A deadly game

In my ponderings around combat systems, I have realised something that somehow escaped my notice previously. Virtually every combat system I know of is designed with just one thing in mind: implacable foes beating seven shades of hell out of each other with the intention of killing their opponent.

Most systems give some consideration to unarmed combat, and usually to grappling too. Knocking an opponent out is covered perhaps 50% of the time, and is often accomplished by simply beating the target character with your fists until they run out of hit points and collapse. These options are usually significantly harder to achieve than a kill, which creates an incentive to resort to lethal force.

Capturing an opponent is usually not considered at all (beyond the grappling system), nor is the possibility that an opponent will decide discretion is the better part of valour and try to surrender or run away. Systems often include a mechanism for a character to exit melee, but that isn’t quite the same thing – and again, it’s often much harder to escape combat than it is to carry on fighting. Surrender and flight are generally left to the GM to decide on, with no guidance given and no mechanic for helping to decide when an opponent might decide to flee. All this alongside systems which are often ludicrously detailed about wounds and death.

Why does all this matter? Well, the result of this bias towards lethality is that most fighting in roleplaying games is, well, lethal. Yet the most interesting stories we read, and many (not all) of the movies we watch involve trying to capture rather than kill the main villain, and a satisfying outcome often involves an antagonist being surrounded, pinned down by gunfire and forced to surrender, rather than taken down in a hail of bullets. This leaves open more possibilities, too: interrogation, escape, recurring villains (you can’t have a recurring villain if the villain is killed at the end of every story). I’ve lost count of the number of times that key clues have been lost in games I’ve run because the players shot the clue-bearer. Games have become so deadly that some of my GMs have been forced to resort to giving every villain a teleportation ring or similar so that they can live to fight another day!

I want to see more systems that include express consideration of, for example, how to handcuff the villain. That include mechanics for (or at least consideration of) morale, and grappling mechanics that don’t cause my brain to explode. I want games where killing is the last resort rather than the normal modus operandi.

Josh Fox

Rabalias grew up wanting to be a pirate. But a band of evil bureaucrats kidnapped him and forced him to work for The Man. Even so, Rabalias was patient and cunning. He escaped by gnawing his way through the walls of his prison and concealing the hole behind a picture of cthulhu. He fled to the coast, and stowed away on the Black Armada, where he worked his way up to the rank of Admiral.

7 thoughts to “A deadly game”

  1. The lack of grapple / incapacitate / surrender is a very good point. And especially where you have players who are pretty gung ho about getting into the killing but you as the ref want them to slow down a bit. You know from ref’ing me that I tend to shoot first and then try to ask questions later.

    I think there is a tendancy to hurl oneself into combat until everything around you is dead because so often you get into combats where that happens and I suppose that, as a player, you figure that if someone is being threatening, it’s better to go over the top and take out the threat than wait and see if it surrenders. Cthulhu, I’m looking at you. And i’m also remember a recent Warhammer session which resulted in a lot of corpses and no answers, again because I think we perceived a greater threat than was fair.

    I’d like to think that grappling / incapacitating is a viable alternative but it doesn’t happen so often. Perhaps I’ll try to be more pacifistic in the future but even thinking about that makes me fear for the safety of my characters.

    (I know that when I play fighter characters I tend to go straight to lethal, do not pass go, do not collect £200, and I am also aware that this is something I need to learn a little restraint in)

    1. Thanks for the comment, Jo. I definitely think there’s a bit of player behaviour in the mix here – we’re all used to playing it lethal, and we stick to what we know. But I think there’s more than a bit of system in it too. Thinking through the game systems I’ve used, virtually all of them make it harder to do a non-lethal attack than to do a lethal one; and that means that unless you’ve got some special reason to go non-lethal, you’re getting the guns out and blowing the fuckers away. Game designers can definitely improve on this, even if all they did was remove the standard penalty for striking to stun or whatever.

