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Most RPGs teach you that casual violence is the best solution to all your in-game problems. This is so well established a part of the vast majority of RPGs that there are entire satire RPGs like Greg Costikyan's Violence and John Tynes' Power Kill dedicated to showcasing the issue. In most RPGs, PCs become inured to murder and other antisocial activities very quickly and quickly enter depths of depravity that wouldn't be appropriate in the worst parts of Rwanda. Armed robbery, mass murder, and genocide become routine parts of an adventurer's day, something only stick-in-the-mud characters with the most extremely stated ethics object to. Total war, even though it is not properly applied to just any conflict, is a PC's friend and they generally escalate any conflict in that direction.

The sophistication of the gamer mindset towards introspection on this issue can be demonstrated in that the most meaningful question usually debated about in-game violence is some variant on "but should we kill the noncombatant children" or "can we just murder people out of hand as long as they're from a typically evil race?" In the real world, we generally a priori regard anyone having to have this discussion as a monster already. (P.S. The "wipe out a given evil race" thing isn't the point of this question; it is only mentioned to indicate that it's only "that far" that usually causes ethical handwringing from players, when that is a really quite extreme case and we should be uncomfortable with casual violence a lot sooner. )

What I'd like to have is a more realistic in-game treatment of conflict. People getting wounded and giving up, taking and ransoming of prisoners, not always escalating a fistfight to weapons, not always escalating weapon combat to killing, etc. Heck, as I write this, I'm watching an episode of Adventure Time with my daughter and the protagonists snuck in and rescued a princess kidnapped by the Ice King and then exit right next to his sleeping form. I thought, "If this were D&D they'd all be carefully coordinating a coup de grace to kill him in his sleep on the grounds that he inconvenienced them." The problem isn't limited to D&D of course, sci-fi PCs are happy to neutron bomb planets for convenience too, for example.

I'm not part of the "D&D is Satanic" crowd obviously, but I frankly do have compunctions about continually playing in games where the taught behavior is uncomfortably equivalent to the worst examples of human behavior we see on the nightly news.

How can I give my PCs a newfound respect for human life?

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I think it's so telling of the state of the RPG genre that this is one of the most popular questions on rpg.se –  RMorrisey Oct 26 '11 at 5:59
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Comments regarding the validity of this question have been moved to meta. Please direct all future discussion there. –  C. Ross Oct 26 '11 at 23:32
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23 Answers

up vote 105 down vote accepted

I disagree with the suggestions that game mechanics will solve the problem. Things like XP penalties, and increasingly tough authority crackdowns may help; but, the real thing that drives empathy from players is good roleplay from NPCs.

Think about the things that make you not want to go around killing people in real life:

  • Killing is wrong. If your PC is religious, it's almost certainly in conflict with their faith. In D&D, a paladin or cleric's deity may have a few choice words or omens to share with the PC, regarding their indiscretion. If your PC is a good, neutral, or lawful character, you can question their actions, and threaten them with alignment change.
  • Killing is taboo. Friendly NPCs, be they allies in battle or local villagers, should serve as role models for the players. A fellow warrior might stay the hand of a PC, and suggest taking them alive, even arguing with the PC about what's the right thing to do. A group of villagers might shun the PCs, or be terrified, even traumatized, by their actions. A priest might gently counsel the PCs to a higher, more humane course of action.
  • Killing is against the law. Present a particular city or village as having a law enforcement presence; have guards and local clerics look in on the misbehaving adventurers, to make sure they're keeping in line. Making the PCs feel like they're going to get caught if they do something bad is more important than presenting them with an encounter, when they do. Maybe there are lawless places out there that encourage killing and rough behavior; be sure to present them as dark, dangerous dens of sin, that the PCs might be nervous venturing into.
  • Killing is unpleasant. People do not like being murdered. Watch an episode or two of CSI. In a medieval battle, the field afterwards would be littered with the screaming wounded; killing might be an act of mercy, to one who is suffering, and sure to die. A desparate NPC might claw at a PC with their fingernails, fight like a cornered animal, or lift their arms to protect their face, and be scarred with defensive wounds. They might weep, or cry; they might try to strike a bargain, call for help, or simply plead for their lives. Maybe they have young to protect, or a mate or loved one. Their death might be gruesome, and shocking; if their corpse is left unburied, it may even induce sickness, or nausea. When the players do something terrible, make them come face to face with the tragedy and horror of what they've done.

In a system like Shadowrun, or any other game involving mercenary or thief PCs, letting the opponents live may be a matter of "professional courtesy." If the PCs get a reputation for murder, NPCs may be equally ruthless when going after them, even developing a vendetta. The GM of my every-other-Friday Shadowrun game used this on us last session (Let us go! Please? Professional courtesy!)

I find that exploring the morality of an RPG gives the game a dark, cynical element, because the PCs are going to wind up killing, anyway - it's more dramatic and compelling if they have to think hard about their actions, like the good guys you see in any crime drama. It's great for games like Shadowrun, and Eclipse Phase. I think it's just as applicable to D&D - it's just a function of the DM's storytelling style, plot, and setting. Some people use D&D to create epic tales, and other people use it as a board game. I prefer the former.

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Another one: Killing has unforeseen consequences. Murdering the (e.g.) stableboy out of hand turns out to be a bad idea: he was the nephew of the town oracle who the PCs came to consult. –  SevenSidedDie May 22 '11 at 5:06
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A fantastic answer! To add onto it, in addition to the disincetives listed here, add some incentives. A character who is spared might provide information or come back later with a tribute/gift or even become a follower (think Zevran in Dragon Age). You can, to echo gomad, also award experience liberally for resolving matters nonviolently (Planescape: Torment did this very well.) –  TimothyAWiseman Feb 23 '12 at 22:19
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What about Killing can escalate violence as the friends, family, and other damaged folk can gather up a posse and kill the party or the party's associates. –  Lyndsey Ferguson Apr 2 '12 at 18:48
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To start, I think this is a great answer... but I think it tiptoes around a particular issue. What happens when the "murder" that's going on in the campaign isn't directed against humanoids, but instead some form of monster? I've played quite a few games as a paladin, going in with the mindset 'I won't kill unless I have to.' Then every fight we come across just so happens to be against dragons, trolls, barbarian orcs, and generally anything else that can't be held to local laws, and more often then not will only cease being a threat when dead. What is the answer in a campaign like that? –  Zach Nov 20 '12 at 1:50
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@Zach Not making encounters like that? Or making those creatures not "only cease being a threat when dead"? I just ran a game this weekend where the first encounter was five goblins—I expected a fight (and so did the goblins), but a character blurted out a question in goblin and one thing led to another, and before we knew it the goblins were recruiting the PCs to come help them kill the orcs that wiped out their tribe. Instead of a fight the PCs gained allies, food, shelter, and guides to the dungeon maze. –  SevenSidedDie May 7 '13 at 22:55
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Don't Make Killing What the Game is About

D&D laid this trap for us ages ago when XP became about what you could kill, not what you could accomplish. RPGs in large part followed suit, and became The Great Big Game of What Can I Kill? Asking players in a game like that to not kill everything they can is folly. It's like asking Monopoly players to not buy stuff, charge rent, or pass Go. You're changing the game significantly.

Fortunately, RPGs aren't Monopoly, and you can change the rules to a certain extent without making it a totally different game.. Whether you're trying to change the timbre of a current game or trying to make the next one you run different, there are steps you can take.

Before the Game Begins

  • You can choose a system that is built around a different advancement mechanic
  • You can let your players know that killing will have consequences - a frank discussion about in-game-behavior expectations can do wonders
    • Get buy-in from your players regarding this change - it's a real shift for some groups
    • Let them know your goals for the change - Is it more drama? Tougher choices? Or just a shift to a "stealth" gaming style?

