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This question came to me while I was thinking about killing people in pen-and-paper rpgs.

When a character starts his career, in most systems, he is somewhat young. As an example, when you are first level in DnD 3.5, there is a starting age that is relatively low for most races. Let us assume you are a melee combatant, which we will call a fighter. You train with your master/in the army/in your dojo in a martial art whose purpose is to kill people. You then start travelling, and you encounter an opponent whom you kill. Most players are totally OK with it; they know that they will kill loads of things, many of them intelligent.

Now this may be the standard in these games, but when someone kills another intelligent (or not) being, this often results in psychological trauma, a nervous breakdown, flying into a rage, or other extreme reactions (assuming one is not mentally sick).

This applies to other situations as well: people are not afraid of the huge dragon/alien aberration/hideous re-animated corpse golem that lies in front of their eyes. They know what they will encounter, and they are willing to bypass any "normal" reactions for some reason I do not fully understand.

I do understand that you play an rpg so you can pretend to be something more than what you are -- to assume a persona that, most of the time, is something you would wish to be. But shouldn't situations like these portrayed somehow realistically?

Should situations where a person would ordinarily be frightened, upset, or mentally traumatised, and are bypassed because of the knowledge of being in a game, be roleplayed? Would this somehow hinder the game? How can one lead the players to do this?

(My opinion is that they should be portrayed, but when playing in a group it is hard to roleplay something others probably do not have an interest in.)

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Related:… – mxyzplk Feb 11 '12 at 17:27
I achieved this once without meaning to. In my Game of Thrones campaign, I killed off the friendliest NPC. Local clergy decided there would be a funeral. The players acted appropriately and one of them even gave a eulogy. Afterwards, the players were somber even out of game. The group had been playing together for ~5 years at that point, but that was the first time a death felt like something more than a plot point. I mention this as a comment, because I'm not sure why it worked and I'm merely sharing the anecdote rather than an explanation. – valadil Feb 13 '12 at 1:27

10 Answers 10

up vote 15 down vote accepted

It's hard to enforce/lead players to roleplay scenarios like this with gusto (or even "appropriately"), especially when most games - especially D&D - don't provide a mechanical incentive or mechanism for such reactions. I think mechanical gamification of roleplay is really integral to getting most players engaged in RP - "roleplaying" and "game" are too often separate aspects of the one thing we're trying to accomplish.

If you need some inspiration, here are two systems I know of that do this well & in different ways:

Burning Wheel - Incredible mechanics to support both roleplaying generally and the variety of situations you're asking about in particular (Steel tests for Hesitation). If you haven't heard of or played BW, I'd suggest grabbing the core rules (for free!) here. The basic mechanic isn't too complex (roll a pool of D6s, beat an obstacle), but it is a definite shift if you're used to D20 systems. The skillset and trait list can be pretty daunting (a few hundred each). I'll admit that it takes some getting used to, but I walked five 4E converts through it yesterday without too much hassle.

Call of Cthulhu - Most roleplayers are familiar with CoC. It's not the best system for long-term campaigns or character growth, but it does include mechanics for character reaction and suggested for player roleplay.

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Having characters realistically roleplay their reactions to such things is a major goal of two schools of roleplaying (character immersion and storytelling). People with other preferences in roleplaying agenda (tactical/gamist) aren't interested in this, and would counsel you that it does indeed "hinder the game" as their definition of game doesn't include that kind of activity.

Having the Narrative Display It

For storytelling purposes, games with rules that alter your behavior due to such things work. The Sanity rules in Call of Cthulhu, the more nuanced 5-track madness meters of Unknown Armies, or the modern combat friction mechanic in Keeping Their Heads Down (p.21 of this PDF) (this latter links to research indicating that even trained solders don't just run along like killbots). You simply insert rules that generate the desired kind of behavior in the characters. Then a summary of how the game sessions reads includes people freaking out at the sight of the slain, etc.

