Friday, 28 January 2011

Thoughts on Ratings in RPGs - pt 2

So, earlier I posted about my recent experiences on providing ratings guidelines for an online RPG, and how they might (or might not) be more generally applicable. I touched on general issues of theme there, and I'll now look at how we implemented more specific guidelines, and what those might indicate.

The use of strong language is naturally something that might concern both film censors and anyone involved in text-based RPing. Among a group of friends RPing together over the table, its likely that it really doesn't need to be spelled out, but when you have a larger pool of players, perhaps from different backgrounds, it can be a different matter. As with theme, this can be an important aspect of simulating a particular written or filmed genre - Harry Potter should not, it seems to me, sound like Pulp Fiction.

On the other hand, that cuts both ways. I recall a few years back commenting on a mailing list about someone planning a Torchwood campaign. Now, in Torchwood, especially the first season (which at the time was the only one released), there is quite a bit of swearing. Is that an inherent part of the genre? Arguably not, but equally it wouldn't occur to me that a campaign might have tighter restrictions than the source material on which it is based, so I said - to the shock of other posters - that, unless someone told me otherwise, I'd assume that strong language was permissible. The characters in the series do it, why would I assume a PC should be different?

In the case of our Hogwarts RPG, we went with a 12-certificate. We didn't have to follow the full guidelines for that, of course, but we mostly did. At 12-certificate, only the strongest words are outright forbidden, although the use of others should be limited. Deciding that Americans are more offended by the F-word than we are, we banned that one (specifically permitted at 12-certificate), along with discriminatory words (e.g. that one that begins with "N") and terms relating to the reproductive anatomy.

This, in fairness, allows considerably more leeway than actually appears in the books or films. It means that we allow some moderately strong British swearwords - possibly because many of the Americans don't know what they mean, and consequently aren't offended - that Harry & co. certainly don't use. In general, our players haven't take much advantage of this, and I think that's a good thing. Writing swearing so that it seems natural, rather than being inserted for the sake of it, isn't always that easy. Going back to Torchwood, strong language is still found in the later seasons, but after the first one, it wasn't so noticeable, largely because the writers seemed to be using it only when it made sense, rather than "ooh, I can have a character say 'f***'".

Which probably means our players are showing more restraint than some professional writers. Good on 'em.

Drugs & Alcohol
Speaking as a European, it has often seemed to me that Americans in general have a fairly odd attitude to alcohol. That may be unfair, but its notable that one of the rules we had on the site for some time was "no alcohol". This, despite the fact that alcoholic drinks are clearly mentioned in the books. On the castle board, where the characters are all underage, that's sensible enough, but it felt slightly odd to me on the board for Diagon Alley and Hogsmeade - which, notably, have pubs. I used to get round it by having characters at the pubs "have a drink" without specifying what it was they were drinking, but it still felt a bit strange.

Now that we've relaxed that - albeit with specific restrictions on underage drinking - I've noticed that it's actually the most popular of our new, expanded guidelines, to see use. To begin with, a lot of that revolved around players tormenting their own adult characters with vicious hangovers (some of which were, in fairness, pretty good to read in a black humour kind of way). More recently, it seems to have extended to scenes where characters drown their sorrows, or just the casual mention of the stuff that I missed not being able to write. So its being used to develop emotional plotlines, and just to have your character feel more realistic.

Fantasy RPGs usually have a quasi-medieval setting, and in the real world, medieval folks tended to drink a lot of wine or beer, not least because it was safer than the water. Taverns are a staple in such settings, being such good meeting places, and its hard to think of a teetotal fantasy RPG (I'm sure there must be one, though, especially if it's based on medieval Arabian culture).

Other drugs tend to be a different matter, especially where we're talking about anything that exists in the real world. Particularly in a text-based game, it's probably wise to avoid real details, or to portray harmful drugs in a positive light, if there's any risk of younger players reading. So far, that one's not cropped up for us, unless one counts mind-altering, but non-addictive, magical potions, but one can see it possibly being relevant in a modern game, or something like Call of Cthulhu.

Violence of some kind is pretty endemic in tabletop RPGs. You may be only inflicting it against foul monsters, or whatever, but, at some level it seems to be integral to almost all of them. (I actually can't think of a system that doesn't have at least some rules for combat, although there probably is one somewhere). But, when it comes to violence as an indicator of a more "adult" game, we aren't talking so much about "I hit him for 5 points of damage" as whether or not the descriptions are graphic.

I'd suggest that, in tabletop games, this probably makes little difference unless you're planning on being really gory in your descriptions - which would suggest a horror game, anyway. Text based games may rely more heavily on description, and the issue here would be how much the text dwells on blood or mutilation. For our 12-certificate game, that meant no dwelling on detail, and its a game setting where much of the violence will be in the form of zapping people with spells rather than hewing at them with axes, that's a pretty easy guideline to keep to. There is some mild gore in the books, but not much, and that seemed a fair limit for us, too.

In point of fact, there seems to have been no demand to use the relaxed rules on our site at all. Contrary to the likes of D&D, it seems our story lines do not generally focus on combat, outside of tightly regulated practice duelling.

So we come to the area that's probably most touchy. The British Board of Film Classification treats nudity and sex as separate topics, the former being of more significance in a primarily visual medium than it would be in tabletop or text-based RPGs. Merely saying that your character gets undressed, or has a shower, is somewhat different from showing full frontal nudity on the screen. If there is an equivalent to the latter in a text-based game, it would be going into a lengthy description of your character in the buff, which seems a slightly odd thing to do, especially in a supposedly non-sexual context.

But, if nudity doesn't matter in itself, sex is different. People do, rightly or wrongly, get concerned about that kind of thing. There's nothing further than snogging in the HP books, and, since most of the characters in our RPG are going to be underage anyway, that's a good place to draw the line. Adult characters in the game had previously become pregnant, although never with any indication of how they got that way! It could be argued that that was quite sufficient, and that this was an area where we could be stricter than the 12-certificate guidelines.

My own attitude is that, if we're going to allow nastier things to happen to the characters, we should also allow them to have a bit more fun, too. So, for adult characters outside the school, we instituted a rule that allows story lines that make reference to "off-screen" sex, without describing it. Barring mention of nudity in a sexual context also makes it clear where you should be "fading to black", even if, as noted above, nudity per se isn't much of an issue. This, I think, allows a wider range of story possibilities without showing anything that's not strictly necessary for the story to work - it's the consequences that are more likely to be key to a story, after all.

There are also gradations between that and "insert Tab A into Slot B", which might be appropriate in other games. I can certainly see how character development might be enhanced by exploring that side of a character's life and personality in more detail, for instance. And, if there's any area where ratings of proposed campaigns might be relevant, other than horror (which is usually implied by the setting, anyway), it's probably this one.

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