Is a Referee Responsible For the Environment They Game In?

I’m an adult, and I like the company of other adults; this being the case, everyone I game with is a grown-up and so far as I’m aware few of them have especially prudish attitudes to sex. Consequently, characters in games I participate in have been known to have sexual encounters – indeed, some PCs made this their main goal in life – and we don’t get all bothered and embarrassed when the subject comes up.

That said, we tend not to go for – how shall I put this? – blow-by-blow descriptions of what goes down. More or less every time sex comes up in a game we decide by mutual consent to draw a veil over proceedings once they hit a certain stage.

Over on The Tao of D&D I recently got into a comment altercation with Alexis Smolensk, who had made a post which seemed to be calling for radically more  overt and explicit exploration of sex in Dungeons & Dragons than a lot of people are used to. Actually, as is so often the case with this sort of blow-up, I don’t think we were disagreeing as much as we’d thought when it came to explicitness – or rather, we still disagree, but our disagreement is different and more complicated than the disagreement I first thought we had.

Alexis has, to be fair, said he’s fine with drawing a veil at a certain point and argues that the short account he caps off the original post with wasn’t really that explicit because he used lots of allusions to stuff happening rather than overtly saying “he places his penis in her vagina” or something like that, and that after the fighter presses the pirate captain down to the sand they might just be making sand castles at that point. This is technically accurate but, I would argue, kind of weasel-wording it. Yes, words mean things, but context means things too, and given all the description in the scene up to that point it’d be irrational for any listener who wasn’t entirely clueless to conclude that something was going on which involved less sandcastles and more body-to-body action.

However, Alexis seems resistant to the idea of limiting what sort of content flies in his games for anyone – including, so far as I can tell, his own players. I can appreciate that he doesn’t take kindly to strangers on the internet saying “dude, isn’t this kind of laughable/pathetic/rapey?” (though the scenario he outlines with the pirate captain comes across to me as all three of those things), but his stance seems to be that if he were in the middle of a game session and a player said “uh, Alexis, I don’t want to be a killjoy but this is really going in a direction I’m not comfortable with” he would refuse to moderate the session’s content as a result of that.

Alexis mentions that he thinks that there may be a generational thing going on with this disagreement. He is probably correct. In particular, his preamble about how he grew up in the 1970s makes it clear that back in his day when you wanted to have a hip and modern and progressive attitude to sex, you were generally for it, gave it the thumbs up, wanted to be as open about it as possible and probably at least gave lip service to how cool it’d be if we just had free love all over the place.

Like most expressions of idealism this is an idea which is nice in theory but runs into severe snags when real-life complications come into the mix. Alexis works from an assumption that the enjoyment of sex is universal, and that isn’t actually the case – some people are asexual, and have no interest in hanging out in a heavily sexualised environment. Likewise, there are good and legitimate reasons why people might only want to get into discussions of very sexualised stuff or pretend RPG sex or whatever with people they are very close to and trust a lot which have nothing to do with those people being prudes – they may have had bad prior experiences, they may have upbringings which mean that whilst they might like the idea of being more open about sex they’re not yet comfortable with it and aren’t really there at the gaming table to work with that, and so on and so on. On top of that, there’s plenty of people walking around out there with really fucked-up attitudes towards sex, and if we decided we were down with being loud and open and sexualised regardless of the context is we’d basically be handing those folk an invitation to let their creep flag fly high without a trace of social disapproval. (Indeed, there’s plenty of nasty behaviours out there which don’t nearly meet the level of social disapproval they ought to do.)

All of the above really comes under the umbrella of consent. If everyone present is cool with having a very sexualised environment going down, it really isn’t a problem. It isn’t even a problem if the sexual fantasies being explored have the sort of overtones of force and ignoring clear signs of non-consent if, out-of-character, everyone’s cool with exploring that. The question which arises is “what do we do when some people at the table are cool with this, and some people aren’t?” Alexis’ position seems to be “ignore the complainers entirely”, my position is different.

