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Dealing With Difficult Topics in RPGs

(Author’s note: this article will be a bit different than the ones that I have written in the past because it is explicitly aimed at the group dynamic, not the ones running the game per se. Also, please pardon the use of block quotes; I didn’t want to have to lose any of what was said.)
To start out with it should be noted that there are a wide variety of topics that make many people uncomfortable, including sex, various depictions of violence or abuse, slavery, terrorism and racism, among other more difficult topics, such as phobias of such things as spiders or snakes. Other topics may be considered to be difficult because they disrupt the suspension of disbelief. Still other topics may normally be OK, but because of the fact that it’s been in the headlines recently, it simply “hits too close to home.” By knowing what topics you and your group wants to avoid (even temporarily), you’ll end up with a more fun and enjoyable gaming experience for all. 

Social Contract
Many of the tools that I am going to be discussing in this article highlight what the group’s expectations are. These ideas are what is known as a “social contract.” Social contracts for tabletop role-playing games are either a formally or informally defined agreements or understandings between all players concerning the way the game will be conducted. A more formally defined agreement may even have go so far as to spell out the expectations of the group’s members and have the players sign the contract. Even for informally defined agreements may become more formally defined over time as situations within the game arise. 

Session 0
Once you start to plan a campaign, after you’ve recruited players to your group one of the things you’ll want to do is a Session 0. According to this answer https://rpg.stackexchange.com/questions/105388/what-is-a-session-0 on RPG Stack Exchange,

Session 0 is a planning session where the gaming group collaboratively lays the groundwork for a new campaign [before the campaign starts, had its first game]. Often, this session involves the group deciding the game/campaign they want to play, managing expectations, establishing house rules, determining setting details, and creating characters. Session 0 provides a meeting for the gaming group to agree on what kind of game everyone wants to play….

Session 0 is recommended because tabletop RPGs are ultimately a collaborative entertainment activity. Everyone is there to have fun and Session 0 gives the group an opportunity to establish what kind of game everyone wants to play.
In order to be most effective the “Kind of game” needs to be as detailed and descriptive as possible. This isn’t simply the genre, the game system (though these certainly are a part of this concept). It talks about what roles the party will be playing (heroes vs. villains), race/ class restrictions, tone of the game and more. It also discusses social norms, such as no harassment of the players, respecting the hosts’ house, paying a “table fee” or discussing who brings snacks/ drinks to the game, etc. These are especially important in some genres, such as horror, because getting out of character can not only ruin the mood, but shatter the suspension of disbelief, causing everyone else at the table to have less fun. These types of details can often be collaborated together between the GM and players, though the GM should have the final say as s/he will be doing a majority of the work in terms of the setting, encounters, treasure and the like.

Same Page Tool
Among the details discussed in a session 0 is what type of a game that the group is playing. To ensure everyone has the same idea, a good tool to use is the Same Page Tool. According to the examples page, this tool is not meant to be something where it’s used as a survey where it’s filled out separately and try to “meet in the middle” or assess what kind of gamer you are. The point of the tool is to create a clear picture of what the game is, NOT attempt to mash together different play-styles – this has not worked very well over 30 years of the hobby. Incorrectly using the tool may cause problems in understanding of what the group expects and what is appropriate. If there are people who do not agree to this set of guidelines, they very likely do not belong at your gaming table and will likely cause problems in your campaign.

Communication is Key
If you’re in the middle of a game and are finding that you’re having problems with the players you may need to do a course correction, reevaluating some of the things that are in play. These course corrections may be more difficult once game play has started. However, it should be noted that these frank group conversations aren’t meant to call anyone out, at least not directly. They’re simply a reminder about how tabletop RPGs are cooperative game and everyone should have the opportunity to build and play the characters they want—as long as that doesn’t impede other players’ enjoyment. This includes things like language or situations that anyone at the table are uncomfortable with.
If one players is playing in such a way that is disruptive to the group, don’t hesitate to pull him aside to let him know that he’s making the other players uncomfortable. Explain to him what about his behavior is inappropriate and give him a chance to correct it. But at the same time, hear his side of the story. Maybe you’ll be able to help him play in a way that uses what he’s been doing, just not in a disruptive manner. If, after talking with him a few times, you may need to warn him that if the unwanted behavior continues you may need to ask him to leave the group, as harsh as it may be. But if you threaten to do so, don’t hesitate to carry out with your threat.
At the same time, the player needs to have the freedom to go to the GM privately if she/ he is not having fun. This lack of fun could be something as simple as they feel that something is missing from the game. If there’s a way for the GM to include what the player wants, and it doesn’t upset anyone else’s sensibilities, it’s a win-win. Furthermore, if there’s a topic that is included in the game that the player has become uncomfortable with and doesn’t want it brought to the attention of the whole group, she/ he needs to take the GM aside and privately discuss not talking about said topic. If the GM agrees and is able to do what’s asked without disrupting the game, it’s also a win-win. However, if not in either case, the player needs to have the freedom to be able to walk away as well. 

