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SEX & ROMANCE IN FANTASY GAMING: CONSENT

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There is a fine line that must be walked with the consent of the group, particularly when it comes to romantic and sexual storylines. On one hand, things are bound to happen that players won't like; their characters can be injured, robbed, or humiliated at the turn of the dice. This is part of the game, and most players understand that they have to accept to some negative consequences to experience victory. But people can be very sensitive when things of a romantic nature are forced on their characters, and there are good reasons why.

Don't Force the Issue

Forcing romantic ties between characters might make a player feel like their character's choices don't matter, and they can come to resent having their character's love life dictated to them. They might worry that they are going to be forced to act like they like someone when they really don't. If a player is resisting romantic storylines in the first place, then they could become especially bitter if the Dungeon Master is too heavy-handed in trying to get them involved. If a player is enjoying romantic angles, however, consent could be very important to the way they want their character to proceed.

Consent becomes an issue with the choice of romantic partners and with marriage. If a player truly doesn't want their character to be involved with a persistent character (PC or NPC), then it is probably best to leave them be. And players can feel very annoyed if marriage is constantly thrust at them – even if their characters are of marrying age and considered good catches. Be careful with how often you remind them that society would like to see them hitched like everyone else, and beware of forcing a character to marry anyone. But remember that even arranged marriages are made with the input of the bride and groom-to-be; many families want their children to be happy, but need to make sure other considerations are taken into account, too.

Talk to your group about how you anticipate marriage will work in the game. It's a good policy to leave players a way out, in case they don't want to deal with it. Perhaps characters can go on a quest to be given the right to choose who and when to marry, or if they will marry at all. They might be able to join a particular church to avoid the pressure, since religious vows in many fantasy worlds are usually taken seriously. Or maybe they won't start to be pressured until they reach a certain age. If all three of these options are available, then players will have a variety of ways to bow out with grace.

Talk to your group if you are uncomfortable with the romantic situation at hand, as well. It doesn't have to be a major element of the story to be annoying. Sometimes player characters will come onto each other, dropping hints and sexual innuendos, even when a party member isn't interested. This can become tedious to handle for the PC being targeted and for the DM. It can also make a player feel singled out or belittled if they are constantly fending off sexual advances. On the flip side, it can get on other people's nerves if a character expects to use sex to appeal to every other person in the game. Put another way: just because you can hit on other characters doesn't mean you should, so be mindful of how your moves are received.

It should be said that Dungeon Masters have consent to give about sex in games, too. They might seem to have all of the power they need to make sessions go their way, but the truth is that DMs can only try to direct the flow – and sometimes they get caught off guard. If your Dungeon Master gives romance a try and decides that they don't want to continue with it, then you might have to let them alone, even if you were enjoying it. If the DM talks to you on behalf of another player's discomfort, take them seriously. And if the DM has outlawed certain aspects of sex to preserve the peace of the group, wait until a break before pressing the point, and be prepared to let them run their game as they see fit. Instead of resenting their decisions, try running a game and inviting that DM to experience romance as a player for a while. Show 'em how it can be done!

And since it shouldn't be avoided, let's address the most difficult aspects of consent in no uncertain terms.

Rape

Many people express shock at the idea that rape can come up in a roleplaying game, but it easily can and does – so it's best to be as prepared as possible. The sad fact of the matter is that there is no way for you to know if someone has been raped, or has been affected deeply by the rape of a loved one, unless they tell you. The gaming table is not the place that you want to find out about such a thing, but forced sex could come up in ways you don't anticipate. Even if you think your group would never deal with the issue, it could arise from either side of the screen. And even if you know your group very well, you could face ugly reactions from people who have not shared their real-world problems with you.

Sometimes people assume that force is an acceptable option because sex is available in a game and the setting is entirely imaginary. The Dungeon Master can go a long way in setting the tone for consent right out the gate. If forced sex is not going to be allowed as an element at all, it can be good to say so, if not right away then when someone seems to be overstepping their bounds. The group should not assume bad things about people who want to use rape as an element in storytelling, because it has been a powerful aspect of character building for a long time. Mentioning it does not mean that the player wants anything to do with it in real life. But at the same time, a group should not be afraid to state their preferences clearly.

If the group is amenable to using rape as an element, relegating it to brief mentions and remaining respectful about it can prevent a lot of turbulence. Getting into graphic detail is bound to upset someone (and if it doesn't, it probably should). At most, a tearful NPC might deliver their grievance to the PCs, but there shouldn't be a play-by-play reenactment. As battles, wars, and raids are described, the DM might add fuel to the heroes' fires by adding rape to a list of crimes. But even as a story element, it should be meted out carefully. Forced sex is not just a crime done to women, nor is it something that happens to everyone. And if someone at the table becomes disturbed, the DM would do well to put the issue away.

It must be said that not all characters are born as the product of loving homes. It has been commonly acknowledged that half-orcs are often the result of rape, particularly since orcs are known as a raiding and violent race. (The most recent edition of D&D appears to have moved away from this by offering an origin that isn't related to sexual violence.) The possibility of rape can come up because of evil societies and races of all kinds, not just ugly orcs; while traditional drow are certainly prettier on average, they look down on other races and could easily use rape as a tool of humiliation. If you think your character might have been the offspring of a forced pairing, see if your DM is okay with that backstory. It could lead to potent stories down the road.

If you are in an evil campaign, the likelihood of rape coming up might be higher than usual. Evil campaigns offer players opportunities to do things in character that they normally can't do when they're playing heroes, and things they would never want to do in real life. Good characters can get away with some lying and stealing, and killing wicked enemies, but evil characters might feel like they can get away with doing anything to anyone. At any rate, players might feel entitled to try. The group could decide to leave the possibility of rape out of the running, even during an evil campaign, or to deal with it as an NPC-only prospect. It might be distasteful but bearable if a PC forces themselves on an NPC in a brief exchange: “Since we're looting the village, I'm taking a prize.” Or it could be confined to a group of NPCs, like slaves. (If slavery is a feature of your evil campaign, you might end up having to deal with the option of rape, regardless).

Rape amongst player characters is not advisable in any context. Even if you allow PCs to fight and kill each other, be aware that attempts at rape will garner far more ill will. If an evil female cleric fails her saving throw and is knocked unconscious, it will be an nasty moment for the whole group if her wicked cousin turns to his brother and says: “I get her first.” Just because a character is evil doesn't mean that the character (or player) will be okay with being raped, or will think that it's just the price of walking on the dark side. Even if there are more men than women at the table, that doesn't mean that the players will find such tactics acceptable. People will hold grudges over it and games have broken up because of it, so tread carefully.

With all of that being said, dealing with consent in a truly mature campaign can lead to resonant results and deep impressions. It doesn't always have to end with arguments or tears, though plenty of gamers have their horror stories (including yours truly). Sometimes players will bring up rape in a game because they are handling out of character issues and trying to explore the idea in a safe and new way. If the group is amenable, it can be educational. Other times, NPCs will gain new dimensions if and when their histories come to light. A prisoner being mistreated horribly might become difficult to liberate when the PCs find out he's a rapist. An abrasive NPC could be hiding disgust at a rape a family member has committed. Will they try to hide the crime to save the family honor – or will they do the right thing and send the PCs after the offending party?

One of the powerful aspects of roleplaying is the ability to make choices from a safe distance and to see how they play out, without anyone having to get hurt. A worthy goal is to make sure that no one walks away from the table feeling like they've been harmed by what they've experienced there.

 
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