How to avoid RPG dumpster fires like the Far Verona controversy

Some not-good and very-bad things happened on the Far Verona stream recently and I made a video about it.


Do you have any experience or opinions about this particular kind of roleplaying dumpster fire?

There was a sexual assault scene on the Far Verona, but I only saw it last night. Nobody was cool with it. Without going into unnecessary detail, it's sufficient to say that on a narrative level, the player's character did not consent to anything sexual in the scene, and on a meta level, the player as a person did not consent to roleplay a sexual scene.

I didn't enjoy making this video, but I think this kind of conversation is important, even though it can be difficult to talk about.

Whenever the subject of sensitivity and compassion relating to the comfort and safety of your friends in your gaming group comes up, there's a swell against it as SJW-BS, PC-coddling, or outright censorship.

I don't think that's a helpful take.

As a D&D player, I've been in a similar situation to this Far Verona scene and it's just the worst gaming experience I've ever had.

This video is about stopping this kind of stuff from happening.


_____________
Here's a transcript:


I saw something last night which was pretty upsetting, and i feel a need to talk about it. Maybe my opinion here could've just been a reddit post or a series of tweets, but I make videos, so I'm making a video about it instead. Here's a trigger warning though: in this video we're talking about sexual assault and we're using some angry words, so get your boots on. If any of this doesn't sit well with you, that's totally fair enough and I'd encourage you to skip this video. Also, to any kids watching and to my nieces and nephews - you're not allowed to watch this one, and that's not a joke my dudes, close this tab.

Please do not contact any of the people involved in the situation we're about to talk about — I'm sure everybody has got enough on their plate without being swamped by messages. My goal is not to drag anybody involved through personal attacks, I'm just trying to work out what the hell happened and pinpoint how the -expl- christ it was allowed to happen, with the goal of preventing it in other games.

So here it is: Far Verona has been cancelled because the game master described a scene where a non-player character sexually assaulted a player's character. This video your guide about how to not -expl- do that as a game masters and, for players, how to protect yourself from this particular species of RPG dumpster fire.

We'll watch a 5-second clip, but I'm not going to describe or show the explicit part of the actual scene, because it's actually irrelevant to the subject of this video. It's sufficient to say that on a narrative level, the player's character did not consent to anything sexual in the scene, and on a meta level, the player as a person did not consent to roleplay a sexual scene. This video is entirely focused on the players and the dungeon master, not the characters.

But we DO need a little context about the mood around the table. So take a look at the body language of the players and the game master in this short clip:

Keep that clip in mind throughout this video, because we're going to revisit it.

So here are two uncontroversial facts about roleplaying:

Fact #1 about roleplaying: Roleplaying involves a social contract between every player, including the game master, based on trust.

What I mean by this is, when roleplaying, you temporarily put your inhibitions aside and sometimes put yourself in vulnerable situations — you let yourself as a real-life person be silly, be scared, be unguarded — and you TRUST the other players and game master to reward you for that vulnerability, not exploit it, and the other players and game master trust YOU to do the same.

So let's you and I be speak precisely to what might be included in universal a social contract for TTRPGs.

How about this for a foundation:
"We are all acting in good faith."
"We respect each other's boundaries."

For me, if anyone were to break one of those simple, social expectations, I would consider not playing with them. Because this whole imaginary house of cards, this very vulnerable and valuable roleplaying space is supported by mutual trust, and when a person violates that fundamental trust, that's a red flag so big you could see it from space.

Fact #2 about roleplaying: The game master has more more POWER than the players.

What I mean by POWER is, their ability to affect the game. A player only controls their one character, and that character is the only tool that player has to directly affect the game's story and tone. Outside the game, a player could petition a game master to affect the game's content, but regardless, the game master has complete autonomy. As long as a person is agreeing to be a player, that player is subjecting themselves to the unilateral decisions of the game master, whom the players have to trust will uphold that social contract mentioned earlier. Given that power dynamic, I think the game master has a greater responsibility to wield their power compassionately.

In this instance, the game master of Far Verona failed in both of these aspects. So let's look at what went wrong and how you can avoid a similar -expl- as a game master.

Here, watch the clip again, look at everyone's body language:

The first problem is, 1) This game master seems unaware he's violating the social contract because he isn't listening to his players.

Watching this clip, I see a disconnect in experiences around the table. The game master is laughing, but what he's missed is that every player has it plainly written on their face, in their body language, in the moment of realising the direction this scene is headed, they are communicating to him their discomfort or their confusion or their anger. And the game master is the only person laughing. He isn't paying enough attention to the players at the table. He hasn't noticed how badly he's betraying their trust and their vulnerability.

