Cow Report part 2: Triggers

The Games

System-wise I vastly preferred Cthulhu Dark (so light it was barely there) to Kult 4e which while much simplified over predecessors was still a bit more mechanical than I liked. Kult’s latest iteration is doing a sort of PbtA thing with moves, partial hits, hard moves from the referee etc. Its heart is in the right place but for a number of reasons it’s much more diffuse and sprawling than AW; more attributes (10, arranged as the Sephirot, but not along any thematic lines that I could see), wider dice results (using 2d10 in place of 2d6) and having to go outside the character sheet more often for its sub-systems.

Scott’s setup for his scenario was more freeform as well; we created characters at the table with some important leading questions that would be reflected back in the scenario, but otherwise we were given blank sheets to create our PCs within the setting’s boundaries. Matt’s game was by contrast heaviliy scripted, which was necessary for the scenario but gave us a learning hump at the beginning, especially thanks to the laminated sheets of tiny serif font black-on-grey text. I’m not the biggest fan of this approach because it’s so easy to miss crucial facts on your character sheet, and honestly I think the 500 words could have been boiled down to a few bullet points.

But anyway, the thing both games did very well was put a human story at the centre of the scenario. Matt’s Christian family with a strong connection to an evangelical church pointed inward nicely and the best scenes were the ones where we interacted in domestic settings; and the proximity of the conservative evangelicals was horrific in itself. Likewise the horror of London’s rookeries in 1851 was realised not only by the locations but also the sharp divide between the victims of poverty and the well-meaning but priviledged and condescending volunteers.

I’ve previously said I don’t think Call of Cthulhu is a very good horror game. I don’t think the scale of cosmic horror can elicit much of an emotional response, and thematically it competes with the sense of wonder that fuels SF. I like CoC as an SF game: chug some space mead, hop on a byakhee and see the universe. To be truly horrible it needs to be translated onto the human scale and subject human characters to awful dilemmas and terrible physical or psychological change.

For that reason the supernatural parts of Matt’s game with Lictors threatening damnation and an unholy cathederal of crucified angels made for fine dark fantasy in the Clive Barker tradition, but weren’t actually horrific. The horrible bits revolved around birth and the new anti-abortion laws. Which leads on to the main commentary…

Lines and Veils

On topic, The Good Friends of Jackson Elias tackled problematic content in Episode 97 including the idea of Lines and Veils, X cards and generally being adult and talking about these things. Something that’s common in Indie (and LARP) circles but gets less discussion in the mainstream. It starts at around 40 mins.

In the games above Scott opened with a Lines and Veils chat and everything in his session was groovy. Matt didn’t, and there was some content I had a real problem with.

And it’s easy to stop reading there and assume what Scott did was right and that’s why everything turned out OK; and what Matt did was wrong and that’s why there was a problem. But that’s not my point at all.

Potentially Triggery Bit About Childbirth

First, this is what I had a problem with, and why. Leaving a lot of space before and after this so you can ignore it and just jump to the next bit

Early on in the Kult game we had a sudden hallucination of a traumatic birth with a case of the infant becoming stuck. I’m not sure what Matt was describing was actually medically accurate, and I can say that because I researched it a lot, for reasons that will be obvious.

You see, my partner and I had been trying for years to get pregnant, and (after a lot of being fobbed off and misinformed by the NHS) we hit on a fertility clinic who helped us achieve that. So you can probably imagine that the stakes were really high. But over the months that followed we enjoyed the pregnancy (even amidst the crazy building work at the house) looking forward to looking after a newborn with lots of sleepless nights and poo.

Except, our son is very big, at the 98th percentile. And mostly this was just an anecdote that we laughed at with the midwives. Until one special consultant appointment where my partner was informed that, owing to our son’s size, there was a risk of shoulder distocia and in the worst case, death. That news was delivered in a particularly horrible way, and at the worst time (I was away on my last business trip before the birth, which made for a fraught call home from the hotel). We got a second opinion and the view was the first consultant may have been (a) overly cautious and (b) overly concerned with the precedent set by a legal suit for medical malpractice that was being reported in the press.

But still, we thought we were home free and now there was this massive, massive uncertainty that turned the following weeks into a ball of stress. It all worked out fine, of course. If it hadn’t, I’d be writing a very different post.

Triggers and Stuff

Two things about being triggered:

  • It’s not just about reliving the moment; it’s also reliving the stress leading up to that moment, or the fallout from it
  • The results aren’t always visible. I wasn’t inclined to curl up or run away or punch something; I just gritted my teeth.

Perhaps there’s also a difference between someone who doesn’t want to engage with a subject because it represents a potential scenario (such as young parents and the idea of children coming to harm) and a subject that represents something already experienced. But take the example of young parents: it represents an ongoing state of upset and worry, so once again, when you’re engaging with that you’re not just engaging with a single event but all of the anxiety, stress and fear leading up to it.

