Take the 2-minute tour ×
Role-playing Games Stack Exchange is a question and answer site for gamemasters and players of tabletop, paper-and-pencil role-playing games. It's 100% free, no registration required.

The popularity of this question has left me a bit confused as how exactly a GM can include sexual violence in their game. Let's assume that you have a mix of male and female players and characters and they've all very explicitly agreed to explore themes of sexual violence.

How can you incorporate this into the plot of your game in a way that adds to the experience? What methods can be used to incorporate sexual violence in a positive way? How it can be an effective storytelling tool in a group that have already agreed to it's existence in the game?

Assume we already have player agreements and lines and veils in place, I don't primarily want ways to mitigate it/limit its impact in play, I want to know how to use it as a positive tool in the story and its effect on the characters, description style, pacing, players, and setting.

share|improve this question
    
While not an answer, it should be noted that there is a double standard associated with sexual violence. Simply by flipping the genders of the people involved, you can often increase or decrease the emotional impact of these themes. Consider a hyper-masculine man that keeps 100 15 year old girls as concubines, versus a hyper-feminine woman that keeps 100 15 year old boys as concubines. This can help you fine tune the impact of the situation. Consider also only flipping one party's gender. (Let's not get into a discussion about the underlying BS that this double standard stems from) –  DampeS8N May 15 at 13:59
add comment

9 Answers 9

Sexual Violence can be Emotionally Powerful

Nothing in a game should ever 'just happen'. It should be the result of motivations and circumstances that collectively create a narrative for your players. Sexual violence can be an incredibly effective and powerful emotional tool within a story, but must be taken absolutely seriously. It must be as terrible and shattering, as brutal and boundary-breaking in the game as we expect it to be from our real-life understanding of the term, and the depictions in popular media.

When I say those words, 'terrible', 'shattering', 'brutal', 'boundary-breaking', I do not mean Explicit. I cannot emphasize this enough. I mean that the motivations of those involved, the emotional impact of the situation, must be very high. Without that, it will feel tawdry, cheap, and even gratuitous or indulgent to the viewers (the players).

If you want to include a scene like this, you need to lay groundwork. You need to establish the emotional state of any victims, you need to establish the needs and drives of the perpetrator, and you need to underline and write in all bold text the tragedy and horror of these acts.

Dungeons and Dragons desensitizes us to violence, and many games are intentionally low in emotional impact. This will not work in a game with sexual violence. If sexual violence is going to be in a game, for it to work within the roleplaying context, it has to severely emotionally affect the people involved in it, whatever that context takes (rage, shame, fear, greed, hatred, anxiety, madness).

Sexual violence is inherently something we feel strongly about, as people. So to translate it to a game context, or indeed any storytelling context, it must affect us strongly. Without that, it feels tawdry, crass, forced, fake, 'wrong', 'creepy' - i've heard those words used, directed at others and myself, and i've also had people tell me how much a specific scene with sexual violence affected them (positively), again directed both at others and myself.

The core and key difference was the level of seriousness and emotional impact that the GM managed to treat the sexual violence with. It's definitely not something I would recommend for anyone but experienced storytellers, and even then only in a certain style of game.

So to answer the question more briefly; with a lot of respect, and a lot of care.

share|improve this answer
add comment

Sexual violence is a device used prominently in fiction, TV, and movies. Heck, there are entire series built around it (Law & Order: SVU for example, and in the fantasy realm Game of Thrones certainly doesn't shy away from it). There is a primal nature to it that makes it serve a useful purpose. In fact, you could do worse that to read screenwriter advice on the subject - try Lew Hunter's Screenwriting 434 in which he writes:

A painter has three primary colors on his palette: red, blue, and yellow. Everything else has kinship to those colors. As a screenwriter, you have two primary emotional colors: sex and violence.

He goes on to clarify he's not talking Roger Corman, he's talking King Lear.

Anyway, as someone creating a RPG story, these are also available emotional colors. Many games stick to the latter only; others have figured out how to incorporate the former as well (see How should a GM deal with sexuality in an RPG?). But blending the two is trickier.

