What Is Adult Gaming?


Since the late 1950�s, changes in social attitudes saw the first uses of the word �adult� to be used euphemistically for being sexually explicit, graphically violent or generally not for the eyes of children. Yet, gaming is a form of play and play is one of the more acceptable forms of education. Whilst cynics may point to the greatest number of gamers being male and adolescent, others may find that there are an increasing number of gamers sticking with the hobby into their 30s, 40s and beyond.

Since the late 1950's, changes in social attitudes saw the first uses of the word 'adult' to be used euphemistically for being sexually explicit, graphically violent or generally not for the eyes of children. Yet, gaming is a form of play and play is one of the more acceptable forms of education. Whilst cynics may point to the greatest number of gamers being male and adolescent, others may find there are an increasing number of gamers sticking with the hobby into their 30s, 40s and beyond.

The image of gaming has always been one plagued by controversial issues - issues of sexism, cult activity, religious intolerance and general social ineptitude, yet there is a sudden appeal for our games to be more adult, mature, or more realistic, if you will. The result is a crop of games that graphically show violence, social ills and equally using profanity and titillation.

Whilst everyone will point at White Wolf's World of Darkness and 'Games for Mature Minds' tagline and numerous computer games, the roots of this lie as far back as first edition AD&D, a game that showcased torture for amusement, recreational drug taking and costumes suited more to the likes of Victoria's Secret than Camelot in the hands of the enemy. Whilst some of this art is as much a product of the 1970's as the genre, for Conan is a child of the 1920's after all - fantasy artists followed the zeitgeist and the after-effects echo today to the displeasure of women gamers and others.

Here, then, is the paradox between the childish activity of play and the setting of adult issues. A line where bogeymen (some of them human) teach morality and monsters stalk in fantasies with both moral and ethical lessons that requires more than childish innocence and reason. Yet this is something 'mature' games will often eschew in favour of 'gritty realism' and high body counts more suited to action-adventure, the latter is more accessible to the public than a morality play that may question the ubiquity of violence in a 'peaceful' society. One need only look at any Black Dog product to see the implied promise of games, dealing with issues most avoid, is avoided in favour of splatterpunk or at best, grand guignol.

The conventions of fantasy and sci-fi have played fast and loose with morality, often walking outside the bounds of the norm; this is a mixture of pioneer spirit and archaic attitudes from the first inter-racial kiss on Star Trek, to the bondage of Gor. There are many examples written by people, who if you believe the hype, are incapable of dating. Horror has been more overt in it's blurring of morality to provoke but it clearly signposts its intention to shock.

The computer gaming market imposed a rating system; bans on games such as Grand Theft Auto 3 and Kingpin illustrate whilst the rating system is a helpful guide, there really is no substitute for parental responsibility, yet the solution is not putting gaming products into a brown paper bag or banning it outright for fear of showing it to the impressionable.

So what makes a game adult?

If it deals with issues you don't mention in front of the children, does it become adult? Does it require ultra-violence in bloody bucketfuls? Does it require each protagonist to have a preferred chemical addiction or social dysfunction in his or her personality? Is it at all necessary to feature full-frontal nudity or involve sex professionals in the game?

Does it need any of these traits at all? Of course not. Adult is not specific to any set of traits or characteristics but more of outlook than attributes. Consider the above issues if you wish to, these fantasies are personal after all, but they may reveal more about you than you realise. You might be able to convey the feeling of shame and lost innocence, fear of harm and the violent impulse, how a lack of self-esteem can lead to a need for external stimuli or how society can fail it's participants (or vice versa) without having to depend on any of the items in the previous paragraph at all. Worth a try, isn't it?

So, you may ask how do you play in an adult game? Certainly the author has been guilty of splatterpunk-style play, pushing the buttons of players and featuring overtly sexual situations in a game. But then again, I've also used stable communities, romantic love and letting players explore sides of them they never knew they had. The trick I'm told is to view things from a balanced perspective and to be responsible for your words and actions.

Gamers must also keep in mind a need for consensus and a respect for participants in the same game. With MMORPGs rising in popularity, it is too easy to be selfish or think 'It's only a game'. Keep in mind playing has a powerful effect upon people, and it's often a form of education. Whilst I'm not advocating you handle everyone with kid gloves, certainly ask if people are cool with issues and consider how your latest plotlines would be reacted to should someone accidentally overhear you.

