I am convinced that every RPG and every individual RPG adventure has a central message. Now, don’t get me wrong, I don’t think that every author or GM explicitly creates a message in everything they do, but I would argue that whether or not we intend it, we imbue everything we do with meaning. That’s why I would argue to work consciously towards a message, and to be conscious of what unintended message ends up in your work.
An example of this is in the
published early drafts of (edit: see his comment below) an adventure of a friend, entitled The Secret of Cedar Peak. I know this person to be accepting, progressive, peaceful, and considerate. Yet, unintentionally, due to the cultural structures all around us all, his module inherited some of the troublesome colonialist themes inherent to D&D:
This is what people mean when they say things like “The Patriarchy”—it’s not some secret group of men sitting around a table in a dark room, lit ethereally from above, as they plan out a system of oppression. It’s a massive construct of cultural products (movies, TV shows, novels, games) that all keep carrying the same message at the core. These messages aren’t the style where JD clearly voices the theme of this week’s Scrubs episode, but they are the messages that are hidden in plain sight. The type of messages of 90’s sitcoms, where the overweight, highly unsociable and outright unlikeable male character has a amazingly conventionally beautiful wife whom he treats terribly, yet she loves him terribly, accepts his faults, does all the work around the house while taking care of the kids. It’s so common to each product, that we don’t even see that the real message underlying these shows is “men don’t have to treat women well, and they all deserve a woman to serve their needs”.
The insidious nature of these messages, as my old uni prof would say about religion in the Middle Ages, is that they are so ubiquitous as to be invisible to the eye. He’d explain to us that for us largely secular group of students, the religiosity of medieval writing was Christianity slapped in our faces (insert “turn the other cheek” joke here), but a medieval reader wouldn’t even notice it. He then did something that stayed with me for all these years: he pointed out all the advertising in our room. I had never seen it before. Suddenly, I could see all the logos on shirts, backpacks, laptops, phones, the room’s projector, a poster on the wall. Everywhere there was a logo, a company name, or a slogan. And suddenly, there was capitalism all around me, with a message everywhere I looked trying to tell me to “buy, buy, buy”. There was a consistent set of messages all around me all the time that I had never seen before, because they were everywhere for as long as I could remember.
After two years of cultural analysis, you end up feeling like Rowdy Roddy Piper in They Live. Although while he was still the hero of an action movie, powerful and totally in the right, we remain human—vulnerable to making the same mistakes over and over. Years after coming to understand feminism as a white man, I still realized that I was interrupting women more than men during meetings. Behaviors like these are ongoing struggles. They’re simple but not easy to consistently get right. I still remember fondly delving into postmodern theory. You’d read somebody’s analysis, and it’s so convincing and well thought out. It really seems like the author has solved the problem they were working on. And then you’d read a postmodern analysis, where a philosopher and cultural analyst succinctly and expertly illustrates how the first author completely undermines their own point not in words but in how and what they wrote.
That’s why the burden is on us, constantly and consistently, to be aware of the messages we put out there. It’s also on us all to accept that we’re learning and growing human beings. Messages can sneak into our work that we don’t intend to have in there at all. So, it’s up to us to take action when we see this in ourselves, and to accept it when it happens to others. It’s why I appreciate Capybarbarian for bringing out that message himself, and
within the span of just a few weeks he worked on it and changed this: resolve the issue (edit: see his comment below for my inaccurate description of events).
I admire the work he’s put into it, and the guts it takes not only to just put himself out there to publish something but also to
correct it when he sees something wrong with it change course when needed (edit: see his comment below for corrections on my earlier inaccurate depiction). It’s why I recommend having a look at his module The Secret of Cedar Peak.