Friday, September 26, 2014

Law & Order ... or why modern games feel grittier than fantasy

While not always true, your average game set in more civilised times tends to reach a grittier and more tragic point than the average fantasy game.  While some Game Masters are skilful enough to make the wildest fantasy game feel realistic and gritty enough that every death matters or the most sedate and civilised countries feel playful and unserious enough that death is glossed over, generally it's easier to feel conflicted about killing in a modern world than a fantasy one.

And yes, naturally it does vary by player ... some players really couldn't give a damn about a fictional character no matter how lovingly evoked while others will find some way to empathise with a mass murdering serial killing undead squirrel enough to feel grief at their loss.

But generally, more often than not, it is easier to kill dozens of folks in a fantasy game without it feeling like murder while killing even a baddie in a Sin City-style modern world has a little kick of "Couldn't there have been another way?!"

I think it's partly because modern games tend to have a more linked in flavour than fantasy worlds.  We're so used to orphan heroes and stand alone villains that we don't think in terms of the highly kincentric big family world that actually filled the medieval era.  If you kill the evil king, there's no sense of loss to anyone.  He was just this one thing - this particular archetype - and no one would mourn that.

Plus, and more importantly even than that, the NPC reactions help build that perception.  If you clear out a thieves den in Fantasyland, the mayor will give you a medal and the locals will shower you in gold.  If you clear out a thieves den in the modern world, well, kicking down the door to a slum and slaughtering the desperate denizens for pinching stereos and television sets just has a different sort of feel to it.  If you were showered in gold for the act, you'd feel like you were in Sin City again and the average player would start eyeing off the Mayor as a better target for vigilante justice.

So I think it's also the context that surrounds the actions.

Thirdly, modern eras tend to sometimes, but not always, provide the sense that there might be an alternate option or at least there should be.  Though certainly not standard in every modern-ish genre, generally there's a sense that in any post-Victorian game there should be another way even if there isn't.  The greater the sense that jail is a suitable option, the greater you feel like a bad guy for killing folks instead.  If you want television shows involving vigilantes, especially in the modern era, there's often a sense of loss of innocence and anger that there isn't a better way to go about things.  The good guys feel forced to do bad things ... rather than happy to do what needs to be done.

Finally, and probably most importantly, modern games often colour their bad guys in shades of grey.  This isn't always the case, especially with mooks, but those games that do give a sense of potential redemption in their bad guys creates more ambiguity by necessity.  In many fantasy games, some races are bad by birth which creates a disturbing eugenics context when you look too deeply into it that allows many a forum rant about how a paladin doing their job right would slaughter infants in their cribs.  Even in those races that aren't always evil, there's more of a sense that people can fall from grace then lift into redemption (also often a theme in modern games that have a lot of violence).

Now this last example certainly isn't true of all modern games.  In a Call of Cthulhu game, the cultists are irrevocably evil so you don't feel bad about killing them.  In a World of Darkness game, on the other hand, most creatures have some semblance of redemptive possibility in them (no matter how small) reflected in their final few morality traits left to them.  Hence why the World of Darkness is so dark, you can't just slaughter people with moral impunity.  You know you're doing the wrong thing for the right reasons.

But yeah, these are all my own meanderings so feel free to query, refute or outright reject my considerations in the comments below.


  1. Another issue: it's an axiomatic feature of the modern world that the police force (or, in extreme cases, the military) are the folks who are responsible for dealing with threats to individuals and society.

    For the PCs to be lumbered with the responsibility for taking down the Big Wizard in a fantasy game makes sense because your genre assumptions include the idea that the city watch aren't really cut out for jobs of that magnitude. On the other hand, in any modern day game you sooner or later have to consider the question of "Why can't the PCs just let the authorities deal with this?" More or less any answer takes you to gritty town:

    - The PCs can't fob this off on the authorities because the authorities don't believe in the danger. Gritty because you're presenting a threat that the supposed representatives of law and order refuse to even acknowledge.

    - The PCs can't fob this off on the authorities because the authorities are part of the problem. Gritty because the government is evil or corrupt.

