Well, here we are at the end of another series. So far, I’ve probably been coming across as against the whole violence thing. I don’t want to leave you with the wrong impression: there is definitely a time and a place for this in games. My argument is that we may rely too heavily on combat, violence, and killing to drive what we call ‘role-playing’. For this final post, I don’t really have any observations or suggestions. I just want to mention a few of the factors I consider when I reach for the damage dice, as both a player and as a GM.
Another Person’s Shoes
Role-playing games have done many things for me in my life. Not least among them is the fact that I’ve become a more empathetic person. It’s a logical outcome, I guess, from putting yourself into the position of imagining what it would be like to be another person. When I roleplay I’m not pretending to be myself in a make-believe world. Instead, I am playing a character that has a different history, beliefs, and drives than I do as a person.
What does that have to do with anything, you ask? This same change has helped me get better at understanding the characters of my fellow players as well as NPCs. When I first stated playing, I looked at every encounter as just a stat block or a challenge to overcome. Now I ask myself: who or what is it that I am really fighting?
That’s an easy answer in some situations. Undead, constructs, elementals – in most cases those are just things. Go ahead and bop ’em on the head. Same with a lot of animal encounters, sad as it is to say. Other times, that question gets a lot more complicated. That town guard that’s coming to arrest you because you were framed? He’s not just some CR 1/2 peasant with a spear and chain mail. It’s not unreasonable to imagine that he has a family, friends, a home, responsibilities. I sure bet he didn’t suit up with the intention of getting murderhoboed in the streets. Even for unsavory types, usually someone doesn’t just turn evil – they have a history and maybe things they care about. I know it’s naive to think that every problem can be solved non-violently, but the fact of the matter is that in-game encounters with people have a lot more baggage that needs to be considered.
That gets us into another question. What does it mean to take a life? In many cases, the game just assumes that our characters are hardened killing machines. However, I would suspect that most people in the imaginary game world haven’t had to murder anyone. If your character is a battle weary combat veteran, sure, that’s one thing. But you expect me to believe that every bard, orphan, and scholar is completely cool with killing?
I would say probably not. It seems way more likely that they’ve never even been in a truly violent altercation. If the goal is to emulate real life, that first death should be a moment of shock, or panic, or something. Instead, adventurers are emotionless, without remorse. Once a target is eliminated, they merely seek the next threat until none are left.
Find Your Motivations
On the other side of the table, the GM can also influence how prominently violence features in the game. Oftentimes, creating encounters for a game feels like lining up dominoes so that the players can knock them down. Each fight is just an opportunity to wear down the party. This leads to very one-dimensional enemies that feel like suicidal, adventurer-seeking robots.
Every NPC, friend or foe, should have a primary drive or motivation. No more robots, there should be a reason behind their actions. You need something concrete that you can turn to when making decisions on how an NPC responds to a situation. This might be as simple as ‘food’ or ‘money’ or complicated, like ‘respect from my master’. However, as a secondary sub-goal most things ought to have a drive to stay alive. Almost every thinking creature has a point where running or giving up is the smarter decision when it comes to self-preservation. Don’t be afraid to have your NPCs flee, negotiate, or surrender.
Oh, but then the characters will just murder them anyways? You’re probably right, but that’s the perfect time to establish what kind of laws there are in the game world. We often don’t have this discussion and it seems many players default to “We can let our swords decide if there’s a criminal justice system”. A society needs order to function, and that usually means enforced laws. Most likely they don’t allow for wanton killing without some sort of due process. Players love to be judge, jury, and executioner and a little reminder of the thin line between ‘hero’ and ‘thug’ goes a long way.
Obviously, the points above aren’t the only way to play. Sometimes the only purpose of the game is to kill stuff. Most of the time, though, that’s not my personal preference. I guess my hope is that more people take a moment to consider alternative options before resorting directly to violence. Maybe these ideas will give them a place to start.