In its simplest use in-game, it is a special form of evil. It's generally acknowledged to be more abhorrent than other crimes, and especially if your PCs are a little on the murderhobo side, "you should fight the forces of the Runelord of Gluttony because they're... gluttonous!" doesn't pack a lot of moral punch. That can fuel storylines where PCs are required to make hard choices - which is the most interesting kind of RP. Listen to a Roleplaying Public Radio episode about morality in RPGs and how it's mainly about setting up hard choices for the PCs.

In my current pirate campaign, we've had several different kinds of sexual violence incorporated, primarily as a means for me to force the PCs to assess the moral dimension of their actions. Of course they would never do it (probably) but sometimes their actions lead to situations where it's likely to happen.

For example, their crime boss Saul had his star croupier, Lixy, leave his employ. He wanted her back, and sent the PCs to get her. They did, and she was kept in "protective custody" at the casino for some time. The PCs moved on, just another day of doing semi-bad deeds, but then weeks later they were talking with Saul's head enforcer Bojask, who casually boasted to them that he'd been forcing her to have sex with him. This shocked them and forced them to take responsibility for their actions. The party leader had to think about it for a session (they were taken aback enough that they didn't immediately respond) but then he beat the bejeezus out of Bojask, told him to stay away, and told Lixy she was under his protection (not 100% comforting in this situation, but...). He risked the group's position in the crime family to do so. In this case, sexual violence was used to show the PCs that their actions have later consequences even if "they didn't do it" themselves.

Later, the PCs had a pirate ship with a pretty large crew and planned a raid on a town. Some of the pirates took some additional initiative and came back not just with loot but with a brace of elvish bridesmaids. One of the PCs helped half of them escape clandestinely in the confusion but the ship made off with the other two. The clear expectation of the pirates were that they were loot to be allocated out just like the treasure; the PCs were the command staff but feared mutiny if they disallowed it. So they let it happen - one was bought from a loot share by a NPC who wanted to keep her safe, but the other was bought by Bojask (they had shanghaied him later on in the story). They knew what was going to happen and it did. Later they were having officers' dinner and Bojask was there; the party halfling assassinated him at the table, much to the surprise of the other PCs. He said he wasn't going to have that going on. The others agreed and disposed of the body quietly ("He must have fallen overboard...") The PCs hadn't been willing to really discuss with each other the limits they were willing to go to in their piracy; this occurrence of sexual violence forced them to do that.

Sexual violence is obviously a hot button topic and one to be approached carefully and compassionately, but it can be added to add dramatic tension and moral decisionmaking to your games. (If you just hack, then it's probably not an effective addition.)

share|improve this answer
    
+1 for the storytelling angle of this answer. I've used this kind of violence in my horror games, strictly NPC vs NPC, to establish the horror. –  Bradd Szonye May 14 at 23:52
add comment

You need to abide by two rules.

1. You are all there to enjoy the game

Even if the players have agreed on including, or even actively desire to see, sexual violence in the plot, or as a threat, or as a possible outcome of bad decisions, you must stop the moment you get an X-Card, either explicit (and it is a good idea to have a physical X Card in that kind of game) or implicit and subtle. The subtle ones includes:

  1. A player tossing off a comment that may make you suspect (even simply suspect) he/she is uncomfortable with the situation
  2. A player making a face that may make you suspect (even simply suspect) he/she is uncomfortable with the situation
  3. A player's mood shift that may make you suspect (even simply suspect) he/she is uncomfortable with the situation

Any of one of these indicates that you need to fade to black, change course to a different scenario, or otherwise re-evaluate the situation. It may be that you do not need to discuss it with the player involved or the whole group, or it may be that you do need to. In any case, discuss it frankly, with an open mind.

2. You are all there to enjoy the game

(No, that repetition is not a mistake.)

This is the most important rule, as you can imagine. You must enjoy the game as well. If you are not comfortable with this, don't do it.


Only after you have these rules clear can you include sexual violence in the plot. Then the question is how to make it add to the plot instead of being gratuitous violence.

