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Moral Dilemma: Killing and Deaths in RPGs

Grendel_Khan

Adventurer
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.
That makes sense to me. So would you tend to try to avoid a situation where surrender is an option?

This isn’t a trap, I swear. I’m just curious, since this is an RPG issue (lethality and NPC morale) that fascinates me, and I often wonder how different people handle it.
 

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Fenris-77

Small God of the Dozens
That makes sense to me. So would you tend to try to avoid a situation where surrender is an option?

This isn’t a trap, I swear. I’m just curious, since this is an RPG issue (lethality and NPC morale) that fascinates me, and I often wonder how different people handle it.
Not at all, I'm very PbtA in my GMing style, even for other games, and hold fast to framing outcomes and consequences that put the emerging fiction first. If surrender is what follows naturally then that's what happens and the players will have to make a hard choice. What I don't do is put any kind of special preference on those sorts of situations. It's a decision that is in the hands of the players, not me, which is how it should be IMO.
 

payn

Legend
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.
Yeah that could be very problematic. Authorities can just trespass where ever they choose and violently subdue the occupants. Its right and ok because they are the police. I didn't have much compunction about running D&D for kids before this thread, but none of these postings make me feel good about ever trying to.
 

Yeah that could be very problematic. Authorities can just trespass where ever they choose and violently subdue the occupants. Its right and ok because they are the police. I didn't have much compunction about running D&D for kids before this thread, but none of these postings make me feel good about ever trying to.

Whew. Yeah. There's always another angle, isn't there?

Still, if I were actually playing with kids, I could see starting off with very clear lines of morality. The "good authorities" would never overstep their bounds. But I would absolutely problematize that as they continued exploring the world. Could make for a great campaign.

Playing with kids is great fun. I mean, I wouldn't trade them for my adult groups, but it is awesome to introduce young folks to imaginary worlds. They never fail to surprise me. I think about these sorts of moral/philosophical issues outside of the game, but at the game table, it's all about having fun.
 

S'mon

Legend
It actually wasn't the same soldier but so many people think it was I suppose it might as well have been.
I've never seen that claim before! :-O Did you just see the film & decide this or did you read it somewhere? Seems very odd - the translator guy was personally angry at the German soldier because he'd advocated for sparing him.
 

Grendel_Khan

Adventurer
I've never seen that claim before! :-O Did you just see the film & decide this or did you read it somewhere? Seems very odd - the translator guy was personally angry at the German soldier because he'd advocated for sparing him.
I thought those two characters were the same for years, but after @MGibster casually dropped that bomb I went down the rabbit hole.

"Steamboat Willy" (the unit's nickname for the German soldier they released) and the SS guy who infamously stabs the American soldier aren't the same actor, or character. They just kinda look the same from certain angles.

But to confuse matters further, Steamboat Willy does show up in that last battle and kills two of the main characters.

So yeah, he does come back to punish them for their foolish mercy, but not in the exact way some of us believed.
 

pemerton

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.

<snip>

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 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.

<snip>

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

-So many prisoners

<snip>

-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.

<snip>

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

<snip>

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, is there a tension between your second factor ("Don't talk to the prisoners") and your proposed solution ("Fewer total fights")? If we substitute X for fights in our RPG sessions, what is X? At least some of it will be talking to NPCs, won't it - which potentially reintroduces the roleplaying problem.

I don't have an obvious solution to propose, only a thought that also picks up on what BrokenTwin said: if the system has something a bit more robustly mechanical for social interaction, then that can shift play away from "free roleplaying" small talk - which I take to be what you're flagging could be a problem (and I'm treating your concern as literal, not ironic - which makes sense to me - but if you did intend it ironically I apologise for my failure of uptake!), and turn it towards more consequence-laden interaction, whether that be persuading prisoner to honour their parole if released, or conversion to the PCs' cause, or other things that downplay the tedious small talk and keep the stakes/goals of play in focus.
 

pemerton

Legend
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.
I think the change-of-tone issue is a real one, and maybe the biggest way that problems around killing, prisoners and the like arise at tables even if everyone is playing with good will.
 

billd91

Hobbit on Quest (he/him)
I thought those two characters were the same for years, but after @MGibster casually dropped that bomb I went down the rabbit hole.

"Steamboat Willy" (the unit's nickname for the German soldier they released) and the SS guy who infamously stabs the American soldier aren't the same actor, or character. They just kinda look the same from certain angles.

But to confuse matters further, Steamboat Willy does show up in that last battle and kills two of the main characters.

