Ethics in Game-Mastering

There’s more to being a good GM than simply knowing all the rules

“Oh, you touched the painting did you? Save vs death.”

No position at the gaming table requires more trust and effort than that of the game-master. That’s not hyperbole, that’s just a basic fact. I’ve sat on both ends of the table, and can attest that being a GM is far more difficult than being a player. The GM has to be a referee, a storyteller, an actor, and event-coordinator. No position at the gaming table is however more rewarding. There is nothing quite like eliciting gasps or cheers of glee from your players as you narrate them from one harrowing encounter to the next.

That said, there’s a lot more to the role than simply knowing how to weave fantastic tapestries of narrative and memorizing creature stat blocks. Things that go often under-discussed, like how to care for the emotional and mental well-being of your players at the gaming table. The game-master’s role also extends to creating a safe and welcoming space for everyone.

While GM’ing presents its own share of difficulties, role-playing can be harrowing. It’s not unlike acting, and can be frightening at times, stepping outside of yourself like that in a group of people. For many new role-players, this can be a terrifying prospect, stepping outside of their comfort zone in a way they’re not used to. In addition, many tabletop rpgs still are mired in clunky rules and complicated mechanics that they have to learn, on top of trying to adapt to an entirely new medium.

Adding to all this, I don’t know if there are any mediums that are as intimate as tabletop role-playing. A group of individuals all participating in the creation of an entire world and the putting forth of a story they’re all sharing. Each person presents their contribution with the trust and hope that it will be accepted and integrated into the canon without mockery or shame. Given how high emotions can run at the gaming table, especially when faced with difficult story decisions or challenging combat, it becomes doubly important for good GM’s to ensure that this intimate space is a safe and caring one.

That’s part of why I have struggled so much to find anything to like about Vampire the Masquerade 5th Edition, a book that has been rife with controversy since its announcement, and none of it handled particularly well in my opinion. One mechanic includes a joke about a clan of vampires being “triggered” an unfunny internet meme which reduces a term used for those suffering from PTSD to simply being offended or outraged.

One of the more odious things pointed out is a mechanic that encourages players to trick their partners into having unprotected sex, a practice that is widely-considered sexual assault.

There have been other examples of tasteless choices, such as alt-right/nazi and pedophile pre-gen characters. It was this article on Polygon though that particularly soured me on the game and its writers.

In it, the writer described a rather uncomfortable experience as he chose a feeding type that favored consent, rather than force or deception. The game’s producer, Jason Carl was his game-master in an intimate one-on-one scenario, and proceeded to reinterpret the writer’s choices goading him into role-playing out a metaphor for sexual assault. This is an egregious violation of trust.

It does not matter how dark or edgy the content of the game or story is, pressing your players past those points is one of the worst things a game-master can do. Some of the writing surrounding V5 describes a desire to push boundaries, explore dark avenues and get uncomfortable with those explorations. Personally, this displays a profound misunderstanding of the medium or for why we explore dark art to begin with.

One in five women are likely to be raped at some point in their lives, and at least 40% of gay men. If there are any queer players or women at your table, the chances that one of them has experienced sexual assault is high. Bringing this subject matter to the gaming table risks opening old wounds so others can try their trauma on like a raincoat they get to take off later. You risk harming others for the sake of your grim and gritty tourism. What you get to casually roleplay through for an evening, is trauma that will last them for a lifetime.

It is one thing if someone personally wishes to explore these things for their own reasons and in privacy, comfort, and safety. It is another entirely to inflict it on them in a group setting. The gaming table is not the place to push your players out of their comfort zones, especially in an environment where even role-playing light-hearted scenarios can be fraught and uncomfortable. You also have no right manipulating your players into partaking in your sexual assault and rape fantasies or discussions.

Now I understand that horror in tabletop gaming is an understandably complicated subject. There is always the question of how far is too far, and how dark are we willing to go before we’ve reached the precipice. It is an answer that is going to vary for many groups, which is why most tabletop rpgs that deal with darker subject material include tips on how to engage in this conversation with your players beforehand. Figure out your player’s particular triggers (instead of mocking them) and work at avoiding them in your sessions. Keep an open and honest atmosphere so your players can feel safe in halting a scenario before you begin intruding on territory that violates their boundaries.

The X-Card, created by John Stavropoulos can be a helpful tool for preventing such situations. Give each of your players a card with an X drawn on it, and allow them to hold it up at any time to stop what is happening. This gives your players the power to communicate swiftly and without shame that they need to halt a session or scenario that may be intruding on the borders of what they can handle. They may choose to explain why then and there, later in private, or not at all. Even if the X-card never gets brought up, simply having it at your table helps foster the trust between the game-master and the players, and lead to a safer environment for everyone.

For me, if I want to push boundaries and explore things that make me uncomfortable, I am a talented writer. I can write a novel about it. I’m also an avid researcher and wikipedia enthusiast. There are many places and avenues for me to explore and delve into things that might make others wary. That does not belong at the gaming table, where other people are present, and trust in me to maintain a safe and healthy environment for my players.

That said, it is technically everyone’s job at the gaming table to maintain and create that safe environment, but the game-master does have a greater authority and incentive here to maintain that trust with their players. Without that trust, the story cannot hope to function. It’s what leads to rules-lawyer arguments, and the disruption of narrative. The players need to be able to trust that the game-master is acting in their best interest and the interest of working with them to tell a great story.

A good game-master should never seek to hurt or upset their players in any way. We aren’t trying to kill them, or make their lives miserable. That’s a level of sadism that has no place at the table. The challenges we present to our players are there to bring about excitement and thrills, conflicts that keep the story engaging and interesting.

Be kind. Be empathetic. Listen to your players. Respect the trust that they put in you, and you’ll have much better games.

Dorian Dawes is the author of Harbinger Island and Mercs. You can support their work at patreon.com/doriandawes