In a followup post Alexis seems to suggest that saying “hey, maybe we should moderate how we behave based on what company we’re in” is the same thing as pushing homophobia, because if you’re not allowed to make anyone uncomfortable that means homosexuals aren’t allowed to make homophobes uncomfortable by their existence. This is a false equivalency: it’s homophobic if and only if a different standard is applied to homosexual behaviour than it is to heterosexual behaviour. Someone freaking out about two dudes or two ladies kissing in a public space but turning a blind eye to a man and a lady kissing in the same context is being homophobic. Someone who complains about neither is being permissive, someone who complains about both is probably being prudish unless, I dunno, we’re talking about people pawing at each other’s crotch area and getting hot and heavy next to a children’s playground, but I think it is generally understood that there’s a line between “public display of affection” and “woah, those two actually are acting like they’re about to straight-up bang in public”. Outside, in public places, obviously there is a careful balancing act to consider between the rights of people who want to display their affection for each other publicly and the rights of those who don’t want to be subjected (or their children to be subjected) to an overtly sexual display without warning. When you’re drawing that line as a matter of public policy you literally can’t please everyone, so typically you have to go for a compromise position; where that position ends up residing obviously varies a lot, as we see in real-life cultures around the globe, but Alexis is right that unless you’re going to slap a blanket ban on all public displays of affection then you’re going to have to be willing to allow homophobes to be discomforted, because if you apply the standard of “it’s not OK if at least one person complains” then you’re guaranteeing that homophobes will loudly complain about every non-heterosexual PDA they see.

But what Alexis isn’t acknowledging here is that this conversation was not, at least initially about public spaces, which shifts the considerations somewhat: you can’t please every single member of the general public all the time, but you can select a group of 3-5 people who’ll all be pretty much OK with the sort of action you’re going to present in your game. Does this mean we have to kowtow to homophobes in private? Not at all. At the same time, precisely because the game session is private, you have the option of not inviting someone you know to be homophobic to the game at all – you can disinvite people from your private space whereas you can’t disinvite them from the public arena by definition. If you know that player 1 has a big problem with homosexuals and doesn’t care who knows it, and you also know that player 2 is gay, then it’s supremely dickish behaviour to invite both player 1 and 2 into the same game – you ought to know full well that no good will come of it. If you weren’t aware of the situation, then you’re probably going to be called on to choose which person you’d rather keep playing with once it becomes clear that keeping these two people in the same group isn’t going to be tenable.

The same goes for the content of games. If you’re a grown adult capable of grasping social mores, then you ought to be conscious of the fact that some subjects are likely to be contentious. That doesn’t mean you can’t address those subjects, but it does mean that finesse is required in how you address them. If you invite people into a private social environment, it behooves you to give them some idea of what they’re signing up for. Bloodsports involve violence against animals, so if you have common sense you don’t invite your PETA-supporting friends to the hunt with you, nor do you invite people along unless you’ve already established that they’re cool with bloodsports. Likewise, Dungeons & Dragons and an extraordinary large number of other RPGs assume that violence and killing will be part of the process of the game sooner or later, so if you know that a friend of yours has severe problems even with pretend-killing you don’t invite them to sit in on your D&D campaign and if it turns out partway through that they can’t handle it you accept their withdrawal in good grace – unless, that is, the group as a whole is down with switching to a more non-violent game because they’d rather keep hanging with this person than continue the D&D session, which is fair enough.

Ideally, if you’re after running an adult game with steamy sexual content (say, anything going beyond “we kiss, and then we draw a veil over that”), you’d get people’s consent for that sort of campaign before things even start. If a game session ends up going in that direction and you haven’t already addressed whether or not everyone’s cool with it, the way I see it there’s nothing stopping you seeking the consent of all the participants to make sure they’re comfortable with that, and since you lose more or less nothing by seeking that consent and stand the risk of ruining someone’s session (or everyone’s session, if serious drama breaks out) if you don’t, then it’s just sensible to do that.

