Welcome to Guidance, Private Sanctuary’s source for tips and techniques for the Pathfinder Roleplaying Game, written by Everyman Gamer Alexander Augunas. Today, we’re going to be talking about handling mature topics in roleplaying games.
Well, there’s no reason to beat around the bush with an introduction. Today we’re going to talk about mature topics in roleplaying games. Like adults. Maturely.
What are Mature Topics?
This question is one that is both really easy to identify but also surprisingly challenging. In many cases, the idea of something being “mature” is an unspoken social rule: nobody ever sits down and tells you, “Okay, these are the things that are considered mature and/or inappropriate to discuss.” For the most part, you have to figure it out for yourself. That’s what makes the idea of “mature topics” difficult to adjucate. If you are already in the loop, then you’ll feel that identifying topics as “mature” is easy while if you’re not in the loop, it can be one of the most frustratingly difficult things you’ve ever tried to do. This is especially true if you’re from a foreign country.
Generally speaking, a mature topic is any topic that is intended for adults by society’s standards. It is difficult to perfectly nail down exactly what constitutes an adult topic for every society that has ever or will ever exist, but below are some rather safe bets on things that will always be considered mature.
- Sexuality: Whether we’re talking about having sex or experiencing sexual desires, sexuality is almost always squarely located in the “mature topics” category.
- Graphic Violence: It is important to distinguish between degrees of violence when we’re talking about a roleplaying game. While its true that violence is a theme of my Wrath of the Righteous game if I’m mercilessly slaughtering entire bands of cultists, that violence isn’t exactly something that we would consider mature if my detail goes as far as: “Your blade strikes the cultist leader, gnashing a long wound in his breast.” Sure, that’s violence, but it isn’t graphic. Graphic violence would be something like this: “Your blade cuts deep into the wretched man’s chest as bits of meat and gore break free from the wound, the stench of blood and iron filling your nostrils as the cultist begs for mercy.” Even still, that latter description is pretty mild compared to some of the stuff I’ve seen and heard. Basically, whether something is “graphic” or not is all in the description and the details. Since its fairly easy to tone down the gore in a purely verbal experience, this is an easy mature topic to avoid.
- Rape: Pushing all of the political and human rights implications of rape aside for right now, at its core rape is sexually graphic violence towards one or more individuals. This is basically an “all of the above category.”
Everything and the Kitchen Sink
Going beyond those big three topics, everyone has their own list of subjects that make them uncomfortable. Subjects that they don’t particularly enjoy experiencing. In effect, everyone has their own, unique list of “eh, no” triggers, of which the three noted above are almost always included.
To give some examples, I have a friend who considers anything involving bigotry and intolerance to be unsavory in her entertainment. To her, having racism in a roleplaying game isn’t so much “gritty realism” as it is a big, red flag of uncomfortableness. There was one time where my friend walked out of a game we were both playing in because of some racist undertones.
To give another example, I personally am extremely uncomfortable when rape is placed center stage in the storyline. Now, we mentioned before that rape is traditionally regarded as an act of violence with a sexual motivation, but my personal definition is expanded to include any sort of scenario where someone is taken advantage of sexuality. To elaborate, one of my characters was placed in a situation where he was enchanted into having sex with an NPC. While the act certainly wasn’t violent and my character ended up walking away unarmed, I personally felt uncomfortable with the scenario. In the long run, my emotions about that scene ended up hurting the GM’s story drastically. She was intended to be an antagonist but wanted her to be set up as a “shades of gray” character, like something you’d see in Game of Thrones. But because I viewed her action as being repulsive, I was dead set on expunging her from our settlement, so she never got to be used the way the GM intended her to be. (In the end, she died in a fire but apparently made it out okay.)
The Power of Trust and Communication
I mentioned before in my Trust Fall article about how important it is to facilitate trust between a GM and her players. This is truer still when you want to include any topic that could be considered mature in your game. Here are some quick tips:
- The first step to using mature topics in an RPG successfully is to identify when a topic could potentially be mature. Pretend that your campaign is a movie. What movie would your scene be most likely to be shown in? Give each and every moment a rating. If you’re rating a scene with an R (or A for adult in other places), then you need to…
- Communicate. You need to find out if whatever you’re planning is going to bother your PCs. Don’t assume that you know exactly how a player will react without asking them because I know that I don’t personally broadcast the things that I find taboo to every single person I meet. You don’t need to provide context, just ask their players how they would feel if the story involved the topic.
- Do not make your PCs helpless. Your PCs should never be entirely helpless in the face of a mature topic. When this happens, its usually unconsented, such as when my character was forced to have sex with an NPC. When taking control away from PCs, remember to keep it in moderation. For example, it is probably okay to have your charmed PC embrace or kiss a succubus without her say. It is not acceptable to tell your player that her charmed PC was forced to rip her clothes off and make love to the succubus. This brings me to my next point…
- Maturity is player-driven. If your players want to participate in illicit, adult activity, that’s on them. Do not force that on them. Players will act out what they are comfortable with. Watch their cues and keep it at the same level of comfort.
- Stay as strong as the weakest link. This means if all of your players are fine with graphic violence except for one player, then you cater the level of violence to the one player who is not okay with it. Mature topics should never be included in a game on a majority count. Because if you do, chances are that the one player will feel ostracized and eventually leave your group.
And for the last tip…
You Have a Say Too
Sometimes your players will try to make things more graphic than you are comfortable with. Remember that as the GM, you are entitled to have fun too. You are not your player’s scenario-generating machine. If you are not comfortable with how your PCs are acting, inform them of so. If it continues despite your best negotiations, then leave. As a GM, you have every right to be comfortable with the world you have created and that you and your PCs are playing in together.
And that, folks, is all I have to say on mature topics for now. What do you think? How do you handle mature topics in your games? Have you been in a game with many mature topics flying around? If you’re comfortable with it, I’d be thankful to see some stories about games / sessions / campaigns that you weren’t comfortable with and how you handled the situation. Leave your thoughts in the comments below and I look forward to coming back with a new GM Guide next week!
Alexander “Alex” Augunas has been playing roleplaying games since 2007, which isn’t nearly as long as 90% of his colleagues. Alexander is an active freelancer for the Pathfinder Roleplaying Game and is best known as the author of the Pact Magic Unbound series by Radiance House. Alex is the owner of Everyman Gaming, LLC and is often stylized as the Everyman Gamer in honor of Guidance’s original home. Alex’s favorite color is blue, his favorite Pathfinder Race/Class combination is kitsune warpriest, and the most graphic scene he has ever witnessed in a roleplaying game involved an antipaladin, a cure light wounds spell, and a man with a crushed genitalia.