Murderous Cretins, Part 2

Some time ago, I posed a question about the casual nature of violence in many RPGs on RPG Stack Exchange.  I also posted a longer version here on the blog, Your PCs Are Murderous Cretins, that got a lot of good discussion.

For whatever odd internet reason, the somewhat old question has gotten a big spate of activity lately, but sadly not answers I’m finding useful, but two varying contentions.

1. It’s not true! RPGs do not have high levels of casual violence!

Oddly, this mainly seems to be coming from RPG notable Frank Mentzer. I think he thinks I’m a member of BADD or something and is jus targuing against me because he figures I’m “anti” RPGs or D&D in general (but the only game I am “anti-” is 4e, as far as I know, and the question is specifically tagged as system agnostic). But is this really even debatable? I mean, you can say “well but it doesn’t warp your fragile little mind” or “Violence – I like it!” but I think it is fair to say every single player of every RPG ever has killed more sentient beings in the game than outside it. (Oh please let me not meet an exception…)

While mulling this over, I saw an interesting post on Lamentations of the Flame Princess bringing in a Forge discussion where there is a fairly quotable bit:

D&D does not easily lend itself to moralistic horror stories.  The rules of the game directly reward getting rich and, if necessary, killing whoever gets in your way.  As an emergent property it encourages operating from a position of overwhelming tactical advantage.  These are shitty moral values if taken seriously: in the real world, they would be the values of a psychopath.  Therefore Vance’s sense of irony as a method of detachment.

I mean, I’m not a Forgie, but this is pretty much true, right?  I play D&D, I like D&D, but true is true…

2. The only way to promote or retard casual violence in your game is via game mechanics.

So I totally understand the argument that you CAN try to influence your game’s murder level by providing either strict game mechanics (like in Pendragon) or mechanical negatives (like Vampire or Unknown Armies) or removing mechanical encouragements (like the D&D murder-for-XP system) – but a lot of the newer answers say that this is the ONLY way to do it.

I agree that to a degree, “System Does Matter.” But I think that can be overstated; it would seem that in a simulationist game, you actively do NOT want any specific mechanics bearing on this.  Sim games model the real world. In the real world, besides the cops getting you, there are no “mechanical disadvantages” to killing someone.  They are all psychological and social and moral. Many games leave that to the player, not the rules. So for those games, you really can’t influence the killiness (and other behavior) in your game except by grafting on more rules? I think this is trivially incorrect; I ran a 2e game with stock “XP for kills” rules and via setting crafting had it be a realistic, personal game where killing people wasn’t job 1…

Both of these claims attempt to invalidate the frame of my question, but they don’t seem to hold water to me.  What do y’all think?


11 responses to “Murderous Cretins, Part 2

  1. I’m with you. Game mechanics can certainly contribute to making specific behaviour either advantageous or disadvantageous, but communicating the underlying rules and realities of a setting to the players is what actually shapes their actions and reactions, for good or ill.

    However, the question itself is loaded, as you note. You will have to expect some knee-jerk reactions to it brought on by the emotional scars of hobby deprecation inflicted by the cruel, taunting masses.

  2. After playing Mutants and Masterminds for a while, we got back into D&D 3.5 (real D&D) & i decided to play something i hadn’t played in a while: an optomistic, personable character. Not only did he not go from “Hi nice to meet you” to “stab tsab stab” in 0.1 seconds, he also refused to use the “they are from an evil race” card.

    Really the fault for the murderous PC lies in 2 places

    1. The System: I’ve heard a lot of people say that its the insentive of XP for killing that does it, but its not. Its the alignment system. As soon as you take away the certanty of the “Its okay to kill them, they are lawful evil” argument, it suddenly becomes much more nebulous… Is he evil, or is he just pissed that we’ve broken into his home & are taking his stuff?

    2. The GM. GM’s build adventures that can only be passed by killing everything in sight. Sometimes this makes sense, but sometimes its just pavlovian conditioning, I’ve already thrown the GM off completely by NOT killing someone he expected us to just kill.

  3. rorschachhamster

    I think violence is not casual violence if it is a way of achieving your goals… So, no, D&D does not advertise casual violence. You could argue that this is even worse… and maybe it is.
    I mostly agree with Matthew, but I think there’s an important third reason: The playstyle of “Your character can’t die on a casual encounter” or “The plot needs you to survive” in adventure paths as well as mechanical reasons to that effect… I know, I have been there. If you tone down the mortality (-10 HPs in first level is somewhat funny if the character has only 4 positive HPs to begin with…) you tone down the sense of danger for combat – and that’s a mayor reason for casual violence.

  4. I would like to get players for a game in which killing and stealing result in negative xp, and constructive activities result in positive xp. I think it would be pretty hard to design encounters. Maybe it would be like Minecraft – the players would have to create stuff from raw materials.

    I don’t think I’ll find any takers. It’s hard enough to find players for hack-and-slash.

    In my experience, players will avoid killing and stealing if they feel it makes a good story. This does not mean that players will stop being douche-nozzles, however. I have seen players screw each other over and jeopardize the mission out of some hypocritical refusal to kill. One player, in particular, decided he wanted to be self-righteous and non-violent, as an excuse to disrupt play. I don’t game with him any more. His character wasn’t a murderous cretin, but he was still a despicable cretin.

    hack-and-slash makes player recruitment easy. Getting something more sophisticated than hack-and-slash is hard. If you know your players, and if your players are interested in something other than violence and looting, you’re in better shape than most DMs.

