5 Tips For Better Inclusion in Tabletop Games

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Having given my two cents on a number of tabletop RPG subjects, I want to address something close to my heart; both as a lover of tabletop games and as a black man: inclusion. Now, now, I’m not here to throw you readers in the shame car. I’m here to help.

Inclusion is creating a group dynamic where everyone, regardless of background or worldview, feels safe, welcome and can share their ideas. As tabletop games have become more popular among wider varieties of people, inclusion has become more and more critical. So I’ve come up with 5 tips to help  players and DMs be better about being inclusive in their tabletop groups.

I’m not asking you to go kidnap token minorities and make them play 5e. Rather, these are tips for when you do find  a player who may be of a different race, gender, sexuality, or creed than you, you can help them feel welcome in the fold.

1. Don’t Panic

In this day and age, it’s become rather common that as soon as race, sexuality, or other touchy subjects come up, people go to DEFCON 5, tip-toeing on eggshells to avoid being called a racist, misogynist, fascist, and other unpleasant “ists”. What’s worse, I’ve often seen people unintentionally exclude or avoid others, not out of an “ist” or “ism”, but simply because they are scared of being considered such.

A personal example: my campaigns tend to have a definite sexual bent to them. For a long time, I was hesitant to invite  female players to my games for fear that I would make them uncomfortable or worse, get labeled a perv. Despite good intentions, this is still a form of rejection–you are still excluding people for who they are. Just with sugar instead of vinegar.

There’s an easy solution: don’t panic. Breathe. Be yourself and let other be their selves. Embrace that you, as a player or DM, will make social screw-ups. As long as you say sorry and learn from it, people will likely forgive. In my case,  I discovered that the ladies could be just as raunchy as the gents.

2. Avoid The “FUBU” Curse

Don’t explain the joke. The For Us, By Us or FUBU Curse, is when tabletop gamers tailor a game so closely to their group dynamic, world view, or interests, that anyone who doesn’t share those things is shut out. For some mysterious reason, certain biases, stereotypes, or prejudices seem to also emerge at the same time. The FUBU Curse is not usually invoked out of malice. It’s little things that add up to not so pretty conclusions.

It’s making the defining trait of every female PC their sex appeal, because who doesn’t like sexy women? It’s making every NPC in the campaign white because everyone at the table is white. It’s  making the main villains of every campaign a religious organization. See how such innocent things could turn real sketchy from a certain point of view? And even sidestepping the political implications, doesn’t it get annoying when a player or majority of the group only ever does what they want to do, without ever thinking of the group?

The solution is pretty straight-forward. Challenge yourself and your fellow players to not swing for their low hanging fruit. Open yourself to ideas from others. Accept critiques with grace and sincere thought. Never just go with your default idea, try your second or third. If you’re always in a vanilla Middle Earth-lite setting,  try something based on Asia or Africa. If all your female NPCs or PCs are always pretty, try to describe them in physical traits that are not related to their attractiveness. Make the main villains a political group, a band of mercenaries or hell, a school board.

Regardless of what you do, engaging with differing ideas (especially from your fellow players rather than going on FUBU auto-pilot) may just make your tabletop group more inclusive.

3. Never Assume, Ask

This ties into Tip #1. Are you anxious how your Catholic player will react to the main villains being based on the papacy? Unsure how another player will handle your characters having an in-game sexual relationship? Worried that your stellar Jamaican accent for an NPC may be pissing someone off? The solution is really very simple…

Ask. Take some time before a game and ask what is or isn’t ok. Check in after. Sometimes they’ll be ok with it, sometimes they won’t. Respect their wishes regardless. This is not about being politically correct, or what content is bad. It’s just the simple truth that you can’t read people’s minds, and when players feel that their emotions are validated, they feel included.

Plus, you do not want the alternative. To have a player freak out and drop the campaign because they feel you crossed a line that shouldn’t have been crossed. Even if that player stays, they will likely be less engaged, less enthusiastic, less trusting in your actions as a player or DM. It takes what should be a fun game and turns it vitriolic.

So never assume. Ask.

4. Everyone Deserves A Chance

Foxy is a veteran Tabletop gamer who has been a long runner in my campaigns. She is also a Deaf woman.  It takes extra work to make sure that Foxy can fully participate, we have to use Skype and I have to remind players to put everything they say in the text chat, but it all pays off. Foxy became a player that my roster of nerds all respect and enjoy playing with.

So naturally, it broke my heart to see other DMs completely reject Foxy, simply because she was Deaf. In one instance, two DMs pounced on me at the mention I knew potential new players, then spurred  the idea of adjusting their game for a Deaf player.

“I don’t like Skype. Digital games go too slow. Having to type instead of talk will be boring and lifeless.” So on and so forth.

End of the day, their closed-mindedness made them miss out on a damn good player (well, technically two). Everyone deserves a chance. If a player wants to join your game and you’ve got the room, accept them. It doesn’t matter whether their black, white, Deaf, or a polysexual blue alien. Let them at least try.

If you don’t like them, deal with that later. Don’t invite them back to the next session or campaign. But never exclude a player solely on the basis of what they are as a person. Judge them by the content of their roleplaying.

5. You Control The Dynamic

For my last tip, I want to talk about a player named Casca. She was the only woman in her group, and at one point during the campaign, another player character raped her character in-game. Neither the DM or the other players did anything to stop this or check the real life player for his actions despite Casca being adamantly against it in and out of character.

This is an extreme case, but it points out something I find very, very critical to this whole inclusion stuff: you, as a player, as a DM, control the group dynamic. You decide how inclusive it is, and how inclusive it is not. Casca’s group didn’t just exclude her, they hurt her in a way no one ever wants to suffer in a game they love.

You will likely not find yourself in a situation as venomous, or black and white as this one. You will see this bullying, yes, bullying, in other subtle forms. In my tenure as a tabletop gamer, I’ve had to call out players for racial and gay slurs, taking the sexual content too far, or in one instance, giving an NPC gratuitous torture porn treatment despite repeated requests from other players that they stop.

I’ve gotten flack for being the “fun police”, but mine or Casca’s situations were never about what content is or isn’t ok.  When you boil it down, insulting someone, repeatedly trampling over their comfort zone, or actively doing things to hurt or upset them isn’t roleplaying. It’s bullying. I’ve seen it, Casca lived. It wounds people, and we don’t play games to suffer. We play to have fun. We play to connect.

Please, have the courage to do what’s right. Always challenge players that exclude, disrespect, or harm people who don’t kneel before them. Call a bully a bully. And if those players won’t change, leave. It is not worth your time.

Have your own tips for making a more inclusive tabletop group? Leave them in the comments below. Until next time.

Source Photo Credit: Paizo

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