Having the People Feel It

This is a different approach. What you can do there is by increasing the general level of character immersion, you'll have characters begin to take on more realistic responses to stimulus like this. Somewhat relevant is this essay on horror in roleplaying that I wrote, which comes from this perspective on how to generate fright, dread, and terror in characters and, to some degree, in players (this is called bleed). Rules determining character reaction as in the above section must be used lightly, as they can instead damage immersion easily.

You will get advice that this "isn't possible" and you have to use rules to achieve this end. That's false; it's advice from people who don't do that kind of RP. A full primer on techniques to enhance in-character roleplay is out of the scope of this answer, but they exist.

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+1 for the Having the People Feel It section. Far too often players are too separated from their characters in modern RPGs. Bleed is dangerous and it can be bad/problematic, but it is also really powerful and can be used for good. Don't try and do this with people you don't know, though, you might hurt somebody. – the dark wanderer Nov 6 '14 at 7:53

Unknown armies has a very good system for modelling "hardening" against particular mental strains. In a nut shell, the system gives you a level of mental stress that you are at home with. This in turn, gives you resistance against shock/madness/psychological damage and the like. However, it turns you off some what making you more and more alien to being human.

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Seconded. One important point, though, is that in the UA universe getting "too hardened" to one of these kinds of mental stress prevents you from reaching the main goal of the game. I'd suggest to provide a similar rationale to discourage players to try to get their characters "too detached" regarding this kind of stress. – p.marino Feb 19 '12 at 22:08

If the scenario is such that the killing was justified, and the character was trained to fight and kill, the realistic way to roleplay is to not be badly affected. For example, the top sniper in the U.S. military seems quite at peace with his duties.

This leaves you with two options: either play games where the characters are not supposed to be trained to kill (but that might not be much fun), or play games where it is none too clear that any particular killing is justified. The majority of RPGs are designed around combat, and a lot of people play games specifically because they enjoy the combat, so the former strategy might not work. But the latter can be employed in almost any situation.

For example, suppose the party is supposed to be killing goblins who are raiding farms, butchering cattle and people, and carrying them off into their mountain tunnels. Have the players stumble upon a goblin lair, watching the scrawny and starving goblin young trying to scrabble up a wall to catch a spiny cockroach that they can barely stomach, and then watch as a raiding party comes in with fresh meat upon which they swoop with glee, gets a little harder to just butcher all the goblin warriors, especially if they show any signs of wanting to negotiate.

The same thing goes for any emotionally-charged situation. If the player knows that the situation is actually incredibly dangerous and they stand a real chance of losing their character, they're going to act cautiously. For example, if the player is level 5 and they find themselves up against an ancient red dragon, they're probably not going to be entirely calm. If you want them to care deeply about the potential to lose someone, make that person really important for the campaign--maybe they're always going out on quests for a princess, and when they come back successful, play out them telling her about the key parts of it with her asking questions and so on. Then, when the princess goes missing, the players don't have to work nearly so hard to act out their characters' concerns. If you want to develop a phobia of something, have a necromancer enchant, say, scorpions. After fifty encounters with enchanted deadly life-draining scorpions of all sizes and types, the players will have no trouble acting out paranoia regarding scorpions.

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Separation between player knowledge and character knowledge is important for fair play and avoiding power-gaming, so if players are refusing to accept the in-game penalties that come with a character being upset or their character is making decisions that are inconsistent with the character's knowledge/age/alignment, that's definitely a problem. But roleplaying out scenes in-character doesn't inherently hurt or help the game. It's all about what the players want out of the experience. Phrased as a question about whether character distress 'should' be role-played out, there is no good answer to this. It is dependent on what your roleplaying group wants out of rpgs.

There's no right way to play; some people are more into the role-playing, immersive story thing than others. If you want to roleplay things out and the rest of the group doesn't, you might want to try playing with a different group.

