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In the gaming group I run, I said at the very first day that this was going to be a very "adult" campaign. I told them I wasn't going to pull punches, and that the party would have to really think about the decisions they made, as this was a gritty, dark world. In which true horrors and evil would be present. And they were all okay with that. But a few weeks ago I pushed it way too far.

One of the party members got himself kidnapped by a gang of criminals. (it was his fault, he was acting like an idiot.) So the rest of the party went to a rival gang of werewolves to ask if they knew where they could find him. Their leader agreed in exchange for the services of one female party member the following night. They freed the captured PC, and the female PC went to go honor the deal alone. When she went there, she was attacked by the leader. She was then assaulted, in a very bad way, by several of the gangs members. They let her go the next day, and the leader told the rest of the party that "She has paid for the information quite well."

Now, in my head at the time, I thought that this was a good idea. It created a villain the party had a real reason to want dead. With all the past villains the party had faced, they only fought them because there was treasure or someone else asked them. This gave them a person that they hated, a person that they all legitimately wanted to fight. And reminded them that it's probably a bad idea to go trusting violent gangs leaders. But afterwards, I realized that this was a terrible idea. I had never considered the human element. That there was a person playing this character that this "stuff" is happening to. I felt horrible about it afterwards, and apologized to the party, and especially to the female party member.

Now, the party member says that she's okay. That it did really remind her that she was dealing with criminals, and to make more careful decisions. But I still feel like I do owe her something for such a huge mistake. More so than just treasure or items. My group likes to go deep into RP, and was hoping to find an RP way to help the situation.

Even though the player said she was fine, it was very clear she was upset and depressed the rest of the session. And even a week later at the next session she was very insecure, and stayed quiet most of the time.

So I guess the real question is; What can I do to try and make up for such a terrible mistake?

EDIT: I wanted to thank everyone for all the wonderful answers you've given. Our next session is tomorrow, and we'll be going over what content is okay to show, and what people want to stay away from. Thanks to all the people who showed concern, and their own similar stories of experiences like this. You've all helped tremendously.

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I'd like to second Tridus: "don't beat yourself up too much". You made the judgement that this event would be OK with all involved, and later realized that it was not. That's the important part: You didn't say "but I told you", but immediately acknowledged her problems. You are not a bad person for attempting to play it this way. We are playing out poverty, death and gore every session, and what you played there could have made a really strong scene -- and has, in other groups I've been part of. It didn't work out for you; that's bad, so fix it like the "same page" failure it is. –  DevSolar May 13 at 7:56
    
@DevSolar Thank you very much. I can't believe the amount of support I've gotten about this issue. I showed the involved party member all of your comments, and she started crying. She said that it was very heartwarming that this many people wanted to help the situation. We had a session on Saturday, and she is having a lot of fun again. We've agreed that these kind of things are better left alone. –  RPG Man o' War May 14 at 19:38
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Some comments deleted. @ClaraOnager it is valid to discuss trust violation and treating this situation with more gravity; it's not OK to judge and label other site members over it. Discuss on meta if more is needed. –  mxyzplk May 14 at 22:14

9 Answers 9

up vote 48 down vote accepted

Oh. Oh my. This is a pretty difficult situation for everyone involved.

Let's not sugar-coat it more than we must: you made some profoundly poor decisions in play. For your own benefit, you really need to figure out how that happened. Why did you feel like sexual coercion was a reasonably obstacle to throw in front of the group trying to fulfill their mission? What led you to decide that the gang-rape of a protagonist was a natural thing to introduce into the game? Why did you only realize it was a bad idea after the fact?

However, it's good that you noticed your friend was unhappy and decided to do something about it. That's the foundation of good communication in play. Maybe you can salvage things.

Tools for working it out

So, generally when I've screwed up majorly in an RPG, the most productive thing is to talk about it openly and pick a fix together. Actually once we just went back and replayed a bit of the game ("retconned" it, if you will) because the ending to a session kinda flopped and we decided it'd be cooler to just do it differently, and it resulted in what was probably the best session I've ever played. This kind of editing is pretty rare in RPG culture but it's actually pretty easy.

