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In the next adventure I'm going to play a drow male, who was casually bullied, whipped etc. by females of the drow society. That's how that society works, after all. It's in the books. He now has a new deity and purpose, but wounds are supposed to be fresh.

D&D is a heroic game, and more grim and dark element got softer since the original AD&D times. Or so it seems from my point of view. And it was never meant to be as brutal as, say, Vampire games. Drow society, and characters that are still young, still processing trauma, not heroically over it as Drizzt Do'Urden and his clones seems to be.

I don't want to upset fellow players, but at the same time I want this part of my story to really be present. What is the simplest and least intrusive technique to allow it?

I'm playing 5e in the Forgotten Realms but I believe this question will be similarly relevant for all other editions, and even games from the extended family, that have matriarchal cruel drow societies.

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Show, don't tell.

Most people who were raped or tortured or beaten don't enjoy telling people the graphic details of such. The scars still run deep, but they don't go giving their work colleagues blow by blow tales of their abuse.

You can be fearful, or angry around drow women. Murder especially brutally any enemy woman who tries to mind control you or verbally abuse you. Occasionally show hints of the scars and wounds during roleplay. Show a hypersensitivity to the mood of those in authority. Show a lot of sympathy to any male slaves. Nothing that hurts the party, or hurts your mission, but a lot of emotional value around your backstory.

A background of "I was tortured and escaped" isn't something that is that difficult to roleplay, or needs massive buy in. It's a fairly standard trope for backstories. It's fairly easy to explain in character as well. "That enemy witch who tried to dominate me to attack you- reminded me of being back in the underdark, when Lolth's dark priestesses tried to break me."

If they ask, get buy in, in character, before talking.

If you do have some reason to go in depth into it, like they ask for more details and you want to tell, tell them it's a dark and terrible tale of bullying and torture. Then tell a story that mostly focuses on your emotions.

Rather than saying.

"Oh they whipped me, and whipped me, and blood dripped down my back, as my raw muscles were exposed to air, and I screamed as they rubbed salt in the wounds-" or some such torture porn say

"I refused to follow her orders. I refused to hurt my brother for her amusement. She didn't like that. Her face twisted with anger, and she sent me to be whipped."

That way, you're not creeping people out with random torture porn.

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    \$\begingroup\$ For accessibility reasons, it's better to use markdown for headers (# or ## or ###) than to use bold type. \$\endgroup\$ Jun 18 at 16:16
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Ask your fellow players, not us.

We can’t tell you what the other players at your table are going to be okay with, we don’t know anything about their experiences. So you need to talk to them. Find out what themes they are okay with encountering and what lines they want to draw, and then craft your story within those boundaries.

For some more concrete guidance here, see this Q&A: What do the terms "lines" and "veils" mean?

Tasha's Cauldron of Everything includes some helpful guidance on how this conversation might take place, and continue to take place, as your play your game:

Hard and Soft Limits

Once you and the players have acknowledged the terms of the game’s social contract and agreed to uphold them, the conversation can segue into a discussion about soft and hard limits. There are many ways to mediate this discussion, and you might want to do some research to find an approach that might work well for your group. For purposes of this explanation, these terms are described as follows:

A soft limit is a threshold that one should think twice about crossing, as it is likely to create genuine anxiety, fear, and discomfort.

A hard limit is a threshold that should never be crossed.

Every member of the group has soft and hard limits, and it behooves everyone in the group to know what they are. Make sure everyone at the table is comfortable with how this discussion takes place. Players might not want to discuss their limits aloud around the table, especially if they’re new to roleplaying games or haven’t spent a lot of time with certain other members of the group. One way to alleviate such discomfort is to encourage the players to share their limits privately with you and allow you to present them without attribution to the whole group. For example, the players could write their limits on index cards for you to read aloud. However these limits are presented, it would be useful for you or one of the players to compile the limits into one list that can be shared with the whole group. Keep in mind that any discussion about limits should be treated with care—even sharing a person’s limits can be a very painful experience, and this conversation should be handled with respect.

[...]

The discussion of limits is important because DMs and players can have phobias or triggers that others might not be aware of. Any in-game topic or theme that makes a member of the gaming group feel unsafe or uncomfortable should be avoided. If a topic or theme makes one or more players nervous but they give you consent to include it in-game, incorporating it should be handled with care, and you must be ready to veer away from such topics and themes quickly.

While session zero is the perfect place to start this discussion, it might not be the only time limits are addressed. Someone might cross a line and need to be reminded of a limit, or someone might not think to include some of their limits in the initial discussion. Players can also discover new limits as the campaign unfolds. Make a plan to check in with the group to make sure the list of hard and soft limits is up to date, and remind everyone to revisit this list often in case it changes.

Here are some other helpful Q&As from around the site:

While these questions have varying levels of specificity to your particular situation, there is a lot of generally applicable wisdom to be found in the higher scoring answers throughout.

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  • \$\begingroup\$ We are under reqest from DM not to discuss backstories, so I'll have to figure out how to do that. \$\endgroup\$
    – Mołot
    Jun 18 at 11:53
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    \$\begingroup\$ @Mołot Okay, then, when you discuss these things before you begin playing, just don't say "btw this stuff is in my backstory". \$\endgroup\$ Jun 18 at 11:58
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    \$\begingroup\$ Stars & Wishes too \$\endgroup\$
    – Trish
    Jun 18 at 14:04
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    \$\begingroup\$ This is absolutely the correct answer, but I would add that a lot of people are more comfortable with vague references than detailed descriptions. It may be helpful to proactively offer to keep things vague if necessary. \$\endgroup\$ Jun 18 at 16:58
  • \$\begingroup\$ Absolutely this. A lot of stuff is perfectly fine on one table and completely off-limits at the next. Especially these sensible topics \$\endgroup\$
    – Hobbamok
    Jun 21 at 10:24
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Bring that up on session 0

If you are aware that those themes may upset your fellow players then the best is to handle that before the campaign even starts. Ask them if that's ok!