In the Middle of an Existing Game

As GM, you have some control over what a continuing game is about, even though System Does Matter. So if you're locked into a system that's about killing everything you see, there are still things you can do.

But you're going to have to let people know that the game is changing, one way or another. Do it out-of-game with a discussion as above. Or do it in-game by having the PCs transported out of their world to another place (or another plane!) and make it clear from the get-go that their baseline assumptions of reality are now wrong.

You're in charge of the economies in the game. Yes, economies. Plural. Everything that has an ebb and flow, everything that is gathered and used is an economy:

  • XP
  • Money
  • Magic in its many forms (scrolls, potions, wands, spellbooks and "memory slots")
  • Health and healing
  • Ammunition - including arrows, bolts, and bullets
  • Sanity / Morality

The list goes on, I'm sure. The point is - you can make the decision about killing into something that has an impact on one or more in-game economies. The simplest example is an XP-penalty for killing opponents (or an XP-bonus for a fatality-free mission).

But you can hammer clerics for killing by taking their spells / blessings from them to show the displeasure of their god - assuming the god isn't a god of death or chaos or something and then, wouldn't the rest of the party be hunting that cleric?

If a wizard kills a sentient creature with a spell, give him the XP but then hit him with "feedback" from the death of that creature. Roll (or choose) another spell he has memorized and make him forget it due to strain. Or make lethal spells cost more magic points to cast, or whatever causes pain in the economy of magic.

Make magical items rare and make murder bad for them:

  • A blessed sword that loses its powers if it kills a helpless or innocent creature
  • A magical sword that feeds on that "death feedback" and becomes ever more malevolent and powerful on its own, seeking to make the wielder its puppet

Or make magical weapons entirely non-existent.

Not every character has powerful supernatural forces as the source of his power, though, and murder has been a tool of successful people in the real world forever. So what to do about the mundane killers in your party?

Treat them like murderers: Everyone who knows what they've done should recoil from them. Authorities, if they exist, should come after them. The families of their victims should declare vendetta or even war. Offer rewards for their capture and death.

Make them feel like murderers: Haunt them with the memories of their deeds. Nightmares are supported in all systems. If your game has them, saddle them with mental problems from guilt, like paranoia, delusions, hallucinations, compulsions, and phobias. No guilt? No conscience? That's psychopathy, ladies and gents - is that who you want to play? Really? Lady Macbeth was a thoroughly-motivated cold-blooded killer and she still ended up with a bunch of mental disadvantages. Soldiers and police can be haunted for the rest of their lives by the memory of killing someone who was actively trying to kill them.

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coming back to this after some time...

How you reward play choices

Mechanics are the answer.
Specifically, the mechanics involved in reward.

I've found that, fundamentally, it's all about the reward cycles encoded in mechanics. And especially when players have read the mechanics, they will tend to do what's rewarded most.

Rewards come in about 4 basic types:

  • ways to improve the character's permanent abilities
  • mechanical focus on given activities
  • expendable one-use bonuses to characters
  • out of game rewards

To stop the psychotic behaviors, you need to reward non-psychotic behavior AND stop rewarding the psychotic ones. And make certain the players know the reward cycles, and that you use the ones you've defined.

Psych 101 refresher

Further, remember the basic psychology: There are four modes of reinforcement:

  • Positive Reinforcement - reward after doing what is desired
  • Negative Reinforcement - aversive stimulus until desired behavior
  • Punishment - aversive stimulus after undesired behavior
  • Bribery - reward stimulus prior to desired behavior

Bribery is effective at getting near-immediate passive cooperation, but lousy for evoking desired active behaviors.

Punishment is effective at quashing behaviors only when immediate and uniform in application - if it's hit-or-miss, it fails to extinguish behaviors.

Negative Reinforcement generally drives people off. It's excellent for getting simple tasks done when the behavior is easier than going away, but it fails in RPG groups due to it being easier not to show up than to accept the aversive stimulus.

That leaves positive reinforcement.

Let's look a few games reward cycles:

AD&D 1E

  • It gives rewards of XP and Treasure for killing opponents, and more XP for the treasure taken.
  • It gives rewards for dungeon penetration, puzzle solving, and trap defeating.
  • It gives mechanical detail for physical combat, and makes it hard to defeat opponents without killing them.

It directly rewards psychotic thieving behavior.

GURPS

  • It gives XP for playing, roleplaying well, rolelaying your disads, and completion of goals.
  • It gives mechanical detail for phsyical combat, and in some editions and sourcebooks, magical combat - like AD&D, it grows out of a character scale wargame.
  • It makes little distinction about killing, and it's easy to accidentally kill an opponent in melee.
  • The most valuable disads are those that make combat harder, such as missing limbs, followed by those that mandate or deny violence - this encourages polarized characters.

It indirectly rewards violence by being detailed in combat but not so much elsewhere, tho it does have an extensive skill system. The combat disads being high value encourages them to be taken, but the GM has to be proactive to prevent the traditional violence-driven cycle.

RuneQuest 3E and Chaosium BRP Games*, as well as **Mongoose RuneQuest

  • It rewards killing with the opportunity to take their stuff (so does real life)
  • Skill use is rewarded by potential skill gains
  • Physical and Spirit Combat get detailed mechanical treatments.
  • Injuries can cause permanent losses to character capabilities by loss of limbs

The system rewards what you do with skill gains in those very skills. It provides its mechanical attention to combat, both physical and magical, so it weakly rewards those two activities, but, gives strong disincentives to casual violence by maiming characters and killing them fairly easily. It does, however, make knocking someone out much more doable than D&D... and so less strongly rewards psychotic behavior

Prime Directive 1E

  • XP are given for mission difficulty and completion quality only
  • Pro Rep (Professional Reputation) is given for Mission Difficulty and Completion quality only
  • Hero Rep is given for TV-appropriate heroics, ESPECIALLY ones that are brave-but-suicidal
  • Seniority is gained for completing missions successfully
  • Seniority can be lost for disobeying mission prohibitions, or inappropriate behavior witnessed and reported by PCs or NPCs
  • Combat is mechanically detailed.
  • Skill resolution has lots of mechanical crunch, but is less detailed than combat.
  • High Pro Rep provides more access to equipment
  • High Hero Rep allows turning dice into 6's, a pool that recharges each mission
  • Seniority leads to promotion and additional Pro Rep
  • Stunning is as easy as killing, and costs less energy with most "modern" energy weapons.
  • Military Decorations for the characters can be gained for heroic action and for satisfactory mission completion.
  • unused pro-rep can be used to improve mission evaluations.

Depending on the mission, killing can be either actively rewarded (when it's part of a mission goal) or actively punished (when it's forbidden by the mission). The use of stun makes casual use of force far more an option, and stunning does leave more energy in the packs, so setting for kill is not actively rewarded. The game also has enough mechanical crunch to support non-combat modes of play, but it also tends to result in more book lookups. Hero Rep can be grounds for players to do things that are not practical, but are cinematic and dramatic, so it actively encourages such play; if survived, it makes to easier to pull it off later, as Hero rep provides a rechargeable (start of new mission) pool of "I make this die open end" roll modifications.

