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Why are we okay with violence in RPGs?

lowkey13

Exterminate all rational thought
So, this is a thread / thought / discussion starter.

I am going to start by saying that I am not looking to open this up to general comments about adult themes, etc. in RPGs. So, please don't, okay?

Instead, it's about a very specific issue- violence.

Necessary Disclaimer- I know not everyone plays the same way. I know not everyone thinks RPGs are violent, or enjoy violent RPGs.


Now, I'm as fond of ye ol' murderhoboing as the next person. As I always remark, "If God & Gygax didn't want us to kill Orcs, why did He make them out of XP?"

But as I've remarked about before, I play a lot of 1e and B/X modules that I convert to 5e. And something has been bugging me.

And this came to a head recently when I ran B2 for some kids. Generally, Goodman Games did an amazing job, and I reviewed it here-
https://www.enworld.org/forum/showthread.php?655877-Into-the-Borderlands-On-Running-an-Updated-Classic

So here's the part of the original I wanted to emphasize-

Here's the thing- I hadn't run it in a long time. And I had forgotten just how ... um .... hobomurdery the default setting was. Seriously. I was prepping before running it, and I kept reading about the caverns filled with the Kobold Chieftan's women (who would attack) and children and ... yeah. Depending on your audience and/or tolerance for humanoid genocide, you might have to re-work a few things. I know I had to seriously re-work it to keep the old feel while making it acceptable for more modern play.
There's a fine line between fun happy combat and ... um ... uncomfortable colonialist massacre of women and children, if you catch my drift. Look kids, Big Ben, Parliament, a possibly mentally ill hermit I need to murder for his stuff!

Thing is- I obviously have a different perspective now. I'm not trying to harsh on anyone's conception of what is, and isn't fun- after all, I was deliriously happy watching John Wick 3, so I'm not getting on any soapboxes when it comes to violence.


I'm just ... curious ... as to what other people think. I mean, I understand WHY (IMO) violence is part of the scene (legacy of wargaming, advancement through XP, fantasy tropes, etc.), but I'm curious as to what people think of it now?

So, throwing it out there.

War, huh, yeahWhat is it good for
Absolutely nothing
War, huh, yeah
What is it good for
Absolutely nothing
I mean ... other than XP!
 

Spaztian

Villager
While I think it always depends on the group-think of the table as to how murdur-y they get, in your case, I think The Caves of Chaos offer PLENTY of opportunities (if the group chooses) to role play through encounters... possibly convincing different groups to go at each other.

I think a case can be made to show enough of a threat that creatures can be convinced to leave rather than dying.

I understand you are talking about d&d in general, but I did want to bring that up.
 
Briefly, combat has a unique combination of elements that makes it a suitable focus for social gaming.

1) It's a team activity where all participants can make meaningful decisions.
2) It is a conflict that has a clear problem to solve.
3) Progress toward that problem can be easily observed and measured.
4) The progress toward that problem is uniquely dynamic, giving all participants an opportunity to imagine something visceral and exciting.

Almost nothing else shares these features. Even sports are simply attempts to codify combat in ways that reduce the chance the parties hurt each other. One could imagine an RPG revolving around a team sport in the same way that movies can revolve around a team sport, but then the conflicts involved don't clearly mean anything or resolve anything and it's notable that almost all sports movies aren't actually team movies, but movies about the Great Coach or the Underdog Player and everyone else is pretty much an NPC. The conflict is generally over how a single individual proves himself through sports, and it's that inspiring figures choices that really matter.

There are other sorts of conflicts that can be fun, but they have a tendency to not involve equal cooperation from all party members unless they are carefully contrived. In fact, most of them involve only a central core character that is being helped by at most a supporting cast in a non-dynamic way. I've really just never seen a table top RPG do non-combat puzzles involving collective effort in a consistently interesting manner, because the choices involved in the participants are too granular to effectively run in an RPG. You can do it in a cRPG, but cRPG's allow for more visceral action - think about how a 'match three' type game always involves choices and immediate sensory feedback.

Too many RPGs that want to have as a focus of play something other than combat, really only work with two or at most three participants because they lack a way to really share spotlight. They also tend to have fortune checks that resolve conflicts without meaningful choices, leaving the player mostly an observer of the game and with little role but to take stage direction from the dice and the story-teller. And you can't really do internal exploration of character with six or eight or twelve players huddled at a table (although you might could split them up among 3 or 4 tables each doing their separate RP).

