I remember kicking back with a particular issue of Conan the Barbarian around thirty or thirty-five years ago (in the glory days when Roy Thomas was writing it); I don’t recall the exact issue number. But I do remember a brilliant little bit of business which Roy included in the story.

Two night watchman types are standing guard on a dock, probably in Aquilonia. It’s late, nothing’s going on, and they’re bored out of their minds. So these two guys start swapping Brythunian jokes. The jokes were just rehashed Polish jokes (with references to Brythunia subbed in) and weren’t especially funny. But the idea was awesome. Bear in mind, this was during the 1970’s, when people still had the ability to laugh at themselves. Copies of The [insert ethnicity/nationality] Joke Book were flying off of bookstore shelves at a furious clip, and the biggest market for a particular book were people of the ethnicity in question. I have a very “New York Italian” aunt who I used to see maybe a couple of times a year and she was always terribly disappointed if I didn’t have a passel of new ”Italian jokes” that she hadn’t heard before. As I mentioned on St. Paddy’s Day, I’m Irish on my mom’s side of the family and I had all of the Official Irish Joke Books (I think there were three of them by the time it was all said and done, if I recall).

So, in the midst of this social climate, Roy innocently slipped a couple of Brythunian jokes into Conan the Barbarian – and there was an immediate crapstorm of controversy (well, a minor one anyway – maybe more like a crapsquall). A whole bunch of people got all butthurt and offended over it and wrote furious letters to Marvel Comics about how “horribly offensive” it was.

What? Their grandmothers were Brythunian? Give me a break.

See, I got it – Roy was adding a touch of realism to the book. Two guys guarding a dock are not going to stand silent and ramrod straight through a whole twelve hour shift (as you often see in comics and movies). They’re going to get lax, and they’re going to talk – a lot, probably about liquor and gambling, about the great new place to get an oxburger a couple of streets over, definitely about women. And they’re going to tell Brythunian jokes.

A few weeks ago I read some goofy post on some RPG message board about how the poster (a DM) was horribly offended that one of his players had invented some “racist” slang name for orcs (some completely made-up word the guy had cooked up) and, while playing in character, used this term repeatedly. Here again, the DM was pretty buttsore over how “offensively” this player was acting.

What? You’re a quarter orcish on your dad’s side?

My kids and I are avid Heroclix players. I’ve always been a bit put out that Heroclix has had two separate sets of WWII Allied soldiers (most recently last December in the DC 75th Anniversary set), plus a set of Blackhawks, a couple of iterations of the WWII Captain America, and a whole lot of 1940’s JSA members – but no Axis soldiers. Everybody I play ‘Clix with wants Axis troops: me, the kids, the guys we play with on Saturdays down at the game shop, everybody.

Yet every single time this gets brought up on a HC message board, a bunch of people invariably chime in with stuff like “If they add Nazis to this game, I’m quitting! I refuse to play a game which glorifies Nazism!”

Huh? Are you even a comic book fan???? Superhero comics have their roots in WWII; the whole damn genre exists in large measure because of that war. How can anybody claim to be a comics fan and not dig the idea of superheroes kicking the crap out of Axis soldiers, spies, and fifth columnists? Nobody’s saying that the figs have to be SS blackshirts with prominent swastika armbands or have the word “Nazi” on the Clix base. A generic soldier with the classic WWII German helmet called “Axis Soldier” would do nicely, thanks.

But these folks still keep crying about how they’ll “quit” because having Nazis in the game would be “glorifying Nazism”. Well, all right then! Don’t let it hit you in the ass on the way out, since we already have the Red Skull (twice! With two more on the way this summer), Baron Strucker, and Major Maxim – and that’s just a partial list of Nazis who have already appeared in Clix form. So what’s wrong with throwing some Axis generic grunts into the mix, so that we can have Heroclix games in which the JSA, Cap, and the Blackhawks wade through hordes of nameless minions on their way to the big villain? HC players are always whining about “comic accuracy” – what could possibly be more comic accurate than that?

All of this stuff kind of collided in my head about three weeks back. As I was pondering these thoughts, I had the idea to use this blog to ask the question I posed ten days ago.

I have to admit that I’m disappointed by the quantity of the replies; I honestly expected more comments about the post. The quality of the responses was fine – I just anticipated more of them. I also expected at least one buttsore “Intolerance in any form, even fictional, is a grievous wound on the very soul of our Mother the Universe” reply, and that absence was disappointing too.

