Monday, October 26, 2015

Fear and Rage

I read the other day that John Cusack has been training in kickboxing for more than 20 years and is a 6th degree black belt. That's just...weird. I mean, Cusack is not a guy I think of as being a lethal weapon with "feet of fury." On the other hand, I've known several individuals over the year who were master martial artists (people who'd not only been practicing, but teaching others for decades) who were very unimposing figures. Bank clerks and social workers and bookkeepers. People I met from our day jobs (many MA instructors do other stuff to make ends meet). Certainly none of them were aggressive, prone to violence, or giving off a vibe of being "dangerous" in any way. Nor were they Yoda-like, masters of zazen calm and enlightenment...they could still exhibit plenty of stress, were capable of incompetence and insecurity, and in need of mentoring (at least two of these folks were under my supervision, at different gigs).

Thinking about kicking your ass.
If I myself had kept up with my martial arts (tae kwon do and hwa rang do) I'd be going on...(calculating)...27 years of practice. There was a time when I was training three hours a day, five days a week, and cross-training on the weekends. Then I met my wife and decided I had better things to do with my free time.

[she often complains to me (these days) that she lost the "skinny man" she met so many years ago (seventeen), but she's never suggested I get back into it. She prefers me to be at home...just wishes I'd do some sit-ups or something...]

Anyway, even so, I was never a "dangerous man." At least, not what I think of as "dangerous." I could do some neat things, and would certainly hold up better in a fight than people who have never trained in any sort of fighting (this I know from some MINOR experiences). I used to enjoy competition, even. But enjoying a sport, even a "fighting" sport, doesn't make someone dangerous in my book.

Dangerous people are guys (and gals) who are spoiling for a fight. Individuals who are looking to mix it up. For a dangerous person, it's not about competition, or displaying prowess, and it certainly isn't about exercise. It's about wanting to hurt someone, pure and simple.

Fortunately for everyone, there aren't a whole lot of people that fit that description. I'd imagine that even among professional fighters there are those who aren't especially "dangerous" outside the ring. Outside of psychopaths who lack empathy for their fellow humans (these tend to be the people who become murderers), most of us are fairly conditioned NOT to hurt others. And it starts from a young age...I am constantly telling my child not to punch, not to hit, not to push others (especially his sister), explaining how it's not nice to hurt, it's not good to hurt people. And he's fairly good about it (except when he gets excited and punches papa in the crotch)...on the playground he's been very good about not retaliating after altercations, and he's helpful to other children who get knocked down.

I was taught in the same way by my parents. Having a younger brother who enjoyed tormenting me, I would take great pains to beat the hell out of him, and would often suffer the consequences. It was a mantra that I learned (eventually)...that you just don't hurt folks. It's ingrained in my psyche. And I imagine it is for most folks these days. I've heard that the military has to do a lot of re-conditioning to get soldiers trained up to fight, because so much of their lives they've been taught (by parents, schools) that hurting people is a bad thing. Without this training, it's hard to get people to fight to kill.

For those of us who aren't psychopaths and who haven't received the conditioning to kill, there's only two things I can think of that can get folks to enter mortal combat; things that can drive a normal, empathetic person to attempt the slaying of a sentient being: fear and rage. People can be driven to extreme actions by these emotions, even the act of taking another person's life. Fear doesn't have to be for one's own can be for the lives of one's family or loved ones, as well. And rage, likewise, need not be a personal affront (though it usually is, at least in the mind of the enraged) only need be directed, to enable a person to attack to kill.

I've been reading up on the lives of famous Native Americans this morning: Crazy Horse, Chief Joseph (of the Nez Perce), Cochise, Geronimo. For the most part, their fame comes from their fights against soldiers and settlers who were bent on creating a new type of American continent. For the most part, their wars against the "new Americans" were fueled by rage, rage at atrocities committed against their peoples and families. And there was probably fear there as well. Their rage, which led to the killing of many people in raids of murder, is the kind that most people can understand. If you come home one day and find your wife, three children, and mother slain (as happened to Geronimo), wouldn't you be angry enough to go kill some people?

Like The Punisher
[I'm not saying killing is justified or "right," by the way; I'm just saying I can understand the sentiment and emotional reaction. And in such an emotional frame of mind, it would be hard to look at any option with anything resembling rational, detached judgment]

Now consider your average adventuring party in D&D, and just what the hell they're doing.

What is it that drives a group of adventurers into mortal combat, time and again, most often with thinking, feeling sentient beings. A dragon may not be humanoid, but it's certainly has thoughts, can be spoken to, bargained with. It probably has stern objections to being hunted like an elk. "I am not a piƱata to be beaten until gold coins fall out!" I'm sure this sentiment could be shared by other sentient creatures of the Underdark: goblins, Drow, giants, troglodytes, aboleths, yuan-ti, etc.

Sure, fighters have probably have the discipline and conditioning to kill in the most expedient fashion possible...they are, after all, "veterans" from level 1. And I suppose that at least some of the player characters (certainly the ones of "evil" alignment) fall in the category of unfeeling psychopath: individuals willing to slay whomever stands in their way of a fat payday. But what about the others? What drives adventurers into mortal combat? What drives them to kill?

Is it fear? They weren't expecting to run into any opposition and now that they have they are forced to defend themselves so they aren't killed? Is it rage? They're invading this dungeon environment with the objective of getting some payback for all the hurt its denizens have visited on their kinfolk?