As a game master, if your intent is to protect the social contract and avoid an RPG dumpster fire, you need to listen to your players. Sometimes players don't vocalise their discomfort — and that's OK, because part of your job is to activate those empathetic superpowers, read that body language, recognise when a player disengages or goes non-verbal.

If you're paying proper attention and you get the impression any of your players are upset, this is your opportunity to pause the game and ask THE PLAYERS, not the characters, how they're feeling, to check whether they're OK. And if they're NOT OK, if the situation is not OK, stop the session, maybe schedule a discussion about personal boundaries, maybe revisit and re-up on your session zero.

The second problem is, 2) This game master is abusing the inherent power of his role as game master and steamrolling player autonomy.

From what one of the players said about this situation, it was game master's deliberate, pre-meditated intention to tell this kind of story. This is not an improvised story arc. The decision to include this HEAVY subject-matter was made privately by one person: the game master, even though the decision to include this HEAVY subject-matter affects the whole group.

Hey, here's a quick question: what kind of unholy -expl- idea is it to include HEAVY content without warning your players first?

If you blindside your players, you might be ambushing them with an RPG dumpster fire. The only time players get to affect the themes in the game is when the game master shares their power and supplies the players with the mechanical tools to do so. I'm no expert on this, but the free Consent in Gaming supplement has like a dozen expert suggestions, and one of the might be right for your group. And remember, the purpose of these tools in this particular context to protect the players - not the characters - from the game master's unfettered power, especially when dealing with HEAVY subjects.

If you're not sure whether something is a HEAVY subject that warrants checking with your players, that means you should probably check with your players.

In general, the elite four of HEAVY subjects are:
  • any word ending in -ism
  • any sexual content
  • any extreme violence
  • the classic phobias

So what about players? If you're a player and you find yourself in a situation like this, I want you to flashback to this video and consider this advice. Here's what you could do:
1) It's OK if you can't, but if you can, speak up and stop play. If it's targeted up at another player, speak up and stop play on their behalf. This is an out-of-game problem with an out-of-game solution.
2) If the offending player or game master doesn't respect your autonomy as player and a person and ignores your complaint, leave the campaign. You don't even need to explain yourself if you don't want to.

I was in a similar situation as a player, where my character was the target of unwanted sexual attention, and in retrospect I think I should have left immediately. Here's a link to that video for context.

Situations like this Far Verona situation in any gaming group belie a fundamental disrespect for players and a complete failure of leadership on the game master's part. The social contract in these groups means the game master has most responsibility as a leader at the table to listen to the players, to elevate the players, to protect the players. And it is no small feat to -expl- the bed this -expl- badly.

Some people watching me right now might misunderstand what I'm saying, maybe thinking I'm attacking the idea of including ANY sexual content in a game. But I need to clarify: That's not what I'm saying. If you're interested in sexy roleplay, the Critical Success podcast has a great guide on a respectful way to approach it, which is linked below. Although it's not really my thing, some people might enjoy roleplaying in that magical realm, but in this instance we're talking about a criminal realm. I'm not attacking sexy themes, I am attacking themes relating to sexual assault in Table Top RPGs. And if anyone watching thinks it's at all justifiable to include a sexual predator character in a game, especially without unanimous consent, what are you doing? Piss off. Unsubscribe. My anti-sex-pest stance is a hill i'm willing to die on.

The last time I talked about something like this, I got a lot of really -expl- comments. So in this case, here's your forewarning: relating to this Far Verona situation, I will delete any comments that devolve into personal attacks against the players, the game master or me. I'm not linking to any profiles or anything said by the players or game master — do not contact them.

I hope everybody involved in Far Verona isn't damaged too badly by this absolute monster turd of situation, and I hope it can serve as an example of why we all need to be compassionate to our fellow players and game masters, so we can continue being excellent and adventurous and vulnerable. Mental health support links in the description down below.
 
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Do you have any experience or opinions about this particular kind of roleplaying dumpster fire?
About the only personal experience I have with it is back in the latter half of the '70's when I first started playing. There was one player who was... just too enthusiastic about his character's interaction with a prostitute in game. The DM let it go at first but the player wasn't taking hints about the idea that this really wasn't why we all got together - to share in your character's personal debauchery. The DM stopped it quite cold with a snide comment along the general lines that he wasn't going to be narrating the intimate details of that PC/NPC interaction nor rolling dice to determine performance. And we were all obnoxious, politically incorrect, immature teens at that time. It stuck with me ever since that not just the topic of sexual encounters but a lot of other things just flat out WERE NOT APPROPRIATE even in such a group that already knew each other reasonably well from school.

