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TL;DR: I am unsure if the plotline I planned is "too dark" for a new group, and would like to discuss the level of grit with them without spoiling the plotline. How can I do this?

I am planning a campaign where an evil dryad witch has kidnapped a bunch of children and is planning to turn them into trees which she can sell to the local sawmill. My idea is for there to be a grove where the kids are kept prisoner, where the heroes (have the option to) fight her and save the children.

The next idea is that she can mind control the children, using them as meat shields.

I feel like this could be a pretty epic moment if they manage to keep the children safe/heal them from the mind control and slay the witch. However, I'm worried that this triumphant moment will turn sour if they mindlessly hack and slash at the mind controlled children instead of saving them all, and realise only afterward what they have done.

The problem with all this is that I am planning this adventure for a new group - I have neither played nor DM:d with them previously (although I know some of them personally). The experience level ranges from near-beginner to intermediate. Since I am a bit concerned that the plot I planned could be considered "too dark", I would like to bring up the topic of what we consider in-bounds (as a group) in advance of the session. How can I start this discussion without spoiling the plot specifically?

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    \$\begingroup\$ +1 for being wise enough to ask the question before creating a potential problem instead of asking a "how do I fix relationships" question after the event \$\endgroup\$ – KerrAvon2055 Jun 24 at 2:32
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    \$\begingroup\$ Are the players minors, under 18? Under 14 years old? \$\endgroup\$ – Amethyst Wizard Jun 24 at 21:42
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    \$\begingroup\$ Without the mindcontrol aspect, this sort of plot is exactly the kind of plot many classic fairy tales used to have (before Disney sanitized them). Maybe even with the mindcontrol aspect. Fairy tales were dark. \$\endgroup\$ – mcv Jun 25 at 7:35
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    \$\begingroup\$ @JoakimM.H. Or child-trees provide better wood somehow. Or maybe the dryad is not quite evil enough to kill real trees, but has no problem killing children-turned-to-trees. It might even be revenge on mankind chopping down trees: "let's see how you like it if your children are turned into furniture!" \$\endgroup\$ – mcv Jun 26 at 12:06
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Establishing a Protocol

Many RPG groups have a protocol for handling potentially uncomfortable situations.

At the start of your game, you give all your players a card with an X on it, and you say: "We might touch on uncomfortable topics in this game. If you encounter a topic that makes you uncomfortable, show us this card. We won't ask why the topic makes you uncomfortable and we won't try to persuade you to be okay with it. All that we'll ask is what we need to remove from the story. We could remove it by just skipping past it and letting it happen "offscreen", or we could agree that it doesn't happen entirely."

You can read more about these protocols in our related question: What do the terms "lines" and "veils" mean?

This protocol was intended for use in very improvisational games, but you could also use it in your game. You'd have to think in advance about how you'd change the story if someone objected -- probably you'd say "okay, so they're not children at all, they're some sort of tree-monster, and the children are safely tied up over there."


My Experience

It happens that I have some personal experience of running a D&D game in which players can kill mind-controlled civilians. I frequently run The Orb Of Storms for strangers at game stores; this scenario involves civilians who have been captured, converted into werewolves, and mind-controlled by evil druids.

The group has the option to kill the werewolves, to set them free of the mind control, or to restrain and cure them. I've had groups do all of these things. Sometimes a single group takes all three of the approaches, with different werewolves, as the story progresses.

Nobody has ever had a problem with this. Some groups try to rescue the werewolves; some groups don't care. Nobody has been upset by it.

Your Situation

Your game might be worse, because you're specifically using children as the captured NPCs. There's a different scenario I run which involves a mind-controlled child attacking the group, and most of the groups I've run this for have gone to great effort to avoid killing the child.

What this experience suggests to me is that your group will probably also try pretty hard to avoid killing any children; if you make sure to include a well-clued way to avoid doing this, I think it's very likely that the group will take it.

The other thing this suggests to me is that, if you worry that the children thing is too dark, it seems to me that you could replace them with adult peasants. Then my experience of the werewolf game would directly apply.

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If something is too dark depends entirely on what your group is comfortable with. To illustrate the point, Let me start with three examples:

I have played in at least one group in which destroying an orphanage was totally ok... no, let me rephrase that: We pulled an Exterminatus on a whole planet and it was very much expected because we played rather evil bastards of the Inquisition and there was ONE heretic on the planet and we decided "Why not?".

