Serious themes in RPGs

edited August 2012 in Story Games
I want to share with you, in short, some of my experiences in playing serious themes.

Orcs were the indigenous people in a campaign I ran last winter, with four parallel groups of pioneers setting upon "a new land" (to them). The conflicts were interesting and diverse, but the orcs grew steadily less important for the campaign as we played on; the game took us in other directions. However; as part of the theme the orcs worked very well, and made for a significant part of the overall feel of the game. To have orcs as a source of anxiety, a strange element, provocative and angry (at being turned out of their own land), worked very well. The players displayed a variety of feelings towards "the green people", ranging from "kill them all" to "let them be, they are peaceful cattle-hunters". Some were involved in conflicts with the orcs, and was free to make choices on how to solve them (both violence and negotiations were chosen). It was four nice campaigns, with 33 sessions in each. Playing this kind of conflict was clearly something the players enjoyed, and found challenging. In my eyes that is good!

This summer I ran an intense "summer-campaign", with ten sessions within a week, for three parallel groups. The setting was ruled by women, suppressing the men with a hard hand. The characters were central in a peoples march to a new land, and when they came there their traditional thinking were challenged. It ended in a very beautiful way; two mighty characters got married (first time in this setting), and ruled together, and they surprised me by wording a constitution (yes, really!), were men and women were grated equal rights. Having them claiming the setting in this way, was a moment of pure beauty to me! A moment I will treasure for years to come!

To play with serious themes, and have players explore and make meaningful choices in relation to them, is a great source to exciting role-playing, great scenes, and touching characterization. It never fails to deliver moments of pure, human beauty! And sometimes brutal cruelty too!

It is something I recommend for all grown up players.
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Comments


  • It is something I recommend for all grown up players.
    Thus my endless struggle to to explain to my peers what a theme is and how it relates to rolling dice and talking in funny voices. C'est la vie, I guess.
  • Don't struggle with explanations; make the elements enticing/provocative/challenging, present them with conviction, and the players will go for it. ;)
  • That's easier said than done when most of my players are either heavily homophobic or totally disinterested in the idea of collaborative storytelling as opposed to killing monsters and taking their stuff. But thanks for the good faith :)
  • edited August 2012
    Would they kill a monster who was nursing its baby or trying to protect the elderly of its tribe? Maybe they would. Maybe you should describe how they are unarmed and not fighting back. Push that lever as far as it goes and see how far the players are willing to follow. As the GM you can portray monsters as something more than things to be killed. Your players may not pick up on it, but its your prerogative to set that scene.
  • Years ago I had that same situation (goblin babies) and the group mercilessly killed all of them. The wet-nurses, the mothers, the elderly, the babies. It was vile. I pointed out what they were doing and the players just shrugged.

    As to playing "serious"? Yeah, I say with malice, that would be totally awesome if all of the players actually cared. Between Mr. Stand-up comic, Random Girl, Wildly Innapropriate Man, and Chaos Monkey how does this happen?

    Seriously, it sounds great. Can I have your group?
  • edited August 2012
    Ah, I sympathize with you! Having a group like that is hard, and something I have experienced. I have led my friends in rpg-campaigns for nearly a decade, and them being old-school players, I never used this approach with them. At least not to the same effect that I do in my other groups.

    I play professionally, with a lot of groups, a lot of new players each fall (following me through the winter, in 30+ sessions campaigns). When doing this, the theme and mood of the game is set by the way I lead the group. The players will follow my cues, easily, when the group is not settled in a certain style. The style will be moulded to suit the theme, not the other way around. I do this with children (10 and up), youths and adults. The result is the same; fun gaming, interesting conflicts, engagement from the players.

    It is important that I use a game that suits the purpose; a game that has been developed for over 15 years to support most kinds of game-play and themes, with a method that includes broad-spectred dialogue-techniques and really fast and crunchy mechanics (it's the fantasy RPG Fabula, in Norwegian, sry) . Playing the old classical games (D&D, Warhammer, Call, MERP, GURPS) makes this kind of approach harder (but not impossible).

    I would recommend that you try out NEW PLAYERS! If your old ones don't follow your dreams of what a role-playing game can be, a group of new players may make all the difference. Make sure you get some players that really want to do some serious exploring, playing with themes on the fringe, or with new point-of-view on old themes.
    Do continue with the old group too, if you like, to keep your friends. That is; if they really are your friends, and not some haphazard group you got sucked into some years ago (I have chosen not to play on with my old group, ultimately. Last winter I chose to leave them; the group was broken anyway, and not very interesting).

    And I do recommend that you try out some of the new games on the market now, like Apocalypse World and 3:16, and others that make game-play easier and faster. Resolution speed is important; it gives more space to the dialogue, and helps you develop the dialogue-techniques further. Most games is weak on dialogue-techniques, and that's a shame;
    - simple and effective dialogue-techniques are the real core of all role-playing games.

    Have a nice day!
  • Here's my loose thoughts as of the moment:

    * Be upfront about what kind of play you want with the game, and if they say they're not into it, don't sweat it. You can find other people to play with (probably). Dishonesty isn't cool, and neither is beating someone over the head with a playstyle they're disinterested in.
    * If they say they're game, but aren't sure how to go about it, tell them just how easy it really is: all you have to do is make an interesting character and play them to the best of your ability. That's it, honest.
    * All things considered, the large majority of teenagers will not give a shit about orcs and their feelings. That's okay. Meanwhile I will keep a keen eye for the rare ones that might, maybe chat them up about that, and see if they'd like to play these weird rolling-dice-and-talking-funny games with me.
    * "Serious" roleplaying is, and probably always will be, a niche hobby. But it's a rewarding one, so I'll keep looking for opportunities.
  • I've had similar situations where players committed atrocities and shrugged. When there was a massive uproar in the game world at their actions they were stunned. Nearly the whole world turned against them and they realized that kind of thing just shouldn't happen.

    If in the world you play, say orcs are hated, well it might be harder to pull that off. But if all Orcs suddenly get a hatred bonus when they identify the players and call in reinforcements the players will know they did something to bother them. They may like that though until it starts to get painful.

    If the world you play is at all tolerant and the orcs might have some kind of dialogue with the humans (or whatever) have the orc warboss go to the human village elders and tell them if they don't hand over the PCs they'll attack the village. When the player's allies turn against them because they've become inconvenient they'll get annoyed.