    Alternate conflicts include: exploration, healing, litigation, puzzles, crafting, sport. But I don’t think you’ll find it easy to recruit players for tabletop versions of Minecraft or Animal Crossing.

  5. Story is the key, I agree with most people who are posting. I think that mechanics definitely has a key, but I’d say that it is also the emphasis of those mechanics that mean that you don’t see more of it. For example, in every version of D&D I’ve played, you get XP for defeating monsters, regardless of whether you wholesale slaughter them or not. Scaring monsters away is definitely less permanent and you don’t get to keep their stuff, but that’s when DM fiat is allowed to reward players in some way for using creativity to avoid conflict or finish conflict quickly.

    For example, in 4E (I know, I know…) there are two really awesome mechanics for this. One is that anytime a player would kill a monster or NPC, they have the option of just knocking it out instead of slaying it. Also anytime you have a monster past the halfway point of its HP, you can use Intimidate to make it surrender. The flaw is in the execution, which is that these rules aren’t presented in the combat section together as a succinct entry on “How to finish combat quickly and with your morals intact”. They’re in separate sections and are not strongly emphasized in the PHB, which is a shame since those two make 4E technically the least bloodthirsty combat system of all the versions of D&D I’ve seen since they don’t tack on a random “subdual” damage system that is only really understood by the DM and the one player who really just wants to kill monsters, but loves new systems. As a DM, I mention EVERYTIME that a player can slay a foe or not that they have an option, simply stating “How do you kill or incapacitate your enemy?” when the enemy gets lower than 0 HP. It means they can be gory and slaughter enemies left-right-and-center OR they can think twice and spare the enemy.

    Also many 4E adventure hooks in their book on metallic dragons emphasize this since most of the dragons will only fight until bloodied since they are either testing the PCs or don’t want to die (they generally have high Intelligence so it makes sense). Having enemies who surrender at a certain point also keeps the players from crossing that line since most people would yield if faced with a seemingly rational enemy.

    Anyway, my 2 cents.

  6. In the past I briefly tried having enemies run away, but players tended to hate that a lot because it felt like frustration. Having them *intend* to run away but collapse unconscious would be better.

    One of my SpaceMaster referees pushed all the characters to use struptors, which had a “stun” setting.

  7. The typical D&D world has no real relation to our own. Any moral grounds we assume would be different living in a D&D world. Take one simple fact, what is the value of a sentient being in a world full of thousands of sentient races and additional real ones from various planes? Different from our world where there is one (or a few depending on definition). The struggle between good and evil in a D&D world is very real and being unprepared in such a world leads to a very Hobbesian life, short and brutish.

    Being unprepared in a D&D world in confronting evil, would be immoral to a good character, because evil is very real, with clear demarcations. I would argue that the very structure of the world itself – along with game mechanics is the cause of casual violence. But it’s not really casual violence – but a necessary stance taken by those who would survive in such a world.

    • That is stupid. There are times and places of great violence, evil, and horror in our world that the bowdlerized world of D&D has never touched as it’s “too bad.” And even if that were not the case, I’m concerned that D&D promotes the kind of muddled moral thinking that would have someone even say this. Frankly sometimes I think the struggle in this world is between those who think that danger means we can abandon morality with justification and those that don’t. There’s a difference between “being prepared” and not being good, as anything from the stories told in The Walking Dead to the more real life recent examples of Guantanamo Bay should amply demonstrate (oh, they’re a violent evil race, I guess morality doesn’t apply!).

      You have illustrated perfectly my main concern – which is not the violence itself, but that playing these games trains you in this mindset, which any religion, philosopher, ethicist, etc, would classify as clearly vicious and inhuman.

      • Spot on, mxyzplk. It’s why I’m not a huge fan of alignment systems and definitely not a fan of the pre-4E “detect ” spells. I shouldn’t be able to look at someone and use magic (divine or arcane) to determine where on a sliding scale of morality that individual sits. Not to say that there aren’t good or evil in the real world, but there are lots of law-abiding “good” people who let a lot of terrible things go on around them (Nazi Germany, anyone?).

        Also, using the example of many sentient beings being a reason why life is less valued? Come on. I think that more characters would be willing to talk their way past the monsters than in our more pedestrian horror films and such. In horror films, the monster is often considered an abomination against nature and thus the viewer is encouraged to not feel remorse or empathy for the creature. In D&D, if you have dealt with drow, gnolls, orcs, etc. and they all are communicative and are able to be bargained with (which goes back to at least “The Village of Homlet” and “Against the Giants” which we just replayed a few weeks ago), then why would you go in swords swinging? You KNOW they can be bargained with or dealt with. For a real-world analogy, most battles in the medieval period were preceded by diplomacy or even a brief parley before the battle began to see if clearer heads could prevail and less people could be killed.

        • ‘I shouldn’t be able to look at someone and use magic (divine or arcane) to determine where on a sliding scale of morality that individual sits.’

          It would, however, be interesting to be able to use targeted postcognition – use a psionic power and see all the people the target has killed, all the people the target has had sex with, etc.

          That’s not detect evil, it’s “detect specific action.”

          So if you can see that the orc killed another orc in a boxing ring, that would be very different than seeing a similar orc who killed his mother while she was sleeping.

  8. True. When the methods of the heroic are indistinguishable from those of the villains arrayed against them, so too will good be indistinguishable from evil.

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