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SEX & ROMANCE IN FANTASY GAMING: WHY CONSENT MATTERS

 

 

A group's agreement to participate in a game is essential, but it’s even more important for romantic and sexual storylines. Why? Because gamers already know that things might happen in-game that they won’t like. Every roll of the dice carries a risk of failure, but that’s how tabletop games work: players accept some negative consequences to have a chance for victory. But most game books don’t present love or lust as regular themes for player characters, so many players don’t expect to deal with them. People usually feel strongly about these matters, and might not feel comfortable with them in a game. Love and sex don’t have to be uncomfortable topics, however, if we allow the tenets of consent to guide us.

In gaming (and life), it helps us interact if we start with respect for everyone involved. When we treat everyone with an equal baseline of respect, they'll feel more inclined to communicate and participate. But if someone is disregarded, resentment, arguments, and departures probably won't be far behind. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing. If someone is being treated poorly, anyone who notices should bring it up, and everyone should work to fix the problem. And if things don’t change, it’s best to leave. Time and well-being are precious resources, and people deserve to be in healthy groups that make gaming fun.

Honest, clear communication is vital to the process. Each person in a gaming group has to consider what they want out of the experience so they can share their wishes and boundaries. To have a fair and real choice, they must be able to say how they feel without being shamed. If they're ridiculed or pressured, a player might go along with something they don't want just to keep the peace, but they probably won't feel good about it, and those hurt feelings will fester. This is just as true for DMs as it is for players. A DM should feel free to discuss the sensual topics they're comfortable with running and would like to see in the campaign. This has the added benefit of letting players know what to expect beforehand. Any concerns should be heard with an open mind, and any solutions should be agreed to by all.

This conversation isn't going to be completed in one sitting because consent is an ongoing process of negotiation. Anyone in the group should be able to ask for a discussion whenever they have a concern, and anyone should be free to ask for time before making a decision. Most importantly, anyone should be able to withdraw from a situation at any point, without negative consequences. As long as you game together, you’ll need to check in and see how your groupmates feel.

This may seem like a lot of bother over nothing. You might think that only weak, prudish, or immature people need to have consent spelled out for them. Surely sexually active adults will already know what to expect and won’t be upset by some fantasy romance. You might believe that sex in a game will only be a problem if players have been traumatized in the past. You might think you can just read their facial expressions, body language, and other clues to figure out if they’re okay with what’s happening.

These same arguments are made whenever consent comes up. But as we’ll learn here, people care about love and sex a lot and might have intensely negative reactions, whether they’ve had bad experiences with these matters or not. We can’t take for granted that we know what people expect or what they’re comfortable with. While our characters might be able to read minds with magic spells, we can’t. The people we game with might not know how to start the conversation; they might struggle for the words to tell us what they want. But conversation is the only way they can tell us for sure that they understand, agree, and want to continue.

We can't take it for granted that because someone is okay with sex and love in a game now, they'll be okay with everything forever. Each person has limits, but these boundaries aren't visible or set in stone. People aren't always aware of topics that will make them feel bad or may have new experiences that change their feelings. What gamers want out of roleplaying can change over time, too; romance could start to feel tedious rather than fun. For these reasons, it's best to check in with the group, privately and as a whole, at various intervals.

Whenever you're asking fellow gamers to go along with something, remember that their consent should be:

  • fully informed

  • fully understood

  • enthusiastic

  • voluntary

  • clearly communicated

  • without punishment

  • ongoing

  • mutual

  • revokable

By honoring your fellow gamers' choices, you can build a strong, comfortable group that stands the test of time. And knowing that everyone is having fun and wants to keep going is the best part of roleplaying.

Why You Shouldn't Force Love or Sex

A whole section of this web site is dedicated to helping people learn how to integrate romance and lust into their tabletop fantasy games. I've written reams about these things and they're regular features of the campaigns I run and play. I've seen first-hand how much they can add to a gaming experience. So it might be a surprise to see me say this, but it's true: you should never force the issue, in or outside of the game.

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. This is true whether a player character is involved with a fellow PC or an NPC. They might worry that they're going to be forced to act as though they like someone when they really don't, or that romance will take over their character’s story. If a player is unsure about 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, their consent is still important to moving forward.

