Sunday, February 23, 2014

The Real Weight of Hundreds of Dead Orcish Babies*

I'm a big fan of hard choices and uneasy morality in my games. When your character kills something that's capable of thought, it ought to be a dramatic moment. It doesn't mean there won't be fighting, violence, and swordplay in my games. It does mean that I prefer the players/characters to wince at the gore and be a bit trepidatious about handing out death. (This assumes of course the player isn't playing a really mentally unbalanced character. [You've got to be a bit unbalanced to go adventuring at all, you know.]) Myself and the people I play/played with like exploring the idea of how far your character is willing to go accomplish his/her goals. Kill to defend yourself and others? Striking preemptive blows against enemy tribes/nations? Sidestepping unjust laws? Outright revolting against social injustices? What if that revolution requires the wholesale slaughter of the nobility? Is that ok? Is there another way?

Because we like exploring these ideas, we kind of ditched the idea of inherently monstrous sentient species a while ago. Most orcs are probably violent assholes because of the culture in which they were raised (in reality because of individuals with which they've interacted). This violence, however, isn't an essential part of orcishness; it's learned behaviour. Just like the racial hatred elves feel towards orcs is learned. Just like the 16 year old soldier on patrol in the wilderness, she's learned that if you see green skin put an arrow in it before it puts an arrow into you.

Adventurers, murder-hobos, space-tramps, gunslingers, and all the other types o' Player Characters are usually outsiders to one degree or another. This (potentially) gives them a unique perspective capable of seeing through the bullshit of the society that spawned and spurned them.

That's all well and good, hippy, but how do I introduce these kind of concepts to my group of gleeful murderers?

First, you might want to consider whether you actually want to bring in these themes. If your group is gleeful, you probably ought to consult them before fundamentally changing the tone of your games. Compromise may be necessary. A big part of the role of GM is managing expectations.

(Should you find yourself desperate for a deeper and/or darker game experience, and the players are unwilling, it may be time to find another group.)

That being said, consequences is the name of the game. Whether this takes the form of weeping orcish widows, the power vacuum left by that slaughtered goblin tribe, or the blood feud caused by rescuing that princess is up to you. Try to consider the reality of whatever it is the player characters are doing and skew your descriptions and NPC reactions as appropriate. (No one is going to be happy to see blood-splattered weirdos, smelling like old graves, slime, and sulphur, wandering into town... until these scary strangers start spending yellow coin.)

You're also going to need deeper motivations for your antagonists:
Why are most goblins/orcs/ogres/alpha-centaurians/etc. so opposed to the typical PC species?
Why would anyone forge a bond with a forgotten cosmic horror? What more human horrors brought him/her to this point?
How do the Nobles maintain control of these giant populations of slaves? How do individual Nobles usually justify owning folk?

Anyway, you get the idea.

Gaming with hard choices requires more work, but I find it to be well worth the effort. By their nature, these sort of themes breed drama from player agency and support (almost require) character immersion. Drama + Agency + Immersion : That's the Fuck-Yeah! triad of awesomesauce gaming.

Thoughts? Comments? Objections? Interjections? Contradictions? Grammatical Critiques?
Post 'em in the Comments, please.

* On average 209 dead orcish babies will weigh approximately one ton (US).