Consent in Gaming and Horror
How I learned to stop worrying and love session zero.
Over the past few months, there has been quite a lot of talk around “consent in gaming” and what that means for players and GMs. Part of this sudden uptick in consent conversation is related to Monte Cook Games and the release of their consent form, which you can find here. This consent form all but broke the internet with its long list of themes to agree or disagree on by players using a red-light/green-light scale. We were inspired greatly by this idea of formalized consent and retrofitted this type of consent form into our horror based tabletop role-playing games, such as Vampire: The Masquerade. Tabletop RPG is not just swords, tieflings, dungeons, and dragons. With many different horror-based TTRPGs out there, formalized consent is extremely important.
Storytelling is collaboration and to be successful at telling a good story, groundwork needs to be laid out so those involved are comfortable acting, playing and being involved. In telling an entertaining story within the game.Rick (@Def-Malk) VP of Community Engagement, Gehenna Gaming
Some people agree that it is about time players all have a frank conversation about what to expect and what is not okay in a forthcoming Tabletop RPG campaign. Others have stated that this extensive questionnaire is overdoing it and consent is implied with session zero, with the onus on players to speak up when they start to feel uncomfortable. Then you have the more edgy Gamemasters, albeit few and far between, who throw caution to the wind and say “If you can’t handle the heat, don’t play in my game!”
Okay, maybe that last one may be going a bit too far, but to be fair this aversion to change is to be expected when dealing with generations of GMs forgoing the suggested session zero in most systems let alone handing out a formalized consent form to the players in their home game. We mythologized the idea of library D&D games or coffee shop Vampire sessions, and none of our epic retelling of game sessions rarely include “…and the GM totally modified the game mid-session to make sure everyone was comfortable!”
How badass would it be if our stories did include the badass GM who made sure the players were the priority. Making a genuine effort to ensure the maximum enjoyment of every player. A lot of people are eager to just jump right into the action. To some, it may feel interruptive to have an agreement between players and GMs on what is and what is not okay. Sure, jumping right into the action is understandable. I mean, we are all at the table to roll some dice and play an overly complicated game of pretend. The stakes seem low, and all of the action is in our imagination. Additionally, the assumption is that the players at the table all intuitively understand each other because more times than not they are friends. Everyone is invested in having a good time, and in a modern age where there are more opportunities to make new friends over dice pen and paper games, we are learning about each other as we roll.
Are We Playing Vampire Or Ponies?!
We all have complicated backgrounds, and often in the case with fans of the horror genre, these backgrounds may include rough situations and hardships. Parents are sensitive to themes of kids being hurt, survivors of abuse may be sensitive to abusive NPCs, and sometimes what may be seemingly harmless to you may kick up some rough thoughts in the minds of certain players and completely take them out of the game. When this happens most people suffer in silence. It feels alienating and embarrassing to even bring it up. Formalized consent is just as much for the players as it is for the GM.
Certain games may have very sensitive themes as a primary core to the game’s setting. Take Vampire: The Masquerade. The central premise is the players all are blood-drinking monsters who manipulate socially and wage nightly eternal war with one another. A formalized consent form or conversation would include the preamble “If you are not okay with the themes of blood, socio-political manipulation, and violence, this game may not be for you.”
That doesn’t mean your Chicago by Night game will now be transformed to My Little Pony by Night (although, I would play the hell out of this game). Having players who are ready for your particular flavor of game is equally as important as players feeling welcome in it, even if that flavor is a bit too spicy for some. You may lose a player, however, that is an open seat for someone who is ready to play this type of game.
Changing Your Game for the Better
In regards to changing your campaign or story to meet the agreed-upon themes. Even with players who are all in agreement with the central core themes of the game you are about to play, there may be some specific situations that they are not okay with.
The most common theme is racial discrimination or sexual violence. While some, like myself, may cringe at the idea of a serial rapist neo-nazi NPC who will definitely set their sights on the PCs, you may see this as no-big-deal. Formalized consent will let the GM know that this is definitely not okay for the players at the table, and give the opportunity for them to modify. The serial rapist neo-nazi NPC can then be transformed into some other type of evil bastard without including racism and sexual violence as a component magically without any players even knowing there was a problematic NPC, to begin with. As a GM you should already be comfortable with changing things on the fly, and why not do so ahead of time which will only make you look like the badass GM that you think you are.
Horrify The Characters Not The Players
Horror can be pretty shocking by its very nature. Even more so with games like KULT: Divinity Lost or Call of Cthulhu where the idea is to scare the players. Sure, the game is supposed to be horrifying, but it is also supposed to be fun. Tabletop role-playing games are social by their very nature. We must learn to be compassionate with one another and provide an inclusive environment at every table. Even if we want to be scared, we don’t want to be made seriously uncomfortable.
Try the formalized consent approach out. Give it a shot at your regular game, even if it is with good friends you’ve played with for years. The worst-case scenario is you improve your game by avoiding certain situations that have been making a few players feel alienated and uncomfortable.