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I am running a post-apocalyptic zombie game with a dark and mature story, exploring a number of adult themes. I have complete buy-in from the players; some of them have stated it is their favourite role playing experience ever.

One of the PCs took a Hindrance called Enemy(Major), but left the details about exactly who the enemy is up to me. I haven't decided what to do with it yet: as it is the Major version of the Hindrance, it has to be pretty significant. I've rejected a number of ideas for not being strong enough, but an unexpected twist in the character's actions has presented an ideal opportunity.

The problem is, it is probably the most unpleasant, dark and adult plot idea I have ever had, and I don't know whether it would be acceptable to the players in the group (it is only just about acceptable to me). I find myself in a difficult situation because I really don't want to ask any of them for opinions as it would completely spoil the impact of the idea should I go ahead with it.

So my question is - How can I check whether an extremely adult/mature plot idea would be accepted by players without revealing any details of the idea itself?

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This is an excellent question and I am very interested in the answers. –  Antonio Apr 7 '13 at 2:46
    
I'm very curious about what system/game this is. It sounds vaguely like WoD or possibly Alternity. –  acolyte Jun 20 '13 at 20:30
    
War of the Dead for Savage Worlds –  Phil Jun 20 '13 at 20:44
    
Even if late, I'm curious to know what is(was) your idea! –  STT LCU Nov 22 '13 at 15:02

6 Answers 6

up vote 45 down vote accepted

Ask more generally about their comfort boundaries

Tell the party that you have some ideas you think might be crossing the line, and ask them where they'd like the line to be drawn. In that context you might even give examples and include something similar to your idea as just one of several.

Throw in a scaled-down version as a test

Use the general concept that you're concerned about as the inspiration for a minor encounter/adventure, scaled down and probably depersonalized (NPCs being the targets rather than the PC in question). Then watch their reactions.

This can have the added narrative benefit of foreshadowing and parallelism if you do go on with the main idea.

Ask a mutual friend

Present the scenario to someone who knows the player in question well but isn't involved in the game, and ask them for their opinion.

This is not an excellent option: the friend's guess might be wrong, and it's sneaky, so might not be appropriate for your group's trust dynamic.

Don't underestimate your players

I'm often surprised by how much better our games are when the players are clued in to what their characters have no idea about. It gives the players opportunities to consciously up the stakes and place their PCs in dramatically tense situations.

I liken it to the film style where the audience is shown something dangerous before the heroes know it exists, to increase the narrative tension without giving the heroes a chance to prepare for the danger.

Remember that effect of seeing your players pleasantly surprised by your plot twist only happens once, but building the story from that twist onwards is a combined effort. Sharing them in your plans lets them participate in building the story in a more proactive, rather than just reactive fashion. -lisardggY, in the comments below

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+1 for clueing in the players. Remember that effect of seeing your players pleasantly surprised by your plot twist only happens once, but building the story from that twist onwards is a combined effort. Sharing them in your plans lets them participate in building the story in a more proactive, rather than just reactive fashion. –  lisardggY Apr 7 '13 at 5:34

A word of warning, more like an addition to BESW's excellent answer. A long time ago, in a horror game, I did run a rape scene which involved one of the player character. Unbeknownst to me, the player was a rape survivor. Boy, did I feel bad about that one! Thankfully, the player was fine, knew that I did not mean offence, and that it was a misunderstanding of epic proportions. We're still friends and all is fine. However, that's a good ending to a bad story.

So, from now on I have a disclaimer in my games which is that I reserve to do whatever heinous things to the characters unless said thing was specifically removed from the game by the player. So, if one of my player is arachnophobia, they can remove spiders from the game: No being dumped in a well full of spiders for their character. I always say that I will neither ask questions nor extrapolate from the information, I just take it a face value. Of course, it can be done confidentially and I never divulge any of that information.

So, my answer on your question I would ask them the same disclaimer. If they agree, it means they are happy with whatever you throw at them. Go for it. However, if at any point you are unsure of the player's reactions stop the game via a time out and ask them if they are happy to continue. If not then drop the plot line right here and there with "It was all a dream".

