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Assault in RPGs

The following tweet showed up in my timeline this yeterday.

My reply got me blocked, but that doesn’t surprise me.  I’m sure she didn’t appreciate me engaging in dick measuring, but she wanted to have the contest. I wish I had not obliged as I missed the chance to have an actual conversation.

She gave up the chance to answer my question, because it was sincere.  I wanted to know if we were discussing assault in general terms, sexual assault broadly, or sexual assault of player characters.  I asked about the last of those, figuring if it was not the case we would at least get some clarity on where the discussion was.

Let’s look at the last item, sexual assault of a player character, first.

I see no use for it.  While I have heard stories about groups that initiate new female players by raping their characters, either by the other PCs or the DM having an NPC do it, I have the fortune to have never encountered it in over forty years in the hobby.  I would not tolerate it at my table. That may explain why I have never encountered such behavior; I gamemaster significantly more than I play.

Note, I am not saying such behavior does not exist.  Too many people have experienced it for anyone to claim it does not exist. The game FATAL exists, as unfortunate as that is.  I am saying I have never experienced it firsthand.  I will say that leads me to question how common it is.  It could be my play experience is too narrow, but give the breadth of my play in terms of time, location (over a dozen unique metro areas in my lifetime), age of players, and genres I doubt that.  I think it is more the part of the hobby that behaves that way is a narrow strip.   That strip either does better at attracting women or the stories have survivorship basis.  Women who haven’t run into that narrow strip don’t have horror stories to tell and thus are an invisible population of lucky players.

I said I have no use for sexual assault of a player character, but in reflecting on the tweet to see if I could think of a reason I thought of exactly one.  Vampire the Masquerade leans heavily on sexual tropes around vampire embrace.  I can see some very dark, even for that game, campaign use of explicit scenes of embrace, feeding (on a player character ghoul), or Diablerie taking on sexual assault aspects.  That is a very narrow use in a game I played very little and have less interest in revisiting.  If I ran VtM (or VtR, although it would fit less there as I understand both games) I would not use it and would work to deflect players trying to do so.

Those disclaimers aside, I can at least see that narrow usage.  It is narrow enough, however, I would be surprised that it would be more shocked than other parts of the campaign or sprung on a character by surprise.

Second, let’s look at the plain reading, that the author sees no point for any assault in a roleplaying game.  I resolve that interpretation by using one of the most common tropes across genres.  Player characters are often attacked by bandits.  That attack meets the definition of assault completely.  Ambushes, by the PCs or against the PCs, are another.  Many kinds of theft are also assault.

Assault, broadly defined, is a staple of RPGs and has been since day one.

The most interesting interpretation is the middle one I considered as her potential intent, sexual assault in general. One reply in the tread asked why people wanted rape and murder for realism in a game with half orcs and rings of invisibility.

The answer to that is two-fold.  First, not all RPGs have fantasy species or magic items.  A contemporary spy game or police game, a western game, or an rpg designed to be part of combat during a war have none of those, but all can easily feature sex, both consensual and non-consensual (and a third variant we’ll get to later).  Second, just because the agreed fiction of a game includes certain fantastic elements does not mean we reject any call for realism.  If we did then things as simple as not all weapons doing the same damage, as they did in OD&D, would not be something we still fight about today.  We agree to a fiction that may or may not include such elements.  D&D games inspired by Tolkien will have a different take on those issues than one inspired by George R. R. Martin.

Does this mean games which include rape and murder need to put them on screen in a graphic matter? Not at all.  Bandits and Viking raiders may rape and pillage when they burn a village, but that will normally occur off screen and the players will see the outcome.  One can even ignore the sexual assault part of the pillaging and allow the players to assume it is there or not as they prefer.

The next level closer would be PCs reaching the same village as the raid is in progress.  Even here, I wouldn’t put sexual assault front and center, closing more generic saving people from violence.  The opening from the 1982 Conan the Barbarian is what I would use for inspiration.

Let’s look at something where that off screen nature would be very hard.  There are various modern police procedural rpgs and supplements, such as Modern System: Police Procedural.  What if a group plays a game using that setup which draws on Law and Order: Special Victims Unit for its primary inspiration?  There is no way for such a game to avoid putting sexual assault front and center regularly.  The PCs will interview the victims of it, collect evidence of it, recreate what happened, and be able to present a complete picture of the crime.

Much like the Vampire example above, this is a very narrow type of game where one can reasonably assume, even more than VtM, players are entering it with eyes open about the assault content of the game.

We can find a much more interesting way such issues can come up in plotlines in a feudal Japan Lee Gold discusses in “Game Designer Self-Censorship”.  Specifically, the plots around boy prostitutes and Buddhist pageboys involve some questions of both ephebophilia and consent.  They involve what Megan McArdle called euconsensual sex, borrowing from the political scientist Michael Munger.  Euvoluntary exchanges are nominally voluntarily, but are morally suspect because one party does not have a minimally acceptable alternative.  In the economic sphere, blackmail is an excellent example.  In sex, the casting couch of Harvey Weinstein is another.  “You’ll never work in this town again” is not an acceptable alternative to turning down a sexual advance.  “You will starve” or “you will lose you education”  are not such alternatives either. There is a lot of cultural debate about whether these interactions constitute sexual assault.  Exploring them in a campaign could bring new insights to everyone involved.

