Avery Alder’s games bring the messy dynamics of queer communities into fantastical settings. Playing RPGs together can be a fun way to practice mutual aid.
Game Maker Avery Alder on the Mechanics of Care
Like everyone else I know, I’ve been trying extra hard lately to find new ways to keep all my friends alive.
One thing I’ve focused on is trying to get groups of friends together on a recurring basis. Getting together regularly in a structured way gives me more confidence that we know what’s going on in each other’s lives and that we have each other’s backs.
One of my regular hangs is with a group of trans folks who play RPGs (role-playing games) together. While the most notable RPGs, like Dungeons and Dragons, usually emphasize combat, there’s a whole world of idiosyncratic games out there that draw on the broader spectrum of ways that people can interact, in love, sex, friendship, and the work of building communities.
Playing RPGs together has turned out to be a very weird, fun, and sweet form of mutual aid. World-building in the sense of telling stories together is a lovely and intimate thing, and committing to getting together regularly with friends is another type of world-building, concretely building the type of world I want to inhabit. I like the idea that another world is possible if you and your friends all agree to work together, meet on the regular, and bring snacks to share.
My gateway into the world of RPGs was the work of Avery Alder, whose games bring the messy dynamics of queer communities into fantastical settings. What if we were all navigating multifaceted identities, fierce loyalties, and overlapping traumas, but it was ALSO the post-apocalyptic future?
Alder’s work, like her writing, shows a deep interest in and engagement with the mechanics of how we care for one another: the ways we fuck up at care, the ways we’re set up to fail at care, and the crafty, ingenious ways we manage to care for each other regardless.
I interviewed Alder on how care and community-building play into her life and her game design.
What are some ways you care for others (or have been cared for by people in your life) that are important to you?
A lot of my games are about learning to care for one another, because that’s a topic that’s always on my brain. Mutual aid is really important to me.
When I think about care, one of the main things I think about is food. Me and my partner have been organizing a weekly, drop-in dinner for everyone we know. We just had our fifteenth one last night – I cooked vegan and vegetarian lasagnas, wild sourdough rye, greek salad, and cupcakes. I want to feed as many of my broke queer friends as possible, and send them all home with leftovers.
But not to just focus on my friends, you know? Lately I’ve started mulling over the phrase ‘militant generosity’ in my mind, thinking about how generosity can be politicized and politicizing, thinking about the importance of slowly but perpetually widening the circle of who you extend care to.
I’m recovering from surgery right now, but once I’m able to ride a bike comfortably again, me and a metamour have a project planned. Once a week, we’re going to bake cookies and sweets, make up a big thermos of coffee, and bike around delivering it to sex workers on the trans stroll. I used to have a paid gig providing outreach and supplies to women working the area, and I really miss those connections. I’ve read through a lot of Tumblr conversations about caring for your queer elders, and they’re always super abstract. As a trans woman, my elders are freezing their asses off on street corners about two miles from my house, nightly, and I want to be there with warm food, harm reduction supplies, and regular check-ins.
Are there ways you’ve tried to build empathy and care into the story and mechanics of your games, or to trouble and complicate care?
I tend to design games about navigating self-doubt, messy relationships, and struggling communities.
I’m thinking especially about A Place To Fuck Each Other, a short, free game about dyke relationships. In A Place To Fuck Each Other, every scene glimpses into a relationship during a moment of hopeful connection – either hooking up or moving in together. Two players each take on the role of a lover and name the two things she needs to feel comfortable. The third player takes a look at that list of needs and decides which one goes unmet in the space that these lovers find. And so every scene is about trying to make an imperfect situation work, to build a relationship from a rocky starting place. It’s about care, attraction, and being thwarted. It’s about how dykes are always trying to make it work even though the world has denied them the resources to flourish.
A lot of my games are about learning to care for one another, because that’s always on my brain. Mutual aid is really important to me.
You posted that “The fun/dangerous thing about game design is you can say things like ‘time doesn’t heal wounds’ and it’s not, like, an opinion. it’s a rule.” Are there other beliefs or principles of yours that you’ve built into game mechanics?
Definitely, yes! I think there a cluster of examples of this in The Quiet Year, a map-drawing game about post-apocalyptic community.
The game is built around weekly cycles: each player’s turn is a week in the life of the community. A card is played, and the community takes one of three actions: exploring the landscape, holding a discussion, or starting a project.
When you start a project, there isn’t any back-and-forth. You name the project, and it’s underway. There are people working on it. People might be opposed to it – you can even take a Contempt Token to make visible that opposition – but there isn’t a mechanism to reverse a project once it’s underway.
Those mechanics hold a lot of my politics and pessimism about how communities and collectives actually work.
Action is always imperfect, and it always causes blowback. While dialogue is important for building trust and identifying shared goals, it doesn’t inherently lead to action. Belonging to a community means constantly weighing “do we have time for wider and deeper consultation, or must we act swiftly and imperfectly to address the hurt of this world?” That’s sort of an ugly question, because the answer is always: both are so, so necessary.
I wrote The Quiet Year reflecting that understanding of community process: that shit is going to keep happening around you, that dialogue is important to build a sense of trust and unity, that action needs to happen right now if you are to prevent suffering, and that you don’t have enough time to do both. Playing the game means contending with that projected reality, and trying to figure out how to make things better within it.
In Dream Askew, players make up a post-apocalyptic community of queers who must deal with external threats to the community’s survival and their own infighting. This is a dynamic whose familiarity I’ve shared many bitter laughs with other queer and trans folks about while playing. Creating this game, what were your thoughts about how and why to cause this infighting?
The question of how is simple. Characters in Dream Askew are given problematic strengths and incompatible coping mechanisms, and then they’re put together in a struggling community with utopian ideals, just like in real queer communities.