That said, your friends might want to just put it in the past and not talk about it. That's a perfectly legit way of dealing with something that's actively uncomfortable. So don't try to force the issue (you might mean well, but if you end up creating the impression that you think someone is fragile or incapable of making their own decisions, that can be more off-putting and uncomfortable than the fictional sexual assault itself). Say that you feel like you made a mistake, and that you'd like to talk about X or Y if they're open to it, and leave it at that.

Whatever you do, don't put her on the spot to "forgive" you, and don't make a big show of your contrition and how much you've learned, &c., &c. — that's all just peer-pressure and posturing. Fess up, honestly, and take a hard look at the decisions that brought you there.

I think the best thing you can do is to create the structure that'll keep the group on the same page from here on out. I'd start with techniques like lines and veils or X-card. These'll give you some ways to talk about emotional safety and fun at the table in a clear and communicative but non-judgemental way.

If you'd like more discussion on how to handle boundaries and extreme content, I recommend the short supplement "Safe Hearts" (free PDF) by Monsterhearts author Avery Mcdaldno.

Fictional rape may hint at other, subtler problems

There are some issues about sexual violence in particular that I want to draw to your attention. Basically, sometimes fictional rape is just the tip of an iceberg of complicated (and probably undesirable) stuff to watch out for, because of the atmosphere that it creates. This isn't necessarily stuff you need to tackle all at once in one big block, but it's good to keep an eye on what you're doing so you can catch yourself if you accidentally slip into some unfortunate tropes about gender and violence in play.

Some examples to consider:

  • A lot of fiction sorta dances around the issue by threatening characters with rape but always narrowly avoiding it through some contrivance. Playing that can be just as threatening and off-putting as rape.

  • Is the threat of sexual violence represented as an inherent and inescapable part of being a woman? That can create a really hostile atmosphere, potentially more so than depicting rape itself, because essentially it's saying that being an object and a victim is an inseparable part of being a woman.

  • Is it only women who face danger in this way? That's actually a sexist trope, embedded deeply into a lot of media because Western culture is generally more comfortable with the idea of women as victims than with the idea of victimized men. (Which doesn't stop men from experiencing sexual violence in reality, in both modern society and the historical past; it just makes it very hard to talk about it coherently.)

  • Is being raped totally going to define the character going forward? (Hell, is it totally going to define the player's relationship with the group going forward?) Either as the thing that we constantly talk about or the thing that's always hanging over us that we tiptoe around? That's a problematic attitude about women and rape, too.

When you're playing "grim-and-gritty," there's a lot of stuff you should discuss up front. I know torture, egregious violence, ridiculous misogyny, and rape are rather de rigueur in a lot of the inspirational material, but, trust me, they're really not an essential part of creating the mood.

Also ask yourselves whether you actually have something interesting and important you want to do with this stuff: abuse for abuse's sake, as set-dressing and background color, can become grating very quickly.

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+1 for lines and veils. It isn't enough to agree just on a 'gritty' campaign. You must go into details with each player about what is and isn't acceptable to them –  Phil May 9 at 21:23
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+1 talk about it, maybe they never want to mention it again, maybe she'd love to have a revenge plot as a result - you don't know without talking it out. –  mxyzplk May 10 at 2:54
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Couldn't agree more on drawing specific lines. Most of my players wouldn't bat an eye at very gory depictions of violence/killing, but sexual violence stays away from the table. Every group is different, and that makes starting something like this with a new group fun, but also very tricky. –  Loiathal May 12 at 15:37
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@AlexP I wanted to thank you for your answer. You were one of the only people to say "No, you really messed up" You brought up why I didn't think this was a bad idea. I guess the reason I didn't think it was a bad idea at the time was I was more focused on creating a world rather than making sure my players were having fun. I failed to consider the fact that this was not a fictional person these things were happening to, this is a person playing a character. A character that she has become very attached to. I screwed up badly, I've learned from my mistake, and I want to thank you for that. –  RPG Man o' War May 14 at 19:49
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@RPGMano'War I appreciate you bringing the question here. Doing something is way, way better than doing nothing. –  Alex P May 14 at 20:02

It happened and can't be undone. Make a mental note and don't make that mistake in the future.

I did a similar thing in an early game I ran ~10 years ago. My only excuse is that it was my very first campaign. The player still brings it up but he also still played in my most recent game so it's probably forgiven.