  2. In my experience in Cthulhu, which is where we’ve had to use grapple a little more when we’ve not had weapons, it’s just *difficult*. You have to make a roll to grapple and then make a roll to continue to hold them, whilst they roll against their strength, to escape. Few people put points into grapple which has a basic of 25% so the chance of succeeding initially is not great and then you’ve got to be pretty strong and hope that they aren’t. Given that in something like Cthulhu you don’t want to grapple that many things you meet, you’d rather shoot stuff and most people put their points into the more weapons-based fighting skills, meaning it’s even less likely they’ll succeed in a non-letahl combat.

    But this has made me think that perhaps my next Cthulhu character will be something of a hand-to-hand combat fighter, with some sort of pacifistic streak that prevents her/him from killing as a first reaction, and I’ll try out non-lethal combat and see how it goes. I’d be curious to see how well it works (as my character dodges a hail of bullets to get close enough to the baddie to give them a hug…)

    1. Yeah, exactly. Same deal with Dark Heresy; the roll isn’t harder but your opponent gets a resistance roll. So you’re much less likely to succeed.

      A pacifist character sounds cool but I think the system will work against you a bit! I guess it depends how strong they are…

  3. Perhaps Cthulhu isn’t the system to try this – so much of what you encounter will just kick your ass for the fun of it, and trying to tame it with a hug will just result in a quick death.

    Another thing – rarely do we as players surrender once the fight is going, because, rarely do we get incapacitated in a grapply sort of way. Which is interesting. Sometimes we do run away, but not usually until someone from the party has taken a pretty serious amount of damage if not lethal damage. Would be interesting to be in a capture scenario.

    Note: this is not a suggestion for the next Nuns game.

  4. You’re right that not many games tackle this subject. Reason is (a) it’s poorly understood and (b) it’s complex.

    I’ve given my views on combat simulation before, but I’ll restate them – if you try to model combat accurately you will fail. Too many combats focus on having to take a different kind of action for a different kind of outcome. To simplify you might take Vincent Baker’s approach and consider escalation of consequences – which I feel is pretty accurate. Your options to just subdue someone are drastically reduced once guns are drawn. On the other hand I believe DITV doesn’t favour a side that aquiesces and puts itself at the opponent’s mercy – from what I’ve heard, that’s suicide.

    The problem is that grappling someone to submission is a very rare real-world occurrance. The one I can think of right now is hospital orderlies in a mental hospital, who need to subdue people without actually hurting them (I’ve met one and it’s a very specific skill set – most people including martial artists would suck at it). It is not the same as subduing someone by pointing a weapon at them or overwhelming them with numbers.

    I think you should focus on the social side – what you seem to want is a mechanism to, say, negotiate a Mexican standoff bloodlessly. That’s not trivial but would be cool if you could pull it off. We have tools available to model the social side of confrontations, but they’re vastly underused. Unknown Armies and Nemesis (ORE, free) use more than one axis of mental health – and though they’re mostly to do with going insane I think they could be adapted.

    Last comment – there’s some martial theory, both modern and historical, that can be applied here. Thomas Fewtrell wrote about seven attributes of pugilists, one of which is “bottom” or the ability to bear blows. His almanac commented on a century of boxing talent using his system. One of our students turned it into a Top Trumps deck.

    1. Smiorgan: I guess I was thinking less of realism than what is dramatically satisfying, and perhaps in terms of a TV-show realism. How many times have we seen someone wrestled to the ground and cuffed in a cop show? How often does the villain in a Holmes story try to run for it rather than face the music? Climactic battles only seem to happen in roleplaying and the sort of movie that is essentially all about combat anyway.

      It’s an interesting point about Dogs. I find the Dogs system slightly unsatisfactory because you can get more dice by pulling a gun but then revert to less lethal actions, using those dice, meaning escalation doesn’t always work the way you would think. But I love the idea. Also, I think you’re mistaken about surrender – in fact Dogs is one of the few systems which allows surrender as part of its mechanics (if I set the stakes as “you get captured” and you lose, you get captured; if you give, you presumably surrendered).

      I think you’re right that the social side of games get underused, and they’re typically considered as a completely separate sphere from physical combat. I’d like to fix that.

      Finally, I shall make it a goal to run a game with a Bottom stat.

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