Friday, July 15, 2011

Sex in Role-Playing Games

(Not role-playing in sex. That’s a different essay entirely.)

Fiction is a strange place with regards to sex. Sometimes, as in children’s books, sex is deliberately avoided, often to the point of absurdity. Other times, particularly in fan-fiction and bad sci-fi novels, sex is common, explicit, and gratuitous. But somewhere between these two extremes of total chastity and juvenile fantasy lies the magical land of realistic portrayals of sex. In role-playing games, or RPGs, this “Goldilocks zone” is smaller than one might at first imagine.

This is an odd problem. Heroic fantasy literature, the genre most closely related to the average RPG, is hardly chaste. Nor are video games, which share the interactivity of tabletop role-playing. Indeed, in both cases romance and sex can be handled well or poorly, but they are rarely ignored. Tabletop RPGs have the opposite problem. Sex is rarely mentioned at all, outside of the odd joke, and romance simply isn’t mentioned. The problem is not in the setting, nor in the nature of interactive media. The stigma against sex in tabletop RPGs must instead stem from a reluctance to flirt with the person running the game (or with the other players, as the case may be). If the game master is the same gender as the player, it can be difficult and unappealing to “flirt” with them, even when all parties involved know that it’s just a game. If the GM and the player are of different genders, they may wish to avoid appearing to flirt and sending the wrong message to either party. If either the GM or the player are gay, similar concerns arise, but with the added difficulty of low-level homophobia ensuring that straight same-gendered players will feel even less comfortable “flirting” with their GM. All these reactions are understandable, but if the player and GM can portray mortal enemies without creating feelings of animosity, why can’t they portray lovers without feelings of awkwardness? Surely it is possible to portray sexual relationships in an RPG without making everyone uncomfortable.

Of course, simply adding sex to the game does not fix the problem. Indeed, sometimes the opposite problem arises. Sometimes, particularly in all-male gaming groups, sex is included as a subject of juvenile fantasy (interestingly, immature portrayals of sex by women are more common in fan-fiction, a medium that allows for similar creativity but with much more privacy). The heroes bed every woman with a name, and every barmaid whether she’s given a name or not. Women are generally portrayed as weak or in need of protection, and the few who do show independence are likely to at least sport the infamous chainmail bikini. Those who run these games like to tout their sessions as “realistic” or “Howardian” (after the works of Robert Howard, of Conan the Barbarian fame). But including sex does not make the portrayal remotely realistic, and Robert Howard did not write porn. Games run in this way speak to the emotional immaturity of those involved, and the only real solution is an increase in that maturity. Legitimate GMs hoping to add sex to their games should be careful to avoid falling into this trap. Just because characters can have sex doesn’t mean they should screw everything that moves. Just think of how difficult it is to establish a relationship in real life. Now imagine how much harder it is when extramarital sex is stigmatized, as in most pre-modern societies (and if players want their characters to get married, even more complications arise). Sex often happens in spite of stigma, of course, but people tend not to have sex at the drop of a hat, especially when their families will shun them for it.

The truth is that a realistic portrayal of sex is difficult in a medium where character interaction is often limited outside of combat and problem-solving. Adding sex means adding complex relationships between people, from physical attraction to love to jealousy to friendship and loyalty. These emotions are a challenge to portray as a role-player, especially when the person sitting across from you is three-hundred pounds and has a neckbeard. But these are challenges that we, as role-players, should accept. We gladly play pacifists, cowards, and deaf-mutes in combat focused games, why run from something as normal as sex? Think about it: what’s more unlikely, a blind poet saving the town from orcs, or the same blind poet wooing and eventually having a sexual relationship with one of the townswomen he’s just saved?

Ultimately, there are two major challenges to integrating sex into tabletop gaming. The first is the maturity of the other players and their willingness to handle sex in the game. If they aren’t mature enough, sex should be avoided, so that the game doesn’t devolve into a juvenile fantasy of the sort outlined above. If the players are mature enough, they may still be unwilling. Forcing sex into a game whose players don’t want to deal with it isn’t a very good idea. They won’t be happy, and they won’t play along (actually, this applies to forcing sex onto people in other contexts as well, but I hope you already know that). Unfortunately these challenges can’t simply be overcome. They rely on the thoughts and feelings of other people, and people’s feelings rarely change overnight. Maybe you can convince them, maybe not (and maybe this essay can help convince them).

