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Moral Dilemma: Killing and Deaths in RPGs

Yora

Legend
I always find that the buildup to a fight and the aftermath of a fight are the interesting parts in any stories. The fancy dencing moves and kung fu choreographies between the two are the boring part where not much of interest happens.
 

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pemerton

Legend
So I’m about to turn 50. As I approach this new life milestone I’ve started wrestling with killing and deaths in RPGs.

I don’t know if anyone else has experienced this dilemma.
It's something I notice, yes. I generally prefer RPGing where the incentivised violence can be seen as defensive (eg the PCs are soldiers) or consensual (eg the fighting is duels, jousts etc). In my last long-running D&D campaign my players noticed my preference for using undead, demons, and other non-mortal, non-"people" as foes.

What fantasy and sci fi RPGs would you recommend as an alternative to the traditional slay the adversary and take their loot model?
You've had lots of suggestions in this thread. My recommendations are games that I play:

* Classic Traveller - many PCs will end up with weapon skills, but it's feasible to run the game without a lot of combat: the action can focus on manoeuvring through space, hacking computer systems, dealing with officialdom, etc.

* Marvel Heroic RP/Cortex+ Heroic - tends to incentivise fisticuffs, but the default is that they're 4-colour-ish rather than lethal. I've also used this system for a LotR/MERP game.

* Agon - Homeric Greek heroics - so while not free of violence and killing, it doesn't have the unrelenting and somewhat amoral character of slay-and-loot D&D.

* Burning Wheel - a FRPG that is a bit like RuneQuest or Rolemaster in complexity of PC build (lengthy skill lists, etc) but with more of a player-driven story focus, with lots of scope for non-violent resolution and for fighting that does not end with death but rather morale failures, hors-de-combat, etc.

* Prince Valiant - Arthurian fantasy with resolution for both violent and non-violent conflicts (including jousting of course!), and with the default being no PC deaths. I think this system is Greg Stafford's masterpiece.

* The Dying Earth - rather cynical, and not free of violence, but the default arena of conflict is persuasion and rebuttal, not fighting.
 

BrokenTwin

Adventurer
I definitely still enjoy violence-heavy games, but I've also had a yearning for fun non-violent gameplay as well. If a video game RPG gives me mechanical support for a pacifist run, I'm going to try for it.

For tabletop, I find running/playing non-violent RPGs significantly harder. Part of that is just that my D&D upbringing was on kill-em-all dungeon crawling, another part is that my current groups prefer systems where violence is a primary option (D&D), and a third part is just that violence is a really easy conflict to gamify. Heck, there's literally thousands of threads across the internet where people will advocate that social conflict shouldn't have any mechanical weight at all, relying entirely on the player's mental and social skills, but I've never seen anybody advocate the same for physical conflict.

D&D has never provided strong mechanical support for non-violent resolution. Sure, you've got the social skills (Bluff/Diplomacy/Intimidate/Insight), but they doesn't provide nearly the same level of engagement that multiple interlocking systems provide for combat (hit points, armor class, feats, equipment, saves, spells, and class features are all primarily about improving your combat viability).

But, like others have said, there's plenty of tabletop RPGs out there nowadays that provide strong support for non-violent resolution. Currently on my to-try list is Ryuutama and Mouse Guard. Both assume SOME combat, but it's a much smaller part of the system, with plenty of crunch for other areas of gameplay.
 

Yora

Legend
The issue is not so much about mechanical support, and more about concrete incentives. 3rd edition onward do not provide any gains from finding alternative solutions, while at the same time providing a very low risk to PCs for getting into fights. The games even provide mechanics for GMs to help them plan their adventures in a way that makes sure the risk to the PCs is minimized.