    - The PCs can't fob this off on the authorities because the PCs are qualified to deal with this stuff, whereas cops and soldiers will be turned into hamburger if they try to get in the way. Gritty because it means that the PCs are cast as vigilantes. (Conceivably, this can go in a non-gritty direction if you go with a classic superhero direction for the campaign, but even then you have to deal with the "Is it really ethical to jail the Joker when you know he'll just escape and kill dozens more people all over again?" question.)

    - The PCs can't fob this off on the authorities because the PCs are the authorities. This could either mean the PCs are the conventional police/FBI/whoever (in which case they are people who fully expect to see the worst humanity has to offer on a day to day basis, which would tend towards grittiness), or they're some sort of shadowy conspiracy dedicated to suppressing this stuff (which has its own flavour of grit because it implies a society where cynical conspiracy theories are correct). Either way, given the tactics of the typical PC, this could be the grittiest of all possible outcomes.

    1. I love that last line. So true. So very true of so many PCs.

  2. While I think that the observation is correct, that death and violence are usuall handled as trivial in fantasy, but generally as something much more serious in modern settings (videogamer shoters being the exception), I don't believe that this is actually the result of the historic timeframe. There are numerous stories from the middle ages and earlier where people are going on trial for killing or maiming a person, with punishment not being only death, but much more often exile or paying reparations. And there is of course a difference between someone being found guilty of murder or manslaughter. Even in comperatively primitive societies, the killing of a person is not something that is simply shrugged off and then it's back to business.
    How killing and punishment is being treated by the population lies entirely in the hands of the person who controls the world, be it the GM or the writer. It's a stylistic descision, not the result of the cultural setting. It's simply that by default creators tend to do things the same way as everyone else is doing it, unless they have a reason not to. If you want to treat killing as something serious in a fantasy setting, it requires no special preparations or changes. You can simply do it.

    1. I definitely agree with this. It's the presumptive context of a quasi-medieval setting seen through the lens of heroic tales, fantasy novels and daydreams rather than the reality of the situation. I think the extra distance between player and setting also lets them dehumanise their enemies far more easily and slaughter them with abandon. Some players can do this anyway, even in modern environments, and there's a few players who can't turn off the moral centres of their brain and see the potential complexity even in a dungeon crawl but generally the extra distance to the setting, race, and magical rules means that it's easier to play a game of moral absolutism and easy answers (where every question/social ill can be answered by a death) than in a modern world where the allusions become more obvious and unfortunate.

  3. So I wrote a really long post here but it’s probably best to cut it down…

    I think you’re right that NPC responses to the way PCs handle criminals are vital here. Maybe one of the things is that we’re used to the idea that historical societies were way more brutal than ours, and to a large extent it’s true.

    Life was harder, and people more desperate. A theft could leave you starving to death, there was no insurance, and no police. People carried weapons and used them to defend against thieves. For thieves, it’s safer to kill than to try and overpower an armed person non-lethally, especially if they got a good look at you. For society’s viewpoint, all thieves are probably murderers, or at least a very dangerous threat to the survival of honest citizens. They’d take food, money, vital horses, even travellers’ clothes and underwear (can you imagine that now?) because everything was valuable when you had very little.

    Also, life was cheaper. People died a lot. A lot of people were serfs with essentially no rights, in some cases until a century ago (Russia). Punishments tended to get draconian, and if you have no concept of human rights then things like outlawry make sense, so sure, find a den of thieves and kill ‘em all, local people will thank you for it. What else can they do with them? A subsistence society simply can’t afford to keep prisoners housed and fed, let alone agree to it, because that’s more than many honest people could hope for. So you went for quick punishments with no associated cost (flogging, mutilation, fines, execution), or exile, or enslaved people to do the absolute worst jobs like salt mining.

