Koran and Sha’ila dreaded what they were about to see.
They had fought countless orcs, the barbarian horde of Qulath and terrible monsters. They were renowned for their fighting abilities, magic and skill at solving impossible problems. The bards of Samrat had composed a popular song about their adventures.
And yet, this challenge was the first time they felt genuine fear. It had taken them months to uncover the identity of the Maggot Killer and as they travelled to his shop to capture him, they had no idea that he was well aware of their actions. The shop was empty but the killer had left a message – their old friend Ysgar’s butchered body. He was left hanging from the ceiling, his abdomen sliced open, the intestines removed and used to hang him from the rafters. Mercifully, this time the killer had not left his trademark – stuffing the cavity with maggots and then closing the wound. The killer had also left a taunting note telling them exactly where he was headed. And that truly terrified them… Koran’s young sister was next and as much as the Maggot Killer was brutal towards men, his treatment towards women was the stuff of nightmares.
As they rushed to the cottage dark thoughts crossed their minds. They had sworn to capture the killer alive but he had made this personal. Killing monsters had never tormented their minds, nor had fighting the man-eating orcs or barbarians who had devastated the countryside, killing, raping and pillaging. The Maggot Killer was different, he was… just a man. A fruit and vegetable merchant who hid in plain sight. Who had killed at least forty people, most of them poor people or prostitutes – people far too few people would miss. It wasn’t until he had killed the daughter of the duke that he had been brought to their attention and he had outwitted them at every turn.
They reached the cottage. And the door was open…
Years ago, I was at my local gaming store and a book caught my eye. It was the Book of Vile Darkness and the reason was that there was a sticker on the cover that said “For Mature Audiences”. Now, I’ve worked in marketing and advertising most of my working life and I know a gimmick when I see one. Of course this was a marketing ploy, but the sticker was also entirely justified. The themes of the book are very dark and are meant to introduce both ideas and mechanics to enhance evil in D&D. It’s a fantastic book, one of the best D&D supplements ever made – if this is something you are ok with. And a lot of people are not.
At the time, it’s safe to say that the book was highly controversial. Dungeons and Dragons had always been a fairly family friendly game and during the moral panic of the 80’s and well into the late 90’s the game removed all mention of angels, devils and demons and called them other (dumb) names. Tracy Hickman, co-creator of Dragonlance, wrote an angry letter denouncing the book, claiming it ruined the work of the last 25 years. On the other end of the spectrum there was praise that D&D was finally maturing, making room for darker themes – if they were wanted.
And that’s the point.
I have already said my piece on the importance of Session 0 and one of the great advantages of having a Session 0 is that the GM can discuss with his players what they are, or indeed are not, fine with. I speak from experience when I say that nothing ruins the mood more than when one or more players (or the GM) is not comfortable with what’s going on.
A lot of systems throughout the years have been dark and include dark and adult themes. You generally know what you’re heading into in those cases. Lovely, wonderful Call of Cthulhu explores very dark themes with cults, madness and malign, alien minds. World of Darkness explores being a monster, such as a werewolf or vampire. But there’s always the risk of going too far.
Good ol’ D&D and all its derivatives and most fantasy RPG’s do not overtly explore dark and adult themes but there’s ample room for exploration. I like my worlds to be quite dark. I think fantasy works best when it’s closer to being black and white than shades of grey and as much as I like complicated and/or conflicted characters, sometimes the villains has to be just that – an irredeemably foul and awful person or creature. In most of my campaigns there are themes of evil gods, demons, murderers, cultists and so forth. I have always encouraged diversity in both the player base and the characters they play, but the world the players inhabit are a different story. In some parts of my world there is no racism or gender inequality but in some parts it’s a different story. There are lands in my world where other races are actively hunted down or where a woman’s lot is terrible.
Make sure that everyone is on the same page
Right, you’re the GM. You spent a lot of time developing a campaign stuffed with interesting characters and places. You’ve got a story ready. You’ve got your players and they’ve got their characters. You start playing, and it all goes to hell almost instantly because you’ve gone too far. Two of your players are uncomfortable with the activities of the cult leader who sacrifices young women to the demon lord. And now you’re in trouble because that’s just the start of how evil this lot is.
Here’s what should have happened – you sit down with your players and discuss how far is too far. There may be personal experiences, religious reasons or all manner of other things that deserve respect that make people uncomfortable with certain things. It’s a game and it’s meant to be fun. You can sacrifice a little slice of your vision for your friends. And who knows, keeping that idea around and letting it ferment may lead to something great later on.