NC-17: Adult Content in LARPs

When I was a child, I spoke as a child, I understood as a child, I thought as a child; but when I became a man, I put away childish things.

– Corinthians 11

I remember the first tabletop RPG I ever played. If you think that there is anything wrong with that particular brand of geek, I will be creating a follow up article entitled “One Thousand Reasons Why I am Awesome and You are Wrong”. Like many other gamers, my first was Dungeons and Dragons, specifically ADnD (that’s Advanced, cretins). I also sucked at Calculus, so I stopped being interested in ADnD, but then I found 3rd Ed, which was awesome, and math lite. I had some kick-ass DMs, and I had fun. If you find anything wrong with this, consult my follow up article.

The Untotes FleischI bring this up because I remember the subject matter covered in my first campaign. We were light, innocent, playful. The maidens were rescued, the villager’s grain was recovered so they didn’t starve. We committed mass genocide of goblin villages so they wouldn’t invade the townsfolk. We tortured captured thieves to learn the location of the guild. We murdered the king’s child so he would be emotionally distraught and be off his game during negotiations with the country that hired us. And we certainly didn’t cover adult content, lest our childhood innocence be tainted and destroyed forever.

You see what I did there? If you didn’t, you may also wish to consult the follow up article to this piece.

Adult content is everywhere, and need not be consciously included in a storyline. Players create it themselves because it is in the sum of our experience. We turn on the news, check reddit, feast on newsfeeds, and thusly imbibe in adult content, so how is it that it is taboo to include it in a game, any game?

Maybe you are just tuning into this LARP thing, this gamer thing, this life thing (and if so I am writing another article for your attention), but being that I am glad you have decided to get yourself up to speed, I will indulge. Adult content in the realm of LARP is an iffy prospect. Why?

Roleplaying is a freeform game, but also a story which requires no control and no plot outside of a loose ruleset that allows limits and interaction. It creates balance. Order. Conflict. Conflict is what really brings interest to a game, but because it is freeform, it is open to all ages. Expand the genre, and introduce LARP. The same free form ability and open plot applies, as is the lack of a specified age group. The target audience is determined by content only, and there are social standards in place for what is age appropriate.

I am not going to force an 8 year old child to face down the bleak realities of losing a parent, and the death of loved ones, because a child’s life should be filled with happiness. Not tragedy.

But consider that it is not solely determined by me what a child experiences in life. Though I may shelter a child from loss, a tragic freak event may interject. This is not to say that I should not do all I can to keep happiness in a child’s life, but just because I refuse to include something, it doesn’t mean that the drunk driver wasn’t already in the room (read as elephant). We see, hear, and experience all these things regardless of who may include or disclude them from the world. I blame those violent video games for the degradation of the nation’s youth, but that stuff was already there before they started playing Duke Nuke Em.

Maybe I digress. If you really want to bring attention to that….article…

There are games that are obviously intended for the very young, like Candy Land. In the realm of RPG’s there are also games that are obviously meant for a more adult audience. Consider White Wolf’s successful series of games in which everyone plays a monster.

MET- nagDid I stutter?

Did I accidentally say charming knight? No, I said a freaking monster. Vampire the Masquerade and other White Wolf games makes the protagonist a monster, and morality is an intrinsic part of the character. It is, in essence, the game, but murder, death, treason, torture, madness, blood, all of these are littered throughout. Powers in the game are used to incite pain, lust, and insanity. Control and domination. These have potency! This is adult content, is it not? The very usage of abilities to force the will of one onto another is adult. This is the bending and destruction of will! For those of you who are saying ‘well that is why I choose to not play that game’, there are just as many who are saying ‘that is not really adult’. How is it that murder is not adult?

It is commonplace, and talked about. Perhaps it is merely the levels to which we talk about these things, and the level to which we include them in the game which makes them taboo. In some worlds goblins are seen as inherently evil, as are other monsters. However, simultaneously, monsters have since developed into a pop culture of themselves, and there is a segment of gamers that prefer to play monster characters in table top, medieval violence, and LARP. As we have created something of a monster culture, can we still butcher them wholesale at every encounter, and still consider it morally right? Is it goodness to destroy all that which is evil, or is it less morally questionable to attempt to take evil and convert it to good?

I have seen it done, and argued both ways. There is a bitter sweetness to the reluctant paladin that feels the moral weight of every soul put to rest. However, at this point it should go without saying that moral relativity is abundant in Role Playing Games.