In short, while I get bored with a game that has nothing but combat in it, and especially if the combat seems to be just a linear sequence of on the rails staged set pieces, I suspect that if it was more than just a couple of players I'd get bored without it as well.

So now that I've answered, "Why combat?", I think the answer to "Why violence?" is pretty obvious.

As for the particular thing that is triggering you, well, good. We hit that trigger at age 15 in a homebrew module where the PC's got to the back of the cave after slaughtering the hobgoblin bandits, and found hobgoblin women and children huddled in the back of the cave. Now what? Things got real. We suffered our actual first moral dilemma. That realization marked one of the most salient points where I can remember my approach to the game becoming more mature.

It would have worked exactly the same with human bandits I think, only if anything the question got sharper and more pointed with apparent monsters, because there really was no hope that my players could see at the time of assimilating the survivors (and had they tried, that in itself would have been a moral dilemma). So, yeah, I don't play up the violence and revel in it, but I learned then not to play it down either. It's more grown up to really think about the violence as consequential.

Even so, my 13 and 14 year old players when going through B2 didn't slaughter noncombatants. They generally let anything that didn't attack them flee. At the time, none of us really thought about the consequences of it.

The closest I can remember in my young play getting 'murder hobo-y' was playing Gamma World. I had this mutant gorilla named Koko, and we were for some reason in this village of bat people. There was this plaster statue in the town square and I decided that the plaster must be hiding some sort of treasure, and broke a piece off to check (also I was bored, the young GM wan't that great). The bat folk, who I suppose weren't a bad sort, decided I'd committed sacrilege and proceeded to attack us. A mass slaughter of many of the otherwise innocent bat folk followed. We were clearly in the wrong and we knew it even then. But, what are you going to do after, "I'm sorry." doesn't cut it?

None of the bat people represented any sort of real world ethnic group. Nor was my choice of playing a mutant gorilla meant to represent some sort of real world ethnic group. Nor was the conflict that arose between the party and the bat people any sort of colonialist narrative. I'm sure you could create some sort of interpretation in that direction, but to be quite frank, it would be BS and any sort of scholarly method that was that divorced from the intentions and thoughts of the participants would be anti-intellectual to the point of insanity because you would learn less than you started out knowing to engage in such analysis. Some times a pen is just a pen. Sometimes a sword is just a sword. And sometimes an orc is just an orc. Persistently seeing a sword or a pen as a symbol, or persistently seeing minority groups in every monstrous alien thing you meet tells me more about you than it does about anything else.
 
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5ekyu

Explorer
To my way of thinking, RPGs were born out of adding more to the already existing wargame mode of groups playing dides for historical orvfictionsl combats. Then that grew into " playing" as characters in the various fictional setting and stories were had shared interest in- be it supers, sword and sorcery, star wars, scifi, B uck Rogers, etc etc etc...

And so those fictional settings use of violence and combat carried over.

As RPGs have expanded, you have lots of games and setting with different takes on violence to reflect their source.

I mean, even today, we see Endgame, John Wick 3, Seal Team, Underworld and countless others where violence and combat are integral.

So, to me its accepted in the RPGs derived from those because it's part and parcel of their source.

Now, tossing in a Red Wedding into a session of Honey Bear Heist (or Ocean's 11) would lead to a different take.
 

HJFudge

Villager
I think that as a culture we have decided that violence in general is something that it is okay to pretend at. It is in our books, our movies, our games...our very lives. We watch people fight on the television for real with boxing and MMA and such. We sit in fascination as we watch nature documentaries where animals do violence to other animals.

So it is only natural we allow for it in our tabletop RPGs.

Note, I would argue that it is currently out of style to have excessive violence within our games. I do not allow scenes of torture...if someone wants to do it, we can fade to black, but I don't need to play it out. Also, I encourage (or try to) non-violent solutions to problems within games...and I think a lot of other games do as well.

Violence, however, still has its place as a means of conflict resolution. Indeed, it is the last argument of kings as they say. Because we are acting out fantasies through the game, we imagine we stop the Bad Guys from doing whatever it is they are going to do: in general, by any means necessary. The bad guys, as it were, generally do not listen to Reason. Thus, violence is the answer. We allow this because it is something that, again, is pervasive throughout our culture. Every heroic book or story or movie or game has violence in it. So it is expected when we sit down and play the heroes. Or even the villains.

