World Building 101 - Rated M for Mature Content

As with movies, video games, and books, RPG campaigns can have different levels of “objectionable” content. Different players are comfortable with varying amounts of descriptions of violence, gore, sexual themes, or anything else that might get a movie rated R. Determining what your campaign’s “rating” will be before you begin is a good idea, for you and your players, to ensure that nobody finds partway through that their comfort levels are being exceeded.

There are different criteria that the film and video game industries use to determine their respective ratings, and while there may be some argument over how each category is weighted—violence, for example, being much more acceptable than sexual themes—it holds some value to adopt similar categories when determining your group’s baseline levels.

Violence, as mentioned above, is one of the major criteria for ratings. In an RPG, this generally refers more to how graphically the violence is described. For many games, a certain minimum level of violence is absolutely expected, especially in systems like D&D where the rules tend to lend themselves best towards depicting adventurers for hire exploring dungeons full of monsters. A PG-level game might leave the violence merely implied (“I strike a powerful blow with my axe!”) and a more mature game might include details of mutilated bodies in the wake of the enemy raids, or detailed interrogation scenes involving torture. Bear in mind that the word “mature” here does not necessarily mean that a game involving mutilated babies worn as hats is not puerile; simply that ridiculous or offensive levels of carnage are best left to groups in which parental consent is not an issue for your players.

Sexual themes in RPGs are, as with movies or games, a touchy subject. Some groups enjoy playing through “adult” scenarios, others find the entire concept distasteful. It can be uncomfortable for players not involved in a sex scene to sit through it, and in many cases one or more of the participating players may be portraying a character of a different gender, making the scene even more awkward. For most groups a simple fade to black is appropriate—unless your group, as a whole, agrees that this content adds significantly to the game, chances are you will be best served by this approach. Some players even prefer to avoid the subject altogether.

Language is another consideration that should be borne in mind when deciding your campaign’s “rating”. Remember too that the infamous Seven Words are not the only words that can carry offense. If your campaign is set on an alternate Earth, then it’s likely that your setting includes characters who have less than kind views of particular ethnic groups—and would realistically use terms best avoided in polite company to refer to those groups. Even in a modern Earth campaign there are plenty of racial epithets that even a mother-hugging sock-sucker may be uncomfortable throwing around.

A less tangible but equally important point to contemplate is the overall tone and theme of your game. If your game is about beating up orcs and taking their treasure and never touches on anything more significant, that’s fine. If your game has characters who engage in rape, torture, murder, genocide, or various forms of blasphemy and assorted foulness, even if these subjects are kept in the background as villainous motivations, you may make someone in your group uncomfortable. People have different purposes in mind when playing an RPG—one player may feel that a storyline involving adultery, rape, and abortion as a central theme is a great way to explore real world themes, but another may find that it makes his or her escapist fantasy a little heavier than they had in mind.

The best way to handle all of this is typically to sit down with your group ahead of time and discuss what everyone is and is not comfortable with. That allows you to tailor your content to avoid making anyone feel excessively uncomfortable. Some players may enjoy pushing their boundaries a bit, but not too far. In such cases, perhaps come up with a prearranged “safe word” or way to indicate that things have crossed a line and the scene should be toned down or stopped entirely. Monitor your players body language as well, if at all possible, since they may be unwilling to interrupt for various reasons. Finally, generally it’s a good idea to ask yourself before including any particularly vulgar or mature content whether the inclusion is essential to the game or if it adds anything meaningful. If the answer is “no”, then chances are your game will work just as well, if not better, without it.

Comments (1)

Fatman (November 18th, 2010)

I have always included plenty of gore in my campaigns. D&D especially lends itself well to gory descriptions of hacked-off limbs, blood spurting from severed arteries, bloody arrows through the eye socket, burning flesh from a fireball, etc., etc. I tend to tone it down in more contemporary settings with firearms and laser weaponry, else it gets too repetitive.

I did have a player drop out of a Spycraft game that I GC’ed several years ago due to a brutal depiction of a beheading. And this was a guy who had gladly participated in in-game obscenities prior to that. So you’re correct, one can never be too careful.

Violence does seem to be more acceptable than sexual content, never tried introducing graphic descriptions of sex acts as I’m pretty sure the group won’t appreciate it. And it’d be awkward.

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