"...first edition AD&D, a game that showcased torture for amusement, recreational drug taking and costumes suited more to the likes of Victoria's Secret than Camelot in the hands of the enemy..."

Are you sure this isn't some sort of troll? This is possibly the most baseless, off-target stab at a game system that I have ever seen. The fact that you're attempting to paint AD&D1 with a very bloody brush offends me. Funny, when I was six years old and rolling my first dice, I don't remember the game being based around torture, drugs, or lingerie. Let me think back some more... Hmm, as I read and re-read those rulebooks cover-to-cover dozens of times during my teens: Nope, still no torture, drugs, or lingerie to speak of. Not in the game system, not as part of the rulebooks - probably only in the twisted mind of whoever it was that introduced YOU to the game.

That comment really spoiled this article for me. What I fail to understand, reading the rest of it, is why you even bother to take such an opinionated shot at D&D1E when the things you mention don't even factor into your meatless message: "Uh, remember to be cool with others when bringing in adult subjects, and stuff."

I hope you didn't get paid by the word for this.


Jeez starhawk, don't freak out. And who says torture for pleasure and lingerie is bad anyway? Well, a lot of people do, but that's not the point...

I agree with Starhawk on this one.

I don't know where Satyre got his info from, but I don't remember anything like Satyre's description in 1st ed. The closest parallel I can come up with is the pic on the cover of the DMG, and to be honest even that's a stretch.

I'd also have to agree with Starhawk that the moral (if that's the word) of the article was vague and toothless. Yes, it's possible to have adult gaming without sex, drugs & rock n' roll (beg pardon, violence), but if that's all Satyre was gearing up to after a seven paragraph lead then he was wasting a lot of space.

Personally, I'd like to see more games that treated me, the customer, as an adult. I liked Ars Magica because the Pax Dei and Maleficium suppliments, (alas, now out of print and no longer canon), treated a complex subject with maturity and common sense. I like some of White Wolf's product, (Wraith: Great War being a classic example), because it does the same, and introduces me to levels of gaming, (I'm thinking of the Bush of Ghosts), that I hadn't considered but which now interest me.

There are other games that I like precisely because of their splatter factor. Games like All Flesh Must Be Eaten are a welcome change from the heavier systems. If all I want to do of an evening is scatter zombie entrails to the four winds, then gosh-darn-it that's what I'm going to do.

What I don't like are games that try to pretend everything's nice and vanilla. That makes me think that the designers don't believe I have a brain or a conscience.

What the heck is Satyre talking about? Sex, violence, lingerie? I've been role-playing for years, and met with people from many other gaming groups, and NEVER encountered anything like that.

As far as the word "adult" being appropriated by the so-called "adult" entertainment industry, no one asked for my input. Since the 1950's, "adult" magazines have helped to spread the propaganda that it's OK to do anything. And some people went along. However, I and the vast majority of the people I know did not. Having sex with just about anybody is a bad idea, taking illegal drugs falls into the same bad idea category, and graphic violence in a video game sense, unless understood as totally not real, is, in my opinion, a bad idea. Role-playing imaginary zombies for splatter purposes is a better idea since the visuals are not involved. If immature kids are involved, it is the parents' responsibility to keep track of the effects of all of their hobbies on their personal growth. But I would like to point out that once someone becomes an adult, it does not magically transform him or her into a mature person who has it all figured out, at least in some cases. A strong sense of right and wrong needs to be taught to the child as he progresses toward adulthood.

I have a brain and a conscience, and I will not buy or participate in anything that offends me. Gaming is supposed to be fun. Is it a form of education? I don't think so, unless some aspect of history is involved. It is a good way to socialize with other people. However, like any social activity, it may be possible for miscreant individuals with evil intent to use this activity to bad ends. I avoid people who want to encourage others to enjoy something I find distasteful or wicked.

Sheesh! Talk about pissing people off. Sure you're not a kender in disguise Satyre?

Personnaly I don't automatically link RPG's (be them AD&D or other )with sex and drugs.

But to be fair I know very few games which don't contain violence be it physical, psychological, spiritual or supernatural.

My first contact with gaming was an AD&D version of Lord of the Rings. There was no torture (except the one we feared if the forces of Mordor captured us), there was no rape (except those we stopped the orcs from commiting), there was no sexy lingerie (but who know what goes on at night in Lothlorien).

How can there be evil vilains if nothing evil goes on? If the cultist of Vecna are evil just because they worship the wrong deity, then the followers of Pelor and St-Cuthbert are just intolerant wannabe tyrants (although a Lawfull Neutral theocratic state isn't so different from Nazi Germany).

