As a DM, there has been more than a few times in my career when I’ve thought to myself, maybe I shouldn’t go there. Often, these times involve topics or story arcs that are controversial in real life and the idea of turning D&D into my own personal soapbox for whatever moral or political views I may have is very distasteful. Further, I feel that using D&D for the purposes of allegory or metaphor is a very poor distraction from what should otherwise be a fun, exciting story. On some level, I’d like to think that Tolkien and I share the same philosophy on this subject. (See Here)
With that in mind, what follows are four examples of topics that may rear their ugly heads in D&D and why I personally think they should be avoided if possible.
In my mind, rape is a bit too much for a D&D story. I know it happens in real life more often than many of us would like to admit and I also know that it has been a powerful story point for writers, playwrights, and screenwriters for generations. But somehow, as someone who has known and been friends with more than one rape/sexual abuse victim, I have a hard time imagining a D&D storyline where it becomes justified or is depicted in an acceptable way. Practically, the DM can only introduce a rape situation to the story in one of three ways: #1) A PC or PCs are the rapists; #2) A PC or PCs are raped; or #3) A PC or PCs witness a rape. As for #1, if your DM allows you or one of the other players in your group to rape someone or something in your game, I seriously want you to get up and leave. This is unacceptable. It serves no purpose other than a sick kind of self-indulgence. Do yourself and the other people involved a favor and walk out. As for #2, even though this could be done with careful planning and the prior consent of the player, it still seems unnecessary to me in a D&D setting. I want to you think about what you’re doing and saying for a moment and then think about whether you would feel so confident about it if a rape victim was present in the room listening in. It’s the same kind of thing when guys make sexist comments about women when they’re not around but then shut their mouths when the women show up. As for #3, this seems like the only acceptable scenario, in my opinion, where the idea of rape can be introduced to the game. And even in this case, only just long enough for the PC or PCs to do something to stop it. Long story short, rape is a horrible reality for some people and giving it life in D&D can be terribly disrespectful.
Let’s be honest, torture is one of those things that has slowly found its way into mainstream culture over the past few years. We see it on television and in movies; we read about it in books; it gets made into jokes; and many of our governments have even endorsed it from time to time as an acceptable intelligence gathering option. In fact, I’ll wager that if you watch any news program in the world three nights in a row, torture will get mentioned at least once. We don’t even bat an eyelash anymore. So why, if this topic is so common, should it not come up in D&D? Because, in my opinion, we should be setting a better example. Just like the rape topic, it is very disrespectful to play with pretend torture when real people are enduring it every day. PCs should not be engaged in it, DMs should not be subjecting their players to it, and any references to torture should be done with care and by necessity only.
In the past, I have used this topic as a story arc for many of my PCs. Starting an adventure as a slave is a very common beginning for many DMs. It’s also not uncommon for the PCs to be sold or abducted into slavery at critical points in a story. Slavery seems to be a universally accepted low point in which heroes can rise. I’ve also never heard a PC object to the idea of being a slave. Fair enough. However, my issue occurs when a PC decides that they want to purchase/own a slave. Thankfully, this has only happened once in my personal experience and I quickly made the price range unacceptable to the PC and they lost interest. I’m sure that the PC in question had no idea how despicable their request really was. They had asked about it on a whim and I believe that if they had put just five minutes of thought into it they would have been quite embarrassed. Even if I had been inclined to allow such a transaction to take place, what would have been the point? Someone to shine your armor and cook your meals or maybe someone to boss around and degrade? If you really want that, you can always go the henchman or underling route. You don’t need to bring all of the baggage of slavery into the game. Again, it’s about respect and it’s about setting a higher standard.
This would be the whole issue of including lesbian, gay, bi-sexual, and transgendered characters into the adventure, whether they be PCs or NPCs. I believe that many DMs, myself included, haven’t delved intothis content in their games simply because they don’t feel qualified to do so accurately. But I am, and every DM should be, very aware that including these characters into the game can also make them easy targets for jokes and ridicule, which is something no one should abide. Overall, my instincts tell me that unless you have a mature and understanding group of people around your table, this is another topic best left to the sidelines. Forcing players to confront sexuality (whether it be their own or someone else’s) when they are not expecting it or unable to deal with it in a controlled manner, is asking for trouble. Firstly, you don’t want to offend anyone taking the time to play your game; and secondly, you don’t want your D&D night to degrade into a “bashing” session where people may say things they can’t take back.
The most important thing I can say is this: D&D is a game designed to be fantasy entertainment. Yes, it can handle “the big issues” if necessary; however, if you feel the need to get a point across or make your argument on any of these or other socially-charged issues, you might want to consider a different avenue. Talking to others and having discussions about these issues is a good thing and should be encouraged; however, roleplaying is considered by many to be a venue where one can go for a little mental escape from the real world. Therefore, dragging the real world into your D&D game with these polarizing issues might be a false step.