In another group, I deliberately put an orphanage for goblin kids up under the guard of an elder, half-blind red dragon into the way of a typical Murderhobo group and they felt that this was too much for even their murder hobo ways which included putting the village priest that ran a human orphanage on fire for disrespecting them. They didn't like to face consequences.

In a third group in which I played the rather Dark "year of the Griffin" one player directly expressed that he'd be devastated if the NPC he married in the town would die, and put that as the very reason he wanted her to leave town as that became possible - while the town was starting to go to hell piece by piece. He was almost jumping at my neck as he realized that his desire to save that one NPC would put her into a deathtrap and then pulled all the influence he had with the rest of the group to prevent the worst. But in the end, he was thankful that his action had consequences - which I had warned about over the preluding months!

How to gauge your group?

Ok, we established vividly that groups can be very different. But how do we learn about what a group - or rather each individual player - is ok with?

Round Table @ Session 0

This is what a Session 0 is for! Meet the players, introduce them to the game, ask them about their background and expectations, and give a chance to get to know each other. Tell them about what you plan for your campaign. Ask them about how they like certain items. A good way can be to frame things in tropes or examples. Some example questions I have seen asked:

  • What level of cruelty are you comfortable with encountering?
  • Do you like consequences hitting your character and see him face backlash for his deeds?
  • What are topics, items, or situations, for example, but not limited to, drugs and drug abuse, which you don't want to encounter in any way in your playing?
  • Are you ok with the topics of (domestic) violence/bigotry/hatred against [group]?
  • Are there creatures or monsters that you are not comfortable with engaging like spiders or rats?

Such questions can help to establish Veils and Lines for your playstyle.

During Play

Safeword

During play, you can use a safeword: if a scene goes too hard, players can mention a certain word and the scene is stopped. Some might call this a variant of the X-Card, other games implement something similar in the basic rules like Exalted as the Red Rule. I would point to what term I use. Safeword. It's to make sure "Hey, I am no longer Safe, I want to be safe, so save me now!"

I have used the Timeout-T gesture for this in a game I ran. It was invoked twice, once when a player was starting to describe vividly how he tries to woo the barmaid by elaborating on his prowess.

The other time it was when I described a building burning and someone screaming about it from the building. The sign went up and the one asking for a timeout to ask rather shocked "There is somebody inside?!" To this early sign of distress, I then could react by altering the planned scene - instead of the burning victim falling from the window, I told a milder variant without the grievous harm: "You were not sure, but someone is just appearing at the window and jumps. As the roof collapses behind them, they seem to be ok for the most part but the stained face and singed hair."

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Talk to them about your game, making clear that what you have planned may include elements they find shocking

If you haven't started the game yet, or even are only a few sessions into it, you can still hold the Session 0 in a campaign-general way (that is to say, this relevant story might be far enough in the future that talking about it won't immediately give things away).

You can be clear about the types of ethically shocking content that may come up in the game without being very specific. When I do this I try to express generic things about the setting and tone. I introduced a campaign I'm currently running this way:

This is intended to be a dark campaign in which hope is not only fading from the world, but has largely already faded. The outcomes you want for specific situations might be impossible, even when victorious. If you want to try making things better, you can, and you can even succeed, but the game world itself will make that difficult and will try to grind the hope out of your characters even as they struggle.

Your characters may find themselves in situations where they have no good choices, or where choosing the lesser of two evils is barely an improvement over alternatives.

And ask your players for things they don't want to see, given the darker themes. In my most recent game, one of my players volunteered that he did not like violence against children (though they clarified that it's potentially OK as a plot element, they don't want to be forced to do it or see it happen "on camera").

Otherwise, if you are really concerned about the fit for this plot and the group (which may be wise, given that you don't know them so well), don't use that plot here. It's as simple as that. In my experience as a DM, plot ideas are never wasted simply by not being included in a current game or campaign; they're always available for future stories, and are often better for having more time to develop.


If you do use the plot, make sure your players have the information and agency to make ethical (or unethical) choices, and potentially opt out of this specific situation

This is the part where it's easy to slip up. Ethics require knowledge and agency, and because D&D is a game (with some very famous characteristics) it's common for players to make assumptions about the challenges being presented to them. That's a big part of why the newness of the group is an issue-- they don't know how you run games, and you don't know how they play them.

So the ethical dimensions of the plot need to be clearly presented in advance in order for your players to have the best possible chance of expressing their ethics in play. Crucially, the plot should not force or trick them into doing something bad like this. Just because you have sketched out a plot element in which the dryad uses children as human shields doesn't mean that that situation should actually arise. Especially if you choose not to have a Session 0 conversation (and I really, really encourage you to have that conversation), there should be off-ramps your players can use to avoid this situation.

