My gaming groups consist of adults, men and women all over 18 years of age. Like just about any group of friends, we can be crude at times. We tell jokes of varying tastes, but always in good fun. Knowing how to identify “the line,” and knowing not to cross it, is a part of any basic human interaction. The same is true of games. We play games that often have very mature elements to them. Drug abuse. Discrimination. Genocide. Racism/racial intolerance. Cannibalism. Rape. These elements come up in our stories because, unfortunately, they are elements of the real world we live in and in many ways, our games are reflections of that world. Now, this isn’t to say that these things are always a major focus of our games. Depending on the characters in question and the story we are trying to tell, elements such these will come up. We refuse to do anything as horrid as play out a rape scene, but I have watched powerful moments play out in game as characters struggle with their inner demons. Watching a great swordsman suffer with alcoholism after loosing his wife to a terrible monster in Dungeons & Dragons; playing a character who suffered through years of mental and emotional torture at the hands of her brother in Shadowrun; and seeing a mighty shield-maiden struggling with the male-dominated viking-like culture of the northern lands in Anima: Beyond Fantasy are incredible. These are elements that make stories great and characters enduring. Even so, it is important to note that such themes must be handled with care.
The most important thing a Gamemaster can do is to know his/her players. Know what their limits are. Know what things are okay to talk about/use in game and what should be kept completely off of the table. I cannot imagine dealing with a rape situation in a game where one of my players might be a rape victim. No. I would never want to put them through that. As I mentioned in my earlier look at Religion in Gaming, it is all about respecting your players and their feelings. If any specific topic makes them too uncomfortable to enjoy a game, you should not use it. At all. Period.
It is also important to never try and glorify any theme or element of a game that people might find utterly distasteful. When used, they should be used to the same effect they would have in the real world. Genocide should be horrible, not just something your average dragon does on a slow Tuesday. Themes like drug abuse, discrimination, rape, etc. should never be taken lightly, even if your group is fine with having such things in your game. Something that a role-playing game allows us to do is to express ourselves in ways we might not be able to in real life. Having my character attack a troll that was about to torture the character’s best friend (another character) for a snuff film just because she was an elf in his gang’s turf in a recent Shadowrun game was a powerful moment. My character, and by extension, I, genuinely detested that troll. The very thought of what he wanted to do was sickening. I hesitate to compare that to any sort of “righteous anger,” but it definitely added a layer of desperation to the scene, turning what might have been just another fight with some random bangers into something memorable. Something important.
Oh, and don’t worry, we did manage to save her.
In closing, if you are going to use topics like this in your games, I have only two pieces of advice. Use them sparingly, and be careful. Games are about having fun and telling stories. They aren’t meant to make people uncomfortable. Keep that in mind before things go too far.
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