    When they complain you explain why they made the enemies they did. If they still don't understand, maybe they will when they grow up.
  • The players may shrug, but the characters don't have to. In my game Fabula I have a social skill, and the strength of this skill may force characters to behave. The logic is this; your social skill is a measure of how socially adapted you are, so if it is high you are less likely to go against social tradition.

    If the player want the character to do something outrageous, you force a skill-test on the social skill. If it succeeds the character will NOT do the intended thing, but shake his/her head on the foolish tought, and go about doing "the right thing". And the player has to play along. "Playing along" is as easy as playing along with the result of other skill tests, so don't make it into something special. ;-)
  • I'm sorry, but the ZOMG Orc Babies! thing doesn't count as a "serious theme." It's boring, hackneyed, and juvenile.
  • Hey! I'm trying an experiment germane to this discussion right now...

    So: I've got this group that mostly plays traditional games. We've got five members, whom I will describe in a frank and hyperbolic manner:

    1) Amateur Thespian- This guy has really stepped up his game in the last year or so, and gotten incredibly serious-minded about his characters. It's bizaare that he's become Amateur Thespian, because when I started playing with him, oh, eight years ago, he was The Powergamer. Either way, most hope for serious roleplaying for him. His improvement/skill is what convinced me I could actually give this serious game thing a shot with this group.
    2) Literature Major- Tries really hard to play the game, and makes interesting characters, but forgets that he made them interesting and falls into a pattern of behavior. He used to be terrible at improvising and has recently improved, which was the second impetus for give this a try. This guy has stepped up to Literature Major from GM Attention Hog. He has the most potential to become a serious player, because he loves serious themes in his fiction. He has an unfortunate tendency to turtle up and do nothing sometimes, if he can't think of a course of action.
    3) White Hat- Only plays paladins. He's a decent roleplayer when he's into his character, but has a really obstinate thought pattern that can obstruct play. Luckily, the system we're playing (Burning Wheel) has a mechanic for dealing with social conflict in the party. If there's a disagreement, we can have a Duel of Wits and move on. White Hat will get swept up in the zeitgeist of the rest of the group: if everyone else is roleplaying, then White Hat roleplays. If everyone else isn't then he goes to sleep on the couch. White Hat is less mature than other folks, but likes to play more mature characters. It's a hard toss up with him. White Hat used to be The Cheater, and if bad things happen to his character he sulks, and if someone else's character has a problem with his he takes it personally. These are the two habits of which we first must break him in order to achieve victory.
    4) Chaos Monkey- Will always play a mad scientist, arsonist, chaos wizard, what have you. Likes to burn things and pretend to "Be A Crazy Guy!" Between him and white hat, and possibly New Guy (see below), we've got the most potential for this group to fall into bad habits and sink a Serious Game. On the upshot, I was really encouraged by our recent experience with another game: Chaos Monkey played a serious-minded character with serious goals. He wants to play a leader-type character this time around. Chaos Monkey likes to make jokes - doesn't help that he's actually funny - and so sidelines as Stand Up Comedian.
    5) New Guy- I've never played with this guy before, but in the few sessions we've played so far he seems really into playing an interesting character. He was brought in as "a friend of a friend just moved into town! He likes RPGs!" He likes to play up the conflicts between the party with the goal of resolving them through roleplay. He gives me hope for great justice. On the other hand, he did say at the last game, when we were discussing the types of antagonists they might face, a very dangerous thing for the story-games and serious roleplaying thought police. "I don't like to know what's coming. I like to have it revealed to me." (Perhaps I need to start another thread so folks can give me advice on this.)

    So, my plan is simple. I decided that I would create a Serious Theme that these guys would like - it's the Serious Theme that is rarely taken seriously in many traditional games: "When the old status quo tumbles, it is up to people with principles and the best of intentions to do something, for if they do nothing then bad people will profit and the world will be an ill place for freedom and love."

    I've made it clear to the players that if they don't get out there and do The Right Thing (or, what their characters believe is the right thing) the world will fall down around them, the bad old ways will come back, and generally people will be oppressed and enslaved for who they are and what they believe. They've said they're on board and that it sounds like fun. I, for my part, have taken great pains to not let the veneer of the serious fall from any minute detail of the world.

    I cannot stress enough that my first step in doing this was to go and talk to the players: If they're relatively mature, and if they're adults, then probably they understand what you're trying to do. Their subconscious knows they like Serious Themes - no, really, it does - because they probably like a book or TV show or movie that has serious themes. Similarly, I think that somewhere in the back of their minds they've got the basics of how to play a serious character. They've got that knowledge because they've absorbed it from media. They know when things are out of character, and I think it's okay to (very gently) remind them that you're not sure that a given course of action is in character.

    Try it, you might be surprised. I've been surprised so far.
  • I think one important question is why people resist serious themes.

    If they just feel that serious themes just might not be fun, they could be talked into to try. Play a session and then say "Meh. I wasn't fun."

    But when people really resist even trying it there is usually something more behind it.

    Perhaps role-playing games is a safe zone, and they might feel that their safe zone is treated by any change. Perhaps "serious roleplaying" for them is connected to negative strerotypes they want to avoid. Perhaps they feel vulnerable, approaching something in a serious way would mean exposing yourself emotionally. Or perhaps it more about a fear at not being good at it. Pehaos... Or....

    What is the behind the resistance?
  • Most people don't resist serious themes, or other themes. They play what is on the table, and make the best out of it. Period.

    Amongst those who resist this or that way of playing, the reasons vary, and the ones you mentioned are certainly amongst them. To me those people are of little interest, actually. I'm not in this to save anyone from themselves.

    I go out and find positive players, people that want to have fun, who are open to both silly and serious fun!
  • I believe in content, both in movies, literature and games. Whether it is comedies or tragedies, the drama gets another twist with a serious basis. If you don't believe in this, it is fine with me. I'm not here to discuss whether or not you need to have it. If you want it, fine.

    I recommend it, as I know that going to your game-play with a shared serious intent, improves on your ability to deliver delightful and beautiful interaction.

    The interesting question is WHY?

    Why does serious intent and serious content increase our chances of having a blast at the table?