Burning Wheel and Burning Empires

  • Skill use is rewarded by skill specific experience
    • needing to attempt stuff you are incapable of doing is required to advance skills and attributes - Failure isn't required, but is likely
    • doing easy stuff is required for low skill levels - and worthless for high ones
    • Helping someone better than you stil counts as the full difficulty for skill experience, so helping someone do something you can't succeed at yourself still counts for advancing that skill
    • other skills that you have can provide bonus dice by linked tests or by "FoRKing" them in.
  • Failure is encouraged to be made interesting
  • Retries are prohibited
  • Help is multiply rewarded - the helper gains experience as if tackling it alone, the helped gains a bonus die for the task.
  • Playing defined beliefs and traits is rewarded with one of two types of expendable, Fate and Persona depending on which, and how.
  • per session, the player most useful to the group and the player who played best, both by group vote, is rewarded with a Persona point. In groups over 2p, they have to go to different players.
  • Heroics, story completion, and storyline subplot resolution can be rewarded with a 3rd expendable, Deeds
  • Artha: Fate, Persona and Deeds. These are one-use expendables, easily earned.
    • Fate grants extra dice for each 6 rolled, spent after rolling to "open end"
    • Persona is used to add extra dice before rolling, and to survive mortal wounds.
    • Deeds doubles your skill or stat for one roll, or allows rerolling all failed dice on a roll.
    • dice from artha don't count for experience, so they are how you do the stuff you can't and still succeed.
  • Social (Duel of Wits) and Physical (Range and Cover, Fight) combats receive mechanical detail
  • Magic has plenty of mechanical detail

BW rewards help extensively, as well as having lots of low-value skills to provide FoRK dice. Social conflict (Duel of Wits) makes debate just as detailed as melee. The separate ranged combat mechanics actively discourage shooting in melee, and melee in open field sniping battles, by making them exceptionally hard. The experience mechanics make it actively reward trying things you know you will fail; the Artha rules make it so those are not auto-fails. It tends to encourage non-violent conflict with Duel of Wits, and playing one's defined beliefs for more artha. If the beliefs are non-combat, it can result in a very low lethality game. Further, it is pretty easy to arrange it so you don't kill, but do incapacitate, your foes. Or, for the psychotic, to put them down - but that's always a choice. You don't roll melee damage, but use the results of your to hit roll, and are not required to take the increased damage option on a good hit.

Burning Empires reduces the maximum benefits from FoRKing skills by limiting them, but is very much the same engine.

Mouse Guard

  • Skill advancement requires successes and failures. Not attempts, but actual successes and actual failures (with consequences)
  • Skill use is sorely limited.
  • Choosing to limit yourself with your traits in the first half of session (GM Turn) gets you the chance to do stuff in the second half of the session (Player Turn) or to recharge your once per session traits you've already used.
  • all forms of conflict use one mechanical resolution, including extended skill use, Duel of Wits, Combat, and even travel. Pick the 2-8 relevant skills, announce them, and start scripting...
  • playing your Belief and Instinct earn you Fate; expending a fate allows open ending your 6's.
  • Completing your goal earns you Persona, as do dramatically playing the conflict when you ignore your belief. Persona is expended for extra dice on tasks or adding nature.
  • Failures are encouraged to be interesting in exactly the same way as BW.
  • No retries allowed.
  • Turn Structure
    • In the GM turn, if the mission resolution is scheduled for the GM Turn, you eventually succeed at the mission unless you die.
    • If the mission completion isn't schedule in the GM turn, you will need to nerf yourself to be able to complete the mission. It's "evil GM" territory, but it can be quite a blast.

Mouse Guard, despite its origins in Burning Wheel, is a very different game because the reward cycles require you to nerf yourself to get freedom to pursue your own goals. The conflict system can be used for non-combat encounters, and it's great fun. I've used conflict for things like building a dam, moving a behive, and travelling across a burning grass field. When you get the same detail level for these as for a fight, it's a high chance that players will consider them the high point of the session rather than the combats, which can hurt badly. The requirement for failures to advance a skill is also interesting, in that failures always bring some consequence, and in the GM turn, that's allowed to be a more interesting encounter.

Fixing it without changing systems

You'll need to add mechanical rewards for non-psychotic behaviors. In AD&D, this means giving XP for roleplaying (which 2E did, and which was an option in AD&D 1E), and decrease rewards for killing (Alignment infractions are good for this - 10% losses in earned XP!). Further, use the -10 HP death rule but without the bleeding - this allows capture much more easily. Also, add social issues in play for killing rather than capturing - make orc slaves in demand and worth 10GP each, and suddenly scrolls of hold person are a cleric's bread and butter.

For GURPS, simply disallow the relevant disads (Bloodlust, Berserk), and focus on non-violent activities as missions. More puzzles and mysteries, fewer active foes.

For RuneQuest, social consequences are about the biggest tool. That, and more dangerous foes chopping limbs off before dying. RuneQuest combat is pretty dangerous already.

For Burning Wheel, encourage non-combattant PC's. And then simply turn them loose. The system rewards playing their beliefs quite strongly, so don't approve ones that lead to psychotic behaviors.

It helps to add an expendable of some kind that is for GM-favored behaviors. For example, grant a one-time reroll for bypassing a fight. Or for playing some belief written down. Borrow Artha from BW or Aspects and Fate Points from the FATE system (Spirit of the Century, Diaspora, Dresden Files, Starblazer Adventures).

You can't solve it with in-character social effects alone unless it was originating solely in the characters, and not the mechanics. Players do what gets the spotlight, and what advances their character. Modification of mechanics is a twitchy subject, really, so make certain that you don't do so secretly. Be open with your players about the changes, and the reward cycles (but you needn't call them that), so that that knowledge can reshape play. Hidden changes both fail to encourage the behavior and can lead to resentful players when they don't get something they think they're entitled to.

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Requiring tangible reward/punishment like XP for moral behavior is a very basic stage of moral reasoning (see faculty.plts.edu/gpence/html/kohlberg.htm). I find it concerning if that's the most we can expect out of our gaming groups. Most of the people I know get their enjoyment out of the game in terms of a good story being told, their characters achieving tangible in-game goals (not "levels"), development of in-character relationships... And besides old school games, tying XP to kills is quite rare, but these other games still elicit this behavior. –  mxyzplk Oct 25 '11 at 20:38
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@mxyzplk Something you can write on your character sheet is often far more reward than just showing up to play. And most people who don't crave some semi-tangible reward will be equally happy doing shared storytelling. Having run a good bit of Classic Traveller back in the day, the lack of character advancement was a VERY real problem in player retention - most people would rather play something else that allowed improving their character than to play CT. Part of why I jumped ship with 2300, and then to MegaTraveller, and have never run a campaign of CT since. –  aramis Oct 25 '11 at 23:31
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@mxyzplk Which means either those players have developed those patterns from other experiences, or the GM is reinforcing the behavior, or both. Best practice for changing it is to ensure that the current game's reinforcement patterns reward non-violent solutions more than violent ones. Basic Psych and Basic Classroom Management. Same techniques I use for a game group work REALLY well in the intermediate (grades 4-6) classroom... –  aramis Oct 27 '11 at 6:05
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I think it's important not to "double-deal" at times like this; if you've established that some adversaries are there to be mown down like wheat before the scythe in pursuit of gold and XP, it's disingenuous to then put them forward as thinking, feeling beings worthy of respect and negotiation. If you want to have your PCs show a respect for human life, make sure they know which of their foes they are expected to treat as "human."

Even this, though, will fail before a certain percentage of your players, who will not concede that imaginary people have any qualities they need to consider real — neither their fear nor their respect will motivate them to consider them as anything other than tactical obstacles. Some folks just won't grieve for pawns.

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Although I would note that even "action movie heroes" are able to make these kinds of differentiations, it's not like "Oh I just killed waves of attackers but now I can't kill some guy in cold blood" isn't the end scene of like half the movies you watched in your childhood. –  mxyzplk May 22 '11 at 0:03
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Murderous cretins? Love the term.

