So I just rolled up a character for a D&D 3.5e game and looked around table to see we had two ex-soldiers, a professional bodyguard, and a 'famous' adventurous. (A level 1 bard with a big mouth.) I'd created a young pastor of a small town. At least in my head, my character hadn't had any experience with armed violence or murder. My first thought was to rework my character to fight with the rough crowd I was about to get caught up in, but talking to the DM and the other players they seemed to really enjoy the idea of this innocent preacher getting caught up in the localized goblin genocide that your average D&D party quickly becomes. I think this could be fun as well, but I also don't want to be a drag on the cheerful lack of empathy towards koboldkind that's somewhat of a staple of our games.

How do you roleplay a first exposure to killing? How long would it take to get an otherwise normal person to get used to the way your average adventuring party behaves?


7 Answers 7


How do you roleplay a first exposure to killing?

As an acting technique, you have three major choices.

  1. Go with the obvious- Loud: Freak out, run around, wail, wave your arms, cry, scream, etc. You've just be exposed to a horror beyond horrors: death. It's grip over your own mortality is frightening and disparaging. It twists at your very soul and charges every fiber of your being with an uncontrollable anxiety the likes of which you have never before experienced. You show fear like a man possessed. (This is most likely the healthiest psychological response) Major target emotions: Sadness, Fear.

  2. You go with the opposite: Quiet. While physically you may be covered in blood and guts, emotionally, you are more withdrawn than outgoing. The shock of rampant death and destruction has shut off your personality temporarily. Your dreams may be flooded with screams of the dying, but in your waking life you are often mistaken as the strong silent type. In reality, you are now the silent and tortured type who has to be strong to never experience that again. You are stressed, and know exactly why. Seeing representations of violence, weapons, etc set you on edge. You may make emotional explosions at or about these things often. (Psychologically, this is the mid-range response, you can recover, but it'll take months, if not years) Major Target Emotions: Stressed, Angry

  3. You go with the denial- Forget: "Nobody died. This is just food stains. I'm a really sloppy eater! Haha, yeah..." Your mind blanked out the entire experience, and will continue to do so every time you experience a similar event. You lie to yourself constantly to continue to hide the truth from yourself. You can continue to function in combats as the scent of blood brings back the traumatic memories, but once the danger's passed, you black out and come to with no recollection. (Psychologically, this is the more severe condition, but it may clear up quicker as you adjust). Major Target Emotions: Happy, Casual.

If your character is average, start with 2. (A PTSD-like response) If they're strong willed, start with 1 (They freak, but do not lose their minds). If their will is abysmal, start with 3 (This is a psychotic break from reality).

How long would it take to get an otherwise normal person to get used to the way your average adventuring party behaves?

Recovery from the experience of death is not measured in time but instead with assistance. Desensitization (which has to happen BEFOREHAND) can be accomplished in a matter of months for the mature minded. If your party treats you with respect and encouragement it should be easier for you to accept the realities of your situation within a year. For example, US Navy boot camp is 8 weeks. You receive training on what to do on exposure to the enemy. This is the basic set of time to teach you how to deal with what you're going to experience. If three or four untrained guys are trying to get you to feel better, it may take quite a bit more than 8 weeks to toughen you up for combat.

If they aren't lending a hand to your recovery it should be indefinite (Habitual drinker, saw one too many battles, sound familiar?). Your character may have a crisis of faith, but could continue being a preacher with a different direction to his sermons.

Finally, as a preacher, it's your job to handle death. Unless you are fresh out of the holy box, you've probably handled at least a single funeral. You may also have commended at least one soul to heaven ( or 3.5 equivalent ), and are responsible for protecting your flock from the forces of necromancy/un-death. While you may be green, you most likely were also prepared.

Good luck, have fun, remember to have the rogue check for traps before opening doors.

(Sources: Acting classes, Psychology major.)