    Some answers:

    - Serious content gives relevance to the drama; it compels us to look at our own life and world through the happenings in the game

    - Serious content gives acuity to the dilemmas; life-like dilemmas is of greater value to us, as players, and makes us work harder to find good solutions

    - Serious content makes the setting believeable; it broadens the spectrum of possible consequences, and makes for characters that grows in complexity to mirror the setting

    - Serious intent in players makes us share this "ritual of interaction" with a wish for something more, and makes us all work together towards higher goals

    - Serious intent is us, as players, promising each other to invest in the game, and to do our best to make it as interesting, challenging and exciting as possible.

    - Serious intent on the game-smith, send signals to the players that their game-play may come with surprises, and may surpass shallow genre-clichees. It opens up the playing field for new thought and initiatives.

    Of course; this is all rather dull, if you don't see that underneath the talk of "serious" lies the very real and frightening possibility that you may come to cry, and laugh, with joy in a role-playing game of this kind. It may release some very real emotional tension in you, in a very fun way.

    So be warned; serious content and intent in game-play, may take you to places unknown!
  • Have you played "A Flower for Mara", this is a serious theme. It's also more real life and therefore hit's closer to home then fantasy-race babies.
  • edited August 2012
    No, have not played A Flower for Mara. I've read some nice things about it, and would like to play it.

    I have played other contemporary games, though, and found it a pleasure. I've designed a couple of contemporary games myself, and find it interesting going down this path in them too. Some of my games in this field have given players life-changing experiences, they say.

    Still; I do this in fantasy-games, as you see, and have great fun doing it. It is easier to retain some lightness to the game-play, when playing around with serious themes in a fantasy-setting. And I do like the adventurous/magical feel of the good fantasy role-playing game too.

    My sense of wonder is kindled by a cleverly wrought fantasy!
  • Tomas, as a lurker in this thread, I'd like to point out that to the outside observer you appear to be talking more than listening.
  • Hi Joel! If you want to be friendly, tell me in a whisper. I do not need to be told off in public. Neither do others need to know your opinion of me. You know; a lot of "outside observers" may disagree with you!

    I've been told this and that about the way I discuss things for years, but at the same time I've been told, mostly in whispers, that I do people a service, by being frank and courageous in themes where people yell a lot, or stay silent.

    So please, Joel; try to relate to the theme of the thread, and not the persons. Your comment has nothing to do with the thread-theme, and do not help the discussion in any way.
  • Tomas, let me try to be clearer. This is a topic that means a lot to me, but it's impossible for me to engage with because of the way you're conducting yourself. If you don't wish to change the way you're conducting yourself, that's your prerogative. But it'll carry with it the consequence of me being able contribute to the thread. Which of course you're under no obligation to care about, one way or the other.

    I am not "relating to the persons," I am making an observation about the comments.

    Example: Elin asked a perfectly valid question that appears grounded in experience (and has also been expressed in many others' posts as THEIR experience).
    I think one important question is why people resist serious themes... What is the behind the resistance?
    And your response was:
    Most people don't resist serious themes, or other themes. They play what is on the table, and make the best out of it. Period.
    This looks to me like a flat-out dismissal of the experience of others, by way of asserting that YOUR experience trumps theirs and represents "most people." And is a non-answer to Elin's question. The closest thing I see to your addressing this experience, reported several times in this thread, is:
    Ah, I sympathize with you! Having a group like that is hard, and something I have experienced. I have led my friends in rpg-campaigns for nearly a decade, and them being old-school players, I never used this approach with them. At least not to the same effect that I do in my other groups.
    Which DOES sort of acknowledge that the problem exists, but apparently is just solved by having the "right sort" of players, which turns it into a moral issue--"are your players badwrong jerks and clods?"--instead of a creative agreement issue.

    So all this is telling me that if I attempt to engage in this thread, my experience will be dismissed unless it accords with your own, and any players I describe as having difficulties with will be judged inferior, as an alternative to trying to work out what the priority clashes are and addressing them as adults.

    So, I thought, what the hell, instead of charging in and arguing, maybe I'll just point out the effect that the thread is having on me. And I've received a scolding for not doing it privately. Oh, well. I thought it was a publicly pertinent observation, and I have no regrets on that score.

    So, is this thread a discussion on hashing out the problems and challenges with "serious roleplaying", or is it simply a forum to talk about how the way you play is super-great and wonderful?

    Which, I guess, is a somewhat rhetorical question, because I know now that there is no way I can engage with this thread in a safe and productive way.

    Peace,
    -Joel
  • So, a side conversation pointed out something to me - serious themes are in many cases those that explore real-world problems that don't have simple solutions. Whether it's racial themes, the impact of sexual abuse in an extended family, or whatever, at some point you're going to run into players (or readers) for whom it's a very painful topic. (Especially at cons, where you game with strangers all the time.)

    Not all groups have the wherewithal to deal with that sort of social bomb going off, and if they're just looking for some yuks, why tempt fate? The raw emotional landmines you can encounter are no joke.
  • edited August 2012
    Joel: Thank you for bringing it up. Because I must admit at Thomas reply I just felt:

    "Well. If Tomas not interested in a discussion, but want to conduct a monologue. That is fine. But I feel kind of ignored and dismissed, in slightly unpleasant way when he invited to discussion and then shut down my attempt to be a part of it. But I'll leave Tomas to hold his monologue to it and leave the discussion. But it is strange that Tomas posted his monologue in a forum. Blogs a much better media for monologues."

    Edit: There is nothing bad about monologue. I'm a blogger myself, so I hold my monologues too. But It feels kind of unpleasant to invite to discussion then be dismissed when you try to discuss.
  • edited August 2012
    I've seen this claim lots of times; that serious topics in rpgs may lead to social disaster.

    But I have not seen it supported with actual evidence; the first hand experience of such a disaster taking place.

    You may be playing in a totally different environment than I do, but in my vast experience of playing with strangers since 1986, I have only encountered a serious emotional impediment to a certain theme once; a man who refused to sing in a game I led. It was dealt with, he eventually sung, and play continued. No one got hurt. Afterwards he thanked me, for treating him with respect (and making him sing).

    I've not read any stories of social disaster and/or emotional damage relating to serious themes in role-playing games. I seriously doubt that there are many to be had. If you got some, please share them.

