Is It Possible to have a Completely Non-Violent RPG?
Myself and my Dad are old-school RPG-ers. He first got into Advanced Dungeons and Dragons back in 1974, when it first came out. Then, back in the early 90s (as soon as I was old enough to roll dice), he had me playing my part in these huge, elaborate stories of wizards, warriors, dungeons, dragons, and cheese-related puns.
For those who have read this blog for the past month (it’s been a month now, how crazy is that?) you will know that I attribute my love of gaming back to my Dad. We played a lot of games in my house growing up. Everything from Chess to Cluedo, Pokemon to Harry Potter Trading Cards (yes, remember those?), AD&D to Space Opera.
Recently we got chatting – and we realised something. All RPG games, all the main ones at least, seem to be based on violent interactions between hero and villain. Obviously, there are niche RPGs that exist out there that do cater to non-violence; however, generally speaking, they are not overly well known. The classics are all blood baths. I can hear the cry from Helen Lovejoy now – “Won’t someone please think of the Kobolds?”
The original Dungeons and Dragons was a violent game. Apart from the titular dragons, there were hundreds of diverse monsters waiting to rend your player character limb from limb and the only option was to fight back. L’attaque est la meilleure défence. AD&D introduced the non-lethal grapple attack but it always seemed to be an add-on, a sop to the occasional pacifist druid rather than a core game mechanic and other non-violent options didn’t really arrive until later versions.
This prompted the question of whether it is possible to have a non-violent RPG, or at least one where violence is the last resort instead of the only serious option?
We believe it is possible, using the classic systems, but there are three criteria which have to be in place.
My Dad has a heck of a lot more RPG experience than I do, and where I would like to take credit for writing this article in its entirety, it wouldn’t be the same without his input.
Core Mechanical Options
PAUL: Firstly, and most obviously, the non-violent option has to make sense and the game has to have non-lethal mechanics in the rules. Most games have a way to disable an enemy without drawing blood but to be effective there need to be several of them. As an example, Old Wild West from Skirmish Wargames is a brilliant game that lets you recreate Hollywood-style Cowboys and Native American scenarios. It has the option to lasso an opponent but no other way to stop someone without drawing blood. On the other hand, FGU’s Space Opera has a whole arsenal of non-lethal weapons including tangle guns, stunners and tranquillizer darts as well as a martial arts system which allows an opponent to be taken out with no long term ill effects. Both rules systems are very good at what they were designed for – pacifist Cowboys are a rarity in Hollywood westerns while “setting phasers to stun” is far more commonplace.
In other words, the gunfight at the OK Corral isn’t the sort of place where you’d look for non-lethal combat while the first encounter with an alien species in the 24th century may be and the rules reflect this.
LUKE: There are a few games that have come out recently which have built in completely new mechanics for dealing with non-violence. Dread is one (the Tabletop episode based on it is here), where violence is actively dissuaded, as the game uses no dice. Instead, it uses a stack of blocks (think Jenga) to build dread up within the game. This is an interesting way of, not ruling violence out but, making the player really think through whether violence is worthwhile. It is a new way of putting mechanics in RPGs to make the players question what they want to do. These new concepts are a welcome treat in the world of tabletop RPGs.
Non-Violence Built In
PAUL: Secondly, the scenario or campaign has to fit a non-lethal modus operandi. The scenario has to be designed in such a way that the non-lethal option is viable and this places constraints on the Referee, Dungeon Master or whoever to ensure that “non-violent” is not a synonym for “boring”. There is a certain thrill going head to head with a Lich Lord or crazed maniac in powered armour, it takes a very well thought out scenario to get to the same end result non-lethally without a letdown. “Good job we brought the Bat-Lich repellent Boy Wonder!” just won’t cut it.
LUKE: This is actually one of the stronger strengths to the Cthulhu game set. They don’t necessarily have to absolutely be violent as the characters have more than one attribute that can be taken away from them (Sanity). Having more than one statistic also gives the option to have a threat without a real violent threat. GURPS, by Steve Jackson, also has that benefit, of being a core non-violent set-up as the game has been designed to be able to fit any roleplaying game the DM can think of.
Ironically, Horror RPGs can really shine in this department due to the very nature of Horror. It is a violent subject, but that isn’t what makes horror…well…horror. Instead, it is the vulnerability and mortality of characters that makes horror scary.
The Pacifist Mindset
PAUL: Finally, and most importantly, the whole gaming group needs to follow the non-violent route. This doesn’t mean a D&D group has to be full of thieves and bards but the other players have to play in a non-violent manner. Non-violent clerics and magic users aren’t too hard, but not hitting things isn’t going to be a lot of fun for that fighter with the +5 flaming sword sitting in the corner. It’s also important to realise that the route to violence is very easy – no matter how large the group it only takes one player to go violent and the scenario is violent from then onwards. Think of Han, Luke and Chewie rescuing Leia from the Death Star in the original Star Wars and you’ll see what I mean.
LUKE: I think, in a way, this can be the most difficult to get right. A key part of being involved in a roleplaying game is being someone else – it is being a hero (or a villain). To do that, traditionally, you need to fight something bigger. You need to overcome a great challenge, and that is usually some dragon or lich or other such beasties. People, players, want that experience to be Drizzt Do’Urden or Elminster, Sage of Shadowdale. We, as players, want that fantasy.
This comes down to the DM to create a world that is interesting and extraordinary enough to make non-violence something the players genuinely want to do. It means more puzzles, more interactive characters, and less just hitting something with an axe.
Yes, it is possible, and a few do exist; however, they tend to be outside of the mainstream (or as mainstream as tabletop RPGs get). There is a fantastic Reddit feed that looks into non-violent RPGs that I came across here, which gives a few suggestions if anyone is interested (I know I am!).
Looking at the current set of RPGs though, there is no reason any RPG can’t become a non-violent RPG. That being said, it is an all-or-nothing campaign strategy. For a non-violent mainstream RPG to be considered three things need to line up:
- Non-violence makes sense in the context of the game.
- The umpire/dungeon master is up to the task.
- All the players want to play the same way.
The biggest risk appears to be creating a boring RPG. If you honestly can’t tick all those boxes it’s probably going to end in tears – or a firefight.
That being said, when a non-violent campaign comes together it can be incredible. Non-violent characters force the players to think about their problems in a different way. You can take that from us – we both like playing bards.
So what are your thoughts on the matter? What’s your favourite non-violent experience within a tabletop RPG? Let us know in the comments below.