    I think your TV example nails it: there’s a massive difference between developed modern-world theft and mediaeval-fantasy theft. It’s really unlikely a burglary will leave anyone starving (ironically, white-collar crime is far more likely to destroy someone’s life by bringing down a business), not least because of insurance. Most criminals won’t risk death to steal money, because they have better options, and that also means they’re less murderous. Many are also drug users. So prison or treatment seem like fair responses, which our wealthy societies can afford. We have moral ideas like human rights and rehabilitation. Also we like to reserve punishment for the state. So attitudes to vigilante justice are very different, and killing off a bunch of criminals when you could have turned them in is bad, because we take a very hard line on premeditated killing. Everyone has legal rights, and even killing the worst person you can think of would still earn you a trial for murder.

    If killing off the criminals is treated as normal, then you’re looking at a dystopia. Either the authorities are hopelessly corrupt, or brutally draconian (Judge Dredd), although in the latter case PCs might also be punished for vigilantism. Or something like Shadowrun, which is basically a future feudalism complete with mercenaries for hire. If there’s no other option, then yeah, it has a tragic feel, which turns up a lot in things like Call of Cthulhu or WOD where there are dangerous lunatics with supernatural powers the authorities won’t believe in.

    The interesting thing here is that a lot of fantasy settings have plenty of gold and magic to throw around, and very few include the very hierarchical and unjust societies that we really had. You’d think more of them would include more modern approaches to punishment. But then, without bandits, who would PCs kill?

    You’re right that modern games tend to have greyer bad guys. I think again, this often comes down to style. Fantasy games often assume interactions are violence, and if your sole interaction with some thieves is that they ambush you in the road and demand your money, or you hear about the bounty and hunt them down, what opportunity do you have for shades of grey?

    1. Good point on the second-to-last paragraph in particular. Who else to kill? In any game based on killing you need to make sure the bad guys are utterly bad. That's also likely why characterisations tend to get simpler the more combat-based the campaign becomes. Unless you're going for a Sin City feel, giving a player empathy for the bad guys and guilt for their own actions is just going to lead to a search for other answers followed by disengagement if there isn't any.

    2. I also forgot - I suspect one of the reasons we're often so happy-go-lucky about taking out Bad Barons and the like is we tend to keep semi-historical cultures but not the ways of thinking that went with them. A lot of the societies were intrinsically oppressive, so the difference between a Bad Baron and a Good Baron was hard to spot - they'd both have serfs in grinding poverty and execute people for theft. There weren't any good political systems. Is it really worth killing this Baron and hoping the next is an improvement? Are they actually doing anything they're not entitled to, both by law and by social understanding? Is their conspiracy with the orcs significantly worse than the next Baron over screwing every penny out of his lands to pay for a posh cathedral and selling his serfs off to mercenary companies?

      It also seems like a lot of the time people (especially nobles) actually believed the nobility were qualitatively different, both in moral terms and in things like biologically needing a more refined diet. The Victorians still had outrageous ideas about the differences between toffs and servants - one needed comfort and leisure, the other couldn't be allowed leisure because they'd slide into depravity. Killing nobles was a much bigger deal, legally and psychologically, than killing commoners. That sort of thing got you horribly tortured to death, not least because the other nobles were extremely keen to discourage it. But also, the idea of killing a noble would be a big deal. You didn't do that sort of thing, certainly just not for being oppressive. Other nobles or family might kill them, but that's politics.

      Another point we tend to forget is the social consequences. Killing off some baron would cause a lot of upheaval. There might well be land-grabbing and skirmishes by other local landowners. Some of the innocent locals might suffer because their leases are abolished on the lord's death, or some tax is levied to pay for the funeral. The authorities might come in and execute a few people on general principles. Land and property, including serfs and slaves, might be redistributed to heirs or sold off. Because of how much power nobles had and the importance of their personal policies, there might be changes in land boundaries, property ownership, right to work, religious practices, military obligations, and so on. People's lives could change overnight, and that's scary. If the person was socially influential, or controlled a lot of money, allegiances might shift - it's perfectly possible war would break out. Are the expected benefits of killing Baron Badman really worth the likely and possible consequences?

      This is to say nothing of kings. Fantasy kingdoms are modelled mostly on mediaeval Europe. The entire history of mediaeval Europe consists of massive bloodbaths sparked by the death of kings. PCs killing off kings should be a massive deal, and if history is anything to go by, the new king's likely response will be to publicly acclaim their heroism and then have them quietly locked up in a torture chamber. Because who wants to live under the shadow of regicides? Granny Weatherwax had it right.

