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Soapbox: About the Industry

The Path to Atrocities

by Sandy Antunes
Mar 06,2003

 

The Path to Atrocities

In general, I'm a nice person. And I prefer to game nice characters. In fact, I'd wager that, when playing a Deana-Troi-like telepathic city psychotherapist in a fantasy game, one of the least likely outcomes is for me to suggest we spike the surrendering prisoner to the log wall "just for fun".

But there we were, and so it was. I believe my exact justification was "because he ticked me off". But in retrospect, the prisoner had done nothing to me. It was the GM and the GM's world that I was acting out against.

So let's look at why fairly ordinary folks go all Lord-of-the-Flies in gaming sessions. The primary reason is a failure to engage. Put simply, the GM has not succeeded in engaging the players into the world, the concept, the plot. Bored, the players start to break the toys.

Obviously, players go into games expecting something. If the game is not providing what they desire, and the GM doesn't care, we have a problem. But even if the players wanted hack&slash, well, it can be a tiresome activity if not given some depth.

I mean, troops that don't surrender when they take 50% losses in the first minute? Bandits charging the guy who just killed two of them in 1 attack without receiving a scratch in return? That's not hack&slash, it's dueling with idiots. No wonder PCs end up with a Genghis Khan-like attitude: "if you'd surrendered earlier, I'd have been nice, but now I'm going to pull your fingernails out."

The martial-arts-movie-like post-facto justification of "we had our superior fighter with us" in no way changes the fact that each other NPC had a life expectancy of perhaps 1 minute. I'm sick of enemies that act like 4-year olds. Smart games (like Feng Shui) make Mook rules so you don't waste time with this aspect. Hack&slashing through each and every moron, on the other hand, does nothing but build up contempt.

Even if you want hack&slash, it gets to be fairly numbing and (*gasp*) confrontational. It really sets up the GM versus Player attitude when the only option is 'kill'. It's no longer "I must fight these challenges". It's "this world is stupid, let's make it go away."

And what are those NPCs supposed to be thinking? If I, say, robbed a bank and found out the city had sent a team of bounty hunters to find me, I'm not going to say "Oh, there's only 3 of them, they must be wussies." Especially if they just killed half my friends in 20 seconds.

But it seems all NPCs have this weird perception that:
* as long as one of them is badass, they're all nigh-immortal, and
* PCs must suck.

After you face something you thinks you suck and who has a false image about their own personal chances of survival, who can blame you for getting a bit contempt-y about things? They've already dehumanized themselves, so anything you do doesn't really count, right?

Okay, maybe the thought that hack&slash (goal: "kill people and steal their stuff") doesn't build empathy isn't a revolutionary thought.

But it's pretty apparent that, when NPCs are reduced to the state of miniatures on a combat grid, there's no in-game incentive for players to bother with concepts like "diplomacy", "mercy", or even "roleplaying". For those to be options, they have to have a chance of being effective.

And when the range of possible options are closed down for players, the players get bored. And when they get bored... they break things. They behave badly.

So ironically, the lack of fleshed-out, plausible villains leads to PCs performing atrocities. Cunning evil bastards bring out the best in PCs. Things like the 'controversial' much-criticized 'evil' "Book of Vile Darkness" actually builds humanity-- for the PCs. It gives them a context, it gives them foes worth engaging. Stupidity just breeds slaughter.

So to GMs, I warn "more evil! Fight smarter, not longer!" Because if your NPCs won't commit atrocities... I will.

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What do you think?

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All Soapboxes

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  • May 2, 1997 "Communications Breakdown" (company and player schisms)
  • April 2, 1997 "The Quick and the Dead" (dying companies versus new ideas)
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  • November 1, 1996 "Best of Times, Worst of Times" (on rumors, survival, and larps)
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  • Our reason for existence

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