Taboos in Storytelling at My Table

Like many folks, I have been watching Game of Thrones this season (Season 5) and have hit a few points where I’ve had to struggle with my own sensibilities. The last couple of episodes have really tested my limits as far as those taboos. But it’s made me wonder a bit at the various lines I try to avoid in my own storytelling and campaigns… And I could only come up with two.

Keep in mind that these are MY taboos and though they may be shared by other folks, they may not. Obviously George R.R. Martin is ok with many forms of violence in the world of Game of Thrones and the TV producers have certainly taken that to heart.

Also keep in mind there are spoilers ahead, so if you don’t want any GoT Season 5 secrets to be unleashed before you’re ready – stop here.

Violence Against Children

Game of Thrones, S5 - Dance of Dragons

Game of Thrones, S5 – Dance of Dragons

A big one and the one that tripped me up in a recent episode of GoT had to do with violence against children, which isn’t new in this series (or the books). This is a violent world. Bad things happen to good people. What was new for me was the fact that it was a father allowing his child to be sacrificed on a fiery pyre.

As a father with two daughters, I honestly had difficulty watching and turned away. There’s no place for this in the real world. Anywhere. I know it happens, but it should not. Ever.

The writer and reader in me can see the forces at work on the characters involved. The story and motivations built to a point where he saw it as the only thing he could do. So the storyteller here understands. And as a person pushed and pulled by the forces of life, I get it.

But it is something I would never, ever do in my own games or stories. If it happens, it happens behind the scenes – not on camera.

Rape

Game-of-Thrones-Season-4-LogoThe next one is another hard one… rape. As a feeling human being, there’s no place for this in the world for this. Anywhere. Ever.

I’m not sure I can even see using it in my writing. What could possibly be the justification for using rape in a story directly? There aren’t any. So again, if it happens – it happens behind the scenes. So far behind the scenes that it is never mentioned.

 

This isn’t the first time I’ve been turned off by rape in storytelling either. Many, many years ago I was given the first trilogy of The Chronicles of Thomas Covenant by Stephen R. Donaldson. It was touted as one of the best fantasy series of the time and I was excited to read it. This was back when I was in high school I think. And reading that first book to discover that the main character rapes a young girl early on, I closed the books and donated them to Goodwill without another thought.

Though I’ve read most of the GoT series of books, rape still turns me off to an extreme.

I know it happens in the real world, but it should not. Therefore, in my idealized fictional worlds – it does not.

Perhaps this is pure idealism. Perhaps it’s a place where I want to remain ignorant of the horrible things we do to. Either way, it’s not something that shows up in my stories or games.

The Rest

Honestly, I had issues coming up with more than those two biggies, but here are a few others:

  • Sex is sex. Sure, it’s one of those things you don’t want to really cover in a campaign for kids, but if there are adults in the room – go for it, as long as it’s consensual.
  • Drugs. Well, as long as humanity has been around, we’ve probably been smoking something. No point in getting too up in arms over it so long as it’s a campaign with adults involved.
  • Gratuitous violence. I’m not a big fan of a PC suddenly, for no reason, wandering up and slitting someone’s throat in the middle of the street. But other than that, there’s not much more violence in tabletop games than there is in video games. So again – not worth getting too excited about.
  • Gratuitous destruction. I’ve already covered this in a Gassy Gnoll article (now over at Gamerati).

What are yours?

What are your taboos? Are there any ideas you can’t allow at your table or in your games or stories? Leave your thoughts below!

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This article has 5 comments

  1. forged Reply

    So the real question becomes … how realistic and potentially dark do you want to make your gaming world? Once you know that answer, you can decide what you are willing to show on-screen, off-screen, and not at all.

    For my personal tastes, I tend to keep rated R and worse material off-screen, and only bring it directly on-screen if the heroes have a chance to stop it from happening or are causing it to happen (in the case of sex/drugs/etc.)

    • Fitz

      @forged – Indeed. How much is off screen. But it’s strange to think how the “R” rating has changed over the last 30 years. I remember when it was just the occasional swear word or adult situation… Now it’s so much more graphic. So it’s all very dependent on your tastes – as you rightfully point out.

  2. Dominic Amann Reply

    Not simply to play devil’s advocate, I have to say that a campaign is the DMs s3lf expression as art. Rape occurs in the world, it occurred in the real mediaeval world, and it is hard to conceive of a fantasy world where it wouldn’t occur.

    Such terrible crimes provide clear opportunity for role play, not in a gratuitous sense but as a central plot device. I provide some examples.

    The lawful evil overlord attempting to exercise Droit de seigneur over the newly wed daughter of a bondsman. The custom is legally accepted while hated by the victims.

    A neighbouring country with which we have exchanged children of high-born as hostages for peace has invaded and we discover that our children have been assassinated. The decision has been made to kill the hostages in just retribution.

  3. RPG GM Reply

    Good article! I have been carefully examining GoT storytelling and comparing it to GMing for some time. I think after Red Wedding I got the message that horrible things will happen in the story, basically for the sake of being horrible. Not because it is an important plot device, but because it will shock and disgust. I think “to shock and disgust” is a terrible way to tell a story. I believe storytellers can have shocking or disgusting things in their stories but that should never be the point of having them in the story. In nearly every case so far, especially in S5, there was no good reason I could see to have these scenes. They didn’t teach the audiences that these people were bad, mean, corrupt, or evil. We already knew that. So there was no need to “remind us”.

    I think your point about turning away is an important one. I had to do the same with the burning of the girl. That kind of thing SHOULD appall us. People should turn away. But when you add such unnecessary horror to a story I find it not only turns people away from the scene, it turns us away from the story or campaign. When it comes down to it, all good storytellers draw their audience into the story, not push them out.

    • Fitz

      @RPG GM – I totally agree. It’s funny though – I like horror movies because they usually are written such that they make me laugh. This kind of horror however is unwelcome and really drives me nuts. Everybody has different levels they can stomach and I get that, but I don’t think they’re necessary. The Red Wedding is a great example. They could have cut away and let the butchery happen off camera just as easily, but that’s not the path the GoT folks have chosen.

      @Dominic – Totally get that. And I don’t discount that these things happen and that some folks use those as just more tools in the story telling toolbox. It’s fine. I just caution that some folks may not be able to handle such graphic, real-world violence in their artistic/creative endeavors. These are my taboos. I don’t hold anybody else to them. 🙂 And your examples are perfect. I might even use them – off camera – to further explore the depravity or level of commitment of the “bad guys”…

      It’s just interesting. Everybody has their lines in the sand I think and this season has hit two of mine. I haven’t even watched the season finale yet.

      Thanks for chiming in folks!!

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