Friday, 15 July 2022

Theorising What Is and Is Not Permissible - Lines and Veils

There is a lot of theft and murder in my games. There is never any on-screen torture, though it might be implied. There is categorically no rape or sexual abuse, and indeed that would be a red-line for me: if you think that kind of thing is fair game as subject matter at the table, then we're probably not going to get along.  

Why is it that most people are okay with depictions of looting, violence, arson and the like in games (and indeed often see such activities as the most enjoyable element of the entire enterprise) but not rape? To extend the question a little further: why is that we do not see anything particularly concerning about cinema audiences getting excited about watching, say, swathes of Zulu warriors being mown down by Welsh riflemen gleefully singing 'Men of Harlech' while being egged on by Michael Caine, and yet we would (quite rightly, for reasons which we will come to) be very worried indeed at the prospect of people being entertained by sexual violence?

The answer I think is relatively straightforward, though not often articulated. It's that while we can envisage circumstances in which violence, or for that matter theft, is morally ambivalent or even justified,  rape is simply always and unambiguously a moral enormity. It is absolutely right that people should be squeamish about it: it is disgusting and horrible and there is no situation in which it could possible be deemed as having any redeeming features whatsoever. 

This is probably also why torture occupies a bit of a grey zone. I'm not persuaded that torture is ever justifiable even in the classic 'ticking timebomb' scenario. But I recognise that there is some fuzziness about that and there are some people who would take the opposing view. So while I feel a bit uncomfortable with the idea of PCs torturing an orc merely to find out where the tribe's treasure is hidden or whatever, I couldn't envisage imposing a blanket ban. Instead, in that kind of scenario I have usually accepted a statement to the effect of 'we torture the orc' and then moved on. (Thankfully, it doesn't often come up.) 

I was intrigued to discover that the 'yoof' of today have come up with a way of systematising what is and is not permitted, and in what form, in a game, with the concept of 'lines and veils'. The idea here, at least as I understand it, is that a 'line' precludes a particular thing from cropping up during play entirely, whereas a 'veil' is something that can happen, but only ever, as it were, 'off-screen'. As is often the case when  mainstream gamer nerds try to parse their way through normal human interactions the concept is always framed in an intensely cringeworthy way - like Martians trying to explain to each other how to get along with earthlings - but this is one innovation I can see some merit in. Sexual violence is a line. Torture is a veil. That works for me: I get it.

24 comments:

  1. really the important thing here is that lines and veils, as generally used, are both openly voiced and generally non-negotiable once drawn. like you might give your whole "rape is never acceptable entertainment" spiel, and I might say, okay, I agree with you completely, but what if I wanted to play a character who had sexual assault as a crucial part of her backstory? sort of an "I Spit On Your Grave"-style character, battered and tragic. maybe you'd personally agree with me that that sort of character would be interesting at the table, maybe you don't want to explore those themes even from that sort of angle. we can discuss that further! HOWEVER, if you open session 0 (or whatever equivalent, maybe just a document with house rules) with "sexual assault is a line," then that's that, end of conversation. and that's a good thing! maybe you have personal trauma with sexual assault, and me bringing it up in any form would be deeply hurtful for you. maybe that's just the sort of thing you just don't want to exist in the game world at all! the point is, the line doesn't need further justification, it doesn't invite discussion, it just simply isn't crossed.

    I know that we often tend to look towards "discussion" as some universally value-neutral (or even universally value-positive) thing-- the merits of "talking like adults" or whatever. safety tools like lines and veils (and also the related X-card) exist for those times when talking through and justifying something simply isn't an option for whatever reason. oftentimes, the gaming table is simply the wrong place to explain to someone that you're actually a recovering drug addict and would rather hard drugs not be present in your fantasy escape, or that you'd personally been sexually assaulted and don't want to emotionally deal with any mention of that, or so on.

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    1. When talking through and discussing something isn't an option, what's wrong with something like "I'd rather not get into the details, but could we avoid making hard drugs an element of this campaign?"
      In addition to "passive-aggressive and dehumanising" I think I'll add "adversarial" to describe what these tools feel like to me. If the situation requires rules systems to ensure that people treat each other with basic decency, it might already be too late. Either the rules weren't necessary in the first place, or you're in a situation where at least one party will try their best to game the rules or exploit them playing silly power games.

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    2. of course saying something like that is often appropriate! that language is totally synonymous with lines/veils. but there are cases where lines/veils are just the more efficient language-- like if I'm making a system document full of houserules for my megadungeon campaign, and I want to include a complete ban on sexual assault content in the game, it can be easier to just say "lines: sexual assault" instead of "there will be absolutely no sexual assault in this game, due to reasons I will not discuss." both mean the same thing lol

      it's not adversarial unless you make it adversarial! sometimes difficult situations just come up at the table despite our best intentions, and it's good to have hard, unambiguous language to minimize the damage.

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    3. I agree. The language is kind of cringey but there's no reason for it to be necessarily adversarial.

