Social Issues in RPGs

Something occurred to me today, and I was hoping to get some feedback from you, my loyal readers. Have you ever played in an RPG (or run one) that made a deliberate effort to include a commentary on some social issue?

By this, I mean raising the issue of something like gay marriage, contemporary politics, abortion, euthanasia, racial equality, questions of religion, etc. It need not be overt; one could, for instance, use elf-human marriage as an analogue for interracial marriage. A society could mandate the death of anyone who reaches a certain age or degree of infirmity. And so on.

I’m curious as to whether anyone here had actually done a game like that and if so, how did it go?

Written by 

Wargamer and RPG'er since the 1970's, author of Adventures Dark and Deep, Castle of the Mad Archmage, and other things, and proprietor of the Greyhawk Grognard blog.

18 thoughts on “Social Issues in RPGs

  1. You mean, in the manner of Star Treks old and new? Careful, that way lies "The Omega Glory." I'm much more comfortable with satire or tragedy that tells a universal lesson about the nature of power, belief and morality. Stays fresher longer.

  2. Absolutely.

    The entire genesis of The Dragon and the Phoenix was based on my players/playtesters desire to tell a story from a very pro-lesbian point of view. They were tired of being the minority that was always killed in TV shows and movies (see the Celluloid Closet for details) and be able to do something positive.

  3. I have addressed some of these issues in my more recent games. We're all middle-aged businessmen, so there's plenty of free reign to address adult topics.

    We play a Dark Ages, low magic fantasy. We have regular NPCs who are openly gay, two of which are powerful allies to the party. Religious tolerance is also a regular theme. We've had a few scenarios where difficult ethical question have arisen that, frankly, shocked a few players.

    Overall, its been an interesting experiment to dabble in such topics. Our game is deeper and metaphors reverberate throughout the story; but, we've lost two (of six) players along the way.

  4. In one of my two primary campaigns (which also serves as the setting for my novel "Clearwater Dawn"), Elves and Humans are embroiled in a bitter racial hatred that goes back generations and has spawned two catastrophic wars. I can't say that the intent of the original campaign was to provide "commentary" in the sense that i was trying to teach the players anything. However, it was definitely an attempt to reflect a bit of real-world conflict in the hope of enriching the game.

    In a ready-made context, one of my best old-school memories is module U3, "The Final Enemy" (third of the great Saltmarsh series). Deep in a sahuagin lair, the PCs trip across a ceremony wherein innocent infant sahuagin are being sacrificed to a shark in a dark ceremony. The module specifically calls out the fact that good characters might have problems with this despite the inherent evil of the sahuagin as a race, as was the case when we played. I know that sweeping moral dilemmas in-game aren't to everyone's taste, but i'm a big fan.

  5. Only a couple times back in the day and, to be honest, I have better things to do with my gaming time. RPGing is an escape for me from contemporary issues and problems. Dragging them into the game to confront with PC's might be someone else's cup of tea but it's just not *fun* for me, and that's the whole point of gaming: enjoying yourself.

    Frankly, the lengthy discussions you find on some gaming forums about the morality of killing non-combatant orcs, or even if hobgoblins are *all* inerently evil gets very old very quickly. Judging from the threads on those topics I have seen gives me very little hope that many "social issues" included in gaming session rise above the level of the most basic politically correct sop.

    YMMV, of course 🙂

  6. We have run several adventures or campaigns were polyamory vs monogamy was an issue.

    There are a number of Bi-females that just weren't considered a big topic when it came up.

    I think we often discuss the idea of racism but only specifically about the racial killing of goblins, as in maybe they only kill humans because humans kill goblins. This has led to at least two alliances.

  7. Back in those heady days when 3.0 was just a twinkle in WotC collective eyes I ran a game in which I subverted the racial stereotypes of the Orks and Elves while trying to not actually steal their natures from them. In the end the Elves were the biggest villains while the Orks, while remaining barbarous and deeply unpleasant were friends and allies and lovers.

    In 3.0 I made the Orks more adaptive than humans, but due to short life-spans and a culture that favoured might over knowledge they didn't tend to pass on what they learned. The PC's trained a tribe up to use as their personal mercenary force, which subverted the whole point of my commentary.

    My wife made the Orks a deeply misunderstood desert people. Who got on really well with the equally deeply misunderstood desert dwelling humans.

    When a friend ran an adult themed game we ended up travelling with a tribe of Orks as guides. When they raided an enemy caravan my Barbarian threw herself between the Ork warriors and their defeated human (female) captives. She later reported that the Orks were "deeply passionate" and was made an honorary member of the tribe by the female Orks.