So yeah, he does come back to punish them for their foolish mercy, but not in the exact way some of us believed.
I had thought it was Steamboat Willy too! 🤯
 

MGibster

Legend
I've never seen that claim before! :-O Did you just see the film & decide this or did you read it somewhere? Seems very odd - the translator guy was personally angry at the German soldier because he'd advocated for sparing him.
No, that's not why the translator killed him. In an earlier scene, the German soldier killed, I want to say Mellish, by slowly stabbing him after they engaged in a melee. Translator guy sat that fight out paralyzed by fear. He could have saved Mellish but he sat by and did nothing.

I had thought it was Steamboat Willy too! 🤯
For some reason, the Germans all had their hair chopped off which makes it harder to figure out who is who. I've heard criticism that this actually dehumanizes the German soldiers.
 
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In my current Lancer: Battlegroup game (being recounted in Story Time), my players recently finished a grueling 2-day space battle that left thousands dead, only to find that half the enemy fleet agreed to a conditional surrender, so now they're negotiating the exact details of the enemy withdrawal (only after a week plus of salvage and repairs in place).

It's a very interesting and dramatic situation when you have nearly 3,000 prisoners on hand, your homeworlds' governments are counting on you to clean things up without causing more problems, and both sides have lost hundreds dead. Far more rich a roleplaying situation than one side being totally wiped out.

One of my PCs just found out that the opposing fleet commander is descended from her mother's former lover from 500 years ago, thanks to the weirdness of relativistic slow ageing of career nearlight space officers...
 

Grendel_Khan

Adventurer
Grendel_Khan, is there a tension between your second factor ("Don't talk to the prisoners") and your proposed solution ("Fewer total fights")? If we substitute X for fights in our RPG sessions, what is X? At least some of it will be talking to NPCs, won't it - which potentially reintroduces the roleplaying problem.

I don't have an obvious solution to propose, only a thought that also picks up on what BrokenTwin said: if the system has something a bit more robustly mechanical for social interaction, then that can shift play away from "free roleplaying" small talk - which I take to be what you're flagging could be a problem (and I'm treating your concern as literal, not ironic - which makes sense to me - but if you did intend it ironically I apologise for my failure of uptake!), and turn it towards more consequence-laden interaction, whether that be persuading prisoner to honour their parole if released, or conversion to the PCs' cause, or other things that downplay the tedious small talk and keep the stakes/goals of play in focus.
I didn't mean to imply that all or even most time spent talking to NPCs is a bad thing. I meant that, much more narrowly, having what might wind up being repetitive interactions with prisoners might become a real bummer. And if the PCs are sort of accumulating loads of prisoners during a somewhat typical dungeon delve (or similar situation)--one during this fight, two more for the next, another two after the third fight--it could make it not only cartoonish in nature and logistically annoying, but also sort of a roleplaying slog. Do you stop talking to the prisoners after the first batch, and gruffly tell the subsequent ones to shut up and march? But what if these new ones have different information, or a greater possibility of become allies?

Generally speaking I think interacting with prisoners can be incredibly rich, for pure roleplaying and to develop the narrative (maybe even both at once). It was the potential repetition I was trying to address.

But as for what would replace fights, if there are fewer of them, I think everything you might do in a game that isn't fighting. If it's a classic delve, then maybe it's the interactions that lead up to setting out, and the travel/exploration challenges and experiences along the way, and maybe the situations that could be combat but that many PCs would want to address some other way (stealth, bargaining, etc.).

I don't mean to push a given playstyle, I've just personally found that a lot of issues that are related to combat--including stuff like over-incentivizing lethality, body counts that are goofily high and numbing, balanced encounters, etc.--sort of melt away if fights are less common, but the ones that happen typically come with a lot of dread and buildup, and usually have major consequences.

A little like how there are so few actual fights in GoT (talking more the books than the show in this case), but almost constant menace and danger throughout. And also how some of those main characters don't really know how to fight, but for the ones that do that's a major part of their identity, even though the narrative isn't constantly showing them cutting people down to prove their badassery.

That general approach probably doesn't work for story now games, though, I realize, so I guess I'm talking more in the context of the pacing and distribution of authority in a traditional game.
 


S'mon

Legend
I thought those two characters were the same for years, but after @MGibster casually dropped that bomb I went down the rabbit hole.

"Steamboat Willy" (the unit's nickname for the German soldier they released) and the SS guy who infamously stabs the American soldier aren't the same actor, or character. They just kinda look the same from certain angles.

But to confuse matters further, Steamboat Willy does show up in that last battle and kills two of the main characters.

So yeah, he does come back to punish them for their foolish mercy, but not in the exact way some of us believed.

Oh, I had no idea anyone thought the SS guy who stabs the American soldier in the grapple upstairs then walks down past the translator was the same as the ex-prisoner. They don't look at all alike to me. The SS guy is much tougher looking.
 

