This weekend, I went to the Maryland Renaissance Festival. There were the usual assortment of jugglers, actors, turkey legs, and musical groups who swing between renaissance music and Irish folk. One of the acts, a comedy show, made a joke about Bill Cosby that elicited a few laughs and a lot of groans. Afterward, there was more than one comment about complaints coming in for management. That got me thinking about the ways in which we transgress boundaries, and how and when we can do so in a Tabletop Role-Playing Game. I mentioned previously the challenge of making sure that transgression meets with consequences, so today let’s consider how we might bring some of those consequences about.
Just so we’re clear, I’m not talking about breaking the rules of the game – that’s a whole different set of circumstances on the why and how. Here, I’m talking about the perceived social mores of the society in which your game is set. Sometimes, the rules are quite clear – In Golarion’s Taldor, it is against the law for a non-noble to grow a beard. Sometimes, they’re more subtle – Public Blasphemy in the Forgotten Realms’ Waterdeep is punishable by a fine (an odd rule since some churches pretty explicitly blaspheme against other faiths as part of their canon). Aside from law, most countries in TRPGs, even as in the real world, have a boatload of “unwritten rules” that set the standards of decorum and appropriate behavior. In 7th Sea’s Vodacce, looking a woman that is not your wife in the eyes could get you a duel in the street from her family. Most of the time, these rules are only incidental to the story our characters are taking part in, but they are definitely a part of the world they live in, so some consideration of how our characters thinks about those rules, and which, if any, they would resist.
Transgressing can be comprised of nothing more than simple disobedience of custom, or transgressing the boundaries of what’s considered appropriate behavior. It could also rise to the level of civil disobedience, so the free speech loving blasphemer in Waterdeep would keep the 10 gp fine on him at all times. It could even rise all the way to outright lawbreaking, with no consideration for a justice system the PC considers to be supporting an unjust law.
I am, by political inclination, a transgression-loving free speech near-absolutist, but there are two considerations when moving our conceptions of personal expression against a stifling rule to a game table: First, we remember that this is a game and that our transgressions are not the story. Don’t let your need for personal expression overrun the story that everyone is trying to tell together. Second, remember that everyone together is telling this story. Collaborative storytelling must acknowledge and respect the creative vision of every collaborator. Show due consideration to the sensitivities of your fellow players – offending officious authorities in Kelesh should never be an excuse to deliberately offend your friends; a little of Wheaton’s Law goes a long way here.
TRPG settings can appear more stagnant as societies than their historical equivalents, and a lot of that probably has to do with the way in which laws and mores are presented. Unless the story hinges on a burgeoning revolution, most GMCs* are presented as law-abiding and inoffensive. As you consider both your own circle of friends, as well as the people you consider to be entertaining and/or speaking truth, I imagine you’ll use a few fingers counting off those who push the boundaries of what’s acceptable. Injecting a little of that into your games, like spice for the food, will make your stories richer, more immersive, and perhaps even a bit more personally meaningful.