  • It must make sense in the plot. Violence needs not to make sense in itself, but it has to have a meaning in the plot. You can not simply assault a player's character in the street with a rapist NPC, but you can create a situation in which the assault is about to happen due to some decision that the characters know (it does not need to be a PC decision; e.g. It may be that City's Mayor decided to cut police patrols on the waterfront, or that the Baron decided to allow his soldiers to "enjoy" the servants because they were mutinous).
  • It must have consequences, for both sides: assailant and assaulted. The assaulted character may react with vengeance, or by seeking help for vengeance. The assailant may be rewarded (as some recent wars have proven), or revenged upon (or both).
  • Must be a turning point in the plot—do not allow it to "just happen". It must follow a (your) plan to focus the session on an objective.
share|improve this answer
    
Thanks @SevenSidedDie, english is not my first language –  Envite May 14 at 20:34
    
You're welcome! And no problem at all. I like editing, and even native speakers' posts can usually bear some improvements. –  SevenSidedDie May 14 at 20:43
add comment

In short - If the players are truly open to sexual violence in the game then they could be presented with as many opportunities to engage in them as is fun for everybody involved. If its repetitive or tiring for some players then toning back might not hurt the overall enjoyment.

Also to be considered is whether they want to play the role receiving sexual violence (World invasion of the inescapable tentacle monsters) or the dealers of sexual violence (You have been defeated - time to get shafted). Or perhaps they wish to deal in rescuing others from sexual violence but don't want to be vulnerable themselves (Don't look disappointed. I'm here to rescue you!).

In terms of narrative: To target the question - sexual assault can be used to add to the drama of a situation. Witnessing a person being raped in an alleyway can be a very powerful motivator for a PC to get involved - and helps to shift the sympathies of a PC between two or more factions (rape seeming a quite evil act).

Sexual violence may also be portrayed as an act of devotion amongst the faithful to some particularly carnal (probably evil) god. It might be an act that followers actively engage in as normal - and the intensity of the description of the sexual violence might be portrayed to drive players to ponder the base animalistic desires of humanity. Perhaps it is a consentual society which is not actually evil but neutral - a quirky presentation of taboo as a cultural plus.

Perhaps it is something as fundamental as two persons in a sexually violent relationship that is also consentual - either partner can end it at any time.

It may even be possible to use the carnal inclination within a player to challenge a tendancy to shy away from watching or listening to such narratives - it basically becomes sexuality versus violence in the mind - and the blend might be possible to narrate in a way that steps the line between comfort and discomfort.

In terms of force of narration - being descriptive without over-elaboration will keep the game moving without losing the interest of the players. Describing the suspense in the air as the servant brings comes down the paddle upon the thief's bare body, leaving him gasping and whining as the dame of the manor looks on nonchallantly is yet another example of sexuality versus violence.

Sexual violence could be portrayed in many other ways but the below section are some fragmented possibilities not particularly aimed at narration:

Captivity/ dungeon scenes - just because the party member might or might not have useful information does not mean that the captors might not still choose to have a little fun with them - whether for reasons of gratification or humour. Goblins are a quintessential choice but other creatures work too - humans included.


A dryad might take a liking to a particularly charismatic party member and seek to lure him or her to its enclave - treating the character well and filling with promises while quietly conditioning the character into submission - Thorny growths might be used to try to keep the object of desire in, and would-be rescuers out.

The same might be true (in their own ways) of harpies, a vampire, succubi, or even the daughter of an evil lord (think Flash Gordon).

These are both circumstances where a complicated romance might arise.


There is nothing against adding humour or romance to the mix to soften the blow of a sexually violent encounter. Perhaps after being knocked out most of the character(s) find themselves in caged cell while one "lucky" character finds him or herself to be play room of a drow interrogator with clear kinky tendancies as s/he whips a large scarred rat-like creature that scurries within a steel wheel cage sending electric arcs dangerously close to the player's perch as the drows ebony fave breaks into an ivory smile as s/he sees your eyes fall on a series of spiked and long tools on the table to his or her side.

Various things could take the edge off this. Perhaps mention that the drow has a strange long-haired chubby spider in one hand whose fur stands on end as the static courses through the air. And references quirky lines from movies. Maybe mutters to himself like a mad scientist who has lost the plot - or maybe has conversations with the spider pet and the self just as often as the mirror.

Or perhaps the interrogator has an assistant who is completely enamoured. That could lead to a conflict of interest.


