It’s Not Always Just a Game

This is an odd entry to write. Most writers use their blogs to talk about current projects, or failing that, things that matter.
I don’t know how many of you feel that table-top roleplaying games actually matter, and I don’t expect to make any converts with this entry, but writing is supposed to be, in some way, telling the truth about yourself. The truth of the matter is that, yes, I’m a tabletop gamer in my off time, recently part of a group again after a near ten year hiatus. I started playing Dungeons and Dragons before I was ten years old, pulled into it by my sister who played in a game run by our uncle. My cousin had had to drop out because his mother, my aunt, was deeply Christian and had a problem with her son playing “Satan’s game”.
Her niece and nephew, it would seem, were okay to let burn in hell.
I took over his character, and even though I was a kid, I was hooked from the get go, the game providing the fertile soil for my imagination to take root. I’d look forward to every visit because it’d mean we’d get to play again, and being that I was a geeky little nerd, it was fun to play the knight in shining armor and be the hero who saved the day.
I played from the Red Box into 1st edition proper, then 2nd, then finding a game where I played Forgotten Realms with my friends while still being part of a group that met every couple weeks. I snuck looks at issues of Dragon magazine and read the stories, laughed at the comics because I was part of the group that actually got the jokes. I continued to play into my sullen teen years, and while I didn’t play the knight in shining armor anymore, I still played characters that meant something to me.
Then my uncle took a hiatus and never came back from it, so I went into the White Wolf games that capivated me in my late teens and early 20s.
I played werewolves, changelings, a few vampires, but I eventually found Mage: the Ascension and that was it for me. Eventually, I thought it would be fun to take my notes from urban sociology class and my readings of Richard Florida‘s treatises on city planning and create my own little World of Darkness-type setting. It got played with and tweaked during undergrad and into grad school, you might’ve read a few books set in its current iteration.
The point is the importance of gaming, at least to me, so when I got engaged to someone that was a big fan of the spiritual successor to D&D, Pathfinder, I was excited and convinced him to run a game. A few friends from my old gaming group heard about it and asked to join, and for the last couple months the game has been awesome, like old times, and being a writer, I champed at the bit to fill out my character’s backstory to make him more than just a collection of numbers and an equipment list.
Something that Pathfinder will allow you to do that D&D wouldn’t is run paladins who aren’t human. For me, this meant being able to bring around a story seed that had been floating in my head, and make a Dwarven paladin, a holy knight of a god of smiths that fostered cooperation between the races. It meant playing Lawful Good, an alignment, or moral outlook, that meant your character believed in following the law, believing in honor and ethics, and wanting to work toward the greater good of all. In essence, the ultimate goal above all else is doing the right thing and putting the right thing above personal gain.
This, I’ve found, is where things started to go downhill.
You see, players in a game want to more work outside the law, occasionally reward themselves for a job well done, etc. To those kind of players, a law-abiding do-gooder who donates 20% of his income to charity is a stick in the mud and a pain in the ass, a nagging angel they never wanted on their shoulder who just won’t shut the hell up. A lawful good character, and a paladin especially, is someone to tease at least and give no end of torment at best.
So I’ll describe the party:
Dresden Firebeard – Dwarven Paladin, lawful good (Me)
Dwarven Ranger – Chaotic Good
Human Sorceress – Neutral Good
Kitsune Bard – Chaotic Good
Dresden’s job is, simply put, the tank. He gets out in front, gets the big bad’s attention, and generally gets beaten within an inch of his life while the damage dealers, now unmolested, kick its ass. Then he heals people up, everyone gets rewarded/paid, Dresden donates his tithe, everyone else suddenly forgets to visit their respective temples and donate to gods that they might want to raise them later.
I play Dresden as helpful, not lecturing, constructive in his criticism, and willing to go without if that’s what’s needed. You know, how you’d expect a paladin to act, because you have to be fundamentally decent if you want the nifty powers like laying on hands or summoning a unicorn by sheer force of will. He’s a friendly, good, and decent person, and playing him is similar to how I play RPGs with moral choice systems, how most people play them, really. We want to believe that we can be better people, so we set an example for ourselves with our characters. Dresden has the kind of decency and charitable attitude I work toward having myself.
Which brings us to the last session, which is the entire point of this entry.
A running gag we have is that there’s an in-game book series about a knight named Lord Fontleroy that’s taken the world by storm, that it’s intended for children, but adults turn out to be huge fans as well. The bard goes to a book store and finds that the new book in the series has literally just come out, so he picks it up, and immediately starts reading it. We get clues that the author is local, and our characters (or kid-friendly versions of them) are suddenly introduced into the series, so it must be someone we’ve met. Ladies and gentlemen, we have our adventure hook.