    We all seemed to be commenting on the flagrant racism that seems to be inherent of the original source material of D&D. Fantasy races are just people, just like real world cultures are just people. That's the model I'm sticking to.

  8. I like to play a very medieval game. I have no interest in bring 21st century ideas, ideals, or values into my game. I get enough of that in real life.

    So, no , it hasn't happened.

  9. In theory, on paper, the idea is very appealing to me. Unfortunately, too many gamers today can't have a polite, civilized and adult conversation about two editions of the same roleplaying game that I shudder at the thought of having any discourse with them about far more important issues like the environment, gay marriage or the economy.

    I'll just stick to killing things and taking their stuff. 🙂

  10. Being a gay guy myself, there is nothing odd about all kinds of sexualities in the games I have run or participated in. I don't consider this commentary or an issue, but I suppose others might.

  11. I usually have odd situations, but never as a sort of preachy morality thing.

    The game worlds I run in are very influenced by real-life societies, so a greek-inspired culture might have pederasty, whereas an middle-eastern one might have arranged marriages or maybe something even weirder.

    I think that using the DM screen as a pulpit to try and "make your players think" is a very arrogant use of game-time.

  12. While all these kind of issues occur in games I’ve played in, they aren’t really explored as much as simply fodder for interesting backstories and situations.

  13. No. I think it's a fantasy game, and that it is good to avoid such things, or deal with macro-issues like good vs. evil, greed vs. loyalty. Maybe the odd 'should we torture this prisoner yes or no'. But in no way do I want it to crumbled into yet one more platform to advance this or that ideological dogma.

    Too much of our modern debate, IMHO, is based on social or political issues. They're like oxygen or water. We can't seem to live without them. It's also how we tend to define people today. It's how we determine who does and doesn't have stars on their bellies. For me, D&D does not just a harken to a time when dragons lived, but a time before I knew everything defined by this or that side of the ideological fence.

  14. My longest-running campaign, a 3E-and-3.5E game that had characters go from 0 XP to, in one character's case, 20th level, one fight at a time, for real, no foolin', was, in no small part, social commentary.

    The basic thesis is this: the modern corporation is, effectively, Lawful Evil. More than that, it closely resembles the traditional devil. It is bound by legal contracts, but not morality. It is immortal. It has all the privileges of legal personhood but none of the responsibilities or duties.

    So, with that in mind…I set up a conflict between two purveyors of specialty dairy products. One was Halo Farms, a collective devoted to buying fresh products from independent farmers for fair prices. The other one was the Nine Hells Dairy, which used its addictive Black Cheese [0] to win entry into markets, undercut local producers' prices and drove them out of business, and then abused its monopoly (and its customers' addiction) to bleed the populace.

    You can guess which team my players signed up for. So they became dairy product consultants, opening up new markets for Nine Hills, often at swordpoint.


    [0] This was part of a whole riff on T1 and the Beat Poets, with a whole bunch of _Naked Lunch_ references.

  15. I've thought about this a bit more and come to realize that the reason it works for our group is that there is no value judgment, only consequences and stories.

    In game (GPC, Pendragon) we just went through a period of utter lawlessness, with no king or law beyond the sword and peoples' hearts. This Anarchy period lasted 15 years game time, about 20 "yearly" sessions for the group. The collapse of civil institutions instigated all manner of scenarios as the players tried to hold their county together from horseback. So the story arc definitely suited the topic.

    Thematically, the issues left room for good or ill. Compassion, justice and honor were thrown against greed, hatred and lust in ways that are pertinent to today's world. The openly gay man who wanted to simply live an ambitious life as a military officer in a martial world – often dominating the battlefield with his eschille – has obvious correlations to today's life. Euthanasia has raised its head when an elderly witch included the player characters as gigilos at her going away party. Rape and murder are constant, vivid companions in a violent world.

    Throughout all this, the players can honestly choose their own path. Its this ability to choose their own path and not be railroaded into a set course of action that has really helped the group accept challenging themes. Assassination, brutal pillaging of a neighbor's lands, premeditated murder and adultery are all vile acts in which the player knights have indulged. There were repercussions for the character knights; but, the group continued through the story in character without passing judgment on the player. Nor have I, as referee, meted out punishment for evil acts or reward for good acts. Acts are acts and they have consequences, that is all. Even with dramatically differing politic views (a vocal Tea Party supporter, two rationalist utilitarians and a hippy anarchist all populate our table), the withholding of judgement helps the story to blossom as characters live their sins and glories.

    So I say, if you've got a group willing to try on the topics in an mature manner – go for it. If you want a pulpit, forget about it.

  16. It's a nice thought but I'm willing to bet the consequences focused on in your game are already influenced by the values you hold. In fact, "withholding of judgement" is itself a value judgement.

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