#RPGaDay2020 Day 23 - "Edge"
There is nothing wrong with edgy entertainment; millions of people like it. Whether it's the dystopian world of Katniss and District 12, the sympathetic vampires of Anne Rice, or the pre-battle rituals of a man who claims "I am...father to a murdered son, husband to a murdered wife. And I will have my revenge in this life or the next." Some people even can appreciate the horrifying rendition of "Singing in the Rain" as performed by Malcolm McDowell. Our society has consistently shown that we like at least some of the entertainment we consume to have an edge.
The fact is, dark themes resonate with people. Some people like to be there with the villain, and even to root for them. Others like to see how bad things can get before somebody rises up to take down the evil authority. Some like to safely get into the heads of the bad people, and some just like to have that dark itch tickled occasionally before returning to their normal life.
Role playing games are no different. Some games actually encourage dark themes. Vampire: The Masquerade and Werewolf: The Apocalypse both do. They have a dark setting which encourages violence, hard choices, and has built-in mechanics to drag characters down as they play. For example, vampires need blood to keep their power going..if there isn't a willing subject nearby, what do they do to support their mission? Do they go into the final battle weak, or take somebody's blood by force and risk their Humanity?
Paranoia is hilarious, but it's dark humor. You go into the game knowing that your character is setup to fail in multiple ways within the Alpha Complex dystopia. The GM and other players will be trying to kill you at the first opportunity, and the only saving grace is that you might be able to do the same thing to them, either before or after. (You get six clones. "After" is an option.)
The grandfather of all these games is, of course, Call of Cthulhu. In that game, you are likely to go insane, die, or worse over the course of an evening. And if you manage to survive, it just starts off worse the next time until you lose. It's based on stories like "The elder gods will rise, and everything will die" or "There are things in the world that are truly bad, and they are out to get you" or the least/most dark "There are things man was not meant to know. You went looking. What did you think was going to happen?"
And what's true after all these years? These games are fun. It's fun to be the bad guy. It's fun to watch your character's sanity slip away, and hope that maybe your last bit of health will go first. It's fun for your character to shoot other characters, and know that within the game's weird rules--they totally deserved it."
Quick Paranoia Story, just to make the last example clear:
Our party of troubleshooters came across a bunch of people on a boat. We asked these boat people a question, and they replied "Nyet." Everybody in the party screamed "COMMIES!" and proceeded to shoot everybody on the boat. As a player, I watched this with a confused look on my face, then thoughtfully (in character) monologued to the GM. "The guys on the boat said "Nyet" and everybody knew that was about communism. I didn't know that "Nyet" had anything to do with communism. How would they know that unless....GASP!!!!" (And proceeded to shoot all the other characters for being communists.) The other players laughed and congratulated me, as they realized they'd totally been had. That story is funny...and dark.
Even in normal games, things are often dark, even in the most straightforward of fantasy storylines. That said, one of the things I love as a GM is to put players into the gray. I enjoy creating situations where they really don't have a good option, and they have to pick one that fits their characters viewpoint the best--and sometimes the action they take actually helps define who the character is.
One example of this was that the players met a Rakshasa in my D&D game. (Rakshasa in my world are basically physical dreams manifested. They are immensely powerful, but bound by the rules of the dreams that create them.) This particular one lived on the road and ate people who traveled the road after dark. He did this, because that's what the people of the area expected and so he had to. The party came to him, because he had a key to the city of the Illithid. They couldn't just take it, so they had to trade for it. They traded a cloak that would grant him mobility from his roadside lair...setting him loose on the world for the much-needed key.
Should the characters have killed the nightmare spirit, and found another way into the city? Was their quest to save an entire country more important than the chaos the spirit might cause when it became free to wander? There was no right answer to this...and the party ultimately made the decision. They decided that if they heard of problems, they'd hunt it down...so assuaged their conscience a bit.
To bring this to a close, my current campaign has a bit of dark built into the premise. The players spent almost 15 gaming years in the lawful meritocracy of Thorin. Now my new campaign has them in the much older, more chaotic and more corrupt country of Buchar. It's a land of bribes, secrets, old gods who may still be around, people keeping track of favors. People may be lawful or good, but my co-creator and I have coined the phrase "Buchar lawful" meaning that something may be alignment-lawful...but still possibly illegal.
Monte Cook Games, as part of their Your Best Game Ever book, created a free downloadable guide called "Consent in Gaming." This guide, by Sean Reynolds and Shanna Germain, is designed to help the GM ensure that everybody has fun, by understanding more about the players, and keeping the themes of a game within their emotional safety zone.
In all games, I am explicit that my tables are safe spaces. Any person is welcome to play, and should feel safe while they are there. People of any race, religion (or lack thereof), LGBTQ+ or straight, and also introverts are welcome at my table. This book takes that approach one step further, through three simple tools. (There are more, but this is the gist.)
First, they have a checklist of things that might make someone uncomfortable, such that the game would not feel safe or fun. If you have players fill those out, then as a GM, you know what edgy topics should be left off the table with that group.
Second, the book also introduces the concept of a pause. If the story is going in a direction that someone is uncomfortable with, they can just let you know, and as the GM, you agree to stop that narration, plot element or whatever, and move things in a different direction. There is no obligation that this be tied to their form. If they didn't think that doing X would bother them, and it does as portrayed, then they just let you know.
Finally, they suggest that as GM, you don't ask why something makes them uncomfortable, or make them justify it in any way. You don't question their request. You just support the player and their request and move on with the game.
It's that simple. At no point does the guide say what you can or can't do. It provides advice and tools to make sure your players enjoy themselves. And if your players are up for murder puppies who live in the world of Watership Down and stealing food from starving elderly bunnies is their thing...the crew at MCG applauds your creativity. They hope you have a wonderful time, and may even want to join the game if you run it again. The tools are to let you know if someone DOES have a problem with that ahead of time, so they can either not join that session, or allow you change the adventure so it's murder kitties instead, when the player says they don't have a problem with that.
For some reason, this book, which does nothing more than support the idea of wanting players to have a good time at the table, is controversial. The product and authors have serious detractors, which I absolutely do not understand (and if someone does understand, I don't want it explained.) I not only applaud the product, the people who wrote it and the company who encourages such broad and inclusive thinking, but directly appreciate that they have given me a set of tools to double-ensure that my players never regret showing up at my table.