Saturday, May 18, 2013

Real World Disasters and the World of Darkness

Search for Boston, this is the 4th image.  The rest are related to the bombing.

            On April 15, 2013, two brothers set off a pair of bombs near the finish line of the Boston Marathon killing three people and injuring almost 300 others.  This terrorist attack set off a string of events that led to the lock down of Boston as police searched the city for those responsible.  The hunt for these terrorist ended after one of them was killed during a chase and shoot out with the police and the capture of the youngest brother who was discovered wounded by the owner of the boat where he was hiding.  Now caught, he awaits his trial, but the effect that he has had on Boston and its residents will never be fully understood.  The effects of this tragedy are ongoing and remain in the news as the surviving attacker awaits trial in Boston. 
             Countless other tragedies have occurred including school shootings, such as Sandy Hook or natural disasters, like Hurricane Katrina, or man-made disasters, such as the Chernobyl incident.  Each disaster ripples out leaving people shaken and fearful.  People are hurt or killed.  Families are broken.  Friends are lost.  A whole nation is terrified for decades of another attack or accident.  The entire world changes because of one event. 
             As I watched the news after the Boston Marathon bombing, I began to wonder how to address a similar incident if it occurred in the city that I use as the setting for my Vampire the Masquerade game.  What if, instead of setting my game in Baltimore, I was using Boston as the backdrop?  How would I address the Boston Marathon bombing if that were true?  Or what if I had been running a World of Darkness game set in New York City when two planes struck the World Trade Center?  How would I continue a game in New York the day after 9/11? 
A Syrian man staring at the remains of his house.
           These are issues that are going to occur when a campaign is set in an approximation of the real world.  When New York or Boston or someone’s hometown is setting for a game, real world events will intrude and change the landscape and the feelings about a particular location faster than the Hulk rampaging through the same world doing similar damage. 
The World of Darkness is set in the “real world.”  There is a New York and a Chicago and every other location imaginable.  Most Vampire the Masquerade games are set in darker versions of real cities.    In these fictional cities, vampires and werewolves and all manner of supernatural creatures run wild.  There are firefights in the streets, cops are killed, and buildings are burnt down.  And like watching a movie or a T.V. show, the Storyteller and players laugh and smile and enjoy this rampant destruction because the victims aren’t real, the destruction is simulated, and no one really gets hurt.  That fictional violence is swept away, cleaned up off screen or during downtime.  The consequences are minor, and the worst thing that will happen is that a player will have to build a new character. 
             When the events are real and people are really hurt or really die, cleaning up after the disaster may take a lifetime.  The pain of loss and the grief after a catastrophe don’t disappear at the end of a session.  And that pain isn’t limited to those directly affected.  The shock of 9/11 or the Sandy Hook school shooting can affect people far removed from the event.  Under no circumstances should events that are emotionally disturbing for a player be used just for the sake of a game. 
The SuperDome after Katrina
When a natural disaster or a terrorist attack occurs, considerable thought and care should be used when deciding whether or not to include those events or similar events in a chronicle.  These events can be used as the backdrop for a story, or they can cause irreversible changes to a setting.   If you chose to bring a real world tragedy into a chronicle, it should be with the agreement of all the participants in the game and after consideration of the consequences of introducing a potentially emotionally charged event into the campaign.  Everyone’s feelings should be taken into account and respected even if that means ignoring real world events, this is a game after all and fiction, so you should be willing to adapt.  With that said let’s look at some of the concerns that a group should consider when bringing a real world tragedy into their World of Darkness campaign.
             First, whatever you do, don’t make the tragedy part of trite Elder plot or the workings of some anarchs out to get revenge.  It’s not a Pentex corporate conspiracy or caused by some Verbena mages whose magic went awry.  Do not try to explain away a real world tragedy as the machinations of supernatural creatures or super villains.  Doing that will only turn the suffering and loss of real people into a macabre parody.  Keep in mind that not the Antediluvians nor the Technocracy nor the Wyrm is responsible for every terrible event.  Let these events play out like they do in the real world.  These events can provide a back drop for telling interesting stories about how Kindred or Lupines react to earth shaking events but your characters should not be the main players in the tragedy.  Don’t let your players save the day either.  Allowing a player character to stop 9/11 because he’s a time traveling mage diminishes the sacrifices made by real people who died saving others. 
              As an example, consider 9/11 and the changes to the United States since then.  New York City itself is transfigured by the event as is the rest of the United States.  The events of that day are still fresh in a lot of people’s mind and pain is still real for people who survived the attacks or who lost loved ones.  However, stories can be told that make use of 9/11.  Movies such a Flight 93 and World Trade Center are set during the events of that day.  However, both movies were released in 2006, 5 years after the event, a fact that should be kept in mind.  Any attack on New York City will bring back memories of 9/11 as will any attack on a skyscraper regardless of the city. 
Marvel's 9/11 Comic