In response to comments: If I run a horror game, there will be horror in it and nothing is excluded unless you ask me to exclude it. This is my rule. There are many like these, but this one is mine. You do not like it, do not play in my horror games. However, I have a long history of running horror games and all the players always enjoyed them. Yes, that includes the above player despite an unfortunate error on my part.

Now, a side note: Rape, torture, stalking, and so on are horrible in real life and we should as decent human beings try our best to stop it from happening, support victims in the best way we can, and help law enforcement in an appropriate way to resolve those crimes. Just to be clear so there is no doubt here.

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I'd say it's a safe bet rape and psychological torture are off the menu unless explicitly agreed by all parties. –  Yianes the Sneak Apr 8 '13 at 18:50
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I tend to agree with @YianestheSneak: I feel like there are a lot of atrocities that actually have historically happened, and even more that a suitably macabre mind could invent, that players would not even think to mention as something they'd be uncomfortable with. A disclaimer like this is not sufficient, in my mind, if you're really going extreme. –  KRyan Apr 8 '13 at 23:14

I am half-remembering that there is another question on this site has brought up the concept of lines and veils to handle such situations. Simply put, lines are topics that will make a player leave the game permanently if you do it (cross the line). Veils are something that a player is comfortable enough that it would happen in character, but really does not want to roleplay that particular scene.

Torture is frequently a veil topic. What I mean is that the player gets captured by the bad guy who then says "tell me all you know about the Macguffin". The player can have the token defense of "I'll never tell you a thing!" Then the DM says something like "OK, Count Evil Guy starts torturing you. How long do you hold out until you spill the beans?" Sooner or later, the character will say SOMETHING just to make the pain stop, and with Truth spells, lies will be detected pretty quickly and likely punished severely. If the PC decides he won't talk, then simply the DM should let him know that the bad guy is willing to beat him to death to find out. Sure, it breaks the fourth wall, but gives a player a chance to save his character before the DM feeds said character to the shredder. If the player believes the character won't spill, and the bad guy believes the character will, you can "veil" the torture as either "Sir Brave dies a horrible death" or "Sir Brave suffers torture until he spills his guts, takes [player decided number of hitpoints] damage", and the player can describe the wounds any way s/he wishes.

Rape is frequently a line topic. Seriously, if you are an all male group, and this character is female (or ANY of your players are female) don't do rape without the express written consent of any females in your group. I've gamed with many female players over the years and they all have a story of "I thought this group was great, then in the second/third session, my character was raped (sometimes repeatedly). I left and never called them again/returned their calls." The topic is something that is not okay. It will never be okay, and people who think this should be ashamed of themselves. One of my personal lines is Chicago in Shadowrun. The fiction of Shadowrun has the city of Chicago overrun with insect spirits/shamans (or at least old versions did). I do not want to run in that. I don't mind the occasional bug-hunt, but have no interest in playing in that environment. The one time it happened I told my GM that my PC was committing suicide in right after the Johnson mentioned we would have to go into Chicago.

How do you find the veils/lines? Drop your players a quick email individually (don't just write up the email and CC to everyone else... you get maybe one response and a bunch of "me too" answers), describe the concept of lines and veils and then ask them how they feel about their characters suffering any of the adult themes you have in mind. I would ask about more than you currently plan, just to keep them guessing. A good start would include torture, rape, PC having sex with a "throwaway" NPC (prostitution/casual sex), PC having sex with a standard or recurring NPC (relationship), PC having sex with another PC (however the players choose to play it), aberrant filth (squalid prisons without privies), PCs being anti-heroes or outright villains. Ask them how they rate each individual adult theme on a scale of "Line", "Veil", or "Fair game", then take the most conservative answer from the players. It also helps to ask them to differentiate their answers between "other PCs" and "my PC". I have no problem if someone wants to act out a torture scene with the DM... I will likely ask that either the DM or another player punch me when the torture is over, and play some game app to kill time until it's done. However, I would prefer any torture that will happen to my characters be handled as a veil. Another player in my group would cheer on the DM during the torture scene, but would prefer his PC's torture be a veil also.

