Reading Walt’s recent Fair or Foul: Death by Fiat article reminded me of a related incident from many years ago — one that’s interesting to look back on, and which includes a surprising number of serious GMing problems.
I was probably around 13 or 14 at the time, and was a the lone player in a solo Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay campain. My character was ambushed by brigands and wasn’t able to fight them off. No problem — that’s part of the game, and I could have decided to run instead of trying to fight. Here’s the exchange that followed:
GM: “Then they take you into their tent, strip off all your clothes, and rape you.”
Me: “That doesn’t happen.”
GM: *pauses* “Okay.”
Me: “I run away before anything happens.”
GM: “Okay, but you’re naked because they took all your clothes.”
Me: “No, I have all my clothes. Let’s just say the whole thing didn’t happen.”
I don’t think my GM meant anything by it — we were both teenage boys, and “LOL, buttsex” is like the pinnacle of teenage boy humor. (Well, minus the “LOL,” because the web didn’t exist back then…) My guess is that he probably just thought it would be funny. We moved on, kept playing, and remained friends; no big deal.
…yet, more than 20 years later, I still remember this incident. Not because it was traumatic, although I can certainly see how it might have been for someone else, but because of the fascinating knot of gaming- and GMing-related issues this brief exchange raised: narrative control, transgressing boundaries, and the need for a social contract.
In this scene, my GM exerted narrative control over my character that broke one of the core elements of the vast majority of RPGs: because players control their characters, the GM needs to give them opportunities to react to in-game situations, either through mechanics or roleplaying or both, in any situation of significance.
While the GM has narrative control over many, many aspects of the game, unless a situation is so minor that it doesn’t matter, or a reason has been established that violates this principle (like failing a saving throw and being mentally dominated by an NPC), players have narrative control over their characters. If you say, “Your character opens the door,” that character’s player isn’t likely to care — that’s so minor as to be irrelevant. It’s just color.
But by narrating a scene where my character was raped by brigands without giving me an opportunity to try and avoid the situation, guess the briagands’ attention beforehand, roll to escape, or otherwise exert a measure of narrative control over my character, my GM crossed a major line.
As GMs, we need to remember that while we control countless aspects of the game, including numerous characters, our players each generally control just one: their PCs. A PC represents a major investment in the game, and unless you’re playing a game that handles narrative control in a different way (and there are plenty of those out there), tread lightly when dictating outcomes or wresting control from your players.
More significant than my GM’s inappropriate use of narrative control, though, was his transgression of a personal boundary: I didn’t think we were playing the kind of game where my character could be raped.
If before the session he’d said “There’s a scene in this adventure where some villains are going to try to rape your character,” I would have said, “That’s not something I want to have in the game.” Twenty years later, I’ve played explicit and mature campaigns, and found them fascinating — I might answer differently. But back then, this wasn’t a part of why I gamed.
There’s no hard and fast rule for what constitutes a boundary that you shouldn’t transgress in your game, but there are some obvious candidates, including rape, explicit sex, abuse, child murder, and genocide. Many people don’t want those things included in their games, and will be put off, offended, or possibly traumatized by their inclusion. Imagine, for example, if I’d been raped or sexually abused as a child — the scene I described would have seriously bothered me in ways I can only imagine.
As a rule of thumb, then: If you think something might be too mature, intense, or otherwise not appreciated by your players, don’t put it in the game. Unless, of course, you talk about it first — which brings me to social contracts.
The Need for a Social Contract
In a gaming context, a social contract is a set of ground rules that the group agrees on before starting to play. We’ve written quite a bit about social contracts here on the Stew, as it’s a big topic; here’s a good starting point if the idea is new to you: Laying the Ground Rules — “Are you thinking what I’m thinking?”
With regard to the rape scene I described at the beginning of this article, one aspect of the issue could have been avoided entirely if my GM and I had established a social contract. He could have said, for example, “The Warhammer world is a grim place filled with evil people. I want to take you out of your comfort zone and explore some twisted shit in this game. Is that cool?” We then could have unpacked that, discussed it, and agreed on some boundaries.
It doesn’t matter what you and your players like to include in your games — that’s no one’s business but yours. Lots of folks, myself included, like to game for reasons other than pure escapism, and experiencing dark, weird, and unpleasant stuff in a gaming context can be fascinating (if not always fun). But as the GM, if you want to run this kind of game you have the obligation to discuss it with your players beforehand — not spring it on them mid-game.
Gaming is Complicated!
I don’t have a grand conclusion here — I just thought this incident provided an interesting, and potentially instructive, example of how complicated gaming can be sometimes. As a GM, this incident reminds me how much is happening at the table, and how important it is to step back and consider the most important aspects of the game both beforehand and periodically during play.
