Assumed Violence

Assumed Violence

I read RPG books exponentially more than I play the games they are meant to conjure. Within each of them, one thing remains consistent. The system or setting routinely assumes that some form of violence is going to occur and that players will need to know, in great mechanical detail, how to carry it out. 

So, question: Are extensive combat rules included in games because designers assume that players are likely to resort to violence? Or, that because extensive combat rules exist, players feel compelled to resort to violence?

Some observations…

Violence is Necessary to Progress
In most popular game systems and settings, violence is a crux, a means of advancement, regardless of it being planned by the Game Master (GM) or initiated by the players. Once all of the frivolity of door busting, clue sleuthing, and sailor intimidating is wrapped up, the players arrive in the arena, ordained or otherwise, and get down to business. 

Resorting to Violence is an Investment
Everyone around the table puckers up once initiative is called for because they know they’re going to spend the next thirty-to-sixty minutes making dice rolls that could result in life or death for their character. The incentive rests hidden in their foe’s ripe satchel. By engaging in violence, they know they’re going to be rewarded with a tangible scribble on their character sheet, a notable entry of the night’s spoils.

Rules for Violence Need to be Specific
Players need clear-cut guidance, rules that apply some order to the impending chaos of battle. Because there’s so much at stake, everyone needs to know exactly how they’ve earned it. The amount of copy devoted to the step-by-step operations regarding combat will certainly be more mechanical and outweigh, word for word, any other singular mechanic in the book (runner up: any given spell). The rules need to account for each action, reaction, and ultimate outcome.

Image from The British Library
Image from The British Library

Perhaps designers, Game Masters and players alike want granularity in this particular area. A large majority of role players seem to be expectant and accepting of the minutiae involved with combat. After all, humans are especially imaginative beings who love to witness a little carnage from time to time, right? We want to know precisely how the bone breaks, especially if that bone is ours! 

Take that in contrast to skills or abilities that focus on utility or social encounters. Climbing, healing, or diplomacy for example. Those rarely get more than a few lines of explanation in comparison.

Climbing an icy cliff would take actual hours. But often only takes a quick roll of the dice to ascend in a role playing game. Is it because the cliff doesn’t fight back?

Triage sounds like it could be a lot more involved than “…success, I heal you for 3”. Would it actually be interesting as a player to navigate your way through a tense post-battle surgery?

What if an RPG expanded on rules for diplomacy as much as it did for combat? Would the general role playing populous be interested in spending a session utilizing mechanics that helped them to navigate a complex back and forth negotiation, instead of resorting to violence? 

Now, I get it, you don’t have to say it (go ahead and say it). Yes, those kinds of games exist! But they’re a lot more niche and seem to appeal to a much smaller slice of RPG enthusiasts. And you don’t have to say that either (it’s cool, leave it in the comments). Yes, adding rules and mechanics that account for every single situation is just adding to the tedium, diminishing the role playing experience. But what makes combat so special that it consistently gets the spotlight?

Even interactions with a benign non-player character will account for assumed violence. The abbreviated stats and abilities of a friendly barkeep will list their vitals, how hard they hit, and the weapon they’re concealing behind the counter. Just in case a fight breaks out.


Let’s try switching things up. What about a game that has perfunctory rules for utility actions, social encounters and physical altercations, but, very specifically, has in depth rules for dance-offs. Dancing is the new combat. Dancing is the set piece method to resolve conflict. The phrase “roll for funk-nitiative” is uttered, and away we go. 

Image from The British Library: Local Poetry, 1780
Image from The British Library

Does dancing to resolve conflict become more or less enticing than violence because of the rules? Does losing the dance-off need to have high stakes or a big pay off in order to merit the extra layer of rules complexity? Does the designer add these rules because they assume that players will attempt to solve most confrontations by using dance? Or are players compelled to dance in order solve confrontations because that’s what they perceive as playing right? To dance is tradition, after all.

Personally, I think it would be incredibly interesting to see an RPG emerge as a contender where violence is not the de facto method of confrontation resolution. What are some of your favorite RPGs where violence takes a back seat? Leave your comments below or come chat on Twitter: @cog5games.

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