Engaging With Difficult Themes in Storytelling


#1

Hey all. Newish DM and FatT fan here. With Hieron posting again, it’s made me take a closer look at the game I run for my partner and their friends. Specifically, it’s made me take a look at my storytelling and question how I’m running this game. Specifically, I’m looking for how to engage with themes without being a shitty storyteller. Our group is trying to be good about representation, making sure that we’re LGBT+ friendly, but we’re trying to engage with some of the themes of otherness in our characters and storytelling. D&D (and tabletops as a whole, I suppose) have always had some degree of exceptionalism built into the player characters, but as a primarily female group, playing characters all along the spectrum of queerness, I’m at a loss for ways to incorporate that into the storytelling without playing on harmful tropes. Stuff like telling the tiefling players that they get treated poorly because of who they are.

Part of it is that I don’t want to hit those harmful stereotypes anytime they have an interaction with someone, and part of it is that as a straight passing bisexual individual, I don’t have a good way besides those bad tropes to represent the otherness that is npc and the world at large’s treatment of things that are ‘abnormal’. Friday’s Waypoint Radio episode tackled Lovecraft and critical engagement with the media that you take part in, so it’s all the more relevant right now, especially as the party is thinking that we might start streaming our sessions. So does anyone have any suggestions as to ways that I could throw curve balls at them without being a part of the problem?

tl;dr I want to introduce roleplaying friction to my players without being reliant on racist or homophobic tropes that are not healthy for the game itself.


#2

I think the most important advice to underline before anyone else nails down specifics is that you’re going to fuck up. At some point you are almost certainly gonna make a dumb joke or not think through something you did and it will make someone uncomfortable. Maybe not extremely so, but it’ll be real and tangible.

That’s okay! Provided, of course, that you’re able to recognize your mistake and talk through it as a group. The onus is on you as a DM to read those moments because your players are less likely to speak up for fear of ruining the current power dynamic.

Just do the best you can in prep, and be ready to course correct if and when you goof up.


#3

I’m not exactly experienced in this area - I’m probably GMing my first game in a week or two - but I would suggest a good approach would probably be to involve the players in some of the worldbuilding process if you’re all interested in telling that kind of story or covering those kinds of difficult themes.

So say if you have a tiefling player and want to consider a society or culture discriminating against them, you could discuss with the player out of character what sort of themes they might want to explore with the character - or in the moment (providing the player isn’t having it sprung on them for the first time) you might prompt the player to ask how an NPC is likely to discriminate against their character. For instance, maybe tieflings have to conceal their horns, but are able to “pass” as dragonborn or kobolds otherwise; or maybe tieflings only have to wary because a particular religion or organisation has it in for them.

That allows the player to both set their own boundaries with content and to guide your direction with themes. You’re more likely to develop something novel that your players are invested in and which avoids cliche tropes by fact of being developed from multiple perspectives.


#4

This was going to be my response and is what I do in my games. It’s also a lot more realistic (I mean it’s tabletop RPGs realism shouldn’t be the endpoint goal per se but on this particular topic it could make things easier for people to play through) than just taking how RPG books usually lay this stuff out and having, to use tieflings again, a particular playable race of people be “the horde” in the eyes of the “normal” population.

A lot of that stems from a mindset similar to how so many people are taught to think straight, white, male = default “normal human” both in designing characters and in their own life and dealings. But in a fantasy RPG to use tieflings as an example there’s no reason to have “human born of two human parents” be the default sentient being of your game. This is something that’s always struck me as off about many fantasy tabletop games, and it’s easy enough to get around by applying the prejudices you see pointed out in the rule books as how some factions of people think rather than how “people” at large think in the game world.

The reason this good to do is because you can keep the game flowing while keeping people comfortable since it will be waaaaay easier for you to steer the story towards whatever direction the group is having the most fun in.

You can also use the X card. This is probably redundant because I’m sure it’s been brought up on this forum a lot so sorry if you already know. These are done with the understanding that you may be a little riskier with your storytelling vs. what some of the players might be comfortable with. It’s pretty easy, if someone is irked they hand you a card with an X on it or just raise it in your direction, so instead of the game stopping or continuing in a way that would hurt the person you can just direct whatever conversation/story/combat/whatever is happening away from whatever direction you were going in.

I think that’s really important because no matter how well everyone gets along with each other or understands each other you or someone in your group will invariably play out something awkward or otherwise unwanted by you or another player. This way you can address player’s concerns in a way that keeps the game flowing and will let people experiment a little more with what makes their characters tick. You don’t want players limiting how they play or staying silent when they want to do something because they’re trying to stay “in character” to the setting too well.

I don’t know how much you improv stuff for NPCs vs. writing up some things ahead of time, but something that helps me with this too is to have a few redundant NPCs and have them express a particular difficult theme you’re concerned about in different ways. Obviously this is subjective for everyone but for my own group this gets us all into a mindset of like, that character is making me uncomfortable let’s take our business/get our info/kill this person/whatever elsewhere instead. And I mean, it’s storytelling, difficult stuff is always going to be easier to deal with the more it’s projected onto a character.


#5

Talk to your players and find out what they do/don’t want. Give them a say in the world building portion of the game so they can build their character’s motivations and themes into the world. Pitch your ideas to them as a sort of ‘back of the box’ blurb and let them elaborate on it themselves.

Powered by the Apocalypse games do a good job of codifying this sort of discussion into a ‘Session 0’ as part of character creation and even if you have no intention of actually playing one of those games the DMing and setting up a game sections of those books are worth reading as just “RPG theory”.

The key thing is to make sure everyone is going in on the same page about what you’re going for - if you’re going for a serious discussion of some fairly heavy themes and they’re expecting a lighthearted comedy someone is going to end up disappointed.


#6

My advice would echo a lot of the advice already given: include your players as much as you can in the world building process, keep in mind that the game is a conversation between people and everyone should be included in the conversation. Don’t be afraid to pause the game and talk things through out of character. Full immersion/“realism” often does not equal the most fun play experience.

Also: I would avoid focusing on the surface level of systemic oppression. One of my least favourite things about Dragon Age Origins, for example, is that at the first thing you may ever see of an elf is them getting slurs thrown at them and then being shoved in a ghetto. Make these issues institutional and then move into society at large. Instead of making up a slur, for example (which is extremely upsetting and no fun at all) have a preacher making a sermon about the Teiflings. Make a kingdom pass an edict that restricts something for a population. You might not even have to resolve these things in play, but let things like this inform how to tackle complicated social issues.

You said you’re a FatT fan, so i’ll give an example I like from Counter/WEIGHT: When the Chime first leaves Counter/WEIGHT to go to September, and the person over the radio can’t understand how AuDy could be the captain of The Kingdom Come. It’s not overt. It’s a prevalent cultural attitude that robots in the Golden Branch are non-sapient, free labour, but it’s still wrong. This scene is built up through every earlier scene with robots, whether it’s the JM unit that Mako fogs or Benny Babs literally being a sapient institutional AI.

EDIT: Make sure that your players aren’t the only Teiflings, too, and when you do encounter other Teiflings ask the Teifling players about their society and social structures. They would know. They’re Teiflings. This is a more general DMing tip but it took me a long time to learn and put into practice.