When you’re running a game for adults, how far is too far when it comes to subject matter?

Many games take an implicit stance on this issue by simply not including rules or references to “adult” topics, but some take an explicit stance on one end of the spectrum or the other. Which you prefer comes back to why you game: if gaming is a social outlet and a way to blow off steam, for instance, you’re probably not going to want to tackle disturbing topics and themes.

Let’s look a how 3 different RPGs handle adult themes, and at what that says about those games — as well as why a gaming group might want to explore mature themes through RPGs.

The vast majority of games approach mature topics by ignoring them. Take D&D, for example: you know it’s not a game where the PCs are supposed to make tough choices, or win pyrrhic victories, or deal with painful topics like rape because they’re not covered in the rules. About the closest D&D comes is having evil alignments, and while there are some interesting moral perspectives built into the game — the classic “all orcs are evil,” for instance — they’re not even remotely part of the game’s focus.

Call of Cthulhu is an example of a game in the middle of the spectrum, which handles a potentially disturbing topic — insanity — in a way that removes some of what makes it disturbing. There are rules for the steady erosion of the PCs’ sanity, and they’re pretty unforgiving — but I’ve never played a CoC game where going nuts wasn’t kind of fun, and I’ve played and run quite a bit of CoC. I’d be willing to bet that attitude extends to the majority of CoC groups; it certainly applies to most of the players that I’ve talked to.

On the complete opposite end of the spectrum would be games like Kult, the first edition of which contained rules for — among other things — how your character would deal with the mental trauma induced by rape. That’s heavy stuff no matter how thin you slice it, and to my mind it points to one of two things: Kult as a game where the PCs — and by extension, the players and the GM — are supposed to explore dark, disturbing themes in realistic ways; or, Kult as pointless juvenalia, like F.A.T.A.L.

So which is it?

I think the answer to that question is 25% game, 75% gaming group. The game contributes 25% of the answer in the way that those topics are presented, and in their connection to the theme(s) that the game is trying to explore. F.A.T.A.L. is patently ridiculous, for example, while Kult is not — although it could be, if your group tackles it that way.

The other 75% is the way the gaming group approaches the game, and that’s a lot harder to quantify.

Books that offer GMing advice often cover the topic of handling mature themes with your group, and the ones I’ve read seem to give fairly similar (and quite practical) advice: whether to do it at all depends on your group, and their likely reactions, and you should tread carefully. That sounds like pretty good advice to me — you don’t want to spring a game like Kult, or Black Dog’s Charnel Houses of Europe: The Shoah on just anyone, and rightly so.

And I say “sounds like” because I’ve never actually played a game that tackled mature themes in a serious way, rather than as a one-off, or a source of humor or temporary discomfort. A large part of that is that for me, playing RPGs is a creative outlet and social activity first, and I’ve never actively sought out games that hovered on — or crossed over — the border of “that’s pretty screwed up.”

The idea is intriguing, though, and I’ve long been fascinated with Werewolf: The Apocalypse and the opportunities it presents to look at human savagery from the “comfortable” distance of a non-human character. I’d put Werewolf somewhere between Call of Cthulhu and Kult on the “mature themes spectrum” — closer to Kult, if you include Black Dog’s supplements (which are for adults only).

Couple that with the fact that I enjoy disturbing movies, and that I tend to game with mature, intelligent people, and I’m actually not sure why I haven’t tried a mature-themed game. I imagine the experience would be similar to, although probably more intense than, watching a movie like Irreversible, The Cook The Thief His Wife & Her Lover or Requiem for a Dream — and that sounds interesting.

But is that the only way to enjoy meaningfully dark games? I don’t know — I suspect it’s one of the main ways, though. Does anyone play seriously deep, heavy games to explore the darker aspects of their own psyches, almost as a sort of philosophical excercise? How many of the groups that play mature games like Vampire take advantage of what they have to offer, as opposed to playing them like somewhat more Machiavellian D&D?