Using Real Life Material as the Basis for Roleplaying Game Plots

I’ve seen some amount of controversy over the idea of using real life events as the basis for roleplaying game plots and characters. Many people feel that it would be crass at best (if not downright monstrous) to use real-life tragedies as entertainment. This is certainly an understandable viewpoint, and one that I largely agree with. However, there is something on which I disagree — I do not believe that using real material as the basis for roleplaying material is necessarily always using tragedy as entertainment.

Here, then, are a few guidelines as to how and when you could (and perhaps shouldn’t) use real life material in your roleplaying game. I hope this will be of use to both game masters (GMs) and writers.

What Is Entertainment?

Part of the problem lies in the definition of roleplaying as entertainment; certainly it can be that and often is. But many people use it as more than that. It becomes a means to safely explore feelings and consequences. It allows people to feel through their reactions to events, however extreme, in a safe and non-damaging manner. Psychologically this can be a valuable exercise.

Roleplaying can be used to let people feel like they have a little control over the uncontrollable tragedies in the world. When you sit at home and feel completely helpless to deal with war, famine, and terrorist attacks, sometimes you need to feel empowered again. You need to feel like you can do something about the problems, even if it’s just once a week in your own living room. Even if it’s fantasy. It’s an escape from the tragedies of real life, and sometimes that escape is brought about by arranging to overcome that tragedy in a safe (and fictional) way.

Roleplaying can also help us to remember in a personal and visceral way the lessons that we would otherwise forget. Everyone’s heard the old saying about those who forget history being doomed to repeat it. It’s easier to forget the lessons of life when they’re distant and impersonal. It’s easier to remember when you’ve experienced them, in however mild and third-hand a manner. No, I’m not saying that roleplaying through a tragedy can in any way compare to being there. But even many times removed, the lessons can be learned and remembered. Some lessons can’t be brought home by dry history books. Roleplaying provides a more personal avenue for teaching those things that shouldn’t be forgotten.

Humor and Healing

Why is real life as entertainment bad? And is it ever not bad?

Real life events of import and tragedy provided as entertainment will almost always offend someone, and with reason. No one likes to see their terror and horror done up for laughs. Such things can be callous at best and horrifyingly painful at worst.

On the other hand, humor and irreverence have been used to say important things about terrible events for a long time. Take any major current event and you can probably find at least one story, article, movie, or comedy sketch lampooning it, for good or ill. Humor is used to heal. Humor is used to say things that people are afraid to say. Humor is used to alleviate the unrelenting stress of life.

The problem, of course, is in deciding which humor is offensive and which is appropriate. It’s a very subjective judgment. If you’re writing professionally and you want to avoid offending people, then be conservative with such humor. If you’re writing for your own gaming group, then consider asking your players whether they’d be offended by what you’re planning. If you feel that it absolutely must remain a surprise then ask them a more general question to gauge their reaction, and keep an eye out for negative reactions during play; if your players look unhappy then back off. Consider stopping the game for a moment and explaining what your idea was. See what your players think of that.

Normal Entertainment

Entertainment does have a place in the world, through roleplaying as well as books, movies, plays, and so on. Entertainment helps us to relax. It helps us to deal with the stresses and pains of our lives.

Whether real life tragedies have any place in this sort of entertainment is something that only you can decide for yourself. Some people think that sensationalized movies about horrible real life events still have a value, while others think of them as the worst sort of pandering to prurient desires. If you write this kind of stuff and make it public (publish it), you have to expect that people will be unhappy with you. Only you can decide whether that’s enough to keep you from doing it.

If you want to reach a wide audience without offending them:

  • You might want to avoid this approach altogether. It is inherently risky to try to use real life tragedy as entertainment.
  • Treat the subject matter with sensitivity. Plenty of entertaining TV shows have had their “very special episodes” about cancer, mental illness, or who knows what else. There are quite a few people who like these episodes and fail to take offense at them.
  • Use the real life event as inspiration without using it directly. Use it to give you ideas. Tragedies explored in roleplaying games (or books, or movies, or TV shows) don’t seem to bother people nearly as much if they’re “made up.”1

If you’re a lone GM writing for your own gaming group, then the only real worry is whether your plot will offend your players. As usual, communication is your best hope here. Talk to your players. Make sure they’d be comfortable with what you’re planning. If they have any reservations at all then don’t do it.

