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Moral Dilemma: Killing and Deaths in RPGs

MGibster

Legend
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.
I don't usually think about it either which is why I'm fine with always evil orcs, mowing down storm troopers in Star Wars, or blowing up fascist while digging for biblical loot in 1930s Egypt. Just like I don't think of the lives of all the little white pieces I crush in chess, the damage my armies must be doing to the countries I invade in Risk, or the diseases my incompetence allows to turn into a pandemic in, uh, Pandemic. I don't think anyone is a psychopath because they like horror movies or play RPGs.
 

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Fenris-77

Small God of the Dozens
I don't usually think about it either which is why I'm fine with always evil orcs, mowing down storm troopers in Star Wars, or blowing up fascist while digging for biblical loot in 1930s Egypt. Just like I don't think of the lives of all the little white pieces I crush in chess, the damage my armies must be doing to the countries I invade in Risk, or the diseases my incompetence allows to turn into a pandemic in, uh, Pandemic. I don't think anyone is a psychopath because they like horror movies or play RPGs.
I have enough grey moral morass in real life, I don't want it in my elf games. (y)
 

MGibster

Legend
A lot of people think I'm joking when I say this but I'm serious. One of the problems I have with the way violence is portrayed for young people is that it's not realistic enough. As a wee mgibster, shows like Knight Rider, The A-Team, The Transformers, and GI Joe were staples. On these shows, there were copious amounts of violent acts but rarely were there any meaningful consequences attached to them. The A-Team was particularly egregious with multiple people firing fully automatic weapons at one another and nobody being hurt. What I'm getting at is that violence has a cost. When you shoot someone they don't just slump over quietly they very often take a few minutes to die.

So maybe violence as entertainment for younger people should be a bit more realistic. When someone is shot or stabbed they don't just keel over a die quietly. They die over the course of a few moments with the rattle of their breathing growing louder as their lungs fill with blood and the hole in their chest makes a weird wheezing noise. Or perhaps they bleed out while crying for their mothers. Maybe players would be less apt to opt for violence in D&D if that dying elf prayed for his god to watch over his son who would now no longer have a father.

Like I said earlier, maybe I was a weird kid. I do know there were some shows I watched aimed at children that did show the consequences of violence. In the original Robotech series, I remember quite clearly the deaths of Roy Fokker and Ben Dixon. Admittedly I had to look up the name of Ben Dixon because it's been a long time. But it was one of the few cartoons I watched that actually showed the consequences of war. I'm also a proponent of characters being at risk of dying partially on the grounds that violence isn't safe.
 

Umbran

Mod Squad
Staff member
Hiya!

(Didn't read every page of this thread, only first...gotta hit the sack, really tired!)

To the OP:
Don't hang up your dice.
Go find a Super Hero RPG System.

Not a bad suggestion. Character death is usually kind of hard to come by in supers games.

I can suggest Sentinels Comics RPG (based on the Sentinels of the Multiverse cooperative card game). In SCRPG, PC death only happens if the player decides it is appropriate. There is no way for the GM to kill a character without the player's consent. The game also has some interesting dice mechanics (Cortex-like, but there is no standard set of stats), and some unique scene pacing mechanics.

There is a downloadable starter kit that's a whopping $10 (it was free up to a couple of weeks ago) on the Greater Than Games website, that includes pregenerated characters, six-part adventure series, and gameplay guide that covers the play mechanics (but not character generation, or how to build the bad guys - for that you need to buy the full rulebook).

 

Li Shenron

Legend
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.
That's the main reason on the DM side, but since the OP is the DM, I assumed he has already decided not to make killing enemies required.
 

pemerton

Legend
That's the main reason on the DM side, but since the OP is the DM, I assumed he has already decided not to make killing enemies required.
I think it's the main reason on the player side - victory in combat achieves finality by establishing binding fiction (ie the enemies are dead); whereas there is a tendency in many RPGs for other sorts of victory (eg persuasion, evasion) to be treated as non-binding by the GM/referee.

My experience is that if there are mechanics that permit those other sorts of victory to be established, and the GM treats them as binding, then players may be less likely to resort to killing as a problem-solving method.
 

