Tuesday, 10 November 2015

A History of Violence

Violence is at its most shocking when it is presented as a matter of fact, without dramatic trappings. See examples below:

[Marsyas] stumbled upon the flute, which he had no sooner put to his lips than it played of itself, inspired by the memory of Athene’s music; and he went about Phrygia in Cybele’s train, delighting the ignorant peasants. They cried out that Apollo himself could not have made better music, even on his lyre, and Marsyas was foolish enough not to contradict them. This, of course, provoked the anger of Apollo, who invited him to a contest, the winner of which should inflict whatever punishment he pleased on the loser. Marsyas consented, and Apollo empanelled the Muses as a jury. The contest proved an equal one, the Muses being charmed by both instruments, until Apollo cried out to Marsyas: ‘I challenge you to do with your instrument as much as I can do with mine. Turn it upside down, and both play and sing at the same time.’ 
This, with a flute, was manifestly impossible, and Marsyas failed to meet the challenge. But Apollo reversed his lyre and sang such delightful hymns in honour of the Olympian gods that the Muses could not do less than give the verdict in his favour. Then, for all his pretended sweetness, Apollo took a most cruel revenge on Marsyas: flaying him alive and nailing his skin to a pine (or, some say. to a plane-tree). It now hangs in the cavern whence the Marsyas River rises. 
-Apollo's Nature and Deeds, 1700 BC?? 
Egil was matched to play against a boy named Grim, son of Hegg, of Hegg-stead. Grim was ten or eleven years old, and strong for his age. But when they played together Egil got the worst of it. And Grim made all he could of his advantage. Then Egil got angry and lifted up the bat and struck Grim, whereupon Grim seized him and threw him down with a heavy fall, and handled him rather roughly, and said he would thrash him if he did not behave. But when Egil got to his feet, he went out of the game, and the boys hooted at him.

Egil went to Thord and told him what had been done. 
Thord said: 'I will go with you, and we will be avenged on them.' 
He gave into his hands a halberd that he had been carrying. Such weapons were then customary. They went where the boys' game was. Grim had now got the ball and was running away with it, and the other boys after him. Then Egil bounded upon Grim, and drove the axe into his head, so that it at once pierced his brain. After this Egil and Thord went away to their own people.

- Egil's Saga, 1240 AD 
Thenne launcelot vnbarred the dore / and with his lyfte hand he held it open a lytel / so that but one man myghte come in attones / and soo there came strydyng a good knyghte a moche man and large / and his name was Colgreuaunce / of Gore / and he with a swerd strake at syr launcelot myȝtely and he put asyde the stroke / and gaf hym suche a buffett vpon the helmet / that he felle grouelynge dede within the chamber dore / and thenne syre Launcelot with grete myghte drewe that dede knyght within the chamber dore / and syr Launcelot with helpe of the Quene and her ladyes was lyghtely armed in syr Colgreuaunce armour

-Le Morte Darthur, Sir Thomas Malory, 1485 
Some time toward midnight Tom Buchanan and Mrs. Wilson stood face to face discussing, in impassioned voices, whether Mrs. Wilson had any right to mention Daisy’s name. 
“Daisy! Daisy! Daisy!” shouted Mrs. Wilson. “I’ll say it whenever I want to! Daisy! Dai ——” 
Making a short deft movement, Tom Buchanan broke her nose with his open hand. 
-The Great Gatsby,  F. Scott Fitzgerald, 1925

The F. Scott Fitzgerald scene may be the most affecting of all of them. Not just because it's a man hitting a woman, which is quite rightly something that retains its capacity to shock, but also because of the efficiency of the description: Tom is quite deliberate in his brutality, and you understand that in just a dozen words.

It would be wrong to say I "like" violence in an RPG session to be presented in that sort of fashion, because that's the wrong word, but I think violence which is sudden, quick and matter-of-fact (even casual) is the most interesting kind. It is more realistic, but it also makes you reflect on the consequences. Not as in "Ooh, isn't it awful?" But as in, "Okay, the person is dead. Now what is going to happen, and also what did it mean?"


  1. I like your angle. Do you think that it's important that combat take place mechanically swiftly? It occurs to me that a more simulationist set of rules (say RQ over D&D) might work better if that's the case.

    This isn't because such a rule set is more realistic (as you say). I'm of the opinion that it's hard to treat violence with the kind of punch (pun...intended) you highlight as being interesting, when violence is highly abstracted. I should say that I'm thinking more mid level here, rather than the squishy lows.

