ratings on RPGs

edited January 2010 in Story Games
Prompted by Judd's Maid thread, particularly some of Andy's posts, I thought it would be interesting to discuss the issue of applying ratings (like the ESRP or whatever the one for movies is called).

Now, I don't see the need for standardized ratings, and in fact I think they're a bad idea. We can do this as actual communication from author to reader, rather than through some system that's eventually going to have a breakdown (not to mention the sort of arguments posited by Frank Miller about how putting ratings on your books is evil and stupid in the long run as it makes you submissive to the ratings board and stuff or something).

I also don't think that this sort of thing ought to be required of an author/designer. It's up to, y'know, parents to keep inappropriate material out of their children's hands, so the whole argument of "kids might get a hold of this, THINK OF THE CHILDREN" holds no water for me (seriously, I knew plenty of kids in elementary school who had porno mags. Ratings and minimum ages for purchase don't work for that purpose). But I do think that it can be polite to use ratings.

For instance, Poison'd says "For adults, please," on the cover, and as soon as you crack it open you find out why. That works for me.

I can talk about one of mine, the in-development MADCorp. I'm gonna be stamping on the cover, RATED 'M' FOR "MOTHER" (as in "may offend your"), as well as a disclaimer inside the cover. That rating is both a joke and an honest assessment of the game's content. It has repeated references to drug abuse, murder, criminal insanity, cannibalism, and dead-end jobs, all treated with a tone of gleeful "fuck you" abandon with plenty of profanity. It includes sentences like, "If you spike your hair with the blood of the innocent, you get +1 to your dark powers" and "Yes, kids, drugs are the answer." I don't even want to show it to my mother.

So, yeah. Any other thoughts on this?


  • Sounds good to me, especially that communication part. Of course, all but the weakest works already communicate plenty, it's just that often that communication requires specialized media literacy skills to interpret. We often see this with anime nowadays, and in earlier decades similar situations happened with fantasy genres - just imagine being familiar with sword & sorcery tropes only from He-Man and the Masters of the Universe, and then encountering some of the seedier original pulp. A fantasy fan has no problem recognizing whether a given work is supposed to be grim or heroic, but that's not nearly so obvious to a less genre literate audience, which might cause surprises both good and bad.

    The only time I remember having done ratings is when I warned about Bacchanal in our webstore that playing it with minors would probably be inappropriate and likely illegal under Finnish law due to the things you do as part of the game. There was also the time when I put an age recommendation on Zombie Cinema, but that was just a boardgame-like indication of the game's complexity, not a content rating. Aside from those I haven't done any explicit ratings in my rpg projects that I'd remember.
  • edited January 2010
    For Poison'd, I think it's great. That game is so nasty that I wouldn't want kids picking it up, thinking it was a cool pirate game.

    But I wouldn't want warnings to be the standard. For example, A Taste For Murder is a murder mystery game, but it can get quite nasty, with talk of incest and unwanted pregnancies. Still, I wouldn't want an "Adults Only" warning on it, because that makes it sound as though it's full of blood and gore.

    Another thing: different things offend different people. This morning, while sketching out ideas for Cthulhu Apocalypse, I considered having The Bible as an occult text. That's quite an offensive idea, to some people, but it doesn't involve sex and violence.

    Really, I'd like the default to be: if you're picking up the game, you've an idea what you're getting into. After all, we don't put warnings on normal books: there aren't stickers on The Lord Of The Rings saying "Contains violence". I'd like that to be the presumption for games. That probably means that, generally, I'm against warnings.

  • Oh, certainly, I think it's also important to not go overboard with ratings and warnings. If you were to put a warning on A Taste for Murder that implied it was full of violence and gore, then that would actually be a case of miscommunication, in which case the rating is doing the opposite of what it's intended to do. And thus shouldn't be used.

    (By the way, the idea of the Bible as an occult text is historically supported by real-life practitioners of Hoodoo, who quote passages as incantations, as well as using the Bible as a talisman for protection or other effects, by carrying it or leaving it open to certain pages at certain times of day and so on. So include it and blame it on other people.)
  • Also there is the fact that roleplaying games are largely made of self-created content. Thus we can't really comment on a product except for the flavour material and the things the rules make the players do. So if a game includes a full-blown erotic novel, then perhaps it is to be classified as erotica. Or if the game instructs the players as part of playing the game to develop erotic fiction, then likewise. But in between there's a quite big niche for games that do not include anything explicit or directly instruct you to do anything explicit, but still support such play. For this reason the great majority of quite adult games we play do not really need any warning labels. Sorcerer, one of the nastier games around, includes rather minimal amounts of dark material in the core book - everything nasty comes from the players, not the book.
  • I once released a game that carried the disclaimer 'Warning: Intended for mature audiences. Mind you, immature ones would probably appreciate it better.' Or something to that effect.

