Wednesday, May 6, 2015

I Like Killing

Well, all right, fictional killing.

I find it very tiresome when 'heroes' in television shows get their morality on by whining endlessly about their refusal to kill people, even incredibly bad people who clearly have no morality at all. Particularly in shows where the villain's lack of morality is ramped to fetish levels.

This invariably makes the hero look like a moron.

If the hero were an ordinary soul, like you or I, then obviously this character would not be putting on a mask, chasing bad guys through the streets, initiating fights, smashing criminals, breaking bones, drawing blood or any of the hundred other things that 'heroes' do.  This character would be having their 'moral dilemma' as you or I have it, in the sense of, "I am extremely ambivalent about causing any pain at all, so I pay taxes supporting a legal entity that manages this stuff for society as a whole."

You or I are not vigilantes.

However, were we to become vigilantes, it would be sheer idiocy to pretend that we could do it without having to occasionally - and practicably - apply deadly force to the equation.  The cops have to do this, occasionally, despite having the option of jails, courtrooms and ultimate prison.  As a vigilante, we would have none of these options.

Moreover, if we were to target a specific enemy, over and over, repeatedly, at some point I should hope that - having had some measure of success - we would recognize that we were now in a fucking war.  In war, killing becomes a necessity.  Pretending that we could start one and then fight it without having to accept the principles of war, that is, that there are too many enemies in war to take everyone prisoner, especially in situations where we are a solitary participant without back-up, is sheer lunacy.

Yet television keeps fostering characters who argue that this is rational.  Because, hey, killing is bad.

What else is bad for a fictional presentation?  Disbelief.  Piles and piles of frustrating, ignorant disbelief.  All this disbelief makes it hard to watch.

Monday, I began watching Daredevil, the TV series.  I'm seven episodes in.  It began brilliantly.  The fight scene at the end of the second show is stunning.

But seven shows in, where we introduce Stick, what are we talking about?  "You have to grow up and kill people."  "That's not my way."  "That's a coward's way."  "It's my way."


ZZZzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzz . . .

We can acknowledge the idiocy on television, but we can't change it.  Why?  Because people are morons.

Yes, that is the equation.  All the things I've said in this blog so far?  Not believed.  Not in the least. We can fight a war, insists the general public, without having to be 'evil.'  That is, without having to bring force to bear in order to win.

Thankfully, no one actually fighting a war believes this.  Else those people who did bring force would have won.

We cannot 'win' against evil if we won't dig in and fight full-on.

But television . . . sigh.  I must point out that in quite a number of movies, it is perfectly acceptable for the hero to joyfully slaughter everything that moves, even without much provocation, even without all the bad-guy-I'm-an-incredible-villain pornography.  In a movie, it is okay to kill the bad guy if he's standing outside the back door having a cigarette.

That's because if you pay $12, human life has less value.

Interesting, isn't it?  Our morality is founded on whether or not you're willing to pay the equivalent of an hour's wage.  You can own that lowered morality on DVD for even less.  You can buy it in the bargain bin.

The reason is clear.  $12 is what separates us from people who are too moronic to accept deadly force as a reality.

Actually, since my Netflix costs $8, the difference is only four.  This world is whacked.

Earlier this week I fell into a short twitter flash-fight with a few other DMs who I'd rather weren't following me.  Well, they probably aren't, now.

Short version, they were all proud of themselves for being the sort of DM's who give experience for talking . . . er, hm, "solving problems without having to resort to fighting."

I've talked about that before - about how experience increases combat ability and little else.  If the character doesn't use the sword, doesn't gain experience by the sword, then it is safe to say that no improvement is the order of the day.

I can only presume that this is the same kind of wishful thinking that bans television heroes from killing the bad guys.  Killing is wrong.  Oh, sure, we've invented a game based on killing, where the rules promote killing, where all the benefits are designed to come from killing in order to enable killing more effectively in the future.  But killing is wrong.

Therefore, whenever possible, my character won't kill.

Oh, but I still want my character to go up levels.  Oh yes.  That's absolutely necessary.  What good is it to play if I don't improve?

Here, we're not seeing players gaming.  We're seeing a very different kind of fantasy being played out.

A big reason why the television audience prefers a Daredevil who doesn't kill - or a Batman or a Superman - is that people want to pretend to be these characters.  Yet they don't have the temperament to imagine getting their hands dirty.  Killing is squicky, even when the villain is very bad . . . and the ordinary person can't pretend to be Daredevil if part of the program is getting squicky.

