If you're a fan of Ravenloft, then chances are you're a pretty big horror fan, particularly Victorian, cosmic, or survival horror. Chances are also pretty good that you're cisgendered, heterosexual, white, male, and of Protestant descent (or at least more of those than not).
Now, there's nothing wrong with any of that. Something to consider as a DM, however, is the subjective nature of horror. Any veteran DM for a horror game like Ravenloft, Deadlands, or V:tM knows that what scares one person is just ho-hum to another. Our experiences color our perceptions when it comes to the visceral reactions that horror depends on. It's rare for a DM to be able to affect everyone at the table equally, but we do our best to try and make sure everyone has stories that resonate with them.
Sometimes, the stories we write may not just resonate differently with someone, they might mean something different entirely. This is a phenomenon that's common in literature and film, where two opposing interpretations of the exact same artistic offering will emerge, often diametrically opposed. So it's no surprise that a game performance, where people are much more personally involved and affected, can be just as susceptible to this kind of thing.
With that in mind, let's take a look at a couple of campaign tools and tropes that you might be using, or considering using, and how they could be seen differently by your audience.
The ball is in full swing. The elite rub shoulders and make deals with one another, grateful that the local lord is using his newest marriage as an excuse for such a lavish gathering. As the ancient clock begins to chime the hour, he arrives. From the moment he enters the room, all eyes are upon him, for his is a visage that could never blend in: statuesque features carved from ebony standing resplendent amid the pale faces of his subjects. There is no doubt as to who the lord of this land is.
What you do: Make an NPC stand out from the crowd by making them a different color than their peers.
Why you do it: A simple, stark, physical difference is the easiest way to make a character distinct. This draws PC attention to them just from their very description. For a villainous NPC, this can be an indicator that they 'don't belong' in the society they're found in, or can be a clue to an origin in a different nation or culture. This can lead the PCs down an avenue of investigation to the villain's hidden past. For an allied NPC, this can mark them out as someone who is different from the crowd (usually because they are helpful when the rest of the populace is not).
How other people might see it: POC players might see this differently than you. If all the people of a specific race or color are presented as evil (for example: if the only black man in the kingdom is also the vampire lord that's been plaguing the countryside), it can appear as if you're presenting this specific race or subgroup as the problem. In the case of allied NPCs, it can appear as if you're presenting this particular race or subgroup as nothing more than a mysterious fairy-godmother figure.
How to fix it: If you need to make your villain or NPC stand out, particularly if you want to show that they aren't a part of the culture they're found in, give them a distinctive behavior or mannerism instead. A peculiar manner of speech or abnormal behavior pattern can be just as effective a clue, and since it's a touch more subtle, it can have the added benefit of making players feel clever for catching it. If they're an ally, you don't need such an obvious physical distinction to get your PCs to notice them. Their willingness to provide aid will provide all the initial emphasis you need.
The archmage closed his eyes. Though his voice was soft and delicate, he stumbled over not a single line of the incantation. His smooth, manicured hands traced the arcane sigils flawlessly. For ninety-eight nights he had made the same invocation. One more would make the ritual complete. They would pay for what they'd done to him, the burly mocking huntsmen and their simpering ladies: they would pay dearly...
What you do: Give an antagonistic NPC characteristics typically associated with the LGBTQ+ community.
Why you do it: If your PCs occupy traditional gender roles, you might do this to reinforce the notion that they are heroes, by contrasting them with an enemy that defies social norms (or the social norms that your PCs uphold, at any rate). For male NPCs, you might give them more effeminate traits to show them as more cultured or refined than their peers (or the PCs), maybe hinting at a greater social/mental strength as opposed to a physical danger. For female NPCs, you may be ascribing them masculine traits in order to portray them as tough.
