Tuesday, April 7, 2015


I can recall watching the 1970 film Cromwell (Richard Harris, Alec Guinness) on television at my grandfather's house in Port Angeles, Washington. I don't remember how old I was...I would guess somewhere between age six and nine. I remember that I watched the entire movie and enjoyed it (lots of battle scenes contributed to this) even if I didn't understand what the hell was going on (for the most part). I wouldn't mind watching it again sometime, but that'll probably have to wait till I get back to the USA. Even then, it's not the kind of thing you can find in RedBox, is it?

The reason I bring up Cromwell is that it's been so long ago since I watched it that there are only a couple scenes/images that remain in my memory with any clarity. The second image is the sad, yet dignified Guinness (as King Charles) with his children right before his execution by beheading: even though he is the "bad guy" in the film, I remember this as depressing and wishing he wouldn't get the axe. But the FIRST scene I remember is one earlier in the film when Cromwell is confronted with some dude who's had his ears cut off, presumably as some sort of royal "justice" of the kind that Cromwell & Co. rebel against.

[look, I know I'm doing neither the film...nor history!...any justice here. Oliver Cromwell is not a subject I've made much of a study of. It seems that I've read before that Cromwell's roundheads were fairly brutal themselves when it came to the English civil war...but as usual, I'm digressing]

The dude with the ears removed is something that (to this day) springs immediately to mind whenever I consider certain aspects of role-playing...specifically mutilation as a form of deprotagonism. The common thought around deprotagonizing player characters (PCs being the protagonists of an RPG "story") is: don't do it. Player characters have enough to worry about in a game without an All Powerful GM doing terrible things to their characters to "suckify" them. A GM should not, for example, capture the PCs by throwing them against an undefeatable number or orcs and then have the orcs cut off their ears...or noses, or hands...and then drive them out into the wilderness, naked and maimed for fun. Because even should the PCs survive, no player wants to be forced to play a character that has been made into a parody of the heroic persona it once was.

"Your ears you keep and I'll tell you why: so that every shriek of every child at seeing your hideousness will be yours to cherish..."

[there are other forms of deprotagonization, of course, but here I'm only talking about the wrecking of the character's imaginary physique, such that the player is unwilling (or feels the character is unable) to continue as a protagonist of the game at hand]

Of course, it's not unrealistic to think that adventurers in a fantasy RPG will become maimed and mutilated in the course of play; this IS a game that deals with sharp weapons and monstrous opponents, after all. But while those GMs (and players) who like this sort of "realism" have created a variety of neutral (i.e. disinterested, random, and "non-malicious") workarounds...critical hit tables and damage by specific location (see OD&D's Supplement II: Blackmoor)...what about the non-combat carving of individual player characters? Is it right for some sort of "plot immunity" to exist for PCs? Even in a setting where the IP protagonists have no such plot immunity?

I am, of course, referring once again to Martin's A Song of Ice and Fire setting. Putting aside (for the moment) the rather gruesome portrayal (in television) of major character Theon Greyjoy's torture, degradation, and castration at the hands of his sadistic captor, and also let's ignore the crippling of the child Bran (since he's really too young to be a player character in the sort of game I imagine, even if he is a Point of View character in Martin's books). Let's take for example the major character of Jaime Lannister, one of Westeros's premier knights and warriors who, while being transported as a prisoner, has his sword hand removed with a cleaver.

[gruesome video clip from the television show, for interested folks]

Consider, for the moment the situation from a fantasy RPG perspective. Lannister is the equivalent of a high level fighter in (what amounts to) a magic-light fantasy world...something akin, perhaps to Pendragon, the system I'm using for Crowns of Blood. There's no clerical magic to speak of, nothing like regeneration of lost limbs or magical healing, no blue crystal staffs to provide this miracle. Characters that get limbs sawed off are SOL...and taking away a fighter's sword arm is a pretty stiff penalty for a guy who only really knows how to fight. NOW consider the "in-game" circumstances: here is a character that has been captured, is unarmed, chained and helpless. He is at the mercy of his presumably NPC (thus, GM-controlled) captors...and NOW you're cutting off his arm?

