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.”
GM: “Okay.”

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.

Narrative Control

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.

Transgressing Boundaries

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.