Monday, May 18, 2020

Towards Less Violent Violence

I have noticed that the threat of death in role-playing games is motivating, but not always interesting. The stakes are too absolute. A player knows that if they fall in combat, their story ends. Worse, if they know a given DM won't actually kill a PC, it can feel like there is no stake at all. Add to that the learned player behavior of responding to aggression with lethal reprisal, and a game can miss out on the many plot points between extermination of Us and extermination of Them.

The regulation of violence in a setting helps to characterize the PCs and their place in the world. When they act wantonly, they might be treated as a wanton outlaw. This is an interesting trade-off if there is some other social role they could aspire to, as trusted and respectable agents of an authority or friends to some kind of society. When PCs feel bound by social customs about violence, it presents all sorts of problems requiring creativity:

  1. How do we transport this captive back to the lord' palace?
  2. How do we draw our foe away from sanctified grounds so the gods will not protect them?
  3. Since we believe this promise from a foe at our mercy, do we accept their promise to take us to their buried loot?
  4. How do we arrange the death of someone we absolutely cannot kill?

Obviously, if you want to establish a cultural code around violence, NPCs need to cleave to it more often than not. If you want a setting where honor and reputation are important, you need to get in the mindset of not-quite-lies and working around the tenets of that setting. This models appropriate rules-lawyering for players. It also helps to have potential enemies respond to strangers in less immediately-homicial manners, showcased with something like False Machine's Ghibli-esque Monster Reaction Roll.

(I like to do a single, simple roll for reactions and morale. Something like:

D6 Reaction Roll

  1. Aggressive. If outmatched, will scatter if possible.
  2. Hunting. Hostile, but won't start an outright fight. If attacked, will give a fighting retreat.
  3. Mixed. Upset, incensed, or worried. If a group, some are aggressive.
  4. Flighty. Will retreat at first sign of trouble.
  5. Curious. Inquisitive, but ready to fight. If attacked, will give a fighting retreat.
  6. Friendly. If outmatched, will scatter if possible.)

Players famously have a problem with surrendering or running. I think this is due in part to failure being inconceivable. There should be stakes. Are the players servants of anyone high status? An enemy might want to capture them for ransom. Are they rich, (like almost every third level character, relative to a peasant?) They can be ransomed or else kept captive until they consent to marry their keeper (in a G-rated mustache-twirling way, unless your game is quite adult.) Even if the PC in question is just a serf, farmers and shepherds are very valuable commodities.

In a land of surrenders, yields, and promises, a foe might not even take someone captive if they swear an oath to leave and not come back. If you really fear someone's revenge, you can always just cut off their sword hand (only for that to be avenged a few sessions later.) I'm just saying, there's a range of outcomes for characters to negotiate, and this ties PCs to the world through the actions they observe in NPCs, in the reputation they have to consider, and ultimately in the feeling of obligation their characters may come to develop, even when no one is watching.

Part of why I enjoy rolling for death and dismembering after reaching 0 HP is that it delineates a point for duels "to the yield." It also means there's one roll on the dismemberment table, which keeps risk present.


  1. I wonder if PC's should get captured more often.

    If capture, impressment, and hopefully escape are common place then the choice to continue fighting or surrender and remain in better condition to escape becomes more interesting.

    On a related note I am still trying to find a ways to incentivize the players to take prisoners.

    1. This is the most brutishly straightforward idea, but it could also be a good adventure premise:
      "The local baroness wants you to abduct the local rebel knight's son for ransom. She will also pay extra for each retainer and servant you capture."
      The hope being that it will teach players that taking prisoners can sometimes translate to more gold.

  2. I like the idea of a courtesy system the PC’s can both depend upon to save them from death and have exploited against them for nonsense reasons.

    It does assume PC’s have a sort of moral standing that grubby adventures don’t usually possess, but that’s very easily fixable by making dungeon delving a pastime of the second and third children who didn’t inherit or pass the mandarin test (according to your setting.)

    I don’t think I’ve seen many diagetic honor systems that aren’t simply a list of “bad actions” or just an honor score to roll against. There’s lots of value in this, especially the delegitimization of violence as the main problem solver.

    1. Good point about moral standing and the typical adventurer. I've had success in games where PCs are assumed to be highly embedded in society and where they are not embedded, but I've had limited experience with games where players start as grubby nobodies and by engaging with the courtesy mores of the setting become highly embedded in them. That would be the truest test.