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Can Role-playing Games Deal With Mature Themes?

by Andrew Rilstone

Is roleplaying childlike, or merely childish?


Some things are liked by children but not by adults. Some things are liked by adults but not by children. An awful lot of thing are liked by both children and adults.

The Care Bears Movie is in the first category; Mrs Dalloway is in the second category and Star Wars is in the third category. (It isn't true that all children like The Care Bears, but it is, I think, true that all people who like The Care Bears are children.) We could therefore say that The Care Bears is immature and Mrs Dalloway is mature: but what would we say about Star Wars?

Perhaps 'immature' is not a particularly useful term in this discussion.

What characterises the for-the-sake-of-the-argument 'immature' stuff? Answer: it can be enjoyed at a very immediate level, with little effort. It is, to use the technical term, in-yer-face.

Adventures stories, cartoons, super-hero comics, action movies, slap-stick comedy, shoot-em-up computer games, 'pop' music, dungeon bashing RPGs: they all involve primary colours, loud noises, relatively straightforward morality, instantly memorable melody or beat; simple jokes that generate immediate belly laughs; violent confrontations with clear resolutions, fairly simple language; lots of exclamation marks.

Kids can enjoy, understand and consume this sort of stuff easily and uncritically. And-here comes the point-most adults enjoy it as well.

Further more, most of the for-the-sake-of-the-argument mature stuff has many of the same characteristics. It's okay for classical music to have memorable tunes, it's okay for serious literature to have thrilling stories with chases, escapes and explosions, it's okay for sophisticated satirical comedy to make you laugh.

Mature art, then, doesn't necessarily delete the in-yer-face pleasure of childish stuff, but it adds something else as well: more subtlety of characterisation, say, or social commentary, or stylistic brilliance. The instant-hit we get out of an immature story may be delayed, watered down or even removed altogether; to the extent that the book/film/symphony may be difficult, hard to read, not much fun on the first attempt. However, the deeper pleasures of the difficult work are such that we press on with it. The book improves with each reading, we end up saying "It changed my life" or "It really opened my eyes" or "Those characters are always in my mind, as real to me as my own family".

Maturity implies growth: it would be foolish (childish, even) to say "So-and-so is immature because he likes Bugs Bunny movies." It would be reasonable to say "So-and-so is immature because at 35 he only likes Bugs Bunny movies; his tastes have not progressed since he was eleven.".

Those with mature taste, can, on the whole, still enjoy and appreciate immature things; but those with immature tastes often find mature taste inconceivable. They are very likely to say, "No-one really enjoys Salman Rushdie/Ingmar Bergman/Virginia Woolf. They are just pseuds, pretending to like them because it makes them feel clever. They would really rather be watching Terminator II."

Many RPGs are in-yer-face; provide instant thrills and excitement, simple morality, violence, explosions and lots of exclamation marks. Very few RPGs deal with social comment, realistic characterisation, human relationships and so on.

We have games based on martial arts movies, where the fun comes from thinking up ludicrous stunts and smashing large numbers of bad guys. We have games based on space opera movies, where the fun comes from, er, thinking up ludicrous stunts and smashing large numbers of bad guys. We have horror story games, where the fun comes from the adrenaline-thrill of going into darkened rooms where there might be terrifying monsters-horror comics, almost fairground ghost-trains. We have many, many, macho-military games, where the fun comes from tooling up with an enormous weapon and pretending to rush headlong into battle against the enemy, and, er, smashing large numbers of bad guys. Games are usually predicated on an escape from danger, a conflict with a baddy, the solution to a puzzle or a combination of all three: rarely with resolving a relationship, changing a social situation, gaining in self-knowledge. Arguably, the cybergoth tendency has introduced the theme of growing up or coming of age, but it does it through an adventure story medium.

Quoth Michael Moorcock:

"Very few adult characters exist in pure swords-and-sorcery stories. They are either permanent adolescents like Conan, actual children like Ged in Wizard of Earthsea, youths like Airar Alvarsan in The Well of the Unicorn or quasi-children like the hobbits in Lord of the Rings....Innocent, sensitive, intensely loyal and enthusiastic, given to sudden tantrums and terrors, impressionable, sentimental and sometimes ruthless, these characters very rarely show mature human responses to their environment, their fellow creatures or the problems they face."

Remind you of any PCs you know?

We could say with some justification that role-playing is in this sense immature. It deals with a narrow range of easily accessible story-types, and has not grown or progressed (in this respect) significantly since its inception.

Is role-playing capable of dealing with the more mature subject matter, or is it by its nature limited to dealing with adventure stories?

Role-playing is, by its nature, a dramatic medium. At its core is a verbal exchange between player and referee: the referee says, "What do you do?", the player says, "I do such and such", the referee says, "Such and such happens, what do you do now?" and so on, for as long as people's attention holds out. Therefore, things have to be happening all the time. A character can't just sit at home hating the evil Octoplonks, being consumed by his hatred, but not doing anything about it. That would be perfectly acceptable in a novel, if the writer's wit and understanding of human nature was sufficient to keep you interested, but it can't happen in a movie, a play - or, I would contend, an RPG.

