The relative roles of conflict and violence.

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.

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5 Responses to The relative roles of conflict and violence.

  1. In my current CP2020 game, I’m four sessions in and haven’t even come close to a fight yet. The characters are only too aware of consequences, and it helps that a lot of them have played in my games before. I run combat like you describe Wolverine fights. there will be blood. It will not be pleasant.

  2. fictivite says:

    I was looking at a 3.5 module that said you could familiarize yourself with a handful of rooms at a time; you could expect 3-5 room encounters in a 4 hour session.

    That is SO not why I play.

  3. dither001 says:

    Neither of my weekly D&D groups is really into the “non-violent” approach to conflict.

    The “Saturday campaign” in which I’m a player, I had a pacifist wizard for a time (an elf and a mother who had been separated from her children and seen over sixty years of violent death come to no avail before facing exile… blah blah, it was a whole background that never came out in the game) who became sullen and withdrawn as attempts to use Diplomacy failed time and again and her companions repeatedly turned to violent methods for solving their problems. Since I couldn’t really do much to change the way the other players operated, I channeled my frustration into character development.

    The “Monday campaign” in which I’m the game master takes place in a world inspired by Greek mythology, and I strive to provide a variety of non-player characters to interact with who have “realistic” reactions to their murderous rampage across an ancient world. Everything from scheming “users” who want to point the party in the direction of enemies, to horrified and grief-stricken shepherds and farmers who’ve lost family to the party’s adventures. I get a rise out of them every now and again, but not much. 😉


  4. fictivite says:

    Well, it doesn’t work for every group. RPGs as a whole are heavily slanted towards violence. Rather than changing that, I want to be sure to offer alternatives. My players can fight a lot–or they can choose not to fight much at all. Depends a lot on their choices. Sound like you give those choices to your group too.

    • dither001 says:

      Indeed. 🙂

      When the stars align, my good friend who introduced me to roleplaying and I get on Skype to roleplay (or rarer still, we sit down to play when he’s passing through SLC), and will sometimes go entire character levels without engaging once in combat. While I wouldn’t say we’ve exactly “mastered” the art of assigning non-combat experience points in Dungeons & Dragons, we’ve worked out some reward systems, less for rewarding “good play” and more for character and story development. It’s good fun. 🙂

      On one occasion, I remember going several weeks without a combat encounter, then playing out a particularly intense “mugging” scene that left my friend shaken. We spent longer discussing in-depth the horrors of violence than the encounter took to resolve. A fond memory. 🙂


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