S'mon

Legend
I think it's the main reason on the player side - victory in combat achieves finality by establishing binding fiction (ie the enemies are dead); whereas there is a tendency in many RPGs for other sorts of victory (eg persuasion, evasion) to be treated as non-binding by the GM/referee.
Maybe too many Millennials grew up with Saving Private Ryan, where the released German soldier comes back and kills tons of Americans.

I've done that once, with a particularly nasty ogre; but normally IMCs enemies who flee aren't keen on a rematch, and surrendered enemies are often recruitable - my son is particularly keen on doing this, and it's extremely Gygax/Arneson Old School, much moreso than always killing everything IMO. There are various ways to make enemies worth more alive than dead, eg ransom, which is standard in Runequest and should be standard in medievalesque settings with feuding nobles. The more you get away from 'hostile races locked in a war of extermination', the more not-killing can be normalised.

Edit: Killing is ubiquitous in computer games because it's a lot easier to code than enemies who surrender. This is definitely an advantage of TTRPGs.
 

BrokenTwin

Adventurer
I think it's the main reason on the player side - victory in combat achieves finality by establishing binding fiction (ie the enemies are dead); whereas there is a tendency in many RPGs for other sorts of victory (eg persuasion, evasion) to be treated as non-binding by the GM/referee.

My experience is that if there are mechanics that permit those other sorts of victory to be established, and the GM treats them as binding, then players may be less likely to resort to killing as a problem-solving method.
Yeah, in almost all of the games I've been in player-side, the vast majority of conflicts that ended without death were treated by the GM as soft victories at best. If we let enemies escape, then they'd rouse the alarm, or come back to attack us later. If we took them alive, we'd be hampered by having to drag them around with us, with them usually attempting to cause us trouble whenever they could. Talking our enemies down rarely allowed us to actually progress past them peacefully. Our ability to manipulate the fiction in our favour heavily relied on the GM going along with what we wanted. But force a fight and kill them? We have half a book of rules to enforce our desired outcome.

I know for me, personally, I'm just BORED with fighting being the only truly mechanically supported option. I play to engage with both the fiction and the rules, and outside of combat, there's very little game in my elf games for me to play with.
 

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.
in my current T2K game, they were annoyed they couldn't stop the POW march by the KGB... they did snipe the Polkovnik (=Colonel) dead, but bailed before counter-sniper fire.

Well, they found the KGB holding site...
And realized that there were at least a dozen guards.
And 5 PC, 3 combat effective NPCs, and not much ammo.

So they went and sought out the ammo, and found some troops along the way, and went in 20-strong... plus the 155 Hwtz...

and tonight, they did go back with superior force.
Cost an arm and a throat... and 4 POWs.

It cost the NPC KGB 12 of 15...
 

S'mon

Legend
Yeah, in almost all of the games I've been in player-side, the vast majority of conflicts that ended without death were treated by the GM as soft victories at best. If we let enemies escape, then they'd rouse the alarm, or come back to attack us later. If we took them alive, we'd be hampered by having to drag them around with us, with them usually attempting to cause us trouble whenever they could. Talking our enemies down rarely allowed us to actually progress past them peacefully. Our ability to manipulate the fiction in our favour heavily relied on the GM going along with what we wanted.

One thing I'll do in 5e is give (free/unrequested) Insight checks to PCs to help the players understand likely NPC motivations and behaviour. One in particular I remember was a dwarf PC who wanted to cut the head off a dead enemy mercenary leader and wave it at his men. I gave him an Insight check to understand that these veteran mercenaries were not orcs and this was a really bad idea. Treat their leader's body with respect and allow them to leave with pride intact and they'd probably cause no more trouble. Try to humiliate them and he'd end up with a (very tough) fight to the death. It was still the player's choice of course; the mercs had just killed his previous PC so I'd understand if he'd wanted revenge! :D
 


BrokenTwin

Adventurer
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.
I don't usually think about it either which is why I'm fine with always evil orcs, mowing down storm troopers in Star Wars, or blowing up fascist while digging for biblical loot in 1930s Egypt. Just like I don't think of the lives of all the little white pieces I crush in chess, the damage my armies must be doing to the countries I invade in Risk, or the diseases my incompetence allows to turn into a pandemic in, uh, Pandemic. I don't think anyone is a psychopath because they like horror movies or play RPGs.
From anecdotal experience, I'd say it's a popular take.
I'm pretty sure nobody's saying killing things in a game makes you killer in real life. In this thread at least. God knows we went through that enough with video games. And while I do think some people are reaching when it comes to real life comparisons of fictional monsters (key word some), I don't think anybody is going to complain about your group fighting Nazi-analogues in your game besides, you know, actual Nazis.
 