Mechanical support certainly is a thing, but it's not about having a more complex way to make Charisma rolls.
Going all the way back to the earliest D&D editions, those games had mechanics that incentivize players to minimize the amount of time they spend in the wilderness and dungeon, because the longer the adventure takes, the higher the chance to have random encounters that could very well kill PCs but won't get them meaningful XP even if they fight off attackers successfully, since wandering monsters don't carry treasure. And once you have a robust random encounter system in place, you can use it for way more randomized events than just hostile creatures.
Since the games give XP primarily for treasure, and treasure is really heavy (you don't just buy 10 bags of holding at a village store), players have to consider pack animals to shorten the return journey (and avoid random encounters by being outside for too long), but then they also need to get trustworthy people to guard the animals while they are exploring inside the dungeon. And all of that is stuff that on the player facing side includes no numbers or character stats. The rules give the GM tools to randomize disruptions and free them from having to make arbitrary choices when to help or hinder the players, which avoids the players having to figure out what the GM wants to happen before they make any choices.

Interestingly, the whole interconnected system of XP for treasure, encumbrance, movement speed, and wandering monsters would still work on the basic rulesset of 3rd or 5th edition. But the designers have chosen to put the game full with spells and special abilities that let the players easily ignore all these constraints that are meant to mechanically support creative roleplaying and looking for nonviolent solutions.
 

Your experience is so far removed from mine that I really have nothing to offer. Except that I agree with the guy who quit the group after the kid started crying about their dead character. I simply cannot abide that level of emotional immaturity.
 

BrokenTwin

Adventurer
I would argue that concrete incentives are part of mechanical support, but that's splitting hairs. And I have zero disagreement that early editions of D&D were better at disincentivizing combat.

But D&D 5E's incentive structure is strictly about getting better at fighting things. Heck, outside of specific class features for Rogues and Bards and a handful of feats, your character CAN'T learn new non-combat proficiencies RAW. There's no mechanical support for improving or tracking your social standing with various groups, or owning land/dwellings, or rewards for your characters achieving their personal goals. I'm not saying that D&D 5E is a bad game for not providing this support, it was build to support a certain style of play, and there's nothing wrong with that. But if you're finding yourself at odds with some of the core conceits of the system (combat as a primary option, combat as sport, little mechanical support for social/exploration/survival gameplay, character progression through combat capability), then there's other systems that do focus on supporting those various foci better in different ways.

Can you play D&D 5E without all the violent encounters and killing, as asked in the OP? Of course you can. You'll need to tweak a lot of things and reduce emphasis on large amounts of the rules, but it can be done. I personally wouldn't enjoy it though. There's a lot of systems out there that can handle that style of play better, up to and including the early editions of D&D.
 

So I’m about to turn 50. As I approach this new life milestone I’ve started wrestling with killing and deaths in RPGs.

This rings true for me, too. As a middle-school teacher who sponsors the school RPG club and runs an RPG summer camp, I introduce a lot of young people to the joys of this hobby. But, I was weaned on D&D and have absorbed many of its tropes, so my default style of play includes a fair amount of combat. I've often been surprised by the young folks who start playing for the first time. Some of them, having played tons of CRPGs, enter the game world expecting to battle their way to glory. Others are bemused or even put off by this approach. They're much more interested in finding clever solutions, creative compromises, and non-violent options. They often want to learn about the monsters' cultures and find out what they want out of the world. They expect the game to support and encourage that sort of fiction.

As I've evolved with running the club and summer camp, I've de-centered violence as much as possible. It's there for those who want it, but we don't present it as a necessary component of an RPG. This has gone over pretty well, though plenty of groups retain a murder-hobo aesthetic.

The game I am most familiar with these days is GURPS. Although it includes a potentially intricate combat system, the default system is deadly, so there is a disincentive to be casual about it. It is also a skill-based system that covers a wide array of genres, so it's easy to focus on social conflict and other subsystems. I've played in games with little or no violence. I, myself, have been most comfortable running the dungeon fantasy flavor of GURPS, which tunes things to encourage more battle (and makes it relatively difficult for PCs to die). I'd like to move my own campaigns away from this, but I often fall back on familiar tropes.

Based on @Grendel_Khan's suggestion above, I picked up a copy of Scum and Villainy and started reading it last night. It reads well and I look forward to trying it out for a change of pace.

Has anyone else experienced this dilemma?
Is it just time to put away my dice and RPG hobby?

