RPPR Episode 123: Pushing the Envelope

Base-Raider-Death-Traps-Volume-1-Cover-DrivethruNews: Death Traps: Volume 1 is out for Base Raiders! This supplement was co-written by Caleb, so be sure to check it out. Buy it on DrivethruRPG or at the Base Raiders store. Check out the free artwork produced via the RPPR Patreon.

Synopsis: Covering mature or sensitive topics in games is a challenge. Messing up can alienate players and result in a bad game. Dan, Tom, Aaron, and I discuss how we would approach these issues in a game. Shaun also comes in to bring a bit of historical context in gaming by talking about how major publisher White Wolf used the Black Dog Studios imprint. We also have shout outs and anecdotes.

Shout Outs

Music: Rush by Run Vaylor.

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  1. It was nice to see you guys talking about this, and the timing was great. Our Gods&Monsters campaign has been brushing up against some serious topics lately. A lot of parental themes, pregnancy, child raising, and no the darker side, conquest an sexual assault. We haven’t been playing the scenes of horrific violence, but focusing on how the different community’s our gods rule over deal with those traumas.

    It was useful being able to listen to how others deal with similar stuff.

  2. I love that you guys talked about this. I have a player who has a mental disorder and wants to play themselves in a modern game but we can’t find a system that uses a mechanic that best describes how she feels her mental illness manifest.

  3. Haven’t finished listening yet but my 2p. Atomic Robo was a great palate cleanser. Also I remember saying on God’s Teeth 1 that I trust RPPR implicitly at this point. The way that Caleb described the Orphanage etc set the tone perfectly. Also like Sredni Vastar it made me bare my teeth once I realized the context of the perfect children’s room.

    I always thought that mental illness not working like it should was rather fitting for lovecraft and cosmic horror. Not being able to comprehend being a major theme and all. I therefore draw a distinction between cthulhu madness and the regular kind. The whole “that shouldn’t work that way” makes it scarier.

  4. Pt. 2 Dan is on point (do you have soundcloud? Kind of have times I want to comment on specific parts of the cast).

    As someone who manages a meetup group who’s main membership are 15-17 year olds some of whom are going through some stuff better believe I make sure I put content warnings on things and don’t hesitate to regulate when needed when I’m sitting at the table.

    I still haven’t finished listening yet but I was thinking, you guy’s found a better term than murder hobo yet? I’ve been trying to train myself to say “typical adventurer” instead.

    Also agree that on top of everything else that rape is a cheap storytelling device these days.

  5. For the topic of the possible homophobia in the printing of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles and Other Strangeness, it might also help to take the historical context into perspective. The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM), a publication by the American Psychiatric Association, listed “homosexuality” as a mental disorder until 1974, where it changed it to “sexual orientation disorder.” It changed again in 1980 to “ego-dystonic homosexuality,” and wasn’t removed altogether until 1987. Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles and Other Strangeness wasn’t published until 1985, so it could have just been that the writers entered “homosexuality” into a rollable table of mental disorders because it was listed in a widely used reference manual. Either way, it’s a messed up situation, but it’s not enough to hesitate to say the game’s name for fear of… I don’t know exactly what Shaun was afraid of by saying the game’s name.

    Going onto the topic of using mind control to build your perfect partner, the show Buffy: The Vampire Slayer used that dramatic device. Their resident witch, Willow, wiped her girlfriend’s mind to remove memories of how her spell casting harmed her friends. Her girlfriend later found out the truth when a slick dancing demon came into town and made folks reveal their secrets through song.

  6. As I’m listening I just had a thought about how to make players accept mistreatment by capturers. After the capture you tell them “your character was mistreated. We are not playing that part, but you are going to tell me what happened to your character”. That way the player keeps some of the agency and also can draw the line at any place he is comfortable with.

  7. Enjoyed the show. As I mostly play Call of Cthulhu, I think there are a couple of products that engage with mental illness in a more sophisticated way. foremost among these being one of the sections of “Unseen Masters”.

    I know I felt it important to do a lot of research on eating disorders for my cult that appeared in the Unspeakable Oath #24 so that I did not either treat the subject flippantly or in a way that trivialized real suffering.

    Oddly I did write a shotgun scenario in which Delta Green agents were required to safely interact with someone with a mental illness, with a twist, in my 2009 entry “Unfriendly”. http://fairfieldproject.wikidot.com/unfriendly

  8. I have a guy in my group who defaults to torture.

    In the game we are currently playing playing, his ‘good’ character burnt the toes of an NPC.

  9. Thanks for this discussion. I’ve been thinking about this sort of thing in writing my Civil War Cthulhu scenarios. I’ve had to think through potential “envelope pushing” problems on a variety of levels, especially since I’m trying to work toward eventual publication.

    For one thing, I’ve consciously decided to avoid “period-appropriate speech” — i.e. we don’t say the N-word at the table, even though it would be historically accurate for characters to do so. This hasn’t been a problem in any sessions I’ve run, but I suspect in a published work it would be worth writing a sidebar about.

