A Touchy Subject: Political Incorrectness In RPGs
From Julia Pope
Roleplaying Tips Newsletter #149
- Figure Out How Far You Can Go
- Distance It From Reality
- Make Use Of Inversion
- Let The PCs Resist If They Want To
- 4a. (D&D Subsection) Alignment And Discrimination
- Make Your Controversial Groups Three-Dimensional
- If Everyone Is Comfortable, Pull Out The Stops
- New Reviews Of GM Mastery: NPC Essentials Posted
- Use The Earth For Fast Campaign Maps
- 2 More Alien Creation Tips
- 7 Lessons From The Trenches
- A Pair Of Dilemma Tips
- Character Development
- Make The PCs Sweat With Extended Challenges
Most of us play RPGs to escape reality for a short time. Consequently, gamers occasionally get uncomfortable when a fantasy world starts to remind them too much of the real world. Some GMs prefer that their self-designed world avoid particular problems inherent in the real one, such as sexism, racism, and other unpleasantness. Everyone gets along (except with evil people, of course), men and women are perfectly equal, and all people, regardless of race, creed, color, or age, have the same opportunities in society.
While there’s nothing wrong with such a game, I believe that controversial concepts and complications, used judiciously, can be a valuable contribution to the realism of the game world, as well as to the enjoyment of your players.
So, how can you incorporate politically incorrect situations into your world without offending your players as well as their characters?
Figure Out How Far You Can Go
First of all, get to know your players and find out how comfortable they are with a campaign that will deal with sensitive subjects like racism, sexism, homophobia, or other unpleasant topics. If they’re not happy thinking about such touchy areas, don’t force them — they’ll just wind up leaving your game when it gets too difficult for them.Most of the following tips can work well for groups that are comfortable with the idea of dealing with political incorrectness but might not react so well to a campaign that hits too close to home.
If you find your players are quite interested and comfortable, you can pull out all the stops, and my last tip will give some ideas in that direction. If the line between fantasy and reality ever becomes blurry, however, make it clear to your players that your own views are very different from those expressed by your NPCs.
Distance It From Reality
This is a good solution for groups who are particularly touchy about matters of political correctness. Make a fantasy race, not a real-world ethnic or religious group, the target of prejudice. For example, think of Tolkien’s feud between elves and dwarves, or of the classic Star Trek episode with two opposed races, each black on one side and white on the other.Perhaps, in your world, orcs are discriminated against by the other races who find them ugly, uncultured, or savage.
They might have difficulty being accepted into certain trades (say, ones that require them to handle food, or ones that might bring them into contact with children), and it would certainly be unusual to find an orc in a position of any power.Consequently, orcs might tend to live together in their own villages or in separate parts of the city (a ghetto might be the result). They might come to occupy certain traditional menial occupations. For example, street cleaners or rat catchers.Half-orcs could be in an even worse position — accepted by neither their mother’s or father’s people, they would fit in nowhere.
They might try to disguise the physical features that distinguish them as a half-breed, either with magical or mundane means, in order to “pass” in either society. The discovery that a local magistrate’s great-grandfather was an orc could lead to her social disgrace and rapid fall from authority. Any of this could be a description of real-world racism (replace the word “orc” with any racial, religious, or ethnic group you can think of), but applying it to a fantasy race makes it less immediate, and thus less potentially inflammatory.
Make Use Of Inversion
This technique is another way of making depictions of prejudice less personally offensive to your players. Take a real-world situation and turn it around, making the oppressed the oppressor and vice versa. In fantasy fiction and games, this has most often been done with the sexes — nations of Amazons where men are the weaker half of society at best, killed after mating at worst, are practically a cliche.
You don’t have to carry it to that extreme, but consider a culture ruled almost exclusively by queens instead of kings, where the eldest daughter inherits her mother’s property, men take their wives’ last names upon marriage, and girls tend to be more educated than their brothers. In such a society, a young man who wanted to study magic might be considered a dangerous rebel or a crusader for equal rights, depending on who you asked.
The standard cliche whereby a woman dresses as a man to join the army or the priesthood, or to attend university, could also be turned on its head to great advantage in this situation.Such inversion presents many interesting plot opportunities and encourages your players to stretch their role-playing muscles without coming too close for comfort to real-world controversies.