In a play, one of the things which happens can be a long conversation. People can and do run RPGs in which players and NPCs sit around and talk to each other. But in both cases, the conversation has to have a point to be of interest: something has to happen in it. Fred the Fighter and Wally the Wizard sitting around in the bar chatting -

"Nice day at the battle?"
"So so-can't complain. Another ale?"
"Thanks. Did you cast your spell okay?"
"In the end. We had some hassle dues to staff shortages"

- would be boring as hell. Fred the Fighter confronting Wally the Wizard and demanding to know why he (apparently) betrayed them the evil Octoplonks could be extremely interesting and dramatic. Does it follow from this that when role-playing games try to stop being adventure stories, they simply become melodramas instead?

I am not convinced that it is harder for players to think of interesting and dramatic dialogue ("You fiend; you betrayed us, Eric the Cleric died because of you") than it is for them to think up interesting and dramatic stunts, tactics, or fight manoeuvres. British game author Phil Masters argues that a game which was purely predicated on "characters talking about their problems", while theoretically possible, would in practice not be feasible because of the demands that it made on the players. To make an Ingmar Bergman RPG, you have to be as good at creating and representing character as Ingmar Bergman. I think that this is a fallacy; you might as well say that in order to play Feng Shui you have to be as good at choreographing fights as John Wu. All RPGs are, considered as drama, hideously inadequate and inferior to the literature or movies they are based on that doesn't stop us from playing them.

There is a great wodge of serious literature which can't possibly be imitated in RPGs. I would suggest:

1. All psychological studies
2.All slice-of-life drama
3.Nearly all travelogue
4.Most fatalistic tragedy
5.All literature in which ordinary, dull events are made interesting by the wit or stylistic flair with which they are described.

This leaves a large range of literature which is dramatic (things happen) but which is also mature (the gratification is not instant; the themes discussed are sophisticated) which RPGs could perfectly well emulate. The entire cannon of Shakespeare comes to mind. I've often thought that the Prince Hal trilogy would make a damn fine RPG.

If we want to make our games more mature, I would suggest the following strategies:

  1. Continue to run action-adventure, but regard the derring-do as the matrix within in which the real plot-the story of how the characters grew and were changed by their experiences-occurs. This means allowing time and space in your gaming sessions for your characters to have an off-stage life. If your game shows how a Prince, a Fat Knight and a couple of low-life thieves went off to fight the Octoplonk on a back-water planet, then make sure they have time to contemplate and react when one of their comrades is killed. Force them to play out the funeral, or break the news to his girl-friend. Don't drag them on to the next bit of the scenario.

    Think of characters in terms of their personality types, be it ever so stereotyped, rather than their weapons skills. We care that Character A is a gung ho patriot; Character B is a battle hardened veteran and Character C was nearly a conshi: not that A had 2 more hitpoints than B.

    Think of scenarios in terms of characterisation events, rather than action events. Don't say "This time, I've planned a really tactically interesting battle for them to fight"; say "This week, they'll be another battle, much the same as last week. The twist is that the sergeant will be shot in the back, so the raw recruit will have to take charge of the squad... "

    A war story may not be the most sophisticated narrative in the world, but it's more mature then simple geek-bashing.

  2. Consider expanding the range of genre material that we play in. I know, I know, I've said this before: why are our characters exclusively over-the-top super-heroes, and never down-to-earth human beings temporarily drawn into an interesting situation? One of my great un-run games ideas is tell the story of a hugely dramatic fantasy war against the dark lord from the point of view of the foot-soldiers, beginning with a bunch of peasants getting pressed into service, and ending with them coming back to their village, wooden legs, eye patches and all. I have never been able to work out a good reason why we can't run a game where the main character is a lawyer, a medic or a social worker. (There are large numbers of TV series and novels based on these themes. But we only run games about super heroes. Immaturity?) Heck, here've been precious few police or detective RPGs.

  3. Explore the free-form genre. Freeforms are a wonderful idea; a totally different structural approach to role-playing, in which subtle (not in-yer face) characterisation and action-free drama are at a premium. Unfortunately, they seem to have become frozen into a limited, game-play structure in which masses of characters walk around a room swapping information cards and playing diplomacy. But they could still be salvaged as a sort of living theatre.

All this is based on the assumption that we want our games to be more mature. Someone reading this is likely to say: "But I don't want social comment and realistic characterisation. After a hard day at the officer I just want to come home and blow away some Orcs." And I will not put my hand on my heart and swear that I disagree.


Andrew Rilstone is most famous for his columns in the now-defunct arcane magazine, but has been writing for and about RPGs for over twenty years. He names Star Wars and Pendragon as his favourite RPGs. He lives in Bristol.

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