Rules, rules, rules – they tell us how to play. They’re important because they determine what we can and cannot do within the framework of the game. We allow them to place restrictions on us during structured play to provide resolution mechanics, challenge, and direction on what happens next. I’ve got lots of strong feelings about what makes a rule ‘good’ or ‘bad’, when they’re necessary and when they aren’t, but we won’t be going into that today. Instead, we’re going to focus on how the rules can influence our preference for a violent solution as a means of conflict resolution.
First Rule of Violence Club: Tell Everyone
Let’s pick on Dungeons & Dragons 5th Edition for a bit. Actually, we’re probably going to pick on it a lot this post. I’m not doing this out of spite. The system is widely recognized, has decades of fairly consistent rules across editions (if you squint), and it’s easy to analyze. It helps that the Player’s Handbook has a logical organization to it. Going off memory, you’ve got character creation (race, class, and background), equipment and gear, how to play (skill checks and combat), and spells. All told, it has a little over 300 pages of content. So, let’s think about how much of that focuses on combat.
Character Creation – Ok, right off the bat, we can see the rules pushing us towards combat-oriented play, even before we make our characters. The character classes are basically recipes for homemade killing machines. Just add a cup of adventure, stir thoroughly, and bake at 325 degrees for four hours. Let cool and sprinkle loot on top to taste. Kidding aside, the vast majority of the character class improvements allow players to kill things better, find things to kill better, and help other players kill things better. Oh, and survive longer in combat – can’t kill things if you’re dead. Character progression is based on the idea that our adventurers are getting better through combat (experience). That is directly reflected in the types of improvements they get.
Races and backgrounds are a little less clear. Some racial options give you weapon and armor proficiencies or slightly improve your combat effectiveness. Well, I guess most do. Even darkvision and increased movements speed are mainly a tactical benefit. As far as backgrounds go, there are many that say that the they provide a foundation for better role-playing. While it’s true that the bonds, ideals, and flaws can generate interesting character interactions, I would argue that the background options are not about the character fluff. The moment you attach mechanical benefit to the feature, it becomes a decision factored into character optimization.
Equipment and Gear – Weapons and armor help you kill stuff, ’nuff said. There’s not much else you can do with them. Even some of the mundane pack items have some pretty obvious damage-dealing uses – alchemist fire, flasks of oil, iron spikes, etc. There’s not much in this section about economy, trade, living conditions, and a lot of the other factors you need to consider if you approach the fantasy world like a real place. I’m not a big fan of tediously accounting for every penny, but most of the accounting in the Player’s Handbook focuses on dungeon-ready weapons, armors, and tools – and everyone knows that dungeon crawls and fights go hand-in-hand.
How to Play – Well, there’s an entire part of this section dedicated to rules in combat. That seems fairly self-explanatory. Pretty much anything dealing with the intricacies of combat end up here. For the section about ability checks, even most those have to do with making checks as part of combat. The travel rules also focus heavily on how to handle encounters, including surprise and stealth factors. There’s teeny-tiny section about role-playing, so there’s that I guess.
Spells – Spells are a mixed bag, in all honesty. There are a lot of niche options available, sure, but many of your iconic spells fall into the nuclear option. At any given level, you have your pick of damage type and area of effect shape. There are many others that let you improve the combat effectiveness of yourself or your team, or decrease the enemy’s effectiveness. Add in the extra complexity of having to pick and prepare spells and it’s just better to go for the damage boosting options. Sure, there might be the perfect spell for a given situation and if you have it prepared you look like a hero. You know what else makes you look like a hero? Fireball.
All said and done, the vast majority of the book contains information on how to handle encounters, combat improvements, and tools used to mete out damage. It’s a guidebook full of rules tell us to kill. And so we do.
The Lucrative Nature of Violence
If someone paid you a dollar every time you pressed a button, would you? What if they sold you another button later that gave you $5 every time you pressed it? And even later you could buy a button that gives you $10, then $20, and so on? Would you ever stop? Eventually, you’re pushing buttons just to get more money to invest into better buttons. That’s a reward cycle.
We’ve briefly touched on the Dungeons & Dragons 5E reward cycle in the past, but here’s a short recap: beat up monsters, take their stuff, level up. Once you have better stuff and more levels, it’s time to go beat up bigger monsters. Because enemy critters only exist to provide experience and loot and those rewards only exist to let us kill enemy critters, we end up with a nice little loop complete with escalating self-feedback.
I can’t talk about the current D&D reward cycle without feeling a sense of admiration. There are no extra frills or flair. It’s elegant and efficient in design – almost terrifyingly so. If Pavlov wanted to make bloodthirsty assault dogs instead of treat-hungry doggos, I expect he would have used something similar. This is the factory that conditions the murderhobo response into new players by the hundreds, day after day.
Yes, the system has optional rules for assigning experience or levels from completing milestone goals. However, all of the default GM advice deals with challenge ratings and encounters on a per experience point basis. The players might get experience for avoiding encounters but they know that they will get exp for fighting baddies. Likewise, you don’t get loot for actively avoiding challenges. You have to go out and claim it for yourself from the cold, dead fingers of your enemies. With those goals in mind, players are going to optimize for violence – especially if other options aren’t incentivized.
On the other hand, take old-school Dungeons & Dragons and the reward cycle from a previous era. The majority of a party’s experience came from bringing loot from a dungeon back to town. You could rack up a ton of experience by scoring a huge haul, whatever the method used. However, defeating monsters rewarded only a small pittance of experience points. Many classes needed over 1000 exp to go from first to second level but it was unusual for a low level monster to give out more than 20 experience points – and that’s before dividing them among the party members! Given how often combat turned lethal, it was a somewhat tongue-in-cheek way of saying, “Good job, here’s what you get for succeeding at a dumb idea.” This type of system encouraged players to rely on stealth, diplomacy, trickery, and a lot of running away if they wanted to survive.
This isn’t a debate on whether one system is better than the other, that’s not the point of this discussion. I’m bringing these facts up to illustrate how a shift in the reward cycle directly influences how players will respond to to a given scenario. There is a trend among the current systems that encourages players to use violence in order to achieve their goals.
What Makes a Game
We’ve spent most of this post talking about Dungeons & Dragons specifically, but these two things are true about other systems as well. The rules and the reward cycle of a game encourage certain types of play. When your players keep responding to situations in the same way and you can’t figure out why, start there. If they kill everything and roll the bodies then the game is probably supporting that. If they actively avoid fights then maybe the combat rules are punishing or obscure, or the reward isn’t worth it. A well focused game knows exactly what it is about and rewards players for participating in the expected way.