old ramblings #5

Last old post. This one about killing.

So violence in games is often treated as a special case, that is it gets a fun subsystem. There are a number of ways we can react to this in design.

We can counter it with fun subsystems for other kinds of resolution. Subsystems that have equal weight in mechanism, tactics, and so on. This makes them, in theory, as fun an alternative: you still get to play a tactical game with it.

We can neutralize it by designing the system so that violence and non-violence (and all the shades of gray) have the same mechanism and impact. So if combat is never “special” then maybe violence will be an equally compelling option among many.

But the heart of the problem feels like it might be narrative rather than mechanical to me, and not about the general case of violence but the specific case of killing: whatever the mechanism for resolution, killing an opponent is typically a permanent solution within the fiction of the game. And pretty much nothing else is. So morality aside, it’s the best tactical solution since you don’t need to revisit the problem.

Morality aside.

What can we do about that?

Some ideas here. We could make killing expensive. So mechanically it’s the same (say) as everything else but the permanence of the solution is balanced against a cost to the killer. This opens some doors — psychological harm from being a killer and exception-based powers to ignore it (the sociopath stunt). Maybe not all doors I’d want to open, mind you. Reign does this with its haunting, but not for all killing. But when you murder someone in cold blood, their spirit haunts you, yelling in your ear forever and making it hard for you to do what you do. Niftily this is a narrative solution to a narrative problem: no mechanism enforces it.

You could make killing impermanent. If everyone you kill always comes back to life later, stronger, and very angry then you might reconsider it as an option. Especially since it not only no longer has the advantage of permanence but also comes with a price tag. This is a setting-dependent solution, though, and would have a pretty deep impact on your setting. Not for everyone. Pretty cool though. Does anything out there already do this?

You could make all resolutions permanent. Something like a weapons-grade let it ride: if you resolve a conflict by any means, it stays resolved. You talk that person out of stealing your stuff? It stays unstolen. You escaped your captors? You escaped. They will never find you. This is not entirely satisfying as it has very gray boundaries and it limits the kind of big bad villain story arcs you might want to tell. But I bet there’s a way around it.

For me, none of these are quite right (though mechanical harm for being a killer is something I’ll use). One powerful thing I like to do is actually extrinsic to the game: create a play environment where it feels wrong to kill things. Where everyone has a life and loves and killing is just never okay. It might be necessary, but even when it is, it’s never okay. I have no idea how to codify that or to otherwise make it available to you. I’m still thinking about that.