“I shoot them in the face.”
“I murder the guard!”
“Can I roll for for initiative now?”
What do these phrases have in common? If you said “My players’ favorite pastimes” I think I would be hard pressed to deny that. Sometimes, it seems like the first, last, and only player response to any situation is murderous violence.
To me, this seems really strange. Not from a game perspective – in a lot of games, the vast majority of rules are about killing things – but from a life perspective. I’d say war and violence have been a part of human culture since the beginning of time, but I’m not aware of any civilization that relied on death and destruction as their go-to method of resolving problems. Even the most brutal societies employed a moderate amount of restraint. Like they do with many other aspects of real life, games often present us with a extreme caricature of violence.
So that made me wonder. Why is that?
Once upon a Time, in an Land Far Away, There Was a Murderhobo…
Ok, story time!
The other day, I was running a session of Apocalypse World for some friends and we reached a climactic moment. After many sessions, the main characters finally went to the enemy’s stronghold and confronted them. However, these ‘bad guys’ weren’t really looking for a fight. Instead, this is a drug and pharmaceutical company led by a charismatic prophet. In his mind, they were bringing hope and salvation back to the people. Sure, as part of that process they had captured one of the character’s allies and were planning to use them as a bargaining tool, but that’s just business. In reality, this company’s main goal was to unveil the mysteries of the world. To do that, the prophet needed the help of one of the other player’s characters.
None of the player characters excel at fighting. One player is the News, who is almost exclusively talking. Another is the Child-Thing and tends to stab everyone, but that doesn’t make them good at it. The last is a Maestro D’-turned-Battlebabe. He’s been slowly improving their combat prowess over the last few sessions. That just means that any given day he might talk to you or kick your butt, it’s a toss up based on how he’s feeling.
So, we’re in the middle of a Mexican stand-off. The prophet has the team’s informant and the News wants them back. The prophet desperately wants to spend a little bit of time with the Child-Thing, so he can figure out the child’s connection to the psychic maelstrom. And the Child-Thing is super invested in protecting the little piece of the maelstrom that has been captured by these people – after all, friends come in many different shapes.
The prophet is clear on what he wants. “Don’t interfere with our work on the maelstrom and no one has to get hurt.” He postures a bit and demands that the players give him the Child-Thing. Really, though, that’s a point that he’s willing to compromise on. Now that he knows where to find them, he can always take care of that part later. Our News player steps up, recognizing this as his time to shine. Out of character he remarks about the situation. “Oh wow,” he exclaims. “We get to negotiate through this? If this were my D&D group, we’d already be rolling for initiative!”
The gods of irony, while fickle, are not deaf. Not a minute later, just as the prophet and the News start talking, our Battlebabe utters those fateful words: “I shoot him in the face.”
By now, I’m not surprised, just bemused. In all honesty, Apocalypse World lends itself to the ‘shoot first, ask questions later/never’ type of playstyle. A firefight ensues and due to some abysmal rolls, our team of dubious heroes are all at death’s door. Eventually the Child-Thing takes himself hostage by holding a gun to his own head – and it actually works. The player has picked up on the clues and realized that their character is the key to this conflict. We’re back to a cease fire and the bad guy’s getting anxious. They’ve got casualties, the project is at risk, and their future endeavors are at stake. Just one more push and it’s time for them to cut their losses and leave.
The Battlebabe seizes the opportunity. “I shoot him in the face again.”
Violence: a Place, a Time, a Purpose
I want to spend the next few days talking about the place violence has in role-playing games today. I’m going to avoid getting preachy about it and throwing around broad statements about morality. Play the game that you want to play. If that’s just happy hack-n’-slash, have fun! However, I will discuss some aspects of morality and ethics at least from an analytical standpoint. Mainly, this will be an exploration of why violence is often our primary response, how games encourage and discourage that behavior, and some (hopefully) thoughtful considerations on when other options might make more sense.