Saturday, January 16, 2016

War Story: That One Time the PCs Didn't Kill Anyone

"Sometime we should sit down and have a spiritual discussion about the sanctity of life, Max."
"BAM! And then he was mucilage. Did you say something, Sam?"
"Oh, nevermind."

- Sam & Max, "Bad Day on the Moon."

The discussion about disarming and the propensity of PCs to solve all of their problems with murder reminded me of a fun challenge I used back in my previous GURPS game.

That game was set on the Known Worlds (aka Mystara), and the PCs were in Glantri City in Glantri. I had this spiffy map of the city from the Glantri gazetteer, and some ideas for things to do in town.

I wanted something that worked with the PC's predilection for action, but which posed a unique challenge.

Riffing off an idea in the gazetteer, I ended up with with a cursed merchant, an angry wizard, and fighting within the law.

The Setup: The PCs get offered a job by Dmitri, a rug merchant. A very smelly rug merchant. He delivered a rug to one of the great Glantrian nobles, Prince Vladimir Morfailov. The Prince was annoyed by him in some way, and cursed him with a terrible odor. Later, the Prince thought it over a bit more, and decided, that wasn't enough. He sent some hired thugs (from the Guild of Thugs) to beat the man up. And kept escalating it from there.

The players had to step in and:

- stop the rug merchant from being beaten nearly to death;
- save the merchant's business;
- convince the Prince to stop doing all of this;
and critically:
- stay within the law, which could be bent or twisted with enough money and influence but never broken.

Not only that, but that needed to do all of this without making Prince Morfailov look bad, and thus solve Dmitri's problem but create their own.

We ended up with a series of brawls, some excellent diplomatic maneuvering, bribed officials of the law, and so on. No deaths. No serious injuries. Lots of things that could be taken care of with routine healing magic and exchanges of money. A lot of schmoozing and brown-nosing and complimenting of the Prince's official representatives for the great wisdom of the Prince. And so on.

And yeah, people probably used Disarms.

What made me think of this was that I basically contrived a situation where:

- the PCs were limited to cleverness and non-lethal force (in fact, generally non-harmful force, whenever possible)


- there were legal consequences, social consequences, and game consequences for going too far.

and further

- social benefits for handling these restrictions well.

In this one, we saw a lot of blunt arrows, sword flats, grapples, and even disarming people.

Basically, this happened because I made it risky to use the usual favored solution of PCs: Killing everyone.

"Something's wrong. Murder isn't working, and that's all we're good at." - Nichelle Nichols, "Futurama: Anthology of Interest I"

That quote is every group of PCs I've ever GMed for. They try murder, and if it doesn't work, they double down on murder. If that still doesn't work, they try to find someone they can murder and hope it eventually helps them murder the first problem group. Game worlds tend to reward that - the players run characters in lawless post-apocalypse areas, are secret agents above the law (or They Are The Law), are adventurers in a pseudo-historical setting without limitations on their subterranean actions, are commandos at war, or are just criminals in the first place. And so on.

I found from that mission I gave people that, yeah, you can force the PCs to choose to not kill. You just have to stack all of the arguments against it so high that they can't even see murder as useful. What made that particular mission work was that I constrained their actions but didn't constrain their clever ways around it. Everyone bought into it, too, and "the rug merchant" does come up from time to time.

I don't have too much in the way of clever suggestions here. But if you do want a game session free of corpses, try putting restrictions on deadly force coupled with problems that can be resolved without force. It can't hurt. If me and my gamers managed to do that without the story ending in, "And all the PCs were arrested and executed," well, you can too.


  1. That was fun, Renos the archer shot a levitating mage in the jewels with a blunt arrow. And then we starting working for this awful prince, and were surprised when he was allied with demonic forces, and he paid so well that we went along with it... until the end, I think?

    1. Yeah, the same Prince Morfailov who you frustrated in this non-murderous adventure.

      You guys worked for him for a couple years, but ended up allied to him pretty much the whole game. Good, evil - it was all kind of "Are you with the main bad guy, or against him?" The Prince was definitely "against," just not interested in morals.

      Fun game, too bad about the rolling TPKs that ended it.

  2. My main concern is a bunch of murder-enthusiasts looking at this quandary will just quit because its not worth the energy required to adopt different (non-killing based) strategies.

    It's possible to orchestrate, I just think it needs everyone to buy in to the premise - which will be tough in some groups.

    1. Try it, your players might surprise you. Some groups might quit because they have to find non-lethal ways to solve their problems, but others might rise to the challenge.

      Heck, the Terminator got all the way through that second movie without killing anyone - if it can do it, why can't some PCs?

  3. Two thoughts on this:
    1. Most RPGs are designed in such a way that murder is the primary (best modeled, most interesting, easiest) problem solving strategy. This is part history (RPGs budded off of wargames), part tradition, and part...
    2. ...Escapism. Being able to literally kill your problems is cathartic to many folks.

    I will additionally note that in a computer sorta-rpg[1] my kids like, the standard options for overcoming opposition are beating them up (aggressive), trashing their plan/morale (devious) and making friends. Coming in from a different tradition and set of frustrations than their father, they are enthusiastic boosters of the "Hug All the Things"[2] strategy, even when it is obviously sub-optimal.

    [1] Renowned Explorers. It's not bad.
    [2] Stoppy sheep. Hungry wolves. Roustabouts. Mobsters. Cultists. Vampires. Demons. Virtually everything in this game can be hugged into submission ... eventually.

    1. Oh sure, I totally understand why killing is the way to go.

      I like the "Hug All the Things" strategy. It's the same strategy as "Murder is all we're good at" strategy, conceptually, but so much nicer.


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