Evil is what allows heroes to be born. There can be no heroes if there is no wrong to right.

I play in an evil campaign at the moment and yes some of the players are very immature when it comes to being evil (well two are in perticular). Even then they are truly evil. They are despicable wretches who when they die will make the audience/readers/players feel good that they finally got their just desert.

The most interesting evil characters are those who's personnality are tragically flawed. These characters answer the questions: What if I had no remorse? What if I lacked any empathy? What if I was selfish to the point of letting others die in the service of my personnal ambition? What if I had do kill others to survive? What if I was willing to sell my soul for …?

Being adult/mature means being able to take a step back and put some distance between one's perspective and see from another's. Some forms of good and evil are only in the beholder's eye (no pun intended). Sure orcs must be abusive and violent parents, but who do you think the orc child would call evil? The knight in shining armour that killed all the adults of the tribe or the big violent guy who used to bring food and protect the family before he got chopped to pieces?

The players of my campaign (not the evil one) once made sure a defeated orc tribe had enough food to survive the winter in exchange for their signing of a trade and peace treaty with a nearby human village. The players knew that the orc children were doomed to starvation if they didn't do anything, furthermore they knew that the surviving orcs would hate the humans even more if nothing was done.
Evil characters would have either enslaved the surviving orcs or wiped them off to avoid any chance of vengeance.

How do you deal with a serial rapist who acts out of vengeance for the gang rape he/she was the victim of?

How do you deal with the necromancer who uses his/her undead legions to fight against the same enemy as yours?

How do you deal with the jailer who tortures goblins to find out the enemy's plans?

Whatever your level of maturity, these and other moral dilemas can make for a very nice gaming session.

Cthulhu Matata and Vive la difference

I have a feeling this article was inspired in some way by the sealed sections of the most recent Dragon and Dungeon issues, or just be the upcoming release of the "VILE" book.

In satyre's defense, I also remember some 'lingerie' in 1st edition. Don't remember much torture, unless he's talking about having to include my little brother in every game.

Personally, I don't have a problem with some of the gaming material being labeled 'adult'. I'll use what I want and avoid the rest. Adam mentioned Wraith. I love that game. It's dark, depressing, and the characters are constantly fighting a losing battle against oblivion. Sweet. However, I refused to buy the supplement/adventure they put out that dealt with a WWII German concentration camp. That, I felt, was going way too far.

We all know what kind of groups we game with. Include as much of the 'adult' stuff as your group can handle and forget the rest. I know that my group can handle the drugs, sex and violence in rather large amounts. However, that's because some of them have already experienced those things personally in large 'adult' amounts. We have the perspective needed to role-play those situations without the "ooh, we're doing something naughty"-grins on our faces.

The only thing about 'adult' game supplements and such that I don't care for is the idea that they should exist just because. The themes that most would term 'adult' don't need to be in every game. I am perfectly capable of showing drug addiction, etc in my campaigns without needing a 'reference book' for such things. Sorry that this response seemed to ramble a bit. That's my two cents.

The point of the article? Try and define adult gaming, a phrase laden with controversy and look at the roots of it. Do we have a responsibility to publish material that will be taken up by impressionable minds (even as young as six in our responses) and actually teach them about issues that are adult or do we slop around in sex, drugs and entrails? Do you even need adult gaming to contain any of the above to deal with adult themes? Are we going to be challenged by this ‘adult’ games in a genre that has always challenged the conventional definitions of morality? Can we deal with these issues without needing to make it prurient or worthy of censorship? And given the new frontiers of gaming, will things ever change?

I’m actually for adult gaming if done well and considering the consequences. If this strikes you as bland, I want you to stop and think why. Are you so jaded that killing and robbing your victims doesn’t bother you? If so, compare your game to one of the Shakespearean classics like King Lear. Murders, mutilations, poisoning – I’d expect a D&D game to hit this level of nastiness but treat it respectfully. Gloucester’s blinding and Lear’s madness are horrific! Nah. I don’t believe in a safe, plain world either but I’d prefer to see and play with something challenging than something cheesy and given the tendency to censorship our society exhibits, I’d like to see the best before the worst bans it.