    If you "social bomb" is illusory, Fuseboy, why warn against it? Or do you have actual experience with "raw emotional landmines" being set off by the specific topic of a role-playing game?
    ____________________________________

    @ Joel and w176:

    Please; deal with the arguments I offer you. Why get so wrought up about me disagreeing? Try arguments on the theme.

    I read someone claiming that it is an "important question why people resist serious themes". Why; this question is only important if "people" actually do that. In my experience an overwhelming majority of players don't. So that is my claim. Dismissive or not; deal with it by arguments!

  • Please; deal with the arguments I offer you. Why get so wrought up about me disagreeing? Try arguments on the theme.

    I read someone claiming that it is an "important question why people resist serious themes". Why; this question is only important if "people" actually do that. In my experience an overwhelming majority of players don't. So that is my claim. Dismissive or not; deal with it by arguments!
  • Well, at the point I enter the discussion it drifted toward the subject of Jon_Shepherd (and also Irminsul) had to deal with player that resisted it. Hence, no matter of most player resist it or nor some players do, and one part of the discussion where speaking about his trouble about members of his group resisting it. Hence, me raising the point that it interesting to examine why the resist it.
  • Most people don't resist serious themes, or other themes. They play what is on the table, and make the best out of it. Period.

    Amongst those who resist this or that way of playing, the reasons vary, and the ones you mentioned are certainly amongst them. To me those people are of little interest, actually. I'm not in this to save anyone from themselves.

    I go out and find positive players, people that want to have fun, who are open to both silly and serious fun!
    This isn't my experience at all.

    In my experience, most people resist serious themes. For example, I played in a Wheel of Time game, a similar fantasy game where gender is at the forefront, and as a group we never touched upon it, we just fought some Sean'chan mainly.

    In my experience, most people disagree about what a serious theme is.

    In this thread, people have disagreed about what serious themes are -- orc babies being trite and such, not everyone feels that way.

    In my personal experience, I get bored with some themes other people find fascinating or moving -- characters experiencing loss through their fairly unestablished families being threatened or offed is a theme I've had to play through too many times to take seriously, and it has little emotional impact on me.

    Honestly, I've usually had considerably more fun in games that didn't try to force serious themes. I've usually only seen seriousness be taken seriously (heh) if it is emergent from the group's interactions, not guided by the GM's situation.

    Personally, if a stranger at a convention tried to bulldoze me into singing publicly after I politely refused, I would be annoyed and leave the table. Thanking someone for that sounds like dissonance. Might just be a cultural difference, though.
  • I tend to gravitate towards gaming experiences that touch on real-world issues, especially those pertaining to sexuality and relationships and community. I don't aim to play "serious" games, rather, I aim to play games that engage my heart. Sometimes the goal is to play close-to-home, gritty, and real. Sometimes the goal is to play poetic, esoteric, and surreal.

    There are a small wealth of players interested in this kind of game. The key to finding those players is to market your interests correctly. This is as simple as, "Hey, I'm organizing a group to get together and play Silver & White. It's a story game about the pain and beauty of adolescence. There's some surreality and mystery to it, but it's mostly a game about being teenagers." You'll get people telling you that they aren't interested in that style of play - they want to be adventurers who kill evil monsters. Cool! Trying to force your gameplay on someone who doesn't like it is a waste of time, and frankly makes you a bully. Share joyfully, not pedantically.

    I don't always understand the desire to "inject" serious themes into adventure games. That scene isn't for me. If I'm playing an adventure game, it's because I want to be a weird badass with strange powers who fights insidious monsters in uncharted places. That's it. That's all I want out of that style of gaming.
  • Most people don't resist serious themes, or other themes. They play what is on the table, and make the best out of it. Period.

    Amongst those who resist this or that way of playing, the reasons vary, and the ones you mentioned are certainly amongst them. To me those people are of little interest, actually. I'm not in this to save anyone from themselves.

    I go out and find positive players, people that want to have fun, who are open to both silly and serious fun!
    This isn't my experience at all.

    In my experience, most people resist serious themes. For example, I played in a Wheel of Time game, a similar fantasy game where gender is at the forefront, and as a group we never touched upon it, we just fought some Sean'chan mainly.
    Avoiding it may be resistance to it, yes, or it could be the interaction just sending you in other directions. I do not doubt that people resist GMs forcing seriousness to their carefree adventure game-play. Don't force it; make it part of the setting, and the interplay, and let the players explore it at their own convenience.
    In my experience, most people disagree about what a serious theme is.

    In this thread, people have disagreed about what serious themes are -- orc babies being trite and such, not everyone feels that way.
    There is a way to make anything trite, and boring, and dull. Take a gung-ho action game and make it "serious"; DOH!

    A lot of game leaders fail in following up their ambitions of more realism, more morally challenging situations, more serious themes ...
    - Why?
    The answer is obvious to me; they lack support for it in the games they play. The players resist bad game-play, not serious themes.
    In my personal experience, I get bored with some themes other people find fascinating or moving -- characters experiencing loss through their fairly unestablished families being threatened or offed is a theme I've had to play through too many times to take seriously, and it has little emotional impact on me.
    As said; there are ways to do this trite, and the very instance you mention here is the cliché of GM-ambitions failing to hit the target. suddenly he want your family to be important to you, so that he can threaten them, to make his adventure-hook interesting. But it is too shallow, and too bloody obvious! So you follow up out of loyalty, or you turn your back on "your mothers predicament" and make some silly comment. Bah!
    Honestly, I've usually had considerably more fun in games that didn't try to force serious themes. I've usually only seen seriousness be taken seriously (heh) if it is emergent from the group's interactions, not guided by the GM's situation.
    Emergent fun, and players exploring serious themes; there are ways to do this, hand in glove! My first post describes two campaign set-ups that worked like hell for the players. They were given the elements, to explore, and great fun emerged!

  • edited August 2012
    @Terwox: Who said anything about "bulldozing"?

    OK; this is a bit on the side of the theme, but here you have the whole story:

    MUU and the MAN who did not want to sing
    We were playing a game of Muu, at a con in Bergen (Norway), back in october 1989. Muu is a very serious and poetic fable about being a clumsy little creature called Muu. Muu have a voice, but don't use it very often. Only when in the rare ecstatic mood, may a Muu sing.

