Hints, tips, advice and wisdom for players and runners of role-playing games

The Unpermissibles

In Plot, Storytelling on June 16, 2013 at 3:41 pm

IMG_3339Rape. Child Abuse. Pregnancy. Abortion. Miscarriage.

These are the Unpermissibles. Some would argue they make good story. I would argue Storytellers do not always know everything going on in their players’ lives, and these things are far too sensitive to just push into play without an OOC discussion first.

A great example happened a few years ago to my wife. We attended a major event game, at the end of which a universal affect occurred, automatically making every female character who attended pregnant. My wife, in an attempt to be genial, asked, “What if I’d prefer my character not be pregnant?” The Storyteller responded, “Talk to your ST, they can have it worked out so the baby is injured and killed while in the womb during a battle, or they could run a miscarriage for you.”

What this ST didn’t know, was that my wife and I had had a miscarriage in real life just a month before. And it had been our third. She asked if she could opt out of the pregnancy because she couldn’t emotionally handle roleplaying being pregnant just then, and the solution of roleplaying a miscarriage or baby death was, inadvertently, even more insensitive to her.

The theory here is not that you cannot run the Unpermissibles as plots for your players (though, in general, my advice is: DON’T). You can run the Unpermissible. With the right story, the right characters and the right players, these scenarios could each foster a good story. All three of those factors must be in place, however, and they rarely are. I believe the risk involved in telling this type of story  is nearly always greater than the value of the end plot.

And while STs are pretty good judges of stories and characters, they just often don’t know their players as well as they might like or think.

For our staff, to run an Unpermissible requires a few safeguards. The first, is the story needs to have reached the Unpermissible through non-railroaded, natural story progression, and there are no other options that remain within the realm of the genre and the story. This means, the Unpermissible was never planned, never intended as an outcome – the story has just ended up at that point, and we can’t ignore it as a possible outcome.

The second, is the character must be one that is well fleshed out and capable of dealing with the Unpermissible (even if it is dealing with it badly).

The final safeguard, however, is the most important.

There must be a short, candid discussion between the Storytellers and the Player (yes, more than one ST – – ALWAYS have a second ST who is NOT running the scene present for the safety and comfort of the ST staff and the Player). This discussion is completely out of character, BEFORE the Unpermissible occurs. The conversation begins by clearly notifying the player that the story has reached a point at which the Unpermissible is about to occur, specifically and honestly telling them in no uncertain terms what the Unpermissible is. Then, we ask for permission from the Player to run it, making sure it is quite clear that they are allowed to say, “no,” and that the STs will respect that, unquestioningly, without argument, repercussion or justification.

And finally, if they say, “yes,” we then make sure they understand that the scene will only be as graphic and detailed as THEY are comfortable with it being. If they want the scene to just be narrated as vague as, “Then the bad guy rapes you. It’s very violent and horrific. You wake up two days later in the hospital,” then that’s what they get. If they want more details through narration, we accommodate. If they want the scene actually run full on, we do that until the Storytellers’ are no longer comfortable, or the scene is over.

We have to remember to protect our players, and that means erring on the side of keeping the game safe and fun. It means trying to avoid the Unpermissibles in favor of better stories, but if forced to use them, keeping the Unpermissibles in check is a must if Players and STs are to truly trust one another. Good story is not always good times.

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  1. I agree with this so much. Every time I hear the words “pregnancy chops” I want to yell. Needless to say, most of these events involve male STs creating “consequences” for female players. It is as repugnant as it is ignorant.

  2. All very true.

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