Part of Scott Casper’s reply amused me, the part in which he guessed that one of my players had said something offensive. Sorry, but I had to laugh – I tend to be the “politically incorrect” one in any gaming group (Scott should have suspected that, being as he’d earlier asked me to clean up some of the language in my Vindicators posts prior to publication in The Trophy Case).

Here’s an example which is bound to offend some reader of this blog. It’s an incident from about a year and a half ago in our Silver City Villains & Vigilantes campaign. One of the campaign’s numerous plots involves drug dealers. It’s actually how the campaign began, with my teenaged sons (The Wraith and Lightning Lama) trying to clean up the streets of our town in the campaign’s first three or four adventures. Much later they discovered that a gangster named Toxin controlled all of the drug trade in Silver City, and had been introducing a mutagenic accelerator into his various illegal substances. Basically, if someone was genetically inclined toward mutation, the accelerator would cause him (or her) to develop mutant powers, while an existing mutant would develop enhanced abilities. The accelerator had absolutely no effect on the remaining 95+% of drug users. (All of which [partially – heh] explains why there has been a dramatic increase in the number of metahumans in our town over the past three or four years.)

One of the various metahumans encountered by Junior Justice was a young punk named Thunderbolt, who was born and raised in the Deep South under some less than ideal social circumstances; his family had traditionally been hardcore segregationists in decades past and had passed those beliefs on to Thunderbolt. The way I play T-bolt is as an uncultured jerk; sort of an uber-redneck. (He also busts on Lightning Lama a lot, since their powers are very similar. So I play up T-bolt as being as big a tool as I possibly can, just to help get Cody more involved and invested in the game.)

After some digging around, Junior Justice discovered the location of one of Toxin’s “drug factories”. As I (Deep Freeze) was unavailable at the time, the boys were backed up by Doc Falcon, resident scientific genius of the Justice Federation. Doc seldom gets involved with missions in a “hands-on” way, but he was interested in obtaining a sample of the mutagenic accelerator for testing. Also, although he’s African-American in appearance, he’s actually of mixed parentage – so I’m sure you already see where this story’s headed…

Doc and Junior Justice get to the drug factory and come on like gangbusters. The first thing they see is their old pal Thunderbolt, bending over a lab table (out on parole at the time, too – what a dumbass). T-bolt looks up, sees the three heroes, and says something about how the “kiddies” are back, capping it off with “And look – they’ve brought me a Nay-gro! I’ve always wanted one! How did you know?” (All said with a Georgia/Mississippi accent, hence that particular pronunciation of “Negro” — and I chose that particular word specifically because of its 1960’s “old school” segregationist connotations.)

The kids looked at me, shocked. They couldn’t believe I’d said anything that crass, even in character while acting in the role of a non-player character… and that shock was exactly the effect I was after. I wanted them pissed – and I wanted them to take down Thunderbolt good and hard. I don’t know if I got quite that much of a visceral reaction, but they did go after Thunderbolt hammer and tong.

All I was doing was the “Roy Thomas” thing, and I think I did it pretty well. (And there is a real-life backstory to where the idea came from – it was an offhand comment made by a former co-worker a couple of years ago, and one which I don’t care to share. All I’ll say is that at my age you’d think that nothing people say could surprise me anymore, but some idiot will still occasionally find a way to stoop low enough to startle me.)

Now for the $64 question. If I’d had an African-American player in that game, would I have played that encounter the same way? Honestly, that would depend on the player. If he or she was someone I knew well, who I felt certain would understand the contextual background of my acting in character, I would do it. On the other hand, if I harbored any doubt at all about how it would be received, I wouldn’t do it, if for no other reason just the basic modicum of respect for the player’s feelings; I’d find another way to handle the encounter and still make the point that Thunderbolt is an ignoramus as well as a complete tool.

But I don’t believe running the encounter the way I did somehow damages the “karmic fabric of the universe” in some cosmic sense, any more than I believe that playing FRPGs causes people to become involved in sorcery and Satanism. It’s simply a case of not doing something which would make your players uncomfortable.

Again going back about thirty years, I was hosting a gaming group of about eight players every Sunday afternoon. We had several teenagers in the group, only one of which acted with anything resembling “maturity”. The other three were typical “What’s in it for me?” players, ignoring plot, characterization, and alignment in their effort to amass as big a pile of XP’s and “stuff” as they could.