Realize that this isn't terribly unusual (i.e. uncommon or unheard of) in the fiction of Martin's world. Orys Baratheon (ancestor of King Robert and right Hand man of Aegon the Conqueror) was captured in battle, during the first Dornish War along with most of his knights and banner men when the Dornishmen (mainly of House Wyl) laid a clever ambush for his force. Aegon eventually agreed to the stupendous ransom demanded by Lord Wyl - each man's weight in gold - for the return of his loyal men, but Wyl had all of the prisoners sword arms chopped off (not part of the original ransom negotiation, mind you) so that they "might never raise swords against Dorne again."

Thirty years later Lord Wyl's son, Walter Wyl, fell into Orys's hands (er...hand) during the Vulture King's Uprising (a bandit-lord who managed to gather a huge force of Dornish nobles while Dorne proper ignored his brigandage). Before sending him back to his father, Orys chopped off the captive Walter's sword hand in retaliation...plus cut off his other hand and both feet, calling it his usury.

Note that these mutilations all happen outside of normal combat: they are atrocities committed against prisoners. In a game context, they might be considered the depredations of a sadistic GM...but then consider the thief who is arrested (captured) for practicing his craft in the city where the penalty for theft is the removal of a hand? And consider if the thief's fellow adventurers are unwilling (or unable) to enact a jailbreak? What about the town where the punishment for the crime involves other mutilation...perhaps facial branding of some sort. What if the crime is failure to pay the local tax man (something D&D PCs have been known to avoid)?

Certainly, such things can be hand-waived or ignored/neglected by GMs...often are, in fact, to avoid PC deprotagonization. In a world of men (like Westeros) where it is a common practice to surrender/give oneself up for ransom rather than fighting to the death, is it unreasonable for players to expect maltreatment should they fall into the hands of a family known for flaying its enemies?

Stats same as a hairless bugbear.
Maybe it is. I know for myself that...regarding the hand-chopping thang...I've always been a fan of the guy with a hook (or other sharpened weapon) at the end of his arm. Maybe it's a childhood fascination with the dastardly main villain of Peter Pan. I don't know...for all the ridiculousness of the latest Hobbit movies, the idea of a giant albino orc with a hook arm is fairly cool (I'd peg him as a three HD monster in B/X terms). I've been using the name Berek the Half-Handed for years (as a character in D&D, Ars Magica, DragonQuest, etc.) just because I like the name and the concept of a one-handed sorcerer. The name is, of course, taken from the Stephen Donaldson books, but the concept is taken from an MZB Lythande story (specifically, a sorcerous opponent of the title character). These characters of mine, though, have been maimed before their careers start (they start out "one-handed" and, as wizard-types, don't have as much need of both hands), so there's no deprotagonizing that takes place at the hands of the GM.

Anyone who's played a lot of Chaosium's ElfQuest (especially of the Goback-Troll conflict style of play) will have seen a lot of PCs lose limbs in play because of the combat system which features strike rank-based initiative (elves, as shorties, often attack last in combat) plus damage location with individual limb HP (elves' skinny arms and legs tend to get butchered). I've talked before about games featuring one-armed PCs walking on two (literal) club feet. As long as they could still shoot a crossbow, my players didn't seem to care all that much...but then, at the point it becomes ridiculous, the game loses a lot of its luster, too.

And yet...there's a lot of talk about inclusiveness these days, and writing inclusiveness into RPGs in a way that people of all sorts can see themselves in the heroic personas at the table, and yet it's fairly hard to model folks with physical impairment that don't get mechanically short-changed. In Ars Magica, my one-handed wizard (a flaw that gave him a couple extra points in chargen) spent points on a merit ("subtle magic") that allowed him to be unaffected by the disability...in fact, he was better off than most magi who needed to use gesture in their spell-casting. In D&D, of course, there's no real issue since nothing explicitly states you must have the use of both hands to cast spells (the limitation resting on being bound and restrained).

