Breaking Consent: Dominate, Charm Person, and Love Potions
For decades now, the power to touch someone and bend them to your will has been a common theme in many games. It's not dependent on trad or OSR or indie. It pops up pretty consistently in nerd culture. I've heard countless tales of Vampire larps having issues where people hypnotized someone and then forced them into sex with them. I've seen it happen time and again where consent was tossed out the window by the mechanical use of spells, magic, or supernatural abilities.
In a hobby where we complain about railroads and demand player agency, why do we think it's okay to strip away agency from other people? Why do we think rapey tropes are amusing at best and perfectly normal at worst? And most importantly, why are we using games to explore consent issues without labeling them consent issues? Are we challenging the standard narrative or are we helping support it?
Months ago I wrote an article on rape and why it's not a topic that should be taken off the gaming table. Most of the reason I think rape should remain a topic in gaming is so we can start having real conversations about rape culture and it's influence on our games and media. Also, because it helps break down those toxic practices and it helps encourage empathy towards those who have suffered being a victim of rape and rape culture.
Promoting consent culture goes hand in hand with ending rape culture. When I did a public call for examples people could think of for mechanics and tools in a game that help remove consent culture, I got... well, a lot of examples. Enough that it was pretty heart breaking to see games made in the last couple years still hold onto these mechanics. My favourite though?
Unnatural Lust: Your target is filled with lust and desire for a single creature or object as designated by you at the time of casting. That creature or object must be within the spell's range and perceivable by the target of the spell. The target is filled with the compulsion to rush to the subject of its lust and passionately kiss or caress that subject on its next turn, taking no other actions.
That's such an intense spell to have. This is from one of the largest games out there, Pathfinder. It's a pretty obvious breech of consent, as it removes consent from the victim of the casting. That with other things like Dominate in Vampire, using the Force in the Fantasy Flight Star Wars games (you can force someone to adopt an emotion), touching someone as a Fae in Urban Shadows, Mind Control in Exalted 3E, or Charm Person in Fate of the Norns, we just love to have people do what we want to whom we want or feel how we want to them to feel.
In the ultimate power fantasy hobby, this is a disturbing trend. We are giving players the tools to walk around and literally invade someone else's mind or body, without their consent, because they want to. Not because they have to. Just because they're interested in doing so. Mechanics exist because you've said this is important enough that we're giving you a way to do it. By creating dominate and lust and compulsion and charm mechanics, we are saying the ability to make people do what you want is important.
Now, we should acknowledge that gaming is about wish fulfillment, and so it's no wonder that so many reports come out of these weird consent-removing games of in-game rape and sexual abuse. It needs to be noted who wrote a lot of the games where there are dominate rules. If we look at old Whitewolf games and Pathfinder and D&D, games largely written by cis men, versus looking at Monsterhearts, which is written by a trans woman, the conversations happening within these games around consent and abuse are very different.
Dominating spells like in the aforementioned games is mostly used to demonstrate how powerful the PCs are. They allow them total control over another living being. This seems okay and gives permission to players to explore this because there are rules for it in the fiction. It isn't asking if it's okay. It's telling you that it is and, on some level, it's expected of you to violate other people. In Monsterhearts, the Vampire skin, which can hypnotize you and bite you without a roll, is all about breaking consent and pushing those boundaries and having that conversation. In fact, being bitten by a vampire is so traumatizing, it can unhinge your sanity.
Our fiction has normalized the first perspective. We think nothing of Jedi walking around mind-tricking people into doing what we want, or the vampire who hypnotizes the poor woman into his arms, or the fae who can just touch you and make you want them. Pop culture has ensured this is awesome and heroes totally do this. Ron Weasley swallows a love potion and it's hi-fucking-larious. Except it isn't. There's a date rape drug analogy there and it's really fucking alarming. But we laugh. Because our culture says rape culture, the culture that doesn't value consent, is funny. It's normal. Breathe it in and perpetuate it.
And we do. Our games are chock full of these examples. Does this mean we should stop playing with the trope of dominating others? Probably not. It means we should look at Monsterhearts, the hard questions the vampire asks, and wonder at what that means. What does it feel like to be dominated? How traumatic is that event? What is your relationship like afterwards? Can you trust or be with someone who's willing to control other people at the drop of a hat?
The questions around dominating another person are interesting. Traumatic, triggering, and upsetting, but interesting. There's some interesting room to play there. There's some deeply upsetting and emotional places to go with those questions that are going to hard to play. Just like real life abuse situations are hard to understand and are hard to work through. In game abuse, and that's what this is, needs to be addressed.
Now, when the gaming culture as a whole is normalizing this abuse of consent and of people, we need to step back and go "wait, wut?" and maybe toss this out the window a little. Should we have mechanics that support abuse? Yes, in inclusive, safe ways that are having hard conversations around what it means. Should we have it for the lolz? No, never. I don't think we should normalize removing consent and agency from another living person. In fact, I would say someone going "I want to play with this because it's fun" isn't thinking of what they're saying or how gross what they're saying is.
Rape culture, the culture of non-consent, is gross and silences victims. In gaming, we play with these tools all the time and don't look at the social implications they have. Upon examination, we should really start to pull back and realize just how much of our culture has been influenced by pop culture and the rape culture that's part of that pop culture. We don't want to hold up rape culture. We want to promote safe gaming, consent, and agency. Playing a game that tells you that it's okay to dominate another person to make them do what you want should raise some red flags.
We have a chance to explore rape culture with our games, challenge the normal narratives, and break them down. To first do that, we have to acknowledge and own what's problematic in our own games. And this weird obsession with controlling other living beings? It's problematic. Let's own it. Let's unpack it. And then let's start challenging it and breaking it down so that our consent-breaking games are talking about it, not treating it as normal.
There's a chance here to fight back for good.