@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.

I appreciate this and the many other generous offers. I've been following these conversations for years and my curiosity is regularly piqued by references to BItD and PbtA games. Alas, my time is quite tight at this point in the academic semester so my online presence is limited. I'll be sure to ask more questions when I start getting a game off the ground. (Have to wrap up my current campaign first!)
 

This makes me very happy, but also nervous!

Heh. I love buying new games and have shelves and shelves of games that I've read but never played. The enjoyment of reading this one alone is worth the price. But I've been itching to do a sci-fi game which I haven't done since traveller long ago. Scum and Villainy seems like the right move. If it doesn't work out for me or my group, it will be no ill reflection on you or other fans of the game!
 

MGibster

Legend
Maybe too many Millennials grew up with Saving Private Ryan, where the released German soldier comes back and kills tons of Americans.
It actually wasn't the same soldier but so many people think it was I suppose it might as well have been. The truth is that D&D doesn’t encourage taking prisoners because looking after them isn’t much from from a gaming perspective.
 


Grendel_Khan

Adventurer
Maybe too many Millennials grew up with Saving Private Ryan, where the released German soldier comes back and kills tons of Americans.

I've done that once, with a particularly nasty ogre; but normally IMCs enemies who flee aren't keen on a rematch, and surrendered enemies are often recruitable - my son is particularly keen on doing this, and it's extremely Gygax/Arneson Old School, much moreso than always killing everything IMO. There are various ways to make enemies worth more alive than dead, eg ransom, which is standard in Runequest and should be standard in medievalesque settings with feuding nobles. The more you get away from 'hostile races locked in a war of extermination', the more not-killing can be normalised.

Edit: Killing is ubiquitous in computer games because it's a lot easier to code than enemies who surrender. This is definitely an advantage of TTRPGs.

I think a lot of us have had somewhat formative experiences with the kind of GM (or at least session) that @BrokenTwin recounted, where something like letting enemies go is seen is a lack of proper grit, which must be conditioned out of us silly, naive players. If that happens even once, or even if you just have the tiniest question about whether your current GM might have that sort of a mean streak in them, I think it could easily become part of the unspoken rules-of-roleplaying that we tend to codify for ourselves.

I'd also propose a couple more factors that make capture/surrender unappealing at lots of tables:

-So many prisoners: If surrender or capture is an option during the second fight of the delve/crawl, and everyone basically knows there are many more fights to go, then the logistical weirdness of taking prisoners is only going to get worse, and if you let the enemies go, why wouldn't they just warn and add to the numbers of the next group of enemies down the hall?

-Don't talk to the prisoners: In addition to stuff like figuring out how to secure and maybe transport prisoners, you kind of have to talk to them. And if they're just one of many, many enemies you're going to fight in this situation, or if you're just getting in fights all the time, this could start to be a real roleplaying chore for everyone, PCs and GM included. Even just the prospect of playing out yet another gnoll's tale of growing up poor in Menzoberranzan would have me pushing them to fight to the death.

To me, the obvious solution to all of this is the same thing that I think improves most games, which is way, way fewer total fights, and giving the ones that happen--or that you actually play out--high stakes. Taking a couple prisoners or letting someone go isn't all that weird or a hassle if you only have a fight every two or three sessions, and there's a greater chance that any interaction with a surrendered enemy will be more meaningful to the narrative, and less of a repetitive drag. Plus, if the fights are generally higher-stakes, maybe the PCs are more often fighting through to get a way from a situation, and not just having yet another in a series last-man-standing, OK Corral-style standoffs.