    3. Now this is a really interesting analysis, if a bit depressing about our mutual histories, but certainly very true. Killing off a baron would be a bit like killing off half of parliament. Expect changes and generally not good changes. I guess taking out an adulterer for damaging social cohesion just doesn't have the same ring to it as taking out a despot.

      I do find some fantasy novels kinda funny for this. Everyone is mad keen to return the right princes to the throne but the regime has largely stabilised and the old kingdom, modelled off our medieval world, isn't particularly benevolent. It makes sense that plenty of royalists would *want* to return them to the throne but it's harder to see why I, as a reader, should automatically care.

    4. You're dead right about the fantasy novels. It's interesting as well because it's a thing that actually happened a few times in Europe and outside (Japan for one). People do have reasons for wanting the old ways back. Often some people had more power and influence under the old system so they want to revert, or they think they can easily control a king who they put on the throne, compared to some kind of council. Sometimes there's genuine nostalia, or religious or cultural reasons, especially if the new system is shaking up institutions. Or if it's like Europe with a lot of cross-border relationships and rules of inheritance, then maybe the next country over is threatening to press their own claim to your country and can recruit some allies on a legal pretext, unless you find your own candidate for the throne. Sometimes only a few people would benefit, other times it might actually ease immediate problems despite being a backward step.

      But fantasy novels almost never have those realistic, complicated and often quite unworthy or pragmatic reasons for wanting the One Twue King back. It's always legend and birthright and being Inherently Noble and all that, and those things are always basically true and good. There's never a prophecy about the True King coming back and there's a nice stable country and the heir is a feckless git but it still has to happen according to legend and everything is ruined forever.

      (I personally find the most depressing bit is, the descendants of basically those same people still have disproportionate money and influence, according to research I read. Australia was well out of that.)

      I guess taking out an adulterer for damaging social cohesion just doesn't have the same ring to it as taking out a despot.

      Except maybe Dogs in the Vineyard? But one thing it's making me thing about is, could we build more non-killing solutions into fantasy worldbuilding? From what I remember of history, a lot was done with getting nobles punished under actual law - they got forced to chance their ways under threat of excommunication, lands got confiscated, they lost responsibilities or incomes, or had to go on dangerous pilgrimages, or even exiled. Fantasy tends to have a lot of deities, so you'd think exposing them to the right temple might be effective sometimes. Often their families would be taken hostage to guarantee better conduct in future. There's options, it's just lots of them involve invoking higher authorities, which isn't standard D&D practice.

    5. A series of fantasy novels that does present realistic motivations and consequences is A Song of Ice and Fire by George R. R. Martin, starting with A Game of Thrones. There have been all sorts of heavy consequences for taking down an insane king in the backstory, some fifteen years before the story starts. Various characters sided with Robert Baratheon for their own different reasons, and others stayed loyal to the king, also for their own different reasons. And that's not even getting into the contemporary squabble about who should sit on the Iron Throne. It's quite nebulous about who should rightfully rule (if anyone even should), or whether it even matters. I've only finished the first 1 1/3 books, though I've also seen the TV series through the end of Season 3, so I'm sure there's a lot more to come.

      While quite a few characters are killed, the series also has other consequences than death. Taking hostages is a big one, and so is a form of exile - "taking the black" and joining the Night's Watch.

    6. Yes, I think a Game of Thrones takes a far more interesting and quasi-realistic approach to the whole thing, though I'm not sure how much it's trickled in to the average Pathfinder or D&D game.

      I've noticed that the higher the magic saturation the point, the less likely you get those kinds of plots ... though magic, per se, doesn't remove the opportunities for complexity.

    7. I'm now imagining a Pokémon-type situation with magic -- beat down the baron's men and weaken the baron before casting: "Draw The Eye Of Your Deity/King" to his bad actions as a way to cause his excommunication/exile/whatever.

      Though this still leads to players slaughtering folks just doing their jobs and then letting off the actual bad guy with a lesser punishment (unless it's a divine wrath which could be worse).