In the end, what matters is that you and your group have fun. Establishing a social contract, being careful about transgressing boundaries, and being mindful about exerting narrative control over the PCs will all contribute to your group’s enjoyment of the game.
on the other hand. From your example it seems like your gm was more than willing to back up once you raised the issue. I’ve played some games where the dm took over the pc’s (has them taken prisoner without any rolls whatsoever) and when confronted with that would not move an inch from his position. It happened that way, we were in jail, previous laid contacts would not answer our calls etc…
The first time we played a Shadowrun game with a new GM (a starnge boy), all goes well, but after few minuts we have to go in a house, who we were supposed to meet someone purshue by the Mafia. We enter in the house, and nothing, the house seems empty, we search the people we have to meet here and we find dead body slice un little dice with some salt, pepper, olive oil and vinegar… the GM discribe us an terrifying scene. most of the player were shocked, but the GM continue on his way… then he said “you find a baby nailed to door of the bedroom”…
and he said what will you do?
it was horrible, to show him it was absurd, i said, “well, hum i go to the kitchen, i make a step over the sliced body, i open the fridge and i make a sandwich!”
after that he laugth…
we take all the time to tell him, that we don’t understand such horrible thing in a game.
Shadowrun could be sometime a violent game, it’s normal, but it’s chocking to pass so much time discribing and focussing on this violence. it’s not a great part of the plot.
the violences in general are means for the plot, not goals.
I think that every GM should read this. I have never actually played in a game where someone crossed a line(not to this extent anyways) and the one time something just a little bad happened we had a chance to stop it but it would have ruined our cover(now that I look back on it that was probably our GM’s goal). I have however heard from other GM’s about things like this and most of them didn’t seam to realize that they had crossed a line. Thank you for writing this I will now start having a social contract.
And then there was the convention game I ran, Modern Call of Cthulhu, in which the end scene involved a stupidly powerful Thynge Thatte Shoulde Notte Bee (Hello? Call of Cthulhu? Convention?) which locked eyes with one of the players and caused her to go to ga-ga land. I finessed the result so she would simply faint away, and *she* rolled the duration, which was a large but single digit number of rounds.
As each round started she whined “Do I wake up yet?” And I would gently remind her of the count. Then she’d say “I don’t understand why I have to faint for that long. In other games the GM would negotiate this”.
Every. Blanking. Combat Round.
I found out later that she’d only ever played some sort of game involving elves, trees and “communal story telling” that seemed to involve a lot of walking around the forest but not much else. Talk about fish out of water.
But here is my point. This young woman had joined a game explicitly described in unambiguous terms as what *we* know Call of Cthulhu to be. There was an age limit of 18+ due to content (no sex, some nudity at a distance and lots of messy death) and the system used (D20) was stated up front.
She was by no means the first or only PC to suffer madness that day, so she had plenty of opportunity to see how it worked.
She was given the best possible outcome, and rolled the duration herself (something I never usually allow, but I could see she would go nuts for real if she had an indeterminate wait to wake up).
And it still wasn’t enough. She felt strongly I should make a special case for her and “let her off lightly”.
Here we have a prime example of the breaking of the compact, but from the other side of the GM screen. By signing up for the game I assumed and firmly believe to this day I had the right to assume that the players, fully informed as to the nature of the game they were asking to play, were going to buy-in.
I’ve no doubt whatsoever that from her point of view “she got raped”, and boy was she disagreeable about it.
This reminds me of my high school gaming days. I think it was around senior year when my friend ran an epic and masterfully-executed Vampire: The Masquerade campaign. Partway through, a female friend of ours joined up, which was a first for our group.
Our GM ran it by all of us first (we had no problem with it), but warned us that, as a girl, the new player might be a little touchy on the topic of rape, so we should avoid it in the game (which again, we had no problem with).
Within the first 15 minutes of the first session, though, she had established that her character could only feed from men who had just been raped by her ghoul manservant. Our group was never really a “LOL buttsecks” group… but after her descriptions, what little “LOL” there was disappeared.
I think our GM may have spoken to her about it, or perhaps she just toned it down a little on her own, so it never developed into a real problem. It was just an interesting and unexpected reversal of line-crossing, where the new and (presumably) emotionally fragile girl (bear in mind, we were socially awkward teenagers at the time) profoundly unsettled the rest of us.
A situation like this happened to me very early in my gaming career. My character failed a knowledge and a strength roll and the GM decreed that anal butt rape occurred. I wasn’t pleased. It seemed like all choice in playing the character was taken out of my hands. It made me quite a bit uncomfortable, and was past my line for the game. I ended up abandoning the character not too long after. It did make me very aware of how uncomfortable players could get. Now when I do social contracts or gaming charters for my games, I ensure that there is something about what lines people don’t want crossed or what situations people don’t want to see. I believe the GM who forced this in-game situation just hadn’t fully matured yet and found it funny, but I know it made many of the players uncomfortable.
I just want to say, before I begin, that I agree that a line was crossed. Rape is not something to spring on a player unawares. The points about the Social Contract and Boundaries are dead on.
However, in my opinion, it is not crossing a Narrative Control line to set up circumstances for a PC. Crossing that line only happens when the GM takes control of the PC’s actions. The GM has full authority to set the scene and circumstances around the PCs.
Furthermore, you say this happened after you lost in combat. The way I see it, it was an alternative to killing your character and thus ending the game. I think that’s fine. It keeps the plot going. Again, I don’t think the way in which he chose to evade death was the right way to do it. But having been taken prisoner without any chance to resist (since the previous combat WAS the chance) is fine.
