiss here if I did not mention the breakfast buffet hosted by Rob Donoghue every morning. While not an official part of the convention, it was the place where I saw the liveliest discussions and energetic exchange of ideas. The table was open to anyone who saw fit to join and I am happy I made it down all three days. In many ways, the breakfast buffet at Metatopia is the game design equivalent of the Renaissance cafes or the forum in ancient Greece. It is a place where ideas are debated openly.

Edit: Ajit shared the post and pointed out that his Urban Shadows city guide for is Bangalore and not Bangladesh.

About PK

PK Sullivan is a game designer and writer living in Chicago.
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