Sensitive cultural/political/religious aspects of game themes.

  • This was inspired by the current conversation in the Shadowhunters MUSH thread, which is a little broad and warrants a discussion of its own. (Also, I'm gonna tangent and I would feel awful doing that in someone's advertisement.)

    I know I'm looking at aspects of this for a project myself, and it's one of the few things that gives me pause about the theme/concept. It's probably the only reservation I have because I have my ideas about how to handle and where to 'draw the line', so to speak, but various other games have handled this in a variety of ways, to varying degrees of success. (I'm still waffling. I do not have a solid plan; I have ideas, though. It seems like I'm not the only creator-person who is facing this issue. Hence, thread.)

    This strikes me as an issue that doesn't have a "right answer", but instead a variety of approaches to address the potential problems it can create when either a fantastical society or a historical setting is not aligned with the current understanding of how things should be.

    How would you address this as a staffer? Would your approach change if you were using a completely invented fantasy setting vs. a historical one? What about an 'alt earth' setting ('The Man in the High Castle', World of Darkness, etc. which are essentially fantastical takes on the world we do know and draw from it's real history)?

    As a player, how do these issues impact your choice to play somewhere or not, if they do at all? Do you think there are reasonable compromises to make on these subjects? If so, what kinds of things do you think would influence your decision one way or the other?

  • @surreality

    I would agree that this doesn't have a 'right answer.' What it has is a 'what are you willing to do with the theme' and 'are you worried about, theme integrity or the mass appeal?' I get WHY some people are waffly about the stuff in the Shadowhunters theme, but like I said in that thread... does that stuff bother you in OTHER games where it would be a thematic concern? And this doesn't just come to 'social stigma for being alternate' but anything. Racial background, gender, country of origin, station, etc.

    Myself, I find myself able to separate 'theme issues' from 'personal issues,' and as I said in that thread, if the THEME says that it's a thing, I also trust staff to NOT let it fall into OOC shenanigans. But I'm a severely trusting fool apparently, so...

    I think there aren't real ways to compromise if staff has a vision of a specific theme. If staff feels like they can bend on it, great. But it's something that's always oging to be a case-by-case situation, and something that is not going to be for everyone. There's just not a way to please everyone. And people should look at it from that angle.

    Anecdotally, when I played on Megaman MUSH, I played Rock. Rock was in a relationship with a human woman. She and I both dealt with bigotry against the relationship, and it was excellent RP because we knew it wasn't OOC issues... it was IC issues, in theme and appropriate.

  • Pitcrew

    One of the things I crave in roleplaying is being able to explore settings and themes that I would never in a million years want to experience RL and would actively campaign against in RL.

    So, any given setting in a game in and of itself isn't that big of a deal to me as far as preventing me from playing there.

    What I find problematic is if the theme is so draconian that it narrows the possibilities for dynamic character opportunities to a very shallow pool. This is, in my experience, often very unintentional.

    I think that rigid socio-economic class (little to no mobility) is fine. Prejudice against certain races/gender/religions/other category is fine. But when you start locking down everything (As in, a game world where not only is there no social mobility but also no women can ever be anything other than broodmares or whores and can never be seen in public or make any decisions about themselves and also anyone who is not a native of <city/area> will be enslaved on sight) then while it may have a more "historical" or "different, no modern political correctness here!" feel, it also means that you are drastically reducing your capacity for interesting storytelling (IMO). Yes, there will always be some people who love playing outliers (I tend to be one of those myself) but no matter how good they are, it can be problematic (and chafing even to people who are in the able-to-do-things classes).

    I think for a dynamic, vibrant RP environment, it's great to have some tension/restrictions--I wish more places did that. But when you put a choke hold on everything, it really bogs it down. Even if it doesn't attract some of the OOC problematic people who seem to love those environments because they think they're "alphas" or whatever the kids are calling it these days.

    So, I would tend to favor a place that picks its restrictions carefully, and doesn't try to do everything.

  • Pitcrew

    I don't mind characters being restricted by theme/setting as long as the restrictions are such that I still have significant agency as a player, as long as the character itself has enough agency to be playable and fun.

  • I can work with a 'So you can play this concept, but understand that NPCs (and perhaps some PCs) will look at you sideways.'

    That's how I see the Shadowhunters one. Or how I see medieval-esque themes where 'Women rarely enter these roles, so it's an allowed concept, but it might net you some difficulties with NPC authority figures.'

    Those can be a lot of fun. I like strife in my story. My character has to overcome prejudice? Gimme!

    But yes, when it's more: you cannot play this there's no way that would evar be allowed... then I'm out. Give people the opportunity, but make sure they understand that they may face IC backlash for it. I've done that on games and had an -awesome- time of it.

