Why Bringing Real-World Issues into TTRPGs is Important
Anthony Zeppetella

Anthony Zeppetella

Jul 17, 2023

Why Bringing Real-World Issues into TTRPGs is Important

In a world rife with controversy, disagreements, political and religious discourse, we seek to escape our lives through a medium filled with endless possibilities. However, in these worlds we build there is a tendency to want to explore ourselves and the world we inhabit in a form that is both fluid and malleable; a control we may feel at times is unattainable. So, the real question remains: how do we bring real-world problems into a fantasy game without bringing with it the stressors that they have? 

A simple start would be addressing which topics you want to delve into; be it racism, classist values, or socio-economic disparities, to name a few. We know, as creators, that our worlds are filled with people, systems, factions, and the like, and as such are due to change and inhabit their worldviews. What would the world be like if the rabbit and the fox shared the same goals and aspirations - confusing and one-dimensional? Taking these topics and understanding how, and more importantly, WHY they belong in your world is key. If you can’t explain its purpose and reasoning, it does not belong. 

Once decided upon, a solid “Session Zero” with your prospective players is crucial for them to understand the world and topics they may encounter. Be open about these controversial topics to your players and how they may experience them in your world, while also acknowledging that some players may not be comfortable with addressing them at all or in the manner in which you believe they should be, given your story. 

This does not necessarily mean you can’t explore them, but simply that perhaps the approach is too callous, over-the-top, or even too offensive. The importance of bringing these problems into a world the players can affect is that the players should, ideally, in turn, be able to change them. Taking these constructs and societal issues and bringing them into a world where we can influence them over a condensed and controlled period of time to ultimately destroy them brings forth a few key lessons to our players. 

One, we as people CAN influence change. While we don’t do this so rapidly as we would in a campaign setting, it is clear that in 2023 change has happened and continues to happen; however, it is a battle, much like a campaign.

Two, without discussing the issue, there can be no change, and bringing a neutral view to the subject does nothing. There is a point in the same vein to be made about story progression in your campaign with your PCs; how can you drive the story forward if your players don’t care about the world they live in? Elie Wiesel once said, “We must take sides. Neutrality helps the oppressor, never the victim.” As such, without bringing these topics to light in a world that does emulate our own we are both denying the existence of the problem, and denying our players the ability to feel as though they can be the change they can be in the world itself. 

Third, while not as deep of a lesson, this implementation of society's worst aspects does bring an element of realism to our imaginary world, providing our PCs with clear villains and catalysts for adventure - which is ultimately the point of TTRPGs. 

The question then becomes how can we effectively broach these topics. Well, fellow reader and prospective GM, let me provide examples from campaigns I have run where I utilized these controversial topics to both drive my story and bring forth discussion. 

A character, Tabaxi, comes across a town populated solely by Aarakocra. Now, if Looney Tunes teaches us anything, which of course it has, we know birds and cats do not get along. Unfortunately for our bird brethren, their children have gone missing. Sadly for them, the only person to help is their nemesis - a bird. Pushing past their close-minded and bigoted treatment, the PCs do what is right, helping people, versus what would be easy to do, simply letting them suffer. 

Socio-economic disparities were addressed by putting my players in a position where the current democratic government of a city, which was corrupted by ageist and outdated authoritarians, had been overthrown by the citizens who had been taken advantage of for ages. Now in a position to effect change, I provided my players the ability to rewrite the rules of the town and how it operated to benefit everyone equally and not punish those simply born into poor communities. As such, they provided equal opportunities to all races, classes, and backgrounds in this city and left it better than when they found it. 

Opportunity for change is always available to us as players and as people, but the climb to reach the peak of change can be daunting. Our players start as soft, squishy characters where taking a few hits puts them down. Much like our push for change in the world, we start small, but over time we grow in power, and our voices become louder. Taking our players and giving them a voice in our campaigns is the name of the game, showing our friends that change is nothing but a few choices and levels away because even a few people can change the way the world operates.

Anthony Zeppetella

Anthony Zeppetella

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