Alexis doesn’t seem to see it that way, and I think it ultimately comes down to us having a very different idea of the rights and responsibilities of a host and/or a referee. As is evident from our conversation, Alexis takes the view that when he’s hosting, he’s king of his own domain and he isn’t beheld to anybody, the rules he sets are there to give other people an idea of how to behave in his presence and he doesn’t have to take anyone’s preconceptions or expectations into account. To me, this feels like a simplistic way of looking at it. Although nobody is bound to be constrained by other people’s preconceptions and expectations, at the same time I think as a referee you actually have a large role to play in managing them – if you give players enough idea of what you’re going to include in a campaign to make an informed choice as to whether they’re interested (and most GMs I’m aware of try to do that), then you have a golden opportunity to make sure they’re aware of how you roll content-wise, and it seems a waste to let that opportunity pass by.

If you say “this game’s going to have a lot of sex in it” in advance, nobody can say you pulled a bait-and-switch on them when the subject comes up, but if you didn’t say anything one way or another then you’ve abdicated your chance at setting people’s expectations of your game before they arrive at the table. This means that if content comes up which they aren’t comfortable with then you’re at least partly responsible for that – especially if it’s content which you know people may have a problem with. That doesn’t mean you necessarily have to obediently censor yourself every time a player objects to the content of your game, but it does mean you shouldn’t present content you said you were going to refrain from using, and it also means that if a player has a serious problem with the content you need to decide whether you would rather keep the player or the content. (Usually I’d go with keeping the player, unless they were like “look, you need to get all of these queers out of your campaign because it’s making me nauseous” or otherwise saying the sort of shit which would make me re-evaluate my friendship with them.)

If you make it clear what level of sex or violence or other types of content which typically get strong reactions people can expect from your game, then you’re taking responsibility for the social environment – you’re making it clear that this is a social environment where it is (or isn’t) cool to get explicit, and people can choose to participate or not accordingly. If you don’t take that opportunity to set the social environment, then you’re going to get a clash of expectations when one participant things that anything goes and another participant would prefer it if particular content were avoided, and you’ve abandoned your chance to head off that trouble before it comes about. It’s also worth noting that the game you choose to play tends to say something about the sort of campaign you want to run, unless you make it clear you’re departing from the common expectations in a particular way; there are games where sexual content is far more common than Dungeons & Dragons, and indeed a few where they are a theme hardwired into the structure of the game, but sex isn’t generally assumed to be a major thematic focus of D&D.

If you want to have sex and romance explored in D&D to the extent that Alexis does, you need to make your game sessions an environment where people feel free to do that. Alexis wants to accomplish this by saying “fuck your comfort zone, nobody has a right not to be discomforted by the comfort of my games”, which I guess is fair enough provided that all of his participants are aware of that. Personally, I prefer not to push outside of people’s comfort zones unless we’ve all agreed ahead of time that this is the sort of game we’re playing, because I wouldn’t consider myself a very good referee or host if I didn’t take into account what my players actually want or enjoy.

So, what do you think? Where do the referee’s responsibilities lie when it comes to managing the social environment the game takes place in? Where are the limits of those responsibilities? Should a good referee just run the game they want to run and not care whose feet they dread on? Should you change the parameters of the campaign if you discover midway through it that a player has a serious problem with the content?

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8 thoughts on “Is a Referee Responsible For the Environment They Game In?

  1. Shimmin Beg

    So I think there are maybe two separate things going on with running games, and that you and this Alexis perhaps emphasise different aspects of them.

    One take is that gaming is a social occasion. Sure, you may be getting together specifically to play games, or even bringing together a group of people who didn’t all know each other to play them, but outside of something like a convention, I don’t feel it’s qualitatively different from getting together to see a film, talk about books, go for a walk or whatever. If you’re hosting a social occasion, it’s your responsibility to make sure your guests aren’t unnecessarily made to feel uncomfortable – and as they’re generally your friends, it’s a damn good idea. Leaving a social occasion because you’re bothered is difficult; it reflects badly on the host and the other guests, it strains your relations with them and is generally embarrassing all round. With something like a game (or a play, band or sports team), where there’s quite a high initial investment and you rely on continuity, it’s even harder because you’re damaging the group.

