Monday, September 11, 2023

Building Bhakashal - Consent and Troubling Content.

I saw a post this week on Twitter indicating that one of WotC’s latest products asks the referee to check in and get consent from players to have their PCs potentially transformed into a mind flayer. Do you need to get consent from your players to run a monster that, for example, can transform the PC in a permanent way?

People are falling into familiar camps on this question, but I want to suggest that the question itself is flawed. I sometimes think that people don’t actually pay much attention to the details of the game. They appreciate the broad strokes, but they don’t really look too closely.

Let’s just take a stroll through the monster manual, shall we? In D&D you can be:

  1. Eaten alive by giant ants!

  2. Have your face burned off by anhkheg spit!

  3. Be turned to stone by a basilisk, alive but unable to move or act in any way, forever!

  4. How about fighting a swarm of 3-12 bombardier beetles, each 4 feet long, they spray reddish acidic vapor from their “abdomens” out the back!

  5. A black pudding can ooze over you, its thousands of small mouths will consume you alive while its acidic saliva dissolves your flesh!

  6. How about a carrion crawler, they paralyze you and CONSUME YOU ALIVE, or, lay eggs in you!

  7. How about a horde of foot long giant centipedes! Say 24 of them swarm you and crawl all over your body! Many people shudder at the sight of a 1 inch long centipede, can you imagine!

  8. Ear seekers are good, horrific fun, they burrow into your ear, lay eggs and the eggs hatch and eat you alive from the inside!

  9. A gelatinous cube paralyzes you then proceeds to digest you for 5-20 rounds, have your PC dissolved into nothing!

  10. Green slime will attach itself to you and in 1-4 rounds TRANSFORM YOU INTO GREEN SLIME!

  11. Don’t forget ghouls! If a ghoul kills you, they DINE ON YOUR BODY then YOU BECOME A GHOUL AND FEAST ON THE FLESH OF OTHERS!

  12. The brain on legs intellect devourer will CONSUME YOUR BRAIN AND TAKE OVER YOUR BODY, making you a meat puppet. Ouch!

  13. Mind flayers, in addition to apparently transforming you, can EAT YOUR BRAIN!

  14. The touch of a mummy brings on “rotting disease”, charming!

  15. An ochre jelly can ooze through small spaces and travel on walls and ceilings, and it can dissolve your flesh!

  16. Ogres, trolls, troglodytes and such will kill you and EAT YOU, they may start before you are dead!

  17. A peryton will tear out your heart and use it for reproduction, ICK!

  18. Rot grubs will burrow into your flesh, you either burn them out doing damage to yourself or they burrow to the heart and eat it!

  19. A shambling mound can draw you in and you suffocate and die inside of the creature  

  20. Giant ticks will drain the blood from your body until you are dead!

  21. Giant Wasps will paralyze you then insert eggs into you which hatch and devour your paralyzed body!

I’ll stop there before getting to the Fiend Folio and the Monster Manual 2. The Fiend Folio in particular has a ton of extremely grotesque and terrifying monsters, including my favorite, the Gibbering Mouther! 

Where are the consent requests for that badboy!

So here is the thing. D&D is chock full of horrific monsters like these. Any one of the listed monsters above kills in ways that are quite terrifying, and certainly as objectionable as being polymorphed by a mind flayer. Actually, being polymorphed by a mind flayer sounds positively FUN compared to being paralyzed and eaten alive by giant wasp larvae, being paralyzed, partially devoured and transformed into a ghoul or being transformed into green slime. 

Why are we requiring player consent for a mind flayer polymorph when all of these terrifying, body horror elements have been in D&D since the 1970s? Has WotC just figured out that D&D has body horror elements to it? It’s like the people running the show DON’T EVEN PLAY THE GAME. I can’t “get” how you can design for a game like D&D and not be aware of these things, green slimes, black puddings, ghouls, these aren’t “fringe” monsters, these are ICONIC! 

I think the WotC is falling down the same rabbit hole as they did when orcs became problematic. They aren’t considering the implications of what they are doing, they are just reacting without understanding.

What is the Problem?

IMO the problem here is that the hobby has adopted a consent framework for the player/referee relationship. Imported from the kink community, the idea was that just like some sexual activities require consent otherwise they can be coercive and traumatic, gaming should require consent as it has potentially traumatic elements to it. On the surface this sounds fairly reasonable, but the challenge is that it turns the relationship on its head, and makes it untenable.

Just like the objections to orcs can be applied to many monsters (I posted about this a few months ago), the objections to mind flayer transformation can be applied to other monsters. Unless you want to be asking for consent for a different monster in virtually every session you play, the consent model is not viable.

It creates a situation where the referee is beholden to individual players. 

It also takes a lot of the fun out of the process, part of the excitement is not knowing what will happen. Getting consent for each individual monster’s attacks is not a model that allows for surprise and fun.

Instead, I would recommend that gaming develop an opt out system, the referee makes clear the kind of game they are running, and players can opt out as they like. That way no one person is ending the fun for everyone, and there is still some mystery involved.

For my part, when a new player wants to join us, I send a standard document to the newcomers and their parents (I run an after school program) outlining the aspects of the game, I tell them that character death is on the table, that we don’t do “take backs”, that once the dice are rolled we don’t change results, that the game has multiple gods and a polytheistic setting, that players can play PCs of any gender (e.g., not their own if they like) and that there are a ton of grotesque, horrific monsters in the game (I cite a few of the examples above) that can kill you in terrifying ways.

If someone isn’t on board with the game I’m running, then they are welcome to find another table.

Having said that, once you are at the table then things are a bit different. If someone objects to a game element after they have been a player for a while, I generally remove it. This has only happened once in the last 4 years of my after school program, one player hated spiders, so I changed the spiders in encounters to lizards. Over time that player became OK with spiders, so we added them back.

Getting consent from players for particular monsters is unwieldy, there are too many monsters in D&D which, if actually played as written, are just as terrifying as a mind flayer transformation, and thus would also require consent. The referee already has a lot on their plates, and it makes much more sense for them to be clear about the kind of game they are running in a general way, and putting the burden back on the players to decide if it's the game for them or not. Don’t ask players for consent and change it if they don’t consent, get players to make the decision as to whether or not they want to play in the game as is. 

I await the enterprising individual who will list all the D&D monsters with grotesque and horrific attacks on a consent sheet and require the players to tick off all of the objectionable options.

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Building Bhakashal - Consent and Troubling Content. I saw a post this week on Twitter indicating that one of WotC’s latest products asks the...