Harrison Bergeron Plays D&D

So Sean K Reynolds and Shanna Germain have stirred up a bit of a pot with the publication of their pdf booklet Consent in Gaming. As the title implies, it’s all about players telling GMs what they (the players) will and will not allow in the game. It even comes with a handy checklist of various phobias and “triggering” situations to let the GM know what’s permissible.

I am, to say the least, not a fan of this sort of thing, either in a game or in regular life.

A large part of almost all RPGs is overcoming adversity. The best games not only challenge the characters, but also challenge the players. By imposing upon the GM a list of things which are not allowed, because one of the players at the table would be upset by their inclusion, is to miss the entire point that it’s only a game, and we can do things in our imaginations that we couldn’t do in the real world.

Take, for instance, spiders, which is one of the items in the book’s checklist which players could say they do not want to see included in the game. In some games (for instance Vault of the Drow, or just about anything with drow in it), this could be crippling. But worse, by protecting the player from the things that make them uncomfortable, they deny themselves the chance to overcome those things, even in an imaginative setting.

Someone could be deathly afraid of spiders in the real world, but in a fantasy RPG could jump into their midst, slashing and stabbing at the eight-legged foes, without any sort of danger to themselves. Doing that, in a safe environment at the gaming table, might actually help them! But by allowing them to not be challenged on any level, they forever lose the opportunity to overcome the thing that makes them uncomfortable.

Worse still, this mentality drags the entire gaming group down to the lowest common denominator. Ken, Frank, and Susan might be all set to set forth across the Sea of Dust in search of adventure, but Wade has checked off “thirst” and “heatstroke” on his checklist (yes, those are actually on there). So no Sea of Dust adventure for anyone. He is imposing his limitations on everyone else in the game, demanding that they accommodate his needs and desires.

Indeed, this sort of “racing to the bottom” when it comes to claims of victimhood and “I’m more damaged than you” contests that sometimes breaks out in online fora is in and of itself a form of control. By insisting that no one can do anything that everyone cannot do, it gives power to those who can’t (or won’t), as they place restrictions on those who can.

For those who are unfamiliar with the short story whose title I’ve used in the title of this article, I invite you to read Harrison Bergeron by Kurt Vonnegut. It’s a very quick read, I promise. It depicts a world in which:

Nobody was smarter than anybody else. Nobody was better looking than anybody else. Nobody was stronger or quicker than anybody else.

Of course, the way that’s accomplished is not by raising everyone up to the level of the very best in the world, but by bringing everyone down to the level of the “average”. And that is exactly what this book is trying to do to gaming; bring everyone down to the softest, safest, least challenging level possible.

Even scarier is the fact that some people are trying to do that with the rest of our lives, too, especially on college campuses.

The original story was intended as a warning. But some people today seem to take it as a prescription.

Honestly, though, if you get triggered by depictions of violence, or demons, or sexism, or whatever, and you know those are things that are not unheard-of in the RPG you’re going to play, maybe just don’t play? It seems a better option for the person with the issue to exercise some personal responsibility and remove themselves from the environment, rather than forcing everyone else to accommodate their needs.

It’s like going to a basketball game knowing you get triggered by high-pitched squeaking noises, and then insist everyone needs to wear loafers because their sneakers are triggering you. Just don’t go to the game in the first place!

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.

15 thoughts on “Harrison Bergeron Plays D&D

  1. This document is a loyalty test to weed out anyone who might have voted the wrong way or thinks wrong thoughts – something that has nearly zero to do with real life and literally zero to do with gaming.

    If you think for a moment the modern left does not believe in the gulag, here is the proof that they do.

  2. Vonnegut was a spot-on genius. Hopefully, the current idiocy will pass, as has so much else. If I live long enough to see it happen, I’ll chuckle sardonically.

  3. I’m not sure why I should care how other people play a game. It’s not going to change my enjoyment and if somebody insisted on changing something I did care about, I’d kindly ask them to leave my table.

  4. Bergeron is one of my faves. I remember reading it in high school and thinking it could never happen.
    It’s starting now. Thank you for this article.

  5. Comes to mind that I could produce a “Consent in Activism” booklet.

    If you look at all the activist bullshit since WWII, you probably couldn’t produce very many examples of prior consent being obtained from all involved parties.