But that's okay, because the magic writer dust of television will keep Daredevil alive, come what may.

Much of the D&D audience - role-playing games in general - have trouble with the same level of squickiness.  Oh, they want the magic and the swords and the keen-o power toys, but actually playing the game to kill opponents, well, that makes them queasy.  Ew.  But boy oh boy, is this sword with the notches ever kewl!

And it's okay, because the magic campaign dust of DMing is there to make sure the character becomes the toughest master in the universe with that sword.

Because D&D is about role-playing, not roll-playing.

I am happy that these people do not play in my campaign - because frankly, I think it might be a bit too real for them.  I think they'd lose their cookies.

Unless, perhaps, I made them pay me $4.


Jomo Rising said...

That's one thing I liked about Firefly. They didn't mind killing bad guys.

Jeremiah Scott said...

I was just discussing with my party today why I didn't like the new Avengers movie. They all loved it. You've encapsulated here one of my primary arguments against it. The characters live in a world so obviously driven by the writers' desire to make something appealing to kids and adults who want to be kids. You can almost see the puppet strings as the writers drag the characters along through each perfunctory moment of moral frailty--only to have the heroes man up, try a little bit harder at the same thing they'd been doing all along, and kick ass. Of course, if the situation gets too sticky, in comes the deus ex machina to save the day. Bleh. Bad storytelling is really a discredit to humanity. I wish I could play in your world!

Marjan Wolf said...

Handing out XP for non-combat situations may be too much, because XP is basically a measure of the fighting ability of the character. However, you did point out that giving XP for dealt damage could be worthwhile. I like that idea, especially combined with some kind of weather/environment system which can damage the character.

So maybe you can hand out XP for dealing (fighting) with environmental dangers (enemies)!

Tim said...

What seems silly to me is that those other DMs consider XP to be a good reward for non-combat. Like you said, going up levels only boosts one's combat ability. If a DM wants to reward a playing for sucking up, she should at least give the suck-up wealth or status (the typical real-world reward for doing what your boss wants) as opposed to experience.
As you tweeted, talking is not a level playing field in D&D. Maybe if there were clear and fixed rules governing interactions, a DM could reward a different form of experience (public speaking ability, haha) for literally talking, but I've yet to see or devise anything that can simply convey the intricacies of emotion and speech in D&D well enough to do that (although I quite liked the Conflict cards). And of course, any DM who rewards a player for simply hiding in a bush or leaping over a riverbank or getting a good deal on his armour (oh god he's making us HAGGLE) has no way of enforcing that across the board without dipping into favoritism.

Matt said...

XP rewards for non-combat may be a symptom of more than just a reluctance to enter combat and kill things.

In 3rd edition D&D (and beyond, as far as I know, though I admit ignorance as to how 5th edition really works) much more than combat ability was tied to level. You also had skill progressions for 20 or so different skills.

Some of these skills fit into the mold of older D&D games. Search/Perception, Stealth, Lockpicking, Disable Device and Pickpocketing are all obvious carryovers from the old thief. Swimming, Athletics, Ride (as in horses) and Use Rope are codifications for things that would have been handled with an ability check in older versions of the game. All of the Knowledge skills (Religion, Arcana, History, etc) are ways for the Players to try to force information out of the DM, or ways for the DM to force-feed characters information. All of these things could easily be tied to level and your argument of level = Combat Ability would still stand.

Then there are skills for diplomacy, bluff, intimidation, all sorts of different crafts, and professions. Here is where 3rd edition breaks (well, not the only place, but, you know.) The amount of points you can put into a skill is capped by your level. Even the NPC classes (Warrior, Specialist, and Magic User, which represent "regular, everyday, non-adventuring folk who are more skilled than commoners) are subject to these rules.

So either a level 2 bard is more skilled in diplomacy than a veteran politician, or that politician has some class levels under his belt.

Same thing for the blacksmith. Either the level 2 fighter with the craft skill is better than every professional blacksmith in the land, or those smiths have some class levels. And that's to say nothing of the profession skills, like Sailor, or Baker. Why, to be a baker whose cakes are famous enough to draw the attention of kings you had better be a level 8 or so specialist. All that time baking has also given you 8 hit-dice, and a small(but greater than a level 1 fighter!) attack bonus. Must be from all those filthy peasants you've had to shoo away from your cakes.