    The game is so fun it made players fall off their chairs in the first play-test, back in may 1989. It was written by me, as a kind of autmated-writing one night I could not sleep. It is serious in a very naïve and cute way.

    The man (around 30) who chose the action "Sing" with his muu, was told to stand up, go to the corner, turn, come back and sing a muu-song, with no words. A kind of humming-song, wordless and free of any real tune. This is standard procedure for anyone choosing to sing with their muu. It has never failed to be a success.

    The man was taken completely by surprise, and refused to do it. I said it had to be done, to continue the game, and he still refused. I saw that he was adamant about it, so the game was halted for his sake, so him and me could go off in private to talk about it.

    We sat down. He told me he could not sing, and did not want to do it. I told him fine, but let me explain my game to you. He said yes. So I explained that the game had this element; the singing, and would not be the game he had signed up for without it. I pointed out that he had chosen the song, in the game, by himself, so it was his responsibility to follow up on it. I also told him that "singing" in this game had nothing to do with ordinary singing; and that it actually was based on players being bad at singing. I told him that it was no big deal if he chose not to sing, but the game would be over, with the game-play we had had up until then. "This is your choice, and make the best choice for yourself. Do not mind me. I'm fine with ending the game, and the other players will be too." That is what I said to him, when we had talked it trough.

    And then I left him, to decide for himself.

    He returned to the table 5 minutes later. I smiled, asked if he was ready? He nodded. so I recapped the situation, told him to go to the cornen, turn, and sing. He did. With the most tune-less and harking voice ever heard at a muu-table, short, clumsy ...
    - and totally muu-like! It was a resounding success, and the other players applauded, both his courage in doing this, and his absolutely BEAUTIFUL muu-song.

    He sat down, and was a changed man.

    Really; he came to me after the game, shook my hand and gave me a million thanks for helping him to sing that muu-song. I told him it was the most clumsy and beautiful song I had ever heard, and he beamed at me. Glad to see you so happy, I told him, and he shone like a sun!

  • _______________________________________

    So, three important points on the muu/man-story:

    1 - respect your players; SEE them; this start at once you meet up with them; take their hand and look into their eyes, one by one, to signal that "I see you"

    2 - respect the game; if the game demand certain things of you; do it, and make sure everybody contribute in the same manner; it is how you make a game of consequence

    3 - Be free! Do not bind yourself to the game; you are human first! Others are human too, and should be allowed to be so; frail, insecure, and in need of help in certain situations, even in a game about clumsy, singing creatures.

    Beauty is in every hart! Help it out!
  • In my own experience, and many people I know, themes of abuse, rape, oppression, and betrayal have had many negative consequences for play. In particular, I know plenty of people who swore off White Wolf games because they encouraged these themes.

    This doesn't mean that I'm opposed to serious themes, but I know that particularly negative issues like these can be damaging. Also, I'd note that often players don't give feedback about problems they have. When my ex-wife would be in games that creeped her out, the last thing she wanted to do was sit around and talk with the people responsible. Rather she would just politely leave at the end. I've likewise generally just want to leave after a bad experience.


    Re: the goblin babies. I don't recall being in the specific situation of goblin babies. However, I have been in a number of situations where the GM would complain about casual violence by the PCs and my PC in particular. It seemed like the GM was looking for a particular reaction from my PC, and complaining when I didn't have it.
  • I don't always understand the desire to "inject" serious themes into adventure games. That scene isn't for me. If I'm playing an adventure game, it's because I want to be a weird badass with strange powers who fights insidious monsters in uncharted places. That's it. That's all I want out of that style of gaming.
    Can you unpack some of what you think as injection? For me, I generally want my adventure games to be like the adventure fiction that I enjoy - which are usually packed full of symbolism, meaning, and various themes. My inspirations have included fiction like the Iliad, The Maltese Falcon, Conan stories, His Majesty's Dragon, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, or X2. That doesn't mean that I try to push for similar plotlines, but rather that I'll have similar elements within the game-world (like old friends, new lovers, arch-enemies, and so forth who have meaning).

    The games often involve being a weird badass with strange powers fighting insidious monsters in uncharted places, but that aspect is part of the theme.

    I can play adventure games that have been drained of serious theme, but they tend to be a little odd.
  • edited August 2012
    I generally want my adventure games to be like the adventure fiction that I enjoy - which are usually packed full of symbolism, meaning, and various themes.
    That was wonderfully put! Thank you!

    I do understand those resisting to "injections" of serious themes; to me that is describing someone trying to put a glazing of seriousness on something silly; a praxis doomed to fail. Let us rather infuse our fiction (and our methods) from the start, with symbolism, meaning and serious/interesting/exciting themes worthy of exploration. Huzzah!

  • edited August 2012
    To clarify some issues surfacing in this discussion:

    1 Players resisting serious themes in role-playing games
    I believe they don't actually resist the serious theme. What they really do, is to resist the way it is introduced, by the leader of the game.

    2 Game leaders failing to work their ambitions in a good way
    It is fairly common for GMs, after some years of gaming, to develop some ambitions in relation to themes and methods for their games. Often these ambitions are NOT supported by the game itself, so the GM have to reinvent his/her gaming. Most of the time this goes well, but occasionally it fails.

    The most common field of failure is in introducing a serious theme. Such themes may be perceived as intrusive (depending on the way they are introduced), and more important; a serious theme demand a shift in attitudes from the players. A shift in attitude, with players used to playing silly/toungue-in-cheek/carefree-action for years, is not a small task. It has to be carefully wrought, and still don't stand much of a chance for success. Players set in their ways are not changed overnight.

    But most players are, by and large, open to new gaming experiences. So finding a set of players willing to explore new land with you, is not a impossible task. Finding a GM with more guts than your old one, can be a more difficult task, but the web should make it possible, if you want more from your gaming than the old jibes.
  • The man (around 30) who chose the action "Sing" with his muu, was told to stand up, go to the corner, turn, come back and sing a muu-song, with no words. A kind of humming-song, wordless and free of any real tune. This is standard procedure for anyone choosing to sing with their muu. It has never failed to be a success.

    The man was taken completely by surprise, and refused to do it. I said it had to be done, to continue the game, and he still refused. I saw that he was adamant about it, so the game was halted for his sake, so him and me could go off in private to talk about it.

