Killing in the Game of…
It was inevitable that the release of the Legends of Vox Machina would ignite a number of internet bonfires, because it seems impossible to write the words ‘Critical Role’ without battle lines being drawn up nowadays. However, I never thought that the issue might be a resurfacing of an old RPG chestnut – the role of sex and violence in games.
I’m going to whistle by the idea that having swear words in a cartoon is somehow a bad thing because cartoons are for children. (c.f. Invincible, please…) and the notion that the horny bard archetype might actually have sex (!) and the shocking revelation that there may be relationships going on, and cut to the other part.
Because wow, is Vox Machina violent!
Well, let me rephrase that. It isn’t as wonderfully gory as Invincible but it does show a far more graphic representation of what being hit with a warhammer in the head might look like than almost every fantasy film I have seen. When someone is being stabbed in the chest multiple times, it looks like a proper knifing. When a horse-drawn carriage goes off a cliff, so do the horses…
And some people have bounced off this representation of violence as being inappropriate for a ‘D&D Cartoon’ and to them I would say this – that is EXACTLY what your games look like, but you aren’t willing to admit it.
Roleplaying games, from their very inception, have been about killing things. Remember that the way you succeeded in early D&D was to literally kill things and take their stuff. Experience points for killing monsters and for taking their treasure. More modern players might shake their heads at the idea of getting 1000xp when you picked up a chest of 1000gp, but you did. I remember, way back in the mists of time, when games were rocked by the idea that you should gain equivalent experience points for disabling or talking down or otherwise circumventing a monster, than killing it. It was a moment of liberation for some and absolute heresy for others. Because killing things is that important to these games.
There are few games – especially in the fantasy genre – where violence, murder, and death are not accepted, but in most of them, they are totally normalised. I find it a little … weird?
I am reminded of this video that I watched from Geek and Sundry, taking some totally new gamers through their first D&D adventure. I’ve clipped the session to the first combat.
The first recourse was to violence, and so was that of the goblins because when faced with a force of larger creatures with better weapons and armour, and probably magic, the goblins did not run for help, did not seek shelter in a more defensible position and did not beg for mercy. No, they surged forwards and bravely died to the last. Why? Because that was their role – a vehicle for the players to get some sort of thrill at overcoming an obstacle with violence and murder.
However, they did not see the effect of a maul smashing into the skull of the goblin, or the flesh searing from its bones so fast that it died immediately, or the look of horror in its eyes as the longsword pierced its chest. Of course, they don’t because we have become used to violence without visuals. How many sword blows have you seen on the screen where the blade slides across the stomach but no entrails slide out? Professional wrestling tells us that you can be punched in the head ten times and yet somehow ‘hulk out’ at the end! And who can forget good old A-Team bullets, that can spray out of a machine gun with people falling over but not one drop of blood?
I found the language in this clip intriguing as well – “We killed him – high five“, “A kill in your first combat is real good“, “You killed him – nice!“, “He is dead, he is murdered“, “Coldblooded”– it was a celebration of slaughter and a seemingly instant connection between the peril facing the characters with success for the players. And these are new players, fresh to the game. This is their opening experience and from their gaming egg they come, perfectly ready to kill or be killed. Am I really the only one who finds this strange?
See, when I have spoken to people about this before, I have been told that TTRPGs are a space for modern escapism, with consequence-free movie-style action. Like many modern computer games, it is harmless fun where you can slaughter hundreds of orcs, elves, monsters, terrorists or gumbas to your heart’s content. Personally, I have never really seen RPGs as some sort of gameplay version of The Purge, but I can see the argument. However, it only works like this for violence. Anything else, like say sex, is (rightly) frowned upon if players decide to have some ‘consequence-free’ indulgence of their darkest urges. But killing things? You go for it Little Timmy. Here, have an axe!
So when we are faced with our hobby, represented through the somewhat childish medium of animation (my tongue is firmly in my cheek there) I suppose it’s natural to be taken aback at the way we have sterilised our own games to become blood-soaked charnel houses viewed through a PG-13 lens. And look, I’m not a saint when it comes to this stuff, but the trigger for this article was a game of D&D recently where we sliced through a pack of goblins who were salvaging some iron from an already-attacked caravan. We knew the caravan had been attacked by a yeti, but we just cut down the goblins as they fled the scene. Hell, we even took out their wagon too, as it was fleeing. We didn’t try to talk to them, we just killed them. And do you know what made it worse? In the previous session, one of our characters had been an Orc. Not a half-orc, an actual Orc. So the DM had really signaled that the ‘greenskins’ weren’t necessarily the ‘baddies’.
And afterwards, I kind of felt bad. I had thought to stop the violence and suggest a more peaceful resolution, which is very much in line with my character, but I was sort of swept up in the expectation of the moment. It wasn’t as if we were getting XP for the kills either! Milestone levelling FTW! I think I’ve become used to playing in games where either people just don’t die (Star Trek Adventures), there are consequences (generally) for just killing people (Deadlands) or the idea of actually even fighting is so scary it’s best avoided at all costs (WFRP) that doing the deed really shocked me a bit!
So there’s work to be done, I think. We can change the way we think about in-game death and violence – either embrace it for what it is and stop being so squeamish about it, or see whether there are other ways to resolve the conflicts. Or something else. I dunno, you tell me?
Do you think we have too much idle slaughter in RPGs? Do you have examples of PCs suffering the consequences of idle violence and murder? Share them with me @vodkashok on Twitter.