Let The PCs Resist If They Want To
If you decide to create a society in your game world that illustrates a particular prejudice, be prepared for your players to want to struggle against its constraints. In most groups, there will probably be at least one or two people who will design their characters to somehow challenge the prejudice in question.If a player wants to create a character from the relevant oppressed group, by all means encourage them to do so, but also let them know what they’ll be getting into.
Playing such a character can be great fun, but also a real challenge. In a world where females are not supposed to be involved in combat, a woman warrior will meet with much surprise, condescension, and outright hostility from her male counterparts, as well as from other women who see her as “unladylike”, at least until she proves herself, and possibly even thereafter.A character who is not himself oppressed but who sympathizes with the oppressed group is another popular option.
Be sure the player has an explanation for why his character does not discriminate against the lizardmen. Perhaps his life was saved by one or he has traveled among them enough to learn that their ways are not that different than his own. Such a character might be involved in an “underground railroad” type project, or might dissent in more subtle ways, such as by teaching members of the minority group to read or to use magic.Toppling a society-wide prejudice is not something that is done overnight, however.
Such a goal is not likely to ever be fully achieved in one character’s lifetime, and you as the GM should make it a very difficult undertaking — one that could in fact form the basis for an entire campaign.
4a. (D&D Subsection) Alignment And Discrimination
Can a good-aligned character still hold discriminatory views? I would argue that they certainly can. However, they would not be deliberately cruel. A paladin in a slave- owning society could certainly own slaves, for example, as long as he treated them well. He might view them as being very much like children or animals. And just as a paladin would not harm children or animals, he would not harm his slaves.
A paternalistic attitude could be common. Such a view would hold that it is the responsibility of the good-aligned character to look out for those she sees as less intelligent, less capable, or less fortunate than herself, whether those are men, halflings, or members of the Untouchable caste.
Of course, a good-aligned character (particularly a chaotic one) might also recognize the basic unfairness of the system more readily than a neutral or evil character, and would probably be more able to overlook an individual’s sex, race, religion, or skin colour and truly befriend them.
Make Your Controversial Groups Three-Dimensional
A fantasy culture should always be well-rounded, not just defined by a single overwhelming prejudice. It’s much more of a challenge for the PCs to encounter a group of people who are generally nice, hard-working, and pious, and who also burn suspected witches in their spare time, than it would be to simply depict the witch-burners as evil, nasty, and generally unsympathetic types.Similarly, remember that not all oppressed groups are peaceful, good-hearted, or forgiving.
It might be perfectly understandable for a group of slaves to rise up and kill their cruel master, but how should the PCs react to the rebel group’s stated intention to slay all of the members of their oppressors’ families, including children?One of the best reasons to include prejudices and inflammatory opinions in your games is to present the PCs with moral dilemmas, and you will do this more effectively if the problematic situations are complex and thought- provoking, not simply clear-cut, good-versus-evil problems.
If Everyone Is Comfortable, Pull Out The Stops
If you’re lucky enough to find a group of players who are genuinely at ease exploring controversial topics in RPGs, then take advantage of it! Push their boundaries. If you do it well, you will not only create a very memorable, emotionally powerful campaign, but you just might encourage your players to examine a few of their own prejudices, even if they think they don’t have any.Sexuality is a hot button for many people.
For instance, consider how a male PC might react to a situation where he is expected to marry the prince of a neighboring kingdom in order to secure an alliance.Age discrimination is another possibility. Think about a society where everyone over the age of fifty is supposed to be driven out of the community and allowed to starve because they are considered a drain on valuable resources.
Could a PC force his own mother to starve?Infanticide, particularly of children considered undesirable in some way (for example, if there are already too many children in the family, or if the baby is deformed, or if female in a society that does not value women) is another subject that could be productively explored through the medium of an RPG.Polygamy, incest, rape, ritual suicide, terrorism, human sacrifice, even attempts at genocide: challenge your players to think about these and similar controversial, uncomfortable subjects, and indeed to incorporate any of them into their characters’ beliefs and world-views.
Present them with morally ambiguous situations whenever possible.Finally, if you ever get the sense that you’ve gone too far and offended one or more of your players, take the opportunity after the game to talk about what exactly bothered them, and to explore the reasons they were troubled. In that way, you can ensure that your players continue to enjoy your game, which is after all (hopefully) the main reason we run these things anyway.
Phantasy Realm board game now available!!
Our first game, Phantasy Realm is a fantasy-adventure board game replete with vicious monsters, treasure hordes, magic items, and odd people. As a special bonus to Roleplaying Tips subscribers, Phantasy Realm and its expansions are offered at special discounted prices.
