Wherein I Turn a Comment Thread into a Post on Things
Y’know, I try. I really do. When I sit down to comment on something, I figure that I’ll be able to throw some words down, offer a succinct reply to something that has been asked and go on with my day. Then I look blearily up, see that I’ve already gotten into the 500-word range of things, and I have to bury my head in my hands.
Honestly, I blame all those years of writing papers. And unpublished novels, probably.
Anyway. My man, Gregory, wanted to talk about where White Wolf had gone wrong. I”d recently talked about the new version of Exalted and how it was going to go in some particularly awful directions. It’s no secret that I’m pretty well disgusted with the way that the new company, Onyx Path, has handled the new game, and this was where I sat down and actually tangled with some of the things I felt they were doing wrong.
It got a little lengthy. And then it spilled over into a second post. And I could have gone into more detail about even more issues that I had with the design team. But for the sake of readability, I cut it short and went about my day.
In the mean time, Gregory offered the following:
I must ask, “At what point does the attempt at horror break down into just sickness?” I wonder if White Wolf made an error in creating the World of Darkness. The angst and despair that was new and innovative in role playing with Vampire: The Masquerade seems to have led the folks at White Wolf in deeper and ever increasing darkness in all of their products. They seem to be seeking ever larger level of shock value and are ever desensitizing themselves to the horror and degradation they are promoting in their own works.
World of Darkness is an interesting study in how games divert from their original purposes. Vampire was based heavily on Anne Rice’s novels, with the original themes trying to capture the essence of what it was to be an impassioned creature trying desperately to hold onto a fading humanity. The modern metagame has little to do with this, choosing instead to focus on the political machinations of running a city. It’s way more of a Mafia simulator than a method of exploring what it means to be human in light of the horrible things you have to do to survive. (In its way, I guess it would be like falling down an infinite hole. Sure, it’s scary at first, but sooner or later it’s going to become a boring sort of experience that you have to look for ways to liven up.)
The same thing applies to all of their game lines. Werewolf has similar themes of trying to balance humanity and ferocity as a means of trying to save your broken world. Players tend to focus on the super powers you’re given, rather than the unfortunate aspects of being a wild animal that takes the form of a man. And so on.
From where I’m standing (and as a means of getting around to your first question), the weird descent into depravity comes as an attempt to shock the audience into seeing these games for what they are, namely RPG’s where you’re playing the monster. If players are complacent with the fact that they’re playing blood-drinking serial killers, then we have to make them … worse. And if the players are comfortable with playing horrible sociopaths, we also have to make the enemies … worse.
And then for some reason, they also delve into weird bondage stuff. Seriously. It’s all over the place.
I’m not really sure how all the rape stuff happened. There’s a fair amount of implication in the Vampire stuff, with the Disciplines like Dominate, but it pretty much sticks to the implications, rather than spelling out the awful aspects of the power. All of this makes sense within the tableau of vampire literature, where the undead are portrayed as being seductive and irresistible, and it’s left up to the player and the GM to define what is an appropriate use of the power at the gaming table. And that’s where it distills down to what everyone is comfortable with allowing to happen in play. If everyone in the group is okay with that sort of behavior, so be it. It’s their game, and it’s up to them to play it the way that they want to. Not my thing, and to be honest, I have no interest in hearing about it.
But the final books of 2nd Edition Exalted decided to dive straight into the weird shit. There’s an argument for the portrayal of the Infernal Exalts in this way as a means of firmly placing them in a spectrum of evilness and depravity, but this contention only holds water so long as they’re not playable characters. Which they very specifically are, and this makes them one of the most popular books amongst certain parts of the Exalted audience. Once they cross into the zone of actual playability, they lose the status of ‘antagonists that must be brought down at all costs’ and become something else entirely.
It’s showing my age, but I remember when the anti-D&D hysteria was at its peak. I remember reading articles about the woman that created BADD (Bothered About Dungeons & Dragons), Patricia Pulling, was hosting lectures at one of the local police departments and talking about how role-playing games were gateways to worse elements and modes of behavior. They tried to make the tenuous link that the demonic portrayals in D&D were a means of enacting weird Satanic rituals and swearing service to dark powers. Nevermind that it pretty clearly spelled out that such monsters were meant to be foes for the noble and forthright Clerics and Paladins that actually were playable. She argued that because such creatures are portrayed in the books, even as dire antagonists, this means that the books are trying to glorify them in some way or another.
In its own fascinating way, it actually got me branded as a Satanist in the small town where I grew up. I spent the entirety of my high school life as something of an outsider because I played a silly little game about wizards and knights and rogues. It got to the point that the high school counselor assumed I would be dead well before I was able to graduate, likely from suicide. (This was well before the events at Columbine, so at least they didn’t assume that I was going to shoot up the place.)
What’s weird is that White Wolf has made it a point to try to fulfill these expectations. In their own way, they’ve tried at points to become the game that BADD was trying to warn parents about, back in the day. It might be a thumbing of the nose at the general powerlessness of this movement to suppress the hobby, but it comes across as being less of a work of social commentary than an outlet for actual sociopathy. And where Vampire offers the tools for the players to make murderers and rapists and sich, Exalted took it one step further and encouraged the players to make even worse characters. Dominate suggests coercion and implies the possibility, where the Abyssals preview simply spells it all out, leaving little doubt as to what was intended with these powers. Indeed, there’s not much else that any of these could be used for.
So, where does it cross over from being horror into just being sick? I guess the answer would be ‘when they have to spell it out for the players’. It’s when they actively go out of their way to make sure that everyone’s forced to play the same awful game about date rape and snuff films. It’s when the toolbox comes with its own sidebar of suggestions of how to best go about using the tools to degrade another character and make them a puppet of your will in graphic detail.
Or y’know, when they include the powers that let you gain a benefit from raping someone to death, turn them into a rape ghost and send them out to rape in your name. That might be where it crosses the line. That might be the point where it finally goes just a little too far into the weird shit.
Or worse, it might just be the point where the people responsible for writing this come out with a defense of this sort of product, telling people to get a grip and deal with it. Because hey, if you don’t like games with that much rape in them, then it’s your problem for not understanding what a ‘mature’ game is all about. It’s not about the raw moral implications of your actions and their consequences or the price that must be paid for power. It’s about how many different ways you can rape someone.
In the mean time, they’re still smugly telling me about how much better a game this version is, about how much they have playtested it, and how the old edition is awful. None of which is actually true, but it’s their story, not mine.