RPG Killers

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Angel-death-white-background[1]By Paco Garcia Jaen

It came to me recently that generally, when we play an RPG, we have no problem killing anything that threatens us. Organic or not, aberration or natural creature, extraplanar or our very own kin. If we jump on a fight in a game, we’re able to kill our enemy without even blinking an eyelid in contemplation or remorse.


Of course the question is also “why  not?”. At the end of the day it’s just a game and the consequences outside the game-world are totally, well, not there. There are no consequences. No one has turned into a murderous animal after killing a few minions, or even a big boss, in D&D. People don’t go out there eliminating other human beings after a game of Spycraft.

I mean, we might wish we could cast a few Magic Missiles on that idiotic driver, or the moron who jumped the queue (line!) at the cinema, but we wouldn’t take out our Vorpal sword and behead the plonkers in plain sight.

So why being so tremendously callous, even when playing good characters?

No, seriously. Which one of you has played a paladin and decided to end the life of a creature for the simple fact that the creature is evil? Probably a lot. I know I have, even if it not very “paladinic” to do so.

It is true indeed that killing an enemy ensures you don’t have to face that enemy again. Actually, that is not true, there are plenty of spells and reasons why someone could come back from the dead. Or simply come back, doesn’t have to be alive.

Is it because the alignment system in some fantasy RPGs have given us a vision of right and wrong that doesn’t allow for redemption? Does the alignment system take away from our ability to relate to creatures who don’t think or behave like us?

Is it that maybe unwittingly prescriptive as a system rule that makes us forget there are other ways? Or maybe it gives us the excuses we need to just kill for the sake of killing.

But it doesn’t happen just in games with an alignment system. I haven’t hesitated to commit diablerie on an elder vampire of my own clan because it fit my purposes. Haven’t hesitated to kill a cultist instead of immobilise them so they could get some therapy (granted, death could be seen as a kinder fate than mental health therapy in the 20’s).

The thing is that we also forget that keeping someone alive is a tremendous powerful tool.

Killing the orc tribe leader might get the tribe in disarray and out of the forest, just to have them electing another leader and coming back again, this time wiser. However keeping said leader alive might focus the tribe attitude into a “let’s not mess with the humans anymore” mood.

Leaving the snitch alive could give us some clues in the future. As would leaving the cultist maimed but not dead.

These are not difficult to come by options. I think they’re pretty basic and probably everyone has experienced and used them from time to time, so my question still stands:

Why are we so quick to kill when we play RPGs?

Oh, and put that Vorpal sword away. You really shouldn’t take it to the cinema anyway.


3 Responses

  1. Apart from anything else, it’s like video games – those NPCs and Monsters aren’t real, so “killing” them isn’t an issue. Most people don’t think about how difficult actually killing is in the real world. All the fiction, especially action-adventure stuff, has fights to the death all over the show, so that ends up how it happens in the game.

    Add to that the fact that killing monsters is what you “do” in RPGs – it’s been the model literally since the beginning. Heck, most of the early games didn’t even have rules for not killing!

    And how often do the monsters “fight to the death”? I remember when the notion of monsters running away when things got bad was a new and astounding addition to roleplaying! That’s going to lead to a default assumption of “kill them all!”

    And those early ideas set the tone for everything that came after.

    There’s a actually series of actions and attitudes that characters in RPGs adopt that I really don’t think would occur in the real world. For example, if you go to somebody’s house, do you rifle through everything, taking anything that’s vaguely valuable?

    And the one that really gets me isn’t how we treat NPCs, but how quickly PC/PC interaction goes immediately to fights to the death! Dispute over treasure allocation? Fight to the death! Stealing from the party? Fight to the death! Snide remark? Fight to the death!

    More and more I’ve been trying to play characters that are people, rather than PCs. Which leads to some occasional lost opportunities as my character doesn’t go about stealing everything not nailed down (and if it can be pried up it’s not nailed down). It can actually be rather interesting…

  2. Philo Pharynx says:

    It is the default assumption, but some games vary. In superhero games, ther default assumption is to incapacitate them and bring them in alive. (so they can break out of prison next story arc)

    I’m also playing in a game where we are constables – in that game the assumption is that we are attacking nonlethal and bringing htem in. The few times we’ve done lethal damage have been in cases where its recognizably a monster and not a person.

  3. dither says:

    My experience has been that players just don’t think about it that hard. Even with 4e D&D eschewing subdual damage and monster unconsciousness, and allowing you to simply choose “life or death” for a monster upon reducing it to 0 hit points — most players will just kill the creature.

    It could be that there’s simply no incentive to keeping a monster or NPC alive. It can’t keep its treasure from you if it’s dead, and some jerky DMs won’t give you EXP if you don’t kill the monster (some won’t offer non-combat EXP at all). We could all argue ethics and morals (I know I have), and I think most players just don’t care.


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