Breaking Taboos: Sensitive Topics in Your Historical Roleplaying Game Campaign

Our culture, like any other culture, has certain taboos. Some things are not discussed in public; some things are not discussed with strangers; and some things are not discussed at all. So far I’m not saying anything particularly controversial, of course; but it can all get a little complicated when you’re running a tabletop roleplaying game (RPG) campaign. Because one of the interesting things about gamers is that we all have opinions. Rather strong ones, sometimes.


Generally speaking, these days one big conundrum for game designers is — no, not sex. Sex was the big Weighty, Fraught Subject for RPGs when I was half the age that I am now. And, honestly: it got resolved when the Internet took off. Gamers can now get their ‘hot female humanoids wearing little or no clothing’ needs assuaged without once troubling the rest of the gaming table, and I for one welcome that development. It could get a little, ah, weird sometimes.

No, today’s Weighty, Fraught Subject for RPGs is probably how a game should handle the awkward fact that historical periods didn’t think, act, and especially talk like our modern culture does. To give one classic example: in the default Call of Cthulhu horror RPG 1920s setting, segregation is automatic and real, people spoke unselfconsciously of ‘the Italian race’ or whatnot, and there were any number of glaring misconceptions about the capabilities and limitations of women*. Quite a lot of ink has been spent on how to address that problem and related ones in a game, and the advice mostly breaks down into two categories:

  • Ignore it.

  • Wallow in it.

Both approaches have their merits. The best (in terms of well-done) example that I can think of that used the first approach was actually from a movie (Captain America: The First Avenger): Marvel did not even try to explain the complexities of race in the US Army during World War II. The movie just went and retroactively integrated American armed forces, and didn’t even break stride doing it. And it worked! For the purposes of the movie, which was of course to have everybody in America come buy a ticket, eat popcorn, and later buy one of those Cap shield-frisbees ‘for their kids.’ So if you’re into having fun and blowing off steam, well, I’d not look too hard at the unpleasant historical truths.


Wallowing, on the other hand, doesn’t give you that innocent joy one gets from ignoring those unpleasant historical truths – but at the same time, it’s also admittedly more honest. A lot of times, people play a historical RPG because they’re interested in the historical setting on its own merits, and they’d like to get at least a little into their character. That involves figuring out the character’s motivations and expectations, which obviously includes the motivations our culture would find distasteful and the expectations that we find wrong-headed. So if you and your players want to live a character, well, go for wallowing.

Whichever strategy you pick for a campaign, though, there are two pieces of advice I’d give. First: if you have players who are split between ‘ignoring’ and ‘wallowing,’ then the players who favor the latter will at least have to be fine with not getting upset with the players who favor the former. Everybody’s got their own definition of ‘fun.’

Second: if you’re playing an avowedly ‘wallowing’ game, don’t let your players get away with playing characters who are essentially Modern People Dressed In Period Clothing. There’s an Order of the Stick webcomic that addresses that problem, albeit in a fantasy style: basically, people want to play Dark Elves, because Dark Elves are cool and interesting and have neat abilities. But Dark Elves are also Evil, so usually when somebody plays one they’re always playing somebody rebelling against their heritage. This sort of thing is not a cop-out when everybody’s cheerfully ignoring the awkward parts of a campaign setting; but it kind of is a cop-out when the rest of the party is trying to recreate an era, warts and all. Again: everybody’s got their own definition of ‘fun.’


*Please remember that your grandchildren will have similar opinions about your generation. And that you actually have no idea what the future will find distasteful about us.

(Artwork created using multiple images.)


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