How other people might see it: Unfortunately, giving feminine traits to male villains in order to make the male lead more manly by comparison is a time-honored Hollywood tradition. Oftentimes in the fantasy or action-adventure genres we only see these types of behaviors when they're used as traits for a villainous foil in this manner. So it's easy to see how some in the LGBTQ+ community might see this as taking traits typically associated with their community and using them to indicate corruption or malevolence. It's even double-hurtful when these same traits are used to indicate to the audience that the characters are supposed to be the object of ridicule and scorn. (The 'sissy-boy' archetype we see in Disney's Prince John, or the overly combative female co-worker from Boondocks Saints, for example.) Even in instances where these traits are being used to show a strength (by showing a character is more reliant on brains than brawn, for example, like we see with Disney's Jafar or with Timothy Olyphant's character in A Good Day to Die Hard) it can leave an unpleasant reminder of the past, and the nagging sensation that these traits are being used to portray the villain as somehow 'lesser.'
How to fix it: If you're trying to emphasize the player character's strength and virtue, you don't need to tie that to traditional gender roles. Non-traditional--or even openly LGBT--characters in positions of respect and authority in your game world (NPCs the PCs are intended to look up to) can do a great deal to show that non-traditional gender traits aren't being used to show weakness, corruption, or displacement, and that they aren't targets for derision.
The emir gazed through half-lidded eyes at the adventurers. His bulk could barely be contained by his throne, which groaned as he shifted his weight. His pudgy fingers, festooned with chunky gold rings, steepled beneath his several chins as he scowled in consideration. The dancing girls waving fans gently over their lord dared not look at the captured heroes. They had seen similar mercenaries captured in their lord's keep before, and knew there was only two outcomes: death, or torturous death.
What you do: Use a bodily imperfection as an indicator of a character flaw, such as an obese character who is lazy or gluttonous.
Why you do it: By taking a trait that society often finds disagreeable and associating it with a negative character trait, you hope to reinforce the negative trait. In other words, you're showing an inner corruption so intense that it manifests outwardly.
How other people might see it: It can be very easy for someone who has one of these physical traits (or who has a loved one who does) to see your link between the character trait and the physical trait as general rather than causal (not 'this character is obese because he is greedy and lazy,' but 'people are fat because they are greedy and lazy).
How to fix it: In the long-term, highly-involved setting of a tabletop RPG campaign, this kind of shortcut isn't something you really need. You have more than enough time and room to show the depths of a character's corruption without having to use their physicality to make the point. If you do want to have a character whose physical appearance also dovetails with a typically-associated character flaw, then consider adding friendly or allied NPCs with the same appearance. That way you show that you (and the society in your game world) don't consider these physical traits to be indicative of moral or ethical corruption.
4) Sexual Violence
Morena pulled her sword from its sheath as the bandits circled around her. The road was little traveled these days, and the thieves in the forest were growing desperate. When she stood and turned, their eyes lit up. One of them licked his lips, and with a nauseating turn Morena realized that she was facing a far worse fate than mere robbery.
What you do: Use the concept of sexual violence as an escalating factor, showing the depravity of a villain or the dire stakes of a threatening situation.
Why you do it: You're not a complete monster! You recognize that sexual violence is perhaps the ultimate form of violation, so if you have a villain willing to commit such an action, you're indicating the unequivocal evil in their hearts. Although you recognize (of course) that only the most sociopathic, misogynistic gamemaster would actually force a female PC into a situation where she was the victim of sexual violence, you also think that the threat of sexual assault makes a situation more dangerous, or even that the threat is logical in certain circumstances (a lone female cleric being captured by a pirate gang, for example).
How other people might see it: The CDC estimates 1 in 5 women (and 1 in 71 men) are victims of rape. The odds are almost certain that you have gamed with (or currently game with) sexual violence survivors. In-game depictions of sexual violence can easily aggravate trauma issues. Even if that isn't the case, portrayals of sexual assault being used in a game to hang a lantern on the morality of a fictional character could very well strike some of your players as trivializing something that is all too real for them.
How to fix it: Authors wiser and more eloquent than me have opined that it's bizarre that we're more willing to accept a fantasy world where lizards fly and breathe fire, or where magical fog can transport people through time and space, than we are to accept a world where sexual violence just doesn't occur. There are other ways to show that a character is evil other than to show that they've raped someone.