A GM exists to provide situations to which the PCs must react. Providing these situations is not crossing a line in Narrative Control. The only thing that blurs the line here is that the circumstances the GM provided crossed a line in a different way.
As a GM, *I* messed this one up with one of my players. In our game, I allowed one of my players to play a troll and take a “crippling addiction to sex” as a flaw. It fit her character and it was pretty funny overall.
As you might imagine, that doesn’t end up being a trait that comes up often in most games, so when the players decided to bed down for the night and share hotel rooms, I thought it might be the perfect time to spring that little flaw. She rolled and failed her will save. In and of itself, that would have been fine.
What I *SHOULD* have done from there, is slapped her with a negative modifier of some kind until she could be “satisfied”. She could have made a choice from there about what to do, take the modifier for the rest of the session, seek out “satisfaction”, or whatever other action she chose.
What I *DID* do was decide “You failed your Will save and sexually assault your roommate, both of you make unarmed combat rolls.” Being that she was a troll, it wasn’t much of a competition.
Both players ended up handling it like champs, we even got some LOL’s out of it, but I personally feel bad about resting that much control out of the player’s hands that way and it is an event that has cropped up in conversation and other events in off-hand, snide comments between players.
Heck, I’m just impressed with the way Martin handled it at that age… Most teenagers would have descended into perversion or ended up with hurt feelings (or worse) on one or both sides.
I’ve had similar but lesser experiences–on both sides, as the player and GM of Martin’s example. Most of them were when I was in my early teens too– early in my GMing career.
I suspect that it’s those two things twined together that make it happen, and so often happen poorly. As a teenaged boy, I certainly wasn’t up to handling a real discussion about lines and veils; bravado would have required an “I can take anything you can dish out” stance, and out of character conversation about squeamishness just wasn’t done. Add to that a lack of subtlety about system–less familiarity with ways to engage the system as a tool to get buy-in, and an emphasis on the “GM’s story” and GMing advice that encouraged bending or breaking the rules to make the story “better”–and I suspect that it’s a line that’s been crossed all too regularly.
As a player I think I almost did this in reverse to my group. I tried to get very high concept with my character, and in my mind I knew her backstory was that she was adventuring because she had been on a ship with her father’s crew, and been abused while he was away, thus creating some distance between them that he didn’t understand.
In practice, she was an alcoholic, and often drank to the point of passing out. I never explained the rest of her backstory to my group, so the group saw her as worshiping a pirate goddess and getting drunk.
The party’s viking skald type character ended up finding my character naked and passed out (my own fault for describing the situation the way I did), and the description of what followed was . . . amusing but uncomfortable.
As part of the character’s backstory, she wouldn’t let a man touch her, because of the above, and I was going to reveal this if it every really came down to needing to reveal the information. However, once the “one night stand” description came up, I almost felt like I would have been taking what everyone assumed was a humorous situation, and really making the whole party feel like scum for the assumptions they had made about the character.
In the end, it pretty much killed my desire to play the character, and when she ended up becoming a lycanthrope, I was relieved to just have her wander off, and I made me think twice about coming up with that dark of a backstory for a character again, especially without sharing it with the rest of the group.
There was a guy in my old gaming group who was notorious for springing (LOL)buttsex on his players when he GMed. (Thankfully, I was only ever in games where he was a player.)
The story goes that he often had clerics (with Irish accents) who would rape the male PCs. And then (to add insult to injury), he’d make the player roll a Will check to see if they LIKED IT.
One player flat out refused. He said, “I know for sure that my character does not like being raped. I don’t need to ROLL to see what my character likes or dislikes.” Took a bit of convincing to get the buttsexhappy GM to back the heck off.
The downside to queuing articles well in advance while working on a book is that sometimes you forget you posted them… 😉
@peter – Good point! Yep, my GM in this game handling things quite well after the fact.
@derobim – I see what you’re getting at. I’d argue that, assuming I hadn’t stepped in and demanded a retcon of the whole situation, my PC should have had a chance to resist — IE, an opportunity to bring mechanics to bear.
That’s a personal preference, though, and might not even hold true in every game. I’ve happily played games where my character’s actions were, at times, substantially out of my control — for me, it’s all about setting expectations upfront.
@Kurt “Telas” Schneider – Having now seen the dickbat I drew in my gaming journal, do you still feel this way? 😉
I can see your point about narrative control and lack of opportunity to respond, but the transgressing boundaries thing is a bit strange to me.
To clarify – having your character raped passed a boundary that having your character tortured or killed (which I assume wouldn’t have transgressed a boundary) wouldn’t have transgressed? What if the brigands had been a band of women?
Sure, I can see where in your youth the thought made you cringe and would have sullied your character. But I have to say I’m surprised that in your adulthood you still think it crosses what should have been seen as an obvious boundary.
It continues to amaze me that in western culture non-sexual violence, deceit, genocide (despite it being in your list of ‘unacceptables’, I think that it’s commonly acceptable in most campaigns to mindlessly kill every goblin, orc and kobold) is completely acceptable while sex, in pretty much any form, is taboo unless it comes with strong warnings.