And This Is Why We Can’t Have Awful Things

I find it interesting how reluctant RPG companies and designers are to go into the depths of how human beings can be horrible to one another. There are a few like Lamentations of The Flame Princess that go there. A couple of past games have gone down the road, a bit. Earthdawn had some gnarly monsters which existed only to torment mortals. Many of the game’s most horrendous spells were available to PC’s. Chaosium, the company that produces the most famous game in the horror genre, has dipped its toe into some dark and scary waters but rarely to an extreme degree. The World of Darkness games from White Wolf were, well, dark, kind of. With a few exceptions, most of the illustrations and text in the darker margins of the RPG industry have been tame compared to a lot of other forms of entertainment.

The more I think about it, I find it somewhat curious that we don’t have more graphic material in RPG’s.

I like violent film and television shows and there’s no shortage of them these days. Netflix, Amazon and HBO has that sort of content in abundance. I can’t think of any show where the violence was so terrible that it has ruined the career of the writers, producers, actors, or directors based only on the content. They are still turning the crank on the meat grinder. Yet, we frequently see calls to purge designers and publishers for that kind of content in tabletop RPG’s.

I liked The Boys very much. It has super “heroes” killing normal people in fantastically gruesome ways. Lots of other people liked it too. It has an 88% rating on IMDB and Rotten Tomatoes. It has some seriously nasty violence. Straight up crimson splatter fest levels of violence. There is sexual harassment and sexism. There is homophobia. There is drug abuse, sexual deviance and many other kinds of debauchery. Before that, The Boys was a successful comic book series. Obviously, there’s a market for  transgressive content in TV, film, comic books, video games, music and fiction. People are anxious to consume it and do so in large numbers. Joe Abercrombie’s new book A Little Hatred hit New York Times best seller list its first week out of the gate. It contains graphic brutal violence, explicit sex, torture, prostitution and child slavery.

When someone includes a particularly nasty illustration or detailed description of violence in a TTRPG, the pitchforks and torches come out on the blogs, message boards and Twitter immediately. There are game shops that won’t carry any game materials with graphic illustrations. Gods forbid there are boobies, decapitated heads or blood in our RPG books. Never mind the source inspirations for Dungeons and Dragons, such as Conan and Edgar Rice Burroughs’ Barsoom books had all of that in full frontal nudity. Never mind that some of the most popular work in the fantasy genre today are soaked in blood and bodily fluids best not discussed in polite society.

Tabletop role-playing games have had very limited amounts of extreme mature content. Part of that is a legacy of the Satanic Panic. TSR in particular, dealt with the problem by censoring its writers and game designers.  If you are trying to sell your product in major department stores and it is seen by the public as some sort of “occult” “Satanic” activity then Sears is not going to put your product in the catalog.

I have another hypothesis about it.  Many of us are willing to passively watch violence, play violent games or read a book full of transgression without it being a big deal. Why? You, the consumer of such content, don’t have an audience. Tabletop role-playing games are a different situation.

People sitting across from one another at a table may be uncomfortable with sharing the dark places their minds go. They really don’t want their friends to know that they have a kernel of evil deep down in their souls, even though the reality is that we all have it. If you say, “My character starts carving his sigil into the flesh of the prisoner in preparation for the sacrifice to Arioch.” That means that you have that concept in your head and now you are letting it out.

You might not want to share that with your friends. It isn’t a great of leap of logic for people to be asking themselves, “What else does this lunatic get up to in his spare time?”

It may well be that the discomfort of acknowledging the evil that lives within us prevents tabletop role-playing games from having a successful transgressive wing.

5 thoughts on “And This Is Why We Can’t Have Awful Things

  1. Maximilian Wilson

    I think you’re on to something, but it’s not just because of the audience–I predict that to a lesser extent you’d see that same reluctance even in a solo RPG. There’s something about the first-person viewpoint that makes committing horrors feel worse than watching horrors unfold. You feel responsible for them.

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    1. Hi Maximilian. There are a lot of games involving violence from the first person viewpoint. First person shooter for example. I don’t know how popular they are compared to more heroic games though. It could be that there’s a smaller audience for that sort of thing

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      1. Maximilian Wilson

        Hmmm. Interesting point. For some first-person shooters, like Grand Theft Auto, I agree that they are approximately as horrifying as committing horrors in an RPG. There are others (like Doom) that feel more like videogaming than roleplay.
        Again, I think you’re on to something: the presence of an audience probably magnifies whatever horror/revulsion is being felt. Although, wouldn’t that same thing happen with Grand Theft Auto, if played in public?

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