I wasn’t aware of this, this is awesome. I’m going to need to take a closer look at this for my campaign for sure.
And like I’d mentioned in my last post, a lot of DMs will just resort to these shorthands because it’s easier and simpler than creating complex motivations and personalities when some players just want an excuse to swashbuckle. I’m as guilty of it myself, where my players have asked me, “Are we just in killing all these Drow/Orcs/Vampires?” and, lacking a more detailed explanation in the moment, I’ve replied, “Yeah, they’re all evil zealots and can’t be reasoned with.”
This gets into the question of effective character writing in general. It’s easy to say that the Big Bad needs to be stopped because he’s just inherently evil, but does he know he’s evil? Is he okay with that, and he’s just embraced that his actions are fundamentally wrong and flawed, but does them anyway? Even if a character’s actions are inherently evil, harmful, and destructive, it’s far more interesting if he or she believes that there’s justification behind them, and that, at very least, they’re a difficult means to a “better” end.
Becoming aware of that, even when I’m put on the spot with those possibly tough ethical questions, these days I at least try to say, “You have reason to believe that they’re evil with the information that you have … but you haven’t really bothered to look for any information to the contrary. Murder at your own discretion.”
I do think agree that lot of DMs and players fall into that trap of resorting to these bad cliches from not wanting to create complex motivations/characters. At the same time though I think even that is caused by overthinking and making the setting more complex than it needs to be. I say it’s a trap because to me it’s like, the most simple and universal motivation out there is don’t starve to death. I think keeping the stakes smaller makes it easier for players and the DM to not feel the need to say whelp the necroindigenoevilhorde has arrived and also makes it easy to add slightly more character to random folks the players run into when there isn’t a universally understood existential threat.
Like I work really hard to create scenarios where legally (in the setting) and/or feasibly, “kill the big bad” maybe eliminates one threat at best but doesn’t actually solve anything for the players/whoever they’re working with long term.
I feel like film noir (fantasy noir? neo noir? Thief the 1981 film and Thief the video game are both amazing for this) fiction and heist stories give me better inspiration for scenarios and NPCs because you can use a lot of chose cliches to get the balance where sure you have tons of action and all the ass kicking the players may want, but at the same time the end goal is to get a piece of information or deliver something safely or learn what a person is up to or find out why a person is in danger. It makes it easy to come up with objectives that aren’t possible without being able to interact with folks beyond combat. And the minute you nudge players in that direction most of the time they won’t fall into that us vs. them mindset.
Like the back of all tabletop RPG books have a bunch of recommended pop culture things to look to for inspiration and whenever I see Tolkien or Lovecraft mentioned there it’s like, why am I even considering playing this game when I could play a billion other fantasy games that are gonna offer the same outdated stuff that’s inherent to any other system built around those?
I feel like as a DM just giving that little extra nudge gives players an easy opportunity to not fall into the cliche of “dang time to load up and burn down the orc fortress,” and that makes it a lot easier for me too since it’s always going to be more fun for me to develop a character slightly rather than to just have combat break out every session.
I think the wonderful thing about a roleplaying game like D&D is that you as the DM simply do not administer the official rules, but establish the informal rules, culture, and feel of your session. This is in no way being dismissive of some of the problems you raise in both the material or the culture, but it is a game where you can tailor it to your and your player’s needs. While sometimes things like films or video games are experienced in static ways.
Also, I find communication to be the key. If you are using a predesigned scenario that has problematic elements (slavery, stereotypes, gender tropes etc) you can either replace them or frame them for your players. I noticed when I teach if I explain the thought process behind my decisions to students, they tend to respect it, even if they may not agree with the choice I make. So to explain why you chose to get rid or keep a potentially problematic component will hopefully help you players understand even if they wish you would have kept it in or taken it out.
Well, yeah. This thread is about the ways we do that as DMs and players in our games
Fantastic topic. I’ve been thinking a bit about this over the last few months since my last campaign ended. I wanted to make sure that when I start my next one I can avoid a lot of the traps and tropes that have been discussed here.
And I absolutely fell into many of these. Being a DM is tough, and these tropes, especially as written in Monster Manuals and Dungeon Master Guides, are easy to fall back on when the thought of having to improvise when your players go off the rails terrifies you. My first campaign was full of racial tropes, including a “mysterious east” civilization that I am so thankful my players never saw.
But on the other hand, I have a degree in philosophy and religious studies, so when I saw that the justification for all the monsters was just “they’re evil” that was a pill I couldn’t swallow. So like a few other GMs in this thread, I made the divide between PCs and NPCs a more substantive one. I created a history of oppression, I created different philosophical and political outlooks that were incompatible and that would naturally lead to conflict. I also made the players try to think about how weird adventuring is as a profession. Of course these goblins and kobolds don’t trust you. You make a living going into their homes, killing hem, and taking their stuff.