Topics such as child abuse, sexual molestation or assault, rape, real-world racial stereotypes or intended parodies, and extreme description of violence and gore (because after all, this IS a game where violence and gore is somewhat part-and-parcel but there's no need to WALLOW in it) would be among the straight-up taboos, but is hardly limited to them. Your suggestion about being cautious when it comes to common phobias is also well-taken.

Any ADULT DM that runs games for players they don't personally know, should know better than to unilaterally decide to head down those darker paths. It's just a matter of not being an inconsiderate jerk. You wouldn't read 50 Shades of Grey aloud to your mother - why in hell would you think it'd be okay to just full-on narrate details of rape to friends in D&D or even mere acquaintances?

I'd guess it stems from the history of geek social fallacies and related baggage. DM's who do this don't do it out of spite - they do it out of social ignorance. The simply haven't yet fully learned appropriate boundaries and subject matter in groups. I'm no champion of political correctness (if anything I champion against it) but THIS kind of thing in RPG's really has been tolerated far too long. Now that it's going out on Youtube and becoming an actual component of mainstream culture it really needs to be stomped down HARSHLY. Kids and teens get leeway because we don't necessarily expect them to yet have a full grasp of such things, but adults get no excuses if they pull this stuff.
 

The Monster

Explorer
I'm no SJW, but I've never cared for sexual assault scenes, in books, films, TV, and certainly not at the game table. Intellectually, I understand some people aren't bothered by it, but on a gut level, I don't get how someone would think it's a good entertaining idea to do this without at least explicit prior agreement among all parties involved.
Yeah, this is walk-away-from-the-table-forever stuff. And warn friends away from that GM. Done and done.
 

Longspeak

Explorer
There's all sorts of tools and thoughts on consent, on gaining consent, on making sure players are aware and accepting of questionable material. For me it boils down to a pretty simple process:

Step One: "Don't include Sexual Violence in your game."

That's it.

I know there are other triggery things, but this is something that's probably among the most universally triggery because it's among the most universally despicable things one person can do to another. So how about no?

And this GM should have flippin' known better. Probably DID know better and did it anyway.
 

I started playing, then running D&D in high school. The entire group was guys (norm for the time), so I'm sure we did quite a bit of off-color and inappropriate things in game. Most of this has been lost to time, but I do recall one jackass DM that made all male PCs roll 1d12 for the size of their male member. The unlucky sap who rolled a 2 received a ridiculous amount of ribbing (high school guys, remember), and looking back I honestly believe he was seriously miffed about the whole thing. I almost certainly would have been too.

Moving on to the present, I run an adult game with my regular players. Adult themes may or may not occur, but I make sure they know that it could come up. Obviously I don't dwell on the details (except once, when the victim PC actually had a chance to stop it, and did), because not only would I not be good at it, but I know no one really wants to hear it. Because of this, my players are good with potential adult/mature themes, but if someone needed at time-out from an event, I'd be good with it. Usually when the villain does sick stuff, it just makes the players that much more invested in taking them out.

However, I ONLY do this with a known group. If I were running/playing at a convention, game store, or just had a new player at the table, I would NOT do this. I only run/play this way with people I know would be willing to accept it as part of the role-playing experience. Making someone uncomfortable isn't roleplaying, it's being a #$&%@&*.
 

dragoner

solisrpg.com
A player asked what would happen if their character tried to rape an NPC, and I replied: "I'll kick you out of the game".

Granted, they are sort of an edgelord type, and when pundit called me an SJW on G+, I went and looked it up on the net, and found references to Gandhi and MLK Jr. Now I don't think of myself anywhere near their league, except one has to maintain some sort of decorum at the table, even if we weren't playing in public. Certain topics are "just don't go there" type. I have heard of some bad behavior, such as mentioned in the OP, and for sure it tells me about a game I wouldn't enjoy playing in.
 

DammitVictor

Druid of the Invisible Hand
I don't mean to be dismissive of the topic, but I do not believe that anyone in the year 2020-- any internet celebrity-- does not understand that what he did was wrong, or does not understand why. Nobody needs help navigating the calm blue ocean to avoid this "mistake", because it isn't a mistake and framing it as one prevents us from understanding the nature of the problem.

The problem is that he made a conscious decision, sustained over a period of time against the objections of everyone whose objections should have mattered, and then "apologized" for being just too goddamned cool for everyone who had a problem with it.

The problem is not that gamers don't know not to do this, the problem is that gamers don't know what to do with people who do it anyway.
 

