Alternatives to Violence

©1999 Montejon Smith, KE (elranuil@email.msn.com)

[Note: Here's an article that got rejected by a major gaming magazine (because it would have been real flamebait there), and which the Most Illustrious Mr. Montejon (which is more a title than a name, as he says himself) has kindly given me the permission to publish here. The article fits perfectly with the very first one I have put here, Why We Don't See More Pacifist Adventures by Richard Lunsford. -- Incánus]

Violence serves a simple function in adventure games. It provides conflict. The conflict, in turn binds the interest of the players. Adventure games are no different from theatre or novels in this.

The problem is that violence tends to loom larger than all other forms of conflict. Even industry insiders occasionally refer to adventure games as "violence games." If one takes a glance at the make-up of the adventure gaming market, one quickly finds that it is dominated by males between the ages of 13 and 30. "Geek" males, to be exact. The same guys that are into Star Trek, anime and The Lord of the Rings. More than that, the "geek" population is into heroism.

Heroism, in its turn, has a connotation of righteous violence. The evil in the world threatens to engulf the hero and he turns to fight against it. To outside eyes it would seem the odds are always against the hero, but the hero knows that one of him is worth hundreds of the enemy. Usually, unless you're playing Call of Cthulhu, the hero's right.

Violence in adventure games is typically justified on the grounds of "kill or be killed."

Violence may be a result of conflict, but it's not the only option. It's not even the easiest option. How big is the Combat chapter in your favourite RPG?

In the real world, the Bad Guy rarely wants to kill you. He wants your job or your tax dollars or maybe a shot at your Significant Other. More often than that, he just wants to beat you at a quick game of cards.

This article is about finding and using those other options effectively.

To develop really good conflicts you need to know two things. First, you need to know what your players want. Then you need to know what their characters want.

In understanding your players there is a spectrum of stereotypes that may prove useful. As we go forward please do remember that these are stereotypes. As such, they have a stronger negative element than one would find in a more balanced person.

On one end of the spectrum you have the "hack-n-slash" gamer. His motivating emotion is anger. He wants to be the top dog, and he wound up the runt. Adventure games are his escape, where he can leave behind his pimpled face and social ineptitude to become a powerful warrior or mysteriously menacing wizard. It seems to me that the majority of gamers tend toward this end of the spectrum. I suspect that the majority of those who read this article are closer to the other end of the spectrum, however.

The other end is the habitat of the "Artiste." His motivating emotion is despair. He wants to be a creative genius, and wound up being told where to shove it. Adventure games are his means of expression. Through them he leaves behind the bonds of a disinterested society and enters a realm in which he has the power to work real change. The "Artiste" segment of the gamer population is the faster-growing segment.

The observant will immediately notice that both types have something in common. The player wants to feel important. He wants to shape the world to his will. He wants to be a bigshot.

Most adventure designers realise this instinctively, which is why so many adventures feature plots to destroy the world, or at least to flatten New York. There's a flaw in this. To start with, it's not the size of your special effects budget that counts. It's what gets blown up.

Imagine for a moment that you have a brand new baby sister. What's more emotionally important to you? The baby sister, or New York? You might make the moral decision that New York is more important, but what you really want is for your baby sister to turn out okay. You have a visceral connection to your helpless sibling that you can't get in a wide-angle zoom shot of some anonymous city being blown to smithereens.

To paraphrase Hitler: If one person you care about dies, it's a tragedy. If a million people you never heard about before die, it's a statistic. Your players, then, don't need to save the world to be satisfied with a job well done. They don't even have to get rich. All that is required is that they feel that they have made a difference.

All your players, regardless of type, have the basic desire to have their egos stroked.

The difference between the types is how you stroke. "Hack-n-Slash" players want to accomplish concrete goals. They want palpable rewards such as wine, (wo)men or a nice hex of fertile land ripe for the clearing. "Artiste" players want to accomplish abstract goals, such as exploring the psyches of their fictional characters or coming to terms with the ineffable qualities of the universe.

So now you have a rough idea of what your players want. You're ready to start frustrating that desire. The first thing you have to do is create the illusion that their desires are attainable. You "flash" them with the commodity they desire. You show them the prize.

With Hack-n-Slash gamers, it's the promise of wealth or of public respect. Some examples: "There's gold in them thar hills!" (wealth); "If you save our village we will honour you always!" (respect); "Rescue the princess and I shall reward you handsomely, even up to half my kingdom!" (wealth and respect).

With Artiste gamers, it's the promise of knowledge or emotional exploration. Some examples: "There are strange noises coming from the old church at night," (knowledge); "Every night your dreams are haunted by the memory of a woman whom you met in the old bookstore, whose name you never discovered," (emotional exploration); "Your father has disappeared during an archaeological dig in Madagascar," (knowledge and emotional exploration).

Then you hit the players with the first obstacle. This first obstacle sets the stage for much of the rest of the story. It should be obvious, dramatic and easily addressed. You don't want to overwhelm your players right out of the gate. Give them the chance to feel that first warm glow of accomplishment.

This first obstacle must threaten something important to the players. It does not need to threaten the life of the players. My experience has been that in most styles of play, starting out with something non-life-threatening adds to the impact when lives are on the line further down the road.

My favourite example from recent times was a camel race. As the PC's prepared for a journey into the unknown (which should clue you in immediately as to what type of group this is), a male NPC insulted a female PC with words to the effect that women can't race. The only thing on the line was pride, but if you think that can't lead to players jumping out of their seats at the end of the race, boy are you wrong.

Notice that this first obstacle doesn't have to have any significant connection to the plot. It's just a way to get the players' interest, to encourage them to focus on the game. Once you have that focus, the real plot can begin.

Or not. It's perfectly feasible to just continue dropping obstacle after obstacle in front of the players. This style of play is often referred to as "dungeon crawling." If you're having fun with it, there's no reason to stop.