Trigger Warning: in this post I reference the very real topics of Rape, Sexual Assault, and Torture as narrative devices and themes.
How This Topic Came About
After running 6-8 campaigns steadily for nearly 3 years, I've seen some weird things. Dark things. Players making difficult decisions, real character moments, some pretty messed up imagery... There's a large well of possibility in the huge range of fantasy, and as I allow more "adult-only" narrative content, the foray into dark fantasy only deepens that well.
However, as I explore these elements along with my players, in recent times I have recognized a distinct and powerful aversion to a few key topics, especially when wielded in specific contexts. Normally, I'm pretty open about playing a full spectrum of genders, orientations, moralities, and motivations, but after four separate players in different campaigns have referenced the same idea that leaves a bitter taste in my mouth... I think it needs to be addressed.
Elements That Will NEVER Be In Io
For all of the things that are wrong in my fictional world - even the very dark Sixth Age - THAT is not one of them. Magic is broken, people are manipulative, flirting and low-level harassment exist, violence, even racism depending on your region... But when also a decent chunk of the leadership is matriarchal or in all intent genderless, even the existence of such a thing seems ill-advised for whoever would dare to approach it (anyone attempting such a horrid act would probably be killed on the spot by ANYONE nearby).
There is quite literally no sexism in Io. Male and female adventurers, politicians, academics, nobles, and prostitutes all have equal gender representation. So when you remove that systemic bias, that culture becomes less and less viable. Which is why when peeps try to weave it into their backstory...I honestly get a little squeamish; I realize now because I've tried to build a fantasy world that is an ESCAPE for my players. And maybe, that topic is just a little too real to be able to handle it appropriately. Too many levels, too many layers, and too much trauma.
AND, I'm the freaking DM, and I am not comfortable with its existence in my fictional world. Done.
If you want coaching in formulating a traumatic event / dark defining moment in your backstory, I've got training in that; I've got a million other ways to make you a haunted soul, just NOT THAT.
And for all the awful things that I am comfortable portraying as an actor, I am NOT OKAY portraying the literal scum of the earth that would seek to rob someone of their power and agency in such a grotesque manner.
There are no rapists in Io.
I think that's pretty reasonable.
Explicit Sexual Assault and Explicit Torture
Coming from the same vein, this represents more of a promise from me to you.
I WILL NOT sexually assault or torture your character. Even in an evil campaign. It robs the player of power in ways that are systemically traumatizing.
This is a game. And you didn't sign up to be traumatized.
Love who you want. Race, gender, orientation; polyamory, monogamy, friends with benefits. They all exist in the world, but the levels of detail would (of course) depend on the age and maturity of each table, so we use our judgement to what is appropriate. Relationships can exist without a lot of details, or can be more overt.
BUT...I don't care. And neither do the people in Io. You can be gay, straight, nothing, and everything. You be the character you want to be.
If you make someone uncomfortable and they have voiced as such, and you don't listen, then we certainly have a problem. That's a social boundary at the table and away from it, so be open to each other's comfort levels and the type of game we all agreed to play through our social contract.
What Else To Consider
Contextual Flirtation / Harassment / Respecting the word "no"
Horndogs exist (male and female) and we've all met our share of creatures legitimately DTF, but often in Io, flirtation ends up being either consensual, or, if the flirter doesn't get the desired response...THEY STOP. Or maybe they try a different adorable tactic. They won't be bullies about someone saying no.
Now, there are other forms of "flirtation" that bleed toward harassment and/or manipulation. I try to save this type of personal narrative interaction for settings like Gray Owls (21+), where the players are mature enough to move appropriately with such things and easily separate character and player, and the cloak and dagger aspects of emotional manipulation offer an extra layer of play, instead of a psychological danger.
Things get more complicated with the concepts of Demons, Devils, and Angels. Demons are all about that chaos, but Devils want it to be your decision to buy into their deal; they're all about their rules and contracts. Angels, too. So if a character outright refuses, it doesn't mean the entity won't stop trying, but they'll never outright force them down multiple paths - there must be a sequence of active decisions to lead them to such a point.
Also-also, creeps exist. There's a dude in Dragon Heist that's a lascivious little creep, but though he might talk about all the creepy things, he's in no place of power when met with the party; and if he were, that's not what he's into, so taking the power wouldn't be fun for him. In Io specifically, creeps exist, but they will offer an invitation - to which the player-character can always decline. They might be insulted, or otherwise miffed (depending on the social structure/time period/setting), but they will NEVER force themselves upon a person (what a concept, right?). A noble brat will react differently than a lord or lady depending on the setting, and the context. But yeah...no.
Now, in settings like Gray Owls, in the deep dark city underbelly, nasty people exist who do some pretty messed up stuff, but still... NOT THAT. We can get plenty dark without going there.
Player-Characters Flirting With NPCs / PC + NPC Relationships
Most of the time, this is a compliment train trying to get a discount on something, and in a high-fantasy world, I'm cool with it.
There are numerous relationships, engagements, one-night-stands (again, not explicit, "fade to the fireplace"), marriages, and complications I have run (and I'm currently running) between NPCs and Characters. They're fun, informative, and rewarding for those that want to buy into that sort of exploration.
It's if a player begins performing a strip-tease for the NPC that I, well, might GET A LITTLE UNCOMFORTABLE.
(Don't call me "Daddy"... It's a line I didn't know I had, but THERE IT IS)
Use your common sense. Read the room.
[This scenario has been rectified, but I keep it here as an example, not a damnation]
NPCs Are People Too
And I mean it. NPCs are played by me; you can't just stab them all in the heart and loot the bodies without natural consequences catching up to you (not out of me seeking vengeance, but because straight up murder is usually frowned upon).
But in a more personal sense, if you treat an NPC like garbage...expect them to react as an actual person would when treated like garbage. If you're using this power fantasy to take out your aggression on a friendly NPC that has no connection to your actual life...yeah, they're going to respond realistically to such harassment. Maybe that leads to a great character moment - we can weave it into the story somehow, maybe - but don't be surprised if the cleric you've been treating like trash doesn't want to heal your dumb ass. Just food for thought. These guys and gals aren't programs; I'm going to play them like people (because we're always teaching).
Remember The Four Agreements
Don't Take Things Personally
Don't Make Assumptions
Always Do Your Best
Be Impeccable With Your Word
You will suffer less pain, less misunderstanding, and more respectful play at the table.
Why Omissions Are Powerful
As I was formulating the words for this entry, it brought me down a very pervasive rabbit hole.
It could be that when I was constructing Io, I was discluding all of the elements (one at a time, as they arose) in my own world that I found culturally stupid. And for all the things that are wrong in my fiction, I am glad to say that these are not any of them moving forward. There's nothing wrong with pursuing a safer place to stretch your imagination; where the echoes of our lives can be left at door.
I'm trying to build a better world to play in, even if it's all in my head. And I would rather cultivate an intriguing diversion, then a reminder of all the awful we see. What if we all had the ability to punch the reset button on all the big, bad, and ugly - just for a moment - and see what would actually be possible? That's an empowering thing. It is my well of hope. My guiding light.
Oh, and magic. Magic's pretty dope.
Treat each other well.
See you at the table.
Game On! Director, musician, music teacher, game designer, and professional game master. In short, I'M A BIG NERD.