You, as the GM, are totally in control of this. Creating the setting and the cultures is purely under your control. I will tell you from experience, if you create and use cultures with certain values, most players will work with it; and those that work agaainst them will do so from that position of their own volition. This is a roleplaying game; and you can make that part of the role they need to play.

Create tribal groups that people trade with, for example. Orcs in most of my settings, and other humanoid races, are tribal but do not eat their young or attack on sight. If your PCs are looked at with disdain for improperly lowering the boom, it teaches them. If they get thrown in jail for using ancient coinage or items that obviously came from someone's tomb, they'll be more circumspect. If the priest-types are told that they need to shrive the spirits of the dead opponents, it may not stop, but it may give them pause to see these things in a new light.

Similarly, create the same kind of human drama as 'World in Motion' events for your players. Have the local gossip in the taverns be about a hanging judge, or have the local broadsheet carry gossip from a humanitarian mission to a goblin tribe that is suffering from the plague.

Hell, do a good enough job, and if the EXP or social rewards are there the PCs might try to go help save the goblins.

When players are younger, this is hard, but as they get older and deal with real life issues, injecting your setting with competing philosophies and religious tenets just adds depths to the world. It fosters a more realistic feel, which will have a synergistic effect of making more realistic, and less 2-dimensional PCs.

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I like the specific tribal groups example, that might help with race-murder at least. –  mxyzplk May 22 '11 at 0:01
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An example of this is in the default setting of Reign: culturally, people believe that ghosts are the product of killing in cold blood, and setting-wise they're right. PCs who kill in cold blood become haunted by ghosts who are only too happy to ruin their stealth, knock vases onto their heads in a fight, and generally screw with them until they die. "Coup de grace" becomes a very bad choice, and ransoming or imprisoning even (or especially) powerful foes becomes much more sensible. –  SevenSidedDie May 22 '11 at 0:37
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I've had this problem before, and often the PCs would hunt down fleeing opponents as they wanted their XP. I usually award combat XP for defeating opponents - turned undead are defeated, fleeing orcs are defeated, and shaking off a hunting bugbear pack defeats them. This helped curb some of their worst excesses. However, this doesn't actively discourage killing, merely makes it unnecessary in some cases.

The other point I'd make is that a lot of the reason players kill is because the victims don't seem real. The orc clan is just a lot of numbers. The bandit doesn't have a reason to exist except to attack the PCs. To prevent this, have the PCs learn a little about the background of their victims. Maybe the bandit they killed was trying to feed his staving baby and wife. Maybe the orc clan was driven out of their homes by an expanding human empire, Native American style. Make the PCs actions affect people, not numbers, and they will probably connect more with the world you have created as a dynamic environment instead of their playground. An example of the type of info you could use, here's an xkcd strip.

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I don't agree with RMorrissey's answer. If the player of a lawful neutral cleric thinks it's justified to frag the kiddies to beat the goons, you are not in a good place if you have to argue about the theology of the limits of pragmatism in the PC's religion. The player should be the expert on their PC, which means you need either to appeal to rules and setting to solve this one, or get the player to change their mind about what they want their character to be.

The various Gloranthan games have a few features/mechanics for dealing with this. For example:

  1. In Glorantha, certain sorts of evil are mythically real, and these kinds of evil doers turn into chaos monsters. Thus rape is worship of the chaos goddess Thed and rapists are at risk of acquiring chaos taints from Thed and eventually become broo; likewise cannibalism, Cacodemon, and becoming ogres. Playing a chaotic character might be malicious fun for a session or two, but such a character is doomed.
  2. The best powers a character can get in Glorantha come from heroquesting, and the easiest way to heroquest is to get the enthusiastic support of your tribe behind you. To do that, you need to become a hero to them. Only the Gloranthan games following King of Dragon Pass really had proper mechanics for heroquesting, so in RQ3, say, the kind of incentives aramis talked about were absent for this.

I think these ideas are applicable outside Gloranthan setting, even where the idea of mythic reality is absent. We can objectify evil or formulate psychological consequences for it. For example in a modern setting, the wonderful SAN mechanic can be borrowed, where acts of evil sooner or later exact a price, ending in Kurtz-like incoherence. And on the way, a low SAN score can mean that the afflicted characters might engage in involuntary bouts of self-harming murderous cretinism.

This allows you to manufacture negative reasons to avoid murderous cretinism, but not positive reasons to engage in heroic behaviour. The Pendragon traits system mentioned by aramis (1st answer) I think can be employed here, where certain kinds of character progression depend upon proving virtues such as Just, Merciful, and Generous.

The difficulty with this is making such a mechanic cohere with the theme: if the setting and how the players conceive the theme is essentially cynical, objective incentives promoting heroic behaviour are likely to feel out of place. Ultimately I think it is necessary to talk to the players about what they want and what you want from the game if you are finding that you game from different points on the cynical--heroic spectrum.

Postscript

To summarise, and influenced by aramis' thorough second answer, I see your options as follows:

  1. Change the game so that murderous cretinism is fun for everyone. The dystopian Rune Metal Jacket scenario is all about turning hapless recruits into murderous cretins and it is indeed lots of fun. Read it in full, it will only take 10 minutes to learn the game system and see what is going on in the scenario.
  2. Change the game mechanics so that murderous cretinism stops being fun and noone tries it. aramis has covered this pretty well.
  3. Change the nature of the whole game so that murderous cretinism is lame, the way it is in Pendragon, and so noone gets the idea it would be fun to try out. This probably needs some support from the game mechanics to work out, but the right setting makes the right mechanics possible.
  4. Interfere with player autonomy: "I'm sorry, a High Priest of Tweety Pie just wouldn't do that, you've got to do something appropriate instead". As an ultimatum, it can easily wreak the game, but maybe you can be subtle about this thing, e.g., post-scenario summing ups where you say just how lame the characters were, and all the cool things they missed out on.
  5. Sort this out as GM and players, outside the game. "Look, I don't want to GM if the PCs are going to carry on like that. It just sucks." This is pretty likely to work, but it might put some artificiality and strains into the game.
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I don't deny these are five legitimate options, but they seem to miss in-game-fiction solutions entirely in favor of pure mechanics. –  mxyzplk Oct 26 '11 at 13:40
    
In my opinion in-game ficition restrictions, if not applied only to make the game interesting, makes the players feel like the GM shows them that he rules here and that they are going to play his way. By changing the mechanics, they feel that they still have the choice, but "being bad" is just not the best one. –  K.L. Apr 30 '13 at 9:37
    
@mxyzplk - If you think option #3 is nothing to do with in-game fiction, then I'm not doing a good job of communicating. I happen to think that in-game fiction solutions can only partly resolve conflicts about what players want from the game, so you will usually need assistance from either game mechanics or gamer-to-gamer discussion. The difference between #2 and #3 is that #2 aims to solve problem mechanically on the gamist level and #3 on the narrativist/simulationist levels, perhaps with support with changed mechanics. Maybe the distinction isn't as clear as I hoped. –  Alticamelus Jun 10 '13 at 12:33
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If players pick up on subtlety, give them a subplot quest from the town's sheriff to go find an adventuring group and bring them back to the town for trial. The charge? The fighter hadn't washed in a few weeks, the stableboy made a comment under his breath that the fighter smelled worse than the rest of the poop-filled stable, and the fighter killed him in cold blood. Further, the rest of his party either said nothing, or actively helped him escape.

