A lot of grim, dark, and horrific stuff can get glossed over at the game table. Sure, we all joke about the Paladin obliterating that ork chieftain with his smite, but the actual visual related to that can be gruesome. In the same way we, as both gamers and humans, excel at making humor out of very very serious things. The problem then comes in though that what do you do when something that was being portrayed more humorously is suddenly taking a turn for the serious? Let's talk about that today.
Recognize The Situation
This can be one of the hardest things to do, and why you need to be able to do it. There are cues that show when something that was being portrayed as silly or fun - at least for the players - is taking a turn for the serious side of things. One of those cues, at least if you have solid Role Players at your table, is that the interaction will get more attention. It is no longer a glossed over "did I just socially obligate myself to have sex with her?" but the actual emotions of the characters involved come into play.
This literally happened to me on Friday in my L5R game. Two of the characters' story is more of a teen sex comedy than other, more serious, L5R plots - and yet still fitting into Winter Court type settings. One of the characters the last few sessions has actually trapped himself into having sex with beautiful women on numerous occasions. The player has joked about it, and it has been a general thing at the table. Only, it took a turn for the serious on Friday when the character decided that he'd had enough of that sort of treatment and gave the woman currently trying to own him - figuratively and literally - a hard no. The woman - a doji courtier for those who know L5R - doesn't take rejection well, and well, our fun little teen comedy just became a very serious potential tragic dramady.
Address The Situation Out Of Character
So, you know that your fun/joke situation is now a very serious matter. The next step is to address it out of character. This can be done with a full on table discussion - and in my opinion, a table discussion should happen at some point regardless - or just by pulling the involved parties into the next room and having a quick chat with them about it. The reason you want to do this is because of what I said in the opening to this post: the things you were joking about are probably very real and very serious issues that are now taking center stage as serious issues. Make sure people are comfortable with what is going on, make sure they know that you expect them to tell you if they ever get uncomfortable with it for any reason, and make sure you find out - before you do anything - if there are any hard limits they want to impose or lines they never want crossed. It goes without saying that if you are given these restrictions that you do not violate them in any way. Unless you want to hurt a friend and make your game all sorts of awkward anyhow.
Take It Slow
Everyone is on board with this, everyone knows what has happened, limits - if any - are in place, and folks want to continue on. The next step is to take it slow. This may be more or less possible depending on your situation, but you want the first few steps to be cautious. Sometimes people think their limits are way way over there, when in fact they just can't see them because they're already standing on the line or well and truly over it. Sometimes people think the line is right in front of them, when in fact it is many miles away. Either way, you go slow and see how things react with the first couple of steps that happen. As things go on and everyone grows more comfortable with it, you can begin to take quicker steps and get back up to speed, but you want to make sure that people are actually comfortable where they thought they would be before rushing in head first.
The Bottom Line
The bottom line is that something at your gaming table has just become very serious. The only way to handle that is to make sure that people are good exploring it, or you can just make it all go away. Now, the best games, the best moments, and the most growth as a person, player, and character will come from addressing it and handling the situation in a mature fashion. However, that doesn't mean everyone wants to do that. Maybe the person just wants to have light hearted fun. Maybe the matter touches on something in a similar vein that happened to the player themselves in the past and you are bringing up painful memories. Role Playing can be very therapeutic if you let it be, but not everyone wants to do that. Very few people want to end up emotionally raw in front of their friends when it is supposed to be a fun gathering for gaming and socialization, but that is exactly what can happen here.
Whatever it is, whatever is going on in your game, it has become serious. So treat it seriously. Otherwise, you may be wondering what happened to your game that ruined it for everyone.
Also, anyone in any game: if you are feeling uncomfortable with something in your game, talk to your GM/rest of the group about it. Don't sit there feeling awkward and miserable because you don't want to ruin the fun. If the group is worth staying with, they'll want you to be having fun and feeling comfortable as well.