There’s an indie RPG called Microscope that does something clever to help mitigate tropes and problematic topics in your game. At the start of the game you create a kind of taste menu, where each player takes a turn talking about something they either don’t want to see in the game, or would really like to see in a game. You go around the table putting something in either the ‘yes’ or ‘no’ column until someone can’t think of anything. This is a great way for players to signal what they’re interested in, and perhaps more importantly what people are not interesting in seeing in their escapist RPG. Some people might like to tackle real world analogies of social injustices, others might want to see sword and sorcery tropes turned on their head.
I talked about Dungeon World in another thread and I think it also does a good job of laying the groundwork for a diverse world by spreading the responsibility of creating the world to everyone and not just the DM. The rule book for Dungeon World explicitly states that the DM shouldn’t create anything before the first session. Rather, as you player’s build their characters, you ask questions about who they are and where they came from and this creates the world. This diversity of perspectives, assuming you have a diverse group of people, can create a world that is similarly diverse. When I created my first fantasy world for my players, it carried with it the privilege, blind spots, and assumptions that I carry in my life, and I think getting your players involved can help mitigate that.
All of this assumes of course that your players WANT to do that. I’m a writer so coming up with this shit tends to be fun and easy for me, but other people like to play RPGs because they wanna do cool shit and kill the dragon. Which is fine, don’t get me wrong. But I’d rather play with people who want to create a narrative together rather than just a dungeon run, so it’s probably best to be upfront about expectations at the beginning to make sure you’re all sitting down to play for the same reasons. Otherwise I find it more likely that problems like the ones we’re describing will come up.
I think there’s a metaphorical side to fantasy as a genre that comes across weird when it’s translated and re-translated throughout several decades in the form of tropes or simply expectations. Tolkien, as a Catholic, was expressly interested in the battle of good and evil in his writing. I don’t think many people would really resonate with the thematic base of it now because we live in a different ecology of thought, and yet, many people still lean on The Lord of the Rings for a basis for fantasy stories, which is where I think a lot of problems crop up.
In running a new campaign I cooked up a new setting, like many do, but I feel attention to what themes and central conflicts it would support has so far really been rewarded. It’s post-apocalyptic, so familiar things still exist but out of context and with allowance to piece together totally new ways of life, which I now feel is the thematic appeal of such a setting. I aped a good bit from Nier and made it so pretty much all life is artificial one way or the other, or is so genetically modified that they might as well be. That allows players to make any sort of character and not feel like they’ll be the odd one out or restricted mechanically; for example they can freely pick “half-orc” as their “race”, but not necessarily seem brutish or be picked on while still having whatever mechanical benefit from that. Same thing with gender basically. The result after character creation is that they can’t sleep on any NPC they meet, whether it’s in politics, romance, or meeting them in the wild, which is a consequence I like a whole lot.
So basically, make your own fantasy stories. I don’t think every game has to be ultra-thoughtful but if it interests you explore it.
Totally. I was probably a bit negative in my original post, because I’m so used to being inundated with that and it’s not what interests me. But if someone is a DM who wants to tell that kind of story and has players who want to be murder-hobos and kill orcs and drow and dragons, then more power to 'em.
In my own games, though, I want to do the stuff I find interesting, and I want to be more progressive and conscious about the things that I’m using. But I also find that sometimes things don’t occur to me – someone mentioned the gnome trope above and I honestly hadn’t put that together before, but of course now I can’t unsee it.
So i am currently putting together some people to start a game of D&D. A few of the ones i asked have been in i group we started half a year ago and we only got to play like 2 times (after that some drama happened and we stopped hanging out with one in the group and after that we never got to playing again)
But this time i am going to be the DM which will be interesting. I already have and idea about the campaign world that i would like to propose to them. But i am really looking forward to giving them the chance to explore different storys that goes away from the default tropes of fantasy, hopefully they also do.
I don’t think there’s anything wrong with having ‘absolute evils’ around to challenge your players, as long as you recognise what they could represent to people and are willing to work with your players if it’s something they aren’t fans of. I wouldn’t use them as a campaigns focus, because I think everyone I play with would expect a little more depth to their Big Bad. There’s always room to change or explain the way things are in the setting you run, after all.
Great thread – thanks for starting it, and thanks to everyone contributing. Some things I’ve found helpful, personally:
Trying to cut out problematic tropes when I catch them: My players have been really helpful for this, too. Several of them don’t necessarily assume stuff like “orcs are bad,” but instead try to talk to everyone they meet (no matter their species) as if they’re a person. I’ve also been more attentive to pre-published adventures and pre-written characters to gender-shift people, fiddle with pronouns, change some descriptions, etc., so that it’s not so heteronormative all the time.