On a completely different note perhaps the 'working lads and ladies' in your world often sidle up to the characters with flirty comments and invitations for "a good time". A few might even 'reveal' their assets - and you never know when a girl might be a dude or vice versa - or might be hiding other secrets in the medical history - physical and mental.

Well... that was a little on how sexuality might manifest... not all of it sexual violence. This first part was included since this seems to be what the question is all about - how to approach sexual violence.


The following involve aspects that may be off-topic as per clarification but remain here as they may be employed by a GM to retain control for how inevitable, dark and/or explicit the implementation of sexual violence is in a given game:

There are three ways that come to mind.

Threat Management

Firstly there is threat management - threat being representative of the 'threat of witnessing or experiencing sexual violence' in this context.

It is possible to deliberately throw clues for the player to catch up on that certain choices made at a given juncture might lead to such a situation.

The way that this could take form in the way of plot clues - perhaps the main threat of sexual violence is from a particular clan of orcs or members of a particularly sadistic cult that has the unfortunate habit of marking their victims in a very visible way (this might provide a disincentive for players "hoping" to get their characters into such a situation - a little difficult to hide the brand of the cult order (or slave number) upon the arm, even harder if on the neck of the character.

The final threat indicator should be quite palpable - you can tone this down if the players don't appreciate the warning however. Once they have fallen down that rabbit hole - you should consider playing it out realistically - but not necessarily explicitely.

Upping the Ante with Side-Plots

In a way this involves the same mechanic that is practiced by GMs everywhere when managing the danger level of a campaign - and presumes that some places are just a lot more dangerous or high risk than others.

Sending a charismatic elf cleric alone to gather information about how Goblin pimps might be running a racket in the down-town slum areas of a city might just end up with that cleric having his or her horizons expanded in ways never experienced before

Threats can arise and fall as gangs and cults kidnap the innocent while barbaric clans pillage and ravage small villages. Choosing to face such opponents is also to face a raised risk of encountering sexual violence in some form or another.

However the world in general might not itself be terribly dark and dangerous a place - although bandits, lone psychos, harpies and carnal ghouls can always be pesky in certain geographic climates.

Time Lapse/ Fade to grey

In the event that a character has gotten into a situation that the player is clearly uncomfortable with then there is the option of greatly reducing the embarrasment through lapsing in and out of the details - or alternatively fading to grey.

Example of lapse - "The orc chief grins and advances. What happens next seems a blur in your mind and the treatment is brutal" (take a fortitude/ will save) As the minutes stretch into hours his mocking voice cuts into your mind every bit as sharply as the pain." (it is possible to add more lapses - in this case its just the one)

Example of fade-to-grey "The orc chief grins and advances. Next thing you know you are waking up in darkness. You feel truly exhausted and your spirits are low." (Test Constitution and Wisdom) (Test for intelligence also possible if the player seems keen on remembering important "details").

share|improve this answer
add comment

Do Your Resesrch

After getting everyone's consent (and maintaing and respecting consent at all times) the best thing to do is to do your research. That means reading about sexualized violence in every possible context (historical and modern). Learn how to get into the mindset of a survivor by reading survivors accounts.

Why Do I Need To Learn How To Get Into That Mindset?

Because the first time you begin to explore sexualized violence as a DM you should probably not be targeting any of your players with it. While you've already established that you're going to explore these themes with your players, that doesn't mean you or they are prepared to deal with the ramifications of a PC being assaulted. Introducing sexualized violence through an NPC survivor is a great way to test the waters and see how everybody reacts and responds to both the subject matter and the survivor character. Someone who might feel prepared to explore playing a survivor of sexualized assault might have second thoughts after seeing how their fellow party members respond here.

Gender Issues

It's been brought up before but be careful how you handle the role gender plays in these situations. There's a tendency to always target female characters (and female players) with sexualized violence. That's because people mistake rape for sex. But you've done your research, and know that rape is primarily about powet. You also know that sexualized violence is so prevalent in prisons that as a whole, men experience sexualized assault nearly as often as women do in the US. So while DMs do tend to target the female PCs that get captured, male PCs have no reason to feel any safer from sexual assault in these situations. Make sure your male players are aware that by signing on to a game where sexualized violence may take place as part of the narrative, that doesn't mean their PCs will be any safer simply because of their gender. Male players might assume their characters will be victimized in that way unless you're explicit about it.

