First, a rant. I promise it’s related.
There’s been a semi-significant hue and cry this week about the horrific events of last week’s episode of Game of Thrones (I anticipate that the Venn Diagram of gamers and people who read George R.R. Martin/watch the show based on his book is a pretty small oval). Without getting into the details, a sexual assault occurs on camera, and there are a number of people upset about it. To these people, I must direct a question: WHAT SHOW DID YOU THINK YOU WERE WATCHING? One of the hard and fast points of A Song of Ice and Fire is a grimly serious look at what happens when power is wielded at the point of a sword, and when the basic dignity and worth of human beings is not generally recognized. When the victim and the victimizer came together, it should have been clear to everyone what was going to happen, and this is a show that has put murder and assault on-screen unflinchingly. Claire McCaskill, the senator from Missouri, got some free publicity when she declared that the rape scene was a bridge too far for her and she was turning her back on the show. So a treacherous beheading, several straight-up murders, and one of the goriest death scenes to be shown on television are ok, but a rape is beyond the pale? Strange times we live in.
So what does this have to do with RPGs and rhetoric? Put simply, don’t be afraid of the horrible stuff. Writers of game worlds have an unfortunate tendency to try and present us with fantasy settings that reflect a medieval world, without any of the messy stuff that makes us a little happier we don’t actually live in a medieval world. Obviously, you don’t want to actively upset your players (at least more than they would find acceptable – this is still a game), but living in a world with the audience and constraints that produce rampant sexism, racism, and so many of the other –isms that those worlds supported, while magically wishing those –isms out of existence, cuts us off from an amazing opportunity to examine and understand why those sorts of things happen. When we engage the racist duke in an RPG, we’re taking steps down the road to being able to articulate why racism is bad, a vital capacity that we lose when debate is cut off. RPGs are great for this because, even if we’re emotionally invested, we’re probably not personally liable for what happens next: if the racist loses their cool and assaults us, we pick up dice rather than two-by-fours.
This has come up in an especially touchy point in the Pathfinder RPG. One of the Lawful Good gods, Erastil, God of Farming, Family, and Hunting, is a socially conservative misogynist, whose church preaches that women should generally defer to their husbands. Obviously, some players have a problem with this, including this one. Where I depart from many of my fellow players is in the argument that Erastil is, because of his misogyny, not Lawful Good. Good people can have bad ideas, and bad people can have good ideas. The god of farming and family might, like a lot of rural folk, have some fairly traditional ideas about gender roles. By the same token, Asmodeus, the god of tyranny and slavery in Golarion, is also the god of contracts – those being one of the linchpins of a non-barter civilization that extends past your local village. Keeping religion complicated and controversial broadens roleplay opportunity and rhetorical significance in the roleplaying we do. This is to the good (And if you think this is a strident opinion, just wait until I blog on the nature of evil). James Jacobs is on record stating he intends to write Erastil’s misogyny out of the game when the opportunity presents itself. I sincerely hope he reconsiders.
There are some players who come to RPGs for straight-up escapism, and they have absolutely zero interest in exploring these kinds of things. One of my mantras is that there is no wrong way to play, presuming everyone’s in the game of their own free will. It’s perfectly ok to want to scrub all the poor social mores out of the fantasy society in which you play your game. I just wish that designers and players would not seek to make that the default, or attempt to make certain topics taboo. That’s something I have to deal with enough in real life.