I object to gratuitous stuff tastelessly executed with no rhyme or reason unless it is both appropriate and illustrative to the setting. I like disturbing but I object to the vagina dentata of Clanbook:Tzimisce. My article in it’s entirety wasn’t a slam at AD&D1, but it does illustrate the point that adult themes have been mistreated since the beginning of RPGs. However, if you want to wade hip-deep in zombie guts, go ahead. I just don’t think it a particularly adult activity. Cathartic, hell yes. Adult? I don’t think so but you might. And Adam G. cites Wraith – a great example of adult gaming as I believe it, too bad it was difficult to play, hobbled by flawed rules and is now out-of-print. A little tweaking and it could have been… incredible.

Incidentally - having just bought the 300th issue of Dragon, I winced at the sealed section. This was exactly the kind of stuff I was talking about which makes this article even more relevant, even though it was written more than six months ago. OK kids, now don’t open this bit which has a spell that forces demonic pregnancy on an unwilling victim...

Now, let’s take on individual issues.

Starhawk/Adam G - Paid by the word? Ye gods, this is a donation site!! And yes, this one was long – but you try hitting the points the article deals with in one pass! I’m not paid at all incidentally. Mind you, now I feel like I’m about to shoot Bambi by revealing the ugly side of AD&D1, a system that let you gain experience only by killing people and taking their stuff (unless your enlightened DM gave experience for role-playing which didn’t happen until the 1980’s). Ask a soldier who has had to kill someone in the line of duty how he’d feel about a body count of 100+ (to get to 2nd-level, you’d need something like that, right?) and what psychological effects that might have.

Let’s talk drugs & torture in AD&D1. Remember the Vault of the Drow, where Lolth’s High Priestess Charinida spends her leisure time taking drugs and torturing her poor insane slave (Hey Bob, is that you in there?). Mind you, she is a particularly nasty member of a degenerate race in a place where such practices are comme il faut. Yes she’s bad. Yes it’s bad. Go kill her and sell her stuff to the highest bidder to get extra XPs. Say, how much for this lurid tapestry guys?

Let’s talk titillation in AD&D1. Queen of the Demonweb Pits inner cover. Queen of the Spiders cover. Lolth, did you get surgery? Monster Manual: succubus or sylph artwork. City encounters that describe portions of the female population as strumpets, trollops and whores (30% of all women in a city?). The tangled love-triangles and relationships shown in the D&D novels? You may have missed Dragon covers with almost naked women on it. You may be assured that a lot of people didn’t.

No rape either? I’m sure 99% of half-orcs come from loving relationships between human and orc. Or maybe 98%. Who can say? As for half-elves, thank god for Dragonlance and Tanis Half-Elven. They got him right.

Maybe your DM didn’t bring these to your attention, Starhawk. Six is too young to be exposed to this bloody-handed world, yet all of these can be found in AD&D1, if played by the book with products supplied by the same company. I won’t even start to touch the stuff put out by other companies or on the Internet, if you think me sick and depraved, you should see what other gamers are writing!

Western – You’ve never met the ‘Is D&D sexist?’ debate? You’ve not heard that D&D is the work of the Devil? You’ve never seen immature players at conventions? Then you are the luckiest role-player I ever met and dread the day your luck runs out. Role-playing zombies for imaginary purposes requires you to visualise the zombie and that can range from the chalky-make up and 4am stare to a necrotic icon missing half its face, leaving fluids behind as it walks. Your points about morality are well made, but how do you suggest we implement them? Play is education – a fact illustrated in nature, kindergarten and sport. Why not RPGs? Adam G. has had his horizons broadened. Why not others?

Sam/Wooz – Let me state for the record: I am not a kender. Nor was it my intent to piss people off. Nor do I automatically associate RPGs with sex or drugs. Yet there are people who do and the current range of ‘adult gaming’ products showcase negative sexual imagery, are rife with violence and accept the casual use and sale of drugs. We can do much better but do we want to? And would it be viable to do so? Do we need to use the trappings or can we use the themes and leave the trappings behind?

Thank you all for reading this. After 6 months absence due to RL, I’m glad to be back.


I never thought you were a Kender. I would have been very mean if I thought that. :)

Guys, none of us get paid to write these articles. We do it out of our love for the hobby and a need to get up on a soapbox from time to time.

Good points about the Drow series Satyre. Those were some of my favorite modules from 1st edition. Reading over the earlier comments again, I can't believe some of you missed the blatant sexism, violence, etc. that was in 1st edition. White Wolf was the first game company to even bother recognizing that women were also gaming. Before that, everything was written with guys VERY clearly in mind as the intended consumers.


No, don't think we did miss the violence.