    1. Yes. That's a legitimate complaint about D&D combat once you get beyond 1st or 2nd level. I like deadly systems - RQ, Rolemaster, CP 2020.

  2. I agree (I believe) with Daayan here. If you want violence to have more immediate consequences, GURPS or RQ is probably more in line with what you want. D&D in any flavor is about characters gaining more and more ability to absorb punishment as they gain levels. Fights become more about out-lasting people in a drawn-out hacking contest than about immediate, bloody consequences.

    1. In all 'encounters', combat or otherwise, I want my systems to be about producing consequences, rather than the process itself. But combat especially so...

  3. I guess the answer lies somewhere between 13th Age's escalation die and some kind of formalised dueling rules, only given a different context (Zak's spring to mind from a Red & Pleasant Land). We could head down the narrative route, but I'm somewhat disinclined to go that way.
    If we were intent upon hacking D&D, might it be a thing to increase Critical multipliers as level progresses? To the best of my knowledge, that hasn't happened in any published rules I'm aware of.
    That way, I think the horrible tension of violence and its terrible (and sudden) consequences might be adequately maintained across the span of levels.

  4. I run a tactically real narrativist first edition AD&D game. I use an elaborate crit hit system to make it non-linear (deadly). For simplicity's sake, I do not use a hit location table. There are two ways to get a crit hit by rolling a to hit + 5, which gives maximum damage, by rolling the crit hit# for the weapon type, from D&D 3rd edition, usually a number between 18 and 20, which multiplies the damage. Second roll determines if the opponent is still in the fight. Generally a natural 20 and a crit hit means that the opponent is out of the fight. A natural 20 times 2 means that the opponent is dead, NO MATTER WHAT. Secondly, I have a game mechanic based on constitution, to see if the opponent is knocked down and or/loses consciousness if s/he takes a massive amount of damage in one hit (1/3 to 1/2hp) or if the HP goes to zero or less, death occurs at negative HP, again based on CON, unless s/he is stabilized. Healer has a better chance, than untrained use. I narrate based on outcome. I had a guy drop dead with an arrow through the eye, had a thief incapacitated with his guts spilling out after a sword slash, rolling CON checks to stay conscious. I wanted a non-linear combat to keep player on their toes with the threat of instant death and to give them fighting spirit - they have the potential to kill anything in a fight. Suddenly players became afraid of goblin archers pinning them down.

    Daayan, the level progression is built into the system with a To Hit+5 mechanic giving higher level combatants more chances to do mortal hits.

    1. This comment has been removed by the author.

    2. Forgive my obtusity, but could you describe how' your To Hit+5' mechanic works? I'm not necessarily the quickest when it comes to assimilating rules.

    3. Very simple, let's say that your character needs to roll 13 or better to hit an opponent in melee. If you roll 18 or better it will be a "To Hit +5". In DMG1, that's what STR 16 Fighter needs to hit a chain mail armored opponent at levels 1-2, at level 3-4, "To Hit +5 Crit Hit drops down to 16, and at levels 5-6, it drops to 14. Progression as character advances in level.

    4. Thanks for explaining it. It seems like a fairly elegant solution to the D&D extended fight thing.
      I've just returned to D&D (and the OSR vibe in particular) after a long time invested in a RQ home brew. I'd grown disillusioned with the number of steps and choices required from RQ combat, especially because I'm now blessed with a large group of enthusiastic RPG greens.I'll give your method a try out and see how it plays.

    5. That does sound quite good, although quite a bit to keep track of. I also like ORE combat, which is quite tactical and deadly but relatively simple.

  5. Daayan, I had the pleasure of running a D&D game with a bunch of middle aged LOTR fans, who never read Tolkien or noticed D&D. It was a great pleasure and they took the game in many unusual directions, as they were totally innocent of power gaming. You are in for a treat ! RQ has an awesome skill development mechanic, but its combat system is tedious. Look up the WOTC D&D Weapon damage table in Open Source document, each weapon has a crit hit number as well, broken down roughly as follows: Swords do a crit hit on 19-20 and if you do, the damage is doubled, Axes do a crit hit on 18-20, and the damage is doubled, Spears (and arrows, if I remember correctly) do a crit hit on 20, but Triple the damage. Good luck with your new group!

    Noisms, which game is ORE, I don't think I heard of it.