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.