As a gamemaster, I found that to be annoying and, what’s worse, boring. Why bother playing a game in which alignment is an integral part when half your group just ignores it anyway?

So the grownups (and the one “mature” teen) started the Tuesday Night Group, a second gaming session in which we played Aftermath – a role playing game which takes place twenty years after the fall of civilization. It’s still available, by the way, in case you’re interested. I’ll warn you that the game has a lot of crunch (so it’s not something you casually undertake) and that the game seems to have been inspired by the early 1980’s fear of nuclear apocalypse with a generous dollop of good old-fashioned “Montana bunker full of ammo and canned food” survivalism.

I told the group that we would have several rules going in, and that breaking the rules meant being kicked out of the Tuesday Night Group:

  1. You must create a background, “philosophy”, worldview, and outlook for your character, which in turn would help define his personality.
  2. The game would take place in a world with no “laws” as we know them, perhaps not even “morality”, but with a strong emphasis on personal ethics or lack thereof. In short, I don’t care what you do, as long as you do it in character and consistently so (don’t be a saint one week and a crazed psychopath the next – pick a personality, stick with it, and play in character).
  3. Portions of the game will deal with what we would call “moral issues”. Cannibalism, murder, rape, theft, random violence, mayhem, etc. wouldn’t be just the province of NPCs but would be possible (though not necessarily encouraged) for PCs as well (as long as Rule #2 was strictly followed).
  4. No “moral judgements” between players, just PCs. If a player wants his character to rape and murder an innocent, so be it. No reflections on the player in real life. But actions have consequences, so if the other PCs decide to kill the murderer/rapist in his sleep in reprisal, no hard feelings between the players in real life.
  5. Consequently, since several of players still live at home with their parents, nothing that happens in the game leaves the room. NO DISCUSSIONS ABOUT GAME EVENTS OUTSIDE OF THE GAMING SESSION – EVER!!! The last thing I need is a 16-20 year old player’s mom calling me and bitching me out about the kind of “perverted” game we’re playing.

The only players invited to play in the TNG were the players I knew could handle it. All I was going to do as GM was create the situations, then sit back and enjoy the fun while the players worked their way through various complex ethical dilemmas. In a world where someone would kill another for a can of beans, what do you do when you discover a small convent of Catholic nuns hidden in the mountain forests? Defend them? Raid their storehouses? Kill the nuns and eat them? Help them find (or build) a better place to live? It’s all up to the players and whatever they decided to do was OK with me, as long as it was in character. No artificial “alignments” required – just decide who your character is, and then stick with that characterization. That didn’t mean characters couldn’t change or grow – it just had to be a gradual change, not some overnight epiphany (and definitely not followed by an immediate reversion to the old personality – that’s the quick ticket out the door).

Someday I may end up writing about this campaign in better detail, but I’ll say this: it was the best gaming group it’s ever been my privilege to be involved in. My campaign background and scenarios were just okay, I guess, but what made the campaign shine were the players. You’d be hard-pressed to find a smarter, more thoughtful group of players anywhere, and I was repaid a hundredfold for the trust I placed in them when we agreed on our five rules (especially Rule #5 – I never got that irate phone call, for which I am eternally grateful).

And the reason it worked was because we made it a “closed game”, only open to the handful of guys with whom I’d been playing for a couple of years. I knew some of the game situations would absolutely be “uncomfortable” and would likely make at least some of the guys very uneasy, but I knew they could handle an RPG which would be a bit more challenging (Emotionally? Philosophically? Ethically? I’m not sure how to define it – maybe all of the above) than the games they were used to playing.

So I guess that was the genesis of the question I asked in that other post ten days ago. Do you stifle the language and incidents in a WWII game, even when they’re in period character and likely won’t offend your players, because gaming out language and incidents which might today be considered “racist” (although I would argue that they would be so only in a post-modern context) is somehow “wrong” or “harmful” in some higher sense? Or do you just let the players rip with “Jap” and “Kraut” because that’s how people on the Allied side (particularly Yanks) talked in those days?

I didn’t get the number of responses I anticipated, and that’s a shame because I was legitimately interested in what people thought. But I do sincerely thank those who took the time to reply.

Have fun! – Steve

Copyright 2011, Steven A. Lopez. All rights reserved.