Playing and reading games that specifically address these issues: Monsterhearts and Urban Shadows come to mind. I like being able to play games that feel like safe spaces, where my players don’t have to feel like they need to be conscious of all the problematic things in our world – we get enough patriarchy and racism and stuff in our daily life without reproducing it in all our fantasy worlds, right? But it’s also nice to actively and intentionally address these themes in games where it feels productive to do so, even making it part of the themes you’re investigating.
Inviting a lot of different people: I run a rotating one-shot game on the same day every month (Third Thursday!) with over 20 invitees. It’s more or less first-come, first-served, but it’s also no secret that I prioritize players who weren’t able to make it to sessions before. I get to play with a lot more people that way.
Having cool in-laws: It is totally not fair to include this on this list because, you know, dumb luck, but I’ve learned a lot from my sister in law, who manages a game store near a women’s college, with stuff like game nights specifically for queer players. I guess it’s not exactly feasible to advise “go find cool in-laws,” but if you’re reading this and you’re a cis het white guy like me, maybe the takeaway is to get comfortable with the idea that people unlike you often know more than you about a lot of things, and you should listen to them and appreciate their perspective (and if you fall in love with their siblings, you might even get a discount on games down the line).
Bonus thing! Not something I found helpful, but a thing friends found helpful: Run a game without cis het white men sometime, and make sure everybody you’re inviting knows what they’re being invited to. A friend of mine decided the only way she’d be comfortable trying DMing was to start with “Lady&D” (with a pretty diverse group including cis/trans/queer/straight/white/POC ladies), and from what I hear, it went spectacularly. I didn’t get to play (being a cis het white man myself), but I’ve had a chance to play with most of its players in other contexts since.
I like so so many things in your post. I actually want to start a non-dude D&D (NDD&D?) game with my gender-variant/lady friends, but I’m already running one game and playing another, so I’m hesitant to take on another one right now.
With my current campaign, I do have a couple queer players, and I laid out at the outset that I wanted to build a story together that was progressive, and was rewarded with some amazing character concepts I wouldn’t have thought of on my own. Honestly, the best thing about being a DM is when my players do things I don’t expect.
Like you, I’m very conscious of the NPCs I populate the world with. Even though I’m queer and gendervariant, I am absolutely guilty of assuming most people are white and cishet, and I have to really think when I’m making characters about how I’m populating the world to make it diverse.
This is absolutely the sort of topic I’ve spent a while considering, since I’ve taken up GMing.
Others have pointed out how the tired tropes of universally evil orcs, etc, are flawed crutches, but even divorcing ourselves from simplistic depictions of such, these things still bear examination of the politics we bring to the games we play and the ideas we are reifying.
For my current campaign I’m running, I wanted a clean break from the baggage of traditional Tolkien races/species* so I made a world with beetle-, bird-, frog- and lizard-based humanoids to which humanity had arrived late–but still a world that humanity is now the most populous species of, millennia later. This has brought up some uncomfortable parallels to real-world analogies, in setting: impoverished predecessor-species minorities relegated to the slums of certain cities; undertones of genocide and manifest destiny undergirding Imperial ambitions; and colonial influences, to mention some of the more prominent thematic elements…
*(oof, that semantic divide and how we treat it in game also very much bears close looking at)
I only have myself and the feedback of my (all white, mostly male) play group as a check on these ideas, to boot, and I daresay I’m the one who is most concerned with representation and what sort of parallels can be drawn between the actions of the party and npcs in the setting. It is my hope that by at least recognizing these issues and attempting to tackle them responsibly I can avoid messing up too badly, but as I mentioned–I don’t have the nuanced perspective on a lot of these issues that I would prefer to have, and there are instances where I don’t know whether the situation depicted or the takeaway we reach is grounded in, for lack of a better term, good praxis.
Which is not to say I would have carte blanche to rest assured that I was “doing good well” if I had, say, players of color on hand to provide feedback to me as GM or help shape the narrative in ways sympathetic to the plight of the underserved. It isn’t an obligation on them to perform the emotional labor to grant me peace of mind. Nor do am I trying to come here to the forum hat in hand with this post begging for absolution. These issues are important to me to try to get a better handle on that doesn’t punch down, misrepresent or do a disservice to people caught in real life parallels. Is tackling them with respect and care enough, though, when I lack confidence in my issue-detection and course-correction mechanisms?
I think it’s important to portray a world with power differentials and injustice, especially in ways that aren’t read by my players as a polemic, ham-fisted, or an overtly one-sided morality tale–while also doing justice to the underprivileged and underserved of society. It would certainly be a disservice to our world, to say nothing of impairing player engagement, immersion and their sense of verisimilitude, to omit or elide such conflicts rooted in xenophobia and power imbalances.
