A History of Violence
I wanted to talk about how roleplaying has changed in the years since D&D conquered the tabletop. There’s no getting around the hobby’s roots in wargaming. For those of you who don’t know, Dungeons and Dragons began its life as a fantasy supplement for a tabletop wargame called Chainmail. But we’ve come a long way since then. We’ve learned that there are other stories to tell than tales of bloody battle. There are stories of mystery, suspense, horror, and even love and friendship. You may not believe it, but there are stories which do not include violence at all, or which dramatically de-emphasize it.
Now, don’t get me wrong, I love cleaving a skull as much as the next Half-Orc Barbarian, but I think there are ranges of emotional expression that go beyond seeing your enemies driven before you and hearing the lamentation of their women.
I know. Heresy.
And I do get that for a lot of people, RPGs are just a harmless form of escapism. They’re not looking for anything beyond a few hours spent slaying a few goblins, eating unhealthy snacks, and making jokes with their friends. Sometimes that’s exactly what I want from a roleplaying session. But RPGs can do more than that.
I think RPGs are a tool for self-expression, communication, and connection, unparalleled in everyday interactions. Storytelling is the oldest art form, and RPGs are an outgrowth of this tribal tradition. To reduce it to merely a tactical battle, for me, defeats the point of playing the game. If I just wanted to bash skulls, level up my dude, and occasionally hear some words spouted at me, I’d play a video game. In fact, I often do. But when I come to the roleplaying table, I want to be told a story. And I want to help tell the story. If that story happens to include bloodshed, so be it. But what if it didn’t have to?
A bit of explanation might be necessary to understand the above meme. What is a Murder Hobo? Well, in D&D, and pretty much every fantasy game that came after, the players take on the roles of a band of itinerant “heroes” (nominally), who go around killing everything with green skin and taking their gold. Hence, they are wanderers (hobos) who kill things (murder). Murderhobos.
Murderhobo-ing is a syndrome that makes players see NPCs as bags of hit points that drop XP (experience points) and loot. Call of Cthulhu, although not a non-violent RPG, was one of the first games that came to my attention that deliberately flipped this dynamic on its head. The emphasis of the game was not Power, but Fear. Enemies were, by and large, not meant to be conquered, but rather, run from. And, although you got more skilled, you were never less fragile. The emphasis was on being very small in a cosmos which was not built with your wants or well-being in mind (y’know, just like real life!).
Today, there are games about intrigue (Vampire: the Masquerade), games about tragedy (Polaris), games about high society (the upcoming Jane Austen RPG, Good Society), games about comedy (In Spaaaace!), games about abstract concepts (Nobilis), games about (oh, the horror!) sex (Monsterhearts), and even games about friendship (Golden Sky Stories). The whole range of human experience is represented in games put out by people who want to emphasize those areas of life. And, while some of the games I mentioned still include more, or less, detailed rules for combat (Vampire), many are now at least acknowledging the importance of the flip side of the coin. Dungeon World, for example, has popularized Bonds as a way of mechanizing relationships into a game system.
The Gauntlet is Thrown
Hey, gang, before you click away, I need your help finding some non-violent RPGs to review. I want games that do one or more of the following:
- Do not include a separate combat system
- De-emphasize combat as a means of resolving problems.
- Focus on relationships other than hero-enemy.
Leave your suggestions in the comments below. Any suggestion is good, but do try to emphasize completely, or mostly, non-violent RPGs. My intent here is to focus on how roleplaying doesn’t need a battlemat or bloodshed to be interesting. Be sure to explain why your suggestion is relevant in your comment, even if it’s only a quick sentence or two. If you don’t have any suggestions, you can still help by reblogging, linking, and pinging back.