The second challenge to simply how to add sex to a game. Sure, it’s easy to tell the other players that you think sex should be a part of the game, but how often does it actually come up? Players tend to simply ignore their characters’ potential sexual relationships. And why shouldn’t they? Sex is, fundamentally, a biological or psychological reward, and in an RPG it isn’t a very good one. Other kinds of rewards work well enough. A sense of triumph works whether the achievement is real or imagined. Greed is a good motivator because money is abstract anyway: anything you want to possess has value, whether it really exists or not. But sex is based on emotional connection (which isn’t truly there in games) and physical stimulation (which is even less present). So how does one make sex realistically appealing in games? The answer is obvious, but a bit distasteful. You add stats to it. Now, I’m not saying that characters need a “penis length” stat, or that the details need to be played out. I am saying that sex (which, I stress, should probably take place “off-screen”) needs to have intrinsic bonuses attached to it. If getting laid makes you a better fighter, as odd as that sounds, players will flock to any available member of the opposite sex that they can find. Adding realistic risks (STDs, pregnancy, etc) will help to temper the rush and create more realistic courting behavior. Add additional modifiers for well-portrayed emotional connections, and you’re in. Realistic relationships should, with any luck, ensue. The trick is to work these bonuses into the game in ways that seem at least credible. I suggest using morale as the mechanism of choice.

But why bother? You’re probably having plenty of fun already, why complicate things? Well, there’s really only one reason: realism. Not biological realism, or even cultural realism, although those things will certainly benefit from adding sex to the mix. No, the only convincing reason to add sex to a tabletop RPG is for the sake of realistic character interactions. Maybe you’re fine just hacking and slashing your way through a horde of rampaging orcs, but if you want to run a game based on character interactions, sex has to play a role. It’s part of who we are, written into our DNA as surely as our brain and lungs and heart. It motivates a huge amount of what we do in life, and it really does change the ways we view the people around us. Granted, sex is hardly our only motivator in social interactions, but it is among the strongest when it rears its head. Adding sex to a tabletop game can be hard, but it’s a mistake to ignore sex just because it’s difficult.

Basically, sex is difficult to portray realistically. In RPGs, it’s usually either ignored or mutilated beyond any resemblance to real life. Realistic portrayal is possible, however, if players are mature and willing to play along, and if the mechanics reward characters for having sex (odd as that sounds). In fact, a realistic portrayal of sex is not only possible but essentially necessary in any character-driven game. So go out there and have that uncomfortable talk with your gaming group.

Thursday, July 14, 2011


Two things. First, I realize updates are slow. That's just the way this blog's going to work. Unless I have rant ideas, or exciting news, I'm not going to post anything. Sorry if you were looking for something more regular.

Second, I have exciting news, if only in that it got my adrenaline pumping. I took a friend of mine to the hospital on Saturday after he seized up driving down the highway. That was scary. He's alright, thankfully. Turns out exercising every day when you're not used to exercising isn't the best idea. That'll teach him to try and take care of himself.

I also had an interesting talk with my friend's dad while we were keeping him company. I'm an atheist, and he's a devout Christian of the most commendable sort. Both of us are of at least average intelligence (probably more, at least in his case), and we're civilized folk. That makes for some very interesting religious discussions. We agreed on a good many things, and never once raised our voices. My favorite part was the part where we both drew strength from staring into the heavens, but for completely different reasons. For him, it was because he knew that God walked beside him and that everything would eventually turn out alright. For me, it was because of the pure majesty of the universe, exploding stars and gravity wells fitting together like clockwork to create everything that is, was, and ever shall be. It was a good talk.

I'll leave you with some food for thought: which God would you rather believe in, the one who answers prayers but allows genocide, or the one who grants us nothing at all? Personality, I like the God who doesn't answer prayers. I imagine him as a father-figure, wanting to solve all his children's problems but knowing that if he does they'll never have the chance to grow. I could almost believe in a religion that preached that.

