message board RPG based on the world of Harry Potter. It's effectively a parallel universe, and doesn't feature any of the characters from the books, but the background and locations are the same (or at least very similar), and the general theme - wizards in a boarding school - is, naturally, also the same. I mention this because I've been reflecting on the effects of a change we went through recently in the rules for RPing on the board.
A message board RPG is different from a face-to-face one in that it has a large number of players, most of whom will not know each other in real life, and may come to the game with different expectations. It's also a 'sandbox' setting, which means that a wide range of different themes could crop up in different story lines, and the admins (GMs) can't possibly keep a track of them all, let alone read and vet all of them. As a result, the site has rules for what sort of stories and descriptions are considered acceptable - a rating system of sorts.
I'm not really suggesting that such things are easily extendible, or even relevant, to most face-to-face games, or e-mail games, for that matter. Certainly, its unlikely they'd be required in face-to-face games among a small group of friends, unless, perhaps, there is some intention to have different ratings for different campaigns, and the players need to be clear on what those are in advance. But, nonetheless, the fact that we recently reviewed, and changed, our ratings strikes me as something of general interest in RPing.
Our previous rules on this particular subject were fairly simple. Essentially, we said that the site was intended to be PG certificate, and mostly left it at that. The choice of PG made some sense at the time, since the first two films had this certificate (in both the UK and US) and were pretty close to the books they were based on. It seems to me, if you want to simulate a particular literary source, you'll want to follow its conventions, and the rating is part of that. (There are, of course, sites on the internet that are ostensibly based on the HP books but allow all manner of hardcore material - that's a perfectly valid approach, but I think there is very much a place for following the theme of the books. After all, if somebody likes the books, the absence of such content might be part of their reason).
However, with time, it became clear that there were a couple of problems with this. The more obvious one, perhaps, is that the later films, once they came out, had a higher rating. In general, they had a PG-13 rating in America, and a 12-rating here in the UK - and, by implication, the same could be said of the later books. Since the message board we host on does not permit members under the age of 13 anyway, there was a good case for raising our rating to match that of the later films. I think, in practice, a number of players had done this anyway, without us jumping on them, and it made sense to formalise that.
So, when some players raised the issue with us, we polled the members of the board, and agreed to switch to a higher rating, one more in line with the later films and books - which are darker in tone than the first two. However, there is another problem with stating "this site is considered PG certificate" - what does that actually mean? The rating system of the Motion Picture Association of America is fairly vaguely defined (although the website linked to there is actually rather more informative than it was at the time) often boiling down to "if we don't think its appropriate, it isn't". And that was pretty much our rules at the time, as well. So, when we updated it, we instead used the system of the British Board of Film Classification, and went with a 12-certificate.
By adapting the rules of the BBFC to writing, rather than film, and spelling them out in detail, I think we made it much clearer what was and was not acceptable. This means that, hopefully, everyone knows where they stand, and I think that, in addition to allowing a greater freedom for players to explore their own story lines, it also makes it much clearer what we won't accept. Once again, I'm not suggesting that such detailed guidelines would be of much use in a face-to-face game, but I think there is some interest in looking at them.
One point to make here is that we run the game over a number of different boards, reflecting a wide range of different in-universe locations and activities. For example, there are separate boards for quidditch, magical duelling, and for magic lessons, in addition to the main one at the castle. Most of these have the same rules. However, the board that deals with the world outside the school is mainly populated by adult characters, and we felt that that made a significant difference to the sorts of stories that would be appropriate. Thus, it has the same general rating, but the actual rules are slightly more relaxed, reflecting the fact that a story in which an underage character does a particular thing may be very different from one in which an adult does the exact same activity. In practice, if one were going to extend these rules more generally, there could be a lot of changes like this, depending on the particular genre and expectations of the players.
The general theme of an RPG is the sort of thing that is normally included in a campaign description, whether any more specific ratings are needed or not. If you're playing Call of Cthulhu, its fairly obvious you're going to have a horror theme, and something that would be at least the equivalent of a 15-certificate were the game a film or video. Its also a reasonable expectation of a game like Vampire, although there is a fair degree of leeway there in just how dark the game could be (depending, for example, on how you portray the feeding).
Many other RPGs have an inherently dark theme, and this is the sort of thing that I feel it is generally useful to spell out when proposing a particular campaign, especially if it's radically different from what the group have been done in the past. In the case of our message board Hogwarts RPG, it seems to me that keeping a theme generally in keeping with the books is good thing to do. I suspect that the inclusion of dementors, and later, of zombies, was the main reason for the 12 (or PG-13) rating the later films got, and this shows that mild horror is certainly acceptable within the genre.
There is, I think, something to be said for writing within a particular genre, and selecting limits for oneself based on that. That doesn't mean that taking a particular world and exploring some of its implications beyond what the source material covers doesn't also have its place. For instance, that the Potterverse has vampires and so on in it has some fairly dark implications that aren't explored in the books because of their target audience. I find it interesting to note though, that on our site, there seems very little demand for horror stories, although there have been some darker themes with respect to, for example, murder. Plus, we recently opened a Necromancy class, which is proving popular - and will, I suspect, lead to something a little darker than our usual fare.
In part 2, I will ponder on some more specific aspects of ratings an "adult" gaming.