We are acting out and creating our own stories. The best stories involve Conflict. Sometimes, violence is the only solution to a Conflict. Thus we allow it and expect it.
 

Elfcrusher

Explorer
I, for one, find some RPG killing unsettling/disturbing:
- Torturing captives
- Killing captives
- Killing non-combatants/innocents
- Sometimes even unnecessarily attacking intelligent humanoids

Why "humanoids" on the last one? I dunno. Mind flayers, for example, aren't covered by this policy. I don't have a policy...I'm must describing what bothers me.

In one game (it was The One Ring, so we're in Middle-earth here) we captured and questioned one surviving orc after a fight, then were stuck with the question "What do we do with him?" We ended up giving him back his sword and telling him that if he could beat my character in a fight he could go free. I was pleased with that solution.

(If you're wondering how it turned out, when the dirty rat realized he was going to lose he threw his shield at my face and ran for it. Everybody failed various rolls, and he got away. We retaliated by parading the shield around the Anduin valley, talking about how its owner was such a coward that he threw his shield and ran. We eventually learned from some other orcs that he was "sent back to guard duty" as punishment for cowardice, and his name was Ufthak. Ufthak, if you recall your Tolkien lore, was captured, toyed with, then eaten by Shelob. So there.)
 

trancejeremy

Villager
Now, I'm as fond of ye ol' murderhoboing as the next person. As I always remark, "If God & Gygax didn't want us to kill Orcs, why did He make them out of XP?"
That's actually the thing that people get wrong. Killing orcs in D&D (at least early versions) was not really worth much XP. An orc was worth 15 xp. A fighter would have to kill 134 of them to reach 2nd level.

XP mostly came from loot. But how do you get that? That's up to the players.

Violence is an option in early D&D, but it's not the only or even optimal option. The idea was to fight when necessary, but only when necessary.
 

macd21

Villager
I think HJFudge has it: culturally we find it ok to pretend at violence. It’s not just RPGs, it’s movies, computer games, novels, wargames, paintball...
 

Dannyalcatraz

Moderator
Staff member
So, this is a thread / thought / discussion starter.

I am going to start by saying that I am not looking to open this up to general comments about adult themes, etc. in RPGs. So, please don't, okay?

Instead, it's about a very specific issue- violence.

Necessary Disclaimer- I know not everyone plays the same way. I know not everyone thinks RPGs are violent, or enjoy violent RPGs.


Now, I'm as fond of ye ol' murderhoboing as the next person. As I always remark, "If God & Gygax didn't want us to kill Orcs, why did He make them out of XP?"

But as I've remarked about before, I play a lot of 1e and B/X modules that I convert to 5e. And something has been bugging me.

And this came to a head recently when I ran B2 for some kids. Generally, Goodman Games did an amazing job, and I reviewed it here-
https://www.enworld.org/forum/showthread.php?655877-Into-the-Borderlands-On-Running-an-Updated-Classic

So here's the part of the original I wanted to emphasize-



There's a fine line between fun happy combat and ... um ... uncomfortable colonialist massacre of women and children, if you catch my drift. Look kids, Big Ben, Parliament, a possibly mentally ill hermit I need to murder for his stuff!

Thing is- I obviously have a different perspective now. I'm not trying to harsh on anyone's conception of what is, and isn't fun- after all, I was deliriously happy watching John Wick 3, so I'm not getting on any soapboxes when it comes to violence.


I'm just ... curious ... as to what other people think. I mean, I understand WHY (IMO) violence is part of the scene (legacy of wargaming, advancement through XP, fantasy tropes, etc.), but I'm curious as to what people think of it now?

So, throwing it out there.

War, huh, yeahWhat is it good for
Absolutely nothing
War, huh, yeah
What is it good for
Absolutely nothing
I mean ... other than XP!
Your quote is blacked out. Here’s why, and how to fix it.
 

Dannyalcatraz

Moderator
Staff member
Most of us play RPGs for some kind of adventure. Adventure requires some kind of dramatic potential. Dramatic potential comes from conflict. And for most people, violence is the simplest form of conflict to model and relate to. It’s a universal theme.

Theoretically, someone could do nonviolent RPGs based on being successful stock brokers, venture capitalists, rival art schools, or plants seeking nutrients in a certain strip of land.

But those would all be very difficult to model in an accessible and engaging fashion. And their appeal would be very narrow. Hard to see how they’d be profitable.
 