Lines & Veils

Another way of looking at how boundaries might be enacted are the ideas held in “Lines and Veils.” To give some context lines are hard and fast boundaries of what does not occur in the game and not allowed in the game either from the DM or the other players.
Veils on the other hand are things that may happen in the game, but fade to black. These can be handled one of a variety of ways: The first is that it remains in the story, but the scene fades to black. Another is that the detail is taken back, another put in its place and the scene continues. A third way to deal with it is that the group takes a break and figured out where to go from there.

The X & O -Cards
One tool that can help with lines is the X-Card:

The important thing is that: if you don’t want to go there, we don’t have to go there. We can change directions. No one is going to make you explain yourself when you use the X card. We just figure out what everyone needs, and we accommodate them. In most cases, we just edit out the problem content, replace it, and keep on rolling… The X-card is your escape, no questions asked, and the moment you feel uncomfortable with where this is going, hit it… [another person goes on to state ] no matter what the subject, the game isn’t about who can be the most edgy, and so everybody wins when people use the X-card.

It should be noted that the player who feels the discomfort doesn’t necessarily need to use the X card. Others can use it on another’s behalf if they sense his/ her discomfort.
The O card, on the other hand is a signal to the GM that the person who is using it may not like the situation per se, but it willing to allow it to continue. The page continues:

The O-card is super useful as a way to give support to people who are approaching tense, emotionally tough matter. It’s letting them know that it’s cool, they’re doing fine, and let’s bring this up a notch. If your goal is to work with emotionally difficult matter, than having a way of encouraging is useful (and the O-card, because it’s silent, lets you not break flow.)  

Session Ratings
Having said this, there still may be topics and ideas in the RPG that may be uncomfortable to people, but vitally important to the story line. An idea to help avoid this situation is having Session by Session ratings. https://geek-related.com/2012/10/31/campaign-tool-agile-session-ratings/ and if the DM knows that a topic is uncomfortable s/he may suggest the person skip the sessions the uncomfortable material will be present.

Concluding Thoughts
Because tabletop RPGs are a social medium, misunderstandings, disagreements, and arguments may occur. But just because they can, doesn’t mean that they necessarily need to get to the point of destroying the gaming group’s dynamic. Gaming should be a “safe space” in which we can discuss and explore difficult and tricky moral situations, but never be pressured to occupy that space. By using these tools, we can have more fun and respect each other’s boundaries.

 

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  • Pierre Savoie

    Yeahhhhh, Vox Day in his book SJWs ALWAYS LIE warned about the encroachment of Social Justice Warriors in gaming and hobbies, the ultimate aim is to impose a “code of conduct” which is congruent with their narrow political views.

    Anybody who needs a “Safe Space” is not of the mind-set to storm the beaches at Normandy, and so is completely unfit as a player of adventurous RPGs. We start getting drivel like the new Evil Hat worldbook PRISM (for Fate Core), where mysterious hidden colours can be seen only by certain characters (the PCs) and one colour can’t help “remind you of your first love”. I kid you not!

    • Keep in mind that some people have had bad experiences… OR are simply not comfortable discussing certain topics for whatever reason. To me respect is key, and if that can’t/ won’t happen someone needs to leave. Not all games are suitable for all gamers.

    • Pierre Savoie

      Then those gamers should leave. The Game Master at no point should be required to tear up their plots or themes.

    • And what if it’s the GM who has a problem with it and the PLAYERS bring it up? Should the GM not have a say?

    • Pierre Savoie

      You’re right that an initial session should be there to make things clear. Fortitude Points are in effect!

    • NickGC

      This isn’t about a GM being REQUIRED to do anything. This is about a Game Master who is a decent and compassionate person who is interested in making his or her games fun and enjoyable for different players.

    • Shawn E.

      You are free to play with whoever you choose to. If you don’t want to deal with people who might have triggers, etc… I’m sure you’ll both be better off at different tables.

      I think that a player not wanting sex as part of the game has nothing to do with their ability to slay a dragon. If a player doesn’t like violent movies, they will likely avoid games with combat.

      Do what you want at your table, but don’t tell other GMs how they should handle this topic.