S'mon

Legend
No, that's not why the translator killed him. In an earlier scene, the German soldier killed, I want to say Mellish, by slowly stabbing him after they engaged in a melee. Translator guy sat that fight out paralyzed by fear. He could have saved Mellish but he sat by and did nothing.

The one who killed Mellish (the big SS guy) walks down past the translator in a daze and is never seen again afaict. He's not the same man as the released prisoner who turns up shooting Americans & is shot by the translator after surrendering (again).
 

Death in RPGs and video games is so stylized and sterile it hasn't ever really registered with me (with a single exception, in a video game, of all things).

That said, I've seen players quit the hobby after losing a PC, which always seemed silly to me.
 

Victor Spieles

Explorer
FATE was a breakout point for our group, 12-13 years ago. Mostly D&D before that; we tried Reign, Burning Wheel, and various others, and then tried Spirit of the Century (a pre-core pulp-era FATE game). It was the first time all four at the table were jazzed and the first time (ever) that all four wanted to ref. The system was flexible and inviting, and collaborative, and very forgiving for new refs/DMs.

That was a revelation for us.

This led the group to Diaspora, which was FATE doing Traveller. Lots of mechanisms for combat if you wanted that, but there's never a need for character (or NPC) death (they are "taken out" in a way determined by the victim). Again, very forgiving on refs, and kept us happy for years.

My 10-y-o made me FATE-based versions of the characters in Planet of the Apes as a Father's Day gift one year (helped by a patient mom). But the system intuitively spoke to him for translating what he'd seen on the screen to a RPG character.

That gaming group (2 of the originals, three new ones) still plays. Currently, I'm running a classic Traveller game for them -- we're in week 12 or so, and there has been one combat.
Kobold Stew thank you for the feedback and suggestion to check out Spirit of the Century. The setting and idea for the game are right up my alley of what I'm looking for. Love that your kid spent the time to make you FATE-based versions of the characters from Planet of the Apes as a Father's Day gift. That's a wonderful lifelong memory.
 

Victor Spieles

Explorer
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.
I'd suggest "SUPERS! Revised Edition" ( SUPERS! Quick Start - HAZARD Studio | SUPERS! Revised Edition | DriveThruRPG.com ). It handles "damage" in a more player-friendly way; it's basically up to the Player to decide how his PC takes damage for a lot of, if not most, situations. I even went a step further and just say "pick where you want damage to go". It's a very narrative-oriented system.

Short Version: You have 4 "Resistances" (Fortitude, Composure, Will and Reflexes). If you get a car thrown at you and you take 2 damage, you, as a Player, decide where those 2 points are allocated from your Resistances (or other powers, like Armour or something). The player can then describe how the damage occurs: "Ow! Steelwing brings up his steel wings in front of him just in time! The force of the car crashes into him, pushing him back and down onto one knee! ...I'll take 1 off Fortitude and 1 off my Flight: Wings if that's ok?" ...It could even be "Steelwing leaps to the side as the car barely misses his head by INCHES! Small pieces of glass dot the side of his face. He is shaken by the near death occurrence. ... I'll take 2 points off of Composure".

Also...death isn't a thing unless the Player, Players and/or GM want it to be.

If you want to play a fantasy game...no worries. Just use the system and rules then just add fantasy stuff, setting, equipment, and get to it. (and yes, I do have a "SUPERS! Fantasy" campaign supplement and setting in the works; it's surprisingly easy...like...no-brainer type easy; all I'm really needing to create is the setting and fluff...the rules for Powers fit for spells, magic, special abilities, etc, so there's no real "work" there at all; just creation! :) ).

So if I were you... look into SUPERS! or some other Super Hero RPG you are more familiar with and just use that for your game (fantasy, super hero, scifi, etc).

^_^

Paul L. Ming
Thanks Paul for the SUPERS! suggestion.
 

Victor Spieles

Explorer
The very best piece of tabletop roleplaying game advice I have ever seen was walk, don't run, into conflict. It basically means that we should take our time to understand the context of potential conflicts before rushing headlong into them. Basically let the narrative breathe a bit. In our games we might often go 3-4 sessions without a fight. The potential for violence is usually there, but a significant part of the tension is if there will be violence or not. We also make sure that we always consider the ramifications of violence, in the setting and on our characters. Sitting in that fallout for a bit is also part of not running into conflict all the time.

Here's the blog post I saw this in:

Great advice Campbell. Reading through that post you shared now.
 

Victor Spieles

Explorer
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.
Thanks BrokenTwin. I've spent the days since the original post exploring the RPG suggestions along with some other reviews and have compiled a good list of very low-combat and non-combat RPG options. The next step is finding the right players to play with.
 

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