Adult themes in RPGs

WARNING – While this is NOT a post about Porn the RPG (imagine the stats for that game) or a review about the Book of Erotic Fantasy, it will deal with complex issues, or what may be called “adult” topics and whether they belong in an RPG game. If such themes offend you, disturb you, or are not appropriate, please read no further. That all thank you, now back to the post…

I have always liked to push the envelope in my games, let’s call it Shock GMing! Trying out new storytelling methods such as games where events occur in a non-linear fashion, dream sequences, gimmicks like dressing up as a villain (I know that is dangerously close to cosplay), handing out props like a plastic sword or a glass vial with a strangely colored liquid inside to represent magic items, to more mundane things like altering, tone, pitch and volume when I speak. I still remember the a session when I talking in a calm normal voice and unexpectedly shouted and pounded on the table to represent a startling situation during the game. One player almost jumped out of his skin!

These are far from the only tools in my GM Toolkit, but I also enjoy introducing moral, philosophical or controversial topics and situations in my games. I realize this approach may not be for everybody, after all we ultimately role-play to have fun, and dealing with such topics as religion, politics, may not be everybody’s idea of “fun”. But by the same token I enjoy telling complex stories that tackle such subjects and I believe that while the goal of the game is having fun, it should be fun for all concerned, including the GM. If all I could tell were stories about endless dungeon crawls in worlds of black and white morality, my GM days would be numbered.

Why all these reminiscing and philosophical considerations you ask? Well it has to do with my weekly game and a recent even that motivated me to write this post. It actually happened three sessions ago and I wanted to blog about it the same night it happened, but I considered it and decided I should give myself some time and simmer down, deal with the consequences, before sharing this with you dear readers.

A little background if you’ll indulge me. We are currently playing a supers game using the Mutants & Masterminds 3rd edition rules, the players are among the first even super humans in the world and the game is a mixture of four colored super heroics and a semi-realistic exploration of their roles and effect they have on the world. We’ve played 14 sessions and so far the players seem to enjoy it as much as I do. Some weeks ago two of the characters infiltrated the compound of a religious fanatic who was condemning all supers as abominations and inciting people to attack them.

The two undercover supers joined the fanatic’s followers and got close to him. To their surprise (or maybe not) the leader of the cult had powers, a strange mix or long distance mind control and the ability force people to do his bidding. They began to suspect he was abusing his followers and the fanatic in turn tried to use his powers on them. He eventually mind controlled one of the player characters and used his powers to rape him!

Ok I’ll let that sink in for a minute…

Your reaction was probably similar to that of my players. The player who’s been with us the shortest time was visibly shaken; the player of the affected character was speechless. The room was hushed for a moment. This was a risk on my part, one of those moments that can ruin a character through no action of his player, permanently disrupt a game or even doom a campaign. I was unsure of whether to go through with it, but now, in hindsight, I am glad I did.

Incorporating this element into the story was not something I did lightly. I’m pretty sure you’ve heard or read the cliché that character’s “speak” to the author. Be that as it may, when I create important NPCs or villains I try to imagine myself in their shoes, what motivates them, what makes them tick. I don’t overdo it; much of what will come out of this experiment may be details that never impact the game directly, but I try to fill in the gaps enough to allow me to represent the NPC credibly. The more I thought about this religious fanatic villain, the more I saw him taking advantage of his followers, abusing his powers in unspeakable ways. I did not set out to rape a player’s character, that was just who the villain was, the character was a victim.

I had other concerns, rape is a horrible act, and I did not mean to trivialize it or belittle victims, this was an adult theme I wanted to explore in the game. Also there was the issue of it being a same sex rape, I did not want this to be a commentary on sexuality or sexual preferences, rape has nothing to do with that and everything to do with violence, a terrible crime. And let’s not mention the religious undertones… So I wrestled with the idea for a while.

Incorporating subjects such as this one is not something you spring on a group of players you just started game mastering for. In such a situation you don’t know how people feel about specific topics or how they may react. So if you remember one piece of advice out of this let it be this: Don’t pull a stunt like that on people you don’t know well.

In our case my group has been playing together for years, we are friends first and gamers later, so we know each other pretty well. Also the player who was victim to the villain’s mind control is someone I have known for a long time. He was playing a happy go lucky character, a charming speedster, but I could tell he was eager for his character to evolve, to change; we had even talked about it incidentally, so when the villain mind controlled him I decided to incorporate this complicated issue into the game and run with it.

After the initial shock wore off, the terrible event had consequences. Once freed from the villain’s influence the character took his revenge, killing him and throwing the whole compound into chaos. The player used the opportunity for his character to grow. He has become darker, edgier, conflicted, trying to deal with what happened as a hero and in his private life. The other super who had infiltrated the compound with him is feeling guilt over the event. And then there is a civilian friend of the raped hero who had joined the cult in an attempt to spy on them, suffered a similar fate, and is now pregnant. So as you can see the fallout from all this is far from over.

