rpg history tsr code of ethics for d&d

RPG History: TSR’s Code of Ethics (D&D “Comics Code Authority” rules)

rpg history tsr code of ethics for d&d

UPDATE: Wargaming and RPG historian Jon Peterson of Playing at the World provided an additional version of TSR’s guidelines from 1982 after this post was initially published, so we now have documents from both 1982 and 1994. Thanks, Jon!

Did you know that TSR (the company that first published Dungeons & Dragons in 1974 but eventually sold to Wizards of the Coast in 1997) created a set of rules and guidelines for what could be said and done in their game and fiction products in the early 1990s that was similar in spirit to the (in)famous Comics Code Authority?

(Jump straight to the Code of Ethics Document itself)

I’ve been playing tabletop RPGs for over 30 years and I didn’t know about it until this post from EN World clued me into a Facebook discussion that is practically gold to amateur historians of D&D like yours truly.

In order to improve its public image after the so-called “D&D Moral Panic” of prior years (and also to give it an easy excuse if it decided to pass on a gaming module or fiction book, etc.) , TSR created a document called the “TSR Freelancer Code of Ethics” that had rules and guidelines very reminiscent of the Comics Code Authority. The difference is that this was TSR’s own self-policing (instead of having to be approved by an external agency like comic book publishers did with the CCA). It also appears this Code of Ethics was very loosely enforced.

The Facebook post in question is from from author and editor James Lowder, who did some writing for TSR back in the day in their Forgotten Realms and Ravenloft novel lines. 
(As of the time of this writing the Facebook post and related comments are public)

Alex Kammer (Director of Gamehole Con) also shared a copy of the code with slight differences in the post’s comments.

Here’s what James Lowder had to say in his initial post:

“TSR Freelancer Code of Ethics. TSR attached these pages to all game and fiction contracts issued in the late 1980s and early 1990s. (These pages are copied from a 1992 fiction contract, but I received the same pages with RPG design contracts.) The guides, which I’ve always assumed were created in reaction to the 1980s Moral Panic around D&D, were obviously modeled on the old Comics Code Authority rules. They were, to be blunt, patently ridiculous. Editors never enforced them. Entire TSR product lines, such as Ravenloft, would have been impossible if they had been enforced. The code was in place when I started with TSR in 1988. I recall the pages being dropped from fiction contracts around 1993, but apparently they stuck around long after that.”

Which, along with the images he shared (see below) is pretty cool in its own right. But then we get some comments from within the gaming community that add a lot of extra details and context:

James Lowder: This version of the TSR Code does not mention demons and devils specifically; I’ve never seen another version. I will see if I can find the design guides for the 2nd edition Monstrous Compendium. (I was a designer on that.) If demons and devils had been mentioned anywhere in design guides, it would have been there.

James Lowder: There are some versions of this code with minor variations. Just looked at my contract for Prince of Lies and a couple of the clauses are worded a little differently and the bits about Depiction of Self (19) and the LARP hating (20) are gone.

Peter Archer: I don’t remember including it in any WotC contracts.

Miranda Horner: If it helps at all, I vaguely remember that [removed] wanted us to drop the Code during the acquisition period.

Jolly Blackburn: When we had the D&D license for Kalamar and the comic book we ran into some push back similar to some things on that list. We had several covers rejected on the comic because the heroes were shown running away from a larger foe. We were told heroes never run away.

Mark Rein-Hagen: It has been a long time since I saw that, it looks and feels even more ridiculous now than it did then… and back in the day it seemed whack. It was attitudes like this that gave Vampire the space it needed to be it own thing, and why we had such a hard time getting distribution at first. Strange to think back now that once Vampire were an “edgy” product seen by some (well many) as “irresponsible” and even “unethical.” What shit we got for it…

Of course today Vampires are as mainstream as it gets, as is “dark fantasy” of all kinds. Including the kinds of fantasy that lustfully and joyfully include regicide, incest, rape, kinslaying, assassination, and genocide… and where good seems to rarely prevail against evil.

Zeb Cook: I remember earlier versions for the game side weren’t a Code, but editorial standards. It was shorter and less officious. Things covered included excess violence, language, sex, drug use is negative, and the general idea of not glorifying evil. Others were just editorial things (“you” means player, not character; etc.). Mostly it informed freelancers of what was likely to be an issue and, hopefully, make submissions less likely to require significant rewrites. Only a little was hard and fast (profanity, sexual acts, and gory descriptions). The rest was always an issue of degree and judgments. We got very good at skirting the edges.

James Lowder (responding to Zeb Cook): That same code posted above went out with RPG freelance contracts in the late 80s and early 90s, though I never saw it enforced as written in games either. The editorial approach you describe was what I saw as a games freelancer and much more like what happened in books, too. Basically, is there a good reason for X to be in the text?

