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The Douchey DM » Table Politics » I couldn’t agree less.

I couldn’t agree less.

this is my response to a blog post on Gnome Stew.

First, My Example

“You’re walking through the ride, and you’re in the area with the fortune teller. That’s when you start noticing the bodies. Adults. Children. You hear some retching coming from behind one of the carts.

“There a girl is sitting on the ground — maybe six or seven years old — next to the body of an older woman. The woman’s eyes have been gouged out. There’s blood and vomit running down the little girl’s chin and blouse.

“There’s a partially chewed eyeball on the ground. She looks at you and says, ‘mommy’s eyeballs made me sick.’ “

That was my “Shit Just Got Real” moment in my Savage Worlds/Ghostbusters LA game.

When I pitched the idea for the one-shot to the players, I told them it was going to be “Ghostbusters meet Cthulhu.” But when the game started, it was very light-hearted with lots of jokes, a Bill Murray imitation and lots of crazy customers seeing ghosts that weren’t there.

Everyone at the table knew that there’d eventually be a real ghost or something supernatural — that was an assumption we all shared.

What the players didn’t realize was that I was planning a very dark turn in the game — a Lovecraftian cult had summoned some creature from beyond the stars to the tunnels beneath Disneyland’s Haunted Mansion. The creature’s mere presence caused all the park-goers to go mad. Some killed themselves, some stripped naked and started genuflecting and masturbating, while others began consuming their loved ones.

The shock on the players’ faces — the once jovial mood turned serious and uncomfortable — was priceless. The mood changed back quickly as soon as someone made a masturbation joke, but for those few minutes, my “Shit Just Got Real” moment caused the kind of reaction in the players that GMs always strive for but rarely achieve.

Now my questions:

Would that change — that sucker punch — in game tone have had the same effect had I warned the players before hand that the game would include some disturbing subject matter, including child cannibalism, masturbation and suicide?

I’m going to go out on a limb and say no.

Did I run the risk of offending any of my players? And is that my problem?

Possibly. If, for example one of the players was in a plane crash in the Andes and had to eat the corpse of his dead mother to survive — and I knew this, yes, that’d be a dick move on my part — but that’s not the kind of situation I’m talking about.

Let’s say I didn’t know, and one of the players suddenly jumped up, screaming, “how dare you! Mommy! STOP STARING AT ME!!” and ran off, never to talk to me again. That would be an irrational response. Maybe understandable, but not the sort of response a reasonable person would expect from another reasonable person.

The fact is, I don’t know what kind of emotional mine fields are laid before me when my players sit down at the table.  I might know about some of them, but it is neither my place to know or inquire about the emotional skeletons hanging in my players’ psyches.

I’m your GM, not your analyst.

As the GM, it is my job to entertain and challenge the players. It is my job to lead them through an exercise in collaborative storytelling.

Sometimes what happens at the table will make them cheer. Sometimes it will make them scream. They might cuss at me occasionally. The more invested they become in their characters, the more likely they will begin to share the emotions their characters have during the game.

Now, does that emotional investment include an unspoken agreement? With regards to fun and an enjoyable time at the table? Yes. But I think it ends there — insofar as the content of the game is concerned.

As I said before, if I know someone has an issue with a certain subject matter, then I’ll avoid it. But to telegraph the “Oh Shit!” moments of my game with a touchy-feely conversation about boundaries and personal issues can likely suck the life and adventure out of what might otherwise have been an awesome game.

On those occasions when I do stumble on a mine, I would be more than willing to say, “Sorry about that. I didn’t know, and I didn’t mean to offend you.” That, said sincerely, should go a long way — if it doesn’t, the issue is with you, not me.


Written by

Stu Venable is the producer of Happy Jacks RPG Podcast and writer and editor of He is founder and director of the Poxy Boggards and a member of Celtic Squall. He holds a degree in Journalism and Public Relations from California State University, Long Beach. He is a husband and a father. He hates puppies.

Filed under: Table Politics · Tags: , , , , , , ,

7 Responses to "I couldn’t agree less."

  1. E in MDNo Gravatar says:

    Maybe it’s because I’ve been playing with the same group since high school but I don’t bother with disclaimers or other such nonsense. I just say “This is going to be a horror game.” and leave it at that.

    I’m also -known- for running horror. It’s my favorite genre so people come to expect it. I’m not gonna tone it down just because someone has a button they don’t like pushed. That’s the POINT of horror. To get inside your head and push those buttons. Now, if I had for example, a female in the group who had been the victim of a rape or something I’d be more conscious about having that sort of thing in my game. I definitely not inflict any PC she was playing with that particular horror and if for example the PCs were investigating a rape I would fade to black and handwave some of the details out of courtesy (if in fact I included it at all…I don’t think rape has ever been in any of my games… Murder certainly. Cannibalism, sure. People blowing themselves up, yeah. ). But I’m not going to alter the gravitational constant of the universe just because of that. Rape still exists because this world is a shit hole filled with bad people and words like WOD are even worse. If you want to play the game, you need to deal with that fact.