    On a more complicated level, I view my games as partially a form of participatory education. So, among other historically-distinctive viewpoints that I want my players to experience, I sometimes want them to think about how their characters might hold racial opinions that we now consider awful and backward, even if they aren’t deliberately playing “evil” characters. But I don’t ever try to force my players to perform in a manner that violates their personal conscience or beliefs. If that sacrifices some degree of historical accuracy, that’s okay.

    And on a deeper plot-level, I’m trying — in a vague sense — to use the fantasy of Lovecraftian horror to confront some very heavy real-world horrors safely and meaningfully. Like Dan mentions early in this episode, sometimes a person can accept a scenario about Deep Ones committing unspeakable acts when they couldn’t accept a more realistic scenario about sexual assault. Similarly, I hope that a scenario about a blood-drinking monster living beneath a plantation could be a way to safely confront the brutality of American slavery.

    Overall, I think what Ross and the others say is true: the most important things are (1) to be open and accepting of any problems your players might have; and (2) to ensure that if you’re using a dark or troubling element, that you’re doing so seriously and meaningfully rather than just for shock or amusing titillation.

  10. Aarons the Man in the Van, so Wheels. Whos gonna be the Legman?

    Also good episode for handling sensitive topics.

  11. In response to Ross’ shoutout of Showa 1939-1944 and the historical effort to secure an alliance with the US: The Korean action thriller 2009: Lost Memories featured an alternate timeline where the US and Imperial Japan were allied against Nazi Germany. In this timeline events diverged when Ito Horibumi’s assassination in 1909 was prevented, and the Korea peninsula remains under Japanese control in the present. Reviews are mixed, but I thought it was worth a watch.

  12. Personally, I enjoy partaking in role-playing games because they give me the opportunity to act and present myself in a way contrary to my day-to-day countenance as well as provide an outlet for my more base intrusive thoughts. While there are few if any role-playing topics I would shy away from, I do respect that not everyone is as nonchalant about these things as me. Lots of good discussion in this episode on how to deal with these topics at large and I certainly appreciate your discourse. (I also might have just listened to the Dying Earth scenario, and apparently my more loquacious nature has arisen.)

  13. Another lively discussion – I agree that you could probably get a few more episodes out of some of these topics, to be honest. It definitely makes sense as something to discuss for a God’s Teeth post-mortem.

    As an additional topic, I feel that for some players, bringing up sex at all in a game can make them uncomfortable. Maybe not “I’d like to stop playing” but “this is not an aspect of the setting/character that I want to engage with.”

    On the side of “assumed okay” – seems like murder/character death are just assumed to be fair topics in most RPGs – probably mostly due to the hobby’s roots in wargaming and D&D. Still, the consequences of that violence on communities or people who knew the murdered person are generally downplayed or left out entirely.

    One way to handle potentially surprising but upsetting topics that I’ve seen at convention games is an “X card” or red card. In one game, we were playing a Fiasco-like improv game, so there was no real way to know what would come up. The GM handled it by placing a red card in the center of the table and saying that anyone could tap the card to undo the last thing that came up. They didn’t have to explain themselves, there would be no discussion of it – it would just mean “rewind and overwrite.” (This was at Games on Demand at GenCon.)

    I thought that was a reasonable approach – while it can still single someone out a little bit, it offers an immediate, non-confrontational response. No one used the card, but I felt like it let everyone go a bit darker with strangers while maintaining a safety net.

    I’ve seen some discussion, too, on indy game boards about lines vs. veils. A veiled topic might be something that the group decides they can deal with being presented at a distance – maybe the cult is doing bad things to children or animals but you never see it head-on. A line is something that the group absolutely doesn’t want in the game at all.

    To be honest, I’ve had players throw out very dark bits of character backstory that I wasn’t expecting. But it’s not something you can just assume, especially because you don’t know everyone’s history.

    As a closing thought, I think horror games are the most tricky for this – because they are meant to cause some feelings of dread or even discomfort, without crossing into genuine distress or deeper hurts.

  14. Loved the discussion. I personally when playing in grimdark try to remember Caleb’s quote that no one wakes up in the morning and says, “Today I shall do EVIL!” Running games is harder for me because adults in my groups who are unsettled by Poltergeist and younger people who respond to stuff like Saw with eyerolls are hard to plan disturbing for in the first place.

  15. I really loved this discussion. The RPPR crew has always been great at addressing mature themes. I don’t just mean grimdark stuff, but the philosophical dilemmas and conflicts of the real world.

    I have been trying figure out how to use games to talk about some of the darker problems we see IRL. If you have the research or experience to convey the topic i recommend it. If you have a group that is game for it. I think that in the context of a game, it can actually create, what I think Caleb did in God’s Teeth: Go Forth, anf ESPECIALLY what Dan did in his MaOCT which is create a Safe Space for discussion and understanding.

    In that vein…
    I ran a game, that dealt with the issue of child abduction and disappearance. At one point a taken child dies, the victim of an harsh inexplicable universe full of eldritch horrors. The players actually set the scenario so i knew i could trust them that I could o there. Somehow the child being the victim of these cosmic horrors made it palatable. It was the first rwal horror game I ran and we all agree it was one of the most satisfying games we all played. It has become group canon and most referenced game now.

  16. Dan, thank you very much for being the voice of this episode. I really did learn a lot from your explanations, and have helped reformulate my view on certain things. It is exceptionally appreciated.

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