Can you play and run Dungeons & Dragons without all the violent encounters and killing?

What fantasy and sci fi RPGs would you recommend as an alternative to the traditional slay the adversary and take their loot model?
 

Grendel_Khan

Adventurer
Based on @Grendel_Khan's suggestion above, I picked up a copy of Scum and Villainy and started reading it last night. It reads well and I look forward to trying it out for a change of pace.
This makes me very happy, but also nervous!

I hope you and your players like it at the table, and if you have questions (I know I had tons, and still do) I'm going to go ahead and rudely volunteer @hawkeyefan @Malmuria @Manbearcat and @Ovinomancer as recipients. They have way more experience with Forged in the Dark than I do, and were super patient and helpful to me in another thread. The FitD learning curve, at least for people like you and me who are coming directly from more traditional games, can be really steep. But I think it's worth the effort, even if it just winds up being an experiment that might tweak or inform the way you play other games.
 

This makes me very happy, but also nervous!

I hope you and your players like it at the table, and if you have questions (I know I had tons, and still do) I'm going to go ahead and rudely volunteer @hawkeyefan @Malmuria @Manbearcat and @Ovinomancer as recipients. They have way more experience with Forged in the Dark than I do, and were super patient and helpful to me in another thread. The FitD learning curve, at least for people like you and me who are coming directly from more traditional games, can be really steep. But I think it's worth the effort, even if it just winds up being an experiment that might tweak or inform the way you play other games.
@uzirath Unfortunately I've only been playing for about half a year! But I would recommend the Blades in the Dark discord; people there have been very helpful. John Harper also has a Blades actual play, and it's useful to see the creator playing the game (but Scum and Villainy might work differently than blades)
 

Can you play and run Dungeons & Dragons without all the violent encounters and killing?

What fantasy and sci fi RPGs would you recommend as an alternative to the traditional slay the adversary and take their loot model?

Is it possible to separate "violence" and "killing"? A game could be violent, but have no killing. Conversely, a game could involve a lot of death but little violence.

If you're willing to put the time and effort into it, D&D 3.X actually had a lot of options for non-lethal combat. There were many choices that resulted in non-lethal damage, including subdual damage for both physical attacks and spells. However, building an entire campaign that only offered these options to players would be a bit of work, both in terms of dealing with native crunchiness of 3.Xe, and hunting down all the optional rules from multiple books. But I think it could be a great way to handle a violence-without-death campaign if the DM was willing to invest in it.
 

Ovinomancer

No flips for you!
This makes me very happy, but also nervous!

I hope you and your players like it at the table, and if you have questions (I know I had tons, and still do) I'm going to go ahead and rudely volunteer @hawkeyefan @Malmuria @Manbearcat and @Ovinomancer as recipients. They have way more experience with Forged in the Dark than I do, and were super patient and helpful to me in another thread. The FitD learning curve, at least for people like you and me who are coming directly from more traditional games, can be really steep. But I think it's worth the effort, even if it just winds up being an experiment that might tweak or inform the way you play other games.
Ask away!
 

Yora

Legend
Is it possible to separate "violence" and "killing"? A game could be violent, but have no killing. Conversely, a game could involve a lot of death but little violence.
Not really applicable here, but in the sandbox game Kenshi, the game mechanics make it very unlikely that characters are killed in battle, and they have a good chance to get back to their feet without being cared for after a few hours of bleeding in the sun. NPCs will leave your characters on the ground alone, and the game won't let you attacked downed enemies. Hostile NPCs only take a little bit of stuff from your characters when they are knocked out instead of robbing them blind.

This results in quite interesting gameplay, as the game can get away with throwing unexpectedly hard enemies at you in areas that you didn't have any problems with so far. And I had many hours of tense fun fighting with a gang of ninja that was squatting in my base after I had I had to beat a retreat (with half my characters being carried by the other half), and the base changing hands half a dozen times over several days.
It also is a big factor that gives the game a somewhat silly tone with the pretty brutal violence taking a rather cartoony turn when beaten and stripped enemies come hobbling and crawling back to your gates for a second round.