However, the second half of your question, 'how can I encourage more roleplaying' is much more answerable. Including mechanical consequences for characters' fear or guilt is definitely one way of doing it, and Edbury's suggestions for systems that do that more naturally than D&D are good ones (I can think of others if you want a longer list). Although it's not exactly the same as your question, I think you'll find the answers here have many good ideas for increasing game immersion and making players shoulder consequences for their actions.

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One thing to remember is that a lot of the reactions you are talking about are culturally dependent. At the risk of stereotyping, your average american middle-manager who has never been in a fight in his life is probably going to be traumatized if he is somehow forced to kill another person but manages to do it. A soldier who spent significant time training to kill, thinking about it, will likely be affected, but not to the same degree. A thirteen year old from a war torn country who spent his whole life around death is probably not going to react too much to his first kill. So, while there should be a reaction, someone who grew up in a medieval style setting (where public executions are common and life expectancy low), trained to fight, and then killed for the first time really might have a relatively mild reaction that is closer to relief at winning the first real fight than the trauma of a middle class american.

Similarly, if I were personally confronted with a dragon I would be a stuttering mess of shock and would run screaming if it made the slightest sign of annoyance with me. Someone from, say, Krynn during one of its dragon wars would grow up hearing about dragons and might have seen them fly overhead a few times at a distance. He will still be scared the first time he meets one face to face, but it would be an order of magnitude less than what I would feel.

So, while I agree players should be encouraged to display reactions like that for RP purposes, keep in mind that the character reaction (even the younger ones) is likely to be much more blaise' than the player would really react in that situation (unless you are running some sort of ordinary-people-suddenly-thrust-into-extraordinary-circumstances campaign, then there should be frequent moments of terror, shock, and awe, at least at the beginning).

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If you want this effect, then pick a game that offers a mechanic for it. An example that comes to mind is Steel in Burning Wheel, which is rolled whenever a character experiences pain, fear, or surprise. On success, a character controls their emotion or fear. On failure, options include hesitating, swooning, running away screaming, falling and begging for mercy, or (with the right trait) flights of murderous fancy.

In D&D, the implication is that the characters are heroes, and it's entirely up to the players how their characters react.

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GURPS has a 'Fright Check' mechanic that would be a good starting point. When you come upon something horrifying (which might include killing somebody, depending on culture), you roll the dice and add factors depending on your willpower, how bad the something is, and how new to it you are: you may be temporarily 'stunned', lose your lunch, or develop a mental quirk or phobia. As the characters grow more accustomed to (killing/impossible odds/the Old Ones) the dieroll modifiers will decrease; but that in itself shows the players how far they've come, and not necessarily in a good way.

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I can see that Call of Cthulhu has been already mentioned, so I won't repeat it. In D&D I used to have some kind of "saving throws" for a number of "first times", like the first time you got an injury, the first time you kill another person, the first time you get magical injury, the first time you meet an undead, the first time you go to 0 hit points, the first time you are poisoned, etc. Failing the saving throws got the players a "phobia", i.e. compulsive behaviours in certain situation (from claustrophobia, to arachnophobia, to sea sickness, to berserk...). Phobias can be "cured" or "overcome", but may also get worse in the future. I found that this adds a lot to roleplaying fun...;-)

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Make it Real

If you want your players to be traumatized, then you need to make them think their characters could die. Stage a fight between 2 champions and have your player character lose. He can be raised by your cleric, but the fact that he can lose, suddenly makes the game much more real.

Paralyze the Paladin

If you don't want to kill them, handicap them. Have something use an ability drain that makes them useless. Make the cure expensive, and in town. This will lead to your players realizing their PCs are mortal. Sunder their fanciest weapons.

Make them Run

Put your players up against something they can escape, but that would kill them if they kept trying to kill it. That way they don't know if something is their power level or not. They'll try to kill it, it will overpower some, and then they will have to flee, perhaps they'll even have to distract the beast from their unconscious companions or rescue them in the future.

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