But here’s the thing: I don’t think of myself as someone who gets triggered by anything. When Lines and Veils come up I’ll tend to say (or write down, if we’re doing it anonymously) that I don’t have any, i.e. affirming to the GM that I don’t expect to be upset by their content. So had Matt called for Lines and Veils beforehand, I’m not sure I would have said anything.

The triggery thing was a very short scene early in the game involving a hallucination of a traumatic birth. Since the game I’ve been mulling over why I reacted so negatively to it, and it comes down to a few things.

First and most obvious, personal context. My partner and I spent years trying to conceive, suffering family and the NHS being fairly clueless and insensitive throughout (partly because this kind of thing isn’t discussed openly, so emotionally processing it is hard). Eventually we got help from a fertility clinic, and suddenly we were pregnant and looking forward to a future as a family.

Except our son is very big for his age at the 98th percentile. And one of the risks is shoulder distocia, the consequences of which could be very bad indeed up to and including death. That message was delivered to my partner while I was away on my last business trip before the birth; and the way it was delivered was frankly a bizarre and insensitive (the consultant who admitted that she was only mentioning it because of a lawsuit for medical malpractice featured in the press). What followed (after the very fraught call home from the hotel) were stressful conversations with more consultants about whether we should opt for a natural birth or go for an elective caesarian, etc. The upshot was that having thought we’d be home free, the last few months turned into a big ball of stress. The stakes were massive because this might be our only chance.

Everything turned out OK, or I wouldn’t be writing about it like this. But the point is this: thinking about traumatic birth stuff doesn’t just bring back the event itself, it also brings back months of stress and mentally preparing for the absolute worst.

The second point is that the scene content was (from my POV) mostly insignificant to the rest of the game. Traumatic birth has almost nothing to do with abortion rights and the awful decisions that go along with it. Now, I want to trust that the author intended that content to mean something to the other players even if it wasn’t obvious to me. But still, it felt incongruous; especially when that scene was so medically precise and the rest of the game was so OTT with its demons and blood magic and obviously fantastical elements.

And the third point was… deprotagonism. It was a hallucination and was over as soon as it started; so it wasn’t resolved for good or bad, it wasn’t referred back to (as far as I could tell), and we were unable to affect the outcome.

Now, if I hadn’t had this personal experience I probably wouldn’t have given any of this a second thought. 20 years ago I was a different person; I watched Dead Ringers and I was into the red gowns, the drug addiction and the custom medical instruments. But when I re-watched it a few years ago it was Genevieve Bujold’s crisis of fertility that affected me (and for similar reasons watching Call the Midwife often gets emotional).

More to the point I don’t think of myself as someone who gets triggered. I think Lines and Veils are a good and important conversation, but usually my contribution is just to affirm that no, I have no problems with any issues, go ahead (as long as the other players are also cool with it). So let’s say Matt had led a Lines and Veils discussion, it just wouldn’t have come up.

Why We Don’t Speak Up

It takes a high degree of both self-awareness and confidence to articulate that yes, I have a problem with this content and I’m going to tell you about it. There are many reasons why a person might not speak up in a L&V discussion:

  1. it might not occur to you that it would be an issue
  2. it might be an issue but you’d never expect the topic to come up in this setting
  3. most importantly you might not have the confidence to speak.

I think there’s a distiction between #1 and #2; the first one is about self-awareness, the second is about trust. But for practical purposes they’re kind of the same — people don’t speak up because it never occured to them that it was a problem.

3 is different, and all about social pressure and perceptions of safety. I think that, even if I’d been aware of my own feelings I’d still feel weird speaking about them especially to strangers at the table. And that’s me as a fairly confident white guy, part of the majority. I can’t imagine what it’s like to not be in the majority in that situation (just as I don’t know what it feels like to be pregnant, no matter how sympathetic I am).

Why Didn’t I Speak Up Just Then?
There are a few examples in the podcast of seeing something negative at the table and instead of speaking up, the person is at a complete loss. This is because — and I don’t think I’m being hyperbolic — being confronted by something startling is like being physically assaulted out of nowhere. The brain is trying to catch up to the events and thinking is instinctive, inarticulate and non-verbal. In hindsight you can construct a strategy: “next time I’ll say something.”

Why Do People Just Quit?
It’s easier for some than others to overcome the barriers of confidence and self-awareness, and how hard that is will depend on who’s in the room, whether you’re in the minority or the majority, whether you perceive a hostile or receptive environment etc. For some people the effort to overcome the barrier and integrate is perceived to be too great. This is why some people quit and don’t come back.

So, how to deal with this?

  • You can’t control what people have experienced in the past.
  • You can’t know everything about your players.

There are many forms of socially dominanting (even socially violent) behaviour. Acts which appear transgressive and are intended to shock are violent actsthey dominate the environ