If it is not ok, be ready to play another character (you can always save this one for another campaign with different players)

You don't need to tell them your whole backstory

Your fellow players don't have to validate your backstory: you only need to know if they are ready to have these themes brought up in their game. "Are you okay with the themes of torture, sexism, ...?" There may be some lines ("Absolutely not. I don't want sexism to be a thing in my games."), and/or some veils ("I don't mind if it is implied torture happened somehow, but no description of it, please.") and you will have to decide whether you try to fit your character within those constraints or simply play something else.

X-card does not work well in your case

X-card does not require preparation and thus works well as a safety net for problematic topic you didn't anticipate. Still, if you build a character around the concept of "being traumatized by torture" and this is vetoed when it comes up after one session, what are you going to do?

I recently had a similar issue with a character of mine in a one-shot session whose main personality trait was to be flirtatious. Sadly the first interaction I had was with a fellow PC and the player immediately vetoed it. As this trait was basically the whole character's personality it quickly became boring. On a one-shot it is not that big of an issue, but on a long campaign you don't want to be stuck with an empty character.

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    \$\begingroup\$ "if you build a character around the concept of "being traumatized by torture" and this is vetoed when it comes up after one session, what are you going to do?" - I'm going to discard that part and just leave the part about escaping oppressive goddess. I can work something out if I have to. It'll remove some aspects i want, but will leave enough for me to have some fun. \$\endgroup\$
    – Mołot
    Jun 18 at 12:42
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    \$\begingroup\$ @Mołot If you are able to discard that part and the result makes sense, then your character is not built around this concept. \$\endgroup\$ Jun 18 at 12:49
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    \$\begingroup\$ I mean, I can swap a weaker concept in that place and adjust. But it won't be quite the same character. \$\endgroup\$
    – Mołot
    Jun 18 at 12:53
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These are scenes from the past, backstory, so they will never get actually roleplayed. And for someone still processing trauma, it is unlikely that your character will describe them much - trauma victims generally don't enjoy talking about those events.

But you want to describe them so the other players/characters know about your backstory. You would skip over the gruesome parts and describe in great detail the other parts. Your character would likely remember the exact words his abusers spoke when announcing his most severe punishment, but would gloss over (or even blurred out in his own memory!) the actual torture.

Look at how people describe scars - "I was snowboarding with a bunch of friends. Great guys, wonderful people. The hill wasn't even that steep, I just didn't pay attention at that moment. They picked me up by helicopter even. Three weeks in a hospital. Yeah, that was like that." - just completely skipped over the actual injury and yet on first reading you maybe didn't even notice.


Things like prejudice and gender discrimination are more tricky, because those will be roleplayed.

Ask yourself how your character has processed these events. What is his relation to women today? Is he scared of them? Submissive? Or has he turned it around and is now a chauvinist and hates them? Or an interesting mix, he hates women and talks like a big dog, but if one confronts him, his old self comes out and he cowers down?

To not upset people at your gaming table, the general principle is to not go to extremes. The bully in the group is ok as long as bullying isn't the only thing he does. The womanizing bard is fine as long as he doesn't try to bed absolutely everything with breasts he comes across. You get the idea.

So also think about how your character has toned down and adjusted his attitude in order to function within society.

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Don't.

Ask yourself if it might upset someone, and if the answer is even maybe, change your plan. Don't risk upsetting a real life person to please your fantasy person.

Even asking in session zero risks adding upset where it isn't needed.

If you know your audience then that's a different matter, but then you wouldn't be asking. And even WotC recognise that the portrayal of drow needs to be changed.

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    \$\begingroup\$ That's the kind of things I would ask my fellow players even if I knew them: you never know, maybe on this campaign someone is trying something different ; or maybe someone never told you but is actually pretty uncomfortable with some topics \$\endgroup\$ Jun 18 at 12:42
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    \$\begingroup\$ "if the answer is even maybe," - You know some people are upset about stuff like people playing class/race/culture/gender X for some reason or another and people have no idea about that. Based on that reasoning, you can not play anything because the answer to anything will be maybe. \$\endgroup\$
    – Trish
    Jun 18 at 14:43
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    \$\begingroup\$ Strictly speaking, aren't they risking upsetting a real-life person to please other real-life people (particularly themself)? Surely it is best to err on the side of caution, but I feel like an answer like this almost seems to suggest that there should be no roleplaying games that deal with discrimination, torture, or prejudice. Or even violence: you don't mention it, but violence is totally something that can trigger some people. Just like there are many people in real life who enjoy reading books that contain prejudice or violence, aren't there people who want that in RPGs as well? \$\endgroup\$
    – Obie 2.0
    Jun 18 at 16:51
  • \$\begingroup\$ @Obie2.0 "almost seems to suggest that there should be no roleplaying games that deal with discrimination, torture, or prejudice." would that be so terrible really? \$\endgroup\$
    – Tiger Guy
    Jun 21 at 13:54
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    \$\begingroup\$ @TigerGuy - Considering how many people value psychological realism in their fiction (be it RPGs or other media), I think it could be. \$\endgroup\$
    – Obie 2.0
    Jun 21 at 19:33

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