Switch over to LARP.

We are no longer including a forum of our dearest and closest friends. It is not a predestined specified group of comrades which knows each other’s comfort levels. It is best in larger numbers. Who wants to run, or go to, a LARP which is only attended by a couple of our closest friends? Such a game would be covered by my next article.

We crave and need numbers, if for nothing else, then for the sense of immersion that numbers bring to a game. We aren’t in the woods with 20 people wearing different hats. Numbers imbue a sense of worldliness to any game. To do anything which would limit the number of attendants is, admittedly, bad.

By using content to target an audience, we limit the set of attendees to a game. Simultaneously, by allowing all content, we create a diverse player base. This is the biggest issue with allowing adult content in LARP, RPGs, any media.

“You immoral reprobate!” You say…. Consult my followup.

The Untotes FleischI don’t personally have a grasp on this whole moral absolutism thing. I was ostracized from a game for threatening to geld a “prisoner”. I was morally grey and willing to do anything for the benefit of the whole party. There were other examples of this type of play, but generally I would wheel and deal with whoever, whenever, and do whatever I needed to do to support my ends. I shot Greedo first, and took lofty contracts to fund networks of spies and informants. I was about as grey as you could get without being black enough that I sought the death of PCs, nor attempt to end the world. There was a segment of the player base that loved me and thought that I was a good addition to the game, but a core group of players didn’t like the cut of my gib. Ironically, this same game featured deep seated emotional abuse, rape, murder, treachery and the loss of innocence within plot; things that, in my opinion, have far more reaching damage than the capacity for ultra-violence. Some people are only made better by dying. I was adult content in their eyes. It is their right, I suppose, to nourish or exile my brand of play.

Where is that line within a game? Where should you draw the line on your plot? What is allowed in-game?

What kind of player do you want to allow and encourage to flourish?

Adult content is going to come into gameplay unless your player base comes strictly out of portions of Utah, or perhaps is limited to Quakers and the Amish. Should you do this, I expect that the permanent structures on site are a hell of a thing. If that is what you want, then more power to you, but I know for a fact that I would probably be bored as hell at your game.

Inversely, if you grab entirely from a detention center best lest forgotten that was used for government experimentation of the usages of the rage virus, then your game will limit the pure and chaste. It is not my place to put a slider rule on moral right and wrong, and nor is it yours. I think the birth of the antichrist would be a terrible thing, but there are some pro-lifers out there that may think otherwise because every sperm is sacred even if it came from a jackel wrought beast with two backs. I am not here to tell you what is right and wrong because who really has the right to do that?

Grab your staff and consult. Find out what everyone who is running a game wants, or is willing, to include in the game. If you say that anything goes, then understand the weight and implications of your words. If you want to mold your player base to a heroic path alone, then you can do a number of things to promote a string of Gallahads:

  • Deny PVP: No use of combat abilities on other players, and things like the use of the pickpocket ability. This still allows for friendly shenanigans for players that may not get along, but nothing that would be detrimental, except for maybe social warfare in which players destroys each other’s credibility and reputation.
  • Promote good acts: You have a mechanic somewhere that give boons, or bonuses, to those characters that do things that you like. If you don’t, get one. Don’t be that guy and just give it to your friends, but instead actively strive to award players that perform heroic deeds. This could be a stat bump, or even a get out of Hades free card when they heroically sacrifice themselves so that the rest of the group could flee the rabid smurfs you sent after them in the last module. If you want to encourage moral paths, you could have different rewards for effective acts on either side of the moral spectrum.
  • Discourage evil acts: There are wandering spirits throughout a fantasy world, and if you decide to jay walk or torture prisoners to death, evil spirits may mistake you for a like minded comrade in arms and hang around you to the detriment of yourself or the group. Commit enough badness, and who knows what might manifest? Simultaneously, if it is irritating enough, sub plots can occur as the hero rises from the darkness towards purity of heart and purpose. Who knows? Maybe a player even learns a thing or two.

But for all of you that want a Gallahad farm, know this: conflict generates plot and interest. If everyone plays the same character, how fun is that? The morally questionable within the ranks of the PC body will provide flavor to the game, and promote plot, discussion, conflict, and a more varied style of gameplay. I think you’ll like it. If you wish to have this diversity to the game, then allow risks and rewards for both paths.

