The situation was all-too-familiar – the characters had subdued a prisoner and were interrogating them. In this case, the game was Forbidden Lands and the prisoner was an Orc. They were able to extract the information they wanted with a few Manipulation rolls and no violence. The Orc’s intentions were clearly evil, and if the situation were reversed he would have killed the characters. The players discussed what to do; kill them or not. No one really liked the killing option, but they had concerns about leaving an enemy behind them as they moved on. After some debate, they decided to kill the orc. Not the most heroic of moments.Â
The problem is that killing a helpless character in Forbidden Lands is not as easy as that. The game requires you to fail an Empathy check (among a few other things). At that moment, all the players rolled – and passed their checks. None of the characters could bring themselves to kill the orc. The characters instead reinforced their prisoner’s bindings and moved on. As the GM, I told them that doing this took this potential combatant out of any future conflict. Satisfied with that, the players moved on.Â
It was at that moment that I was pleased that the mechanics of the game made the characters more heroic than the player’s decision, and second, it revealed an issue. There was this unspoken concern about using non-lethal options to resolve conflicts and have it come back on them.
Today, I want to talk about the idea of non-lethal options for resolving conflicts. The idea that not all combats need to result in death, and how we can create room for non-lethal conflicts in our games.
Sometimes Killing Is AcceptableÂ
Before people get all bent…there are times in games where lethal options are fine. Sometimes situations require lethal options. I am not talking about abolishing lethality in games.
What I am talking about here is that if the games we play mechanically discourage non-lethal options, and our GMing style reinforces that, then all we get are lethal solutions; and that is limiting.Â
Killing In The Name Of…
Honestly, killing in RPGs is made pretty easy – too easy, and there are a number of factors that contribute to this.Â
In most cases, there are no mechanical consequences for killing. Even in Forbidden Lands, you can kill in the heat of combatÂ without consequences. So there is often no mechanical incentive for not killing.
The next mechanical factor to this is that too few games give mechanics for how to end conflicts without it being total annihilation on one side. First, most games place a high penalty on withdrawing, often granting the opponent a free attack. thus disincentivizing withdrawing from an attack and running away.Â
Second, too few games have mechanics to surrender as a way that ends the conflict in a finalized manner. Fate is the best example of how to do this correctly. The Conceding mechanic is brilliant. Either side can just declare they can’t go on. They lose the conflict but they exit the combat. Go read it; it’s good.
The last part of this is on us, GMs. It is either a failure to set expectations, lack of trust, or at times some bad GMing. The fear that players have is that combatants that escape will circle around and attack the characters when they are resting, weaker, etc. So players adopt the mentality of leaving no loose ends.Â
Non-Lethal Options In Our Games
We as consumers of RPGs have less control over how the written mechanics deal with non-lethal solutions to conflicts. Though as a game designer, I do encourage other designers to think more about this and create those mechanics in your games.
As GMs, we do have more control over how non-lethal conflicts work in our games. First, we can house rule mechanics that we want to include for non-lethal options, and second, we can choose to GM in a way where we make non-lethal options available.Â
Here are some things that you can add to your games to address non-lethal options:
Penalty For Killing
In this house rule, you would assign a mechanical penalty for when someone is killed by a character; something like losing a point of Empathy when you kill.Â
I am not really a fan of this one, in most games. This is the stick approach, creating a penalty for killing. It will make players resent killing but not really encourage non-lethal options. I put it in here for the sake of completeness, but honestly, I would not go with this for most games.
Withdrawing Without Penalty
So many games have a withdrawing rule that disincentivizes tactical withdrawal from combat, making players feel like the better option is to just keep fighting rather than retreating. I have as both a player and a GM kept combats going because running away was just going to get my character killed.Â
Allow combatants to withdraw without being exposed to a free attack and both sides will have the option of disengaging.Â
Steal the Conceded rule from Fate. Don’t even try to make something up yourself. This rule does it great. The game is Pay What You Want on DriveThruRPG. Give them $5 and put this rule in your game.Â
Some games have this rule and it gets overlooked, and some games lack this rule. Have mechanics where your NPC’s can lose heart and run or surrender. Tactical withdrawals are a valid way to end a conflict and most creatures know when they are outclassed or outgunned. Have criteria for when creatures should run.
If you use this rule, you also should put in the rule about withdrawal from combat, otherwise, your NPCs will want to retreat and then just get cut down.Â
Down not Dead
When a combatant is reduced to zero health (or the mechanical equivalent in your game), allow the person who delivered the blow to determine if they want the combatant to be unconscious and out of the fight, or dead. The idea being that if they are down, they can no longer participate in the combat, and at some time later they will recover in some form, off-camera.Â
Mechanics won’t fix everything. We have to also GM our games in a way where these options are possible. Here are some suggestions for what you can do.
Have a discussion with your group on how you want conflicts to work. Introduce any house rules you would like to include and talk about some of the ways you are going to handle non-lethal solutions for conflicts. Make sure everyone is in agreement and understands your intent.Â
Have Non-Lethal CriteriaÂ
When you are planning out your adventures, give your NPCs some kind of logic and motivation. Not every room of goblins should want to fight to the death. If the opposition does want to fight to the death, there should be some story-based reason. Give your NPCs the narrative option to escape, surrender, bribe, etc. their way out of the conflict.Â
Communicate End of Conflict
When you do use one of your non-lethal options in a scene, communicate to the players that the conflict is over. Tell them that the conflict is over, drop out of initiative order, etc. Signal to the players that the immediate threat has passed, so that they can de-escalate.Â
I cannot stress this one enough. No double-crosses.
When you do let a group of combatants withdraw or let them bribe their way out of a conflict, that is it. They are out of the combat, adventure, etc. The fastest way to ensure that players will kill everyone in their path is to double-cross them after they have taken a non-lethal solution. Do this once, and you will undermine all of the work you have set out to do. Out is out.Â
To The Death… No, To the Pain
If you want to play heroic games, we need to have our characters be able to be heroic, and that sometimes means not killing is the more heroic option. The problem is that many RPGs are mechanically neutral or disincentivize non-lethal solutions. That, coupled with our own GMing biases, creates situations where heroic characters do not have compelling choices to be more heroic.Â
But we are not helpless in this. We can add house rules and we can modify our GMing style to make this possible, to create those options.Â
How have you addressed non-lethal solutions in your games? Do you have house rules for this? What games have your favorite mechanics for this?Â
One of the biggest problems I had with how Forbidden Lands implemented that is that it didn’t make much internal sense. You can fight someone and leave them Broken, able to do little more than crawl feebly and mumble through the pain. Critically injured as well as a direct consequence of being Broken, meaning they’re likely to have broken bones, severed extremities, or other severe wounds… but putting them out of their misery is considered to be going too far. You’re simply too compassionate for that. Better to leave them to bleed out or crawl off trying to hold their entrails in. So in practice it comes off as a combination of being more cruel in action because you’re trying to enforce an idealistic philosophical notion. It says more about the fundamental disconnect between who the character thinks they are and who they actually are. And in doing so, a lot about the developers as well.