RPGs have a violence problem.
In almost every non-indie tabletop RPG, combat receives special attention. It is given additional mechanical and narrative weight. It is brought to the surface and made as a primary tool of in-universe conflict resolution. Character creation is often a race to see who can cause the most harm.
And to further reinforce these notions, the advancement systems in games like Dungeons and Dragons encourage violence as a means to grow more powerful. It becomes the task of the player characters, typically self-made individuals reliant only on themselves and on a small group of ideological comrades, to go out into the parts of the world inhabited by “savages.” There, they murder the individuals that they encounter, destroy their societies, and take their gold and land in order to enrich themselves.
RPGs have a violence problem. What is the solution?
Emulate Works That Don’t Glorify Violence
Part of the problem arises from the genres being emulated in RPGs. Most tend to lean into more action packed genres. And indeed, a large portion of media glorifies violence in a number of ways. They show violence as the ultimate means to an end, as the last resort of a desperate person, but one to be applauded.
Fantasy and sci-fi works regardless of medium tend to accentuate the primacy of violence. Fantasy is especially prone to this, especially in the pursuit of more “epic” storylines. Look at the Game of Thrones: while much of the work covers the plight of the unfortunate souls trapped in the civil war in Westeros, it still shows that the resolution to the problems faced is via more violence. We may hate the Freys for their role in the Red Wedding, but we also cheer when Daenerys unleashes her dragons on slavers.
But work is being done to work on these notions. Stories are being told in quieter forms that allow for other means of approaching and understanding conflicts. The primacy of power is increasingly being argued against. For instance, in the reimagining of Battlestar Galactica, the protagonists are never the strongest individuals. Their use of violence is almost entirely in self-defense, and the show raises questions on whether or not humanity deserves to live and what damage is caused by cycles of violence.
So when deciding genres and works to emulate, look for ones that don’t glorify violence. It can be hard, but they’re out there. Look for works where other tools exist for settling conflicts, be they words or sport or economics or careful planning. Look for works where if violence occurs, it is frightening and undesirable. And then make games based on them.
Ground the Protagonists in Community
Too often the protagonists of RPGs are the only characters given full agency and identity. Occasionally, this is also extended to villains, to allow them to operate as equals. But other characters in the setting are often reduced to backdrop, with little mechanical weight, meaning that they serve as narrative tools rather than as individuals within a wider world.
But if these minor characters were given more weight, if they were given agency and the ability to influence the actions of activities of the protagonists not merely narratively but mechanically, in a real and serious and way, it would encourage the players to think of them less as narrative tools and more as people. While it can be difficult to make these characters have the same presence since they are often controlled in gestalt by a single player rather than being an avatar, giving them additional tools to shape the narrative and have agency can help to close that gap.
In addition, moving away from power fantasy as the sole goal of the game can help to have the protagonists rely on other characters for assistance. By highlighting, mechanically and narratively, how much the protagonists need the help of others, they come to respect their role within a community and understand that their accomplishments are shared not theirs alone.
Deconstructing the hero’s journey narrative in this way reminds characters and players that a diversity of ideas and viewpoints help to create a stronger foundation. It creates narratives that are richer, that allow for deeper betrayals and more enduring displays of loyalty. It allows for characters to become a part of a world, rather than independent movers that barely interact with the world.
In older games, the incentives of games are distinctly colonized. They reward killing of enemies and the taking of their belongings. While more recent games have made moves to make advancement and incentive removed from violence and theft, they often do so in a way that is neutral. Players are instead incentivized for engaging with and achieving victory in the narrative. However, when the narratives are still rooted in colonization, this can simply indirectly reinforce colonization.
Instead, games can incentivize actions that specifically decolonial. They can reward characters and players for engaging with potential enemies, for de-escalating conflicts, for helping to assure the sovereignty of less militarily powerful states. Games can encourage players to cooperate with their peers to seek solutions that lead to mutual improvement, rather than pursuing selfish goals above all else.
And in order to reinforce these notions, games need to be explicit in their purposes. The damage of colonization is seldom taught well or fully. The damage done by violence is often understated. The importance of picking the moment and the stances to defend are underdeveloped. Even intelligent players can suffer from an educational system that writes history in terms of Great People and Great Battles, rather than as systems interacting in positive and negative ways.
This is another way that games are more than important, how they’re vital to our education as citizens of the world.
What games have you played that didn’t rely on violence?
How do you feel about games that incentivize violence?
Do you think it is important to examine the premise of your games?