The actual quote was :

a game that showcased torture for amusement, recreational drug taking and costumes suited more to the likes of Victoria's Secret than Camelot in the hands of the enemy

Now, when someone says showcase, it makes me think that the game creators approved of it, as in put it out on display for everyone to see & admire. What Satyre's talking about is something that two enemy characters in one particular series of modules did. Not only do two modules not make a game, (remember, the quote was about all of D&D not just Demonweb), but also I take it as read most of the time that in fiction, if the enemy does it, it's not admirable.

As for the sexism, violence, yes there's a case there but those weren't the items picked on by Satyre in the article.

Satyre, another quote:

if you think me sick and depraved, you should see what other gamers are writing

Nobody said that you were sick and depraved, not even Starhawk. What was said was:

probably only in the twisted mind of whoever it was that introduced YOU to the game

Which is not the same thing.

Adam G. has had his horizons broadened. Why not others?

Thank you.

However, I think that forcing morality on people is unwise in any format, whether real world or RPG. I do not want a standard code of conduct imposed on RPGs, because it would not help the game. It would lead to inferior storytelling pushed out the door by authors too frightened to risk offending the moral majority. Yes, allowing freedom does sometimes mean allowing people to be free to be purient or violent or all the rest of it. Even so, I prefer the freedom to be tasteless over the rigid bounds of censorship, whether imposed from outside or by one of our own.

Just thought I would add that I just turned in a review of the Book of Vile Darkness. I don't know when it will be showing up on the site, but I will say now that it wasn't as bad as people made it sound.

I never saw the point of that book. How can people be so depraved of fantasy, so utterly unimaginary, that they cannot portray realistic (or, hell, even un-realistic) evil without a sourcebook?

Portrayal isn't a problem. Being able to portray it and have the rules reflect it is a different matter. As I stated in my review of the book, it's kind of hard to make a cleric really evil when all he can do is cast Cause X Wounds, etc. Oooh so NOT scary and evil. I don't like spending all of my time cobbling house rules together so that my evil NPCs can do the evil they need to do. That's why I liked the Book of Vile Darkness. It isn't always a lack of imagination, sometimes it's just the setting and rules.

I for one completely agree with Wooz.

There was a need for the book, not to be used as a "How to play an Evil campaign" but more as a DM's tool that helps you flesh out the depraved and twisted and have it reflected in the game rules in a way that doesn't bog down play.

Cthulhu Matata

Why does "adult" gaming have to be equated with "evil" to begin with? I always figured the Adult Game distinction meant it dealt with more than just scuttling through ten-by-ten stone corridors bashing monsters on the head with whatever's big, sharp, and on hand. this means Changeling can be an adult game.
Changeling, you say? The Thing with cute fluffy pranksters and elves? Yes, Changeling. the thing with dreams. People can dream about anything, after all, from serial killers to tentacled horrors to the Hell of Ten Thousand Shifts At A Lousy Fast Food Job. Changelings, being half in the world of dreams and half in reality, have to face all the real nastiness of the world (ranging from mere intolerance of wierd people to Malfeans, as it is the world of darkness after all) and the nastiness of the dreams that world inspires besides, so yes, "Adult" gaming can be horror gaming.
Or, for another direction, Cybergeneration. Yes, the characters are more than likely going to be minors, but the idea is one for mature audiences: minors being hunted by gun-toting government storm-troopers in a plague-ridden landscape where potential care-providers are the badguys. Yes, kids like the idea of a kid-driven story too where the young get to triumph over the clueless authority figures and save the day. But Cybergeneration isn't exactly a game for elementary-schoolers, as PCs get stormtroopers and untrustworthy parents and the carbon plague as mere side-dishes to a main course of the usual psychosocial stresses of adolescence.
Call of Cthulhu, on the other hand, is a perfect game for the kids. Get 'em hooked while they're young so they'll have a healthy fear of the Great Old Ones by the time they're 12.

Looks like I'm a little late to this article. :D Anyways, as an adult game developer, I find the questions of morality to be strictly individual. Morals are not meant to be imposed by a figurehead outside of the parents. We do not limit the types of people who play our games, but we do give a warning on the front of our site, stating that anyone under the age of 18 shouldn't be here, and that we're not responsible for your actions. And as an AD&D gamer and DM for many years, I found the comments about AD&D to be a bit offensive myself. Maybe it's the liberal in me speaking, but you can keep your moral straightjacket. :D Most of us just want to be entertained.