The other day I was being made aware that a player at UK Games Expo was drawn into a scenario that contained a gang rape and a kidnapping of their characters. They had not been aware of this content and they had not consented to it. The reason I found out about it was because someone had tweeted a response from a fairly well known game creator who thought that this was okay because Things from the Flood is a horror game. An article on BBC brought this up as well, but the people who reported the incident weren’t entirely comfortable with the portrayal of events by BBC and made a complaint. I’ll link the article regardless, just read it with a pinch of salt.
I would argue that horror comes in many forms and if a GM is intent on using sexual violence or any potentially disturbing subject in their campaign, one-shot or wherever they choose to do it, this is something the GM needs to think about:
- Do I know these people? Do I know where their limits are?
- Do these people trust me to not take things too far?
- Do I trust them to tell me when they feel uncomfortable?
- What’s the setting? As in real life, what’s the setting? Are we in someone’s home, or in a commercial setting?
- Have my players paid to be a part of this experience?
- Do these people know each other?
- Have my players been informed of the potentially controversial content in my game? Have I warned them before starting to play?
When I was involved in running conventions, I usually went to around 5 – 8 conventions a year. On several occasions I was drawn into situations I didn’t enjoy. Sometimes these were situations bordering on sexual harassment. Sometimes they were situations brought on by not knowing if a situation playing out in front of me was real or playacting. Gaming. Sweden was one of the places where free-forming took hold very early, and free-forming often investigated social situations where people were more emotional than anything else. Free-form comes from not relying on rules, being more focused on storytelling.
At one convention, the board that ran the convention received a lot of complaints. They received the complaints because visitors who were not involved in a freeform scenario were pulled into it against their will and made to play out parts they were not aware that they were playing. In short, the players and the GMs of this scenario hadn’t sought consent. The adventure in itself wasn’t a horror adventure. It wasn’t violent. It wasn’t even PG rated, but it did cause visitors to the con a lot of discomfort, because they didn’t consent to be used as NPCs.
At another convention I was made the butt of a sexual “joke”. I wasn’t allowed out of the joke despite being fairly clear with the GM that I didn’t enjoy it. He didn’t care, and continued with it until we, me and my group, left. I can’t remember if we finished the whole adventure or if we left before the session ended. I just know we were all upset about it and didn’t enjoy it. Why? Because we didn’t consent to the treatment of me.
At yet another convention, me and my friends played an adventure about child prostitution. It had sex demons raping children. It was super uncomfortable, and yet it’s one of the best adventures I’ve ever played at a convention. Why? Because the GM told us beforehand. He gave us an opportunity to say stop whenever we felt uncomfortable. He told us that we would be shocked by the content but he also told us “it’s okay to say stop”. Believe me, we did, at multiple occasions. It was still a very good adventure.
Let’s go through the points, one by one.
Do I know these people? Do I know where their limits are?
If the answer to the first question is “no”, then you have no idea what their limits are. You need to ask. In a situation like the one above, you don’t necessarily have to spoil the adventure or go through the shocking parts of it to get a handle on limits. Ask about sexual violence. Ask about domestic violence. Ask if there are any subjects that are out of bounds. Even better. When you run the adventure, advertise about the content. You don’t have to be specific. Put an age limit on it. Enforce the age limit. At the table at the con, go through each point again. This adventure contains sexual violence. This adventure is uncomfortable. Do it with respect.
Even if you’re running the game with people you know it might be worth going through this process.
Do these people trust me to not take things too far?
If you don’t know them, then no they probably won’t. But remember, as a GM at a convention, you’re in a position of authority. Your job is to guide the players through the adventure. If you have been trusted with an adventure that contains grown up subjects, sexual violence, domestic violence, that means that you are being trusted with the well being of the players as well. I’ll get back to that in a bit.
If the players know you… well, let’s just say that there are people around me that I’ve played with that I wouldn’t trust with an adventure that could potentially be upsetting.
Do I trust them to tell me when they feel uncomfortable?
Do you know your players well enough to trust that they’ll tell you when they feel uncomfortable? If you’re at a con, and you’re not playing with your own group, I’d say the answer to this question is most likely “no”. This ties back to the point above. You are in a position of authority. Not only is that true, but a player feeling uncomfortable may not want to interrupt the game for other players because they don’t want to ruin the game. In addition to that, on many cons, gaming groups are not necessarily friends, or even know each other. Ask yourself how you would feel if you interrupted a game because you were uncomfortable and was met with groans of “don’t be such a wuss”.
What’s the setting? As in real life, what’s the setting? Are we in someone’s home, or in a commercial setting?
Interrupting a game at home is usually okay. Usually. But in a commercial setting like a convention? There’s no safety there. One can argue that it’s even worse to be put through something like this at someone’s home, but let’s stick with the convention setting here. Where do I run to? Not many places to go. No parents (if you’re still a child or teenager living at home) and no way to eject people from your own home or no way to (usually) leave to go home. Conventions, in particular for women, are not safe spaces unless they’re made to be.
Have my players paid to be a part of this experience?
If your players have paid to have an experience, it’s even more important that the experience is okay and since role-playing is an interactive experience – we built it together – it’s even more important to get it right. My worst experiences have been with inflexible or one track mind GMs. My best have been with GMs who barely touch what the players are doing, they’re just gently pushing the action forwards. If I’ve paid to be a part of an experience, that experience better not traumatise me, unless I explicitly ask for it. Consent, again.
Do these people know each other?
In addition to that, on many cons, gaming groups are not necessarily friends, or even know each other. Ask yourself how you would feel if you interrupted a game because you were uncomfortable and was met with groans of “don’t be such a wuss”, especially if you’re in a group where you don’t know anyone.
Have my players been informed of the potentially controversial content in my game? Have I warned them before starting to play?
In short, do your players know what they’re getting into?
One mechanic that’s been created and is fairly well adopted around consent and content is the x-card strategy. Simply put, it’s a card with an X on it. If at any point, a player is made uncomfortable with the content of the game, they just hold up the X, no questions asked. The X card can be played at any time, and at that point, the GM steers away from whatever it is that they’re doing on to another track. Here’s a blog post about the mechanic. There are a couple of indie games that have adopted this mechanic as well, so don’t be surprised if you see this or other mechanics to handle consent in running games around the web and in a TTRPG near you.
If You’re the GM, it’s up to You
My convention career was at it’s height about 10 years ago, and it lasted for about 12 years. During that time, I had a lot of bad GMs. I had a lot of good GMs as well. When I was playing the most, I even want to believe I was a good GM myself. What does unite the good GMs I had, though, was a willingness to listen to their players. To feel the room. To be a silent partner, more or less, in the storytelling.
What signified a bad GM was a GM who always wanted to be in control. Who told players what to do, when to do it. Who forced a narrative on the players.
What you do when you’re a GM is up to you, but you have a lot of responsibility, especially at a con. There may not be rules for this at the convention. There may be situations where you have to figure this out by yourself. When you end up in those situations, be the good GM. Listen to your players. Be a partner, not someone who needs to be always in control.