    There’s also a sense in which the GM is performing for the group. I don’t personally give this take much weight, but I appreciate it can vary between people and groups and systems – some expect the GM to do most or all of the work, and some GMs are also inclined that way. Now at performances, the focus is generally on the creator offering up something to the audience, and touching on sensitive topics is accepted in principle. The expectation is that the audience decide to participate or not, based on having sufficient information about the event from the creator. Sometimes that information doesn’t get provided, deliberately or otherwise, and so people are sometimes upset or offended. However, I reckon it’s easier to leave a performance that’s bothering you, than to leave a social event.

    Basically I’m wondering whether Alexis puts a stronger emphasis on the performing (Auteur?) side of running a game, and less on the purely social side, and so comes out with a different take.

    I suppose there’s also a potential separation between the host and the GM, depending where you game – in some cases a non-host GM might view it as the host’s ultimate responsibility to manage expectations and boundaries, by prior negotiation and ongoing intervention. For con and club games that… I won’t say makes sense, but there’s some logic to it if the GM doesn’t know the group, although I personally think if you’re ostensibly running a game that everyone will enjoy then you can’t really use “well, it wasn’t in the spec and nobody stopped me” to excuse upsetting people.

    For what it’s worth, my take is the same principles apply to gaming as to other social stuff I’m doing. If a film was upsetting someone I’d stop watching it, if a friend isn’t comfortable with graphic descriptions of surgery or has personal issues with debates about the theoretical merits of communism then talk about that some other time. It would be (mildly) interesting to know whether Alexis would take the same approach in non-gaming social events, because I think that would help clear up whether he classes gaming as a different type of activity than (we?) do, or has a much different take on social responsibilities in general.

    I think your examples highlight the responsibilities here. Your PETA friend will avoid coming hunting with you, and it’d be really quite difficult for them to get halfway through an activity and suddenly realise they were killing animals. It’s still sensible not to invite them, and to tell everyone in advance that the social event you’re planning is a fox hunt, because someone might have issues you didn’t know about (including fear of dogs or horses). However, a game is more like a film or stand-up act, in that tone and content can change very quickly without prior warning, and leave you deep in something you’d much rather not deal with. You’ve heard me complaining before about bait-and-switch in books. Unless you’re fully informed of likely content and parameters beforehand, you can’t make an informed decision on whether it’s suitable for you, and any discomfort with those is the GM’s fault.

    Sorry, that’s really long. Hope it makes sense.

    TL;DR:
    In events with predictable content, people make informed decisions whether to participate based on advance information, and take responsibility for it. If they’re un- or misinformed, that’s the host’s fault.
    In events with unpredictable content, it’s everyone’s reponsibility not to upset others because nobody had prior warning. If you do, and don’t address it, it’s your fault.

    1. I definitely agree that there’s a predictable content/unpredictable content issue here, and I’m sure part of the reason that the issue attracts so much heat is that lots of people like the unpredictability of tabletop RPGs and feel that if you take that out you lose one of the hobby’s unique selling points – that’s certainly how I feel, and I’m pretty sure that’s where Alexis is coming from too.

      On the other hand, whilst a tabletop RPG isn’t 100% predictable I don’t think it’s 100% unpredictable either – any particular campaign or game concept is going to set boundaries and constraints for the action, and I’d argue that setting guidance on campaign content falls under that category. At the Empire festival LARP I go to there’s a blanket rule that IC rape is not to happen, because that’s not the sort of game they want to run and it’s just too likely to trigger people. It hasn’t noticeably made Empire a more constrained or predictable game because the players can still come up with a potentially infinite amount of variations on the sort of content the game is happy to allow.