Then, check in with your players often about the tone. If you find out one session before this fight that the group isn't OK with the situation you've designed, you still have time to change it. A DM's role is to make the game fun for the players, and part of that is making sure that they're OK with the game's content. That you wanted to maintain the surprise of a situation isn't your players' problem, and you should not make it so.

Absent a discussion covering this type of scenario (and, honestly, even if you have had that discussion), at a minimum I would suggest the following (roughly in this order):

  1. Consider using other sorts of peril for the children to give the dryad an edge in the fight

    Obstacles are often important in combat encounters, but there are ways to use them without making the children into enemy combatants. If the dryad's goal is to use the children to distract the party, she could do that by having the children attack the PCs. But she could also do something like place them in immediate, conspicuous danger and force the players to use their turns to save them rather than fight the dryad. If they constantly wander towards a bonfire, the edge of a cliff, or a deep pool you can make it obvious that they are in danger unless the players intervene.

    That's similarly helpful to the dryad (especially since you have control over her stats and the encounter), but it frees the players from having to make an active decision to hurt one of the victims. DMs have to live in narrative and mechanics, and as children are unlikely to be dangerous enemies their main mechanical purpose is to mess with the players' action economy. Anything which serves that mechanical purpose will do, and then you can fit it into the narrative.

  2. The players should learn about children disappearing from wherever the dryad kidnapped them, with some elements that establish the children as characters

    They're people and children, not faceless NPCs. The more they seem like the latter, the easier it is to view them as goblins or kobolds, and players rarely hesitate to kill, or feel bad about killing, most combat opponents. Give your players the chance to care about them, and they might!

  3. Establish that the children were likely (or definitely) kidnapped, as opposed to having chosen to go with the dryad

    The more obvious it is that they are kidnapping victims, the more likely it is that your players will see them as victims to be protected instead of obstacles to be cut down.

  4. Set up that the human shield-like behaviors are bizarrely unusual for the children

    If you drop some hints that an easily recognizable child isn't at all violent, then an action like attacking the party is a pretty good clue that something unusual is going on. This reinforces the idea that the kids aren't a mob to be put down.

  5. Make absolutely certain that the combat is possible to win without hurting any of the children, even if it may seem difficult to do so

    Players tend to not like feeling railroaded, and if any of them have even a slight problem with hurting the NPC children it may be deeply unpleasant to feel like you set them up to do it without any alternatives. If the encounter design is even modestly off, it could feel as though you forced their characters to do something with which they deeply disagree. That's not epic or exciting.


The above list, in summary, is meant to make sure that your players have enough information to understand the ethics of the decisions they make and also that they have options to put their ethical decisions into practice. Without those elements they don't have any ethical choices to make, and that radically changes how events feel as they play out.

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I recall hearing a "Wait Wait, Don't Tell Me" interview with Jerry Springer, who was famed in the 90's for his talk show featuring all sorts of absolutely bonkers revelations. (Involving people who were also generally bonkers, and whose reactions were also predictably...bonkers. It made great daytime TV.) In the interview, Springer related that they would have people sign a waiver prior to being on the show that included a long list of different scenarios ("Your mother is actually your sister", "Your father is a sex-worker", etc...), acknowledging that any number of these revelations could occur during filming. While people had a general idea that something big was going to go down, they had only a very limited idea of what it was.

You could develop a similar list for your session 0, and ask people to mark which scenarios they would find "over the line". Possibly even split your scenario into multiple aspects ("You intentionally, but unknowingly, kill innocent people", "Children are attacked and killed 'on-screen'"). Have them fill out the survey individually and privately, then check on these items to see how folks feel. If they're not comfortable, maybe you've found some additional things on the list the people are comfortable with, and can use those instead. If you keep the surveys and don't let the players spend too much time with them, they will likely forget the details before the session with that plot point anyway.

Also, kudos for being sensitive. People can also misjudge themselves, and I think that leveraging this with some of the other advice re safewords or X cards will definitely help keep you on track.

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This is a classic Session Zero issue

I have an appreciation (though not exclusive) for the GrimDark sub-genre of written fiction. Although my tastes in RPG subject matter are significantly different (GrimDark in a tabletop RPG always feels more oppressive to me than in a book I can put down) I still belong to the victory-through-adversity and hard-choices-reveal-good-characters school of GMing.

Those do occasionally combine to present some dark storylines.