These are not the only adult topics we have tackled in the campaign. Two other players are playing a couple and one of them is invulnerable and casually mentioned that she can no longer fell anything, not when her significant other kisses her, or caresses her, or even when they have sex. We have run with this subplot, NOT role-playing intimate moments mind you, but role playing the emotional fallout of this on their relationship. One character is dealing with custody issues over his daughter with his ex-wife, and another is setting himself up as judge, jury and executioner, bringing him in direct conflict with his teammates.

Some people may read this and say, “Well that’s not for me! If I wanted custody and intimacy issues I’d stick to the real world!” And you know what? That is totally valid. Tackling complex issues during a game is not fun for everyone. There is no right or wrong way to play, so play what makes your group happy. Me and my group, we like to wrestle some complex issues and use them as springboards for role playing. In the past we have dealt with slavery, religion, corrupt politicians, secrets and treason, slavery and torture, and the consequences of all these.

I have taken it to far sometimes, my last D&D 3rd edition campaign was probably the darkest fantasy game I have ever played, it was hard to tell who the good guys and the bad guys were and I liked it like that. Not everybody did, one player even stopped playing the campaign. That is why now I try to discuss these subjects with my players, not specific details, but the tone and topic, the expectations for the game, so we can all be on the same page. Live and learn; if you screw up, learn from it, if everyone is on the same boat and you play it right complex issues such as these can enhance the role playing experience.

When the game session ended, like I do every session, I asked the players what they thought of the game; what they liked and did not like. The player whose characters had gone through the traumatic experience admitted that while it was shocking he was ok with. The newest member of our group said, she could not believe what had happened and something to the effect that this might have been the most shocking thing she had experienced in an RPG game. A long time player turned to her and said, “You have not played with him long enough, give him time” I took both comments as a compliment, my work was done!

So where do you stand? Do adult, or complex, issues have a place in your game? What elements do you feel comfortable with? I’d sure like to know… Thanks for reading.

12 thoughts on “Adult themes in RPGs”

  1. Well it was a bit of a shock to read what happened, but in your group it seems to work. I couldn't do this with those I game with, aside from the fact that we all tend to be lighthearted about stuff, as the only women in the group having a character get raped would be too much to deal with. It's not that it would automatically happen to my characters – I always play ladies – but that some of the guys are homophobic so for it to be same sex…I couldn't imagine the fallout.

    That said I am in the group that gaming is something fun to do with friends to escape from some of the bad of the real world.
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  2. Not only have I been using situations like this in my games, I've been doing them for 20 years. In fact, some games lend themselves to a great number of adult situations, and if you *don't* use them, you are literally doing the game something of a disservice. Yes, it's a tricky situation with players, as some are there for the loot and combat and little else, so when you pull something in that is going to probably shock your players, you have to be ready to justify it and calm a few shaken nerves.

  3. While I do not mind dark themes with the right group. Rape is one of my 'do not cross' lines, at least rape against PCs. I am impressed that your group was not more distressed by it, that shows a high level of player trust.

    Glad it worked out. But it is not something I will be trying anytime soon.
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  4. DAT CRAZY HOMO RAPIST is a particularly awful choice of stereotype for "exploring" the subject of rape. I saw your justifications but seriously. Tabletop game sessions really don't qualify for the "exploration of the topic" literary defense because nobody benefits from the exploration and nobody gets to see its results but you and yours. At least you managed to salvage the post later by adding in an "adult theme" that wasn't rape, prostitution, BDSM or torture.
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  5. I like dark and violent themes in the games I used to run and have played in. So while I do believe there is a place for complex "adult" themes, I make sure all members of the group are told and give consent to playing out these themes. Like you, I don't go over specifics, but enough to let the group get the gist of how dark or violent things can get. I also let them know that it's okay to tell me to back off if the content matter becomes too much.

    I don't know how your group defines "Four-colours" but I don't consider rape in 4C as appropriate, but that's me. And since I don't know the specifics, I'll say I do think it was unfair for the new player in your group to have to deal with that scene without fair warning, but that being said, it seems she's okay with it.

    I've been in a game where something similar was going to happen. Two PCs who were friends with the GM basically walked out on the game. The game was "dark" fantasy, but I understand the 2 PCs reactions: They weren't told how dark the game could get and it was outside their comfort zone. I didn't care for the GM's attitude afterwards though: "It's how I run my games, they'll get used to it."

  6. Hello all thanks for commenting…

    @cassey I know that rape, or any other controversial topic is not for everyone. When we discussed the campaign the players wanted an odd mix of four color heroics and real world conflicts which is somewhat hard to pull off… On hindsight the situation the motivated this post has been tool for great role plying but definitely not for everybody.

    @Ray, like I said in the post, we have all been friends for a long time and there is the confidence to handle things like this. Like you I like tackling sensitive issues during the game.

    @designmeme I am glad I did not shock you… Many people I had talked to about the idea before writing the posts were shocked or a little offended that I would do that to a player, and I understand that… One of the reasons I waited and pondered before actually writing about it. What was your reaction?

    @seaofstarsrpg, since this is such a sensitive subject I was leery of it happening in the game, and of writing about it, but I figured it would be a good subject to discuss despite the possible pitfalls. The group of players is an excellent group, and there is trust both ways, we’ve been playing/known each other for so long. Thanks!

