It’s no secret that the writer and illustrator of this here Handbook are a couple of card-carrying Critters. I’ve been listening to Critical Role for the better part of a decade now. It’s shown up in my academic work, and Laurel has actually done a bit of fan art. We watch together and talk about plot development and trade memes. Yet despite the fame and ubiquity of Matt Mercer’s catchphrase, it never occurred to me how violent the “how do you want to do this” moments really are. At least not until I started watching Legend of Vox Machnina.

Just take a look at this Table to Screen video as our plucky goliath protagonist bisects his foe. It’s remarkable to see the juxtaposition (and not just because every gamer in the world wants to see the animated version of their party’s exploits). You see, there’s a world of difference between the words “I cleave him in twain” and actually witnessing the bloody carnage. This is even clearer when you look at the brutal specter fight from season 1, where the show quickly descends into Tarantino territory (especially around the 3:30 mark). There’s something about the visual depiction that makes for a more intense, visceral experience than the verbal description. And I think it has a little something to do with Marshall McLuhan.

I won’t delve to much into theory, but we’re talking about the difference between McLuhan’s concept of “hot” and “cool” media. You can get the cliff’s notes version from Wikipedia (or from Woody Allen). But the important bit is that hot media are rich in sensory data, while cool media have less sensory data. That means cool media like TRPGs require more participation on the audience’s part to “complete” than hot media like television.

Now consider the above in terms of role distance. This one is a term from sociology, but it’s crazy relevant for our hobby. We tend to identify closely with the characters we portray at the table. We speak of the things that “I did” last session, even though we really mean things “my character did.” We aren’t crazy; we know the difference between fiction and reality. They just bleed through on an emotional level sometimes. So even as cool TRPGs tend to be less intense than hot film, they also get us involved more deeply due to our participation.

So when we talk about violence in our games, just remember that it’s about more than the fictional events themselves. Killing goblins is a far different experience in the cartoony cool module “We Be Goblins” than in the hot anime Goblin SlayerFor similar reasons, the depravity depicted in Game of Thrones might win an Emmy for Outstanding Drama Series, while the same events showing up in your game will win a place in r/rpghorrorstories. The difference here is in role distance, where things happening “to me” are far different than watching them happen “to a character.”

So bearing all this in mind, let’s talk about the old ultraviolence. Does your tolerance for this stuff vary depending on media? Do you find graphic depictions more acceptable at the table or in the theater? Sound off with your  own personal version of parental-guidance-suggested down in the comments!


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