  • 6
    \$\begingroup\$ +1 for target emotions. How the player is looking to play themselves is what Role-playing is all about. \$\endgroup\$
    – Vethor
    Commented Sep 2, 2012 at 16:04
  • \$\begingroup\$ I'm playing a character on a supers game that, although powerful, has a severe mental disability, acting as a 5 year old child would. I'm playing it that it's always make-believe for him when he's out being a hero, and opponent death is regarded as the other kid not knowing when to stop pretending - somewhat like option 3 above. It's been great fun so far, specially the lack of ability of all players (me included) and GM to handle even the most basic situations. \$\endgroup\$ Commented Sep 3, 2012 at 1:56
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    \$\begingroup\$ I think it's also useful to point out that the average person in a (magical pseudo-) medieval society has had much more exposure to death, violence, and pain than the average citizen of a modern post-industrial nation. \$\endgroup\$
    – Alex P
    Commented Sep 4, 2012 at 18:21
  • \$\begingroup\$ @AlexP this might be stretching it, but I think I managed to squeeze most of that idea into the last paragraph- references to D&D 3.5, protecting one's flock, preparation. If it isn't clear, I'll endeavor to make it moreso in the next response. \$\endgroup\$ Commented Sep 4, 2012 at 19:09
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    \$\begingroup\$ @B.A.Thomas You did! I just wanted to add that experiences like butchering your own livestock, having your teeth pulled and bones set without pain killers, and seeing a family member die from disease would all be part of an average "civilian" life in a medieval-ish world. \$\endgroup\$
    – Alex P
    Commented Sep 4, 2012 at 19:19

It usually happens this way.

"Oh... oh my gods! You've killed them!" says your character who just fought to defend himself and little else. "It's a... massacre!"

Then, the seasoned veteran takes you by the jacket and grumbles gruffily (I think I just invented two new words) at your character explaining him not so gently that they would have killed him if they weren't "plain dead."

The dark-looking character of the party should then make the usual "the only good kobold is a dead kobold" comment and then you're pretty much in.

Next time, a prayer for the dead after you fight and the feeling that you could have solved the situation in a different way are good roleplay hooks. Feel guilty, but fight for your life. Do what is just, for the sake of a greater good, or maybe behave like your companions would expect from you, feeling sad because you can't find the courage to say their approach is wrong and lose their approval or their will to defend your village (choose what's appropriate with the help of fellow players).


On the one hand, do some research if you want a non-fictional reaction.

Go to your neighbourhood police station and ask to speak to a homicide officer. Say it is for research for a book (you're an author). They should be able to tell you a whole lot more than a bunch of role player those only brush with violence is fiction (1) -- which is a good thing(TM). Real life violence is no fun at all.

Look at the the FBI's coping with violence page as well. That page has plenty of links as well. I am sure that there are plenty of other resources that you can find with a quick Google search on the effect of violence on civilians.

If you have access to a university and there is a sociology/medicine department, you can go there and ask if anyone is dealing with violence and post traumatic stress.

On the other hand, if what you want is enhance the story most of the rest of the answers here are good.

(1) This is a generalisation, not aimed at you specifically.


It doesnt have to be an over the top reaction. Consider that a priest in your typical fantasy setting, even a young one, has seen their share of death. Plagues, injuries, orc raids, etc. Plus the idea of hunting/slaughtering for food wouldnt be strange for him, as people would have been much closer to that than they are in modern western cities - so the actual act of killing something like a Kobold may not be that traumatic.

So, react the way people actually react. Dont jump right into combat. Hesitate a few rounds. Run if confronted. In a fantasy world where Kobolds are a real thing trying to kill and eat you, I dont think there's necessarily a lot of 'adjustment' time thats needed to get comfortable with the idea of the other characters killing Kobolds.

If he's going to have serious problems, its going ot be when faced with fighting other people.


I once played the opposite of the situation you describe. TL;DR version, my friend played a grizzled veteran who shot a nun in the face with a non-lethal gun because she was protecting a known vampire who had requested sanctuary. The morality arguments our characters had (I played the very green, but promising shaman who was learning the shadows from the other character) where interesting, and a highlight. We played almost a full session of the two of them in the pub after the mission, talking. About half-way through the evening the GM ceded that what he had intended as a 5 minute role-playing scene in the pub would need to take much longer, he started playing an NPC that we happened to hire a bunch (another respected veteran), and we kept talking. The long and short is that the PC retired, got a SIN, and left the shadows, and got engaged to a woman no one knew about within a month of that night.

That said, in your situation I would hope the DM gives your party a cakewalk for the first combat, because your character would likely hide in cover the whole fight. After the fight, maybe say, "Oh my gods, is that guy dead?". Cue any sort of puking/"Oh Gods!"/other appropriate shock reactions. Really play up the shock. What separates humanoids from monsters is our moral compass, yet you just watched the rest of the party throw out their moral compasses in favor of wanton killing. If your fellow players want to play this sub-plotline, have a great time with it. As the priest gets bathed in the killing of kobolds, he should become used to the sight of a dead kobold, and should be able to contribute, but I don't think he should feel comfortable and should therefore argue against the killing every chance he gets.

