D&De-Escalation: Rape in Tabletop Games
April 15th, 2020
Content warning(s): discussion of rape and situations very similar to child sexual abuse and corrective rape.
If you're not into role playing games, you probably haven't heard of Far Verona until recently. It's an "actual play" series - an RPG done via livestream or podcast - on the RollPlay network. The game master is Adam Koebel, whose Twitter bio reads "co-author of Award Winning Tabletop RPG Dungeon World, rpg nerd." Various individuals on social media have described him as a "major player" and a "big name" in the RPG world, which is relevant for this conversation.
On March 24th, Far Verona ran an episode which ultimately led to its cancellation. To understand why, you'll need a little information on how roleplaying games work. Players create characters who then venture into a world, guided by their game master (GM). The game master is the individual with the most control, especially if they're using a world they created themselves, rather than one purchased elsewhere. They describe the world around the characters and control the actions of the non-player characters (NPCs).
In the episode, Elspeth Eastman was playing as a character named Johnny, a synthetic human ("synth") - essentially an android. Synths were used as slave labor until they were outlawed; they're now being hunted down to be eliminated. Per the game's wiki, Johnny presents and identifies as masculine.
Johnny was injured during an explosion earlier in the game; the party ends up going to visit Rocket, a character Koebel later describes as a "sexy mechanic," where Johnny can be repaired/upgraded. In the game, Johnny has a history with the character and has visited them before, but this appears to be the first time the NPC has been introduced to the audience and the first time Johnny and the gang have interacted with him in game. Rocket asks Johnny to come into a back room by himself. Haley Sky - the character played by Vana Mahoney - immediately says that she doesn't want Johnny to go alone with a stranger. Johnny tries to reassure her, saying he's been to this mechanic before and it'll be fine. Haley responds by saying, "Yeah, well, there's a lot of people that we've known that we thought were all right that didn't end up being all right."
When Rocket realizes Haley is going to be coming back there with Johnny, he "makes a face." Koebel makes the character roll a perception check to figure out what Rocket's face means. Eastman mentions that Johnny is weak on perception, and predictably, Johnny fails to perceive much from Rocket's face after the roll. Johnny decides to go back with Rocket alone after a little more arguing. Johnny and Haley agree on "help" as a "code word" if Johnny needs assistance. The scene starts off with Rocket undressing Johnny and essentially performing the android equivalent of popping the hood and tinkering with the engine. Rocket compliments various machine parts, which in and of itself is a little creepy but doesn't seem that unusual; think of an auto mechanic gushing over a well-maintained classic car. But then he cups Johnny's face, calling him beautiful. Johnny steps back and Rocket becomes flustered.
During the scene, Eastman tries to explain that although Johnny's been hit on before, he's never been "programmed" to respond or recognize attraction. (While Eastman is trying to explain this, Koebel keeps talking over her.) While it has not been clarified whether Johnny is asexual, it's a possibility that people who are asexual could relate to the feelings described.
As Rocket seems upset, Johnny tries to comfort him, saying he's "open to new adventures" so he doesn't want Rocket to feel weird, but it's kinda like when you drink a glass of water even though you're not thirsty. It's an awkward metaphor, but this is coming from an android who's not familiar with attraction and sexuality.
Please note the remainder of this section describes the sexual assault scene and may be triggering for some, especially those who have experienced child sexual abuse. It may also reflect experiences of asexual people who are being coerced to engage in sexual activity without respect to their feelings.
Rocket tells Johnny, "Don't be scared. I've done it before. I can show you." Then, "I'm going to do it real gentle the first time and you tell me how it feels." Koebel tells Eastman that Johnny is like "a scared animal" and that the port Rocket is opening has "never been accessed while [Johnny was] conscious." Rocket says, "Just a little at first."
Eastman says, "Johnny has no idea what this guy's about to do."
That sentence is important. The player is explicitly stating the character doesn't know what to expect in the situation.
Then Rocket basically plugs something into Johnny and forces him to have an orgasm. Koebel describes what's happening in Johnny's body while the players watch on and make various uncomfortable faces.
Afterwards, Eastman says, "I feel like this is where Johnny should shout for help," at which point Mahoney or Haley says, "Let me [inaudible] this creep!" The scene is ended, giving no chance for Johnny to react.
What makes this even more appalling is that in Eastman's response video, she mentions Koebel asked her before the episode what kind of story arcs she would like to explore with Johnny. Eastman told him she wanted to see Johnny be able to say "no" to more people, including his friends. She says Koebel apologized for "misreading" her intent.
Far Verona has since been canceled, with Koebel issuing a public apology and saying he's seeking counseling to learn from the experience.