Basic Hints, Collected

I’ve talked a bit about why it might or might not be a bad idea to use real life material in roleplaying games under some circumstances. Here you’ll find the best suggestions I have for making real life material work in games:

Use Some Sensitivity

Handle difficult subjects with a little grace, and don’t shy away from the tough questions. Don’t be crude or obnoxious. Try to put yourself in the shoes of someone who went through the events that you’re writing about. What would offend you? What would anger you? As a corollary to this, don’t sensationalize events. That’s a quick way to make people angry.

Have Respect

Have respect for the people who went through the tragedy. If you have respect for them and their experiences, you’re more likely to present the material in a way that won’t offend them. Remember to think of them as real people, not characters in a story.

Resist the temptation to provide easy answers to tough questions. If these things were easy they wouldn’t hurt people so much. Making everything seem simple trivializes the things that these people went through.

Inspiration

Try using real life events as inspiration rather than direct plots, particularly if you’re a publisher rather than a lone GM. Muck with things until the only real similarities are some themes, the emotions, and perhaps a few details here and there.

No Preaching

Avoid the temptation to preach and moralize. Present your material in a way that will speak for itself. There’s no need for long expository passages about the evils of terrorism or the terrors of genocide; everyone knows that already, and if they don’t, a speech isn’t going to convince them. Use events, people, and details to get any messages across.

This one is more of a basic writing tenet than a way to avoid offending people. On the other hand, it will help to keep you from looking all high-and-mighty about something you didn’t actually go through — which is something that can offend people.

Fact Checking

Get your facts right. You don’t have to have every detail letter-perfect, but be careful in what you change. In particular, don’t gloss over the bad things or the people who perpetrated them. If you’re going to write about a real life tragedy then you have to be willing to face that tragedy. Make sure that you do your research, and then decide what to change. Don’t tell yourself that you can just make the details up and they’ll sound perfectly authentic; the people who were there will know better.

Get Historical

Go back in history a little ways. The older the tragedy (and thus, the smaller the number of still-living victims and their children), the less it offends people. You’d be hard-pressed to find people who’d get offended at your write-up of a thousand year old tragedy, except maybe some historians who don’t agree with your research.

In Conclusion…

There are good reasons why people take offense, but there are also good reasons why roleplaying through major events can be useful and even important. Be careful why you choose an event and how you use it.

Keep in mind that your decisions will be different based on whether you’re a publisher or GM. Published works end up in front of a wider audience, which means they’re more likely to end up in front of someone who would be offended. They are also sold for money, which means that there’s a much stronger argument for the idea that the publisher is capitalizing on tragedy in order to make a profit. Thus, publishers and writers need to be more careful in what they tackle and how. GMs, on the other hand, need to take their specific players into account. If they don’t, they’re likely to offend people whose opinions really matter to them. So while it’s easier for them to address real life material, they need to be more careful about asking players what they’d be offended by and what they’d consider interesting.

All of this boils down to one major theme: If you’re going to use real life events in your RPG material, then be prepared to do it right.

Footnote 1: Writers almost always get their inspiration from somewhere, even if the story changes drastically from original seed to final creation. Thus it could be argued that the only difference between real tragedies depicted in writing and fictional tragedies is the reader’s desire to believe that these things could (and did) never happen. Or perhaps his desire to hold those events at arm’s length, not connecting the tragedies to anything that might have happened to him or one of his loved ones. The obvious implication here is that in a practical vein there is no real difference between a fictional tragedy and a real tragedy depicted in a fictional work. However, the psychological aspects of such things cannot be discounted. There is a difference, and it is an important one.

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