    We sat down. He told me he could not sing, and did not want to do it. I told him fine, but let me explain my game to you. He said yes. So I explained that the game had this element; the singing, and would not be the game he had signed up for without it. I pointed out that he had chosen the song, in the game, by himself, so it was his responsibility to follow up on it. I also told him that "singing" in this game had nothing to do with ordinary singing; and that it actually was based on players being bad at singing. I told him that it was no big deal if he chose not to sing, but the game would be over, with the game-play we had had up until then. "This is your choice, and make the best choice for yourself. Do not mind me. I'm fine with ending the game, and the other players will be too." That is what I said to him, when we had talked it trough.

    And then I left him, to decide for himself.
    Bolding mine.

    This sounds horrible. I would definitely not thank you for this. I would likely not play in your game again. I do not appreciate being bullied. It is exactly the same as saying "Fine, if you do not play the way I want to, I am going to take my ball and go home." It is holding the game hostage to your personal vision. It is something that most people get over in about 3rd grade. It is also not conducive to mature play. I have been in these types of games. They did not last beyond that session.
  • edited August 2012
    This is an abbreviated version. We talked for 30 minutes, and I was very careful not to bully him. I would not have achieved the result we had, with bullying. He would not have thanked me for doing that.

    Please take care; what is represented in writing, and what actually takes place between two persons, face to face, differs a lot. That is true for a lot of descriptive prose related to role-playing. It is very easy to dismiss descriptions of game-play strange to you, from truly meager descriptions on the net. Try to look behind the words, and read charitably. You will gain from it.

    Another point relating to this example; if he had walked out of the game, it would still not have been any kind of "social disaster" or "emotional landmine". It would have been a player leaving the game, nothing more. I question the tendency to paint a frightening picture of serious game-play. It is not dangerous in any way. I have discussed it a lot through the years, and have been given no evidence it is.
  • I love my serious themes. Really, I do. I write games about dealing with sexuality, mortality, cruelty and whatnot. And I always, always make sure that all players are on board with dealing with the serious themes, and positively want to. I would never just put rape, genocide or bullying on the table and expect the players to just play along. When you, Tomas, said this:
    Most people don't resist serious themes, or other themes. They play what is on the table, and make the best out of it. Period.
    ...it kind of raised red flags for me. If I got blindsided with heavy themes, I'd be pretty angry. Serious themes might be healthy, like broccoli, but I'm 36 years old and I'll damn well decide whether or not I feel like eating broccoli! A game master putting broccoli on the table, and demanding that the players eat it, is treating the players like children. Like they would eat ice cream for dinner every day without an adult telling them what to eat. I wouldn't stand for it! And the funny thing is, if I get to choose freely, I'll happily play with all sorts of exceedingly serious themes!

    By the way, when a game is in progress, telling people that they will be spoiling everyone else's fun by walking away amounts to emotional coercion. It's shaming.

    PS We did the goblin babies when I was 13.
  • I think that just the emotions that are cropping up in this thread are very telling.
  • It is very easy to dismiss descriptions of game-play strange to you, from truly meager descriptions on the net. Try to look behind the words, and read charitably. You will gain from it.
    I'll assume this is advice for everyone other than you?

  • edited August 2012
    One method that's worked for me is doing exactly what people say not to do here. :)

    Specifically, I have a relatively lighthearted game, but I put a serious issue in the game world and let people decide when and how to interact with it.

    The Marvel Comics mutant-verse is (when the writers remember) about prejudice. So in my Smallville game, I had a character who was victimized by prejudice and then she acts out viciously in response. This is a serious issue and I presented it seriously. But the players had some leeway in whether, when and how to respond. It wasn't like a "bang" (please destroy this jargon, it has never been good) where you simply can't ignore it. They could ignore it and keep their heads down if they wanted. Or they could caretake the victims and not address the abusers. Or they could handle the abusers but let the victims fend for themselves. This was presented more or less to establish the reality of anti-mutant prejudice, not to create a plotline or put a character's values at issue unless they wanted it to. So sometimes we'd show up and it would be about trying to get the characters' guitar back from the manager who had stolen it along with the rest of his band's gear, and sometimes, if the players wanted, it could be more serious and have fewer hijinx. Sort of like a "serious zone" within a more lighthearted campaign.

    Making people sing, yikes. Yeah, that group would fold. (Although I think in a convention or one-shot scenario it would be less damaging and people would be MORE likely to give it a go, not less. After all, less is at stake.)
  • I love serious themes in games - which is probably why I currently prefer story games over trad games. I know plenty of trad gamers who just want to 'kill stuff and take it's treasure'. It's hard to get some trad players to explore character depth and serious issues but many story gamers have no problem with it.

    When playing with any group it is important to discuss lines and veils with the players as they probably will not be happy having some serious stuff forced on them if that's not their fix. If you want to play and explore serious themes then it's best to find a group that have similar tastes.

    When I run trad games for my trad player friends I will try to introduce some serious elements and see if they are in the mood to run with it. One way to do this is to show them the consequences of their actions and the effect that 'kill it and steal it's treasure' can have in a wider context.

    I think that if it's done slowly over a period of time it is possible to make any game more serious - to a degree.

    I played 'A penny for my thoughts' ( a personal favourite) with some trad players not so long ago and there was a definite discomfort with the lack of control the players had over the situation - especially the lack of rules to manipulate. However, by the end, I think they found the experience rewarding and enlightening. One of them told me when we met next that he had thought about the game all week and had realised how strong the experience was.

    So, I guess I'm saying that for it to work well, you need the right game and the right players. You can't force a square peg in to a round hole without causing some trouble.
  • Tomas, I really think you're underestimating the impact felt by participants in the kind of situation you're describing.

    Yes, I've seen emotional bombs go off when serious subjects are brought into role-playing, many times. Bomb is probably the wrong word. What I have experienced first hand, on numerous occasions is that:

    a) Disproportionately strong feelings of shame, anger, resentment, fear, triggers from family, etc. as a reaction to the theme are all utterly commonplace.

    b) The group rarely finds out anything clear about these feelings unless group safety is a priority, and space and time are allocated to process them. (jhkim provided an example of this, above.)

    c) If not processed, the impact to the group dynamic is enduring, and can remain tense or uncomfortable for affected individuals even when sessions are spaced months or years apart. (I've seen both.)

    d) The group leader is insulated from some of negative consequences of this dynamic by virtue of their social power within the group. (They have the authority, for example, to say what 'the rules' are.)

    d) This power imbalance means that when the group leader is perceived as the source of the problem (e.g. through the use of tactics that undermine safety), it takes a far greater than normal amount of courage for the player to raise the issue.