A Brief Word From Johnn
New Reviews Of GM Mastery: NPC Essentials Posted
Here’s what RPG.net had to say about my eBook:Review of NPC Essentials
Ordering info, sample pages, and other stuff for the eBook can be found at: http://www.gmmastery.com
NPC Side-Plots Downloads
- Todd Landrum, creator of DM’s Familiar, has taken the side-plots list from Issue #148 and laid it out in Tablesmith format (which DM’s Familiar now creates).It’s available at: http://www.paladinpgm.com/download/sideplot.tabTablesmith: http://www.mythosa.net/Utils.htmlDM’s Familiar: http://www.paladinpgm.com/dmf/
- Jim B. has created a random side-plot Excel spreadsheet generator: Sub Plots Randomizer On a related note, I goofed last issue and mis-numbered the side-plots. Zoinks! Thanks to the sharp-eyed readers who sent in a heads-up.
I’ll Be Hard To Reach
I always enjoy receiving your emails, whether they be criticisms, tips, or campaign stories. I’m set to work quite a bit of overtime at my day job until Christmas though, as there’s a few time-sensitive projects on the go. So, don’t stop writing in, but please be patient as I might be a little slow in responding.
Steve’s No Frill’s HackMaster Toolkit www.hmtk.com
Character dead? Only two hours of game time left? Don’t want to spend the rest of the session rolling dice? Your prayers have been answered. Witness the only Officially licensed HackMaster Character Toolkit! Whether you are a player or a GM you can whip out a character in minutes.
Tips From Roleplaying Tips Game Masters
Have a roleplaying tip you’d like to share? E-mail it to [email protected] – thanks!
Use The Earth For Fast Campaign Maps
From Lucian S.
Thanks for these great resources! I have a suggestion to go along with your online maps list: change the scale of the maps you find to disguise their identity and re-use them.
- Use a map of a South Pacific island as the basis for your western continent.
- Scale down Seattle until it’s the size of the local village.
- Take a digital photo of an interesting looking rock and use its outline for an island, forest, or lake.
Terrain is ‘fractal’, meaning that it’s as complex close-up as it is from far away. This can make for handy shortcuts when you’re creating maps.
2 More Alien Creation Tips
I’ve seen several tips now on how to create alien races/species, but something I have not seen yet for making them more individual is to tinker with their biology. How do they obtain energy? How do they reproduce? Watch some nature shows or read a few biology textbooks or magazine articles to get some interesting ideas.
Here are some samples:
Acquiring Energy And Associated Functions
On Earth, organisms can be put into two general groups: autotrophs (“self-feeders”) and heterotrophs (“other- feeders”). Autotrophs, such as plants, are organisms that can make their own energy-containing molecules. Most of the autotrophs we are familiar with use chlorophil to convert water and carbon dioxide into sugar and oxygen, and power this reaction with sunlight (photosynthesis). Some bacteria on the ocean floor use heat and sulphur to make their own food molecules.
Heterotrophs are anything that gets their energy from eating other organisms. This includes herbivores, since they eat plants. Scavengers and decay bacteria get their energy from eating things that are dead, but still have energy stored in them.
What kind of civilization would be built by mobile, sentient plants? Or what if a planet evolved animals that could photosynthesize their own energy?
Once you’ve eaten, you have to get rid of the waste products. This includes not only the solid and liquid wastes that goes into the sewers, but also gaseous products such as carbon dioxide. What if a species had a waste product that was extremely hazardous to humans? Or what if our waste products were toxic to them?
Organisms on Earth have many, many fascinating ways to spread their genes to the next generation. There’s bacteria with a single circular chromosome that reproduce by splitting (usually). Bees have either two sets of chromosomes (diploid) or one set (haploid), depending on whether they are female or male. The sex of crocodiles is determined by the incubation temperature of the egg, not the genes. There is a species of lizard which is all female — they still go through the motions of mating, but their eggs develop without being fertilized.
Beyond this, there are courtship rituals, internal vs. external fertilization, egg-laying vs. live birth, and varying levels of parental involvement in the care of the offspring. Imagine a sentient race evolved from a species with no parental involvement. They probably lay eggs in a hospitable place and then leave. The offspring would run around feral, struggling to survive on their own. The survivors would be rounded up at puberty, and inducted into their society. That would make for a very unusual society. Family ties would mean nothing — it’s likely their language would lack words for “mother” and “father”.