What I do is address them squarely, either in a Session Zero discussion, or sometimes even earlier during the campaign design.

Specifically, I do these things:

  1. First, generally describe that GMing school of thought that I mentioned above: That I'm not out to kill the characters, but that I am out to provide challenges of sufficient scope and gravity that overcoming them takes effort and is actually heroic. When they punch the world, the world is going to punch back. Then, invite a discussion on whether this is the kind of game the players want to be in, what the intensity should be, etc.
  2. Second, ask the players if there are any issues they want to avoid. This is, in my experience, a bit of a judgment call on whether to do openly or privately, and I often try to have it both ways. As with most game issues, the discussion aspect tends to get people talking and thinking about things that they might not if they were just writing an isolated e-mail. On the other hand, you don't want to put someone in a position where they feel obligated or pressured to discuss something that they really don't want to discuss, especially if the players are strangers to one another. So I try to make clear that discussion is for whatever people want to discuss openly; contacting me privately is for anything they don't want to discuss, and no one will ever hear about any of it from me.
  3. Third, if I think the plans or proto-plans I have warrant it (and no player has mentioned it publicly or privately) I'll just go ahead and ask directly about the theme or issue I have in mind. I think it's quite reasonable, and puts no shame on the players at all, if they say, "Well, yeah, if I were thinking of X at the time, I would have said I object to X, but it didn't even occur to me!" So to avoid that... yeah, I'll go ahead and ask.

I want to emphasize that my third item comes along with a frame challenge to your question: I would not worry so much about spoiling the plot in this discussion.

If you're talking about a recurring theme or motif of the game, that's not really a spoiler, per se, any more than genre is. You lose nothing by knowing that the second, third, and fourth Mad Max movies are in the post-apocalyptic genre, and (in my opinion anyway) you lose nothing by knowing that the fourth has strong feminist themes in it. Likewise with tabletop RPGs, if not moreso.

If you're worried about a specific scene you're planning, then make sure that the discussion is somewhat general, but does include the detail you're worried about. Your players have a lot to worry about over the course of a game, which makes finding the connection between a session zero discussion and an upcoming scene fairly difficult. I have never had a player say, "Oh, yeah, I know what's going to happen now, because of that session zero we had last year!" Never.

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A wider survey of 'taboo' topics

Don't ask about the few specific topics you have planned, ask about all the things for which you're unclear if they would consider it as 'taboo' in your games.

Hand out a generic "session 0" survey listing all the common plausible "mature topics" and having the players mark down if there's something they'd be uncomfortable with and would like to be kept out of the game. This would be useful for future games as well, but since things like "Mass murder of innocents" and "Uncomfortable ethical dilemmas" would be in the list among many other things it won't hint to any specifics fo your plot.

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If you don't want to have to give a content warning, you might be better off making the adventure less contentious instead.

For this specific situation: D&D 5e has a rule that if you don't want to kill an opponent you're attacking, you just have to declare a nonlethal attack, and they're knocked out when they reach 0HP instead. So there really shouldn't be any need for the party to be forced to hack a bunch of children to death.

If a player seems like they're going to throw a careless fireball, just say, "These are clearly regular human kids. Unless you want to get kicked out of the party for being an evil child murderer, you probably shouldn't consider that as an option."

The human-shield children will still be an obstacle for the party, and they'll still make the encounter more memorable than a simple fight. We're just eliminating the possible, "Oh no, we killed the little girl we were supposed to be rescuing," branch of the plot, and it's unlikely anyone really wants to go down that branch anyway.

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It may feel a little silly or perhaps unnecessary to ask people to tell you if they feel uncomfortable, especially at the start of a gaming session. However, in my experience, people respect me more for establishing a way to make sure everyone feels comfortable, and they express gratitude for it.


1. Plan Ahead

  • If you know your players very well, you may know painful parts of their past that you should be careful about. Generally, you should avoid these in a game as they can "trigger" an intense and unexpected reaction.
  • Tell your players in advance that you're thinking of running a darker-than-usual session. Ask if they have any particular triggers that you should avoid. Bonus points for asking them to respond separately to protect their privacy.
    • You could send them a wide list of 10–15 mature topics/situations they might encounter and allow them to veto topics they would be uncomfortable with. One of those is the one you're planning. This allows you to get direct feedback without spoiling your plot.
  • Consider preparing an alternate adventure -- or a lighter version of the same adventure -- in case somebody becomes uncomfortable during the session.

2. Warn players in advance

  • They should know ahead of time that it will be darker than a typical gaming session.