Set the reward structure up so that if the party comes in and stands trial they get a very good payday, but if the players bring back corpses, they get just a token payment. Only to be forced to go through manslaughter (not murder!) charges for killing the suspects of the stableboy murder.

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In RPGs, you can have it both ways.

Some FRP games designate certain races as creatures of vile and irredeemable nature (e.g. any race defined as inherently capital-E Evil). A fundamental escapist principle of such games is the simple fun of stealing these creatures' belongings -- i.e. treasure -- and their demise is a perfectly acceptable concurrent result, given that context.

Yet such games include other races who are less extreme in their moral bent (e.g. humans, elves, dwarves, and the like). Any individual of such a race is redeemable, however evil (lower-case-e) they may be. In sharp constrast with the above, the demise of such a being is not always acceptable -- and indeed may produce adverse results, including but not limited to those itemized here (taboos, illegality, et al.).

Given this dichotomy, it is part of the Game Master's job to ensure that the players understand the difference between the two categories. The concept need only be revealed; the players will understand quite quickly.

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As third category there might be things like automatons or unsentient undead or a rabid animal, which might not be evil but could be destroyed, layed to rest, put out of their misery. That would be OK, but murdering isn't. Players should be able to understand that. –  Stephen Oct 28 '11 at 18:53
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When it comes to correcting PC behavior, the first thing I do is answer the following question,

"If I 'correct' this, will the game be more fun for the players?"

It turns out, usually not. After all, these players spend 162 hours a week being law-abiding citizens in the real world. I'm fine to give them 6 hours to go on what is in reality, a murderous rampage.

This, of course, doesn't mean they can't face repercussions of those they needlessly murder. What can make a memorable game moment is when the DM rounds up the law breaking PCs at a vulnerable moment, lock them away into a dungeon, and then let them devise a completely original way to break out.

None the less, let me offer my observations of what generally spares an NPC:

  • NPCs with specific knowledge (specifically of loot), tend to live longer than their piers. Not to mention an interrogation is a great opportunity for the role players to shine.
  • NPCs with personality quite often live a long, natural life. PCs will often embrace the interesting characters and keep them alive, so long as they're entertaining. Call it the, "Dance, Monkey!" effect
  • Sometimes, the ole Clue-by-four is called for: "Mercenaries wanted: Princess Buttercup is trapped in Gromphs's castle. Rescue Buttercup, but avoid being detected by Gromph." It's definitely crude, but tends to be effective. Besides, when they don't heed that advice, you at least have a new hook for when Gromph's death is avenged by the 7 goblin-orc clans he united.
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Depending on the setting, a NPC which has been cruelly/needlessly/whatsoever killed might return as (preferably incorporeal) undead and be stronger than ever in life. When the PCs get haunted every night and are thrown out of the inn (or hamlet), they might start thinking about those killings – or accumulate a horde of undead, slowly wearing them down.

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I'm not saying mechanics are the only answer, but they're a simple way to ease players that are already entrenched in the kill-everything zone into a different mindset.

Dump them into a system that supports social (rather than physical) conflict mechanically in an in-depth manner and provides XP for same, possibly also one that makes physical combat a much riskier endeavor for their characters. Indie games are great for this for a variety of reasons; usually backstory heavy character generation makes players more invested in role-playing than stabbing. A team made up only of psychopaths is boring, and the more time your players spend making a whole person the more committed they will be to playing that character (and they'll also be less likely to be ok throwing their character away on stupid and risky combat situations). Also support for mechanized manipulation/seduction/intimidation/etc eases players into thinking about doing something besides attacking even during hostile encounters, and getting XP for focusing on it makes them try to do it with the same sort of tenacity they would normally focus on killing everything they see.

I think system choice does and should reflect what your group is playing for - D&D-style campaigns can certainly be less murder-focused, but in my experience they are at their heart about crawling a dungeon and killing things in it for loot. That's where the game gets mechanically interesting and complex, and it's what you get rewarded for. And that's totally fine if that's what everyone in the group wants to do. But if you want to focus more on the story-telling aspect of rpgs, which I would argue leads to players taking in-game morality seriously, it seems like the easiest way to get a group into it is to provide them with with a system that gives them the same level of support for not-killing as it does for killing. If you reward players for taking the game world seriously and you make it fun, they're more likely to do it.

My regular rpg group usually plays indie games with a heavily story/social aspect to the mechanics and most of us started playing rpgs in that context. As a result, we have the opposite problem. The one time someone tried to run an intentionally hack 'n slash D&D dungeoncrawl he got frustrated because we kept side-tracking the action to have IC conversations and talk to the random encounters. I'm not saying that's the inevitable result of playing these kinds of games, but it certainly gets you into a different mindset. Maybe try players out on a system like Apocalypse World, that incentivizes social conflict over physical, or even something weirder like Fiasco or Universalis that is made almost purely of backstory and gets you out of the mindset of owning a character or somehow needing to 'win' the game.

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While it may not appeal to your players, many games give psychology some teeth. Pendragon, for a case in point, permits the GM to force players to make a roll against a personality trait to perform certain acts... which acts and which trait are eft to GM discretion.

D&D has the old alignment system, which, when enforced with the 10% hit to XP per session for not playing it, and the 10% total XP deducted when the GM imposes alignment change because you've not played it in 3 sessions...(Those are from memory, and the details might be a bit off, but those where the conditions in the AD&D groups I played with. It's also why I played Chaotic Neutral...)

Burning Wheel uses positive reinforcement to encourage play according to stated beliefs of the character. It's powerful, but it also does nothing to prevent encoding that psychopathy into the character to earn it....

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No, but the nice thing about BW is that encoding those psychopathies into the character is an invitation to GM situations where that's not what the player wants the PC to do, giving them a dilemma. "Dude here just mortally insulted you and you know you could mow him down like wheat, but he's also the last of the bloodline who can open the Vault of Ancients. What do you do?" –  SevenSidedDie May 22 '11 at 0:32
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i'd throw in a good heaping of cause and effect. you jsut killed the king for no good reason? ok, all the guards rush you and attempt to kill you. jsut kill a merchant? you now have the rep as a merchant killer and all the prices skyrocket, and it's hard to get people to deal with you. killing farmers? have the king hire out mercs to take you out.

there's a reason why we have laws in real life, because cause and effect exist. if you cause something, there's alway an effect, good or bad.

also, reward them for doing positive things as well. did they help the old lady across the street? have her have some money and pay them. did one of them find an expensive item lying in the street and give it to the guards? reward them for returning the kings lost scepter. cause and effect works both ways.

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A few approaches I would suggest - hopefully a mix of crunch and non-crunch.

First for systems that have rules for players who get dropped to avoid actually dying (i.e. D&D 3.0/3.5/Pathfinder/4th ed) use these same rules for monsters. If a character drops a monster to negative con then describe that monster as being well and truly dead but for monsters who are just dropped to 0 or just a few points below 0 describe them as bleeding out and dying but not yet fully dead.

From a technical perspective leave these dying monsters on the battlemat if you are playing with minis. And don't neglect to remember these monsters if a PC uses area of effect healing (i.e. a Cleric channeling energy in Pathfinder for example) - let that heal the monsters as well (as it does via the rules assuming non-undead monsters).

As a DM I would probably do this mostly for intelligent monsters - for undead or animals I would be less rigorous.

The point here is that when the battle ends the PC's are faced with dying enemies not dead enemies - if they start looting (as they typically do) be sure to note that they are looting still living intelligent creatures.

Present them with the moral dilemma.

