Let me make something clear: I am not of the mind that there are fields that are absolutely off-limits for jokes or for roleplaying. What matters is not the subject matter but your treatment of the same. You can have a roleplaying arc that involves things like child abuse while handling the subject in a respectful fashion and showing a well-rounded picture of what happens to both the victim and the abuser. It's not easy, but it is doable.
The problem comes in because you don't know your audience. And to avoid having a whole lot of triggers just from the column, I'm going to use murder as an example here because I have to pick something and that seems to cast the widest net of understanding. Be forewarned.
Suppose you're telling a story in which your character is a murderer. Not just someone who kills things; most every MMO character does that from time to time. Your character creeps into someone's home and ends the life of another person. And you notice that one of your fellow roleplayers is increasingly uncomfortable with what's happening while still being a major participant in the story. It doesn't make sense to you until he mentions to you that his mother was murdered about a year ago.
I'll assume that you're not trying to portray murder as a good thing or possibly even as a necessary evil. But this is hitting really close to home to someone else, someone who you presumably like and want to continue playing with.
It can come out of the blue -- I had a friend get badly upset by one of my characters, who was both slowly going insane and had a long-standing feud with the other person's character. I didn't understand why until she told me that she had lost her husband to early-onset dementia, something that my own nutcase was veering very close to as it stood. It was an unpleasant reminder for her that hit a raw nerve, like hitting an infected tooth with an icepick.
Obviously I hadn't meant to offend her, but that wasn't the point. I had succeeded anyway. The question becomes what to do and how to avoid this sort of situation in the future. At the risk of sounding like a motivational speaker, the answer is TALK.
Yes, I just dropped an acronym on you. Deal with it.
First, talk about the story beforehand. Discuss what's going to happen with the major people involved and what is going on with your character if you know you're veering into rocky shoals. If it turns out that half of your group has had loved ones murdered, you might want to reconsider your overall plans for this story, even if it includes important points of character development for the long run.
This isn't always going to be possible. Heck, sometimes the people you talk to might not even think that something will be a trigger, and you don't think ahead of time that this will lead into trigger territory. You're not a monster if you can't flag everything ahead of time; this is just the equivalent of putting up a sign saying "Cliff Ahead" if you know for a fact that you will be driving straight toward a cliff.
Assuming you hit an unexpected point, it's as simple as apologizing when you step over the line. No, you did not mean to. Yes, what you want to do is perfectly valid for roleplaying. No, that does not mean it's the other person's fault for being offended. There's no fault to be assigned. Apologizing is the act of saying, "I am sorry I made you uncomfortable and did not intend for that to happen." Just basic human decency.
When you do step over the line, it's also important to let things lie for a while. Think about the most traumatic memory of your life, which for the purpose of this discussion will be a time when a hornet landed on your ice cream cone. If you still have nightmares about that hornet, you're going to be upset if someone brings it up. You never want to relive that moment. Show someone else some respect and don't force him to relive that same sort of experience.
Last but not least, you need to keep the potential for triggers in mind. Your life experience is not the same as everyone else, nor are your coping mechanisms the same as everyone else's. I can handle roleplaying stories that involve the unexpected death of a father or parental abandonment without too much trouble. Some people with similar circumstances to my own might not be able to. That's fine. You need to remember that there's the potential for these situations to arise and that you can deal with them when they happen.
Talk about the story, apologize when you step over the line, let things lie afterward, and keep the potential in mind. Talk. It's just a little step to ensure that when you're roleplaying everyone can enjoy being transported away to another world, not thrown back in the worst parts of this one.
Feedback is welcome down below or via mail to firstname.lastname@example.org. Next week we're going to talk about making a living, and the week after that I want to talk about being the star and being the guest.
Every Friday, Eliot Lefebvre fills a column up with excellent advice on investing money, writing award-winning novels, and being elected to public office. Then he removes all of that, and you're left with Storyboard, which focuses on roleplaying in MMOs. It won't help you get elected, but it will help you pretend you did. If you need a refresher, check out the Storyboard Library.