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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.

In Summary

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.

8 Comments »

  1. I think the best actual role-playing experiences come from non-violent encounters but as you said it is hugely dependent on the DM being up for the task and everyone being willing to play it that way. I’ve had moments of brilliance like this but its always fleeting and generally people just want to roll the dice and kill things. It’s actually one of the main reasons we’ve mostly switched to playing games like Descent or Imperial Assault, which are basically kill fests with a little story.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I know what you mean. We’ve just finished an Imperial Assault campaign, and we’re just about to start a Descent one. Still, there is something incredibly satisfying about making a horde run away with an Illusionist, or immobilising killer robots with a well placed Tangle Gun shot…alternatively, getting involved in the politics of the Sword Coast can also be great fun. Great comment Chris.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. I think the point about all players having to be commited to non-violence is a really important one.

    I once played a campaign of Vampire: the Masquerade, where I decided to play a Toredor who was an ex-model and had basically zero combat skills (but all the social skills) for what I was told would be a non-violent campaign. However, since everyone else basically made killbots, the GM ended up putting in quite a lot of combat to ensure everyone was using their abilities.

    It basically meant that my character spent an awful lot of time cowering behind other PCs and not actually doing the de-escalation stuff she was good at, because that wouldn’t have been fun for the other players. The biggest problem was the disconnect in the levels of combat each of us were expecting, so I’d definitely make sure that was covered beforehand in future

    Liked by 1 person

    • That’s a really fair point. Yeah, it requires somewhat of a collaborative effort, but if it can be done then there is no reason why the game cannot be a fair and fun one. Thanks for commenting.

      Like

  3. Not really an answer to the question, but I think games can easily be made much less violent.

    A GM can very much guide players toward non-violence, or lower levels of violence. Sending the message that PCs should try to play non-lethally but resort to violence when necessary isn’t too hard. PCs that run around killing everything in sight would probably be considered psychopaths to many NPCs (depending on the circumstances of course — if a town is overrun with zombies then most NPCs would forgive you for some sword swinging, on the other hand maybe you come up with a brilliant plan to save the villagers without needing to cut all the zombies heads off).

    A GM can easily reward players for taking a less violent action and even make it the more valuable option. Probably obvious, but the best way to guide players toward non-violent actions is likely to simply reward them for doing things that are not violent, and have bigger baddies come after them when they kill stuff they shouldn’t be. Some RPGs are set up to reward killing stuff as the default (killing this thing gives you this much XP, killing that thing gives you more, level up by killing more things so you can then kill harder things worth more XP) but you can always give PCs XP for actions other than killing things.

    The “dungeon crawl” mission: Probably self-explanatory. Enter dungeon, kill stuff, get XP, take treasures. Kind of violent. Can gets boring fast.

    The “kill everything” mission: “The townsfolk will reward you for killing the [monster/NPC] that is harassing them”. Players get the reward (and whatever XP that game offers possibly letting them level up) simply through swinging swords around. Not much choice here as the GM has set the mission requirement as “kill it”.

    The “ring bearer” mission: “You need to find [thing] and get [thing] from [here] to [there] before [something] happens because if you don’t [something] happens.” When moving stuff around is the goal killing stuff isn’t necessarily going to help you and getting into conflicts may actually just cause the mission to fail. Similar missions might be helping someone secretly escape from somewhere, breaking into a place to steal something, etc. Whenever you need to do something quietly or secretly there is usually an incentive to not get into conflict with anyone. Lots of variations on these are possible (just look at all the books that have been written about them).

    The “try to do [specific task]” mission: “The mayor of [some place] will reward you for capturing the [monster/NPC] that is [doing bad stuff / annoying mayor] and relocate it/them to [some zone] for [some reason] by [some time frame] because if you don’t then [bad stuff happens]. Also, please please try not to kill [monster] because if you do then [maybe slightly different or slightly less bad thing happens]. Also, the mayor might be lying because this just sounds a bit weird.” The goal here is non-violence if possible, but because there might be direct conflict there is the possibility for some.

    Of course this *could* also end up being a violent conflict resulting in death if not handled well but that would indicate the players messed things up and perhaps the GM didn’t guide them well enough. It also means players need to problem solve more than “Did I sharpen my sword and do I have enough arrows and HP?”
    Where does [monster/NPC] live?
    Is [monster/NPC] dangerous?
    Do we know any [monster/NPC] experts?
    Can we find a [monster/NPC] expert?
    Ideas to capture [monster/NPC].
    Is the number of [monster/NPC] the mayor gave to us correct?
    How do we transport [number]?
    Wait a second…is this legal? What are the local laws about this? Are there any?
    What’s the best time to do this?
    What’s the best place?
    Do we want to lure [monster/NPC] somewhere? How?
    Do we need to hire additional people to help?
    Can we get some of the villagers to help?
    Why won’t the villagers help? (that’s suspicious, hmmm)
    Do we need special equipment?
    Is the reason they gave us for needing this done true?
    Why would they lie to us?
    What exactly is going on here…?
    This whole thing has lead us to some other mysterious plotline that has us going in a whole new direction, and after all the planning (but we got XP for all that so we’re happy) and this new thing is pretty interesting, so now what do we need to know…

    The GM has the option to award experience (most RPGs have something akin to XP) for everything the players do to make non-violent actions something worth doing.

    Give a player that spent a long time digging holes, or building a boat, or gathering rocks to build a wall, etc, a temporary +1 to strength (and take it away later unless they keep on doing equally strenuous tasks).

    Tied a bunch of knots making cages or a net? You’re really good at that now. You could earn money doing it if necessary. And if you need to do it faster in the future you can.

    Figured out how to work a spell that triggered a fire that burned a rope that dropped a net that captured the monster? Cool. Here’s some XP for each of those skills but also some bonus XP because the Rube Goldberg thing made it interesting and all of those things had to work properly for the whole plan to come together.

    Even running away when it makes sense might earn XP.

    Give XP to players based on both individual tasks they’ve done (building stuff, negotiating, researching, etc) and on a sliding scale between partial to complete success for a particular mission: “OK you killed it so you do get some XP. Too bad you didn’t capture it though, as that would have been 10x more.”

    I think many players are going to want to swing a sword around but if that’s *all* they do *all the time* that in itself can get boring and you find yourself simply escalating the fights from giant rats, to giant spiders, to…dragons…to demons…to…and then eventually you run out of scarier more powerful things if that’s all your campaigns are about. On the other hand, if all you do are non-violent missions that is likely to be boring to some people as well.

    Players should also be rewarded for simply coming up with a plan and trying it — even if it fails. XP (advancing a PC in whatever form the RPG has) shouldn’t be awarded only for successes. We learn from failures too right?

    Like

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