As far as using the threat of sexual violence goes: Probably best avoided in most groups. Your players, hopefully, already know you'd never follow through with having a PC actually being the victim of sexual violence (after all, you're not the kind of depraved, slavering shitheel that would do such a thing, right?) so the threat doesn't hold water. Further, it's unnecessary. If you've got a female PC being threatened by male enemies, you don't need to add the threat of sexual violence; it's almost a certainty that in her mind, that threat's already there. The only thing you do by making it explicit is show that the thought was in your mind too, making you look insensitive at best, or like a creep at worst.
If you have a group of close-knit, trusted friends, this might be a topic you can explore more thoroughly. The tabletop RPG campaign can even be a healthy outlet for discussing sexual assault. However, that kind of in-depth exploration of such a sensitive topic is probably not something to spring on new acquaintances or casual friends.
The thief crept down the tunnel, the rest of the adventuring party behind him. The lone member of the party with infravision, it was up to him to lead the heroes to ambush the hag. They moved carefully, cautious of the shifting carpet of bones beneath their feet. he druid, feeling the delicate remains beneath her feet, had commented on how many animals had died to satiate the fiend's bloodlust. Only the thief knew the truth: the bones were tiny and delicate, no larger than a bird's, but they were all unmistakably human.
What you do: Use violence against children to up the stakes in an adventure, or to signal the ultimate evil. Alternatively, use possessed/fiendish children as the enemy themselves.
Why you do it: Virtually no character, no matter how jaded, is willing to allow children to be the victims of a monster's depraved whims. Even many villainous characters will rise to the defense of a kid.
If you're using a child as the villain, then you may be trying to spring a surprise on the players, giving them a villain hiding in a guise even veteran adventurers might not suspect.This can lead to a very different kind of encounter, if the child is brainwashed or possessed, where the players can't kill the villain but instead have to find some way to free the child. Alternately, a fiendish villain merely impersonating a child can make PCs have to make very difficult choices if they want to defeat the villain permanently--killing a child, even a demon disguised as one, is no small thing.
How other people might see it: It's possible someone might think of this as trivializing violence against children. Many of the friends I spoke to while thinking about this said that after having children, their perception of children (and children in imperiled or victim roles) in media, including RPGs, changed after having children of their own. Stories of lost or endangered children affected them more than it had before. This isn't limited to parents, either; I've seen similar feelings voiced by gamers in professions that require them to bond closely with children (such as preschool teachers). Since it's often difficult for a player to say "Hey, this story makes me uncomfortable, can we do something else?" it can lead to players feeling like they are stuck in a situation that isn't comfortable but that they can't fix. (Good players are loathe to ask a GM to discard all the work they put into an adventure, after all.) I've even seen a player walk away from a game because of this issue.
How to fix it: This is a situation where tact is the best medicine. Violence against children (especially if the story requires it from the PCs) is a serious topic, and should probably be best handled in a serious fashion. As long as you don't exceed your players’ comfort levels, you should be good to include children in your game as long as you aren't being cavalier about harm coming to them.
Chances are, you're a nice person. You became a GM because you want to help tell a good story with your friends. Only you are going to know if something is right for your game. The better you know your players, the better you're going to know what you can do, and what might be misinterpreted.
That's not to say that you can never incorporate any of the story aspects we discussed, and it certainly isn't to say the way these topics could be interpreted is how they will be interpreted. It never hurts to try to gain a different perspective, though. People come to gaming from all different walks of life and a variety of backgrounds. Trying to be aware of how a story aspect could be perceived differently is never going to be a bad idea.
Even if you examine what you're doing and ultimately make no changes, the extra attention to detail will make itself known in other aspects of your game.Your players will definitely take notice, and anything that enhances their enjoyment is a step in the right direction, right?
Jim Stearns is a deranged hermit from the swamps of Southern Illinois. In addition to writing for the Black Library, he puts pen to paper for High Level Games and Keep on the Heathlands. His mad scribblings can frequently be found in Quoth the Raven, as well as anthologies like Fitting In or Selfies from the End of the World, by Mad Scientist Journal. Follow him on Twitter @jcstearnswriter.
Image: Dungeon Master by Alexandre Salles (Deviant Art)
I am become death, destroyer of worlds.