Stop me if you’ve heard this one before: A ragtag assortment of unwashed rebels agree to rid their local village of dire rats (and wax poetical of their trust issues) over watered down ale.
At the core, many fantasy adventures and settings tend to run somewhere between Game of Thrones and Robin Hood: Men in Tights on the Serious to Silliness meter. Rescue the peasant, slay the dragon, save the village – all in the name of fun!
While I love the tabletop juggernauts Catan, Scattergories, and the more recent Everdell, TTRPGs hit in a way that others don’t. There is much to be said about the psychology of game play and the power of imagination. With TTRPGs you will discover nuances to your friends that Boggle would never reveal. I think Variant J may actually be concerned about how much I relate to Punisher while in game, and Variant Kait can weave a narrative that tugs on your heartstrings harder than the first few minutes of Disney’s “Up!” You will quickly find that the players at the table affect your enjoyment of the game as strongly as the adventure itself!
Many players (especially those new to the hobby), look to the GM as a sort of referee. And while rule enforcement is an aspect of the role, I would argue that all persons at the table are equally responsible for the story being told and boundaries being respected.
Set the Stage
Here we arrive at Session 0, a topic I have brought up on many occasions. It is a simple concept at its core, but it can be tricky to execute effectively. The goal of session 0 is to get all players at the table on the same page about the upcoming adventures. It is partly a DM driven session to describe the world they are building, but it is equally an opportunity for players to open up about their comfortability.
It is during Session 0 that I normally open up to my table about my ADHD and Processing Disorder. It helps me to feel comfortable knowing that the rest of the table has an expectation of what my challenges may be. We also discuss avoidable topics. Our current primary game has a rule that children are not to be hurt during our sessions. Conversations like these are especially important if you are inviting new friends or colleagues into your circle. Is romance a possibility in your game? What sorts of cultural norms would the players’ characters know about? Not every setting needs a pleasure house or narcotic trade.
In essence, talk about things! Make sure that everyone knows what they may encounter during game sessions. Setting boundaries ahead of time can make the table more comfortable when jumping into Roleplay, and empower everyone to speak up if needed.
Note: For more information on Tabletop Safety and Session 0, check out what I’ve previously written about the TTRPG Safety ToolKit!
Interacting in a fantasy environment does not mean that you have to allow experiences you would not be comfortable with in the real world to pass around the table. Cultural biases from real life experiences can unfortunately worm their way into an RPG, including the isms and phobias we often seek to avoid. Though often brought forth unintentionally, they are sometimes presented as a means of preserving “historical accuracy”. To this I say nonsense! You are building a world set in fantasy and/or fiction. There is no need to bake in real world problematic themes.
Instead, imagine a better society and then put in the work to make it so! This is your chance to create an entire world from the ground up. I implore you to be more creative, and to avoid relying on challenges that plague and traumatize us in the real world.
Also keep in mind that a player may not know that a topic or encounter may upset them until it is experienced. Encouraging ongoing communication between all persons at the table is a healthy way to prevent the likelihood of this coming to fruition, or at least to help navigate the game should such an event occur. Variant J has written an article exploring a real world example of experiencing Trauma at the Table.
You’ve set the stage with Session 0, and have spoken up about topics at the table that you’d like to avoid. Despite your best efforts, there has been no change in the table environment or game content. TTRPGs are games and by nature are intended to be enjoyed. If you are put in a place where you do not feel safe, comfortable or heard, please know that you are empowered to walk away. There are other tables and players, if you wish to try again. It can be difficult at times to keep to your ideals, but ultimately you will be best off if you seek to protect yourself in these scenarios.
Ultimately, it is up to all of us to curate the space we want to have. This is as true in the world of fantasy as it is in our day to day lives. Ask yourself if the way you game upholds your values. If needed, are you willing to put in the work to realign? If so, pick up your dice and pull up a chair. I gladly welcome you to my table!