Roleplaying the Struggle

March 27, 2014

A different kind of escapism

My game group has decided to try to do a steampunk game, with a critical eye about colonialism.   This comes just as wundergeek is having a conversation with Ron Edwards about the issue of rape in his new game (and in fantasy-geek shit overall).

This goes in line with some of the conversations I’ve had about Dog Eat Dog or Steal Away Jordan – that there’s a good number of games or campaign ideas I could see as being fun to play, but only with a group who can come to it with a critical eye.

To be sure, most of what I want gaming for is pure escapism (And, a lot of what I write about here is frustration that I cannot get EVEN that in the general gaming scene…) but there’s also a place for games that deal with fucked up stuff but provides you a space to punch back and win.  Or at least come out a little bit ahead.   It’s the reason most feel-good stories are about hard work and justice winning out in the end… compared to real life where that doesn’t happen all that often.

Critical vs. Non-Critical

But you’ll notice that the two points on which this hangs are:

a) is the problematic shit acknowledged as being shitty?*  (or is it being celebrated?**  Or is it being used as voyeuristic “Oh, that’s terrible… let me see more!”*** kind of bullshit? Is it paired with a jumped up strawman projection?****)

b) To what level is there protagonism and affirmation of the protagonists in the face of this?  (Notice this doesn’t even mean “victory” or full on “escape”, just protagonism.)

RPGs are conversations… not static media

If you watch a TV show, or read a book and something incredibly fucked up, racist, sexist, homophobic, or whatever happens, you can simply turn it off, put down the book, walk away.

When something fucked up happens in a game group, everyone is there and SOMEONE (singular, or collective) made that happen.  There is social expectation, relationships to navigate, social credit, plus… however much time is invested on everyone’s parts in this.

It’s different when someone you don’t know insults you with their bullshit story or views (still hurtful) but even MORE when someone you know does it straight to your face, intentionally or not.

So, tabletop rpgs have the additional burden that if you’re going to make a game or run a campaign that is going to bring up this stuff – do you have any idea or advice on how to communicate with each other about it?

Hard Fun

There’s a value in being able to critically deal with messed up shit in your games – a chance to say something meaningful or to poke/punch at it.  But… as far as gaming goes, 99% of the time it’s just thrown in either as an ugly, weak, disguise for celebrating it**, or else in a way to be “edgy” as a decoration, which inevitably ends up replicating the oppressive nature by trivializing it for suffering porn.

Mostly, though, this ends up coming back to a very simple question “How does this make this fun?” … which, folks seem to forget, has to be for more people at the table than just you.  

* This would be my primary objection to how D&D typically uses language around the “savage races”.  It’s not “OMG, you’re being racist against green people who don’t exist!”, it’s… “Wow, you’re really set on being able to use the language of genocide that was used to kill NDNs and indigenous people and this is something you claim is a core point to the fun you’re having here…”

**See – most Steampunk and colonialism.  See especially Wolsung.  This also applies to the “rawrr! Misogyny is historically accurate!” arguments and the “20’s were really racist times so let’s be really racist” Call of Cthulhu gaming.

*** I think of a forum thread about Steal Away Jordan where people were asking for more horrific historically accurate types of torture used upon slaves.  You know, because what is needed to make the game more fun is to go further into detail about torture, because, torture is exciting!

**** Lamentations of the Flame Princess’ “Better than Any Man” campaign set, for example, has the evil magical feminists who want to kill all teh menz and have demon sex slaves instead.

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