[while I realize he was a villain in the book, the minor character Steel-Toe from the Dragon Lance novel War of the Twins was one of my all-time favorites, not only because he was a half-ogre but because of the way he weaponized his disability]

Your Hand = Tasty Chew Toy
But, again, I'm digressing...this post isn't about "inclusivity" it's about mutilation...specifically, GM-directed mutilation of helpless player characters. Is there ever such a time when this type of deprotagonization is good? How about "acceptable?" There are some GMs who feel their duty, their responsibility, is wholly to be of service to their players, and perhaps such mutilation is completely unacceptable outside the realm of "if you commit THIS crime in THIS environment and are captured you WILL be subject to THIS corporal punishment." There are other GMs who might create "random degradation" tables to inflict on players who are taken prisoner by orcs and other brutal creatures. And maybe there are some GMs who like giving PCs hard choices to make: "Are you willing to sacrifice your hand to bind the Fenris wolf?"

I'm just curious to hear folks weigh in on this subject. It's something I've found myself thinking about a lot lately. Losing extremities is something I've written about (briefly) in the past... I guess I just want to hear from some other perspectives (player and GM alike) on the idea, possibly as a different type of "character loss" scenario, as opposed to character death.

[and, no, I don't want to hear anything with regard to Star Wars or games where bionic replacement is an option]



  1. From a GM perspective, it depends on the feel of the game you are wanting. If I was going to incorporate mutilation, I would want to make sure my players understood it was something that could occur in the campaign before it began. That gives the players the option to bow out if that isn't the game play they are interested in. As a player, I haven't had any PCs mutilated in a helpless/prisoner situation but I have had characters lose limbs to swords of sharpness, staves of withering, I.C.E critical hit tables and, in Gamma World, I've played a number of severely defect-riddled "hopeless" characters. I enjoyed the additional challenge of running all of them. That said, after 30+ years of gaming, I have played alongside some fragile individuals who were so sensitive to the deprotagonization of their characters that they would wad up their character sheet & consider their character unplayable if they got hit by the contents of a bed pan tossed carelessly out a window. Thankfully, I've only encountered a few individuals like that but they are out there.

    1. @ Mphs:

      I think a lot can be done to "set a tone" by the GM simply thru description: in an area fraught with (NPCs with) mutation, mutilation, branding, etc. players can have some expectation (or foreshadowing) added.

      Like you, I've found few individuals who were exceptionally "fragile" but even relatively "stout" players have limitations to what they'll put up with...sometimes even surprising limits. To some folks, a level-draining monster with good attack rolls feels like too much "gotcha."

    2. I agree that a lot can be conveyed with foreshadowing but some players will want to know before play starts in the same way that they want to know whether a movie is horror or action before they watch it.
      I'm not a huge fan of the level-drain ability. I replaced it by borrowing the Essence derived attribute and Soul Sucker zombie feature from AFMBE. For me, it emulates vampire and succubi fiction better.

    3. @ Mphs:

      I'm not big on zombie horror, so I've never picked up AFMBE. Isn't that the same system as Terra Primate? What's the mechanic? What does the loss of "essence" cost you?

      Because a similar stat might be used to represent the effect of being brutalized (in an abstract fashion).

    4. You are correct. It uses Unisystem & that is the same system used for Terra Primate as well as Carella's Witchcraft (I think Witchcraft is still available for free out on RPGNow.). Essence is equal to all of a PC's attributes added together and is essentially the PC's soul or spirit. Unisystem uses a point-buy system & PCs get 20 point to spend on attributes so most PCs have an essence of 20 but some Qualities (similar to feats or talents in other systems) can boost that. The edition of AFMBE that I have has a conversion guide for D20 Modern so my time spent doing attribute conversions is minimal. Outside of the Soul Sucker zombie ability, essence can be lost if a PC fails a fear test (similar to a saving throw). In terms of game effect of the loss, at half essence the PC become mentally numb and starts suffering a penalty to mental tasks, at 1 or 0 the PC falls into a deep depression and the penalty triples and expands to include physical tasks as well. Below zero, the PC starts having to make tests/saves to see if they suffer temporary mental attribute loss or pick up some form of a temporary mental drawback. If essence drops below -30, the PC has to make a test/save or die. Essence damage can be recovered over time.