    I think it might be useful to look at various meanings of 'serious'. One candidate definition might be real-world problems without a simple solution (e.g. colonial oppression). Another candidate is that the theme involves real emotional risk for the participants.

    I know that I could run an engaging game that explored the serious theme of colonial oppression with a small group of my white, male friends and we'd have a good time and probably learn something meaningful (however small) from the experience - it's an interesting and engaging problem with meaty consequences, and none of us have any skin in the game whatsoever.

    With others I know who do, I don't think I have it in me to handle what's essentially entertainment with enough grace and sensitivity to honor the enormous pain it evokes for them. For them, it's a risky topic, because strong feelings arise unbidden. Not without a long, long conversation beforehand and extensively safety building, and probably not even then, because of the competing priorities for drama and safety. I wouldn't go there.

    Similarly, put me in a game about coercive authority with an even slightly blurry line between IC and OOC, and I'll be watching the clock and taking it up with my therapist.
  • edited August 2012
    By the way, when a game is in progress, telling people that they will be spoiling everyone else's fun by walking away amounts to emotional coercion. It's shaming.
    I see that you think that this is what happened in my example with MUU and the MAN. It did not. Never once while talking to him did I say that he would spoil anything. I told him repeatedly that he would not spoil anything.

    I did talk with him about it, and made him think trough it. And I did that to help him overcome a small nervous hang up. I succeeded by showing empathy, and showing him clearly what elements were present, and not, in HIS choice. There is nothing shameful in his reaction, in me talking with him, or in his final decision. It all worked out well in the end, for all of us.

  • edited August 2012
    Tomas, I really think you're underestimating the impact felt by participants in the kind of situation you're describing.
    The situation with the MUU and the MAN? Or something else?
    Yes, I've seen emotional bombs go off when serious subjects are brought into role-playing, many times. Bomb is probably the wrong word. What I have experienced first hand, on numerous occasions is that: ...
    I would really like for you to give us one example; describe what happened, what went wrong, and tell us why. Please!

    I'm talking about serious themes in the fiction here, not serious abuse by players or leaders in a social group. If you want to talk about abuse, could you please do that in another thread?
  • This is an abbreviated version. We talked for 30 minutes, and I was very careful not to bully him. I would not have achieved the result we had, with bullying. He would not have thanked me for doing that.
    This is not exactly true. You both had different things at stake. For you, the game might have stalled or failed because "one player was unable to engage seriously with the theme and tone of the game. Too bad. He really could have benefitted." For him, there were several other people who he may have really wanted to retain the respect of that would look at him as the guy who couldn't do that simple thing the GM asked, and it ruined the game. And he may have been unable to make himself vulnerable enough with these new acquaintances to explain why it was extremely difficult for him to do the asked for task. Difficult enough, but yet the stakes were important enough that he engaged in a half hour talk with you about how difficult it was and the true need to engage in this task. There was a huge power differential here.
    Please take care; what is represented in writing, and what actually takes place between two persons, face to face, differs a lot. That is true for a lot of descriptive prose related to role-playing. It is very easy to dismiss descriptions of game-play strange to you, from truly meager descriptions on the net. Try to look behind the words, and read charitably. You will gain from it.
    Sorry Thomas, but I am left feeling that there is either a language or cultural disconnect thing here, or that you are just unable to communicate well your position, or that you just refuse to listen to other people's concerns. You seem to take this position all the time. "You will gain from it." I get that you have a great time with gaming. What I never get is that you really hear the other people you are talking at, and I somehow just get a consistent message from you. "My games are very complex, to a degree that you obviously can't understand, and your concerns about the things I wrote are unfounded because my words are imperfect. On top of that, it is your responsibility to get what I mean, despite the fact that what I say does not reflect accurately what I mean. You have much to gain from listening to me. Trust me, your concerns are not a problem, and my position is so complex and beyond you that you just need to trust me. I have the answers because I am a Professional, with over 25 years experience!" I know that this is a bit of an exaggeration, but this is purposeful in an effort to illustrate a feeling. Seems like it is a feeling shared by more than just myself.
    Another point relating to this example; if he had walked out of the game, it would still not have been any kind of "social disaster" or "emotional landmine". It would have been a player leaving the game, nothing more. I question the tendency to paint a frightening picture of serious game-play. It is not dangerous in any way. I have discussed it a lot through the years, and have been given no evidence it is.
    This would not be an "emotional landmine" for you because it was not a big deal to you. It very well may have been exactly this for your player. And the statement that you have never been given evidence that it is dangerous seems to be in question, at least from the reactions and experiences of those in this thread. Just because you are dismissive of other voices does not mean that there is no contrary evidence.

    To me, the way to handle players who react negatively to ANYTHING in the game is to ask them what you can do to make them comfortable, accommodate, and then address them after the game. Only offer to help them unpack the experience, do not purport to know how to "help" them. The fact is, you do not. You can be there for them, you cannot fix them.

    This is actually one reason that I have a strong love for GMless games. Most of the time, the social structure is such that the GM-centric power differentials get left behind. No one "owns" the game. No one can threaten to stop the game, and no one can take their ball an go home. Everyone brings the ball.
  • Nameless said -
    This is actually one reason that I have a strong love for GMless games. Most of the time, the social structure is such that the GM-centric power differentials get left behind. No one "owns" the game. No one can threaten to stop the game, and no one can take their ball an go home. Everyone brings the ball.
    Even when a game has a GM they don't necessarily 'own' it - it should be more like a referees roll. I'm happy to incorporate players fiction to a GM game so long as it does not alter the fundamental structure of the story too far. I'll even change the rules if there is a consensus that something doesn't work right. It's the players game as much as mine and I'm there to facilitate a story and allow everyone to have fun. I'm not there to force players in to cringe worthy moments of discomfort.

    But I do agree with you that TomasHVM is just telling us we don't understand his posts because we are not 'knowing' enough to really get his context as he has much more game Fu than us. It's a bit rude, to be honest.
  • You are wrong in most of your interpretations and assumptions, "Nameless".

