Monday, 4 April 2011

Conflict Without the Killing


Conflict is what drives all narrative, and whilst this usually involves violence of some form, it doesn’t necessarily have to. At least, not lethal violence. Whilst the concept of making a deathless novel is somewhat old hat, the concept is still very young when it comes to tabletop RPGs. Let’s take a look at why that is, and what we can do about it.

Live and Let Be (or Not To Be)
Conflict all too often translates to combat. Combat, especially in RPGs, translates too two parties standing across from each other until enough blows have been exchanged to whittle the HP of one side down until they die. Loot, then repeat.

Whilst this can be fun and a fresh experience for those of us who (thankfully) have relatively non-violent lives, it can get stale very quickly. Sadly, the other experiences and other forms of conflict are rarely addressed.

The question that is often asked when people think about an RPG is “What would you do in [insert scenario] situation?” Usually the answer is “Kill them and take their stuff.” Really? Really? If you were confronted by a horde of zombies you would choose to “Kill them and take their stuff.” Personally I would run like all hell had broken loose (for, it likely had, considering the zombies) and hide. Maybe save a few friends if I could. But I would likely act the coward and fall back on self preservation.

Avert your judging eyes. Unless you’re militarily trained, or insane, you would too. That is how life works. Living creatures run and hide when faced with danger. That is why they survive and breed to ensure there are going to be living creatures tomorrow.

So, then, why is this the option always taken? Because people don’t want to be themselves when they game, or they want to think that they are actually as brave and as fantastic as their characters are. But then it must be asked, why is bravery mixed in with killing? Surely the mother who goes above and beyond to rescue her children from a burning building, or the policeman who faces the abusive boyfriend of a beaten woman are both brave. Why are they not good subjects for games?

Because they are too real.

So we have two criteria with which we need: fantastic attributes on mundane people, as well as fantastic scenarios.

Still, there are thousands of possible situations one could get themselves into under these guides without shedding a drop of imagined blood.

Consider “The Adjustment Bureau” (SPOILER ALERT)
The Adjustment Bureau is a beautiful example of what I am talking about. Here you have an organisation of ‘agents’, or ‘angels’ or any other term you wish to use that basically sums up the concept that they are the hands of fate. These agents work according to the grand designs of ‘The Chairman’ – basically a secular deity. They are essentially just trying to do their job – making sure things happen the way they should, as every time the world goes off plan, we seem to screw everything up.

No one dies in the movie. A few people get punched, and a man gets in a car accident, but is fine. The main ‘villain’ makes one woman sprain her ankle. That is basically the height of the physical damage caused in the movie.

Any GM who has seen the film should have walked out saying “I can’t wait to run that.” The concept of such a freeform world where the PCs don the hats of the agents are are assigned tasks such as “Prevent person X and Y from meeting” or “Prevent person A from seeing person B before person C does” where the PCs can do anything in their power, so long as they don’t screw up any of the plans should have any GM going crazy. Consider the scenarios. They could do ANYTHING, but each action has a ripple, and those ripples need to be cleaned up and set straight so that the plan gets back on track. No one can die (unless it is so written), for that is a massive breach of the plan, so the PCs have to think of alternatives – like spilling coffee.

Consider Echo Bazaar
Echo Bazaar is an online text adventure game where you take the role of a new arrival to ‘Fallen London’ – a hellish re-imagining of London after a great calamity, during the Elizabethan-era. Bohemians, radicals, rubberymen and devils roam the streets, with you smack bang in the middle of it all.

Sure, you could train your dangerous, and fight in the arenas, or you could attend the Shuttered Palace and get fat on wine and cheese whilst gossiping to increase your social standing. A world of intrigue without loss of life (but possibly of soul).

If you know nothing more about Echo Bazaar, please visit the link at the top of this section and try it for yourself to know what I am talking about.

Now Get Out There and (Don’t) Kill Something!
I verily hope this has inspired you to attempt a campaign without the use of death (or with it being so rare as to be a shocking, plot hanging point).

I hope to talk to you again soon,

Ben Scerri

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