In the meantime, our group has been laboring to open a small shop where we can sell adventuring goods at fair prices as the local shops were gouging us blind. The sorceress was plotting to brew potions, Dresden was a capable armorer, the ranger had started on leatherworking, and the bard would make an excellent front-of-house. We were all pretty proud of ourselves, and the sorceress started her brewing for the day, and created a few healing potions, and, as a joke, the GM mentioned she’d also whipped up a vial of “Orcish Fly”, a potent aphrodisiac from an obscure sourcebook, by accident. It was pocketed to sell at the shop under the table later (without telling the paladin, as it was suspected he’d pooh-pooh the idea), and the game continued as usual.
Out of character we were all having a ball, as it was rare to RP that much in a session. The bard and ranger’s player started joking about having a duel over the new Lord Fontleroy, and the bard ended up going to a tavern full of bards, finding a book release party in full swing, as bards celebrate any story that captivates audiences and inspires new songs, as well as fanfiction. One thing led to another, and the entire entourage of bards made its way to our new store to celebrate the book as well as our grand opening. Dresden wasn’t wild about the idea, but no one was making any trouble, nor were any laws being broken, and the booze that was freely flowing was being consumed by adults.
Then I got up to use the bathroom, and when I came back…
I honestly do believe that they had only intended it to be a prank played on the stodgy paladin to “loosen him up”.
A little more introduction. The previous session had seen Dresden have to drink from a fountain of truth and speak a long harbored secret, as everyone else in the group had had to so they could clear the air as well as pass a trial to proceed further in a dungeon. The sorceress confessed to a fear that she might lose control of her power and kill her friends, the bard confessed he was afraid that he’d be hunted down (as kitsune are NOT common in that setting), the ranger confessed he’d broken the law and hidden it from the group, and Dresden? Dresden admitted that a local noble, a male one at that, was the first person he’d ever been attracted to.
It was a bombshell more to Dresden than anyone else. After all, we usually have the most difficulty coming out to ourselves. I was planning on carrying it through a couple more sessions, because you don’t just come out to anyone and suddenly jump on the dating circuit. It’s a bit of soul-searching, and I was looking forward to Dresden’s journey along the path to being able to say, “I’m still the same person I always was, and being gay is part of that person, and I’m okay with that.” It’s a big step, trust me.
So I come back from the bathroom to find out the group has pressured the bard’s player into using one of his Kitsune special talents, “Charm Person”, which the sorceress also had and would use in case the attempt failed. If the attempt fails? The person knows, and they’ll likely be pissed about it. If it succeeds? It’s a spell that allows you to command someone to perform an action, the catch being that you can’t make them do something’s that’s against their identity and nature. What’d they have him do? Drink.
Would a Dwarf feel that drinking beer or whiskey is against his nature? Likely not, even for a paladin, so I went along with it and started plotting ways I’d pay them back for Dresden’s hangover.
Then I find out the booze he’s drinking is laced with that “Orcish Fly” I mentioned earlier (this was also decided while I was away from the table). So now Dresden is charmed, drunk, and under the influence of a very potent aphrodisiac. The list of things he would not do has now been severely cut down. Then he’s told to go mingle with the bards who are still partying and likely have no idea the state the paladin is in.
He spends the night with one of the bards, who leaves before he even wakes up, and Dresden barely remembers what happened, only that he’d apparently gotten drunk and slept with a man whose name he never learned. When he asked the group, they lied (and passed their Bluff checks) and told him he’d gotten drunk on his own and took a guy upstairs, and they were proud of him for loosening up a little.
Dresden felt humiliated, and went to see a priest to seek absolution, knowing that he had acted not at all like himself the night before, and there was only one reason he could think of that fit with what he remembered and what his group told him. His take? Must’ve been those new urges that that truth potion had shaken loose. Admitting to himself that he was attracted to men must’ve been why he behaved like some wanton letch. Repression reared its ugly head.
And the thing is, to practically everyone else, it was funny. Most third parties I’ve told about it since thought it was hilarious. I spent the next few days letting it fester in my mind until I tweeted about it and wondered, “Why didn’t I say anything?”
Then I thought it through and realized something chilling: My character was charmed, plied with alcohol, and given a little “help” in loosening up around guys he hadn’t shown interest in, then sent into a throng of bards to bounce between them until he found one that was at least bi-curious (without any input from me). Because the group thought it would be funny. Because they felt the lawful good guy needed to “loosen up”.

