Tuesday 20 September 2016

Inner Worlds #5: Just Sex

(Everso mild TW for discussion of consent and associated issues.)

So yeah. The heart is a dangerous thing. Being in love is powerful; it remakes you, transforms you, for good and ill. I mean, I could talk about how it changes your chemistry, how having loved and lost brings irreversible changes to a person. It defines us. It is where we come from.

Of course, sex and death are at the heart of most genre fiction. And it always seems perverse to me that people are less freaked by violence than they are by love, by bodies. But then that's our culture, innit?

In White Wolf issue 40, February 1994, which I picked up when I was 18, Greg Rucka, who'd later go on to write Queen and Country and Batman,1 did this article about how to do sex in role-playing games. And I'm not going to lie, revisiting it, it's pretty good. He basically says, if you're going to have somebody doing sex, talk through with your other players what they're comfortable with. Perhaps fade to black during the actual act, and have some ground rules, and look, he says, here are some good ones:
1) No pornography.
2) No exploitation.
3) No means no.
4) All players respect each other.
5) All players treat the subject maturely, honestly and respectfully. 
Gregory Rucka, "O! My Body! – Eroticism in Roleplaying"
White Wolf 40, February 1994

And basically, as far as actually approaching consensual sexual activity in your let's pretend games, what else is there to say?

The problems come when you actually start making mechanics for it.

Still my favourite version of the game.
The first mechanical representation of sexual activity I ever met in a game was in the first edition of Cyberpunk from 19882 with the Seduction skill. Basically if you made your Seduction roll, which would presumably be an opposed roll, the target (hopefully an NPC, but although I don't doubt for a microsecond that this is the intention of the rules, it's not spelled out) would have sex with you.

In the 1992 Vampire Players Guide, 2nd Edition, you get it spelled out much more fully, with this optional skill:
See? "Once you have fully seduced someone, he will be willing to do nearly anything for you."

"Possessed by: Thespians, Escorts (sex workers, they mean), Good-for-Nothing Men, Strippers."3 The list of Specialties beneath the main skill description suggests to me that it's intended that you play out these interactions. Note that this is explicitly not a skill for how good you are at sex; this is a skill for how good you are at getting people to fuck you (or let you bite them). As opposed to Cyberpunk, where the implication is that it's at least partly about how good you are in the sack (as in, the cyborg sexual implant you can buy in the second edition adds to your Seduction skill).

I think the important thing is, from my viewpoint, to frame this for what it is. When you're doing something as horrible as essentially using the skills of the so-called Pick-Up Artist to trick a non-player character into bed, that needs to be interrogated. Because if you're around the table and you use your Seduction skill on a person in-game, and most of the other players are all, "Wahey! Get in!" and so on, what's to say that there isn't someone present who's going to feel threatened by this, who might even have experienced abuse like this themselves? Because it's abuse. It is. You are playing out a scene of abuse. Ask why you want to. Even if this abuse were important to the story, is it not more useful dramatically to perhaps cut to the consequences?

The consequences are wholly reasonable things to concentrate on. Mad Max: Fury Road is basically driven for example by the consequences of rape and sexual exploitation, and yet the actual events are barely presented, if at all, pushed aside in favour of consequences and responses, trauma and outrage.
Outrage drives the plot. She drives the truck.

I'm not going into games that frame the graphic representation of rape as a setting element; this is a different issue. It's enough to know that Cthulhutech and Alpha Blue4 and the like are kinda juvenile about the whole issue in a "heh, heh, I said 'rape'" way (as well as being icky and stupid in a bunch of other ways).

Both Cyberpunk and Vampire present (as far as the authors intend) non-aspirational characters who do sleazy and horrible and, yes, abusive things, but they also talk about the consequences of these things, and in some senses these skills are in theme for their games. All I'm asking (and what Greg Rucka was asking) is that their implications be looked at.

Werewolf: The Apocalypse in its earlier editions had this evolutionary breeding imperative thing called Animal Magnetism, which was literally about making people have the urge to have sex with you. This sort of crosses the line into magic mind control but again is basically an abusive action, possibly even one that might shade into the realm of rape, and no, you're not doing it to another player, but you're still playing out something that another player might find uncomfortable.

Monsterhearts though is a game that's basically all about monsters in love.5 It owes a lot to the World of Darkness games, but goes for the teens with crushes on monsters side of the genre. As such, it actually has a lot of mechanics to do with sexuality.  Like these: 
Turn Someone On
When you turn someone on, roll with hot. On a 10 up, take a String against them. • On a 7-9, they choose one: give themselves to you, promise something they think you want, give you a String against them...

Manipulate an NPC
When you manipulate an NPC, roll with hot. On a 10 up, they’ll do what you want if you give them a bribe, a threat, or a motive. • On a 7-9, the MC will tell you what it’ll take to get the NPC to do what you want. Do it and they will.
Avery Alder McDaldno, Monsterhearts, p20-21
Basically the first one is a mechanic intended to be played on another player, and it explicitly says that you have to decide how your character reacts if it's used on you. It only works if it's consensual. The second one, that's where the Pick-Up Artist thing comes in. It could be used for a rapey situation. I'm actually more bothered about the game's "Sex Moves" (as in, mechanical benefits you bring into play when your character's had sex with someone), none of which are of themselves necessarily icky, and all of which are true to the (sub)genre the game emulates, but which... I don't know. There's something at the edge of my mind that makes me kind of... uncomfortable. Reflecting on it, I think it's do with the idea that having sex with someone triggers a game mechanic, a power; the act of lovemaking becomes a precondition for an element of gameplay, a mechanical prerequisite. That bothers me.

People I know who care are split quite strongly on Monsterhearts. Me, I bought it to see what the fuss is about, and I have to be honest, I don't like the Apocalypse World system that it uses much at all. And still, while, as one of my colleagues has said to me in conversation three times over the last couple weeks, you can't stop players being assholes, sometimes you have to cover yourself.

I suppose the point is that just like every other part of the soul's interactions, the more you systematise, the more things you find to systematise, the more problems you find.

I'll get back to you on this.

1Apparently. Never read any of his comics, but I'm told it's the same guy. (back)

2I picked it up when I was 14, and frankly I didn't understand half of the great things in that first edition. I am in a minority, I know, but I think that the first Cyberpunk game is a significantly better game than its much more popular second edition; I can't pin down why, but I remember the world as presented in the first View From the Edge as being much more lo-fi than in version, much more attractive to me in its damaged, run down atmosphere. The second edition was more comic booky, I felt, more indefinably Hollywood. (back)

3I should note that this, as well as a bunch of other equally icky stuff from the Players Guide, was excised from subsequent editions of the game. (back)

4As written by wannabe black magician and near-endless fount of comedy Gargamel Beelzebubbicus or whatever he's calling himself these days, a wannabe black magician with a tendency to cast curses on people he doesn't like online. (back)

5I should at this point mention Emily Care Boss's Breaking the Ice, which is, I'm told, the game that Does Romance Right, it being a two-player game where your characters go on sweet, funny dates. I regret though that I'm not familiar enough with it to discuss it other than I've not heard a bad word said about it. (back)