I had not bringing in such plots prior to reading Ms. Gold’s article.  That is not because such situations, homosexual and heterosexual, do not exist in the cultures that have inspired my games.  The Horseclans novels have such elements in them and more violent ones.  It reflects more that character sexuality is not a thing I have engaged much from either side of the screen.  I can remember one sexual encounter by a PC of mine.  A fighter I played, one version of Osric, flirted with a big, redheaded barbarian woman and went upstairs at the inn.  The DM resolved the encounterby both my character and the barbarian rolling to hit.  We both succeeded, and the DM said a bruised and battered but smiling Osric met the rest of the party in the morning in the common room.

That was cheesy and something a thirteen-year-old would giggle at even though at 17 I was one of the two youngest players in that game.  The DM was late 30s to mid-40s.  It was also, based on what I saw during the time (early 80s) probably close to the max level most people took sexuality in D&D.  “Painted Ladies & Potted Monks” by Larry DiTillio in Dragon 36 was the first time I heard about people involving sexuality in rpgs.  It begins:

“The room is illuminated by light of a provocative, scarlet hue. The air is musky, smoky, honey-sweet. A luxurious carpet of thick, black fur covers the floor and in the center of it is a pedestal which has a golden bowl affixed to it. The four walls are adorned with lurid reliefs of men, women and other creatures locked in all manner of sensuous embrace. An unseen voice speaks as the party of adventurers enters. ‘Seek Ye Fulfillment?’, it asks . . . ”

This room is one of thirteen which constitute the first level of a dungeon adventure I call The Inn of Ootah. The purpose of it should be clear to even a hobbit-sized imagination. Once a party enters, the unseen voice offers them a choice of delicacies and if the heroes and heroines care to view these, then shimmering, colored forceportals open in the walls. Behind these portals exotic women and men (The E.R.A. already passed in my world) beckon seductively. If a character is interested, he or she renders payment to the golden bowl, there is a spurt of obscuring gas and in place of gold is a heart-shaped talisman that permits a single party member entry through the forceportal opted for. Once through, the portal closes and the hardy soul is left quite alone with the delicacy of his choice. What occurs then is strictly between me and the character who has entered, though of course he or she has the option to kiss and tell, IF and when he/she returns.

In Dragon 39, a response article “The problem of morality in fantasy” by  Douglas P. Bachmann appeared.

As a player will need to continually ask if certain actions are worthy of his character, so a DM will have to ask if certain situations are weighty enough to claim a place in Faerie. Gratuitous sex and pot smoking seem to fail that test. That is, they fail unless they are being used by a villain to lure some potential hero from his quest into
dismal failure.

Mr. DiTillio’s “scarlet hued room” seemed pointless—good for some kicks but ultimately signifying nothing.  

That was I think a very common attitude about sexuality in games at the time and one may people, myself included, would carry until this day.

I do not think it is surprising that an article which addressed homosexuality in gaming became the point when I thought about such encounters.  Nor do I think that actual discussion about where sexuality fits into games comes as emphasis on including non-straight characters has also occurred.  Sexuality was something a wide swath of the hobby just ignored.  That is no longer the case.

I am not saying homosexuality or trans means sexual assault.  There is no direct connection.  However, when an enormous section of life, sexuality, was previously ignored, opening that part of life for more comfortable reasons, having gay characters for example, almost ensures it will open for less comfortable ones.  Given many games deal with good and evil, the nature of mortality ,or the structure of human psychology sexuality will eventually be filtered through those lenses if it becomes an issue in the game.  This is also why I think 50 Shades of Grey became a mainstream phenomenon when in earlier decades the Beauty books by Anne Rice and The Story of O remained books you might read, but didn’t do it on the train or talk about it at dinner parties.

So, @ohadeliade, those are the ways I can assault being a valid plot point in RPGs. It is also a big way one specific form of assault, sexual assault of PCs, does not belong in RPGs.   Maybe if I reach your exalted level I’ll see it differently.


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One Comment

  1. BobtheRegisterredFool BobtheRegisterredFool

    Some of the Japanese light novels use, or have orcs clearly modified from, the same types of orc as in some edition of hackmaster. As in, Orcs that reproduce purely by nonconsensual actions against females of other species. So that is a world building choice that could surprise players not expecting it.

    But there are a lot of other world building options that could be an unpleasant surprise for players expecting a more generic D&D experience.

    Like “This is what participating in Operation Coronet would have been like, transcribed onto D&D”. That could be fairly horrific and traumatic, with zero use of any form of sexual assault.

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