    Collectivist models of society don’t exactly worry about getting explicit prior consent from individualists wrt implementation. Socialism is probably the religious center to the consent push, and consent is at best a useful flag of convenience for the true believers of the inner party.

    You make the gaming choices you want, I’ll make my choices as I want, and neither of us has to care a fig about the other’s business.

  6. “Someone could be deathly afraid of spiders in the real world, but in a fantasy RPG could jump into their midst, slashing and stabbing at the eight-legged foes, without any sort of danger to themselves. Doing that, in a safe environment at the gaming table, might actually help them! But by allowing them to not be challenged on any level, they forever lose the opportunity to overcome the thing that makes them uncomfortable.”

    Let’s follow the logic here:

    Your position is that DMs can put players into situations that affect the mental health of their players, and that this is a good thing.

    Because a medical professional may use a technique with consent in a clinical setting to affect someone’s health, is it fine for a layman to do the same with no training, consultation, research, or consent?

    Indeed, is it laudable for the DM to second-guess the person and any medical professionals they’ve consulted? Does this mean that game masters should ignore whether they’re putting people in these situations, or that they should engineer scenarios that invoke them?

    An analogous viewpoint: “Some people have food allergies, and if they’re serious about them, they should never eat out or at someone’s house. If someone tells me beforehand that they have an allergy and comes over for dinner, it’s okay for me either not to check the ingredients or to feed them that food deliberately, because maybe they’ll find out they’re not allergic and I’ll be doing them a great service.”

    I think you’ve managed to show why exactly a book like this is necessary, although I don’t think the authors really anticipated anyone would be this far gone.

    We can both agree there are some people who shouldn’t be gaming. My first choice is GMs who say, “I believe that what I’m doing could impact the health of my friends in ways they don’t anticipate, but doing what I want in what’s ‘only a game’ is more important to me than having a conversation about that.”

    But neither of us is in charge of who games. We can buy the books we want, seek out the groups that fit us, and have a great time with our friends – or, for some of us, our involuntary medical subjects.

  7. While is it asinine to live your life on the assumption that everyone you encounter might have a deep seated trauma or phobia, it is just as asinine to assume that people who actually have deep seated phobias to traumas can just “get over it”.

    And did you even read that thrivetalk article you linked, where it (a) talked about aversion therapy being performed by trained professionals, and (b) flagged concerns that there are risks of it actually ding damage? You’re a DM, it’s not your place to force amateur therapy sessions on your players.

    I was running a game where one of the elements touched on a matter of genuine trauma for a player. And the player politely told me about it, and I dropped that element, and we moved on. That is how grown-ups handle this sort of thing.

    In short, don’t try to fight stupid with more stupid.

    1. Follow up anecdote, because I mentioned this post to my daughter.

      Not long ago my daughter joined a group where the DM asked the players to let him know if there were any scenarios they wanted to avoid. My daughter really appreciated that, because of another (former) group where the DM decided her an NPC should rape her character. She was understandably uncomfortable with this and expressed it to the group, only one of whom backed her up, to no avail. Needless to say she left the group, but it would have been much better if she had not had to put up with that in the first place.

      1. Truth to tell, I wouldn’t want to be part of a group that featured NPCs raping PCs, either. I’d leave such a group. Which is entirely consistent with my point in the post; it’s up to the person who feels discomfort to leave the group, not impose their own limitations on the rest of the group that doesn’t share them.

  8. I’m not surprised. Yours truly was subscribed to various Dungeons & Dragons email lists in the ’90s and early ’00s. Sean Reynolds was a notable on the Greyhawk list (and also the Realms list as well). He was a left-liberal and well outside the mainstream of Democrat issues even then. That he’s one of these “woke” activists now makes sense.

  9. Unfortunately, if companies like Wizards of the Coast listen to the vocal minority and adjust their content accordingly, they’ll end up nerfing villains and monsters. You could end up with official adventures that play like an episode of Scooby Doo. “Gosh Darn you meddling kids!”

  10. The issues on the list seem quite skewed towards current ‘social justice’ concerns. Perhaps it should be extended so that a broader selection of players would also be assured of their safety?

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