“At the center of skorne society are unpleasant concepts like suffering, servitude and torture. Some players might not want such concepts expressed openly or in great detail, if at all. It is important everyone at the table is comfortable and having fun, and this might require a Game Master to let some elements of skorne culture take a back seat or be glossed over – or even to omit them entirely. Every group is different, so it is up to a Game Master to respect the players’ tolerances and preferences before showcasing such elements in a game. One group might not have any problem with playing a skorne campaign replete with dark themes, while another group might strongly prefer to omit careers like the Tormentor and the practices they represent. Overall, skorne society is more focused on earning honor and glory than on simply inflicting pain, and a campaign could easily be steered to focus players on achieving greatness for their houses without exploring the darker aspects of skorne culture and philosophy.”
This passage is in the Skorne Empire supplement for the Iron Kingdoms Unleashed RPG. It was written by one of my favourite RPG writers, though I didn’t know that when I read it. It contains what is, for me, one of the most important concepts a Dungeon Master, Game Master, Storyteller needs to understand.
A little background for those unfamiliar:
The Skorne are a race of humanoids from the Warmachine/Hordes setting, whose culture could loosely be described as combining elements reminiscent of Feudal Japan, the Roman Empire, and an omnipresent death cult. They have a rigorous caste system, warring houses actively enslave those they defeat, and much of their culture is built around the desire to have their souls captured and stored in crystalline prisons when they die, rather than having them sucked into the void and destroyed. They are masters of mortitheurgy – death magic – and there are very powerful elements of their society that are built up around the sorcerous power that can be siphoned from the victims of torture and agonizing death.
Frankly, an awful lot of skorne culture is built around practices that are ethically and morally abhorrent. I’ll freely admit that I love the Iron Kingdoms setting and I’m fascinated by the life breathed into the setting by the writing team. The setting has so much depth and character, for so many different factions and cultures, it boggles my mind just how rich the world of the Iron Kingdoms has become over the years. That said, some cultures depicted are, to my mind, much more suited to being antagonists rather than protagonists. There’s little heroic about the Blindwater Congregation, the Cryxian nation is mired in undeath and sinister blood magicks, and we all know how I feel about those filthy Morrowans in Cygnar.
The Skorne Empire supplement is the most comprehensive look into the peoples who marched across the abyss to wage war on the fertile lands of Western Immoren, and while it can certainly be used as a “Here be bad guys” resource, it also presents the rules for a group of players to don the crimson and brass armour of the Empire and play in the streets of Halaak in their own quest for eternal glory (ie, to earn honour and glory sufficient to have their spirit placed in a soulstone upon death). That’s where the above quote comes in.
“Every group is different, so it is up to a Game Master to respect the players’ tolerances and preferences before showcasing such elements in a game.”
Roleplaying groups are often bound by an unspoken social contract. The most recent D&D sourcebook, Tasha’s Cauldron of Everything, lists the following:
- You will respect the players by running a game that is fun, fair, and tailored for them. You will allow every player to contribute to the ongoing story and give every character moments to shine. When a player is talking, you are listening.
- The players will respect you and the effort it takes to create a fun game for everyone. The players will allow you to direct the campaign, arbitrate the rules, and settle arguments. When you are talking, the players are listening.
- The players will respect one another, listen to one another, support one another, and do their utmost to preserve the cohesion of the adventuring party.
- Should you or a player disrespect each other or violate the social contract in some other way, the group may dismiss that person from the table.
If you’re doing something that actively makes a player uncomfortable, you’re in breach of the social contract. An exception may be possible if it’s tied to a critical plot point, but you’d best be prepared to deal with any fallout, which could be anything up to and including dissolution of the campaign.
I’m currently running a D&D game set in Barovia, home of Count Strahd Von Zarovich. This is the gothic horror setting for D&D otherwise known as Ravenloft. It’s dark. I mean, it’s one thing to go strolling through a dungeon and thwarting skeletons and goblins. It’s another thing to burst into a puppet theatre where the audience is ceramic dolls that all turn to stare at you, and one of the villagers is up on the stage strung up like a marionette with meat hooks through his joints.
In playing through the campaign there have been multiple times where I’ve seen my players pale or be taken aback by some of the descriptions I’m firing at them. They’ve been troopers, but you can bet that I’ve checked in with them multiple times to make sure they’re okay with the tone of the campaign, because – and here’s the crux – games are meant to be fun. I want them to end the sessions feeling like they’ve accomplished something, learned something, or even just done something cool. I want them to have experiences that can have them thinking “Hey, remember when…” some time down the line.
They’re the protagonists. If you’re having fun, but they’re not, you’re doing it wrong. You need to consider your approach, how things are portrayed, how much agency they have as players, so on and so forth. Conversely, if they’re having fun but you’re not, that needs to be addressed too.
D&D, IKRPG and other RPGs are all about collaborative storytelling. While the DM may have the index and the major plot points, it’s the players who are filling in the minutiae. Everyone should be able to enjoy the experience.