Recently I watched a couple of folks debate to what extent darker themes should be explored in roleplaying games. The example in question was rape and pedophilia, and the argument was that life is miserable enough as is, the point of roleplaying games is to get away from all that crap. A view which, I should add, I fully understand and support. Escape is the very point of escapist literature and games.
It got me thinking, though. I touch on dark themes as a game master, typically through non-player characters. These are typically the guys the players are going to end up fighting, investigating, or for that matter, out-right clubbing to death in a dark alley. They’re the bad guys. But sometimes, maybe it’s better to just not.
Allright, pull up some chairs and let me tell you a story. A long, long time ago—talking mid-90s here—I was writing a scenario for a roleplaying convention (I wrote a fair number of those). I had just spent a considerable amount of time researching the German occupation of France during World War II, and it seemed obvious to use the setting and time period that was already in my head. With a twist, of course. There should always be a twist.
I wrote six player characters who were all members of the German forces, the Wehrmacht. I was planning for them to have received the classical ‘fight to the last man standing, save the last bullet for yourself’ kind of orders. But why? What could be so important in some small, French townlet that every minute it could be defended really made a difference? Whatever the Macguffin was, why did the German forces leave it, and the characters, behind? Would the characters decide to fight as ordered, or bail and try to find out what was going on?
Aha, I thought. I better play it safe and make sure that each of the six all had their doubts about the Third Reich. None of them were genuine Nazis. They were pretty much just drafted guys following orders and, as the American liberation forces approached, getting really cold feet about the whole thing.
I ended up tossing it. All of it. Why? Well, there was this sci-fi scenario…
Story time, again. At my second roleplaying convention ever I got to play in a group where the characters supposedly knew each other in advance. They were all crew on the same starship. According to our character sheets, we knew each other quite well, trusted one another, and worked well together.
Yeah, about that.
Not a word against young roleplayers. We’ve all been there. Two of the players turned out to be thirteen-year-old boys. And, well. The very first line spoken in game was from the ship’s female captain (as played by 13-year-old), directed at 20-year-old me, playing the ship’s male pilot. It went: “I pull out a giant pink dildo and ask the pilot if he’s up for a little fun in the cockpit.”
Well, that was the end of that scenario. The poor GM tried desperately to get us on track but those two kids ruined everything. In the end, we walked away, GM included.
So, what’s that got to do with the Wehrmacht? Well, picture this. You start telling the story, only to discover that one player is having a party playing the master race. He wants to kill, murder, maim, and rape until everything is blood and gore. Or even worse—he turns out to be an actual ultra-rightwing socalled history nerd who goes ‘well, actually’ trying to defend white supremacy all night, and then intends to debate you for eight hours on the subject of Jochen Peiper’s guilt or lack of it in the Malmedy war crimes trial.
The argument I was watching was about rape. Should rape exist in a game world? I say yes, but not as something I want to see played out. It’s a crime, one that invites characters to chase down the criminal and dispense justice. It’s not a game. It’s particularly not a game if someone in the room has, at some point in his or her life, been sexually assaulted.
Some ideas should just be killed right away. Or at least locked up in a safe place. If you’re writing for public consumption, don’t go there. Keep it PG-13. If you’re writing for a group of people you know well, make it your duty to know what they’re comfortable with. Escapism and roleplaying games are about escaping and having fun. Real life is depressing enough at times that it’s perfectly legit to not want these things in your game.