Wednesday, January 22, 2014

Fisticuffs: Why Is There So Much Violent Conflict Resolution?

Hey, readers!

The following is going to be another editorial related to the amount of violence in role-playing games and why it seems to be the go-to option for most conflict resolution. This is sort of related to my previous thoughts on why there has to be so much action in an RPG, but I think it is a little more mature look. Obviously, every story involves conflict, and conflict needs to be resolved. You could call any attempt to resolve conflict as 'action', so the previously proposed question is almost moot from a certain point of view.

So, let's imagine a rather common scenario in a role-playing game. Your party of adventurers, heroes, or what have you is looking for information of some kind. This could be the location of whatever noun you'd like, or some bit of further information in order to move plot points around and clarify things that have happened in the past. You find a person or group that has said information, ask for it, and they are unwilling to give it to you.

What do you do?

If you're in most of the groups I've participated in, the group will either push the guy with the best diplomacy or intimidation out front to force it out through good rolling, or the weapons come out and the rumble occurs until they are more apt to share what they know.

Now, while these are the two seemingly most obvious ways to resolve this situation, they are only two in a sea of possibilities that are often ignored. Why do we, as players, go for the guns and swords so often as a way of resolving conflict?

I ask this primarily because it seems to fly right in the face of what people experience on a daily basis. I can honestly say that throughout my lifetime, every conflict that has been brought up was settled without violence. This obviously isn't true for everyone. Still, human nature would dictate that most people would want to avoid distress and pain as much as possible, therefore solutions beyond violence would be preferable since they have a lesser chance of causing physical harm to oneself.

Still, one could argue that most roleplaying games are heightened to a place of adventure, where the world is dangerous, but you are more than equipped to deal with all of the dangers and show off how tough you are. This may be true, but since when did adventure equate to consistent violent solutions? Do we need to beat up everyone who stands in our way? Does every conflict between two factions have to be resolved through combat, or the threat of annihilation?

The answer to this question is relatively simple, and usually related to the system one is running and the characters that are in play. If one starts at the first, Dungeons and Dragons is, at it's core, centered around combat. Most of the things that differentiate between classes have to do with combat, or how one performs in violent situations, and usually this is how your character is measured. In fact, a big percentage of the rules are dedicated to this. When you are playing a fighter, and things don't come down to blows, then you feel like all of the mechanical goodies on your sheet are wasted.

Also, some people just enjoy a good scrap. The tactical and visceral nature of games of this breed appeal to a lot of people. In fact, role-playing games are reportedly the offspring of war-games which are made to solely simulate combat on multiple scales, so the progression seems natural. Combat is central to many systems, and it is the body, while flavor text and roleplaying encounters would make up the heart and soul.

Personally, I find it to be a little distasteful. I'm not coming at this from a moral high-ground, or the position of 'games shouldn't be violent' and such, but rather from the perspective of someone who understands the basics of good storytelling and likes to get into the heads of their characters. Honestly? I think games become much more fun when the alternatives are found. A search for information could become an adventure unto itself rather than a goal where bad guys on the other side stand in the way. More skills can come into play, and the personalities and varied skills of the characters start to matter more than how many hit-points they have, or whether they can do a 'Power Attack.'  The game starts to come alive and feel less like a mindless video game and more like a narrative with actual, thinking people.

From a character perspective, I think a lot of people don't realize the weight of taking another life, and how that can affect your character. Think about, say, a bubbly Gnome bard whose life is rather gleeful. After a dungeon where scores of semi-sentient or sentient beings were mowed down, do you think said character would remain so bubbly and gleeful? Causing injury and death to another being, regardless of what your differences are, is always a significant emotional event, unless you are either insane or hardened to the point where it doesn't matter. Granted, a lot of characters fit into those two categories, but I digress.

The bottom line here is this: play however you want, but remember that fisticuffs doesn't have to solve every encounter. Sometimes thinking outside the box can lead to a better story.

What are your thoughts about the amount of violent conflict resolution in games? Leave me a comment, start a discussion!

Hope you enjoyed my editorial! If not, here's a funny picture.



  1. You make a really good point - and ask a question not easily answered (without admitting one is a cave man). I can only speak for myself, but I play games to relax and live, for a brief time, in an alternate reality that is far different from the "real" world of my every day life. In the real world, I am constantly "resolving conflict" using tact, out of the box thinking, and non-violent means. Frankly, the little lizard brain in me gets tired of this - and RPGs and gaming in general is a way to break out of modern day life and engage in a sort of "primevaly pure" fight or flight response.

    I game with a group that really puts a lot of thought into role-playing. They create elaborate characters, role-play the situations, will parlay with NPCs that they think their character would, and also, often times, solve problems through non-violent means. It is a great group - but it is balanced by at least one combat per session. Creativity is appreciated by the group, but so is getting into the thick of (win or lose might I add... we often have the best time when we're fumbling like crazy and near dead).

    I used to consider myself a "role-player" in the sense that I didn't give enough weight to combat and made playing "in character" the most important aspect of the game. However, the older I get the more I realize - I like hitting things over the head with an imaginary axe, hammer, sword, spell, nuclear bomb... you name it. The emotional high one gets from imagining the "visceral feel" of an action can be quite powerful. It is why I like dice - I feel like I'm doing something.

    I've played game systems that are more tuned to non-violent resolution of conflict. Numenera comes to mind - in that the system is easily used to resolve non-violent conflict as simply as regular combat. While I enjoy it a great deal - some times a good dose of D&D combat bloodfest just hits the spot. I don't doubt that non-violent resolution can be super fun... it just strikes me a little too close to reality at times. In small doses, it can be great. But, combat is what keeps me coming back to the table week after week.

    At the end of the day - I don't disagree that a creative solution to a problem could make for a great story and great adventure. For one - why should beating up a bunch of people get them to talk? In the movies - it rarely works that way. So finding another means could be a great plot device - I just don't find anything wrong with having bad guys also trying to stop the PCs from finding the information and spawning violent conflict.

    1. Thank you for the wonderful reply! You and I are similar in how we approach things, I do believe. Despite my tone towards it, I do enjoy combat now and again. It can be great fun, and also a powerful character point in the right situation. Most of my gaming nowadays are supers games, which are almost completely combat-oriented.

      I think I've just gotten tired of it, to be honest, not to mention that my favorite and most memorable moments in gaming have always been outside of combat. Additionally, in many of the online games I've played, combat was greatly favored over deep character interactions. I much prefer the latter, but may be in the minority there.

    2. I do agree about the violence inherent to most systems. Reportedly, D&D came from a historical war game at the time (thus the First generation of Chainmail as well). I enjoy hitting things with my imaginary axe just as much as I do any other gamer.

      At the same time, I find there are wonderful story devices you can use to help encourage roleplaying and nonviolence. Killing the king would be awful for the anarchy that would cause, let alone the civil war, but convincing him his imperial designs are going to harm his kingdom and eventually cause his own death (if done well) could be a great session.

      I liken it to the old Shadowrun games. If you do it correctly, your run goes off as a stealth run and you are never spotted. Violence only occurs once something has gone wrong, typically horribly wrong. This should be an approach used in a number of sessions for a campaign. This will make players cautious about violence and working together for less violent manners. It could work. Even in D20, where I spend most of my time.

      I should note: this is Steve from the Marvel Game with KnightErrantJR.

    3. Thanks so much for the comment, Steve! I hope things are going well with you!