Or, he could be given the evidence needed to conclude that the only good kobold is a dead kobold, and start mowing them down with the rest of the party. But either way the priest chooses, it should be gradual.


One option is to play the pacifist and aim to knock out or circumnavigate dangerous opponents. Finally, you will reach a situation where avoidance and restrained combat are simply not sufficient, and the priest must make the moral choice to take another life for the greater good. I imagine there will be a lot of begging his god for forgiveness after this event.

Frankly, I'd be disappointed if the priest ever completely lost his restraint. That's what makes a priest. Instead, become more adapt at subduing and coercing your opponents, saving death for only the most evil and dangerous opponents.

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    \$\begingroup\$ I'm not sure I agree with your answer that priests should be restrained from killing. Look to the historical examples of Christian priests during the Crusades. They had little restraint against killing... especially with papal indulgence. \$\endgroup\$
    – Pulsehead
    Commented Sep 2, 2012 at 12:28
  • \$\begingroup\$ @Pulsehead: The Christian clergy is a non-violent institution which does not bear arms. While priests within the clergy did order wars and fighting and massacres and etc ... They were not fighting in wars. As far as I know, there never were any Christian soldier-priests. Warrior monks (aka Templar knights) on the other hand, were both monks and warriors who did fight. But a monk is not a priest. \$\endgroup\$ Commented Sep 3, 2012 at 8:22
  • \$\begingroup\$ Fair enough comments. I'm more used to modern day and sci-fi games. \$\endgroup\$ Commented Sep 3, 2012 at 11:23

but talking to the DM and the other players they seemed to really enjoy the idea of this innocent preacher getting caught up in the localized goblin genocide that your average D&D party quickly becomes. I think this could be fun as well, but I also don't want to be a drag on the cheerful lack of empathy towards koboldkind that's somewhat of a staple of our games.

I would suggest referring to "literature" broadly as a set of potential models for role-play. The most obvious genre is the "war story." The defilement of the innocence of the modern soldier is a staple of the war story genre. Off the top of my head I can recommend US narratives in relation to the Vietnam War:

  • Platoon was widely considered to embody what veterans in the early 1980s wished to think about their own experience of loss of innocence. Platoon is a good model because the lead character is an unusually intellectual, literate and sensitive middle class individual who has chosen engagement due to a sense of abstract service. Sound like a preacher much?

  • The Deer Hunter gives you three losses of innocence for the price of one. The only problem is that Eastern European steel workers are not a fantastic model for a priest character. One of the characters ends in an early arc by being crippled—not the best option for play. Of the other two one becomes addicted to "the war" in abstract and comes to embody its own stupidity in stereotyped actions. The other becomes a master of war who is unable to master himself or the desires of those around him for dramatic (romantic) resolution.

If you want to go darker, I suggest Korean War narratives—"return" narratives particularly. The horrors of the US involvement in the Korean War were not as widely publicised, but the archetypal hidden wife beating drunk ex-serviceman was for a time the Korean vet. (This simplified the issue of tarnishing a "glorious" and successful war with its actual effects on a segment of men who served.)

I really recommend modelling off James Jones (1962) The Thin Red Line, or off Terrence Malick (1998) The Thin Red Line. Jones is a fairly standard introspective war memoir with multiple characters reacting to the corrupting nature of Guadalcanal. Malick's is more a Buddhist introspection on identity in crisis. Both are useful. There are a couple of characters who discover under fire that they aren't bothered by it. Some grow to love the carnality of violence, others come to detest their own capacity for using a trench shovel. Consider the dead Japanese soldier's speech from Malick's version, "Are you righteous? Kind? Does your confidence lie in this? Are you loved by all? Know that I was, too. Do you imagine your suffering will be any less because you loved goodness and truth?"

You can go further back, or sideways into other war experiences. I would suggest avoiding authentic German war experiences from the Second World War unless you wish to play a particularly ugly role. (Klee, Dressen, Riess (1996) The Good Old Days: The Holocaust as Seen by Its Perpetrators and Bystanders.) The American fantasy of innocence defiled is a much cleaner and more common trope than the actuality of willing participants in genocide.

Of course there's Dave Grossman (1996) On Killing: The Psychological Cost of Learning to Kill in War and Society.


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