      Better to get this out in the open during a session 0 than to have to deal with it mid campaign.

    • Session 0 is discussed. But maybe I should have said more about it, described it more in depth

    • Steven Warble

      I think you described it fine. Some people just think the “integrity” of their game is more important than the people they play with.

    • Dave(s) 4 Goombella

      Yeah. If you’re an author, then you have the luxury of saying “some of my audience is going to love this; some of my audience will hate it; screw the haters.” But RPGs are a collaborative process. The players are not just a GM’s audience (or shouldn’t be, at least); it’s their game too.

    • NickGC

      Some people are definitely missing this point. This isn’t “censorship,” this is a group deciding together what they want in their art and what they don’t.

    • NickGC – well said. Thanks for all your comments here… adding to the discussion in a positive way.

    • crimfan

      I’m sure they do, but I for one wouldn’t play with them or recommend anyone else to do so either.

    • Shawn E.

      You did fine.

      I wrote a full article last year on Session 0 if anyone cares to read it. Context… this was written as I was embarking on my second 5e campaign.
      http://www.tribality.com/2016/03/18/running-a-session-zero-for-a-new-campaign/

      It would have been a good idea for me to include a section on social contact. My drie when writing this was to push players to try to create PCs that fit the world.

    • crimfan

      The thing is, you don’t know who has triggers…. I grew up around a lot of veterans, for instance.

    • Pierre Savoie

      The whole concept of “triggers” is NONSENSE.

    • Steven Warble

      Prism (for FATE Core) also has robot dinosaurs, alternate realities intruding on ours, secret colors that can drive your enemies insane, crime families manipulating dream worlds… Sure, you could play it as “My little Pony” but you could also play it as Clive Barker’s Dreamlands.

    • crimfan

      Funny thing… my Great Uncle Arthur (RIP) stormed the beach at Normandy. I’m pretty sure he’d have just shook his head at equating adventure games with jumping off a landing craft.

      I’ve done nothing like him in my life, but if I heard about your little policy I’d leave, not because I haven’t played in or run some pretty tough games, but because you would have just sent up a really big red flag of fundamentally not respecting the people at the table.

    • Manos Ti

      You see, there is this thing in D&D; there are DMs who think that it is indeed a shared story (like Jesse who wrote the article) and others that think that the story is theirs and the players just play ball on the field you’ve set.

      Obviously, you are on the latter group.

  • Colin McLaughlin

    You might like this article as something of a companion piece, Jesse.

    http://www.tribality.com/2017/01/18/the-group-that-stays-together-slays-together/

    • Thanks for this resource!

  • MaxXimenez

    I will say this:

    Art isn’t doing its job properly unless someone is uncomfortable. If games are art, and I think most game creators and developers would say so, then part of playing a game is being uncomfortable.

    • There’s a difference between being uncomfortable and having BIG problems with a topic. I’m trying to address the latter here.

    • NickGC

      This is certainly true, but role-playing games are a special kind of art. They’re collaborative story telling. The group of artists involved in an RPG should be able to decide, as a whole, what themes they want to explore and which would ruin the fun.

  • Dave(s) 4 Goombella

    Wonderful article, Jesse. It’s always more fun to deal with difficult topics in an inclusive way, rather than forcing someone out if they can’t get completely on board with it.

    As an aside, what a lot of critics of “safe spaces” fail to realize is that the whole point of having a “safe space” is not always about absolutely excluding certain topics; it’s often about creating a respectful environment so that you can engage with those topics in a constructive way.

    • That’s part of what the O card does!

    • Pierre Savoie

      Three times the Admin has censored my proof of how bad a “safe space” can get. “Safe spaces” = censorship.

    • Links get blocked by default and have to be manually approved.

    • Pierre Savoie

      Your conclusions can only stand up because you are censoring crucial contrary information. Hang your head in shame, human progress does NOT come from rigged debates..

    • NickGC

      This is his website, he’s under no obligation to allow comments he doesn’t like. This isn’t a public square.

    • I’m confident that whatever type of space/table you are providing, I would not be interested in.

  • NickGC

    This is an interesting article, and a good take on a complex subject. I’ve been a GM off and on for about fifteen years, and while I’ve never had to deal with any highly sensitive subjects, I try to be aware of potentially uncomfortable real-world themes when running games.

    Role-playing games, by their very nature, are something of a “safe space” for behavior that would be considered strange or mocked under other circumstances (doing funny voices, pretending to be elves, etc.). Games are an escape for many people. It’s easy to see how that sense of fun and safety and escape could be ruined by the intrusion of certain themes.

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