I don't think the specific mechanics would translate well to an RPG, but playing around with the formula can absolutely result in new experiences that can be really fun.
 

Li Shenron

Legend
Can you play and run Dungeons & Dragons without all the violent encounters and killing?
Yes.

Do you know why most players choose to fight and kill the enemies? Because they know they are going to win. The game is rigged in favour of the PC, particularly in battle. It's not so much a matter of rules (even though the newer the edition, the more generous the death/dying rules) but a matter of assuming that the PCs MUST encounter killable monsters, and most of them should be EASY to kill so that you can have lots of encounters.

It's an extreme idea, but what if you start by default having the majority of the enemies be BETTER than the PCs in combat? If the players start learning that picking a fight is a real risk, they are going to change their strategy for the whole game. They are going to use other ways than violence first, to reach their ends. Like normal people do in real life...
 

pemerton

Legend
Do you know why most players choose to fight and kill the enemies? Because they know they are going to win.
I don't agree with this. I think it's mostly because in many RPGs, victory in combat is the only way for the players to obtain finality of resolution. This is also often related to combat being the most mechanically interesting or dynamic part of the game.
 

S'mon

Legend
Yes.

Do you know why most players choose to fight and kill the enemies? Because they know they are going to win. The game is rigged in favour of the PC, particularly in battle. It's not so much a matter of rules (even though the newer the edition, the more generous the death/dying rules) but a matter of assuming that the PCs MUST encounter killable monsters, and most of them should be EASY to kill so that you can have lots of encounters.

It's an extreme idea, but what if you start by default having the majority of the enemies be BETTER than the PCs in combat? If the players start learning that picking a fight is a real risk, they are going to change their strategy for the whole game. They are going to use other ways than violence first, to reach their ends. Like normal people do in real life...

I recall the first encounter in a fantasy Japan game, our 1st level PCs were in the peasant village when the BBEG bandit chief turned up with his goons. And we were standing up to him, trying to look tough & persuade him not to take all the rice. It was incredibly tense and dramatic, the feeling that we could be killed at any moment. It also felt a lot more like real life than 99% of the D&D I've played.
 

@uzirath , if you want to see FitD play in action and then you can ask questions later to clarify play structure/rules et al, let me know and I can get you invited to watch. Game is later this evening.

If uptake via watching and asking isn’t your thing, I’ve got a lot of play excerpts around. You can check those out or just ask questions.
 

Silvercat Moonpaw

Adventurer
I think I've experienced it, to a certain extent: I like action, and combat is a good way to get action. But I'm not interested in deadly/injurious combat, just people getting knocked around. And then sometimes I want no combat at all.

Rather than search out specific games to do specific non-deadly/violent activities, I usually choose games that can go between these two states easy. FATE is the usual suggestion, but I have problems keeping track of its currencies, so I prefer RISUS or Cartoon Action Hour.
 

Yes.

Do you know why most players choose to fight and kill the enemies? Because they know they are going to win. The game is rigged in favour of the PC, particularly in battle. It's not so much a matter of rules (even though the newer the edition, the more generous the death/dying rules) but a matter of assuming that the PCs MUST encounter killable monsters, and most of them should be EASY to kill so that you can have lots of encounters.

It's an extreme idea, but what if you start by default having the majority of the enemies be BETTER than the PCs in combat? If the players start learning that picking a fight is a real risk, they are going to change their strategy for the whole game. They are going to use other ways than violence first, to reach their ends. Like normal people do in real life...
I once designed a game like this, sort of based on the Cthulhu Dark engine. If you try to fight anyone 1 size class larger than you, you die. And all the PCs are halflings.

It's a detective game, so it's not like combat is meant to be the right way to solve problems anyway.

 

Fenris-77

Small God of the Dozens
I don't really think too much about this kind of ethics when it comes to RPGs. Real life is one thing, RPGs are another, and I'm happy to keep them separate. Much like reading a whole lot of Stephen King doesn't make me a psycho killer. Anyway, I'm sure this isn't a popular take, but I'm ok with that.
 

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