Riley37

Villager
There's a fine line between fun happy combat and ... um ... uncomfortable colonialist massacre of women and children, if you catch my drift
IMO there are fine lines on some axes, and wide gaps on other axes.

I've enjoyed sparring, which is a form of violence, though intentionally and drastically limited violence; we were trying to *hit* each other, just not for significant damage. It was fun happy combat. It was different from colonialist massacre of women and children.

I've used physical violence once in my adult life, to stop a man who was holding a woman down on the sidewalk, and repeatedly punching her. That was not sparring; it was the real thing. I used minimal force, enough that she could get away, without doing him any permanent harm - but I had accepted non-zero risk of permanent harm to myself, had certain factors turned out differently, and if I'd been unable to limit how far the situation escalated. (Fortunately for me, he turned out to be unarmed, mentally disorganized, and smaller than me in both reach and mass.)

Again, that was real violence, and it was NOT "colonialist massacre of women and children". He and I were both white men; no one died; I did not subsequently take his hunting grounds and turn them into a plantation.

During the Third Reich occupation of the Warsaw ghetto, there was mutual violence between Jewish civilians and German soldiers. There is a TRPG, in which the PCs are members of the Resistance. It has a grim tone, but the players may reasonably consider (some of) their PCs to be heroes (of a sort). I am not aware of a published TRPG in which the PCs are soldiers in the German army, assigned to crushing resistance in Warsaw. (Though I am aware of white supremacist TRPGs.) It's as if though both Jewish snipers firing at German soldiers, and German soldiers firing at Jewish volunteers, are both practicing violence, many players see a *moral* difference between one side's use of violence and the other side's use of violence. More or less the same applies to "Golden Age Champions"; the setting book assumes that the PCs are on the side of the Allies.

So there's a valid general question about why so many of us, play so many games with *any kind of violence*.

There is also a MUCH more specific question about why so many of us play - or have played - games which specifically include colonialist massacre of women and children (whether human or humanoid). In AD&D, high level PCs don't just slaughter orcs without second thoughts; PCs even exterminate "monsters" in a designated territory, so that human or demi-human farmers will arrive, build farms on the land, and then pay taxes to the PC, so long as the PC builds and maintains a keep. Yup, there's specific rules for that process.

When did non-colonialist games emerge (that is, games *without* built-in rules for the endgame of becoming a tax-collecting, monster-eradicating plantation overlord), and to what extent have some players preferred those games, specifically on that basis?
 

Riley37

Villager
Theoretically, someone could do nonviolent RPGs based on being successful stock brokers, venture capitalists, rival art schools, or plants seeking nutrients in a certain strip of land.
I've played Fiasco once, at a convention. No fight scenes, no chase scenes. Conflict, but at other levels. I suspect that we actually *could* use the Fiasco rules set for a fun session about rival venture capitalists (some of us cutting more corners than others). IMO a game of plants competing for nutrients - or perhaps exchanging nutrients sometimes, via interconnected root systems - would require difficult role-playing expression for those of us without lived experience as plants; but if we were willing to employ Pixar levels of anthropomorphosis, it could be both engaging and hilarious.
 

Dannyalcatraz

Moderator
Staff member
When did non-colonialist games emerge (that is, games *without* built-in rules for the endgame of becoming a tax-collecting, monster-eradicating plantation overlord), and to what extent have some players preferred those games, specifically on that basis?
Pretty early on, actually. Boot Hill hit in 1975. Traveller In 1977, as did Superhero 2044. Champions in 1981. All still had violence, of course.
 

Dannyalcatraz

Moderator
Staff member
I've played Fiasco once, at a convention. No fight scenes, no chase scenes. Conflict, but at other levels. I suspect that we actually *could* use the Fiasco rules set for a fun session about rival venture capitalists (some of us cutting more corners than others).
Never played it, seen it, nor heard of it, to the best of my recollection.

IMO a game of plants competing for nutrients - or perhaps exchanging nutrients sometimes, via interconnected root systems - would require difficult role-playing expression for those of us without lived experience as plants; but if we were willing to employ Pixar levels of anthropomorphosis, it could be both engaging and hilarious.
The devil, as always, is in the details. A simulationist version of it would be extremely difficult to design...and probably enjoy. (But might work just fine as a boardgame.)
 

Tonguez

Adventurer
Never played it, seen it, nor heard of it, to the best of my recollection.



