Matthew Gault’s piece for VICE: How Tabletop RPGs Are Being Reclaimed From Bigots and Jerks outlines how some publishers are now including passages in their books about how to craft a game that also includes the consent of the players at the table. I think this is important and also overdue. In my home games, it is rare that the content touches on areas that need discussion ahead of time, or where play needs to be stopped and discussion about what is happening in the story and who is okay or not with it. But - it’s always on my mind. If we switch stories or systems, than I have to forecast what sort of material might be coming up.
The article highlights a passage in Evil Hat’s game Fate of Cthulhu, in which Evil Hat posted a tweet pointing out that the game will include a sort of disclaimer that acknowledges that H. P. Lovecraft was a racist, but the material is still something that people wants to play. I recall a particular episode of Tales To Terrify while I was host in which I specifically mention this issue. H. P. Lovecraft was a racist and not even a “for the time racist”, but a very active and vocal one.
There are some very negative responses to that tweet, but there are some people that point out the conflict that does exist there. Lovercraft was problematic, but we’re still going to use his work, and profit from it. I hear that, and I have a hard time disagreeing with that conflict. Germany’s V-2 rockets, used primarily to retaliate against civilian targets in the UK during WWII were the foundational design that got Americans into space and than the moon. Just because racists came up with a good idea, is that enough to discard it? Likely not a perfect analogy, but I hope you get my point. There is an area of the negative responses that I understand.
Evil Hat Productions recently told me they felt it was important to create distance between themselves and Lovecraft. “Evil Hat is committed to creating games that are welcoming and inclusive, and so we had an obligation to separate the art from the artist,” the company said over email. “No one needs to implicitly endorse the bigoted views of HPL [H.P. Lovecraft] just because they find value in the seeds of cosmic horror he planted.”
Fair enough, I suppose.
Not all tabletop RPGs carry the same emotional weight, and there’s a big difference between running a group of friends through Storm King’s Thunder in Dungeons & Dragons and running through an apocalyptic horror game like Fate of Cthulhu. Games like Fate of Cthulhu, Vampire: The Masquerade, and Numenera are edgier than their high fantasy counterparts, and that’s part of the appeal. The mature themes are built in, and aren’t always used empathetically by players and storytellers. Consent warnings are coming into vogue in these games and are long overdue, given the mature themes and tendency to push players into uncomfortable places.
For the people who frequent role playing game forums, there is always a thread to find about “that game master” or “that player”. The author’s article makes a distinction between playing Dungeons & Dragons and playing other games that may have more “mature themes”, and I think that’s a strange distinction to make. The implication, as I read the article, is that because Dungeons & Dragons games are traditionally understood to be a hack’n’slash style game with a plot tacked on sells the Dungeons & Dragons players short. I’m aware of several story heavy games that friends have played. And, those forum posts I’ve mentioned? Most of them are from D&D games, presumably because its the most popular TTRPG system on the market and has been for years, not because the game itself attracts toxic players or game masters who feel that a good session is one in which their players are emotionally damaged.
According to Evil Hat, setting boundaries early leads to better games. “There’s no way to know every player’s past and there’s no reason anyone should be obligated to disclose their entire personal history before a game gets underway,” the company told me. “So instead, a content warning and the use of Safety Tools (like the X card, Script Change, or Lines & Veils) creates an atmosphere of trust and respect. You’re setting the boundaries: ‘Hey, we’re all here to have fun—but if the game suddenly crosses a line and stops being fun, let’s pause or redirect that so we can get back on track and make sure it’s enjoyable for the whole table.’”
In this passage, I wholeheartedly agree with Evil Hat’s take on things. Simply, at the beginning of the game, defining for everyone at the table, what is “off-the-table” for the game to be played, in addition to the positive elements as to - what they hope for or expect out of the game to be played.
Fortunately for me, there has only been a handful of times I’ve been involved in a TTRPG in which there is a player that is just unpleasant. They exist, and the best way to deal with people who want a wildly different imagination experience than everyone else, is to address it up front - “this is the game that everyone else has agreed on, and it appears that your the only one who wants something very different, maybe this isn’t the game for you”.
I want more games that have the space to carry emotional weight, and I hope they all come with a bit of advice for negotiating that “enthusiastic consent”.