So they got him date raped.

And then they lied to him and told him he’d brought it on himself, and let him believe that it was all because of his newfound sexuality.

And why didn’t I say anything?

I keep running through the events of that session, trying to think if there was an opening, or if I’d ever implied that I was cool with it, and remembering specific instances and asking myself why I didn’t say something THEN.

And then I felt stupid, because we’re talking about a tabletop roleplaying game here, and if you look at the previous paragraph, yes, I know EXACTLY what it sounds like and that only makes me more ashamed to even think for a second I could ever liken it to something like that.

But then I thought back to the games I played with my uncle running the game, where if you took a wrong step, a favorite punishment of his was dumping your character bareass naked in a jail cell surrounded by large men and let you do the math as to what was going to happen before you were allowed to leave. I remembered running my first Mage in a game run by a highly rated storyteller where I had to describe my character, and he’d tell you how your character awakened to magic. I told him my character’s history, and added in at the end that he was gay. The storyteller told me then that my character had awakened to magic after a gang rape from the high school football team. I thought about the games where the group would go to bars or taverns, and the guys would see a girl they liked or found attractive, and instead of going up to talk to her like a person, they would just cast Charm Person or use Mind magic or whatever to take a shot at getting her okay with following them back to their place. Invariably someone in the group would lament that they were playing a character that couldn’t do that, so they’d have to blow a bunch of cash or gold on getting her drunk first. I would get teased because my character wouldn’t take part, mostly because I was keeping my gayness on the DL because often the last thing you wanted to do in a game was play a gay character.

However, when the person running the game is your fiancé, you feel more comfortable playing a gay character. There’s a downside to being in a relationship with the person running the game, however: they’re either going to play favorites with you, and make the whole group hate you both, or they’ll be terrified of being seen as playing favorites and come down harder on your character than anyone else’s. My fiancé fell in the second category, and the group is comprised of people who are friends of mine, and he’s still nervous about thinking of them as his friends too.

So when the charming and roofie-ing of my character was happening, he felt just as uncomfortable as I did, but didn’t want to bring the GM hammer down on something it seemed the group was okay with doing. Much like myself, it wasn’t until a couple days later that it all sunk in what was done to my character without his express consent, and he literally become physically ill. The first instinct, after apologizing to me for a day and a half, was to retcon it.

Retconning is using in RPGs and comics, book series, movie universes, etc. and the simple meaning of it is this: Whatever you’re applying a retcon to? It never happened. Ever. Not that it happened and everyone forgot about it, but that it was wiped from history, and another instance was put in its place. The event, character, whatever, vanishes from existence and canon.

And it’s tempting, to say “it never happened, and that’s the story from here on out”, and move on with the game. I asked the group about it, said we were planning on retconning the event, and their reaction was summed up as “Uh, okay, whatever. *shrug*”. Because like a lot of people that are likely reading this, they don’t see the big deal. It’s just a game, it’s not like they got me drunk IRL and slipped me a laced drink and tossed me at some gay bar. This isn’t a group, after all, that has characters charm women or men in bars and take them home. As far as they’re concerned, it was a harmless prank that most people have found hilarious (especially when mentioned that it was a guy that took the paladin home).