Use Sparingly

Each and every narrative device should be treated as a spice. Use it too much and you've ruined the dish. And as far as narrative devices go, sexualized violence is a ghost pepper. Sexual assault means a lot of things to a lot of different, but it'll have a strong emotional impact on most if not all of your table. However you choose to weave it into your narrative, do so sparingly, or risk numbing your players.

share|improve this answer
add comment

This is really an addendum to the rest of the answers here.

In all likelihood, whatever you think you know about sexual violence is wrong! So, I would strongly suggest that you research the topic. Yes, it makes for unpleasant reading. Yes, it is not a pleasurable thing. Yes, it is necessary. By propagating myths and half truths, we not only do society a disservice but we ignore the very real suffering of those that were the victims of sexual violence. So, do not be ignorant. A quick Google search will give you some good places to start looking. There are support groups, law enforcement agencies and NGOs statistics, and medical papers.

How to add this to your game? By making this real, you will add some fairly horrible situations to your game. You can use that to your advantage to present shades of grey.

As it happens, I have an example for The Legal Satyricon law blog. In summary, there are those two kids (16 years olds) who commit a violent and despicable crime. The prosecutes want to send those kids to an adult jail. However, once there, there is a high chance of them getting sexually assaulted. What do you do?

Another example would be Mystic River. The film tackles very overt sexual violence as well. I can easily see using elements of the plot in game as events happening to some close to the PCs's NPCs.

As a closing note, I would shy away from sexual violence towards a PC unless you have their full explicit agreement. The last thing you want is to upset a friend. Remember, role playing should be fun.

share|improve this answer
add comment

This is pretty hard to answer given the difficult subject matter, so I'm going to break up my answer a bit.

1. Figure out which player is going to play the victim character

Obvious place to start, right? This is a bad subject for a random plot twist, even at a table where everybody wants to have the subject in the game. Someone (or multiple someones) is going to be playing a victim, and you should figure out who that is going to be with them before it happens.

If the group really doesn't want to figure that out ahead of time and just wants it to happen as part of the plot, then... well, I guess you can do that. But I don't recommend it, as the comfort level of people playing in a group with the subject may not be the same as the comfort level of playing the actual victim.

There's another reason to figure this out before you introduce it...

2. Character and player gender will (probably) matter

In the real world, sexual violence does happen against males. That said, it's overwhelmingly committed against females. The character who suffers it will probably be female as a result.

The player might not be. Males do play female characters, and some of them could play this type of character successfully. That said, doing so has a certain ick factor for some people, who really don't think that it's appropriate for a male to do so.

You need to determine if that's going to be an issue. If one of your players is of the persuasion that player gender matters on this subject, you have to factor that into your plans before you implement them.

3. Introducing it

There's two ways to introduce the incident itself. You can either write it into someone's history, or you can have it happen during the game.

If you're aiming for emotional impact, having it in a backstory is the inferior option in my experience. It's certainly easier to do, as you don't have to arrange events in game to make it happen at some point, and you don't have to worry about taking up any game time with it. That said, it doesn't have the same punch as a character getting captured at the table, and the next time the party sees them... very bad things have happened.

If you do introduce it during a session, don't go into a lot of details. The other players most certainly do not need to sit there and watch the victim and the GM roleplaying the gory details. Just, no.

4. Dealing with it

The victim will have to decide how she (or he, but I'm sticking with one pronoun) is going to cope with what happened. I strongly suggest that if it's a male player, he should do some research on how victims react in real life. (A female player certainly could as well, but as a male myself I wouldn't be comfortable recommending it the same way.)

Reactions are extremely varied in real victims, and your in game victim has a lot of options for how she can react.

If the other characters know what happened, then they can react based on how the victim reacts. If the other characters don't know what happened, then it may take then some time to realize that something is wrong at all.

From this point on, you've introduced it, and now it's up to the players to carry it forward.

5. Make your table a safe space

If you're doing this, every player (and you!) needs to know that if at any point anybody feels uncomfortable with what's going on, they can say the word and put a stop to it.