Maybe post some text about your position rather than asking people to view a video on what is primarily a non-video site? It's an interesting topic, but as I use this forum in ways where I cannot listen to audio, I cannot watch it and then respond.

Sorry — good idea. I've edited my post to include a transcript which is mostly what I said in the video.
 

Longspeak

Explorer
The problem is not that gamers don't know not to do this, the problem is that gamers don't know what to do with people who do it anyway.
Some of us know.

As GM, is a player pulls something like that, "Hey, that's not okay."
If they do it again, they're out. Done.

As a player, if the GM or another player pulls something like that, "Hey, that's not okay."
If they do it again, I'm out. Done.

Honestly... so many people are used to getting away with stuff, someone actually calling them out seems to be all it takes to curtail it... at least while the person who called them out is around.
 

Any DM out of their teenage years (back when I was a teenager, I ran into plenty of GMs and players that didn't know better, but maybe hopefully teenagers these days know better) that doesn't understand that this sort of thing is problematic is most likely someone I wouldn't want to game with. It's neither edgy, a suitable subject for humor, or an appropriate consequence, only cruel and insensitive.

Sure, I think as GMs we've all had moments where we've missed reading cues from our players, but this is so far beyond that. It should've never been on the table to begin with.
 

MGibster

Legend
Do you have any experience or opinions about this particular kind of roleplaying dumpster fire?

I don't really have an experience with such things as I've never participated in a game as a player or a GM where we role played a sexual assault. It's on my list of things never to do even in a horror game like Vampire or Call of Cthulhu. I don't include sexual assault scenes in my games because I find them distatesful not because I'm worried about inflicting trauma. When I run a horror game, I consult the players and ask them to tell me if there's anything they don't want included in the game making it clear that they can contact me in privately if they prefer and that I don't need an explanation for why they don't want something included.

Honestly, I very rarely have any fears about any of my games turning into dumpster fires. In games that might potentially deal with "heavy" subjects I don't worry about including isms, common phobias, extreme violence, or a certain level of sexuality because I do not believe it is likely that trauma will be inflicted. Participation in role playing games is not an inherently dangerous activity that warrants such concerns.
 

Umbran

Mod Squad
Staff member
Honestly, I very rarely have any fears about any of my games turning into dumpster fires. In games that might potentially deal with "heavy" subjects I don't worry about including isms, common phobias, extreme violence, or a certain level of sexuality because I do not believe it is likely that trauma will be inflicted.

In a game in which you know all the people, and their histories, that's probably okay. If you are playing with folks you don't know well... that belief may not be warranted.

Participation in role playing games is not an inherently dangerous activity that warrants such concerns.

I hope you never play with someone who has PTSD, and you hit a trigger. Because that is not a good scene.
 

Celebrim

Legend
Yeah, this does not seem to be an area you'd want to go in to without explicitly discussing this sort of thing with your players. And, honestly I think the biggest problem that the GM had wasn't even that, but his attitude to the scene wasn't, "I'm taking this game to a very dark place and very serious place where we explore body horror and lack of consent." (which is not something yo do without player consent), but rather, "Har, har, isn't this funny." That's a fundamental disconnect between what your content means and how you are responding to it. Sexual assault may or may not be a valid event in a game, but it's not a fun one that you the GM should be getting your thrills out of.
 

MGibster

Legend
In a game in which you know all the people, and their histories, that's probably okay. If you are playing with folks you don't know well... that belief may not be warranted.

I very much think context is important. There may be a world of difference between a game I run in the privacy of someone's home with people I know and a game I run at a public venue like a convention with people I don't know. I am unlikely to run the same game with a group of teenagers as I am with a group of people in their 30s and 40s.

I hope you never play with someone who has PTSD, and you hit a trigger. Because that is not a good scene.

Me too. But I still don't believe gaming is an inherently dangerous activity. If so, then I need to call up all those pastors from the 1980s and 1990s who warned me about how harmful D&D was.
 

Umbran

Mod Squad
Staff member
But I still don't believe gaming is an inherently dangerous activity.

I think there may be a great deal buried in that, "inherently dangerous activity" label.

Virtually anything becomes dangerous if you don't do it wisely, and with precautions. And I think your idea about causing trauma is less the issue, as running afoul of trauma the player has had elsewhere in life.

If you were playing backyard (American) football, and one of your players had a trick knee, you might help keep them safer by playing touch rather than tackle, for example. If you're playing with someone who has sexual assault in their background*, or had been bullied and beaten up as a kid for being African American or LGBTQ+ in the wrong town, you'd probably want to avoid those things in your game.