    8. Love the Pokemon idea! Yup yup. It's very hard to escape the "mooks get killed" paradigm, which is one reason why undead, demons, elementals and mad cultists are such popular enemies. Also super-evil bandits.

      I think this partly comes down to complexity. If PCs basically kill, evade or flee enemies, the GM’s side of things stays relatively simple. Once they start taking people prisoner, it gets very complicated very quickly. What do you do with the prisoners? Are you feeding them? Are you going to escort this batch to town, or leave them tied up here and hope nobody comes back to release them? If you take them to town, why wouldn’t the villagers just kill them? So you need to plan infrastructure that supports prisoners, like prisons. Most D&D parties fight between twenty and a hundred enemies per week, which is massive, especially as you’re often in border regions with small towns. Who looks after (feeds, guards, prevents from escaping) a hundred bandits? What do they do with them? You could quickly establish a massive slave-based economy just on captured bandit labour.

      It gets even more complicated with non-human enemies. How do the races mix? Can you capture ten orc bandits and take them to a human town? Will they be horribly tortured to death, or can they be imprisoned normally? What are the relationships between orcs and humans anyway? Is this a Cold War prisoner-exchange situation, or are these guys pure criminals? Should they be sent back for trial? If you do that, will they in fact be released and rewarded for waging war on vile humans? Will the orc kingdom raise hell over you imprisoning or executing their citizens? Is there an actual war on, in which case they’re soldiers, and how does your culture handle that? What if they’re extraplanar intruders?

    9. Another potential issue is that prisoners can be interrogated. This gives the PCs a lot of advantage, but also calls on the GM to invent information that normally wouldn’t matter or even exist. The type of game may well change. I for one would soon turn my games into something resembling Commandos, where you spend most of the time arranging ambushes involving a prisoner held at swordpoint luring the next guy in. Traps and hiding places become much less relevant because you can force prisoners to reveal it all. You also have the awkward task of maintaining your preferred tone somewhere between Blytonesque (prisoners reveal everything immediately in a monologue) or sordid (PCs torture everyone for information, then force them to open all doors, chests and potential traps). There’s usually going to be some limit on how much information the GM wants to dispense, but unless you always represent this as “this mook is genuinely completely clueless” then exerting pressure to convince them is an obvious step. It’s hard to get away with defiant prisoners in an RPG unless you sit down and agree on how to handle this, and accept the fact that sometimes it’ll feel railroady because GM Says That’s All You Get. In a strange way, having everyone die at 0HP and fight to the death is actually less grim than some of the potential alternatives.

      One bad guy, on the other hand, is normally either useless to interrogate (being the one you needed to know about) or a valuable source of plot hooks. There’s only one to worry about. They’re often important enough that the king or wizards or whoever can be expected to care about them and invest the effort in imprisoning them. It’s generally easier to effectively exile important people, because it’s hard to tell one peasant from another, and if the evil baron bothers to convincingly act like a peasant and return to live a peasant life, that’s probably as an even better punishment than exile. It’s really hard to use social disgrace and loss of prestige as a punishment against people who don’t have any.

      I suppose one option, though it sounds odd, is to take a kids’ TV and Jazz Age cinema tack, and rule that most of the time when you defeat enemies they scuttle off in fear and somehow vanish. The pirates jump overboard, the bandits drop their swords and run into the forest, the guards flee, and all of them are going to think very hard about what they’ve done and reform their wicked ways. Not convincing, but it’s one alternative.

    10. One of my Demon campaigns included a pacifist so when they took down a relatively minor Earthbound, they captured as many cultists as they could. Rather than having them all be mind-blastedly evil, I thought I'd be nice and have them be redeemable but from a messed up society, so they could be deprogrammed.

      Enter a very hasty bastion-prison creation spell, prisoners nearly losing fingers due to handcuffs that were on too long while they created the prison (they did have healing magic), and figuring out rostered shifts (with potential willpower losses if they didn't take enough time out).

      While they did pass the Stanford Prison Experiment without becoming monsters, it was pretty touch and go at the time, and if not for their magical lores would've been a whole lot worse.