Over in the Boardgames category, there’s an ongoing thread about “Racism and other troublesome elements in games.” I haven’t a lot to contribute to that, as I don’t play many board or card games and don’t keep up with what’s coming out there. But I do play roleplaying games, including some set in the past (I’ve run campaigns set in the late Roman Empire, the colored district of 1930s New Orleans, the Near East during the First Crusade, France under the Regency, an alternate Earth dominated by the fleets of the Ming Dynasty, and Edwardian London, among others), and similar issues arise there. It’s possible that they may be more direct, as RPGs involve characters who must be imagined as people and who have experiences of the historical realities that surround them. So what do you do when your character must confront troublesome elements in a society?
I should note that for me personally, this arise also with elements in present-day societies; I don’t assume that the laws and customs of the present have ultimate moral validity. For example, for me, compulsory taxation is a troublesome element; I think that government by consent requires funding by donations and user fees, not by excises, and that compulsory taxes ought to be seen as an abuse in the same way that slavery is seen as an abuse. But I run games for people who don’t share my views and haven’t signed up for campaigns about heroic libertarian struggles for a better world; and it’s not my job as a GM to preach to them. So I build settings that do have taxation, and leave it in the background, and focus on whatever the actual theme of the campaign is.
In some campaigns I leave the problematic material out, unless it becomes directly relevant. In my Roman Empire campaign, for example, there were certainly slaves present—one of the characters belonged to an aristocratic household in Burdigala (now called Bordeaux), and it certainly had slaves. But we mostly left them in the background, just as we mostly leave wages in the background in near past and present-day settings. On the other hand, there was one session where the player characters were investigating a murder, and needed testimony from slaves of the household where the murder took place—and under Roman law, such testimony had to be given under torture. So one of the players had his character give a slave a good hard slap and then ask his questions, which met the requirement pro forma without making the character seem monstrous (rather like the way Horatio Hornblower dealt with flogging in Forester’s novels).
On the other hand, when the troublesome elements were more central, we tended to play them out and have the player characters confront them. In my New Orleans campaign, for example, the players came to say that the scariest things they confronted weren’t supernatural monsters but (white) cops.
There’s also the question of confronting customs of the past, or even realities of the present, that are viewed as troublesome by present-day culture. For example, in most of the United States, at least, sexual activity by adolescents is seen as problematic, and even described as “pedophilia.” But in historical societies, it was often commonplace for adolescents to marry—especially girls, whose fertility could not be spared in societies with high infant death rates; and adolescent sexual activity is commonplace in our society, despite its strictures. So how should this topic be portrayed? I don’t just want to leave it out; my players, perhaps especially the women, find such subplots interesting (when I ran a Tolkienian campaign, I said at the outset that we would fade to black between the first kiss and the birth of the first child, and it turned out to be a good thing I did!). I don’t like historical (or present-day cultural) falsification. I could avoid bringing adolescents on stage, but I’ve run more than one campaign with adolescent player characters; my players often like them and they give an interestingly different perspective on a society. But I’m sure there are people who would find the portrayal of adolescent sexuality, even in relationships between characters of the same age, to be troublesome.
I suppose that one alternative would be never to set campaigns in the past, but to place them in the present, the future, or alternative world with different pasts than ours. But the past has a lot of rich material and dramatic conflicts. And for me, at least, the present is troublesome as well—but I don’t want to avoid the present and the recent past as settings; that’s too limiting.
So for those of you who run or play RPGs, how do you deal with such issues?