I think it was the reaction to the retcon suggestion that got me, was that they didn’t care. In an odd way, I felt the retcon was letting them get away with it all over again. My fiancé and I worked out a way to keep Dresden’s virtue intact without the retcon, as it was never explicitly said that Dresden went to bed with the guy. Instead, the guy, who was an NPC (controlled by the GM, my fiancé) decided he wasn’t going to take advantage of a drunk paladin and potentially reap the whirlwind the following day, and put him to bed, locked the door, and left via the window to make sure no one else snuck in. Why? So that a paladin wouldn’t bring righteous fury down on a guild full of bards because one of them had slept with him without informed consent.

I guess the point all this brought to light for me is this: in tabletop RPGs, rape is only seen as someone who’s chaotic evil snatching women and using physical force, and it’s only male on female that counts. Male on male is a gag or a punishment, female on female is entertainment, and God help you if you’re playing someone androgynous or someone who used magic to change themselves into their preferred gender identity. Good-aligned people, accordingly, don’t rape. It’s not that they don’t do it, it’s that what they do isn’t seen as it. Good-aligned parties usually cap off a successful adventure with celebrating at the tavern and finding companionship if they aren’t already involved with another party member or NPC. Using magic to make women more pliable and open to “seduction” is seen as normal, and no way a violation of their alignment. When someone in the party is a victim of a love spell or potion, or a charming spell, and are taken advantage of, it’s a joke. A prank. And you’re supposed to laugh too, because most of the time, it’s your friends that are doing it, or people you’ve gamed with for a while, or as is often the case, it’s the only game in town and you feel you have to go along with it if you want to keep playing.

In the time since I’ve done research into similar game situations and uses of the spells that were used on Dresden, and, as expected, it’s the minefield you’d expect, with people one on side (all male players) claiming Charm Person is no different than lying to a woman to get her to sleep with you, and if that were rape, Barney Stinson would be one of many terrifying serial rapists stalking New York City, with the other side (nearly all women) claiming that Charm spells, love potions, Dominate, and the like are no better than magical roofies that instantly void informed consent, and are therefore an evil act. The arguments turn out like one would expect: a flame-war that results in threads getting frozen or shut down with no real progress even when in a game like D&D or Pathfinder picking someone up at a bar is as simple as rolling dice until an NPC finds you charming enough, but then, that always leaves the chance for rejection, doesn’t it? And then complaining about rejection, and finding ways to circumvent that rejection and get away with it.

But hey, that’s nothing we should be concerned about. It’s just a game, after all.



Filed under Commentary

2 responses to “It’s Not Always Just a Game

  1. ShamonCornell

    If you’ve ever played KOTOR, this is actually, indirectly gotten into. Force Suggestion and Dominate Mind will ALWAYS, regardless of context, generate Dark Side points. Why? Because, even on the level of “these are not the droids you’re looking for”, you are overriding another being’s ability to self-determine.

    You may actually be telling them to do something good for them, but you ultimately have robbed them of the chance to choose to do the right thing, themselves. As such, Dark Side points for mentally slipping someone a mickey.

    She-Hulk also got into the concept rather heavily: Starfox, or Marvel’s Eros, has psycho-pheremonal powers that allow him to basically slip a suggestion into anyone’s mind, it wears off after a few hours. For funsies, Thanos makes it not wear off anymore. Eros winds up on trial for, effectively, serial date-rape on a scale we now unfortunately associate Bill Cosby.

    Basically: Charm spells. They kind of imply an inherent danger of alignment shift. Depending on context, I’d basically make life Hell for players using or abusing the things, any day of the week.

  2. Another thing you illustrate here to perfection is the adage that you get a glimpse of who people really are when you see them able to act without consequences. With the exception of the GM, of course, who was bound by the rules.

    And I so empathize with retconning it completely being a way of letting them get away with it all over again.

    Worse yet, from a gamer’s perspective, the two chaotic good characters should have been the first to object to the idea, at least as I view chaotic characters, being more about personal freedom than about externally imposed limitations on your actions. By bringing in not one but TWO will altering elements, your character’s freedom to choose was impaired, his options limited to someone else’s whims.

    If I was GMing, even if the bard DID do what any good man ought to, and chose not to take advantage of the impaired dwarf…there would have been some serious consequences for an alignment slip like that.

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