Trigger warning: As the title suggests, we’re talking about bringing rape as a subject into your game.
Rape is one of those subjects that’s really hard to talk about, especially in the context of a game. Some players want nothing to do with it in the game, others want to bring it in as something to wrestle with in a safe environment. Let’s say that you want your game to be one where you can address a serious topic like rape. How can you go about doing that in a way that’s respectful to both the people at the table and the topic itself?
Maybe you know the people around your gaming table really well or maybe they’re practically strangers. No matter how well you know them, chances are there are some things you don’t know. They might be a rape survivor, they might have some very firm ideas about rape or they might never have given it any thought. You can’t know until you ask but they’re under no obligation to tell you anything. So, how do you deal with this?
The people you game with are real people and deserve empathy. They deserve to know that you aren’t going to try to hurt them with your own views, to feel safe at your gaming table and to know that you’ll listen if they have concerns. Empathy sounds easy but it’s really easy to slip from empathy to callousness or accidental hurtfulness. Here’s my advice on how to manage it:
1. Remember that this isn’t about you. You don’t have to agree with anything they say, but you should acknowledge that they know more about their thoughts or experiences than you do. It’s not about what you think about what they’re saying – it’s about what they’re saying.
2. Remember that no one is obligated to answer all of your questions in a way you like. Rape can be a sensitive topic and making a safe space for someone means respecting how much they are willing to share. “I don’t want to talk about it” is a valid feeling and you should respect it.
3. People are allowed to change their mind. If at any point they decide they aren’t okay with something anymore, whether it’s the conversation or what’s going on at game, you need to back off.
If you can’t do that, don’t bring rape to your game.
Discuss It in Advance
Maybe you haven’t decided yet that rape is going to be something that comes up in game or maybe you’ve already got some story ideas. The worst time to bring rape to the table is on the fly. Remember that whole empathy thing? You can’t be empathetic without listening to people beforehand because you won’t know how it’ll affect them when you spring it on them.
I like to bring up potentially triggering topics up during character creation because you never know what’s going to show up in character backgrounds. A good place to start the conversation is a simple, “Oh, hey, so I think rape is an okay topic to explore in this game but I wanted your feedback on where we’re comfortable going with it.” It’s worthwhile to talk about where you emphatically don’t want to go (violent rape, rape of children or incest, for instance), as this sets clear boundaries while still giving room for exploration. It’s also important to discuss upfront ideas that you think might show up (like date rape, sexual coercion or forced prostitution). This allows players to decide if they’re interested in what you have in mind and it may also remind them of other things they explicitly don’t want to see.
It’s also important to discuss not only what will be addressed but how it’ll be addressed. Ever run into a situation that made you uncomfortable and you cracked a joke to try to relieve the tension? It’s possible that a rape joke in the face of rape occurring in the game fiction will make others feel even more uncomfortable than they already are. Take the time to discuss how to best relieve tension in a way that won’t offend or hurt others at the game table. For instance, you might decide to just fade to black whenever rape happens in the game fiction or maybe you can have a safeword that means “Okay, this is too intense – we need to back off for a few minutes.” Remember that if you come to an agreement, it’s important to respect anyone who chooses to use whatever you agreed on.
Keep in mind: the whole point of a game is to enjoy yourselves. If anyone says, “I don’t think I’d have fun if X came up,” then that’s good enough reason not to explore it.
Accept that Tropes Exist
Look, we all like to think of ourselves as creative geniuses and that our stories are unique. The thing is, we use tropes all the time because they give us mental short cuts. If I say “damsel in distress” then you’ve got a pretty good idea of what I’m talking about. If I say the villain is a “paper tiger” you’ve got an idea of what kind of villain it is.
Wundergeek has compiled a list of rape tropes that show up in geek media. Whether you agree with her specific examples isn’t really the point – the point is that these tropes exist and if you fall into them, you’re engaging in creative shorthand. If that’s what you want to do and that works at your table, that’s fine. But please don’t pretend that you’ve discovered a magical new twist that’s never been done before.
This doesn’t mean you don’t get to use tropes or that they don’t legitimately add to your game. What you add to the game you’re playing and the prevalence of certain themes and ideas are two different conversations which shouldn’t be conflated. There’s no need to get defensive just because someone pointed out that your Strong Female Character Who Was Raped and Then Survived is very common. She is.
Getting away from the tropes can be hard because rape is a hard subject to tackle realistically. This is in part because our dialogue about rape tends to focus on female survivors of stranger rape, when really rape survivors often don’t fit that assumption. It’s hard to talk about how rapists are often rape survivors, how rape survivors are often already socially stigmatized (such as drug abusers or sex workers, for example) and how rape is a violent seizure of power. People often have different ideas of what’s “really” rape and what’s “really” consent and those topics can lead to heated discussions. Sometimes, treating rape realistically is exactly what people don’t want in the game. The tropes are more comfortable because they gloss over the reality. Of course, if you don’t treat rape realistically, then how well are you really exploring a touchy and controversial topic? Are you really giving it the respect it deserves?
Maybe not. It’s worth accepting as a valid criticism. It doesn’t mean you can’t bring it to your table anyway. It just means that some people may find it distasteful, tired or perhaps boring.
Screwing Up is Inevitable
Everybody screws up sometimes. Maybe you accidentally hurt someone at your table. Maybe you didn’t realize that what you thought was a really clever plot twist was actually a tired convention that just makes your entire plot seem contrived. Maybe the game spirals out of control into territory you never wanted to go because of a seemingly innocent mistake.
Screwing up can often lead to shame at your mistake but keeping quiet about your mistake at the expense of someone else’s pain is not cool. Own it. Be up front that you recognize that you’ve hurt someone or that you’ve made a mistake and do what you can to make amends. Remember that it’s important to show empathy. You can overcome the shame. In the end, it’s not just about a game, it’s about the people at the table. You all deserve your best efforts.