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  2. Well there's also the issue that it's very unlikely that anyone at your table is a victim of murder but there is always a good chance that someone at you table has been raped in the past, making it personal in a way that murder (generally) isn't.

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    1. Well, a 'good chance' might not be the way I'd put it but I take the point.

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    2. Yeah not the best wording. Just meant that murder, pillaging, and whatnot is distant enough from the modern human experience that we have enough distance from it for it to be fun. Sexual violence...not so much, unfortunately.

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  3. Didn't Ron Edwards coin those terms? I wouldn't exactly use the word 'yoof' to describe him.

    In any case, while I also 'get' the idea and have no interest in causing discomfort or upsetting other players around the table (unless that's what we're all aiming for), I'm not sure I'd want to play with people who are unable to voice their discomfort without a system like this. Lines and veils, trigger warnings and other safety tools all feel weirdly passive-aggressive and dehumanising.

    Then again, I have no interest in playing with random people at conventions/game stores/online... I'll concede that there's a tiny chance these "tools" make more sense when not playing with friends...

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    1. The linked post credits Edwards and mentions the book, "Sex and Sorcery" (2003) where he first introduced the terms.

      As for people who are unable to voice their discomfort:

      The whole point of Lines and Veils precisely is for people to voice their discomfort. It isn't like an X-Card that gets dumped onto the table without comment. There is nothing passive-aggressive about it. It's about being clear.

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    2. What Christopher said. It's about voicing discomfort. "Sexual violence is a line for me" is precisely that.

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  4. It’s a fun game: why bother running things that are not fun? On the other hand, the specific exclusions do make the question of what makes the bad guys bad a bit harder to answer.

    SJB

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    1. Well, my games don't tend to have 'bad guys' per se. But there are plenty of ways for bad guys to be bad than just committing sex crimes, no?

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    2. Most definitely. However, the PCs are probably going to be committing acts that any sane society would brand “evil”, or at least transgressive, such as murder and looting. Having said that, I realise that any hint of animal cruelty is a line for me.

      I’m doing a little gaming project on eleventh century Germany so I thought I’d look out for some things that a pretty violent society regarded as “not on”: whipping and shearing legitimate officials (killing them is acceptable, the humiliation of authority not); secretly proselytising for paganism (there are massive pagan revolts so this is a canary in the coal mine); selling slaves to pagans (big business); lynching a social inferior between two dogs (this would be a no-no for me in a game but IRL there is risk of class war); stripping frail women of their gold and garments (this might be a bit near the knuckle but it’s looting + humiliation); impaling heads on stakes (possibly interfering with the resurrection of the body); burning priests at their altars (the trifecta of desecration); and, taking a different tack, copulating with priests (both parties super enthusiastic but church reformers not amused).

      Mind you this would all seem pretty mild to a band of orcs.

      SJB

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  5. I think that moral greyness is only partially true as an argument. After all, PCs and NPCs can engage in other unambiguously unethical acts that nobody cares about. And if you justify torture, you could definitely use rape as a form of torture, but you wouldn't allow that would you? So there must be another reason on top of that.

    I agree with Bosh: a big component is that rape is uncomfortably close to us (as a society, if not at a personal level), in a way that torture and even murder aren't.

    Another important point is that the difference between torture and rape is the sexual nature. Sex has a special taboo status in our society. Just think about R-rated movies: you can show tons of violence, but not sex. And talking about sex can be uncomfortable even when it's good consensual sex.

    Put the three together - ethics, closeness, sex taboo - and you have the perfect recipe for something that most people don't want to hear about while trying to have fun.

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  6. I don't think morality has much to do with it. OSR PCs often engage in violence which has no reasonable moral justification. There's no imaginable scenario in which it's right or justifiable to abduct, torture, and murder innocent people simply to gratify one's own sadistic impulses, but people will happily cheer on serial killers in media, and White Wolf spent years publishing games in which PCs were regularly expected to murder innocent people, including one (Slasher) which was literally about playing serial killers. As Bosh says, it's about what does or doesn't hit too close to home.

    It's the same reason many people (especially women) find stories about domestic violence much more upsetting than stories about operatic cruelty or extreme splatter. Everyone agrees that being chained up in some lunatic's murder basement is worse, in an absolute sense, than living with a violent and controlling boyfriend. But the former feels remote and fantastical, whereas the latter is horribly real and possible, and indeed something that many people will have experienced first-hand.

    You can get interesting results by shifting how 'real' you treat violence as being in games. Even a small shift of the dial towards treating it like 'real' violence rather than 'fantasy' violence - a slight lifting of the 'veil', in these terms - can often make players much less gung-ho about solving all their problems with murder!

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    1. So it is about morality then, but just in a different way! It's immoral to make people uncomfortable, particularly if they have experienced a certain thing first hand.

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  7. This lines and veils construct feels like a much better way to handle "safety" at the table; I will be using it. That said, I agree with Captain Crowbar's comment that there's a further nuance between 1) PC/setting backstory and 2) in-game, at-the-table content. I also think you can achieve a lot with a "show, don't tell" approach to sensitive topics. You don't need to explain in viscous detail why the serving girl flinches away from a charismatic noble. Either the players get it, or they don't.