But equally don't be mean - if they play their good characters correctly and restrain but also stabilize/heal their recently fallen foes reward them with an opportunity for more information and potentially even for new allies (healing someone even a fallen foe has a way of convincing someone to at least listen to you). In many adventures the PCs may have just defeated somewhat unwilling/poorly paid minions (whether technically minions per 4th ed rules or not) of the real "evil/big bad" - it isn't unrealistic for many of these folks to be very willing to give up some information for a chance to live.

My favorite dungeon I ever made was largely an exercise in demonstrating to players that there should always be an alternative to combat - and that appearances and assumptions can be dangerous. I designed this back in AD&D (1st ed) rules but here are a few highlights that often proved instructive to my players:

  • the monster that was far more than it first appeared but who was willing to talk if the players didn't just attack immediately (specifically in this case it was a many headed hydra who had 2/3 of her heads hidden from view when the players encountered her - if they attacked they were in for a rude surprise - if they engaged first she was more than willing to talk instead of fighting

  • the Orge village (complete with women and children) who were all highly intelligent. Again if the players engaged in conversation they could easily find new allies - if they attacked they were in for a rude surprise when faced with an Orge wizard

  • the Dragon who had custom designed his lair - complete with a 100'+ roof, a maze of thick stone walls "only" 30' high strong enough for him to perch upon them and peer down at parties of Palidins who wanted to attach. This was partially to demonstrate to the players the virtue of preparation - but it did once get a Paladin played by a really excellent player to turn and run from combat (since he was in breath weapon range but had no way to actually attack the Dragon himself) For this encounter I also made a point of enforcing rules on light source ranges (i.e. a room where even your continual light spells don't reach the roof but reveal that the walls don't meet the ceiling and where you hear flapping of wings in the distance should be a scary room for any player)

The point of each of the above encounters was to start to show my players that they couldn't assume anything. I wanted them to start to try non-combat ways to engage with "monsters" and if they did choose combat I wasn't trying to for a TPK - I would generally have let the succeed in running away if they chose to do that.

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Make them pay,
Traders might rise prices or refuse trade with them - "Sorry guys, i heard you killed brother high rank member of trades guild, so he forbid to make any deals with you, but i like you and your coins, so we can meet at evening outside of city walls, but it will cost you extra"

Bartenders will keep their inn closed for them, -"I know what you've done to that poor lad, we don't want people like you here"

Nobody wants teach them new skills, -"I will never teach people like you, you will bring shame and dishonor to me and my school"

Make them run,
They killing anyone, but those people might have families or friends who wants justice. Let them be hunted by members of Assassins Guild, City Guards or maybe army of some local Lord. Don't forget old rule :" Enemy of my enemy is my friend", some NPCs might cooperate to kill PCs.

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One problem that I have encountered is that in, say, a dungeon setting they have little to nothing they can DO with defeated but not killed opponents. Can't really have a tied up prisoner train lugging behind you. Can't really leave them there unhindered. You tie them up, there is a good chance that they will be untied - and provide intelligence to those further in. Point being finding options for dealing with those sorts of problems that don't involve "killemall" would help, at least with my groups. For example ...

In one of my campaigns the hobgoblins received an intelligence boost ... And were made lawful evil with an extreme emphasis on lawful. With the reputation of always sticking to their word and to the letter of their word ... And quite often the end of a combat would be a rather entertaining little game of trying to make sure the opponents surrender didn't leave wiggle room for them to come back later - but they did know if they did it well they could essentially remove those opponents from the field of battle without having to kill them. In other words, it needs to be made clear that there are other viable ways of achieving the goals of the campaign than wanton slaughter.

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This is less an answer than another question, though. So what are some of those ways? –  mxyzplk Nov 20 '12 at 12:35
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Great question.

As GM’s we’ve all seen examples of players behaving badly, tormenting NPC’s, slaughtering opponents, and generally behaving like sociopaths. In fact, I’ve done it myself as a player.

I’m coming to this question late and there are already many good answers, but I think something is missing in the advice. I wouldn’t disagree with anything I’ve read save to observe that it strikes me as addressing symptoms of the problem, functioning as bandaid fixes. Is their something more to violent player behavior?

Have you ever noticed...

that when player behavior sinks to true evil, they tend also to be behaving stupidly - abandoning careful combat tactics for example? Also, while I find this kind of evil behavior common, players tend to stay loyal to each other. And have you noticed that this evil behavior increases as the PC’s advance in level? I would argue that violent character BEHAVIOR is still the result of normal player THINKING; the same thinking the players themselves employ in life.

Risk vs. Reward

Cognitively, people use emotions to make decisions based on their wants, but they employ reason to validate the decision. Is my decision feasible? This rational validation takes the form of a cost/benefits analysis of risk vs. reward. When considering the use of violence, be it against a group of orcs or a merchant, players assess the risks of combat vs. the rewards of victory.

The previous answers eluded to numerous approaches for dealing with rule systems' tendency to reward violence. But unless the rewards are reduced to zero, combat will need to be risky to offset the violent behavior.

Years of play have told me that both RPG rule systems and GM’s themselves have unwittingly removed most of the risks of combat. Thus, hyper-violent player behavior has two sources.

ROLL PLAY - How GM’s Drive Violent PC Behavior

In pursuit of balanced play and fair challenges, GM’s tend to dole out opponents into manageable portions. Most adventures are map based, comprised of a number of rooms each containing opponents carefully weighted to ensure player victory. Typically the only mistake players can make in combat is for some of them to enter another room and engage the next opponent/s before they’ve finished combat in the previous room.

Over time, players begin to view victory in combat as a certainty, even a right. Consider what this does to PC’s risk/reward analysis. Essentially, the risk of any combat is zero. Whatever foe awaits behind the door, victory is a forgone conclusion. Even if rewards are scanty and their alignment good, why not attack? What have they got to lose? To fix this, change how you think of your roll as GM.

Here’s the speech I give every new group of players I GM.

“In my world, there will be many opponents more powerful than you. It is not their duty to avoid low level players. If you’re dumb enough to attack a dragon at first level, you are going to die.”

As a GM, I regularly have PC’s ENCOUNTER vastly more powerful beings who’s defeat would bring great rewards. To keep it fair, the players control their choice to engage, hide, or flee. Players soon learn a healthy respect for opponents; violence ceases to be the go-to answer. Really, this is about trusting your players to behave intelligently. Don’t baby them.

RULES, How Game Systems Drive Violent PC Behavior

Not every game system, but most of them, suffer from the same fatal flaw - they confuse expertise with power. As players gain experience points, their skills may increase, but also, their hit points. This bears no resemblance to reality. Consider this analogy.

Bruce Lee could be considered a high level combatant. Yet if he were dumb enough to stand there and let my couch-potato self sock him with a hay-maker, I’d knock him cold just as easily as anybody else. This of course, would never happen. In such a fight, I would never get close to hitting him. Bruce Lee’s expertise make’s him a more skilled opponent (at defense) not a more powerful one. Strangely, in a game like D&D, Bruce Lee would be physically indestructible, he could survive falling off a skyscraper.

Hit points should not increase with experience. When they do, high level PC’s don’t become Bruce Lee, they become GODS living among mere mortals. Thus PC’s behave like gods straight out of greek myth. They are capricious and cruel, thin-skinned and easily offended by puny mortals (the NPC’s).

Once again, the players knowledge of their invincibility distorts their risk/reward analysis.

“Why not slay the merchant who offended me with his high prices? What have I got to lose? I could simply kill all of the city guards who arrive to arrest me.”

This is why the evil behavior tends to appear at higher level. Only caution based on a fear of combat’s risks will drive players to choose against violence.

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This is obviously a great question and has attracted a lot of great answers. Most of these have concentrated on behavior modification through a combination of:

  • Creating empathy with NPC
  • In-game consequences
  • Meta-game consequences

While these are sensible steps, they do not go to the heart of the issue.