Constantly discuss the morality of the game with your player base. If there is a compass that needs to be followed, then make sure everyone knows where north is. It isn’t that I have a problem with honorable gameplay, but when you show me a morally iffy world, then I am going to dive in and see what comes of it.

Here is another concept that I hope will cause discussion: Love abounds throughout stories and media. It is central to shows of all ages. Teenage drama is rife with it, and few Hollywood movies can get away without having a love story. “Halloween” has a love story. That being said, isn’t Love adult content? It causes all kinds of passions, problems, and emotions. The greatest of hurts occur in the vacuum of Love. We tell children that they do not know love, they are too young.

Hell of a thing that many disregard this as adult content…they will be included in my followup.

And now abide faith, hope, love, these three; but the greatest of these is love.
-Corinthians 13

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4 Comments Leave a comment

  1. Sarah August 21, 2013 Subscriber

    Include or disclude? Shouldn’t that be exclude?

    Anyways, this is a good point and in addition to talking with your player base, you might also say, impose an age restriction or require parental consent for those of a questionable age. Minds Eye Theatre, for example, who LARPs White Wolf games like the one you mentioned, has an age restriction of 18 years old. This can help with avoiding killing a child’s innocence, as you described it.

    That being said, I do think it is important to keep in mind as much as possible those you are playing with and if you know one of your fellow players has a direct confrontation with a situation (ie a girl who was sexually assaulted or someone who’s parents really did pass away), have storytellers step in to help get the character through the scene.

    Another solution is to be direct as a player. If something is happening in character is too much for you as a player to deal with, be honest with your fellow players (mid scene if necessary but preferably after so action is not disrupted) rather than telling game staff later. This honestly can help avoid those situations in the future without making players feel like they are oppressed by game staff with rules and limitations.

    I will say this… Though I think your article makes some very interesting points, as a reader it felt very rant-y to me. I feel like you are implying that players who want to play the good guy are ruining the game, or those people who enjoy happy or comic elements of the game don’t understand or don’t immerse themselves as well as you do. I believe a morally ambiguous world is very interesting and allows for a testing of both player and character, but remember it is a GAME and everyone enjoys different things about it. That’s what makes it such a dynamic hobby in the first place, and that’s the number one thing I love about it.

  2. Johnnie Williams August 27, 2013 Subscriber

    Allowing adult content does not necessarily enrich a game. It simply makes it potentially different. and everyone has a different idea of what adult is. Up to and including nudity and sex. LARP location will be a potential limiter. Some locales cannot allow it. and safety minded LARPs wont allow it.

    The other problem with allowing adult content is. Some people are going to go too far. And in the end this can drive away potential players if a LARP is deemed unsafe in a non-combat manner just as easily as full contact LARPs drive away players.

    As for PVP. We see again and again how this can lead to abuse and loss of players. Theres a thread elsewhere touching on the problem of powerful players killing off new players, just because they could.

    There is plenty of room for both squeaky clean and morally bankrupt. And all between

    But more adult does not = better.
    And squeaky clean does not = better.

    They just = different types of games attracting different types of players.

  3. Yhous March 2, 2014 Subscriber

    I find this a very interesting concept to cover as well as a helpful one indeed. During a game day, our party took down a group of elves and my character holding the grudge to end all grudges against elves, decided to scalp them as we looted. I was criticized for going “too far.” I think in any larp, there should be a pre-agreed upon set of standards for how much ‘adult content’ is allowed to be incorporated. While this may vary from larp to larp, presets should be determined in a way that appeals most to the demographic.

  4. Aaron Vanek May 5, 2015 Subscriber

    “Who wants to run, or go to, a LARP which is only attended by a couple of our closest friends?”
    I and many of my friends do.

    I disagree with the prima facie claim that a high PC count is needed and required for larp quality or immersion. There are a great many excellent larps that I have read or played with lower player counts, i.e., three or four players.

    I can’t tell if this article is supporting or discouraging adult content in larps; perhaps it is neither and merely a recommendation to be cognizant of the morality of the larp and have a transparency of expectation (as defined by Evan Torner in “Transparency and Safety in Role-Playing Games” in the 2013 Wyrd Con Companion Book: I also recommend larpers use the Same Page Tool as described here before and during play:

    Adult content is like fire: it can be devastating, but also can put men on the Moon. It depends on how you handle it.

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