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  8. Yeah, the terms “lines” and “veils” have been around in the indie (RPG) scene for close to 20+ years. Surprised you’ve only just heard of it.

    RPGs being descended from war games, violence (combat and death-dealing) is an inherent part of those games, especially the early ones (like D&D) and those early ones’ descendants (like 5E). Some later, more recent games have tried to de-emphasize the combat aspect…other times the violence is “grandfathered” in.

    Rape and sexual violence was never (so far as I’m aware) part of the game systems of war games. “Roll 2d6 x10 to see how many women are brutalized when your army takes such-and-such town?” No. While atrocities are often a part of war (look at Ukraine), they don’t generally sway the side of battle one way or another…and war GAMES are concerned with winning.

    RPGs are a different matter…but, leaving all creepy desires to be a serial killer/rapist/robber aside, what does it gain you (in a game like D&D) to commit rape? Bonus x.p.? No. In every imaginable, rape is impractical in an RPG…in addition to be morally reprehensible and running the risk of offending (or disgusting) the table.

    In my youth, rape (generally of female characters…which were played by both male and female players) was on the table as a possible “fail” state (along with imprisonment and/or torture)…an alternate penalty to death (or added insult to injury). Chalk that up to the callousness and naïveté of youth, too much reading of the wrong kind of fiction, and a lack of understanding of just how pervasive rape culture is/was and its effects. Likewise, at the time, there had not yet been the discussions (in RPG circles) of de-protagonizing players: how no one wants to be forced to play a character that’s been raped or abused or maimed or disfigured (just kill my PC already!). In D&D, death is impermanent…but you can’t be “un-raped.”

    *sigh* Maybe, it’s a sad statement that we have to have discussions of lines and veils at our tables, when (the things being veiled/lined) don’t even need to be apart of the game (they serve little usefulness). ‘Course it’s a sadder thing that we continue to perpetuate sexual violence and exploitation on our fellow humans.

    RE: torture (specifically)

    Just make a morale check…the prisoner breaks or s/he doesn’t. No torture necessary.

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    1. I mean, I wouldn't necessarily agree that nobody wants to play a rape victim. AT CERTAIN TABLES I can absolutely see sexual assault being treated with appropriate gravity. I mean, look at Emmy Allen's Dungeon Bitches, the entire game's built with the assumption of sexual trauma hovering at least in the background, if not the foreground. but god knows that's a VERY specific sort of game experience that I wouldn't try to pull off except in extremely specific situations

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    2. On the morale check point - yes, which I suppose is what makes torture a "veil".

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    3. It's an interesting debate. I agree that rape is definitely a red line for me, and I like the lines & veils tool.

      I've thankfully never had a character get sexually assaulted in a game. OTOH, I've had characters get sexually harrassed, racially profiled (as a 'fantasy race'), disfigured, maimed, enslaved, mind-controlled, tortured, driven insane, etc.... things which I didn't mind at the time (except for one of the multiple instances of sexual harassment), but things I know other gamers have objected to, either for reasons of personal trauma/distaste or political objections. I am male so getting grabbed for unwanted hugs-and-kisses by a high-level NPC witch, though it was annoying and definitely came across as a 'ha ha' power play by the DM -- this was in elementary school so no surprise! XD -- does not have the personal bad associations that it might have for someone of another gender.

      I think there's a middle line between treating things with heavy seriousness and treating the gameworld as a nihilistic joke. I've been reading a lot of fairytales and Arabian Nights stories lately and it's just a HEIGHTENED world where good fortune is exaggerated and bad fortune is exaggerated. Heroes are imprisoned, enslaved, tortured, beaten, maimed, etc. Even in fiction, protagonists can be de-protagonized, right? But it's a MAGIC world, so people can not only free themselves and avenge themselves on the bad guys, but get UN-maimed, UN-disfigured, maybe even go back in time and undo bad stuff, and so on! I think one of the appeals of roleplaying (and fiction in general) is to reach those heightened states, to be pulled into those ups and downs, places of joy and anger and grief. To be close enough to these heightened places to feel some of the tingle, but to have enough distance to not have the stings and slices dig deep.

      The few times when I've been really pissed off at a gaming table have been times when I felt 'the DM was out to get me', basically a sense of unfairness, of being targeted. Or that another player or players were 'out to get me' and were teasing/harassing me.

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  9. The thing I appreciate about Lines & Veils is that, for those of us who want to dip our toes in dangerous topics, it makes doing so a lot easier. We can discuss in advance where we want to avoid, what we want to allude to, and what we want to wallow in, up front, so everyone has the proper expectations for the game.

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  10. A simplistic hypothesis is that in cases of fighting or theft both (or more) sides have agency and so it can be framed as a competition. In cases of rape or torture the situation is one-sided. And this makes our sense of fair-play rise against it. There are some more nuances and individual reactions, of course.
    Mike

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