To be clear, we don't know enough about the community to know if Koebel meets the definition of "woke misogynist." Here's what we do know: on his website and social media, he advocates for safe places, consent, and good harassment policies. Yet at the same time, he ran this scenario in which he describes a rape, calls the rapist "sexy," justifies it by saying, "robots need love, too," and at no point acknowledges that it is a sexual assault. He laughs during the entire experience, even as all the players are expressing discomfort with their body language.
It's troubling. (Again, this next paragraph may be hard to read for those who have experienced child sexual abuse.)
Let's look over that scene again. Johnny is a character who, due to his android-like nature, is fairly innocent when it comes to attraction and sexuality, as explicitly stated by the character's actor. He's almost child-like. In addition, he's part of a marginalized group within the world's society. When Haley tries to step in to protect Johnny, Koebel has Rocket make a "face" and then tells Eastman that she needs to roll for perception (a skill Johnny's weak on) to figure out what the face means.
Perception rolls - even and especially in situations where the character might be in danger - aren't uncommon in roleplaying games. If you fail the roll, your character may fall into a trap or be stabbed in the back by a traitor.
But in this situation, it's different. From the moment Rocket wanted to get Johnny alone, Haley and the actress who played her were uncomfortable. Haley tried to talk Johnny out of going into the backroom by himself, but Johnny insisted everything would be okay. At this point, Koebel could have backed off the story line or decided to check in with his players. He didn't.
When Eastman explicitly stated that Johnny didn't know what was going on, Koebel could have decided to make it clearer within the scene, or even paused it to explain to the players.
Instead, Koebel gives Rocket dialogue that could be straight out of any child molester's mouth - "don't be scared" and "I'm going to do it real gentle the first time" and "just a little at first." The look on Mahoney's face during this says it all.
While there has been plenty of backlash against the scene in both the YouTube comments and on social media, there have predictably been quite a few people defending Koebel, with arguments similar to ones we see in real life situations.
"It's not like Johnny said 'no' or 'stop.'" Here's the thing—Johnny was never given the chance to say 'no.' Rocket didn't tell him what he was planning to do. Johnny thought he was just going to be, essentially, treated for his injuries or upgraded. It would be like if you went to the doctor to be treated for a burn on your arm and ended up getting groped. Consent has to be informed and at no point did Johnny understand what was going on, as explicitly explained by the actor.
"It happened to a fictional character. What's the big deal?" This isn't equivalent to a rape scene on a television show; this would be like if you were an actor on an improv show and your co-star decided to turn the scene into a rape without consulting with you first. The players weren't given any warning that the game master was going to create a scene where a character that a player had created and put effort into was going to be assaulted.
"But characters in RPGs get killed or robbed or attacked all the time. What's the difference?" The difference is that when you go into an RPG, you know your character may lose all their possessions or get slain on a battlefield or blown up in a trap in a castle. These are common occurrences. While players may be upset or sad if their character dies, if the GM is running their game well, the players will be aware this may happen and will understand it's a risk. Koebel did not approve this scenario ahead of time, and it's not something most tabletop gamers would anticipate happening in a respectable game.
The most common argument I've seen defending Koebel has been, "But they didn't use their X-Cards."
When the backlash originally arose, Koebel initially tried to blame the situation on his not having sufficient safety tools (such as X-cards) in place. For example, you could use this Consent in Gaming booklet and checklist available for free at Monte Cook Games to get your players to define ahead of time what concepts they're okay exploring. If all players say they're okay dealing with themes of torture, bigotry, or psychological abuse in the game, you can incorporate them in the story line.
You'll also see on the checklist that the players get to define the level of comfort they have with the topic. Green means the topic can be explored during the normal gameplay (although consent can be revoked). Yellow means the player isn't sure if they're okay with it, or they're only comfortable if it's "veiled" - meaning it happens "off-screen". For example, saying, "John is taken inside and tortured for information," as opposed to the game master describing the scene as it's happening, with the player interacting and having to make decisions/rolls to proceed. Red means it's a hard no - what's described as a "line" in the community. This means the player doesn't want it in the story at all. They may have had personal experiences with miscarriage or being physically restrained and they're uncomfortable with them even being mentioned during the storyline.
What Koebel's fans have been referring to is an X-Card which a player can use to stop a scene with no argument or discussion. Maybe a player thought they would be okay with torture being discussed during the game, but they feel uncomfortable as the scene goes on. They can use their X-Card to say, "I'm not okay with this and I need it to stop." It's as simple as a piece of paper with an X drawn on it.
If you read the document on X-Cards, you'll see that the creator specifically says, "The X-Card is a safety net, but not everyone will feel comfortable using it in all situations. If a player had a problem with the game and wants to talk to you about it afterward... please listen. It [is] not okay to say "but you didn't use the X-Card" as a defense. Don't use the X-Card offensively. Listen and talk it out." A player may think they're okay during the scene and only realize afterwards that they were triggered by something that happened. They may have been afraid that if they used their card, the other players would ridicule them or be angry with them. We can only hypothesize why the players during the game didn't explicitly say something or use their equivalent of the X-Card. They were all on a livestream. They clearly trusted Koebel, who is a well-known member of the community. Even Mahoney, who seemed to sense a red flag before anyone else, didn't appear to fully anticipate where the storyline was going.