But I digress. My point is, that in later editions of D&D, non-combat abilities are tied to level, and so it makes sense (in as much a way as anything else in the system makes sense) to allow characters to progress from experience from non-combat. If the party's bard talks their way out of an encounter, he did it via a diplomacy roll, which is tied to his level, thus he should be able to improve his level by talking. This gets extrapolated to the thief achieving the adventure goals by sneaking past the monsters, and so being rewarded with the same (or greater!) experience than for fighting them.

I'm already pretty long winded at this point, but I would also like to point out that when 3rd edition D&D was released (around 1999, or 2000 I believe) there were also some trends going on in video games. A lot of Western style computer RPGs, most of which were based in some part on D&D rules or expectations, were becoming a lot more story-focused, and somewhat less hack-slash-dungeon-crawl. You see a lot of games around this time start rewarding experience for the successful completion of quests, sometimes to the near exclusion of experience for combat. This allowed the designers a bit greater of control over the pacing of the game.

My D&D group in 2000 was very familiar with the video-game tropes of the era. It made sense for us to emulate that style of experience-for-quest pacing. It's also not surprising that this thought process has made it into books, and advice columns, and so on.

Alexis Smolensk said...

Appreciated, Matt. Unfortunately, none of that addresses the lack of clear, defined measures for how much X.P. ought to be given for specific instances of diplomacy, blacksmithing or cake-making.

Additionally, we have a rising tide raises all boats circumstance (which is the original problem). If the character is both a baker and a diplomat, how is it that diplomacy raises the character's cake-baking ability and vice-versa?

Barrow said...

Had a laugh reading your twitter screed. At what point during a pregnancy do you get XP for saving 2 lives by not killing the mother?

Good to know I can find the Tao on twitter.

Oddbit said...

If someone never makes a save vs any kind of magic, then how does beating things over the head with a club increase their save vs wands?

Yes there is some oddity in there, but I think the conclusion was that a playable solution needed to be made.

Especially for a game that could be played by vastly different DMs and players.

I've yet to see a game that implements two XP buckets, let along XP for specific skills. (Outside video games)

It helps to have a general power level for the party for planning rather than having to make Diplomacy lvl 1 opponents, combat lvl 12 opponents and climb lvl 8 impediments.

Yes there is loss, but unless we change some of the core ways we play (computer stats tracking), I don't know how playable it will be.

Alexis Smolensk said...


Answering the question, club vs. wand, there is a viable relationship between speed to avoid a weapon attack and speed to duck or avoid an attack made with a wand. That is how beating things over the head increases the save vs. wands.

Matt said...

"Unfortunately, none of that addresses the lack of clear, defined measures for how much X.P. ought to be given for specific instances of diplomacy, blacksmithing or cake-making."

Absolutely agreed. XP Rewards in D&D have always been poorly thought out, and poorly communicated. Amongst the older editions there is some tradition that monsters give 100xp per hit die, but several printings of the monster manual break these rules and seem to make up values out of whole cloth. Sometimes additional abilities of a monster are considered in this XP value, sometimes not. It still means that killing a horse or a cow should probably get you 200-300xp. Working in a slaughter-house should give you some pretty quick class levels by those numbers. XP rewarded by the gold piece earned should make merchants and kings more physically able than the guards they hire.

But it's always only been certain things killed in particular ways, or particular treasures taken from dangerous places that reward XP. If your PCs sneak into a village at night, tie up and subdue 10 commoners and drag them to a barn, and execute them 1 by one, do they get 50xp per head? What if they did the same thing, but to goblins in a dungeon? If the PCs set up a trade town and begin turning a profit of 1000gp per month do they get experience for them? What if they spend each month pulling 1000gp worth of treasure out of a hole in the ground? Two thieves continually pickpocket 100 gold from each other. How many experience does each get? Does one lose the experience when they lose the gold? If you only gain experience by spending your money, what happens if you then steal that money right back and use it again 25 miles down the road? No books that I have read have answered these questions with anything more in depth than "The DM will decide."

Matt said...

"Additionally, we have a rising tide raises all boats circumstance (which is the original problem). If the character is both a baker and a diplomat, how is it that diplomacy raises the character's cake-baking ability and vice-versa?

Also agreed. This is true of any skill system that ties its skills to character level, including your sage system which you designed specifically to be limited by character level so as to prevent abuse. If your Druid has spent his time between last level and this level underground, digging through ruins, or delving into the depths of hell to rescue his friends, how has he been brushing up on his astronomy? How does his knowledge of sea life improve as he treks across a desert? Is it because things he was taught in his apprenticeship finally "click" in his head? Sure. That can work as an explanation, and it applies just as well to cake baking and diplomacy.

