To educate a man in mind and not in morals is to educate a menace to society. – Theodore Roosevelt
Violence is a pretty standard part of the vast majority of RPGs. And that’s fine, to a degree. But the routine nature of killing in most games does concern me, so I recently asked the question “How do I get my PCs not to be a bunch of murderous cretins?” on RPG Stack Exchange.You can go check the answers, some are pretty useful.
It’s hard to have a good conversation on this topic though. Frankly, most people have a very basic grasp of ethics, and the most complex moral discussions often engaged in regarding RPGs are “Hey, we can kill people out of hand if they’re evil right?” or “It’s an evil race, so we should kill the women and children too right?” If you wrestle with questions like that, you probably can just move along from this article now. It’s pathetic and somewhat scary that those questions are debated at all let alone are generally the most sophisticated values discussion most people have around gaming.
Or people just assume you’re a “D&D is Satanic” type looking to rain on the hobby, or some kind of indie gamer hippy. Anything except think uncomfortable thoughts.
My problem with how we treat violence casually in games is that gaming is a repeated exercise that shapes our view of the world. If we are training ourselves that murder is OK, and not just in extreme circumstances, it does become part of our mindset. The excuse that it’s just a game is reasonably weak; the more we get used to mentally separating and saying “Oh, that race or people group is evil or soulless and we can victimize them freely” – it’s not like that doesn’t happen nowadays and here in our country, most recently with Abu Ghraib.
I think most of us think that killing is a passable solution in certain very highly escalated situations. But in the average RPG campaign, “We wandered into their home uninvited and they gave us guff” is generally an excuse for murder that excites little comment. Or “they attacked us, so we beat them down and then knifed them while unconscious and took their stuff and left their bodies to rot.” Try that in your home town, you’ll find out “self defense” ends up not covering it.
There’s the “but it’s that way in all entertainment media” excuse. But frankly – not as much. Maybe in computer games. But many movies and TV shows try to devise heroes that do as much as they can without killing (Burn Notice is a good example). And just about every action movie we watched when we were kids had the end scene where the good guy realizes he can’t just execute the bad guy because “he’s bad.” But we erode that lesson pretty hard with most RPG plots.
Greg Costikyan’s Violence and John Tynes’ Power Kill are interesting in that they are both RPGs that satirize the violence inherent in RPGs. Check ’em out. Here’s what Violence has to say for itself:
Violence™ is a lot like Dungeons & Dragons® by that other company. You and your friends play characters in an imaginary world. You wander about a maze, kicking down doors, killing whatever you find on the other side, and taking its possessions. The main difference is this: The world isn’t some third-rate fantasy writer’s drivel about elves and dwarves and magic spells, but the world of today.
The doors you kick down aren’t those of a subterranean dungeon–unless you’re in the subway—but those of decent, honest, hard-working people who merely want to live their lives. The things you kill aren’t cardboard “monsters” whom the game defines as okay to kill because, well, they’re monsters—but fellow human beings, with families and friends and hopes and fears and highly developed senses of morality—far better people than you, in fact. And the things you steal aren’t “magic items” and “gold pieces” but stereos, computers, jewellery, and whatever other items of value you can lift.
Indeed, you yourself are a monster: a monster in the true sense, not the ‘fantasy’ one. You are a degraded, bloodthirsty savage, the product of the savage streets, a Jeffrey Dahmer, a droog, a character out of Brett Easton Ellis. You delight in pain and blood and mayhem. You won’t live long, I promise you, but you’ll leave a trail of mangled corpses in your wake.
Power Kill covers the same ground but a little artsier, it is added as a meta-level onto your game where the PCs are actually deluded people in a mental institution and their fantasy rampage was performed in the real world, and they’re getting debriefed by a shrink about it.
Let’s take some real examples from gaming of how a slightly more civilized approach to human life might play out, OK?
Back in 2e times I decided I wanted to have a real honest-to-God high realism total immersion game. I split our large group into two different games, those on board and those not. Or at least, those who thought they were on board. Turns out a shakeout was going to occur.
As the campaign starts, a nice wizard’s apprentice named Jelleneth goes missing. The party gnome illusionist had hung out with her in the bar the night before and took an interest in finding out where she went to, and the rest of the party decided to help.
Well, two of them, an elf and a dwarf, decide they’re going to interrogate everyone they can. That evening, some travellers arrive and come into the inn. I actually have descriptions for them (metagame: they must be important!) so they go hassle them and ask them their business. “Slag off!” responds one. The PCs immediately pull their weapons. The men flee the inn; the PCs pursue them all the way out of the ville and into the fields surrounding it. One turns around and pulls out a shortsword and says “Stay back man!” and the elf shoots him with his bow. Then the local constable shows up and takes everyone in.
He asks everyone for “their side of the story.” The PCs explain that “We thought they knew something, so we pulled weapons, chased them outside, and shot them.” “Uhhh… That’s your story? And you’re sticking to it?” The PCs totally couldn’t understand why the constable let the other guys go and held onto them. The constable tried to be nice. “Listen guys, we can take care of this with a fine, your cleric friend healed the guy you shot.. The mayor is a hard man, and if this goes to trial he’ll decide punishment in the morning.” Well, one PC went with that, but the other decided that the constable was “just shaking us down” and refused. So the next morning, he is trotted out in front of the mayor and again earnestly explains, because in his mind it’s a valid excuse somehow, that “We thought they knew something, so we pulled weapons, chased them outside, and shot them.” “I see. Three months hard labor in the mines.” The player didn’t know whether to shit or go blind. But off to the mines he went. The elf and dwarf’s players realized they would be happier in the casual group and switched.
Harsh? Sure. But it totally got the message across, and as a result that campaign turned into a five year long epic that was the best campaign I’ve ever seen or heard of. Real personalities, real relationships, real behavior, real morality.
Curse of the Crimson Throne
Really this has become common with many of my characters, who confuse other PCs by not just murdering people. “We met that guy in this dungeon complex, and sure he surrendered and gave us his stuff and gave us info, but what do you mean you’re letting him go and are not going to kill him?” But anyway I digress…
At the climax of Curse of the Crimson Throne, our party confronted the wicked Queen of Korvosa. “Ruler bad, we kill!” is most of the subtlety built in. But my character understood that regicide is a big hairy deal. She got the remaining other power players of the city to draft a legal document declaring her no longer Queen and ordering her to vacate the palace. She took the time to read it and demand the Queen’s surrender rather than just all out attack. I think the party thought it was because she was a good cleric. No, it’s because she’s not a monster. I don’t understand “I’m Neutral” as a reason to not have moral qualms – that’s what in the real world we call “Evil.”
Anyway, I know many people say their gaming is just escapism and they just want to kill some orcs and not think about it. But you have to consider that it is a cerebral, participatory activity and you are training yourself to think a certain way with it, and you’re fooling yourself if you say you’re not. When you’re killing people unprovoked, not taking surrenders, killing based on race or creed, home invading, robbing… These are bad things. Sure, sometimes we play characters that do these things, and that’s not out of bounds, but we need to be extra cognizant of the character/player division and at least realize when we’re being a monster and when we’re not.
And if you are still at the level where you aren’t sure that these are bad things in the real world… You need to go un-fuck yourself. Your gaming is the least of your problems.