EDIT: Found the question here

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Females are more likely to be raped. However, males do get raped too. Let's be clear rape is a horrible crime whoever is the victim and should not be tolerated in real life. –  Sardathrion Apr 9 '13 at 6:56
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@Sardathrion, I think you missed my point. As I said in my answer, every woman I've played with has had at least one character get raped in the early days of being with a group. Sure, it's "only" anecdotal stories, but I've frequently heard male gamers wonder why women don't want to play RPGs, and then when they finally have a female player, feature a rape story as the first plotline she is involved in. –  Pulsehead Apr 9 '13 at 13:55
    
A second point is that I have never heard of a male PC being raped with one exception, and he was played by a female player. If you only have males in your group, ask them about rape in the line/veil/fair poll. If you have a female player, rape is or should be automatically a line unless the female player brings it up, and I would still limit it to a backstory. –  Pulsehead Apr 9 '13 at 13:56
    
@Sardathrion Pretty sure you misread: these women had those experiences at other tables, and mentioned them at his. The ubiquity of the experience is shameful, but I don't think it's Pulsehead's shame (or the women's, since they all seem to have left those groups immediately - a line, as Pulsehead said). –  KRyan Apr 9 '13 at 15:27
    
@Sardathrion, Like KRyan said, these women had this problem BEFORE joining our group. My current group has always had more than one female player, and usually the male/female ration is pretty close to 50/50. If I gave you the impression that my group did the rape plotline, tell me what caused you to draw the wrong conclusion so I can edit it to be more clear. –  Pulsehead Apr 9 '13 at 16:20

Something you should think of doing at the start of any dark campaign. Create a list of all the dark things you are willing to do and the level you are willing to do it at. In your case, include all the dark topic matter from your plot, then randomly add many other dark subjects you would be willing to do, but that aren't involved (good for future reference). Then, rank them on level of inclusion.

  • None: topic is off limits, do not include at all. Common 'nones' are rape and child molestation.

  • Light inclusion: no details, only the bare minimum to describe. "You walk into a torture chamber, two zombies attack." "This appears to have been the scene of a human sacrifice, those who roll a spot check above X read this note about what you see (gold pendant)." Common lights are human sacrifices, torture, and consensual sex.

  • Medium inclusion: have details, give a few, let the players, during the game, investigate more. "There is a charred corpse in the corner, so old that you don't even notice a smell from it." Common mediums are death scenes.

  • Heavy inclusion: details with some more details on the side. "A gray fog swirls up, clouding your view from only but the closest tombstones. The ground is damped from the fog, but as you look closer, you notice the it is also damp do to being fresh earth. Even the owls are quite as you try and read the rubbed out name on the stone, already begging to wear with age." Common heavies are descriptive and 'creepy' scenes, grand finales, and character backgrounds. Too much of this, even when agreed upon, slows a game down.

  • Immersion: The player is deeply involved in the action. Common immersions are battles and character interactions.

Once you have your list made, give it to all the players, and then take the highest common denominator. Only include what everyone is comfortable with. If your group is not comfortable with much of anything, you might want to sit and talk with them as to what should be considered a dark campaign setting.

Also, you can consider making it anonymous results, you may get truer answers that are less socially acceptable.

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A couple of ideas nobody's mentioned yet...

Let them know beforehand that you have some wicked plans in mind

Basically, just issue a "fair warning" and get on with it.

Of course, we don't know what your idea is, so it's for you to decide if this in itself would be a spoiler (or just how adult/mature your idea is, for that matter). If not, encourage them to let you know if you're crossing a boundary they're not comfortable with.

And of course, prepare for another course of events if they do stop you on your tracks.

Wait for it to happen

After all, you know your players better than us. You might just be able to roll with it and be wary of their reactions.

If you notice odd gestures (or whatever), quickly step out-of-character and take appropriate steps. You may remind them that it's just a game (and one that has some theme-oriented quirks). Or you might change the course of the story there and then.

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I would recount the guys the plot idea as something that happened in another game I played or in a novel I read, a movie I saw sometimes in the past (and now I just don't remember the title, so no one would like to read it), and then check their responses.

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This would be good, but people will normally get the gist you're planning to include something just like that in the game. :( Mentioning this in a list of other things to set down a bunch of red herrings would work better, though. –  doppelgreener Apr 7 '13 at 5:27

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