7 Lessons From The Trenches
From Brandon G.
I had a session last night that didn’t go well at all (I was tired, unprepared, and it was the first session I’ve GM’d in over year), and a few interesting things happened.
A group of three level one characters killed a level six cyberknight in less than one melee round (that’s 15 seconds for those non-RIFTS GMs out there). It blew my mind because I had forgotten how insanely efficient and powerful that this group was. My player group has always been a well-oiled machine. A total of six actions had been taken and the combat was over. As I was sitting there I asked for a two-minute recess to gather my thoughts and my players just sat there smirking.
So today I’ve been looking around the internet and moping. The rest of the session went about the same way and my players literally scoffed at what I had come up with. So here is (in my humble opinion) what went wrong:
I had a list of things in my head before the session that I had intended to do that never got off the ground. I do my best to keep Brennan O’Brien’s 9-Act format and Goal- Reversal in mind when I go into all my sessions [ RPT#36 – Adventure Writing Tips: The Goal Reversal & The 9-Act Format ], as that is hands-down the best role-playing advice I’ve ever received. When I started this session, the format and reversal had completely slipped my mind and I was left with a weak plot line that was lacking depth
I was completely unprepared. You see, I’m a mediocre to good GM, and I can GM-on-the-fly, but I only had the vaguest idea of what I wanted to happen when I went into the game, and didn’t really spend any time thinking about how that might be instituted in the game because I was confident in the back of my mind that I could handle it and wing-it if I needed to, which I had to, but which I failed horribly at. I knew that I wanted to put my players through a few “test” missions by their employer, but I didn’t know exactly what they were going to be doing, nor which direction I wanted the game to go.
I didn’t spend time thinking “What would I do if I were in this NPC’s situation?” The game did not flow like I like them to because of this. I like having realistic NPCs, but this time I just had a back-drop.
I panicked and went too fast. See, I had this long-term plan in mind (also split into O’Brien’s 9-act format), which was excellent. In cases such as this, I could merely further the plot of the thing just by moving onto the next big step. That way, even if I was short on sub-plots, I’d always have the super-plot to fall back on. Unfortunately, I had to resort to doing this during the very first session. It was disastrous because I still didn’t have anything planned for the next step in the super-plot, and I realized that we would just be continuing like that until the end of the plot, which would suck. So I called it a night and went home and thought about it.
I woke up the next morning with a clearer picture of what went wrong and where, and how to keep that from happening again in later sessions.
So here’s a summation:
- Always be prepared, this is the most important part, even if you wing it.
- Don’t Panic! (Subtle nod to the Hitch-hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy).
- Slow down and think.
- Keep a list of your goals in your head (or on paper) at all times.
- Never underestimate the players, for they are a billion times more efficient, powerful, and smarter than the most efficient, powerful, and intelligent god in your game, period.
- Never over-estimate your own abilities as a GM, always have a contingency plan or plot just in case the players ruin your current plans.
- Never rail-road the players.
I just threw that last one in for good measure. I’ve been toying with the idea of throwing out some tips for those RIFTS GMs out there, but all RPGs are the same in one respect: any tip for one RPG can be adapted to any other RPG, and any advice I could possibly give as RIFTS GM has been covered in more depth than I ever possibly could hope to on RolePlayingTips.com. The only advice I could possibly give on GMing I just gave you, the most important one being DON’T PANIC.
Panic keeps you from thinking clearly, so don’t do it. As a GM, it is your job to be omniscient in your world, and you can’t fulfill that duty if you’re scrambling for material. So I guess the two big ones are DON’T PANIC and BE PREPARED. Even on-the-fly GMs should have more stuff in their heads than what I had.
A Pair Of Dilemma Tips
From Jay Steven Anyong
So you’ve been GMing for nearly a year now, and again, like so many weekends before this one, you find yourself sitting down and planning your next game. You’ve got everything ready: a rich and detailed setting, a fleshed out world with notable NPCs, and a solid cast of Player Characters ready for their next adventure. Unfortunately, you’ve suddenly hit a brick wall when it comes to the bad guy.
Whether it’s flipping through a Monster Manual for the bad guy of the week, or wracking your brains and popular literature for a villain concept, you find yourself coming up with squat. Somehow, things have grown stale, and your heart sinks in disappointment at the sudden realization that your ability to throw new and innovative challenges at your players seems to have dried up…
That is not the case.