3. Establish some ground rules at the start of the session

  • Give players a direct way tell you if they are uncomfortable.Bonus points if you can make this anonymous somehow (e.g. by secret signals that you will recognize but other players won't).
    • Verbal signals such as "pause", "I'm uncomfortable" or some other codeword can work.
    • Nonverbal signals are excellent, and perhaps preferred. The "X-cards" suggestion here is a great example.
    • If a player indicates that they are uncomfortable, nobody should force them to explain why they are uncomfortable at that time. (You can ask later and in private if you must.)
    • If somebody is uncomfortable, you can ask if they would like to take a short break (everyone takes the break). If they do, respect it.
  • Remind players that they can talk to you privately. They can tell you what's on their mind, and you can ask if they're feeling comfortable. Nobody else needs to know.

4. When they encounter/realize something dark...

  • Give players time and space to process, perhaps individually and definitely together. Try to arrange for the characters to have time to talk about what they saw together.
    • The less mature your group is, the more vital this step is.
  • Afterward, ask everyone if they're okay to continue. You can ask everyone to give you a simple "thumbs-up"/"thumbs-down".

5. Ask for feedback after the session

  • Ask players if it was okay or not.
  • You can ask them whether there's anything you could have done better.

Closing Thoughts

As the Dungeon Master/Game Master, and it is your responsibility to make the session enjoyable and worthwhile to all players. There's a lot that goes into this in general (see other questions on this site!), but those are my thoughts for how to handle mature themes.

Some things make people uncomfortable for reasons you would expect -- like in this question! However, there are other, deeper things from people's past that can bring back unexpected and sometimes dramatic responses. Often this is related to trauma. This can make everyone feel uncomfortable, and the person experiencing this might feel embarrassed (which doesn't help!). Most of us have "triggers" of varying degrees that we know about, but some people have triggers they don't know about. Respect your players by respecting the fact that they may have such triggers, and give them a chance to think and process.

Note

I have training for facilitating intergroup dialogue about difficult/mature topics, plus additional training as a high school and college educator for handling classroom issues. My suggestions here will help you prevent bad situations from happening in your session. However, I don't know you or your players, and I am not a professional. You may want to get some advice from a wise friend who knows you and your players.

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  • \$\begingroup\$ Why the downvotes? Whenever you downvote an answer, please explain how it can be improved... \$\endgroup\$ – jvriesem Jun 26 at 17:12
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    \$\begingroup\$ A good revision adding the parts I was missing. Thank you. \$\endgroup\$ – Trish Jun 26 at 17:28
  • \$\begingroup\$ Your first section is the more valuable, in my opinion. The problem with the remaining is that, from what I understood from OP, the whole story in that setting is based on this dark theme. He needs to know beforehand if they are okay with it, because, otherwise, it is just "Session cancelled". \$\endgroup\$ – HellSaint Jun 27 at 1:00
  • \$\begingroup\$ Your very first paragraph, before you start your answer, is also not a good indicator of the quality of the answer. I almost down-voted after reading that, before reading the actual content. The phrase "It may feel a little silly or perhaps unnecessary to ask people to tell you if they feel uncomfortable" is... weird, at least. I do not see how it is silly or unnecessary to ask if people are comfortable. I would remove it from the answer, unless you really need it adds something there. \$\endgroup\$ – HellSaint Jun 27 at 1:02
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    \$\begingroup\$ I don't know, I think it's perfectly reasonable. OP didn't say that it WAS silly or unnecessary, he said people might feel that it was but it wasn't. I think some people might well feel that it sounded silly to say "tell me if you're uncomfortable" because it sounds like stating the obvious. Whereas, in fact, from what I've heard when people have tried the players don't think there's anything odd in it, and think it's considerate of them to mention it. \$\endgroup\$ – A. B. Jun 27 at 3:39
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Mature themes disclaimer

Before starting the campaign, let players know that your game will include “mature themes”.

Anyone choosing to engage in D&D should already be aware that it’s fantasy fiction where violence is an expected mode of conflict resolution in game.

However, to make it explicit to players ahead of time, let them know that your game will engage in “mature themes” as popularlized by fiction rating agencies such MPAA.

Mature Theme - Contains storylines that may be disturbing or incomprehensible to minors. May contain portrayals of domestic violence, racism, religious matters, death, or controversial social issues. - Wiki; Canadian Home Video Rating System

Ask players if they are over 18 years old or have parental permission to play in your game.

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  • \$\begingroup\$ Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat. \$\endgroup\$ – Someone_Evil Jun 25 at 17:19

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