But, a lot of the time, your players don't tell you about those things in their pasts, unless you ask. Thus the bit about consent.



*Pretty much all women in the US live with at least the specter of sexual assault hanging over them, and a great many of them with the reality. So that's why that one should definitely be on the "heavy" list, by default.
 

MGibster

Legend
Virtually anything becomes dangerous if you don't do it wisely, and with precautions. And I think your idea about causing trauma is less the issue, as running afoul of trauma the player has had elsewhere in life.

Saying virtually anything becomes dangerous if you don't do it wisely or with precautions is a meaningless statement. Getting six of your buddies together to run through Castle Ravenloft, to troubleshoot for friend Computer, or prevent the Camarilla from sinking its fangs into your city is exceedingly unlikely to cause harm to any of the participants.


If you were playing backyard (American) football, and one of your players had a trick knee, you might help keep them safer by playing touch rather than tackle, for example.

On the other hand, American football is an inherently dangerous activity where participants are commonly subjected to contusions or abrasions during the normal course of play. Furthermore, it is understood by participants that they make suffer more serious injuries such broken bones or concussions and in the extreme catastrophic injuries resulting in paralyzation or death.

But, a lot of the time, your players don't tell you about those things in their pasts, unless you ask. Thus the bit about consent.

I already ask players to tell me what things they don't want included in the game. I still categorically reject the idea that gaming is inherently unsafe. Other than that, if players have something they don't like it's up to them to tell me before the game starts. Just like that football player with the trick knee takes it upon himself to tell everyone else he shouldn't play tackle football.

Of course I don't ask them what they don't want to see because I'm worried about harming them. I ask because we're all here to have fun and something doesn't have to be personally traumatic or harmful for them not to want it in a game.
 

mythago

Adventurer
Participation in role playing games is not an inherently dangerous activity that warrants such concerns.

I'm puzzled at this repetition of 'inherently dangerous' and 'inherently unsafe', as well as the comparison of any negative effects from, say, a GM dropping a rape scene on a player to the anti-D&D hysteria of the 1990s.

Also, given the NFL's long history of covering up and minimizing the risks of brain injuries among players, not sure that's the best analogy for 'they knew the risks and should speak up if they have a problem'.
 

Eltab

Lord of the Hidden Layer
I cannot construct any plot line where you "have to" include an assault scene. Even if the villain is styled after Jack the Ripper, user and murderer of prostitutes.

Kenny Rogers' song Coward of the County handles the subject without being gross but makes it a defining pivotal moment in the story.

I was a player for a game session where the DM tried to use an NPC to seduce his IRL girlfriend's PC. After about 5 minutes of acute embarrassment, pizza arrived and the session broke. While we ate, I took the DM aside and said "You know you've got four voyeurs listening in on this?" and indicated the other players plus myself.
He turned white and she turned red.
But when we resumed play, it was the next morning and we got back to the adventure.
 

MGibster

Legend
I'm puzzled at this repetition of 'inherently dangerous' and 'inherently unsafe', as well as the comparison of any negative effects from, say, a GM dropping a rape scene on a player to the anti-D&D hysteria of the 1990s.

The OP uses a rape scene in a game as a case study and you'll note that I already agreed it's not something I'd ever include in my game. But there's a difference in philosphy as I wouldn't use it because I find it crass and distasteful not because I'm afraid of triggering someone. If you read the entire OP, and you'll have to expand the text scroll down to do so, you'll see the post is about more than just that one game scene as we are advised against the inclusion of any "heavy" subject without player consent. Heavy subjects including common phobias, any sexual content, any ism, and extreme violence.

Let's say I include a Wizard in my campaign who is more goth than Siouxsie Sioux in the Paris catcaoms at midnight on All Hallow's Eve and his magic missile are actually bolts of blood. Hemophobia, the fear of blood, is a common phobia which is a heavy subject according to the OP. If the DM makes a unilateral decision to use such a villain in his game he's abusing his power according to the OP. The OP's point about consent in gaming is predicated on the idea that it is an inherently dangerous activity one which I vehemently disagree with.

Also, given the NFL's long history of covering up and minimizing the risks of brain injuries among players, not sure that's the best analogy for 'they knew the risks and should speak up if they have a problem'.

The example used was backyard American football. I don't know where you're from, but in the United States this is typically going to involve neighborhood kids and there is unlikely to be any pads, helmets, or even a referee. It's like a pickup game of basketball or baseball. The NFL's long history of covering up and minimizing brain damage has nothing to do with backyard football.
 

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