I suppose my answer to the question of why is two-fold.
I’ve been mulling over the phrase ‘militant generosity,’ thinking about how generosity can be politicized, and the importance of perpetually widening the circle of who you extend care to.
First, because telling stories about powerful, fallible people arguing about their shared fate is fun, and it’s made even more fun if they’re all super horny for each other.
Second, because I think that we belong to a culture full of stories about how noble, righteous, familiar men with a devil-may-care attitude toward due process rid the world of some evil outsiders. And while any single instance of that story is fine, in aggregate I think it’s really harmful. It feeds xenophobia and jingoism. It erodes our ability to be reflexive and admit fault.
I want to design games about different types of stories, because stories change how we make sense of the world. They don’t just spring from our imagination, they also construct it. And I want our collective imagination to be built from stories about self-doubt and self-discovery, about overcoming strife and difference, and about creative resistance. I want stories to train us to see systemic and relational violence and to respond to it – all that kind of stuff.
In The Quiet Year, players are building a community that they know will be destroyed at the game’s end regardless of their choices. What drew you to choose this structure, and how have you found it affects the way people experience the game?
The Quiet Year ends when someone draws the King of Spades, which reads “The Frost Shepherds arrive. The game is over.” It’s ambiguous who the Frost Shepherds are or what that means, but it’s definitely ominous. If not destroyed, the community will at least be irrevocably changed.
I don’t think I had a specific rationale for making that decision originally, beyond it sounding evocative and foreboding. I was listening to a lot of post-rock at the time. But looking back, I’m really glad it works the way it does.
I think conversations about how to build better communities often focus on the mythical horizon. People argue about which utopia would be the most just, or which economy would be the most viable. The Quiet Year focuses on what people do with the limited resources they have, in the immediate context they find themselves in. A sort of pragmatic daydream about what is possible, week to week, season to season.
The players know that the Frost Shepherds are coming, but the fictional community doesn’t necessarily. So, while that community might be working toward a grand vision for their shared future, the people around the table see how that’s not what the story is truly about. The story is about the relationships, tensions, choices, and collective processes that emerge throughout that single year.
A lot of your games touch on some heavy topics and feelings. Do you have thoughts on how people can be gentle with themselves and each other while playing your games or others that might evoke hurt and trauma?
I wrote a guide called Safe Hearts for addressing this stuff in Monsterhearts, a game I wrote about messy, dysfunctional relationships between teenagers who are secretly monsters.
Safe Hearts introduced this model for understanding how to tell problematic stories together in a way that’s accountable and keeps everyone feeling safe. It suggests that you have three concentric rings of responsibility: first to yourself, then to everyone you’re there with, and finally to the characters you invoke. Before you consider anyone else’s needs, you get to stop and ask: do I feel safe and respected in how this story is unfolding? If a story is leaving you feeling weird, if it’s giving you the ‘no’ feeling, then you have every right to put on the brakes and name that. The guide offers some tools and shared vocabulary for how to go about doing that. Beyond a responsibility to yourself, you have a responsibility to the other people in the room. And beyond that, you also have a responsibility to the fictional characters that you create, and to the identities and experiences embodied in those characters.
I think a really cool thing to have grown out of story game communities in recent years is the X-Card. John Stavropoulos has worked to document its theory and implementation publicly, but at its heart it is a simple idea. You draw an X on an index card, and then anyone can lift up that X at any time during play. It means that the group needs to back up and edit whatever was just said, to make sure that the game stays fun for everyone involved. The specifics of how it’s explained and what to do when someone lifts it up vary between different groups and local play cultures, but at its core is an implicit assertion: nobody’s fun is more important than your emotional well-being.
I loved your posts about being goblin so much that I printed them out and hung them on my fridge. What is goblin, and what would you tell someone who is aspiring to be more goblin?
I starting playing with goblin in late 2016, as part of a project of figuring out what wasn’t working for me in the communities I already seek identity with, namely queer and punk.
I’m a stepmom to homeschoolers, and so kid-friendly intergenerational spaces have become really important to me. I’m chronically ill and often fatigued, and so value low-barrier spaces that reject ableism. I want to spend my time in spaces that are thoroughly political, not in the sense of writing communiques and droning on about theorists, just in the sense of offering free childcare and bread, of putting harm reduction supplies in the bathroom. I want to build community in solidarity with crazy people and poor people and to reject respectability whenever possible.
The more I found myself talking critically about the communities I seek identity with, the more I started thinking, “well, this is a boring use of my time.” And so instead of fixating on ways that existing communities don’t make space for my needs and ideals, I started imagining what communities don’t exist yet that would serve them perfectly.
Goblin was born out of that. I talked about it sporadically for a few months, rooting around for axioms and motifs to anchor my thoughts.
In November, a friend asked me about goblin, and I wrote her saying “being goblin is a way of flagging that you want to include people not in spite of their sloppiness and uneven emotional growth, but because of it – because goblins come as they are, and they grow in community with one another. Being goblin means being intergenerational in an un-precious way. It means that kids are a part of community, that their messes and tantrums and experiments and giggles all take place between our feet. It’s about acknowledging disability and madness and trauma in a way that removes normalcy as our baseline. Every body is a weird body and weird is good. Accommodating one another’s weirdness isn’t just worthwhile and important, and it’s not useful to frame it as noble or anything like that. Accommodating one another’s weirdness is the literal basis of goblin community. It’s how you nest, it’s how you romp, it’s what goblins always and necessarily do.”
It’s a fun thought project: to imagine a community that would wholly embrace and empower you and to imagine how you might communicate belongingness to those who you share that community with. Like for me, it’s goblin. It’s helped me learn more about what I want to contribute to the world.
Originally published in the “Material” issue on March 16, 2017