Killing in RPGs

A while back Lauri asked me to continue the ongoing theme of this blog on psychopathy of player characters by linking me to this article on Indiana Jones. This particular page of the article is about how no one cares about killing. Actually, I’m going to touch on other things besides psychopathy, but its going to make an appearance.

In many ways this is very understandable. There are so many deaths in your usual RPGs that you can’t really stop and go through all the emotions real world death would have. How much of the very limited time you have do you wish to allot to players faking sobbing, anyhow? Sure, there are games where this is very much wanted, but they are not your usual games.

Of course, we don’t experience death the way people used to and many people around the world still do. Do you know why living-room is known as the living-room? It used to be the salon and it was where the dead family members were displayed for everyone to see. Interior design magazines put a stop to that and now elderly people are put into institutions to die without us having to witness their suffering. Then they are stuffed into a coffin and put into the ground without anyone seeing them (again, there are different customs around the world, but his is basically what happens in Finland). If we are ourselved completely insulated from this experience ourselves, how can we feel what the character would feel in that situation? (Well, you might try Maggot Brain by Funkadelic. According to the story, George Clinton told the guitarist to play like his mother had just died. Its a great peace of music.)

But its not only that. Its like the people in RPGs are completely devoid of any emotion regarding this subject. They are like they have been brainwashed or something.

I don’t know the real statistics, but there’s an often quoted fact that during WWII on the Western European front only about 5% of the soldiers would actually shoot at the enemy. Most would shoot at sort of their oppositions direction just to protect themselves, not really wishing to kill anyone. The numbers on the Eastern front were quite different, and things are getting really ugly when you get to Vietnam War couple of decades later, when most of the soldiers would shoot at the enemy. Is it racism?

Most of the time only a limited number of humans die in RPGs. In fantasy RPGs greenskins and monsters are used to distance the PCs from the need to kill actually humans. Most of the time when you do kill humans, they are evil cultists, or bandits, or something. You aren’t really expected to feel remorse about these things.

Often this attitude is transferred into other genres, and it might not work out that well. For example, the point of horror is often to put people out of their comfort zone. When killing things (or people) is seen as normal, it takes away from the horror, when you have to take a life. So, if the GM wants to make killing people mean something, he has to work for it.

There’s a famous (misattributed) quote from Stalin:

The death of one man is a tragedy, the death of millions is a statistic.

So, to make each death meaningful, less is more. Think back to each the first Die Hard movie (or Die Hard movies in general) where each of the bad guys is memorable, because they were each like a miniboss (until the real boss). They don’t just stand there. They make the hero work to beat them. Now, what if we knew anything about their history, their family and so forth. That would actually hit a very different note in the viewer.

Making deaths meaningful means giving the victims personality and identity. Even killing an asshole NPC means more than killing a random soldier or bandit. PCs are much more likely to regret killing Bob or Feldonius, if Bob or Feldonius used to buy them drinks in exchange for some stories of their exploits.

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