At all times and in all aspects, players deserve options. If a player doesn't want their character to be pursued by a persistent character (PC or NPC), then it's best to back off. Even if it seems funny, it can sour gameplay for a player, and they don’t deserve that. Players can also feel annoyed if marriage is constantly thrust at them when it's really not what they want for their character. 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. Remember, even arranged marriages in real life tend to be made with input from the couples-to-be; many families want their children to be happy, but need to make sure other considerations are taken into account, too.

Explain how you anticipate marriage will work and how often it will show up in the game. It's a good idea to leave players a way out of the marriage market, 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'll wed at all. They might be able to join a religious order to avoid the pressure, since religious vows may exclude marriage altogether. Or maybe they won't start to be pressured until they reach a certain age; before that, society will deem them too young to wed. 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're uncomfortable with the romantic situation at hand, even if you have to pause gameplay. It doesn't have to be a major element of the story to be upsetting. For instance, everyone else at the table can feel cheated if one character tries to avoid every combat encounter by seducing enemies. Just because you have the Charisma or spells to do so doesn’t mean you should. A DM should also feel free to call for a time-out, if needed. After all, DMs only direct the flow of play; when players introduce sexual or romantic tropes on the fly, DMs can be caught off guard, disturbed, or disappointed. Despite recent teachings that the DM should always say “yes” to player input, this is one arena in which I must respectfully disagree. Everyone at the table must have the right to engage or withdraw, and at any point.

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

Rape as a Story Trope in Games

Many gamers express shock at the idea that anyone would bring rape into a fantasy roleplaying game, but it can and does happen, so it's best to be prepared. Whether we like it or not, rape is part of our lives, news, and media, as well as our catalogue of storytelling tropes. As a result, any of us could bring it into a game without considering the consequences first. Even if you think your groupmates would never think that way, rape can arise at any time, from either side of the DM's screen. And even if you think you know your group well and won't cause offense, you could face a storm of emotional responses that you didn't expect. The sad fact of the matter is that there's no way to know if someone has been raped, or has been affected deeply by the rape of a loved one, unless they tell you. People don't have to have been raped to have strong feelings about it, either, and since it's a sensitive topic, your groupmates might not have shared their views or experiences with you.

Let me say that another way: Even if you game with lovers, lifelong friends, or family members, you might not know how they feel about rape, if they have been sexually assaulted, or if they've watched someone suffer the aftermath of an assault. There's so much stigma surrounding the topic that even your nearest and dearest may be hiding the worst from you, from the world, or even from themselves. This is no exaggeration.

The consequences of forcing rape storylines onto a fellow gamer can be severe. That isn't an exaggeration, either. I've seen it myself and heard from quite a few other gamers about it over the years. Interjecting rape into a session without warning can evoke deeply painful feelings, memories, and trauma responses that are very real and very uncomfortable. If most members of a group insist it's fine and won't honor everyone's concerns, that will make a bad experience even worse. Friendships and gaming groups can be lost for good because of this - and if you won't take the time and effort to make everyone comfortable, that's probably for the best.

With all of that being said, I'm not writing this to say no one can or should ever use rape as a story trope in tabletop games, even D&D. I'm well aware that not everyone will agree with me, but different groups have different feelings and boundaries, and if it's used responsibly, I've seen that rape can be a potent story element. It can be overcome, avenged, and transformed in legendary stories that showcase the best and worst in humanity. It can evoke empathy, showing us how good people should respond, and highlight crimes decent people should never do. Rape has already been featured in these ways in myths across the globe for thousands of years.

This section offers advice on whether or not to proceed with mentioning rape in your games - and how to do so - after decades of experience. The first and easiest piece of advice I have to offer is to ask your group how they feel about rape in a gaming context, and if anyone objects, don't use it. If it comes up in a scene out of the blue, you should pause right away and ask if it's okay - and if anyone objects, roll back the scene and do something else. That doesn't mean there's no room for conversation. The DM can explain to everyone how they intend to use rape, such as by keeping any mentions brief; players can ask that it only affect NPCs, or for other exemptions. A group might negotiate enough that rape can be featured in certain ways, with everyone's consent. But no one should ever feel pressured to allow it when they don't want to deal with it. I mean, isn't that part of the very offense we're talking about here?

How Can You Manage it Responsibly?

So how can you actually use the trope in your games and handle it responsibly? Let's cover some common concerns and ways to approach them.