  • My answers on this one:

    Player-side, I am not comfortable with games that are universally and extremely anti-thing-that-is-an-issue-for-me-RL. For instance, I wouldn't touch the Gor theme with a bargepole because of its sexist overtones. (Yes, I know there are exceptions, but that's just it -- they're the exceptions, not the norm one is expected to deal with.) I don't, however, have an issue playing on Shang, where Gor themes are allowed, since participation in them is not mandatory, and I have a reliable means of saying: "I want nothing to do with that."

    Staff-side... I'm looking at an alt-history setting. Outside this one little pocket of creation, the world is more or less how it was, save for a very minor presence of supernatural/mythic/paranormal themes that exist throughout the world on the whole but really are concentrated in this one small place for the most part.

    However! ...the setting is, because the time period/setting in reality was, the early 1700s. Yeah, let that sink in a little about what that means in terms of sexuality, gender, religion, race, etc. There are some really ugly realities of that era, especially from out perspective today, and no, I can't pick a different era or setting for what I want to do, and I do not want to make a full-on fantasy setting at all, period, nor will I, since the only reason I'd be doing so would be to ease that 'modern sensibilities' vs. 'historical sensibilities' distinction. That much I know is firm.

    The specific setting is "frontier" enough that a number of things can't be policed by the societal norms of the era, however, which is a starter help. That, in actual reality, allowed for more freedoms in certain respects than people would be accustomed to seeing at the time.

    I ended up with what I feel is a bit of a cop-out but what I think is probably the best option (for me). Namely, amping up the 'it's a lot more free here, though these things do exist in the world, especially outside this area, and people may bring those attitudes in from the outside' -- which is pretty close, from what I can tell, to what the Shadowhunters game did (and many games do). That's bolstered by a specific OOC preference people can set up to note their characters' attitudes on these things, and how much the player wants to explore -- or explicitly avoid -- them.

    Does that dilute 'theme' or 'setting'? A little. But I don't feel 'give people a little leeway to allow for creativity while preserving player comfort' is tantamount to 'now anything goes, it's all a worthless travesty, you may as well hand-wave everything because the sacred truth has already been despoiled', which is a worrying notion that seemed to emerge in the other thread.

  • Pitcrew

    The way I would go if I was running something in that sort of setting is to clearly and upfront state the general feeling of the NPCs of the world but still allow Players to choose the roles they wish for PCs after all PCs by definition are the exceptions from the norm, and exist to overcome difficulties. That said I know I would be less likely to pick a setting that had elements I was not comfortable with, and I can totally understand players making the decision to avoid settings that would require them to deal with unpleasant aspects of live that they have to deal with every day of their lives.
    And I also fell the need to say that while IC -isms might be part of a games theme or otherwise allowable and a perfectly acceptable part of RP, and instance of OOC behavior along those lines should be jumped on with extreme prejudice.

  • Pitcrew

    Frontier settings RL were often a far cry from the rest of societal norms, by necessity. Also keep in mind that "it was like x back then" history was not true for anyone but rich people.

    Women worked and were expected to. The average age of marriage in the American colonies, esp outside of the Deep South would be shockingly old to most people's assumptions. Sex before marriage was common, if people bothered with formal marriage at all, and even amongst the puritans it wasn't uncommon for brides to be pregnant (since sometimes that was the only way to liberate oneself from their family in order to marry).

    If you tried to do that on a "historical" MUSH people would whine that you were modernizing it.

    So really I think you can take influences where you like, do what you wish, if some people don't like it hopefully they'll self select out and those that feel the need to loudly complain and disrupt can be shown the door. :)

  • @surreality said in Sensitive cultural/political/religious aspects of game themes.:

    But I don't feel 'give people a little leeway to allow for creativity while preserving player comfort' is tantamount to 'now anything goes, it's all a worthless travesty, you may as well hand-wave everything because the sacred truth has already been despoiled', which is a worrying notion that seemed to emerge in the other thread.

    A lot of people really do feel that way though. On my western game, I approved people on individual merits. Want to be an abolitionist? Freed slave who made their way west? Female ranch owner? Female Pinkerton agent? African-American doctor? Sure. All these things existed in real life history.

    Did all of them exist in one single small town in Wyoming though? No, of course not. So it ended up being like Twin Peaks the Western. I got a lot of flak for how preposterous the characters were and how badly it broke the Western theme.

    Saying that the PCs are the exception to the rule only goes so far. Unless you've got people really exercising the "mainstream" NPC viewpoint, the exception becomes all you see and therefore becomes people's mental rule no matter what you say. So you get this weirdly-jarring discontinuity when the person claiming to be oppressed by totally valid IC prejudices ends up looking like a looney since it never happens on-camera. (or if it does, the poor NPC is quickly smacked down by all the modern-sensibility PCs.)

    But for me I wouldn't change a thing. It was far more palatable than trying to enforce a world where 90% of the playerbase had to be racist/sexist jerks or farmers/manual labor. Didn't seem like much fun for me, as a player or a staffer. So YMMV.