But then… I have some cognitive dissonance squaring that stance on (an allegory for) race with my absolute desire not to reinforce, say, the gender binary and ideas around sexual violence. I don’t mind allowing the use of sexuality as a tool for player agency, even if the limited instances of such in the campaign have largely taken place “offscreen” to avoid making players uncomfortable, and my group of players is pretty good about staying on the same page as me there. Obviously sexual agency, depictions of sex and sex work, reinforcement of gender binaries… these tend to be a lot more hair-trigger of issues that can have serious and immediate ramifications on player enjoyment of the game–but is tackling issues of race “with care and respect” enough to justify treading into such similarly fraught territory? And what lens does the whiteness of my play group cast on that? How does an aversion depictions or references of sexual violence line up with my stance on “tackling complex ideas and doing justice to power imbalances within our own world”?
These are complex questions to wrestle with, and not–to me, at least–ones easily answered. I absolutely invite further discussion!
Longer response when I’m not in bed half asleep, but: I’m absolutely in favour of people using the thread to say, “Hey, I’m thinking about doing X in my campaign, what do you think?”
I totally would do that if one of my players weren’t actually in this thread (I’m sure he feels the same way!) but I’m happy to workshop anyone else’s ideas.
I’m curious if any women or nb people have had the same experience as me. I’ve stopped playing tabletop games because the groups I’ve been in have been heavily cis men, and I have no interest in creating my own group to DM because I have a lot of anxiety around that kind of thing.
But the reason I’ve quit is, playing with a lot of men ended up with us falling into the same roles: them focused on making jokes and goofing off, and me reluctantly as the straight man (how ironic!) trying to get us all to move the story forward. And I really resent being put in that position! I want to goof off! And I think that’s a very gendered thing, which extends beyond tabletop. So yeah, anyone else?
I haven’t had this exact problem in D&D, but I think that’s largely a result of the people I play with. The main “problem” I encounter in the game I’m a player (and only non-male) in is that the guys can be overthinkers who get derailed not by “goofing off” but by overthinking some very trivial detail (or even occasionally an important one that the DM just isn’t going to tell us about yet). They spent 40 minutes once discussing the relevance of a crown we picked up several months (years?) earlier in the game and its narrative significance, while I tried to get us back on track to actually go do the things. I mean, obviously the DM wasn’t going to give us any answers if we asked the magic right question; we’d find out its purpose when that purpose became important to the story, so if we want to know what it does we should probably get to the story.
In my case I’m not sure if it’s gendered so much as the personality of the people I’m playing with; they are the kinds of people who get obsessed by some minor details while overlooking the big picture, and I am the kind of person who wants to get to the part where the cool stuff happens. But I’ve seen what you describe so many times outside of the D&D table and am not at all surprised to hear it’s an issue at tables you’ve played at.
Oh, here’s another simple thing that I try to keep in mind as a DM: Every other NPC I create is male/female/male/female etc., and then intersperse with non-binary.
Exceptions made if I have something particular in mind (say, a coven of witches with one male witch, and he’s really insecure about it), or if it ends up inadvertently falling into a tired cliche (If I have a tired old king and a dainty princess - nah, a settled but sharp queen with a pretty-boy useless prince is more interesting).
I’m a new DM (for Dungeon World specifically) and I wasn’t able to play when i was younger because I couldn’t really find people to play with (small town and the cis-het boys there didn’t want to play with a “girl” (which im not)) so I don’t know a lot of the cliches that people fall into.
My group is mostly trans and nonbinary leaning so I’ve found that because of that I rarely have any NPCs that aren’t trans. I cant really tell if thats escapism for me or if I’m trying to give my players a place thats safer (a couple of them live in the southern states and feel unsafe a lot)
I’ve made sure to check for stuff/topics players really dont feel comfortable playing with but I was wondering if there were any things that I should keep in mind or bring up in case
My campaign does not and will not include any kind of sexual violence. I haven’t run that past my players, it’s just something I’ve dealt with enough in real life that I don’t want to handle in the game world. I’m sure there are ways it can be done well in tabletop RPGs, but I’m not going to do it.
Some people are uncomfortable with romance plots, while other players really like them, so maybe consider that as something to check for.
I do also try to avoid racism – nobody is gonna give my elf or gnome PCs flak for being non-human.
This reminds me that I should do a more in-depth discussion on these topics with my players, though. We’re on hiatus right now due to some real life travel, so it’s a good time for it.
Thats a good point, i never considered anything sexual at all in GMing because it makes me uncomfy as a whole but that makes sense. Talking about romance is a good idea, and I should probably check if abuse between NPCs is a thing i should avoid as whole or address in safer ways, thank you.