  • Polaris says "For 3-5 players ages 14 and up."

    Games are usually labeled like this. "for n-m players ages l and up" I don't see why we couldn't do the same.

  • Posted By: Eero TuovinenBut in between there's a quite big niche for games that do not include anything explicit or directly instruct you to do anything explicit, but still support such play.
    Or things players do that aren't "supported" in any system matters sense. The amount of sex, debauchery, and sodomy that's gone on in my games of D&D is pretty horrific when I think about it.

    So, ratings for what's in the game's book are okay. Ratings for what you think the game might encourage are more difficult, but still probably doable. But in the end, what comes out of most games most of the time is going to be up to the players. So... egh.

    Cause really, if you take Breaking the Ice you could end up with a G rated lightly romantic romp about middle school students, or you could end up with Superman sodomizing Batman in low orbit.
  • I think it's polite to do this, if there are things in the book that aren't immediately apparent from the covers and blurb; mostly to avoid disappointing people who bought it with the wrong expectations. For example, I once bought "Sundered Skies" to play with my kids, because it looked like a cool floating-islands-with-pirates game; but when my son read through the introduction the creepy demonic stuff freaked him out, so I returned it (fortunately the FLGS gave me full store credit.)

    {OT: Actually the most confusing/misleading covers I've seen aren't on RPGs but on some indie comix. I think the combination of kids-comics art style with disturbing subject matter can be great (viz. Jim Woodring), but it can make it really unclear whether something's actually for kids or not. Tony Millionaire' stuff is a great example; I've seen it misfiled in the kids section at my local shop. James Kochalka's books are even more confusing because some of them are for kids and some are emphatically not, but you can't tell from the covers.}
  • edited January 2010
    This is a horrible, horrible,


    horrible idea.

    1. I read an article by a lawyer who was saying that if Nintendo had NOT put a wrist strap on their Wiimotes, they would NOT have been liable for people throwing their Wiimotes. By adding the wrist straps THEY BECAME LIABLE. By adding a rating system, you transfer the liability to you.
    2. Uninformed parents will begin thinking that (all) RPGs are dangerous to children.
    3. The easier you make something, the stupider people will act.
    a. Imagine what would happen if Panty Explosion was rated "E for everyone."
    b. A small town removed all their stop lights and replaced them with stop signs. They found people had less accidents because they were paying better attention.
    c. People won't open the cover before deciding if something was dangerous.
    4. Just like video games, they will try and make it illegal to sell mature RPGs to minors.
    5. Everyone can agree on what's (considered) appropriate for Minors and Adults. Ratings try and break that into debatable categories.

    No, it is far better to treat RPGs the same way books are treated. There are no ratings. Parents are expected to make educated decisions about books (and RPG games). If you personally feel your book is for mature audiences, write down a sentence on the cover that says, "This book is intended for mature audiences only." WotC did that with "The Book of Vile Darkness" and you know it was their LAWYERS who made that decision. They did it exactly that way for a reason.

    You do not want to open up this can of worms.
  • As I recall, 3:16 has a rating on the back.

    I think the real issue with giving ratings to RPGs is that so much is player-created content. I've had seemingly fine games devolve into blood and gore shockfests just as I've had games that seemed written for mega-violence where that was just glazed over. It's so variable.
  • edited January 2010
    Here's a thing. I wonder how many roleplaying games marked "Not suitable for children" or "Contains gore" are actually saying "This book is filled with awesome shit!".

  • David, those are some very good points. Do you have a link to the Wii article? I'd like to read it.

    I don't think any kind of formalized system (along the lines of motion pictures or video games) would be a good idea, but there's something to be said for self-regulation. I think the labels on Polaris and Poison'd are just about right.

    I know that if I ever get around to putting Horsies of Happiland into print, it will have a warning label of some kind. Fuck, it might be shrink-wrapped, depending on how far I go with the art. But that's especially touchy in my mind because it might otherwise appeal to children and it needs to be very clear that they are not the proper audience.
  • Posted By: GrahamI wonder how many roleplaying games marked "Not suitable for children" or "Contains gore" are actually saying "This book is filled withawesome shit!".
    All of them.
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