The devil, as always, is in the details. A simulationist version of it would be extremely difficult to design...and probably enjoy. (But might work just fine as a boardgame.)
I dunno, I spent hours playing both Sim Ant and Pandemic. I'd suspect a plant/forest simulator would play similar to pandemic coopting the mycellium networks for love and lemons.

Anyway as a indigenous minority in a former British colony, I've always been acutely aware of the 'problem of DnDs' fantasy foundations essentially being the glory of Europe and Empire over the 'savage other' (ie Orcs, goblins).
Its probably what pushed me more towards playing non-human characters (half orcs, gnomes) in non-combat orientated classes (thief-acrobats, alchemist, clerics) or monk-assassins (strike back at the establishment!!).

That said a bit of violent play isnt so bad, especially if put into a justifiable context (killing zombies and soulsucking fey is okay - killing innocent orc babies is bad - goblins are annoying scavengers but they have rights too!).
I'd say the sport analogy is apt, Sport is controlled violence and the controlled violence of RPGs is sport.

That said I do like newer approaches that focus on "overcoming a challenge" rather than killing things, so that whether you choose to Kill it, Talk to it, Trick it or Sneak around it, you will be rewarded
 
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Lylandra

Villager
I think Riley made a good point: violence is too broad of a term to simply say that using it in RPGs is more or less moral by itself.

What we have to take a look at is both story/setting and context.

First, story and setting. Someone already mentioned John Wick, wich is, in my opinion, a totally enjoyable over-the-top franchise. I can imagine playing a John Wick RPG and it would be completely violent, as you'd expect from a setting in which assassins are a huge, organized thing. But I guess that a John Wick game would never give you any XP for killing (defenseless) noncombatants and neither would the setting's tone encourage you to do so.

Another example would be an evil fantasy campaign (and I know they're kind of en vogue now) where the players are obviously playing the bad guys. Again, violence would be expected, but thins time, it could happen to anyone for any reason. Which is why a good evil campaign needs a strong session zero in advance or else people can be pushed over the lines of what's acceptable in their games.

Other kinds of story or setting would involve PCs trying to avoid violent situations at all.

Then there is the context of violence which is more or less the ages old question of whether or not a violent act is justified. I imagine most games and players will be okay with using justified violence against their opponent, in example for self-defense or to protect others from being harmed. Because that's what heroes would do, y'know?

Murderhoboing, on the other hand, means that every NPC out there is a potential source of loot and XP to be harvested. Which isn't really justifyable violence or proper conflict resolution. In most cases, killing everyone and stealing their stuff is solely motivated by pure and simple greed.

The question is where we draw the line when it comes to violence. And how we design certain games to encourage or discourage certain modes of using violence as a tool for conflict resolution.

For example:

- does a game award XP for killing, no matter who or what you kill?
- does a game award XP (more, less?) for subduing opponents after you defated them?
- does a game award XP (the same amount? more? less?) for finding a non-violent solution instead?
- does a game reward you more for killing people than for not killing them? (i.e. do you get "loot" for peacefur resolutions?)
- does a game award XP for killing, but only when you kill a certain type of opponents? (i.e. opponents of roughly equal level, monsters, evil people...)

As long as killing people and taking their stuff is the most efficient and rewarding way to progress through a game, players will be really tempted to use murderhoboing as their preferred method.
 

Bagpuss

Explorer
Why are we okay with violence in RPGs?

Because it isn't real.

Why are we okay with violence on TV? Because it isn't real.
Why are we okay with violence in cinema? Because it isn't real.
Why are we okay with violence in books? Because it isn't real.
Why are we okay with violence in plays? Because it isn't real.

Why are we not okay with violence in reality? Because it is real.

I know that is a really simplistic way of looking at it, but it is the core difference.


Edit: Before you respond to this, read my later posts where I expand a bit.
 
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Dannyalcatraz

Moderator
Staff member
[MENTION=1125]Tonguez[/MENTION]

I’ve played Sim Ant (and other early Sim games) and Pandemic- they’re not RPGs, so I’m unclear as to your point.
 

Bedrockgames

Villager
While I think it always depends on the group-think of the table as to how murdur-y they get, in your case, I think The Caves of Chaos offer PLENTY of opportunities (if the group chooses) to role play through encounters... possibly convincing different groups to go at each other.

I think a case can be made to show enough of a threat that creatures can be convinced to leave rather than dying.

I understand you are talking about d&d in general, but I did want to bring that up.
I played through the caves of chaos a few years ago and my impression is the presence of the children and women were actually great RP opportunities.
 

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