We sit at a very privileged time in human history and for most of us reading this (who have, among other things, computers, internet and FRPG) a very privileged place in the world.

The chance of an Australian dying as the result of an assault is 0.1% ABS. In 1995 these figures were similar in Canada in New Zealand, lower in Germany, and England and Wales and about 4 times higher in the United States ABS. If you are unfortunate enough to die this way, the chance that you did not know your attacker is about 2 in 5.

500 years ago in Europe, your chance of dying from assault was about 30 times greater or 3% reason.com. At the same time it was perfectly acceptable to go down to the slave market for a spot of bear baiting or cat burning; perhaps taking in the public hanging (with side order of drawing and quartering), witch or heretic burning or joining in on the latest Jewish pogrom. That is, if you could tear yourself away from beating your wife and child.

If your FRPG is based on medieval Europe, then behaving like a murderous cretin is perfectly appropriate.

In modern hunter-gatherer societies the death rate from violence is higher again, about 15%.

Careful studies show that hunter-gatherers are dead serious about war. They make weapons as destructive as their ingenuity permits. And if they can get away with it, they massacre every man, woman, and child. In our own society, which is far more peaceful than the native groups, if you ask people whether they have ever fantasized about killing someone, anywhere from 70 percent to 90 percent of the men and about 40 percent to 60 percent of women say that they have.

Steven Pinker reason.com

Steven Pinkler suggests five reasons for this decline in violence:

  1. The rise of states outsourced revenge to a disinterested 3rd-party (i.e. the state);
  2. courtly manners (polite behavior) requires self-restraint;
  3. literacy encourages empathy;
  4. commerce switches encounters from zero-sum (plundering) to positive-sum (trading) gains; and
  5. democracy restrains the excesses of government.

Essentially there are 2 groups of people that people behave violently towards:

  1. Their intimates - friends and family - possibly because they can view them as possessions rather than people.

  2. The outsider - people that we do not empathize with.

This second group has become progressively smaller. From the family to the clan, to the tribe, to the state, to humanity and on to (some parts) of the animal kingdom - most of us can find some empathy with all of them. However, the closer the tie the greater the empathy; that it is why it is universal that in the reporting of disasters that the reporter must always tell you how many of your countrymen are involved. The deaths of unknown fellow countrymen being more important than the deaths of unknown foreigners.

The point of this is that appropriate behavior vis-a-vis murder and mayhem is a feature of history and geography. Your statement "... depths of depravity that wouldn't be appropriate in the worst parts of Rwanda" begs the question of when and by whom. Rwanda is now and was before as peaceful a place as any in that part of the world. The collapse of the economy and society led to actions that we in our comfortable lives condemn but to the perpetrators (but not the victims) their actions were perfectly justifiable. On either side of such terrible violence I can only think "But for the grace of God ..." - empathy again!

A FRPG set against a medieval backdrop that does not have this sort of violence is showing a rose-colored view of what medieval life was actually like. I refer you to the Icelandic sagas - arguably the first modern literature - to get a feel for the casual approach to violence in that society. Shakespeare, to take a more modern example, it hardly G rated with respect to violence (or sex).

It is clear that this is not the type of game that you want to play. Assuming that the people you play with are of the same mind - they may like it as a harmless release of their own violent impulses (we all have them) - then the answers already given give some practical solutions. In addition, I hope that thinking about what has caused the decline of violence in this world may inform your fantasy worlds.

Edit: Practical Applications

Metagame

The Social Contract - Players

The term Fantasy Role-Playing Game has all the elements right there in the title.

First it is a fantasy setting a cooperative illusion between the GM and the players. This group should talk and agree about the type of fantasy world they want to share - anything from a Cthulhu insanity to the world of the Smurfs is available. Levels of violence appropriate for the the former would be out of place in the latter.

As for Role-Playing; what is the role that the players fulfill in the world? If they are seeking classic heroic fantasy (whatever the genre) then it is incumbent upon them to behave heroically and it should be clear what heroic behavior is before play commences.

If heroic means Sir Galahad then

  1. This is a high bar to set, and
  2. It is not fair of a GM to put in place ethical dilemmas that cannot be unambiguously resolved
  3. It is also not fair to put the players in a position where ethical behavior is obviously suicidal.

If heroic means Wyatt Earp then

  1. This person has been delegated a state's "monopoly on violence"
  2. There must be unambiguous bad guys
  3. These bad guys must be brought to justice
  4. If they can't be brought to justice its OK to kill them
  5. Everyone else must be protected

If heroic means James Bond then

  1. This person has also been delegated a state's "monopoly on violence"
  2. There must be unambiguous bad guys
  3. It is clearly OK to kill people simply because they work for the bad guy.
  4. Everyone else must be protected

If heroic means Batman then

  1. The heroes are self-appointed vigilantes
  2. Ambiguous bad guys are OK (e.g. law enforcement that don't understand what's really going on)
  3. The bad guy must die or be captured
  4. Anyone who gets in your way is fair game
  5. Collateral damage should be minimized but that is a secondary consideration.

If heroic means Torquemada then

  1. You have a divine mission
  2. People are damning themselves for all eternity
  3. It is merciful of you to give them pain now in order top save them from eternal agony.

If heroic means Tamerlane

  1. Everything and everyone in the world belongs to you
  2. If they resist they should be butchered and have their skulls made into a pyramid.

There is nothing wrong with exploring morally ambiguous situations in a game if that is what you and your player's want - but it should be something that is discussed and agreed beforehand.

It may be that player's want to assume a role in the game that would be an anathema to them in their real life. Ralph Fiennes has played the most evil wizard in the world and a Nazi death-camp commandant but neither of these is who he is.

With respect to the Game element; if it is fun, its a game; if it isn't, its work.

Game mechanics

Most FRPG have a "power-ladder" that player's climb, as they do so the face greater and more difficult challenges. Somewhere in the mechanics there is something that creates this "power-ladder"; in the form of inherent abilities gained through experience or in the form of equipment; usually both.

People respond to incentives. In most FRPG, player's want their characters to accumulate wealth and power. Wealth because it leads to more power and power because ... well ... it leads to more power.

If the best and most efficient way to gain power is by killing things then that is what a rational player will do. If a GM does not want this to happen then they can either

  1. Increase the cost of killing to the character (see below), and/or
  2. Change the incentives.

To take a concrete example, in D&D (3 & 3.5) XP are awarded for defeating monsters. Make it clear to your players that "defeating" does not mean killing. For an even bigger change, award +10% XP for each creature defeated but still alive, or +20% for each defeated but unhurt (however, see below on outlaws).

If you are going to tweak with the mechanics then be aware that there will be consequences; not all of them intended. It is also incumbent on you to make sure your player's are aware of and agree with the tweaks.

The game world

Combat and conflict is an inherent part of every FRPG so the game world must have opportunities for it (otherwise you can just play Chess - wait a minute - that's a wargame!).

So who - in the game world - is it ethical to kill and why? The following are some suggestions of categories - who you put where is up to you.