    5. @ Mphs:

      Interesting, thanks.

      Yeah, it sounds like a food mechanic for modeling the effects of being brutalized / mutilated, etc....if that was going to be a major part of your setting.

  2. I haven't really thought about the issue deeply. We used to let the crit tables fall where they may (or use the RQ method). This whole idea of "deprotagonization" only seems to have come up after 3E hit the shelves, with the concept of planning out the character's whole career of zero-to-hero from the beginning. As a result, I don't feel very sympathetic to it as an objection. I guess that I wouldn't use mutilation on a helpless character, unless I were to come up with, or find, a "you're captured by XX, now what?" kind of table, but only because I don't know that a Referee should be forced to make that decision. Of course, some such tables should just read something like "01-00: Cut off captive's sword hand", but that would be something that the players should know in advance through rumors and such: "XXs are brutes who make a practice of chopping off the sword hands of anyone they capture." That makes it a matter of the players accepting that this is a result that could happen if they fight against the XXs, and so they can determine if that risk is worth it.

    1. @ Faol:

      To be fair, I probably should have pointed out that the character who cuts off Jaime's hand (in Martin's book) is a rather notorious outlaw (Vargo Hoat) who has a reputation for taking hands and/or feet off his captives. Such brutalilizers could be sprinkled thru a campaign setting with players receiving "adequate warning" in the form of rumor and whatnot.

      I actually kind of like the idea of a random brutalization table for some (not all!) monsters. Being captured by elves is less likely to result in limb-lopping then the fantasy equivalent of Firefly's "reavers."

    2. Heh, I was trying to discuss that circumspectly, avoiding spoilers. But I suppose even saying that Jaime loses his hand is pretty spoiler-y. ;)

      The idea of that kind of table came to me as I was writing that reply. It's probably a lot to do with looking at DCC lately, too, which is a pretty spiffy game.

      Yeah, elves probably won't have such a table (they might have a "do they throw you in prison or just magic you to sleep and send you packing?" table, though). Goblins might be more random and bizarre than orcs, maybe even whimsical in some setting styles, and the latter would probably be pretty GRRM-esque.

      But that's the thing - such tables are very setting-dependent. They're the sort of thing that helps define a setting, in fact, like the "castle inhabitant" table from the original D&D rules.

      It occurs to me that a character's Charisma might have some effect on such tables, too…

  3. For me it is very simple: torture (especially with aim to mutilate) isn't fun no matter the context or the tone. I don't care how much you prep me for it, I wouldn't want to play the campaign. Period.

    1. @ Fr. Dave:

      Do you draw the line at having torture occur at all? Or is it okay to have torture occur "off camera" and not part of actual play?

      (for example, is it okay to say, "monster X does unspeakable things to its captives" without actually discussing what "unspeakable" signifies? is it all right for "unspeakable acts" to happen to NPCs as a motivating force for PCs? are PCs ever taken prisoner? and, if so, are you insisting they are always held in a way that preserves their dignity and psyche?)

    2. If you've ever read about my campaigns or my adventures, torture does exist "off camera" as it were, and I would potentially use it as a motivating force for an adventure hook; however, I would never actively use it. There is a nebulous threat, which works not because my players know I would have PCs and NPCs tortured, but because they know I will kill their character if the situation and the die rolls call for it. Actively using torture in game I avoid. Besides, that nebulous threat is often scarier than anything I could bring to the table anyway.

  4. I wrote a bit about debilitating injuries arising from combat a couple of years ago. Deliberate mutilation is something of a different kettle of fish, but not one I'd consider off the table, particularly given that the game I'm playing specifically models the effects.

  5. In the 5e DMG there are optional rules for "lingering injuries" which include mutilation (losing eyes, hands, arms, feet, legs), which I have used in my first 5e campaign, and it worked quite well, the players knew these could be the "side effects" of a combat, so they approached fighting with some caution. The whole concept of mutilation fit the somewhat "gritty" nature of the Birthright setting which I was running. In my experience, it's more a matter of how appropriate mutilation is to the "tone" of the setting, than anything to do with player agency (I make a point of being very upfront about the nature of the game.)