For most established games (or even some new ones) the issue of dilemmas as plot hooks is a valuable hint. Dilemmas aid GMs in two ways:
The characters involved are put in a situation where their gun and swords are only part of the equation. Dilemmas push the moral codes of the PCs, daring them to question their values to arrive at a solution to a problem. Themes such as sacrifice, overcoming self-imposed limitations, and even falling from a stringent code of ethics can all be explored in a dilemma situation.
This creates a memorable experience for a player, as he is suddenly put in the spotlight as something very important is put at risk.
An even better part of this is if the dilemma is introduced to the group. A lot of inter-player interaction usually follows, especially if the characters do not share a common code of morals. Discussion, debate, and even fights can come up should the characters not get along. Most importantly though, the players will be able to get a better handle on their characters.
Admit it. As GMs, we love to see our players start to fret. A dilemma adds tension and conflict to the game in a different level than combat. While combat can be a nerve- wracking affair (when combined with good pacing and vivid descriptions… but that’s another article) some groups have been playing so long that combat loses its edge, and going up against a horde of vampires inspires nothing more than a bored yawn.
However, dilemmas can add tension due to the promise of an unfavorable result due to inaction. Dilemmas revolve around choices, and it would be best for the GM to make sure that inaction also counts as a choice for the characters.
GMs should also stress the implied results of doing or not doing something about the given situation. And for more sadistic GMs, you can crank up the tension even more by applying a time limit. Nothing as blatant as a 30 second timer, but for each in-game day that passes, the characters begin to feel the results of their action/inaction.
Any good dilemma revolves around the feeling of permanent change, and a GM would do well to make sure that whatever changes a dilemma causes will remain in place. Did the lawyer PC refuse to help a member of a white-supremacist group when he was being unjustly tried for a murder he did not commit? Have several group members watching him at one time or another. Perhaps leave a message on his car in spray paint.
The media will be hounding him all day for an interview, and will insist on insinuating that he is also a racist during air time. You could go the whole nine yards and have a burning cross in the character’s front yard. On the other hand, if he did help out the white-supremacist, have black neighbors avoid him, local punks start harassing him, and maybe steal his car tires. Either way, these consequences will be long reaching and permanent.
The PCs Must Care
Take note that Dilemma based plots and stories will only work if the character is sufficiently indoctrinated to actually care about what is happening. And so, as a final word of advice, I’d like to remind GMs to tailor their games to fit to their characters. Some characters might not even shed a tear at the wholesale slaughter of NPCs in a town they’ve never visited, but will break down at the story of an innocent man about to be hanged for stealing bread to feed his children. As a GM, you alone know your players’ preferences, and you should use that to your advantage.
Make The PCs Sweat With Extended Challenges
From Jeff W.
One of the biggest obstacles to exciting climactic battles in RPGs is brevity of combat. Note that I’m not directly talking about DEADLINESS of combat — a combat can be both brief and deadly, and in fact the two correlate more often than not. The problem is that while danger is exciting, BRIEF danger is anti-climactic.
The ideal situation, then, is one of ongoing danger, which is desirable and possible in simpler encounters.
The key lies in increasing the defenses of the Big Bad. In D&D, this might be a very high AC or many HP. In Cyberpunk, it might be EMP-shielded full-borging. In Champions, it might be a good PD and ED and Damage Reduction. It doesn’t really matter how it’s accomplished. The idea is to make sure that it’s (nearly) impossible to take the Big Bad out quickly because “take out quick” and “make PCs sweat” are mutually exclusive.
The only real worry when using this technique is that the GM must also adjust the Big Bad’s offense DOWNWARD. Otherwise, he’s going to have quite a few dead PCs on his hands as the foe mows through the heroes while the heroes are still looking for the chinks in his armor.
Luckily, this is fairly easy to do. Most of the same things a GM uses to up the Big Bad’s defense can serve as an excuse to penalize his offense. i.e. yes, he has substantial cover, but in using it, he can’t make full use of his archery skill. Or maybe the full-borg is very slow, except for the occasional energy-boost that lets him move fast, but then it must recharge.
Note that this technique can be used in other contexts as well. Shadowrun, for instance, is a game in which information gathering is of great importance, and so sometimes information is structured so that it’s impossible to get all at once, but over time and with effort PCs can collect most of it.