  1. Beyond the Pale Are there species that are so heinous or destructive that it is a positive duty to kill them? Devils and demons in D&D spring to mind, similarly the Borg in the Star Trek universe.
  2. Outlaws In the old English sense, an outlaw was a person who, for their crimes, has had the protection of the law removed from them. It was a positive duty on every citizen to kill the outlaw and that such a killing would not be subject to the law. Priests of evil gods, perhaps?
  3. Enemy Combatants In a state versus state conflict, enemy soldiers are, subject to whatever rules of war are appropriate, fair game.
  4. Criminals Unlike outlaws, criminals are still entitled to the protection of the law. Killing them would only be permissible in self-defense or to prevent them from harming others.
  5. Other Sentient Species In most FRPG human beings are not the only sentient species. When is it OK to kill a member of another sentient species? When is it not? Does the species matter? Why?
  6. Other Tribes/Clans When can you kill foreigners? Is a state of warfare or peace endemic?
  7. Your own tribe/clan Are honor/revenge killings OK?
  8. Non-sentient species When can you kill an animal? To eat it? Because its dangerous? Its damaging property? You want to?

Linking to my original post:

  1. Is there a Leviathan - a (or more than one) disinterested state with a legal monopoly on violence? If so, how are the players subject to its power? Are they its agents, its enemies or its victims? How and how far does its power extend - is there a heartland where its power is absolute, a frontier where its writ is spasmodic and a wilderness where it has no power?
  2. What are the social norms - on killing but not exclusively so. What mechanisms other than violence exist for resolving conflict?
  3. How literate is the society and to what extent does that literacy encourage and support empathy within and between sentient species? In other words, are the orcs that live in the hills a sub-human vermin that should be wiped from the face of the earth or a fully sentient race whose needs just happen to conflict with ours?
  4. With respect to the orcs - is there a positive sum solution to our problem - if we agree to give them some of our wool and mutton, will they guard our sheep at night?
  5. How is the Leviathan's power constrained. Historically, democracy has proved to be the best way of doing so but religious and cultural constraints have also worked to some extent. In a FRPG with real divinities, a divine right of kings could be a very real thing - perhaps a king who breaks the code could have that right withdrawn?
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This doesn't answer my question, it just constructs a loosely related essay. –  mxyzplk Jun 11 '13 at 16:48
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I think you need a thesis statement then, and the rest of it should tie directly to it in either obvious ways or by hand-holding the reader along inobvious connections. If I were grading this, I'd send it back "incomplete" since it lacks meaningful structure necessary for the reader to process it as a coherent whole. –  SevenSidedDie Jun 12 '13 at 1:40
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This might be some unconventional advice, so take it with a grain of salt! :)

There is a StarCraft II type of map called "Tower Defense." Basically, you defend against waves and waves of enemies until you eventually die (or the game is over).

If they keep killing random people, stronger and stronger people will become interested in them. If that's the game they want to play, throw stronger and stronger investigators until they die (or hit epic level?).

If they eventually get tired of Tower Defense, then maybe they'll want to try a different style of game - one where they fight people, not spawns.

If they don't ever get tired, maybe they'll at least be sated enough to give your style a shot.

Best of luck!

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But haven't you just described "a D&D campaign, as designed?" –  mxyzplk May 21 '11 at 23:57
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@mxyzplk Except it's an exponential power increase not favouring the PCs, rather than a linear, matched increase. –  SevenSidedDie May 22 '11 at 0:40
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All of the answers so far have described human-human killing, which is a fair approach and the answers have been fine, but they're all based on a society similar to ours where the PCs are part of that society. In such, killing your fellows is frowned upon.

However, most campaigns I've seen don't do this. PCs don't go around killing the merchants of the town they're based in, nor really killing anyone around them... but they do go on murderous rampages in the wildernesses against the orc/goblin/broo/undead hordes.

In these cases, it's better to consider historical situations where this kind of behaviour was encouraged - typically war. Consider the mediaeval English fighting the French, the peasant footmen could expect no mercy, the nobles were only saved because they were worth more alive to be ransomed. The Spartan warriors killed all the Persians they could get hold of. So when the players go rampaging in orc country, expect all orcs to be killed.

At this point the problem becomes one of balance. In reality we'd have combat mechanics similar to Runequest where combatants are semi-equally matched. In games like AD&D we have 1HD orcs being massacred by 10HD PC heroes. This is more of the problem - if the PCs were battling broo in Runequest, there's a lot less bloodshed simply because its more dangerous to the players. The AD&D PCs practically walk through the kobolds trampling them like cockroaches.

I suppose if you're really concerned with this (hey, kobolds are people too, and deserve to be non-discriminated against) then impose social restrictions against killing, and provide the players with intrigue or stealth adventures; provide fewer opponents of equal skill; or give them a rampaging 'plague' of undead to deal with.

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The problem is that in historical wars, there's some sense of definition of "it's us against the French for a limited time." PCs take this to "it's us against whoever we happen to be around forever." –  mxyzplk Apr 7 '12 at 19:10
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@mxyzplk: Killing Orcs is not murder; it may be destroying vicious predators who threaten the existence of humanity (as in LOTR) or attacking intelligent neighbours who have a different shape and colour. If the GM doesn't make the situation clear, the players will make their own assumptions. –  TimLymington Jan 29 '13 at 12:01
    
And that's been the real world excuse for race murder since time immemorial. I am trying to counter that, not promote it. –  mxyzplk Jan 29 '13 at 12:20
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@mxyzplk: This is not the place for an ethical debate about large-scale killing. My point is simply that killing wolves is not race murder, however objectionable you find it. You cannot simply assume that [non-human monsters] are human enough for this purpose, without explaining this to the players. Otherwise you're not running a game, you're punishing people for not sharing your assumptions. –  TimLymington Feb 11 '13 at 14:02
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I guess I import the real world assumption that if it's intelligent, and you want to kill it like an animal, you're a genocidal racist. And that's how the worlds I run treat it. Those folks exist but they're villains. –  mxyzplk Feb 21 '13 at 19:07
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Indulge them for a game. I ran a Necessary Evil game that focused on killing an alien race occupying humanity. Since the players are all villains, killing whatever's in the way just works. After a few months of this, the game grew boring and we switched to a new one. Our next game had a lot less random violence for the sake of violence in it.

Note that Necessary Evil has some great tricks to temp the villains to become heroes if you play it that way; we didn't. =D

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My DM came up with a great answer for this one: Kill the PCs.

After playing the campaign for almost two years, we had come across a number of henchmen and other decently high level NPCs that got to know each other and eventually ended up forming their own (slightly lower level) party. The idea behind the campaign was that the King had gone so far beyond Lawful Good into LAWFUL Neutral/Evil territory, things like curfews, imprisonment for dissent, etc. The party decided to lead a rebellion against this oppression, but our friends stayed loyal to the government.

So finally we were about to have our showdown with these guys and we starting planning to rush in without even having a conversation. All the discussion was "okay, are our buffs up? Make sure we cast Mass Haste AND get a surprise round", and nothing like "okay, we are about to kill our friends we've known for years, maybe we should try a conversation first".

In the first round, we killed their cleric... and they killed our wizard. This served as a pretty massive wakeup call that perhaps not all problems should be settled with violence, and we ended up being a lot more circumspect after that.


So, more generically? If your players are killing people all the time that don't necessarily need to be killed, people WILL get upset. Let's say there's a thieves guild that is strictly non-violent. Your players start hunting down and killing the thieves. The city says "okay, yeah, maybe these people steal some artwork and pottery, but is that really worth DEATH?" and then the city starts attempting to arrest you for being murdering vigilantes, and your party has to decide between fighting Lawful Good guards or attempting to do somehow make it right (maybe spending lots of money on Raise Dead). And then the not-that-strictly nonviolent thieves figure out where your party sleeps and kills one or two of the PCs before you can wake everyone up.

If they continue to kill uncontrollably, make sure their alignments reflect this change - suddenly deities no longer listen, paladins come after them; with certain sorts of players, don't even tell them about this change, just tell them that certain things aren't working and certain sorts of traps are being triggered that they don't expect.

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