It would make more sense to me if every non-combat skill was on its own XP track, so that you get better and diplomacy by talking, you get better at cake baking by baking cakes, and so on. But then we have the same problems of how much XP to award for any particular cake. Does the size of the cake matter? Do I get more XP for a more complex recipe? If it's diplomacy, do I get XP every time I talk to someone? (If so I'm going to go and say hi to every damned person in town!) Do I get just as much XP for convincing a beggar to work for me for a day as I do for convincing a carpenter? And so on, and so on.

Somewhere along the line many (if not most) DMs and RPG designers decided they needed a way to model skills beyond the scope of combat, and many of those decided that the path of least resistance was to tie these skills to the same class-and-level system that they had already been using. Some decided that everything from cake-baking to sword-swinging should be modeled as separate skills that all increase individually, and I personally find games designed that way to be absolutely aggravating, and more trouble than they are worth.

So, agreed. D&D is awful at dictating exactly when to give XP, and how much. Later additions and many house rules for skills are terrible at avoiding the "I killed some things, and now I'm a better baker" problem, or worse the "I baked some things, and now I'm an efficient killer" problem.

I still see these problems, and the problem of DMs giving XP for not killing, as symptoms of sloppy game design, not of an unwillingness for players to get their hands dirty. My players, and other players that I have run before, or that I have talked to, will go for what rewards them. If they get the same reward without risking their character's life, why not go for it? If their only XP comes from killing, they will kill every thing they think they can get away with killing.

Alexis Smolensk said...

I enjoy these debates, Matt.

Yes, I humbly admit that I have linked X.P. to sage abilities and therefore knowledge.

My only answer is that I am extraordinarily clear on why and when I give experience, whatever is tied to it.

I give experience for risk.

No risk, no X.P.

What is risk? Damage. Specifically, damage that HAS happened, not damage that MIGHT happen.

That's a clear dividing line.

But I shall think on this a bit more and come back with an answer.

William Jones said...

A good read, this one. The way I think about it is this: D&D gives experience for certain actions, this reward is defined as a game mechanic.

So what does this tell us about D&D, well quite simply that the game, and let's remember that word there, game encourages killing. Killing is how your character progresses (and please excuse my ignorance of 1st edition here, I am assuming it is the same as literally every other edition). To make your character more powerful, more able to access skills and abilities which improves how, well able your character is to kill even more, you are required to kill.

Plainly and simply, if you want to reward players for not killing their way out of a situation, you're playing the wrong game, and if you want to home-rule it into a game which rewards players for not killing their way through obstacles, why would you start with D&D when there are so many more suitable game systems out there.

William Jones said...

Just to be clear, I wasn't talking about your homeruling in my last post, but to the DM's you hope are no longer following you! From the level of thought that goes into your books, I feel safe in assuming that your homerules would not be subject to that criticism.

Alexis Smolensk said...

I took it exactly how you meant it, William - and it's an argument I've made many times.

To emphasize, I do reward players for not killing their way out of situations - I just don't do it with experience.

William Jones said...

Exactly! And with the type of reward you give, depending on what the players do next, can change the reward in a way that awarding them xp can't.

Imagine a 1st level character who has been chased up a tree by a dire wolf. The wolf has tried to scramble up after him but failed, and is now content to sit at the base of the tree, waiting.

A player may have his character gather branches, weave a cage and drop it over the wolf below.

According to some DM's, at that point, you have "overcome the direwolf with your non combat skills" and will award you the XP.

And here's what I would do as a player.

I lift the cage back off the wolf again.

DM cannot remove XP from my character. It's mine forever. I drop the cage over the wolf again.

By the DM's own terms, he must award me the XP again.

Repeat until the DM understands why you don't give XP for overcoming obstacles.

The correct way to do this is, as you say, reward the player but not with XP. In this case the reward is the player surviving, which if I was a 1st level player who survived an encounter with a direwolf, is not only more than adequate, it is far more valuable to me than any amount of XP.

Hodge Dunkin said...

I agree with your comment on the squickiness and average D&D players and playing the game to kill opponents just not being kosher with them. I experienced this reaction while DMing a short lived campaign and I remember being rather suprised at the aversion to the killing of opponents and the description of the battles. Calling out numbers from a die roll was cool, but don't describe any combat actions. At the time I just thought it was an odd reaction to a role playing game that is all about you fighting monsters.