Instead of, "why didn't the players do anything?" we should be asking, "why couldn't Koebel read the room and see the discomfort?" Marcus Wheat kept squirming in his chair and often had a hand over his mouth. Eastman laughed at points—she's clarified that she laughs when she's nervous, as many people do—but she also frowned, looked surprised, and put her head down on her desk. Mark Hulmes also seemed to be laughing nervously and ultimately put his hand over his face. Mahoney's reaction was the most obvious and visceral; she seemed to be in shock for most of it, with her eyes wide and her mouth open.
You never know how you'll behave in a situation like that until it happens. They likely didn't know what to do or how to deal with it. Instead of cackling the whole time, Koebel should have seen how uncomfortable his players were and nixed the scene. At the very least, he could have checked in. He didn't.
Ultimately, this was a situation of someone in a position of power—both in the community and in the scenario—abusing it and harming others. A situation where that person's fans defended him by both blaming the people he harmed and citing his history of advocacy. A situation where the person's initial apology deflected blame and rejected responsibility. A situation where the person's second apology—offered up after backlash— was accepted immediately by his supporters, who don't hesitate to tell anyone still criticizing him that he's apologized now, so "everything should be okay, just leave him alone!!!!!"
The fact that this scenario occurred at all reflects a wider cultural misunderstanding of what "consent" means, and that it's not limited to imminent sexual activity. Koebel should have checked in with the players at each step and made it abundantly clear that it was okay for them to back out of the situation. Koebel should have planned a de-escalation to the scene. Frankly, Koebel should not have planned this scene at all.
Koebel should have asked Eastman if Johnny's path to being able to say "no" more often could apply to a nonconsensual situation like this—but even if he did, Koebel should have understood that no amount of saying "no" is guaranteed to stop a sexual assaulter. And on top of that? Koebel clearly didn't consult any survivors of sexual assault or rape. Rape doesn't have to be a plot twist, a device to develop characters, or a joke. Koebel should not have planned this scene.
Even more importantly, Johnny, while a "synthetic" human, is male-presenting. If Eastman's character had been presenting as femme, would Koebel have still wanted that scene? What if it was planned with Mahoney's character, whose synth body presents as an eight-year-old child? We can't imagine Koebel would have been okay with that; at the very least, we assume he wouldn't have been laughing the whole time. The victim in this case was male; did Koebel think that made it "funny" or "not as bad?" Koebel would have done well to learn that the rate of sexual assault in cis men is still 1 in 6, and that's only counting reported assaults. The reality is that most men aren't taken seriously in cases of harassment, stalking, abuse, and rape. Koebel should not have planned this scene.
There's another esoteric aspect to something like this happening during a roleplaying game. Presumably, when you play D&D or an equivalent, you've crafted your own original character to use, and similar to cosplaying, you live in that character's skin for a while. You're making decisions about the character and you follow them in their journey through the game. Now imagine that your DM, without telling you exactly what will happen or how, forces your character to be raped at the end of a session. The session ends without resolving it, but later tell the DM how uncomfortable it made you. If you're a survivor of rape, you might feel triggered into flashbacks of what happened to you. If you're not, maybe you're experiencing a proxy to what it's like to be a survivor, unsure of whether it "counts" as rape, or if the DM was actually trying to sexually harass you rather than portraying an organic story. Now another session is coming up, and you're sitting with this character that makes you feel uncomfortable—not because of what happened to them, but because of how being in their shoes made you feel when they were raped. You might not want to even play the character anymore. It's a similar feeling to how a cosplayer portraying a villain might have someone make threatening comments (see: "You're such a bitch! How dare you kill [beloved character]!!"), and then not feel safe wearing that cosplay due to the association; or a cosplayer who is wearing their favorite character's outfit and is groped, and now doesn't want to wear the outfit for fear of being groped again. As with the above on why some people might not feel comfortable saying no or using an "X" card, some people might not be comfortable saying they no longer wish to play the character. Worse yet, now that D&D sessions are becoming popular for streaming content, some players/actors are contracted to play their characters for a set amount of time, and are forced into playing out the remainder of the scenario with their character, now a rape survivor.
Regardless of whether or not the characters portrayed are real, the people playing them very much are. If you're a D&D /other tabletop RPG player and you've experienced something similar to the incident described above, you're not alone and it's not your fault that it happened. You have the right to revoke consent to anything being portrayed at any time, whether or not you feel able to use that ability. And if you're a DM yourself, it's your imperative responsibility to find another way to tell your story.
-Fractali & Trickssi
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