  • I've been thinking about this alot and my answer still generally sorta circles back to the same thing:

    Will engaging in this RP give me something I didn't already know?

    Will engaging in this RP make me feel fundamentally worse about myself/the world?

    These answers to these questions are entirely personal. I do know what my hard pass limits are in terms of things that won't be edifying and will just make me feel like shit: toxic relationships on an infinite loop, cheating in romantic personal RP (being the cheater or the cheated on) where there is no advance OOC agreement that this could happen and everyone's cool, rape/sexual assault plots, and casual bigotry and racism that won't change or will get worse.

    And you participate or not as you are so inclined.

    In a larger perspective, other games in other formats also run into this. I was involved in a discussion with someone who is developing a game based in US History in New England after the American Revolution. He's wrestling a lot with whether or not to include slavery as a thing.

    He can either make it so that slavery was not a thing for various revisionist reasons and the people who make up that game population would exist as any other white, land owning dude at the time.


    He can include slavery and portray it accurately, including having it be a playable template where your PC is probably never going to be released into their autonomy and (eta) probably treated fucking horribly.

    To do the first is to gloss over that it happened and make it more palatable for the people who wouldn't play because they don't want to play in a game that even has that going for it. But in doing so, makes a very important black eye in the history of the US non-extant and makes a whole other social, economic, and psychological aspects of theme that much harder to explain or have happen.

    To do the second will certainly send people fleeing in the other direction of participation because there are people who will not for whatever personal reasons want to touch that theme with a 10 foot pole.


    The will touch it with a 10 foot pole and try and 'fix it' by immediately freeing the slaves and avoiding any RP about the thing we did but won't talk about because its too horrible to contemplate. We fixed it and we've moved on. Quickly.

    There's kind of a no-win thing here. And I'm not sure there are any good compromises. I think it comes down to you either accept your theme has grimdark edgelordy themes and you don't make any effort to put lipstick on it or you don't include them or re-imagine a universe that this didn't happen in. It's kind of an all or nothing proposition.

    As a PC, for example, I can avoid a rape story line in game by being firm that I don't want to RP about this, don't drag me into this, and take it elsewhere. It's a single act of awful brutality but it won't actually necessarily (hopefully) sink the game. Wholesale perverse religious or cultural values aren't in the same bag though. A PC can't escape these things as the world is soaked in it. So its either in or out. Unfortunately.

  • Pitcrew

    All I'll say is that 100% of these games are fantasy, and anyone who tells you they can't get immersed if the historical setting doesn't conform entirely to historical standards is someone I give a lot of side eye. Tweak your theme to support what you want to run stories in, because the most important thing is keeping yourself invested and having fun. Otherwise, just set up a sandbox and let people do what they want.

  • Pitcrew

    I don't feel I have any business defending or critiquing the issue from an LGBTQ perspective, but I can add this to the conversation:

    1. on a Victorian London, I played an female Asian business owner, specifically for the challenges that would be brought by the setting.

    2. On a post Civil War mush - on various iterations, in fact, I've played Jewish women (which I am, RL), specifically for the challenges involved in playing such a character.

    3. I've played a Lost Holocaust survivor, who had to deal with the fact that there were more than one Nazi in the sphere.

    4. I've played a Jewish superhero character in an alternate universe where the Axis won. For the alternate universe plot, the suggestion was mine.

    So obviously I don't mind settings where playing the status of a character in a despised or disissed minority. As such, what I really think it boils down to: "play it if you enjoy it, don't if you feel uncomfortable".

  • "Sensitive aspects" = "sources of conflict".

    In any dramatic (and even comedic) setting, the grist for the mill is conflict. If you don't have conflict, specifically conflict (eventually) resolved, you don't have a story.

    Thing is, some all conflicts will turn someone off somewhere. All of them. No exceptions. (For example, I'm entirely uninterested in the inner conflicts of a man stuck in a woman's body or vice versa. A theme predicated on such a conflict will bore me to tears. I'm similarly uninterested in conflicts between two schools of cooking. Conflict predicated upon rape goes a step farther: I will actively avoid anybody involved in that shit and think worse of them as human beings.) There is not a single source of conflict that will not in some way, shape, or form upset or bore to tears some element of your prospective audience. This means making a game that doesn't offend/bother/bore anybody is literally impossible.


    When you make a game you have to decide what conflicts to include knowing that whatever your choice you'll twist some undies into a reef knot. It's thus a matter of picking which subset of prospective players you want to cater to and which you'll politely nod at when they whine about the subset you chose.