      I also agree that there might be an issue between refereeing as social activity and refereeing as performance art, though I’d note that most creative work is actually promoted with an eye to making sure the audience has some idea of what to expect. A murder mystery won’t spoil the actual identity of the killer in the back cover blurb, but a good blurb will at least give you the idea of whether you’re dealing with a genteel Agatha Christie-type affair or a hyper-grim Derek Raymond thing; likewise, Lars von Trier’s Antichrist wasn’t promoted with posters of cuddly foxes and taglines like “fun for all the family!”.

      Even when it comes to works which are supposed to shock and offend people’s sensibilities it’s still typically acknowledged that there’s a time and a place for that sort of thing. A performance artist crucifying themselves in an art gallery – or even in public if it’s part of a previously advertised public performance – is accepted to be doing an art thing. A performance artist crucifying themselves in the middle of a street without warning will probably get the cops called on them and may end up sectioned. In principle it’d be a nice idea if we could freak out people’s sensibilities whenever we wished but that’s the sort of stance which ignores the fact that PTSD is a real thing and content which might provike tutting and stern letters of complaint from the Mary Whitehouse brigade (whose feelings I have no problem with hurting to that extent) will trigger genuinely traumatic episodes in others (which is something nobody with a functional conscience should want to do).

      The case where the referee isn’t hosting the game is an interesting one but in that case I think it’s a shared responsibility. Actually, because of the reasons you always outline I think it’s always a shared responsibility between all participants, but at the same time because in most traditional RPGs the referee has an enhanced level of control over the game’s content I’d say they also always have an enhanced level of responsibility for that content, just as the host has an enhanced level of responsibility to make sure people feel safe and comfortable in their house.

      1. Shimmin Beg

        Pretty much this.

        I think the thing with RPGs is that they want to be flexible and unpredictable within a framework – simply in order to be good, if nothing else. I mean, a sci-fi campaign where one person’s trying to steer into a more slapstick version of Spaceballs, someone else is looking for Alien, the third for Star Trek and the DM wants to run Starship Troopers is likely to be rubbish for everyone. I don’t think adding in content restrictions is qualitatively different, even if it’s got a slightly different aim (and you might well want to exclude explicit sex scenes because you think they’re incredibly boring, as well as out of sensitivity to players’ feelings).

        It’s noticeable that on the Cthulhu site I frequent, which is a RPG which does tend to include disturbing and graphic content, people do talk about sensitive content quite a lot when proposing games or reviewing scenarios, and negotiate tone and so on. So even in a game that (for at least some people) is about horror and powerlessness and disturbing events, people think discussing that sort of thing is important.

        With art, I think I was a bit vague – generally things do give you a lot of genre/tone clues, as you say, but I’ve certainly run into books or films that unexpectedly included some very heavy scenes with or issues no hint on the blurb (e.g. The Thomas Crown Affair, or Midnight Robber). And of course things like stand-up can veer into all kinds of topics without necessarily more heads-up than a general measure of how “edgy” they are.

      2. In all honesty I typically exclude sex scenes in RPGs because I find them dull and/or unintentionally laughable more often than anyone finds them downright offensive.

  2. fadedearth

    This strikes me as ghost light. Everyone’s game has always had as much sex, violence, politics, blanc mange, and other real-world social content as that table enjoys, and always will. Taking up arms over the he-should/she-should of the week is what is laughable, and Alexis’s attempts to deliver his PSA are as uncomfortable as anything I’ve run into over dice and coffee.

    Now, they are your keys to stroke, as always.

    But isn’t that obvious?

  3. Pingback: Referee’s Bookshelf: Nightmares of Mine « Refereeing and Reflection

  4. WyrmTongue

    Alexis Smolensk is a bit of a douchebag in general, with his “I am the Ultimate Arbiter of Truth” writing (and apparently gaming) style. However, in this exchange he reaches new depths of douchebaggery, defending, nay Insisting, on the abdication of basic human decency at the RPG table. It’s like he thinks picking up some dice somehow excuses you from not just common courtesy but any moral agency. His completely rapetastic description of emotional abuse as ‘good roleplaying’ is just amoral icing on his amoral cake.

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