    YES
    - there is a power differential in the situation described.

    All the more important that I do not exploit it; I'm not using my power to bully him, not telling him the game will fail in any way if he refuse to sing.

    What I AM telling him is that the game has been nice, and that both me and the other players will be fine ending it there and then. It was important telling him this, in earnest, and making him see that I meant it. He himself felt the social pressure of refusing to comply, and was afraid of disappointing me and the other players (whom he did not know from before). This feeling increased the difficulty for him. I relieved him of that pressure during our talk, and helped him make a choice based on his own feelings, not ours.

    NO
    - at no point was he given the impression that he did not take the game seriously.
    All the players, including him, engaged seriously with the theme and tone of the game. He felt bad due to the fact that he really engaged with the game. He had looked forward to playing it, and had told me so at the start of the session (this episode took place rather late in the session).

    For me there were two easy ways out in the situation:

    - 1 -
    I could have continued the game as if the myth of the muu-song meant nothing. That would have bereft him and the other players of the real muu-experience. I was not willing to do that. It would have compromised the game seriously.

    - 2 -
    I could have let him wander off, not trying to help him into the game, cutting the situation short and concentrating on the other players. I did not have the conscience to do that.

    I wanted to help him
    - so I offered to do so. He said yes to my help. That was the first thing happening after his refusal.

    Then I told the other players to go find some grub and wait for me, and sat down with him in an undisturbed corner. We had a good talk. It helped him make a good decision, by and for himself.

    I was adamantly conscious of him feeling very strongly about this the whole time we sat and talked about it. I did not dismiss his feelings, but acknowledged them, and let him go as deeply in describing them as he felt was necessary. As with most people, this way of showing empathy made him open up a bit, and made the whole talk possible. He showed me trust, and by being conscious and careful, while engaging with him, I earned it.



  • edited August 2012
    Nameless;
    - you and some others want to find faults with me in this episode. I can not help you in that. What took place ended with him giving me heartfelt thanks, both for the game and the talk. I need no other confirmation that I read his predicament there and then correctly, and that I acted with care and wisdom when trying to help him.

    If you accept that, you may still disagree with me on other issues, but it might help you read some of the other things I'm saying with a more open heart.

    I tried to communicate 3 important points pertaining to the MUU/MAN-episode. They got ignored, so I repost them here:
    _______________________________________

    So, three important points on the muu/man-story:

    1 - respect your players; SEE them; this start at once you meet up with them; take their hand and look into their eyes, one by one, to signal that "I see you"

    2 - respect the game; if the game demand certain things of you; do it, and make sure everybody contribute in the same manner; it is how you make a game of consequence

    3 - Be free! Do not bind yourself to the game; you are human first! Others are human too, and should be allowed to be so; frail, insecure, and in need of help in certain situations, even in a game about clumsy, singing creatures.

    Beauty is in every heart! Help it out!
  • edited August 2012
    This is actually one reason that I have a strong love for GMless games. Most of the time, the social structure is such that the GM-centric power differentials get left behind. No one "owns" the game. No one can threaten to stop the game, and no one can take their ball an go home. Everyone brings the ball.
    Now you are talking about bad leadership. There are good leadership, and bad. We still need leaders in some aspects of our lives, and may have leaders in games too. In other aspects of our lives we make do with no leaders, and that is true for a lot of games too.

    Having games with no leaders is good, for those games. Having games where the leadership is done by the game/game-smith. is good too, as it leaves the players on equal terms.

    Neither the one nor the other is the only way to have fun.

    Evil Genius said:
    Even when a game has a GM they don't necessarily 'own' it - it should be more like a referees roll. I'm happy to incorporate players fiction to a GM game so long as it does not alter the fundamental structure of the story too far. I'll even change the rules if there is a consensus that something doesn't work right. It's the players game as much as mine and I'm there to facilitate a story and allow everyone to have fun. I'm not there to force players in to cringe worthy moments of discomfort.
    There are several ways to lead a game, both depending on who you are, and what the scenario is.

    Being a "referee" is one way to go about it, developed specifically to be used to good effect in mechanics-heavy games.

    Being a more active leader is possible too, and very efficient in classical games with a broader spectrum of methodic tools.

    Whatever kind of leader you are, you do not own the players. They are not your playthings. They should be respected.

    Evil Genius said:
    TomasHVM is just telling us we don't understand his posts because we are not 'knowing' enough to really get his context as he has much more game Fu than us. It's a bit rude, to be honest.
    This is blatantly not true!

    I'm relating a situation to you, in good faith, to show that I have indeed experienced a player reacting to "serious" elements included in a game. Nameless and others have not made a good job of asking questions about the episode, to clarify things. If it really interested them I reckon they would do that. They have made assumptions, and been very free in offering their interpretations about the episode, telling me that I was a bully for trying to help.

    My main point in this is: the episode related is rare. You should not expect to have a game EXPLODE socially because of serious in-game themes. Most players draw a line between the game-fiction and their everyday life, even when playing with serious themes.
  • Never once while talking to him did I say that he would spoil anything. I told him repeatedly that he would not spoil anything.
    Well, you also said:
    I told him that it was no big deal if he chose not to sing, but the game would be over, with the game-play we had had up until then.
    Daddy isn't angry. Daddy is just disappointed. It's totally OK if you feel like spoiling everyone else's fun, I won't blame you. No, really, I won't blame you.

    Sorry, not buying. It's gentle, passive-aggressive coercion, but the point remains. Unless there is no connection at all between your words and the events, in which case we have another little problem. Devoting that many ressources (taking half an hour timeout in a gaming situation is HUGE) to pushing through resistance which is that strong might have worked for you in this instance, but my not inconsiderable experience with serious themes gaming says you were taking a considerable risk. Most of it on his behalf.

    I'll agree with you that respecting your players is really important. For me, that includes NOT setting up a paternalistic adult/child relationship between game masters and players in which game masters (however gently) make players eat their broccoli, because it has vitamins and minerals and it's good for them.
  • I told him we would stop the game, yes, if he chose not to sing. I also told him the game had been fun, so it would not be spoiled. What we had played would still stand. And I told him none of us would feel bad about him refusing. It was a difficult and demanding situation, but it ended well, for him.

    Most leaders are put into such situations. How we solve them is what defines us as leaders.
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