One suggestion I have is that if you're going to do something offensive, don't go all the way all at once. Go one step at a time. See what the players object to. They'll give you warning signs when you start crossing lines and you'll be able to back up. This is preferable to jumping way over the line and then wondering what happened.

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That's exactly what I should have done. As for the player, we all agreed at the table to try to never bring this up again. She seems to be having again. Thanks for the advice. –  RPG Man o' War May 9 at 19:39

It all comes down to what the players, and particularly the aggrieved player, wants.

The first thing is to make sure it doesn't happen again. One of the better ways to do that is make sure the players know to speak up if something is making them uncomfortable. I can't find the article off hand, but I read something about lines and veils. Essentially, a line is something that makes someone so uncomfortable you should stop immediatley, even if it means going back and retconning something to make the story work without that element. A veil is where you let it be part of fiction, but don't go into detail...think of a movie fading to black or using a "discretion shot". This way you don't have to stay in PG territory while still making sure no one gets uncomfortable.

The next thing is to see how the players, especially the one aggrieved, want to deal with it. They may prefer forgetting the whole thing as much as possible and not referencing it ever again. Or they may be willing to let it stand and let it give them a reason to go for vengeance. In that case, let them have their vengeance/justice.

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She is trying to get her vengeance. As for retconning it, she said that she didn't want to do that. I asked if she was sure, and she said that she just wanted to keep moving forward. She seems happy playing again now. –  RPG Man o' War May 9 at 19:43

I had issues with something similar in my campaign recently. (Almost exactly like your situation only the female character never had to go through with "the deal".) The person playing the character was also upset that first night and I talked to them just like you did (good first step, open discussions!).

Next I made sure that everyone else was ok with the situation. with everyone being "OK" with everything, we continued down the path like any other game. Eventually it culminated in a very dramatic fight scene that ended with the female character getting to put an end to her would-be-assailant's miserable life.

When that was all over, and we were packing up to go home after that final session with "Creepy bad guy's" death, That player with the female character came up to me and spent a good 5-10 minutes talking about how she was really glad she got to be the one to finish things and about 4 or 5 other ways she had planned on getting rid of that bad guy.

So, my advice is this:

  • If everyone at the table is OK with exploring these topics, then do it (perhaps be mindful of the specific details and just hint at things).
  • In your case I would say if the player most affected by the scenario want's vengeance find a way to give it to them.
  • Once all is said and done with this theme of sexual aggression, I'd suggest waiting a long time before going back there. This applies to any situation that can be sensitive topics, like racial inequality, gender issues, etc. It's ok to explore these things in game if your group is ok with it, just make sure to so It in moderation. A) to allow players to relax between these tough scenarios, and B) to keep the shock value of these stories high. Their impact is a lot more noticeable if these really heavy themes are not played out every game session.

(Perhaps a good time to implement these dark stories would be when the players are making really silly choices. Remind them actions have consequences, and if a verbal warning doesn't work, next session pull out the big guns and show them the consequences of their silliness.)

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Lots of little phrasing things are GM-blaming. A lot of it is bad advice, or good advice mangled. That nixes my upvote. The last paragraph (the one in parentheses), though, earns a downvote. 'Punishing' players is never, ever a good thing and should never be encouraged as advice. Also, 'Killing the assailant' is touted as the height of catharsis by many but doesn't actually solve the issue any time i've seen it employed. In real life or in games. –  Jack Lesnie May 10 at 1:42

Oh, man... First of all, don't beat yourself up too much. You screwed up, badly, but without malicious intent. Humans do that, sometimes. I almost think you should be asking how to handle this somewhere else, because the core issue is a very difficult, very sensitive one. I don't know where "somewhere else" is, though.

What really worries me is her reaction afterward. A depressing number of women are victims of sexual assault in real life, and never report it. They just hide it. Her response might be nothing, or it might be that of someone who went through something and was just reminded of it. I don't know, but the potential of it means you should tread carefully.

That being said...

Above All Else, Be Respectful

Whether this is what it appears to be at face value or something more, she's upset. That's fair. You need to respect that. Treat her like you'd want to be treated if you were a player going through a rough time. That means, don't do stuff like this:

But I still feel like I do owe her something for such a huge mistake. More so than just treasure or items. My group likes to go deep into RP, and was hoping to find an RP way to help the situation.