Monday, February 14, 2011


Zombies have become a pretty big thing lately, in case you hadn't noticed. They take a variety of forms, but they all share three key characteristics: they're strong, dumb, and highly infectious. They're usually also very slow, and I'm going to assume slow zombies for most of this post. The problem, then, is how zombie outbreaks get started in the first place. Oh, sure, it's pretty obvious why zombies are dangerous in large numbers. They swarm in from all sides, and someone gets bitten at some point. But how does one zombie (or even a few) start the kind of world-destroying outbreak depicted in movies, books, and video games?

See, most zombie viruses have a lot in common with rabies. They make the infected stronger and more aggressive, and they spread by bite or blood contact. Now, rabid creatures are dangerous, but they die after awhile. Zombies usually don't. But rabid creatures are also quite fast, in stark contrast to zombies. Given that zombies aren't cunning enough to be successful at hunting without speed or numbers (and they need to hunt to get numbers), I'd judge that slow zombies are a fair bit less dangerous than rabid creatures. And yet rabies has yet to wipe out any major countries. So in order for a zombie outbreak to be successful, it'll have to use some other infection vector.

One possibility is mosquitoes. If the zombie virus is blood born, mosquitoes might easily spread it. This would be particularly terrifying, as mosquitoes are a lot harder to avoid entirely than zombies. Now, mosquitoes don't feed off of corpses, so the disease would need at least a few day's incubation period. What's more, an area that's been fully infected for a couple weeks is probably fairly safe, as all the mosquitoes will either leave or die out from lack of food.

Another option is that the virus isn't a virus at all, but a fungus. Similar to this fungus, it could control humans and turn them into zombie-like automatons. In this case, a bite is unlikely to be infectious, but zombies may release spores. As with the mosquitoes, this infection vector would be very difficult to avoid, and even killing the zombie might only release more spores. This also opens up some interesting aesthetic options beyond "burnt-out shell of a town." An infected area could be overgrown with strange fungi, creating a truly alien atmosphere.

The third (and possibly strangest) option is the zombie virus as an STD. Now, for this to work, it has to have a long incubation period, probably at least a month. It should also probably be infectious through the traditional bite-vector, if only so that the zombies still pose a credible physical threat to survivors. Still, the sheer infectiousness of STDs combined with turning people into zombies could be a terrifying thing indeed. Imagine a hybrid of AIDS and rabies.

Next up, the "ghoul" option. Imagine that the first person to be infected is a superior breed, call it a ghoul, and that sometimes other infected become ghouls instead of zombies. Ghouls need only be faster and more cunning, and you make the traditional rabies-vector dangerous. After all, now you have a creature that can actually hunt. One can actually imagine a lone ghoul picking off victims until the horde reached critical mass. This gets all the more dangerous if the ghoul has any kind of control over the lesser zombies, because then the horde gets a general. Scary stuff.

Finally, we have fast zombies. The difference between fast zombies is not in their infection vector, but in their physical threat. Because they would actually be capable of human-like speed, fast zombies would be much harder to avoid, especially for unarmed civilians. They would probably also have limitless stamina, being zombies, so eventually they could run down practically anyone. Basically, go back to the rabies analogy, but now the rabid creature is tireless and doesn't die on its own. That might just be enough to tip the scales and start a true outbreak.

Sunday, January 23, 2011

Vampires and nostalgia

Browsing the internet just now I happened to come across a short comic protesting a perceived shift in how the was vampires were portrayed. The author, and a good number of commenter on the comic, seemed to believe that vampires were once portrayed as corpselike monsters and were only now becoming sexualized. I suspect this was a response to the Twilight series and similar. Now, I'm no fan of Twilight, but I'll say this: it isn't responsible for the sexualization of vampires.

I'm a mythology buff, so I could probably rant for some time about how vampires and their mythological predecessors were highly sexualized at least as often as not. However, I will refrain, and simply state that vampires are usually portrayed as sexual beings in both modern and pre-modern mythologies. Even so, people feel that there is some change. They feel that there is something sacred about vampires that is no longer as it should be. In other words, they're nostalgic.

We all do it. It's like remembering a time "when men were men." It's a nice idea, but the world doesn't work that way. Things aren't perfect just because they existed a long time ago. Those men who were men had problems too. They got scared, they cried, they wrote poetry, they cheated, they stole, and they did all those other things that humans sometimes do. That's because they were human, just like people are now. They weren't magically better people just because they lived a long time ago. The world doesn't work that way.

