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You Wanna Fight?

Death and Fighting

Bryan Jonker
September 3, 2001  

The Problem

I tend to run campaigns heavy on intrigue, mystery, horror, and role-playing. I've run dungeon crawls, but they suit neither my players nor me. However, even in the most role-playing/puzzling session, I try to get in at least one physical fight, just to liven things up. While the intrigue, role-playing, and puzzle solving is entertaining, nothing seems to get the players involved like a quick fight (of course, this may say less about the psychology of gamers and more about my game mastering abilities). However, my players tend to not run psychopaths, which means I just can't say, "You see three orcs, and they attack you/you attack them immediately." After all, the players will question why the orcs attacked them in the first place. Furthermore, many of my campaigns are human-only, which means I can't use different races. I need background. I need to plan these fights. I need reasons.

Alignments Aren't the Solution

The AD&D lawful good paladin is in a bit of a quandary. Originally, AD&D took it from St. George and the Dragon, or the "knight wading into hell" image. Fine and good, but a first level paladin has to settle for goals that are more modest. Protection from evil 10' radius only works for so long. So, we have the paladin cut his teeth on evil beings like orcs and goblins. The result of this is we have a paladin slaughtering countless intelligent, sentient beings without provocation, just because of their race. If you replace "orcs and goblins" with "Germans and Japanese," you see the problem.

Alignment is also, dare I say it, sloppy. A crutch. People are greedy, selfish, stupid, lazy, insane, or not thinking of the consequences. They aren't evil. Most importantly, people can change. Using language from psychotherapy, we are not necessarily defined by our actions. People act evil, they aren't evil. To complicate the picture, people act through both internal and external stimuli. Did that gambler hide that extra ace because he's normally dishonest, or because this is his tenth losing streak in a row and he's getting frustrated? We tend to subconsciously relate external stimuli to our own actions and internal stimuli to other people. "I'm normally don't lie, but I'm running late and don't want to bother with a lengthy explanation. Norma, well, she's a liar." Alignment is a way of internalizing everyone's actions, and in real life that just doesn't scan.

Of course, you say, those are humans. We're talking about orcs and kobolds, not people, and orcs are, well, orcs. But can a race that is intelligent enough for speech and social enough to create tribes be evil? Yes, I've read The Ecology of Orcs in Dragon magazine, but it doesn't convince me. Perhaps it's my liberal leanings, but the creatures in my universe range from "animal-like" to "human-like." The big question is free will - if the creature doesn't have free will and acts only on instinct, the creature can't be blamed for its actions. If the creature does have free will, then he can choose to act good or evil. The orc's mindset of "I have free will, but I can only choose evil" is a paradox, a paradox that I simply cannot work with.

Does this mean that monsters can't exist? Of course not. But, how I handle this is grist for the next article. Stay tuned....

A Pacifistic Game?

On the other hand (is this hand #3?), you got to have enemies. The whole story centers around conflict, and you need someone to conflict with. Plus, violence is fun - that's why blockbuster movies often have person A killing person B, not to mention the popularity of Duke Nukem and Doom clones. So, how do we travel through this Syblis and Chrboyus?

The Game Master is the navigator. She must create plots that require conflict, without that conflict seeming forced - otherwise, the campaign turns into a bad Hong Kong flick where people just start fighting for no apparent reason. She must steer the players into situations where fighting is, if not the only option, a feasible one. She must design the game world where combat is possible. These issues are the column's genesis - this is my exploration into "the fight": how to set them up, how to handle them, and most importantly, how to explain the fight.


First and foremost, talking about death and fighting can be touchy - you have war hawks on one side and doves on the other. I'm not scared about touching on these issues, but I plan to focus on gaming, not politics. While I have definite views about, for example, the Gulf War and killing, this isn't the forum for that. Instead, I want to bring up the idea that fighting can deepen role-playing instead of being tacked on at the end. Some of the topics I plan on covering, editor willing, are cults, contests, mind control, psychology of monsters (as mentioned above), pacifism, surrendering, and the law. Plus, whatever else comes along. Anything that relates to the fight is fair game.

Starting the Game: A Distinction

You may ask how this differs from how to start a game, and the two points are related. Some of the most basic game starters are "you must assassinate the evil emperor / kill the dragon / banish the demon." After the Tolkienesque "get the magical object" motif, killing the monster is probably the most common way to start a campaign. All that is fine and good, but I'm guessing it's going to take the characters several sessions to get to the main evil thing (otherwise, it's a short campaign). What do you do in the meantime? If the evil thing has many minions, then why do the minions fight? Are they mindless drones like stormtroopers, or are they just more afraid of the bad guy than you?

What does all this mean? One bad guy is believable. A group of them is perhaps an aberration, but still possible. A nation of evil people is impossible. If all of your battles depend on one person, then you have better designed your campaign / world to make this one person really special. Most games aren't set up like that, which creates a cool, believable final battle at the end...and nothing to tide the players until that battle except some pointless fights. While the big "boss battle" is important, I'm more interested in the smaller, day-to-day conflicts.


Of course, I'm approaching gaming from a certain perspective. Like I've said, I've run adventures ranging from dungeon crawls to heavily immersive role-playing, and personally, I feel either extreme to be not as interesting as a melding of styles. Of course, that's not everyone's cup of tea. As they say, it's a free country, and one of the joys of gaming is going against canon. But, for those I've struck a chord, who have thought similar thoughts, I hope to spark some ideas. TQo0~^DҒt< ek&Ǿ$\۵ZFȃuwݝIŃU QYir2HR2.u3MFoعq]4#A`pP5(b& )b)ⰾp7(i<[-2gL#5[f g?*rVGf8*)s'+20ϟ̑F}KB<7wSL\gbvm9WiRބYŜvd y0'p2I_Fc2>#o A )VL[Qk?3`)<У[(*W.JH ?tXCt谙 X:@ \0w ~LqĤE-rFkYœj4q 5AQ6[AxG [>w|?( fХθY䝛$c=_qNĦoǸ>O_|&/_Mi7"宥CЧk0dӷLh;TmuCGU-!Ul{ h<\bQX.~"O2*yPcz!ŠGg

What do you think?

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Wanna Fight by Bryan Jonker