It might seem a bit silly to do a piece on violence in roleplaying games.  From Chainmail and Dungeons & Dragons, to Twilight: 2000 and Space: 1889, to the Vampire and other White Wolf titles there is one overarching connection — fighting.  For D&D, the whole raison d’etre is violence — against monsters, against people, against other races in the hopes of glory and wealth.  Vampire and Werewolf appear to be more courtly, and more backstabbing in their type of violence, but ultimately you’re still playing creatures that eat people.  Or war on each other, ala Underworld.

However it’s the approach to violence in the various settings that I want to address, and how you can capture the appropriate tone for your game.  Over the years, I’ve tried to make violence fairly realistic in my games.  That doesn’t necessarily mean gory, but violence has real consequences beyond how many “hit points” you lose.

I’ve run espionage games most of my life.  The goal is frequently to avoid violence, or even the hint that you were operating in the enemy’s AO.  But when it happens, it’s usually fast, messy, and not well choreographed.  (The latest James Bond movies have captured the frenetic pace and hurt of fights for your life.)  So how far do you go with describing the attacks, the injuries?

The easiest genre to attack is War, and combat-oriented games like Twilight: 2000 or Battlestar Galactica.  War is dangerous, fast-paced, confusing, and often deadly.  you might not have to give graphic depictions of everything happening around the characters — in fact, often “fog of war” keeps people on the battlefield from having a full picture of the proceedings.  Think of the beginning sequence of Saving Private Ryan — the chaos of the battle, the randomness of injury.  The character has his hearing go out temporarily, time seems to speed up and slow down.  There a re moments, like the soldier looking for his lost arm, that catch his attention.  This give you an idea of the kind of flavor you might want for this kind of campaign…

Here you would go over the effects of the injuries sustained, as much as the hit points/life points/whatever points lost.  Say a character has 14 life points and is shot with a high-caliber rifle — say a .50 caliber.  The damage they sustain might only be 5 points (they get really lucky), but that’s still roughly a third they can take…they’ll live, but they’re mashed up pretty good.  Maybe they lost an arm or a leg.

Smaller caliber weapons do different things.  The 5.7x28mm of Galactica‘s colonials is a .224 round.  It does a lot of temporary damage through hydrostatic shock, but it’s a small wound.  They tend to close and not bleed heavily.  9mm rounds in ball zip right through a person, even in the chest cavity, with some possibility of doing slight damage.  Or they can paralyze you.  The exit holes tend to bleed worse the the entrance wound.  Knife wounds hurt! and they bleed!  They also have a higher chance of doing permanent nerve damage.  Even a fist fight, the person delivering the blows — in my experience — rarely walks away without bruised knuckles or some kind of mild sprain.

You don’t have to go through the blow by blow, as in The Morrow Project, of what is happening as a bullet passes through someone.  Usually, most people aren’t that self-aware, and often an injury incurs some level of shock.

But say you’re not interested in the traumatizing effects of violence.  For a more genteel campaign, like Space: 1889 or Castle Falkenstein, you might want to keep the description of violence to a minimum, instead going with a “movie style” or “TV style” of violence.

Think about the way violence was portrayed in old Westerns, pulp movies (including the Indiana Jones series.)  There might be blood squibs, but often there’s just a clutching of wounds and collapsing.  Only during the truly horrific — the wrath of god or the evil fiend torturing an NPC do you see anything.  (Or not even then.  Think about the end of the flying wing fist fight in Raiders of the Lost Ark, for instance…)  No hero loses limbs, and no shoulder wound involves the brachial or subclavian arteries and bleeding out; no brachial plexus that means no feeling or movement in the arm.  The character, if tortured is given their resistance rolls, as the villains move in to do their dirty work and we pan away to the sounds of their screams.  (Think Han Solo in The Empire Strikes Back…you didn’t need to see the torture to know that it sucked egregiously.)  This sort of violence style is much more appropriate to the pulp campaigns of Hollow Earth Expedition or Savage Worlds, and it works well if you want the more campy period of James Bond.

Even TV-style violence varied from the weekly “shot in the shoulder but I’m okay” violence of Starsky & Hutch, to the more serious effects of gun play in Miami ViceMagnum: PI avoided gun play for the most part, and when it happened, it was sanitized for the prime time audience.

Cartoony violence, in which violence is used as slapstick comedy might be appropriate to Paranoia or Toon campaigns.  The horrific ends the character might face are mitigated by the internal logic of the campaign itself.  Similarly, a “golden age” style superhero camapign would involve a lot of collateral damage and knockback…but ultimately, the villain is only knocked unconscious and taken into custody (only to escape later.)  People rarely die prior to the angsty-realistic comic themes of the 1980s and later.

The key is to 1) Know your audience.  Are they mature enough for graphic violence?  Are they the kind to go into vapors if their character is tortured, raped, scarred or physically impaired by injury?  2) Is it appropriate to the setting?  More realistic campaigns the answer might be yes, but for light entertainments of pulp or romantic adventure..?  Probably not.