A while back, I made peace with a fundamental departure from my previous understanding of what was needed in a role playing game session. I decided that while combat was traditionally the centerpiece of the hobby, I was going to reduce its assumed prominence to one tool in a toolbox.
This reflected a change in my gaming that had happened anyway. However, I would feel anxious if I did not provide my player characters with enough fights. I felt that I was playing outside the norm by focusing on conflict rather than violence. Combat remained something player characters could initiate, but I usually worked in an alternate solution as well. My players instinctively realized this, and as combat is dangerous (and time-consuming at the table) they frequently took the non-combat route.
This idea is not brand new. White Wolf had a lot of story gaming focusing on conflicts besides violence, and any good game with lasting appeal has conflicts on several levels beyond combat ability. While it is true that I have not come up with a new thing here, it is also true that I needed to give myself permission to change my style without feeling self-conscious about it.
I grew up in the 80s. All the toys I played with that portrayed a fictional setting were violent. I was heavy into G.I. Joe and Star Wars toys, supplemented with some TMNT and He Man and Star Com. I played with toy guns, toy swords, toy shields. I had LaserTag and longed for paintball. I read fairy tales and absorbed all the fantasy material I could. My young mind was steeped in battle, equating adventure with combat. When I was playing, I was fighting.
As I grew up and became a writer, I was faintly bemused to hear one reviewer describe my work as “hyper-violent.” I realized that the reason for that was I was using the same level of violence from my comic books and movies, but I was imposing realistic consequences on those actions. Wolverine didn’t just “battle” with his claws, but he cut through bone and muscle and people dropped with a hoarse scream, clutching at their now-useless arm as it unleashed an arterial spray. Someone who is strong and ruthless, armed with blades that can cut through nearly anything, vulnerable to red rages… you won’t just “lose hit points” to an assault like that.
If we are going to revel in violence, let’s not sanitize it. I find it shocking that the difference between PG and R ratings in movies that are violent is blood. If you have one character battering another character and there is blood, it is R, but if there is no blood, PG. So, it is better for our children to witness fighting with no consequences rather than understand that it is not playful, but damaging.
Skilled martial artists are less likely to get in brawls because they know what they can do to an opponent. Some jerk with a chip on his shoulder may have something to prove, but someone skilled in hand to hand knows that there are consequences to fighting that may not rest easy on the conscience and will likely have permanent repercussions for one or more people in the fight. For another example, consider the “glory of war” from the perspective of new recruits and experienced veterans.
As a writer I aimed to lure people in with the flashy violence, then have them fall in love with the characters. In a strange reversal, the combat that lured readers in became undesirable because their beloved characters could face permanent consequences.
In a way, that same philosophy carries over into my role playing games. Only people who have played with me for years have learned that they can relax and make characters that don’t focus on violence. In my World Between game, I have a noble woman and a thief with no more than average fighting ability, who have found many other ways to navigate the conflicts and exert their own kind of power in the setting without stabbing people in the face.
If violence downgrades in prominence in the game, then conflict must be centered elsewhere. I like running mysteries. I like running horror games where the characters can’t improve their situation with violence alone.
I design game systems that have robust ways of dealing with competition, uncertainty, and conflict that allow characters to excel in those areas. Intimidation, investigation, persuasion, seduction; if all your character sheet says you can do is fight, and you make up the rest, then you will be focusing all your character advancement on what happens on the character sheet.
Give the players ways to reflect social power, detective skill, and cunning on their character sheets, they are more likely to develop along other lines.
I’m not saying combat is gone. I am saying it is less assumed, less prominent. And when it does come, it can be scary, because something bad may happen to you. I don’t want to get rid of the violence. I do, however, want to show it with all the blood and pain and loss that go with it. Along with that, I can offer the players another way, most of the time. And most of the time, they take it.
This is not a bug. It is a FEATURE.