A variety of RPGs provide mechanical effects that affect the use of violence in a game. Some of these effects apply before a character can kill in cold blood, for example, while others provide rules for the impact of the aftermath of the violence itself. An examination of these rules demonstrates how they affect the atmosphere of the game, enhancing realism and deepening roleplaying.
Use of these rules also cuts down on murder-hoboism, which is defined as killers without a home wandering around killing other people and taking their stuff. Some of these rules can be adapted by gamemasters to other RPGs, including Dungeons & Dragons. One of the interesting side effects of porting a version of these rules into D&D is that roleplaying certain character types is automatically enhanced. An optional rule that demonstrates this is explored below.
Forbidden Lands is a fantasy RPG from Free League. Despite the violence and deadliness of the setting, killing a defenseless foe requires a failed Empathy roll and spending a Willpower point. A Talent can be learned to make killing cold blood easier. Even though the player characters kill in battle, they cannot easily murder. The reverse is also true, however, so if they are defeated in battle, the enemy is not likely to try to kill them out of hand which leaves open the chance for a future escape.
Star Wars the Roleplaying Game, first published by West End Games and recently reprinted by Fantasy Flight Games, characters who spend Force Points to kill other than in self-defense or even just when angry or for other immoral acts gain a Dark Side point. The GM is encouraged to warn a player that they may earn a Dark Side point for an action because a roll to resist the Dark Side follows and if failed the PC is lost and becomes an evil NPC.
Shadow of the Demon Lord by Robert J. Schwalb is a dark fantasy RPG filled with twisted cults, overwhelming cruelty and violence, and the looming end of the world. PCs gain corruption for acts of great evil like murder, stealing for personal gain, and invoking dark magic. Greater corruption leads not just marks of darkness and insanity but also eventually consigns a killed PC’s soul to Hell, where they cannot be returned to life.
In Delta Green by Arc Dream Publishing it is not just exposure to unnatural things that cost sanity. Killing has a cost and killing in cold blood inflicts even more damage to a person’s sanity. Being shot at also inflicts sanity loss.
If your RPG doesn’t use rules to depict the stress of combat and other trauma, the easiest system to implement is a modified Sanity system from the Delta Green Agent’s Handbook. Every PC starts at Sanity 100%. The GM picks which Threats to Sanity she wants to use in her game. Simply follow the rules for reacting to Threats to Sanity (pages 67-68) and keep in mind a loss of over 4% also triggers temporary insanity (page 69). If you want to use disorders, you will have to do more work to convert the rule effects into your system. In particular, many disorders inflict percentage penalties to certain skills.
Dungeons & Dragons 5E already has an optional Sanity system in the Dungeon Master’s Guide but it deals purely with madness. If you are the type of DM who likes to use many Combat Options you might consider using the following optional rule as well.
Attacking a Helpless Foe: Opponents with the unconscious or paralyzed conditions cannot be attacked without the attacker making a successful Intelligence check (or Sanity check if that optional rule is being used). A check is not required for races striking a hated foe, for assassins attacking a target, rangers attacking a favored enemy, and for other characters with similar rules. These rolls are made with advantage against a known and dangerous foe or with disadvantage against a non-combatant. Even race and classes that normally don’t have to roll have to make a roll with disadvantage to target an innocent non-combatant (called the Mandalorian Effect or the Deadpool-Baby Hitler Conundrum).
Make the DC 10 or even DC 5 for the check if you want success more often than failure. Or DC 15 if you want attacks on helpless foes to be less frequent. You can even vary the DC in certain circumstances.
If you combine Attacking a Helpless Foe with Gritty Realism for Rests, then combat becomes a bit more realistic and dangerous. Killing isn’t always the best option, and threats and a show of force may sometimes be more effective and safer than physical violence. While you might consider using the DMG optional rules for Injuries, these rules may be overly harsh to PCs.
The Attacking a Helpless Foe optional rule makes murder a bit more difficult for PCs but as in Forbidden Lands the reverse is also true and foes won’t murder them easily. Roleplaying races and classes with built-in foes is also enhanced, as they now have a mechanical difference in their view of killing intelligent beings that differs from other characters. And anyone fighting a hated enemy should expect no quarter and fight accordingly.
These new rules create a large change to an entire game system and GMs may want to get buy-in from all players before trying them out. If your players end up not liking the new rules, it is easy enough just to freeze the rules and ignore them for a few sessions to see if that works better for your group. You can bring them back if you decide to try again in the future.
Putting a bit more effort into killing the defenseless and innocent will make RPGs less likely to be host to murder-hobos and can introduce interesting roleplaying challenges like what to do with prisoners (prison?) and orc children (adoption by a fighting order?). If your group might enjoy such challenges, give the optional rule Attacking a Helpless Foe a try if you play D&D or consider adding Delta Green’s sanity rules to your existing rules for your next campaign. Perhaps not being able to kill will lead to fascinating new adventures.
Charles Dunwoody is not a robot and is willing to type tilted letters and numbers to prove it. He started playing and running RPGs with Advanced Dungeons & Dragons (before it was first edition) and is currently ten sessions in GMing Forbidden Lands. He wrote a few articles for Dragon Magazine when it was in print, wrote a bit more for Mongoose’s electronic Signs & Portents, and was paid for a supplement for Bulldogs! (d20 version) that was sadly never published and ran adventures for Bulldogs! at Gen Con. Currently, he ran demos of the Alien RPG for Free League at Gen Con 2019 and freelance writes for EN World and Geek Native. He also camps year round, backpacks, and canoes when not reading and writing. See, not a robot.
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