             Honestly, if I were running a game set in New York City during the fall of 2001, I would probably stop the game and completely change systems and setting to a fantasy game.  But if I had to continue the game, I would do much like Marvel comics did.  Since the majority of Marvel superheroes are based in New York City, they had to respond to 9/11 without turning into another super-villain plot where Spiderman and the Avengers can save the day.  The tragedy occurs and the heroes can’t stop it; the heroes wake up like the rest of us to the tragedy.  9/11 is then treated tangentially rather than addressed directly through the loss of people known to the heroes who grieve with us.  This is probably the best way approach an event like this if you must. 
The next consideration for telling stories around real world tragedies is time.  How long ago was the tragedy?  The Chernobyl disaster happened in 1986.  It’s so long ago that many of you weren’t born when it happened.   For those unfamiliar with the Chernobyl disaster, Chernobyl was a nuclear power plant in the former Soviet Union that had a catastrophic meltdown that unleashed toxic radiation clouds over Europe.  The Soviets eventually contained the reactor by putting a giant metal sarcophagus over the reactor and sealed it off.  However, significant amounts of radiation were released and the nearby city received huge doses of radiation.  The consequences of the meltdown are still being dealt with and many survivors who lived near the plant have high rates of cancer and birth defects.  The environmental effects of the radiation are still unknown. 
Chernobyl after the explosion
Twenty-seven years removed from that terrible event, I cannot help but think about the potential Werewolf the Apocalypse story that can be told using Chernobyl as a setting.  Radiation Spirits, Blights, and a sept of mutated Black Spiral Dancers are just some of the potential enemies available.  The fact that some areas are still so irradiated that a person can spend only a few minutes in that area before he risks permanent damage adds environmental effects to the story.  However, one of the reasons that I can do this is because 27 years have passed since that tragedy. 
On the other hand, the Fukushima disaster is much better known but also much more recent.  I certainly wouldn’t set the same kind of story at Fukushima’s nuclear power plant.  The tragedy is just too close.  People need time to heal and I believe that Fukushima is far too recent to be used as the setting for an RPG.  However, Chernobyl is distant enough that I would have no qualms running a game set there.
Baghdad after a recent bombing
               Another factor to keep in mind is the physical distance from the tragedy.  The Syrian Civil War is on the other side of the world from me.  The events that I read about in newspapers or on the internet or watch on the news are so far away that they are just information.  They are too distant to make an emotional impact.  The same is true for the US occupation of Afghanistan or the bombings in Baghdad.  These events barely make the news and are often overshadowed by the stories of celebrities getting arrested again.  Because of this distance, I could set a modern Special Forces campaign in Syria or Afghanistan, or a Vampire the Masquerade chronicle could be set in Syria and focused on locating ancient artifacts or seeking out the resting place of an Antediluvian amongst the chaos of the war. 
              Daily news stories can provide plenty of background information for campaigns like these.  Conversely the closer you and your group are to a disaster, the less likely you should use it as the setting or inspiration for your RPG.  I don’t live very far from New Orleans, and even though the events of Hurricane Katrina are eight years past, I don’t think it would be a good choice to use that as the backdrop for a story.  However, I have used hurricanes in other setting because they are a great natural disaster that has some interesting environmental mechanics like high wind, flooding, etc, but I would never use the exact events of Katrina such as the overcrowded conditions found at the Superdome. 
              However, care must be taken with campaigns like these.  Just because I think it’s a good option for my group, doesn’t mean it’s a good option for other groups.  Groups that include veterans, active duty or reserve members of the military might not enjoy a game set in areas of conflict where they fought, were wounded or lost friends.  Groups that include people who were originally from the Middle East might be offended by the setting a fantasy game about vampires and werewolves in their war torn homes.  A person who once lived in New Orleans and barely survived the hurricane wouldn’t appreciate it either. 
Fukushima's Nuclear Reactor on fire.
            The emotional distance to the events is just as important as the time or physical distance since a tragedy.  One of the reason that I would never use Fukushima as a setting for an RPG session is because I know too many people who were in Japan during the tragedy or had families who were there.  Also, because I studied Japanese for many years, the tragedy is just too emotionally close to me because of my investment in Japanese culture.  You should poll your group to find out if anyone would be upset by using a particular setting or event as the backdrop for a game before you introduce the events you have in mind. 
             The end goal of any role playing game is for everyone to have fun.  Using a real world event can quickly make a fun game into a traumatic reliving of someone’s worst tragedy.  These games that we love so much offer a chance to escape humdrum lives and explore a shared story where we can do impossible things and live out fantasies whether as a fighter slaying a dragon or a Ventrue becoming the prince of a city or a Fianna slaying an agent of the Wyrm.  Be mindful of the feelings of your group towards the events that you will introduce.  You don’t want to be responsible for causing unintentional pain to someone who sits at your table expecting to have a good time.  If I was to condense this entire article down into one sentence it would be:  Don’t exploit another person’s pain just for the sake of your RPG.

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