So why do we think like we do? We think back to "simpler times" and we imagine an ideal world free of poverty, strife, and discrimination. It's a perfect world, and it never existed except in our minds. The problem is that we forget we made it up. More accurately, we forget all the little details we had to leave out, like poverty, strife, and discrimination, to make our memories so perfect. And that's a problem, because then we think we can just go back.

It's good to have an ideal in mind. We must always strive to create the perfect world, even though we'll never really get there, because that's the only way we'll get closer to that world. The problem is that sometimes we forget that the world was always flawed. When the ideal is an idea, it motives people to move forward. When the ideal is a white-washed memory, it motivates people to turn around and go backwards. Since that perfect world never really existed, backwards is hardly the way to go (excepting cases where the current situation is abnormally bad, obviously; the key point is that it's okay to go back if one doesn't plan to stop moving forwards afterward). A perfect example would be the Victorian period of English history. We remember the Victorians as pure and chaste, if admittedly somewhat repressed. It's a nice idea, a simpler time when men were honorable and women were pure. We forget things like the rampant poverty, the barbaric medical practices, and the syphilis. Those pure and chaste Victorians? Their number one killer was syphilis. So yeah. Probably not so pure. Going back to their practices might not be such a great idea.

I guess what I'm trying to say is that nostalgia plays tricks on us. It tells us that things used to be better, even though a good many things used to be much worse. So don't listen to nostalgia. Take a good, honest look at your memories, maybe look at a history book to see what else was going on at the time, and then decide what was good about the past and what should be left behind. And then instead of complaining about how things used to be, go out and make something better. Someone has to. That's the only way we move forward.

Thursday, January 20, 2011

The problem with enlightened self-interest.

The problem with enlightened self-interest is that it's a myth. But let me put this in context. Modern economics seems, to my laymen's senses, to be some mix of capitalism and socialism. In rhetoric, people tend to talk as though either system is flawless, or at least not fundamentally flawed. I seek to logically demonstrate why this is the case, starting with capitalism (socialism's flaws seem somewhat self-evident to me, but I may get around to ranting on them anyway).

Adam Smith's economic theory states that a group of people each working towards their own selfish ends will create a greater good for the whole. This may seem like a dubious proposition, but the evolution of social structures seems to support this idea. If nature's merciless hand determined that teamwork was the way to go, in the name of spreading each individual's genes, then cooperation probably has some merits. The problem is, historically, the Victorians tried pure capitalism, or at least got as close to it as anyone ever has, and it failed spectacularly. Why? Was nature wrong, or was Adam Smith? Or did the English just not know what they were doing?

While natural selection is not a perfect mechanism, and while the English certainly did not do everything right, ultimately the flaw does lie in capitalistic theory. The problem is that Adam Smith's theory relies on people having more than just self-interest. It relies on them having enlightened self-interest, which as previously mentioned, is a myth.

So what is enlightened self-interest, and why is it a myth? Enlightened self-interest, simply put, is always doing what's best for you. For this to work, you need to know what's best for you, and you need to always be right. This requires perfect knowledge of every situation, every rule, every loophole, every detail, and most importantly, what everyone else knows. For example, if you're an underpaid factory worker, you would benefit immensely from an organized labor protest in order to raise wages. If all the workers band together, the company can't help but cede to your demands. The problem is, if you protest by yourself, you're likely to get fired, or at least waste time you could have spent earning money. So all your coworkers need to understand that it's in their best interest to help you. And they have to know that they all understand that, or it might not be in their best interest in the first place. And you have to know that they know that. If any significant portion of the workers don't understand their best interest, or don't know that everyone else understands, then the whole plan falls apart. You all remain underpaid, because some of you didn't act with enlightened self-interest. And herein lies the problem.

You see, in a perfect world, big business CEOs would live in fear of their employees banding together at the slightest infringement of their rights or their worth. Employees, similarly, would understand that the company has to make a profit or it goes belly-up and everyone loses their jobs. Consumers might even buy more expensive local products just to keep the economy up. But people aren't good at that. It's hard to have a perfect understanding of the situation, and it's hard to see the big picture when you're struggling to get by. It's unreasonable to expect anyone to be truly enlightened in their self-interest, much less the critical mass of people necessary to make pure capitalism work.