    That being said, if you introduce a conflict that you don't plan on actually using you're an idiot. Here I side with @GangOfDolls. If you're putting in an element in a setting that is off-putting to some of your target audience and then saying "but don't worry, you won't have to ever deal with it" at this point you're selecting something that's going to turn off prospective players for no story gain. You might as well take it out entirely. If, however, you're going to use that source of conflict to generate stories in your setting, by all means leave it in. Just know that you will offend/squick/bore-to-tears some subset of your target audience.

  • @WTFE said in Sensitive cultural/political/religious aspects of game themes.:

    That being said, if you introduce a conflict that you don't plan on actually using you're an idiot. Here I side with @GangOfDolls. If you're putting in an element in a setting that is off-putting to some of your target audience and then saying "but don't worry, you won't have to ever deal with it" at this point you're selecting something that's going to turn off prospective players for no story gain. You might as well take it out entirely. If, however, you're going to use that source of conflict to generate stories in your setting, by all means leave it in. Just know that you will offend/squick/bore-to-tears some subset of your target audience.

    However, that's not the case on the Shadowhunter game. What that post said is that the theme of the world, as set forth in the books which is what is being followed (or it's not really a Shadowhunter game) is that the Clave - the NPC patriarchy - is old fashioned, rigid, and generally prejudiced against anyone and anything that is not them.

    The PCs, who are generally speaking the younger generation, can make their own decision as to what to believe. And indeed, it is completely in theme for them to be rebelling against that viewpoint. In fact, I just watched the episode where the main character said outright that the younger generation have a different viewpoint about Downworlders and in the first couple, one of them said the younger generation wouldn't care much if a Shadowhunter was gay.

    It's part of the background color of the universe, much like... those super powerful vampires in OWoD who are sleeping and going to kill everyone as soon as they wake up (the name of which I can't recall) are. Hey, they'll never show up. It's a meaningless threat. So why include it? Because it's part of the world and gives people something to react against.

  • Pitcrew

    From what I've experienced, the best way to be tolerant is by reminding people that your opinions are the greatest, the most true, and the moral, rational, and logical while simultaneously being condescending of everyone else's. Pretend to respect free speech but find ways to denounce dissenting opinions as being less than such: calling it hate speech, trolling or inciting trouble are all good ways to accomplish this!

    Should that fail, label them as a problem player and make up reasons to have them banned. You WILL prevail.

  • Tutorialist

    @TNP said in Sensitive cultural/political/religious aspects of game themes.:

    the name of which I can't recall)


  • @TNP said in Sensitive cultural/political/religious aspects of game themes.:

    However, that's not the case on the Shadowhunter game.

    Isn't it fortunate, then, that I didn't post this in the Shadowhunter thread but in a thread about general sensitive aspects of game themes that was explicitly REMOVED from that thread for PRECISELY this reason?

  • I happen to think that rape, sexism, racism, ableism, homophobia, transphobia and the like make for great storytelling — this coming from someone frequently derided as a SJW — so I tend not to understand why anyone would want to exclude these themes from their story where they should realistically apply.

    If you're building a medieval fantasy world like Middle Earth, then these themes aren't massively necessary. This is an elegant solution if you want to create a setting where these issues don't exist.

    If you're specifically setting something in Victorian London or 1940s New Orleans or something, though, I think you should include the relevant themes of political/identity conflicts. Otherwise, what's the point of setting something in these eras to begin with? Just to have the glitzy glamour/vintage/retro style while sweeping the baggage under the rug? I think, if you were trying to be 'sensitive', that's more insulting than being explicit about issues of the era.

    Where it leads to issues of marginalising certain players and their preferred archetype (e.g., saying no women who are more than x), it's the responsibility of the game-designer to create a reasonable loophole, or perhaps just choose a different setting. For example, instead of setting a Noir somewhere white and affluent, set it in New Orleans, where women of colour can play pivotal roles 'behind the scenes' as voodoo medicine-women or jazz musicians, despite the social climate of the country they live in. If you have a Victorian London sci-fi setting, invent some kind of secret society that operates out of the London Underground, and in which women can be badass and gay men make out or whatever. You get the picture.

    (Coincidentally, I'm currently working on a Noir project set in New Orleans, so this is very much on my mind.)

  • @TNP
    This is the thing that people are calling a 'non issue, so why include it'. We don't know how often the younger generation PCs might interact with the Clave (I am in the process of picking up the books to read), but it may or may not come up often. And because of that 'may not come up often,' this is why people are saying 'why include it at all'.

    I think your analogy of the Antediluvian myth in vampire is a good one (and honestly, that one is even worse in-setting because Elder vampires will persecute and murder the FUCK out of you as a Noddist and Gehenna cultist if you speak too much about it). I think the big thing is, when and how will it manifest, becomes the better question and the thing that needs clarified. In Vampire you have a pretty clearly detailed idea of what happens with Noddists who are open about their beliefs. I think that really needs to be spelled out in more detail of 'okay, here's the expectation' and if you have an idea of how often something might come up, make sure that it's put forth.

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