Are you sure she wants to be singled out, or treated differently by the GM because of this? I would be extremely careful with trying to react by offering up bonus loot or special situations to try and explore it.

You can certainly make the table feel welcoming, and be clear that you're open if she wants to talk. Beyond that, IMO she is there to play and you show your respect by treating her like a player, and not like someone in need of special "make up rewards".

To Revenge or Not To Revenge

A revenge plot could certainly be appropriate here, and the player might enjoy it a lot. If I were in your place, I'd make such a plot available but not push it. If she chooses to undertake it, great!

If not, let it go.

Reton - Not In This Case

When something happens in a session that just doesn't work for the people playing, a retcon is usually an option. I don't think it is in this case. The effect was to upset a person in real life, and a retcon can't fix that. (Unless it's her idea, of course.)

Moving Forward

So what should you do, going forward? Play the campaign more or less as you were. Don't over-react and stop the things that people liked about the game. You were almost certainly doing things right before this mistake, don't second guess everything you were doing.

Give her the chance to get comfortable again, and before too long everybody will be having fun once more.

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The problem is that "gritty, adult" doesn't actually communicate important things to the players. Consider these four things people MIGHT think from those terms:

  1. "Authorities are mixed, with a decent amount of corruption. People ignore when bad things happen to the marginalized. Life is a terrible grind and you don't always get justice. The horrible stuff will not be directly shown in play."

  2. "People do terrible things to the NPCs who don't have power, and this is a daily thing. The heroes might save a few, but there's always more. The terrible things might happen in play, directly to NPCs."

  3. "Terrible things might happen to the PCs."

  4. "The PCs might do terrible things."

Now... see how these are pretty different? It's a very different game whether you expect your protagonist to be in a messed up world but having a form of plot immunity from the worst stuff, vs. being a target.

There's no way to "make up" what happened, but the fact is, it sounds like this whole game was not well communicated or thought out to begin with.

A valuable question to ask yourself is, "How is this fun?"

Dark and gritty CAN be fun, but you have to ask how and in which ways, and check in to make sure the other players are on board with that too. Because, as I pointed out above - "dark and gritty" can mean a lot of things, and likewise, what kinds of things people think are fun, also can be very different.

The fact is that a lot of roleplaying is about playing characters who are more powerful than you. So it's an extreme violation of trust to have even your wish-fulfillment character get raped because suddenly, now, "we're going to be realistic" in a game about werewolves.

I'd ask that player, privately, "Look, I messed up. What's the best thing FOR YOU?" That might be "keep playing and drop it", that might be "Let's play a different game", that might be something else.

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Feeling guilty after a really intense adventure is someting that every good DM will experience sooner or later.

It really sucks and can't really be undone.

You can, however, be sure that everything that happens from now on on your game is on the right tracks. Mature campaings can be a real problem sometimes and people have different levels of maturity and different understanding on what's acceptable on the game table and what is not. So, you must check with your group what is okay and what is not. Ask them to send you an email (and only to you) saying what would make them unconfortable so you can avoid those themes. People are on the table to have fun, not to be feel bad for things that happen on the table.

Sure, bad things happening to the PC's is part of the game, but sometimes we as DM's can get a bit over the edge and so things like that happen.

I did that twice (two different situations, with two different groups) and I can't say how much I'm sorry for ever having those things on those adventures.

Be sure that, whatever you do, you group agrees with that. And let them know that they have the rights to say to you "That bother's me, can you do this differently?" and be listen.

Oh, and pay Pizza for them a few times, so they can feel you're really sorry and want them to continue to tag along. That can help, too. :)

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We play online, so the pizza thing isn't gonna work out. But thank you very much for the advice. I'm still relatively new to being a DM, and I'm learning the extent of what I can do, and what I should do. –  RPG Man o' War May 9 at 19:45
    
+1 for getting feedback on what lines they really don't want you to cross. That should go some way to helping to restore trust. I'd add that it would be better to bring it up a week or so in advance so that they have time to think it over, too. –  starsplusplus May 9 at 20:40
    
@Downvoters Please, some insight on why did you donwvote would be appreciated. –  Thales Sarczuk May 14 at 13:26

Same Page Problem

Clearly, you had something in mind, and not all of the players realized what that was. Perhaps it wasn't clear in your mind, or more likely wasn't communicated successfully. Totally successful communication is a myth that never actually happens.