Note: This rant does not mean I'm a socialist. Socialism is just as fundamentally flawed as capitalism, if not more so. I'm just really tired of people talking about capitalism like it's Jesus and blaming everyone wrong with it on government legislation. The system is inherently flawed, and although many of the legislative "fixes" do more harm than good, the solution is not to throw out all regulation in favor of the original flawed system.

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

The inventory system and why it's a bad thing.

Hey, folks. This is my rant space, so you either have to listen to me rant or go away. Sorry, but that's just how things work here. First rant is about video games, specifically about equipment and inventory.

When Mass Effect 2 came out early last year, there was a general outcry to the effect of "this isn't an RPG, it doesn't have complex inventory management!" Basically, fans of the role-playing genre have come to expect a certain amount of loot-collecting in games, and the lack of it in ME2 distressed them. Mass Effect 1 had four categories of guns and dozens if not hundreds of individual weapons to choose from, and that's not even starting on the armor, the biotic amps, omni-tools, or upgrades. ME2, on the other hand, had 13 guns (from 5 categories, not counting heavy weapons) on release, and perhaps another half dozen included in various downloadable content. Given this, it's easy to see why people were upset. ME1 had so much more to choose from.

Except not really. In ME1, all sniper rifles were basically the same, except that you found better ones later in the game. Not particularly different sniper rifles, mind you, just better. Often in every way. Sure, there were always minute differences between individual models, but mainly you were just looking for the highest level gun. And then sometime later you found an even higher level gun and used that. Can you see all the choices you're making?

Contrast ME2, in which you no longer loot random weapons after every battle. When you do find a weapon, it's a rare and important event, and the new weapon in generally very different from the old one. Take the sniper rifles, for example. There are four of them, counting downloadable weapons. The first three are about equal in utility, but their uses differ, from tradition one-shot kills to long-range sustained fire. Each gun is a choice, and which is better seems more a matter of play style and personal preference. The fourth sniper rifle is a clear upgrade, easily the most powerful of the four, but it's a unique weapon chosen from an array of potential advantages, and so has importance that a randomly looted gun never could.

What's the difference? Well, in ME1, you use whatever gun is best. In ME2, you use whichever gun you like, and if you invest in the true upgrade, that's a choice you make for yourself. In other words, ME1's guns are random and disposable, whereas ME2's guns are unique and interesting. You're not pulling out a random sniper rifle, you're pulling out the gun that you enjoy using.

So why is this a case against inventory systems? Technically, it isn't. It's a case against the constant quest for better equipment that drives almost all RPGs today. The inventory system, however, is pretty much the heart of that quest. You have an inventory filled with stuff and a bunch of equipment slots to fill with that stuff. Occasionally you find better stuff. At the end of the "Quest for the Sacred Sword" (or whatever) this is ok. You earned your better item with sweat and toil. After killing some random bad guy, or buying it from a merchant, or any other staples of the genre, it's just silly. Any emotional attachment to your equipment is replaced with stat-grubbing power-lust, and even if you do find a weapon you really like, eventually you'll have to upgrade because the game assumes you'll upgrade and if you fall behind it'll become impossible to win. This is especially glaring when you find yourself selling your grandfather's sword because it's just a tier 1 weapon and you're up to tier 4 and it's just cluttering up your inventory now.

This is not to say that all inventory systems are bad. In some games, particularly the post-apocalyptic Fallout series, it makes sense to spend most of the game scrounging for better loot. In those games society is dead, and trying to make do with limited resources and substandard equipment is pretty much the theme of the setting. Even so, it's sad when a favorite weapon gets replaced by one that's statistically superior, as inevitably happens in almost any modern RPG. In the case of Fallout and similar games, I would propose that the weapons be placed on a more even playing field, so that player could pick the ones they like, not necessarily the ones that do the most damage, but that items like food, water, bandages, and traps be made a more central part of the game. In this way, players could still experience the desperation of the wasteland without ever having to abandon their favorite gun just because it doesn't do enough damage anymore.