    Again, I’ve had some pretty nasty stuff in my games (Hell I had a dark jedi female castrate one of the male jedi PCs in one game and then give his junk back to him encased in carbonite*) but I’ve never had a complaint about game content.

    Now that I see this child cannibalism, masterbation stuff in your post… I’m totally stealing it and putting it in my current game of Werewolf: The Apocalypse. A major wyrm baddy just showed up in town and is getting ready to start being a poo poo head. It’s definitely something that would make the straights go apeshit just by being there, especially since it’s visible to the norms. I previously had a raving crackhead break into a grocery store and have the PC’s (who are regular human beat cops) show up to deal with it. He was shouting “He is coming! He is coming! You will taste of his flesh!”.

    My plan was to have a major prison break and have all the loony toons jack a tour bus and ride it around shouting “He has come! Rejoice!” and tossing Molotovs around. But adding in this stuff would make it much more horrible. I might have to make it so that there is a carnival in town now. I’ll let you know how it goes.

    * Reign was an evil (Ken Bianchi evil as opposed to Darth Vader ‘evil’) sadist and was trying to turn him to the dark side. It worked too.

  2. callinNo Gravatar says:

    I think it comes down to knowing your players. Even if I do not know every “mine” they might have, I have a pretty good handle on what I can and cannot get away with when it comes to my players. And if I do set off a “mine” then there is a trust involved that my players know I did not do it intentionally to set a player off. Of course, there are some topics I personally will not approach or touch.

    As a side note, I did indeed hit the “mine” of one of my players, mostly because I am stupid at times. I had this long running idea to run a super-heroes game wherein powers are a by-product of cancerous cells. It was basically doomed super-heroes making the best of their last days. Finally I got a group together and they decided they wanted a super-hero game so of course I trotted out this campaign idea. Only, one of the players had lost her father to cancer the year before. I didn’t put the two together until after I had set off her “mine”.

  3. JoeGunNo Gravatar says:

    I agree with you Stu. I’ve heard on many podcasts and read many blog posts about this mythical “social contract”. I’ve been gaming for 23 years and never once have we had a social contract. If you mistakenly push a button on someone, you apologize and move on. If that isn’t enough, o well, they probably aren’t that important in your life anyway. I’ve played many games, and my GM has done some horrible things to my characters, and yes at times it pushed my buttons and made me mad. But it’s just a game, and you get over it. Besides isn’t the best entertainment the ones that bring out a raw emotion in you anyway? Great post as always Stu!

  4. JimToNo Gravatar says:

    Gaming, much like Art, is not safe. If you’re gonna wade into the gaming pond, something you can’t see in the murky waters may hurt you. But you made the choice to proceed knowing you couldn’t see what was there.

  5. JazzIsBluesNo Gravatar says:

    There is no “contract” between the gm and the players that says that the gm will not make them uncomfortable or present things in the game that they don’t like or don’t want to see. It’s to put it mildly rubbish to think that the players will never be confronted with something they don’t want to happen. It would be hoped that the players and the gm are all on friendly terms and hopefully understanding of one another.

    I’m not going to intentionally confront a player with their worst demon. eg. I’m not going to do something that involves rape with someone who’s actually been through it, that would be insensitive of me as a human being.

    But like Stu said, I’m not their therapist.

    When one does make a gaff and it’s going to happen, apologize and move on.

    Great work Stu, I concur completely.


  6. Martin RalyaNo Gravatar says:

    Good response, Stu! I can definitely see your perspective.

    Everyone’s lines are in different places. The scene you described sounds fantastic, and I personally wouldn’t mind having that sprung on me.

    Not every group feels the need for a social contract, and most social contracts I have personal experience with are informal and built up over time. I’d argue that avoiding in-game situations that trip player issues you know about, which you mentioned as something you do, is a form of social contract. A good form that works for you, and sounds like it works for your group — which is all that really matters.

  7. Robert W. CalfeeNo Gravatar says:

    Your example does not match the Gnome Stew situation.

    I had a similar situation, but a far slower reaction. I was told that my character was raped. It was a prisoner situation, and there really was no way for him to avoid it.

    But when I tried to continue playing the character– he was broken. There was just a horrible despondent shell where once had been an engaging character.

    Now I agree that there would have been a story to tell there, but I wasn’t the player at that time to play that character in that story. And this wasn’t the right character to play that story; he had a background and story elements that would lead in a different direction.

    I talked with the GM and found out that this was the reason that RPG are better than tv, or movies, or books.

    We rewrote what happened. Another character intervened, and prevented my character from suffering the ‘fate worse than death’. It never happened. And that was better for the character.

    And it was better for me: I was able to play the character, and had fun.

    Later when my character was doing something that I thought was great story, but was causing the GM dismay, we were able to change that and again the story benefited.

    Even if there is no explicit contract I think you probably have expectations from the players for the range of experiences. And you did mention Cthulhu. That draws a line pretty deep into madness. Especially if you watch the films.

    Not every story can spiral down into Requiem for a Dream, nor need they.

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