Regardless, when you said 'dark' the player(s) didn't realize what you meant. This is where listing genre examples can really help, because for some people 'dark' is Bladerunner, and for others it's Clockwork Orange.

Now i'm going to start this by saying something:

You did not do anything wrong.

You didn't engage in this as a way to 'punish' players, or as part of some weird personal fantasy - you went into this to tell a dark story. There is no reason that all stories should be light and airy fairy. The only mistake you made is not making certain everyone was down with it before you began. And that is a mistake - don't get me wrong. But it was a mistake. Dark stories can be incredibly powerful in a roleplaying setting, and there is nothing wrong with wanting to tell them.

Moving Forward

The absolute best way to deal with situations like this is to tailor them on the fly in subtle ways to overcome the problem the player has with it and still involve them, using a subtle mix of charisma, storytelling chops, and general awesome badassness. This is really, really hard.

Other than that, burying it and not bringing up the topic and moving on immediately is probably the best way to go. Try to subtly sound out people as to what kind of game they thought they were undertaking, and move towards that in your design. Using examples from popular entertainment is the best way of doing this I have come across, although again, subtly, because you are not trying to draw attention to the snafu that just occurred.

If you avoid anything 'Dark' from now on, that just makes the problem worse and draws attention to the specific instance of tone departing from what the player expected. So, if anything, ham it up. Play as many 'dark story' things as you can without stepping on the specific problems the player had with that sort of thing. Ham up the 'dark' aspect of the story, even if you have to descend into cartoon villainy to do it safely. That will remove the mental association of 'dark' with 'GM going places I don't like', and help remove any existing pall on the game caused by that scene.

Things like this can break the momentum of a game, so you need to put in extra effort to stop it doing that. Other than that, try to tune up your ability to read people's expectations, or spend a bit more time clarifying what you mean when you propose a campaign in order to identify what people are comfortable with/can deal with before you launch into it. Overall, this is a mistake a lot of people make. It doesn't need to be a big deal, as long as you recover from it well and don't let it nuke the campaign/future ideas of darker storytelling.

Awesome Storytelling Chops

To provide a perhaps example of the way I have rarely managed to handle somewhat similar situations, and seen it handled by vastly better GMs than I;

In this situation, start bringing up what is happening to the character in terms of going alone into the enemy camp, notice the player is totally not okay with this. Realize it's way, way too late to retcon the situation, and so set up a scene where the evil villain starts coming onto the character, making it clear what is about to happen, but present a method for the character to escape, and launch into an action scene where the character barely gets away by the skin of her teeth, clearly aware of what could have happened, chased wounded through darkness in forest by howling men etc (horror elements to make it clear you're not just 'letting them off', i.e. still make it dark just different flavour), and still have the sort of impact (revenge, horror, evil) you were aiming for, but without the actual circumstances that squicked the player out.

This relies on godlike levels of observation and on-the-fly thinking, though. I've done it maybe twice. Both times it was pretty epic.

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+1 For not letting the mistake color the rest of the campaign. Often over-reacting in the course correction after making such a mistake is the death knell of a game that still had the potential to be successful. –  Grubermensch May 10 at 14:40

To answer your question about patching things up with your player, unfortunately the only person who can help you with that is your player. Some advice though: listen, be genuinely unfailingly contrite, and DO NOT equivocate for even an instant. The moment you pull out the "well, I did say..." line is the moment you shift the blame for the situation on her reaction to it, and any hope of contrition goes flying out the window. Know and expect that this could not be enough. Recognize that any forgiveness is hers to give, not yours to earn.

It really seems like this has been an illuminating experience for you. Too often people don't take these of experiences as opportunities for growth. It's truly horrible that it had to come at the expense of your player. My hope is that she's able to move on from the experience and continue to have positive gaming experiences, whether they include you or not. And it may be the case that it will not. I would encourage you to apply zero pressure; if she wants time away from you game, give it wholeheartedly.

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I'm going to pare this down to remove the judgment and move the bulk of it to the other question, where it'll be more relevant. There's a serious answer here though and the commentary provides the necessary context to back that up. There's nothing "camouflaged" or insincere about anything I've said here though. –  agradine May 14 at 21:26
    
Edited for tone and content. –  agradine May 14 at 22:33

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