But if I were running something with one or more fights every session, I'd probably wind up making every enemy a mindless drone or total fanatic. Otherwise, that prisoner small talk would be lethal
 

Grendel_Khan

Adventurer
I have enough grey moral morass in real life, I don't want it in my elf games. (y)
Here's an honest question for you, though: What happens in the game if the Nazis surrender, and now the PCs have to deal with that?

Would that be the GM, in this case, derailing things by killing everyone's buzz with a moral and ethical dilemma? Should they instead play the Nazis fully cartoonish, fighting to the death even when the last of them is completely alone and outgunned? Or is it a potentially interesting moment and decision?

If this is a game where people are mowing down Nazis left and right I'm guessing the immediate solution would be equally pulpy or cinematic--knock out the prisoner(s) with a swift rifle butt to the head (no need to roll to hit and such), and press on, trusting that the GM isn't the punitive, petty type. But not all GMs or games are that clear about tone and genre, and the dreaded specter of realism (as interpreted by whomever) can creep into a session at any time, without warning. Well, actually some people regain consciousness very quickly, and so forth.

And if players decide to gun down some surrendered Nazis, that, to me, is narratively interesting too. Maybe the GM doesn't editorialize in that moment, or even apply consequences later or bring it up again. It's still something they've done, and does it mean they're now more likely to do it again? Will that one day result in a narrative impact, like their own captors realizing that, Hey, these are the guys that always execute our guys!

I'm not saying anyone should be dealing with the Big Questions every session, or maybe ever. Just saying that these issues aren't totally cut and dry, even when it seems like the general tone and genre and premise of a game have this one covered.
 

A schtick I've used with younger players (usually elementary age for this) when I want to run a traditional D&D-style dungeon crawl is to assume that the PCs are agents of the law. Their job is to capture any ne'er-do-wells that they defeat and deliver them to the authorities. Combat ends with arrest rather than death. This leads to changing the descriptions of combat somewhat. We usually apply this to sentient foes; non-sentient slimes and whatnot might be slain or simply driven off.

This certainly doesn't address the concern that @MGibster raised about violence for kids having no consequences. But it also allows for a more humane approach to their foes who may have just made bad choices rather than being Inherently Evil.

I could imagine a variation of this being palatable for older players. In a world with magic, perhaps there are ways to teleport incapacitated foes to the local jail. This wouldn't be compatible with a gritty GoT-style world but I don't think most people would bat an eye if this is how things worked around Waterdeep or Neverwinter. There might even be magically enforced equivalents of the Geneva Conventions.
 

Fenris-77

Small God of the Dozens
Here's an honest question for you, though: What happens in the game if the Nazis surrender, and now the PCs have to deal with that?

Would that be the GM, in this case, derailing things by killing everyone's buzz with a moral and ethical dilemma? Should they instead play the Nazis fully cartoonish, fighting to the death even when the last of them is completely alone and outgunned? Or is it a potentially interesting moment and decision?

If this is a game where people are mowing down Nazis left and right I'm guessing the immediate solution would be equally pulpy or cinematic--knock out the prisoner(s) with a swift rifle butt to the head (no need to roll to hit and such), and press on, trusting that the GM isn't the punitive, petty type. But not all GMs or games are that clear about tone and genre, and the dreaded specter of realism (as interpreted by whomever) can creep into a session at any time, without warning. Well, actually some people regain consciousness very quickly, and so forth.

And if players decide to gun down some surrendered Nazis, that, to me, is narratively interesting too. Maybe the GM doesn't editorialize in that moment, or even apply consequences later or bring it up again. It's still something they've done, and does it mean they're now more likely to do it again? Will that one day result in a narrative impact, like their own captors realizing that, Hey, these are the guys that always execute our guys!

I'm not saying anyone should be dealing with the Big Questions every session, or maybe ever. Just saying that these issues aren't totally cut and dry, even when it seems like the general tone and genre and premise of a game have this one covered.
The short answer to this question is that I would expect the players to handle the situation within the context of their characters, whatever that looks like. If the players are doing their jobs what happens next will flow naturally, whatever that thing is. What I don't do is go out of my way to insert this sort of situation into a game, nor try to manage what the characters' response might be outside of what the players decide to do within the confines of the established fiction. I have no interest in examining larger moral issues as a specific part of my gaming experience, although I'll freely admit that it does come up with some regularity regardless.
 

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