    @Stargazer, not for everybody I know. But that may be the line for some people; others don’t feel comfortable with sex, others with religion, all touchy subjects. But you are right, the best advice is only deal with complex issues if you are all comfortable about it and have talked about it.

    @Wyatt, you are right, sometimes I do get too philosophical in the game trying to deal with issues of morality or consequences of actions and lose focus that it’s a game… I admit that and try to avoid it (not always succeeding mind you!). I am glad you found SOME of the post redeemable. I did not want to make it about a homo rapist, because he was not simply that, but again the context of the game and all details about what happened are not conveyed in my very short and decidedly inappropriate description. Thanks for the feedback, always appreciated!

    @ronFiction, when we sat down to talk about the elements the players wanted in the game the consensus was some four color action and some realistic elements of what the supers and powers mean to the world, not an easy mix I know and I’m trying to walk the line to mesh those two ideas. The newest player is one of the advocates for the darker elements in the game, and while she was shocked she was totally cool with it, I made sure we talked briefly when it happened and afterwards, but again very good advice, discuss such things, BEFORE the fact, at least what people are willing to deal with. And I totally hate the idea of the GM saying this is my game this is how it’s played, ultimately an RPG is a collaborative effort.

    Again, thank you all for commenting…

  7. My main problem is that gamers tend to think of "adult themes" only as they correlate with including more sex and violence in the game. Look at your first example – you added sexual violence into a combative confrontation. The second example was that rare acknowledgement that there are important dimensions to a mature mind and how it interacts with the world and with other minds, that does not revolve around the physical act of sex or around violence. Adults have social, emotional and political dimensions that are hardly explored in games because they don't immediately correlate to violence (and generally because people are afraid of thinking about them and feeling bad – which is fantastic because your tabletop game session is a frankly awful place to seriously explore any given issue). You can easily have a much more "mature game" in Casey Toi's fluffy fairy tale without having to have a drop of any bodily fluid spilled.

    The common things brought up in posts like these are rape and torture, and there's a reason for that. I'm not at any point saying that this to go "OMG DEM GAMERS NEED PSYCHIATRIC HELP." What I'm saying is that every one of these posts seems to go in a typical direction – how do we comfortably allow higher orders of violence and sex into our otherwise cartoonish orc-slaying sessions – and then call that "adult themes" and enter into a discussion of selling all this to the players. It's a huge ingrained mislabeling.
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  8. Unsurprisingly I'm a fan of adult content in RPGs. Sometimes that's other stuff, but it can be rape and torture too. That's not the sum total of adult content, but it's part of it – how many movies include one or both, including 'action' movies one might look to as being similar to a RPG (makes me think of a lot of those American Revolution type movies… The rape in Rob Roy… Mel's tasty Injun fried taters tale in The Patriot…).

    This kind of content is part of books (I just finished reading the second Honor Harrington SF novel, it has a gang rape), movies, graphic novels, etc. If someone's game is less "art" or "exploration" than those, it's their own fault, not the form's.

  9. This is a topic that seems to come on RPG blogs and between RPG players very often. I think most people would have no problem dwelling in the second problem, as in the sexual life of characters. I also DM a M&M campaign and one of the characters is a transsexual in secret and i have no issue with that.

    The problems begin to appear when you have to actively narrate the act. You don't need to describe everything but even the "prime-time option" of just saying the characters went to bed together and cut to after that can at times be a little embarrassing. It doesn't matter how long you know the players,ultimately it depends more in their open-mindedness, even if they don't complain they can feel awkward and have a bad time playing if they are not prepared for it.

    I'm a very liberal person myself, i have written pornographic fiction in the past, i'm a bisexual and so don't have fear of homo-erotic interpretation, i've talked about sexual questions with my players more than once, but still i'm not sure i could pull what you did in this game. Would even one of my player feel it's too invasive? Would he think i stepped to far? Would it feel just too much offensive and disgusting to them? I don't know. We have had moments of massive violence, we have had very mature moments in our games but while i know i could easily explore this issue in writing or even drawing, i'm not sure i could pass this line in a RPG game, i'm not sure if we as a group are prepared.

  10. Wyatt, I agree… There is a preponderance of examples where violence, sexual or otherwise, is equated with “adult” and left at that. I like to think the issues we tackle in the campaign are more varies than that. We have touched upon religion, morality, moral quandaries, and I must admit that the players that have sat around my table have really challenged me as a GM, many of those ideas come from their backgrounds and their stories.

    But I also agree with you that HEAVY topics do not always have a place in what is ultimately a game. It depends so much on group dynamics. I would never do something like that in a con game. Thnaks for the comments, I appreciate them.

  11. @Sunglar: It's mature + heavy in the way exploitation films are. It's also feels like a cliched thing to add to a game after hearing about it over the last 25 years of gaming. Here's an example but I'm sure if you Google for it you can find tons of others. So it's neither thoughtful or novel… so it all comes down to whether everyone at the game table was having fun.

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