Tough subjects in RPGs

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I got into a good conversation about racism in RPGS and it got me to thinking. Is there a place for tough subjects in an RPG? I would say yes. Racism, sexism, homophobia or even rape can be handled by an RPG, but must be done in the right way. You should never introduce racism just to be edgy. It should be a tool. There should be a solid reason for it, and it should, more often than not, be reprehensible. How do I do that? Well that is a good question. Here are five tips for using tough subjects without making them offensive:

1.) Treat it for what it is: Don’t just let racism show up. Okay, so you are playing Call of Cthulhu in the 1920s and there is a racist shop owner. Don’t just let him be a racist. Encourage your players to react the way most people would. Treat him like a leper and show that he does little business because of his blatant racism. There is no reason to try to normalize a deviant behavior.

2. Don’t be afraid of it: You should be able to introduce subjects that match your group. If your group isn’t full of overly sensitive people, introduce tough subjects. Don’t introduce subjects that will cause trauma (don’t put rape into a game with a rape victim). You shouldn’t be afraid to use tough subjects to further a story hook or even as fluff for the world around your players.

3. Know your players limits: Don’t take things overboard. If you put sexism into a game and the whole game turns into sexist jokes, then it may have gone too far. If it is obvious that something you are using is making someone uncomfortable then you should back off. Again, don’t try to use it to cause trauma.

4. Keep it limited: Don’t overuse it. Again, this is about keeping your players comfortable. If you overuse racism or homophobia, for example, is going to leave the impression that you are a bigot. This is the hardest thing to keep to. You can find yourself accidentally overdoing it.

5. Talk it out if it causes a problem: Talk to your group if you find that the tough subject is causing a problem. Don’t be afraid to take suggestions on how to better handle the subject matter. I would say this is the most important thing about handling tough subject matter.

So guys and gals, how do you handle tough subject matter? Do you have any tricks or tips that would help? As always, don’t be a dick.

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One thought on “Tough subjects in RPGs

  1. I like what you’re saying, here, but with #1, above, it has to be taken into consideration that your players are living in the modern real-world, not in the 1920s. Living in the 1920s, unless they were time travelers, the racism displayed by the shop owner would be a social inconvenience, at worst, and a fair portion of the characters would actually agree with the shop owner at that time.

    So, the question then emerges… are the player characters being played by the players correctly? Should they, themselves, be playing as racists, or those who are only mildly annoyed by the shop owners words and deeds? Would the social injustice fought against and hated, today, be seen as good back in the 1920s, or as an attempt at forced social engineering, trying to change something that, back then, was seen as normal life, not necessary to be changed?

    Just some things to consider for folks who understand, or have forced themselves to believe, in today’s society, that what was happening back then was evil. To them, in those times, they were not evil, they were doing nothing wrong, and our forceful nature, especially for us American’s, would be seen as murderous and evil, to them.

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