You never want to keep going if someone is uncomfortable, and you never want someone to sit quietly being uncomfortable for fear of being judged if they say something. That has to be made absolutely clear right at the start to everyone, and you have to reinforce it as the GM.

If you can do all that, the subject is a very powerful and emotional one. Pulled off well, it can add a lot to a game. Of course, pulling it off well is difficult, so you'll want to put a lot of thought into it before you do it. This is not something you just bring out as a surprise one session.

share|improve this answer
add comment

You did well in taking the first step:

they've all very explicitly agreed to explore themes of sexual violence.

That's it, you previously talked about and agreed to explore those themes. The next step is the same: talk about and agree on how those themes should be incorporated and treated.

Each individual will have a different tolerance level for, and different willingness to explore, it. How explict should these themes be? Only your group can say. Should player characters perpetrate that sexual violence? Depends on your group sensibilities and desires.

The only general advice I can give is: don't let the majority overrule the minority. Adjust to the level of greatest sensitivity, not the most common.

Of course, players might feel bolder during the discussion than when they are playing such a scene later. It is important that everybody has the empathy to know when they are touching a nerve, and skip details when needed.

share|improve this answer
add comment

Step 1: Consent

The first and most important step in any sexual activity is consent. Depending upon your local laws, and the nature of the game, explicit sexual themes may cross the line into sexual harassment and/or sexual assault, so clear consent is important ahead of time.

Step 2: Venue

Keeping in mind that some people may consider the RPG narratives to be performance of sexually explicit material, keep the venue one that's secure from outside listeners. This needs to make the location free from children and from those who might mistake it for actual in-progress sexual violence.

Step 3: Adaptations to play style.

The first and most important element in any game is keeping players from feeling persecuted or offended. An important tool for such games, and it's good even when sexually explicit material isn't on the table, is an agreement to use the "Fade To Black" card. This is a card or token, and everyone gets one, that, when tossed to the middle of the table results in an immediate "Fade To Black" - no more narration, period, of the scene - and success or failure of the "violence" gets reduced to a single opposed die roll, no narration. A simple "Yes, A had his fun upon V" or "No, V got away from A."

Another adaptation that may be of great use is banning the clause "I do..." While the roleplay isn't as immersive when the first person is banned, it's also less personal when the character is victimized.

Step 4: Nature of the Stories

Picking how and why the stories are sexually explicit is another important aspect.

Sex & Sorcerer has some really good advice on sexual themes in Sorcerer, which may include filling a demon's need, binding a demon by sex, even banishing one by sex. All of these are sex as a means to power - namely, power over the demon, and/or power from the demon.

Ironwood (the RPG, based upon the comic of the same name) is sexually explicit because the main characters are hopelessly hyper-sexual. (Especially Dave Dragavon and the Bishop-Major.) Dragavon is a dragon - and adolescent dragons in that world are hopelessly aroused, and worse, all are half-demihuman or half-human. They do two things well: fight and fornicate, and the latter is arguable, because they tend to be damned selfish about it. (Dragavon's a major schmuck, even for a baby dragon.) Most of the sex isn't violent - but most of it leads to violence. And Hugo/Pandora can easily be played in a Sorcerer game.

Another option is the exploration of it from a crime fighting perspective, ala Law & Order SVU, Criminal Minds, or The Closer. And from the "Stop it before it brings the apocalypse" mode of Conan stories... but realizing that Conan also is prone to not asking first; many of his conquests are not consenting (but they aren't saying "No", either).

And then there's the whole fighting alien monsters with tentacles that can be a very dark Call of Cthulhu game, or go even further into the Hentai genre.

But then again, there is also the whole substitution mode: vampires in literature are often deemed to be, in their essence, rape stories. Worse, they are stories where the victim becomes the predator.

share|improve this answer
1  
-1: 'excuse for sex' is not the question asked, examples quote genre where sexual violence is trivialized as part of theme and characters are setpieces for sexual excitement by non-participatory audience, completely unsuitable for the vast majority of collective storytelling games. –  Jack Lesnie May 15 at 7:36
    
+1, I utterly disagree with the down votes. This is a good answer to the question asked. –  Sardathrion May 15 at 7:59
add comment

Your Answer

 
discard

By posting your answer, you agree to the privacy policy and terms of service.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.