Character backgrounds are places where rape often comes up for the first time in a campaign. In a way, this makes sense; not all characters are born as the product of loving homes, after all. In addition, traditionally, some D&D races were known to be violent (to the point that they were "usually evil" or "always evil" in alignment). In the past, half-orcs were said to usually be the result of rape because of this reputation. Recent editions of D&D have moved away from this with good reason, but that doesn't mean that your group has to. Some groups might be fine with rape being relegated to a character's history, but this should be discussed with the group first, even if it's just one player's idea for their character.

Sometimes gamers assume that force is an acceptable option when sex is available in a game and the setting is entirely imaginary. This is true whether it's an evil campaign or not. The Dungeon Master can go a long way in setting the tone for consent right out the gate. If forced sex isn't going to be allowed at all, the DM should say so beforehand and enforce that boundary if a player disregards it. The group shouldn't automatically assume bad things about people who want to use rape as an element in a game, however; it's been a part of storytelling since ancient times by plenty of people who weren't rapists. Mentioning it doesn't mean that the person approves of it in real life. At the same time, a group shouldn't be afraid to state their preferences clearly.

If you're in an evil campaign, it's far more likely that rape will come up. 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 it only happens between NPCs, or if a PC acts against an NPC off-screen, in general terms like: “Since we're looting the village, I'm taking a prize.”

Rape amongst player characters is not advisable in any context. Even if you allow PCs to fight and kill each other, be aware that rape attempts will garner far more ill will than any other kind of attack, in and out of character. This is as true for evil campaigns as any others. If an evil cleric fails her saving throw and is knocked unconscious, it will be a nasty moment for the whole group if the fighter turns to his brother and says: “I get her first.” Just because a character is evil doesn't mean that the character will be okay with being raped, or that the player will simply accept it as the price of walking on the dark side. PC vs. PC rape is one of the most harmful things you can allow in a game and should be avoided at all costs.

If the group is amenable to using rape as a story element, it should be handled briefly and respectfully. It should be a humanizing aspect that isn't glorified, and it shouldn't be featured regularly. At no point should it be given a play-by-play account, mechanically or descriptively.

What do I mean by that, exactly? Since tabletop roleplaying games rely on rules for combat, it can be tempting to treat a sexual assault like any other altercation: roll for initiative, try to attack or flee, and let the dice determine who gets their way and how much physical harm is done. If you're used to rolling dice for every dispute, this might seem like the most natural and fair way to integrate rape into a scene. At least the victim has a chance to fight back, right? Relatedly, if you're used to detailed descriptions of battle in your campaign, you might not see the harm in describing a sexual assault. If your group enjoys gory combat, why would describing a rape be any worse? Some might also argue that "realistically," rape should be featured in descriptions of war. And yes, rape is quite likely to happen on a wide scale during armed conflicts - but lingering on it as just another tableaux of the horrors of war isn't necessary or kind to your group. No tabletop game is going to be 100% realistic, and in this case, that's a good thing.

These approaches dehumanize one of the worst experiences we can endure, and use thin excuses to do so. Whether or not a sexual assault happens isn't just a matter of chance, or not being stronger, or having a weapon at hand. Graphically describing rape is likely to upset someone (and if it doesn't, it probably should); it's not sexy, it's not fun, and it's not fair. You don't have to be brutally descriptive to get the point across. And no, you don't have to include it to live up to some false standard of realism. A game will never sufficiently mimic real life conditions, and it's well past time we admitted that.

The best advice I have is to take a page from the horror writer's manual whenever rape arises in a game: don't try to show the worst; just the implication will be more than enough to affect your audience. Tabletop games, like horror movies, make use of our imaginations, and our minds will fill in whatever is left out. A few curt words from an NPC that hint at what happened; a brief description of crying that's ignored by soldiers who are laughing as they leave; the twisted pain on an NPC's face as they beg the PCs for justice for a crime they can't even bear to name...these brief details will convey what's happened without dwelling on it. Moving the scene along afterward should help keep the point from being dragged out and keep players from feeling put upon.

Engaging consent in a mature campaign can lead to resonant results and lifelong positive impressions. Sex in gaming doesn't have to end with arguments or tears, although plenty of gamers have their horror stories. 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 for every game 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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