James Lowder: Some of the items are clearly modeled after the Comics Code.

Steven Winter: We were literally handed the comics code to use as a starting point.

James Lowder: The code was put together more for PR purposes, rather than a functioning (or enforced) set of guides for content.

Steven Winter: It was openly discussed many times that there were two main reasons for having the code in writing. First, when mothers, teachers, and librarians got worked up over D&D being a bad influence, we could show them our standards to calm things down. Second, if an author wrote something in violation of the code and we chose to make an issue of it, we could say, “it’s not us, it’s the code.”

The Code of Ethics Documents

UPDATE: After this post was first published, wargaming and RPG historian Jon Peterson of Playing at the World provided an additional version of TSR’s guidelines from 1982. Jon’s notes and document appears first due to chronology, and then the James Lowder and Alex Kammer versions discussed above follow.

Version of the TSR’s Code of Ethics shared by Jon Peterson (from 1984):

The 1984 version is similar to Alex’s 1992 version, three pages, but only 18 bullet points. It has a different principle 3, “Archetypes,” so “Agents of Law Enforcement” is principle 4 in that one. It also has “Slang and Colloquialisms” as principle 7, which bumped “Profanity” back to 8. “Sexual Themes” (9 in the 1992) is “Rape/Lust/Sexual. Perversion” (11 in the 1984). The 1984 has a “Human Form” as 13. It also has a single bullet (15) for both “Races and Slavery”, which are spread into two (12 and 13) in the 1992. Finally, the 1984 does not have anything like the principles 17, 18, and 19 shown in the 1992.

The earliest version I’ve seen is 1982. It fits on just one page, with 13 bullets. It’s attached. The HJ in the upper right corner tells us to blame Harold Johnson for distributing it in July, but he didn’t write it. It was the result of a large internal TSR working group that was addressing effectively the Satanic Panic and related bad PR. The original memo that contained the code dates to June 7, 1982, and that memo explicitly talks about how these principles derived from the comics code. There is a lot of language about how these are just guidelines. It also included a couple bullet points about standards for graphic material, but they essentially just say that they conform to the same principles as the written one.

TSR Code of Ethics from 1982 (Jon Peterson provided)

TSR Code of Ethics from 1982, fits on one page (Jon Peterson provided)

Versions of the TSR’s Code of Ethics shared by James Lowder and Alex Kammer (from 1994):

James Lowder version:

tsr code of ethics 1 james lowder version

TSR Code of Ethics page 1 (James Lowder version)

tsr code of ethics 2 james lowder version

TSR Code of Ethics page 2 (James Lowder version)

of ethics 3 james lowder version

TSR Code of Ethics page 3 (James Lowder version)

tsr code of ethics 4 james lowder version

TSR Code of Ethics page 4 (James Lowder version)

Alex Kammer version:

Per Alex: “Here is … my copy from 1992. It is a little different.”

tsr code of ethics 1 alex kammer version

TSR Code of Ethics page 1 (Alex Kammer version)

Here is page one of my copy from 1992. It is a little different.

TSR Code of Ethics page 2 (Alex Kammer version)

tsr code of ethics 3 alex kammer version

TSR Code of Ethics page 3 (Alex Kammer version)

tsr code of ethics 4 alex kammer version

TSR Code of Ethics page 4 (Alex Kammer version)

Bonus: Mildly Snarky TSR Memos

Alex Kammer also shared these two TSR memos: “Here a couple of other funny things I found while looking for the ethics doc.”

tsr memo use phb for players handbook june 28 1994 from a

TSR directing usage of PHB instead of PH for Player’s Handbook

tsr memo list of verboten words july 19 1994 from alex kammer

TSR memo with “verboten words” soul and God


6 thoughts on “RPG History: TSR’s Code of Ethics (D&D “Comics Code Authority” rules)

  1. dr pepper

    Ok, let’s begin. You are all gathered together in a tavern. It’s an upscale tavern featuring 5 different kinds of cola, 3 kinds of root beer, and two flavors of the house lemonade. Also, if you know the right code word, you can get the tavern’s strongest drink. That’s right, they have Dwarven Near Beer! Be careful, after 5 of those you might start to feel a little silly. In one corner is a shrine to Vishnu, as described in the supplement “Gods, Demi-Gods and Heroes”, along with the rest of the Hindu religion, which no one has followed in centuries. In the back there are some laboring types, who are complaining loudly about the king being a sadistic tyrant whose guards are always beating people up for protesting injustice. You know of course, that those workers must be criminals since everyone knows that authority is never like that, except for the occasional bad apple. You hear shouting and screams outside. A bloodied, oops i mean bruised, townsperson staggers in and yells that monsters are attacking. You know that this is your cue. But you also know that there’s no hurry since good always triumphs in the end.

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