As a child I couldn’t watch movies where dogs died. I watched First Blood, I watched Omen II, I watched Robocop (heavily cut); I did feel sympathy for those in pain, but nothing terrified me more than the thought of a dog dying.
For many of us, animals evoke strong sympathy. Art Spiegelman knew it with Maus when he portrayed Jews as mice persecuted by Nazi cats. Animals somehow bypass the mental and social defenses we keep up to show that we’re hardened, that your story can’t really touch us — that I’m the master of myself and your emotional tricks don’t affect me.
Animals are also potent symbols. Everyone knows what dogs are to cats and what cats do to mice. We also know what each of those animals might be to us humans: friends, pests, monsters, pets, lords of the household.
The combination of the two — the direct emotional reaction to an animal, and the animal’s symbolic power — means you can use animals to great effect with relative ease. The roleplaying game Mouse Guard has anthropomorphic animals (you can guess the species) as protagonists and real heroes: they’re the underdogs, the prey, the little guys with everything against them, and they stand up for themselves. It’s not about being cute — a mouse facing an owl is a powerful image. Sure, the game is suitable for kids as well, but once you put a shrike in there impaling mice on thorns, you’re not very far from horror.
If animals are not the protagonists, you can do a lot with them either as background (with or without symbolism) or centerpieces. Does a piece of the setting have stray dogs in it? Do people treat them with respect — or with cruelty? Are they food? And when a dog, or some other animal, is a centerpiece — maybe a pet for someone important — what is it like? And what does it say about the person?
But you probably know what they say about great power. Make sure the others at the table are okay with whatever you do to those fictional animals. Although I’ve become better at handling grief, whether dogs are involved or not, I’d personally be wary of a game where animals suffer. To me, gratuitous violence against animals is repulsive. But gratuitous violence on part of the villains might serve a purpose if you want to make a point about the powerful preying on the innocent, the strong on the weak.
Oddly enough, I hadn’t thought about this at all before writing this piece. I thought I could handle just about everything you could throw at me in games. Honestly, I’m not sure how I would react to the sudden shock of abused animals in a roleplaying game. I see it as a valuable lesson on how we react to different things in different ways. I have a long history of running horror games and while I’ve always wanted to emphasize suspense and terror instead of shock, horror, and gore, for a long time I also wanted to surprise and shock my players and didn’t trust my abilities to build a suspenseful narrative. The trouble with shock tactics is that it’s possible to go too far. If you don’t know your players, ask them what they’re comfortable with; or if you don’t want to ask so you don’t spoil anything, start soft and see how they react and then ask if it was okay. Use the X-card or at least be familiar with the principles.
I want to use roleplaying games to get to know people better and in surprising ways. I actually want the games to be about something and make me feel things. Sometimes those things and feelings don’t feel good, but they might be good for you instead. It requires trust between the players.
I’m very picky about who I game with.