I am suddenly reminded of a scene from the first Indiana Jones film, Raiders of the Lost Ark. Indy is getting ready to go off on another adventure, and as he packs his weapons (a whip and a handgun) he remarks to his amigo, "You know what a cautious guy I am." Indy is not looking for trouble, but he's grown to expect the unexpected incident of danger, and he's prepared for it. I suppose D&D adventurers might be prepared (with their weapons and armor) in the same fashion.

Except that I don't recall Indy ever initiating a fight. When he gets the drop on the Nazis in Marion's bar, he covers them with a pistol and asks them to let her go. When he does use his gun, it's in self-defense (after the bad guys have started shooting at him). For the most part, D&D characters ain't like that. "We attack!" is usually the first words that come out of their mouths upon happening upon a group of bugbears, preferably bushwhacking 'em (with surprise). When you get right down to it, it's the PCs who are doing the trespassing/home's the monsters who should be filled with rage and fear and justified in defending themselves.

[not that any sane person wouldn't fear a brain-eating mind flayer, and strike to kill it as quickly and viciously as possible...I sure would!]

Maybe, it really comes down to that terrible human trait of dehumanizing the "other" with whom we have conflict. They are not like us, they are different, they are wrong. Killing them is okay, because they don't think and feel and act like us (even though they are thinking, tool-using creatures and therefore must at least have some capability for reasoning). The slaughter of such "others" is justified in the way they don't represent the lawful, civilized society from which the adventurers hail...the typical imperialistic perspective we've seen historically. But does a half-orc feel the same way about orcs encountered that the other party members do? They might be distant relations!

Stone Cold Killer
Anyway, I'm not musing over all this to be contrarian. I'm just trying to get away from the video game-y mentality for a moment. Combat (in games) is fun, it is an exciting part of the game experience and, well, there are fighters, after all...certainly they (fighters) would have no hesitance over spilling blood, and would feel no need to justify their actions. But should all characters be as callous about killing as fighters? Or (and here's the real question): does allowing ALL characters to be unfeeling, death-dealing machines detract from the immersion of the gaming experience? Would players be more engaged in a game world where such issues weren't hand-waved?

I'm just thinking about it, that's all. My base inclination these days is to treat Chaotic-type creatures as "profoundly evil" (like a plague that needs to be stamped out). But then, my games don't feature monster races (like half-orcs or "tieflings" or whatever) as player character races. If they did, I'd think there'd need to be some serious questions asked about the nature of evil and murder.


  1. I second this argument. The "monsters" in my games won't usually attack on sight (in fact, I often leave out the default "dwarves hate goblins" rule, although some monsters might be less unwilling to attack certain races), and lately I've been trying to make use of the morale system. Goblins certainly aren't "evil", but they will fight to defend their homes if they feel threatened - although even they have a breaking point where they'll try to surrender or flee. If my players ever did end up just attacking sentient beings on sight (with the *rare* exception of the sadistic evil types, such as beholders or the mind-flayers you mention), I'd probably find a way to impress upon them all the different ways that this is a bad idea. As of yet, they haven't had to fight except in self-defense... but that could change.

  2. For me, the biggest flaws of WotC D&D is this idea they have that EVERYONE in the party should be helping out in a fight. When we were kids playing BECMI, we didn't worry that the magic-users and thieves weren't the most effective in a fight, and completely understood if they wanted to hang back and let the fighters, clerics and demi-humans take care of the fighting.

    I think it would be a good exercise to try to design a fantasy RPG where there IS no Fighter class, and emphasize the idea of adventure rather than combat. It would probably end up getting marketed as a kids' game, but I'd like to see something closer to The Hobbit book than the Hobbit movies.

    1. @ Dennis:

      Yeah, I had a similar idea a while back - remove fighters from the game completely - and I'd still be curious to see how such a thing would work.

      Marketed towards children isn't a bad thing by the way...I'm sure there are parents that have been turned off of buying RPGs with explicit violence depicted on their covers.

      Maybe some sort of side-project, down the line.

  3. Interesting points. It drives home to me the lack of use of the reaction tables for encounters. Something I am guilty of. In the juggling act of DM-ing, reaction rolls are up there with surprise rolls for Things-I-Forget-To-Do.

    1. @ Tom:

      I love the standard B/X reaction table and have used it (mostly unchanged) in just about every project I've done. In the most recent game, it forms the backbone of the system for "divine entreaties" (priestly magic).

      A very under appreciated and under utilized mechanic.

  4. I've thought some about this, too. I've read that even after basic training, soldiers sometimes have trouble shooting--even when they themselves are under fire--because they freeze up with fear and/or are morally paralyzed at the prospect of taking a life. Imagine how much more terrifying hand-to-hand combat with people, humanoids and monsters would be.

    I like to assume that 1st-level characters are trained, but have never seen combat. (As for Gygax's label of "veteran" for 1st-level fighters, it's entirely possible to be a veteran--even in wartime--without having personally seen combat.)

    Going on this assumption, when the novice characters engage in their first few battles, I require them to make wisdom checks (roll their wisdom or under on a d20) in order to attack a remotely sympathetic (i.e., humanlike) opponent), or, for example, to administer a coup de grace on someone downed by a Sleep spell.

    (Of course, I subject similarly situated NPCs to the same stricture, but in practice, PCs rarely encounter opponents who are combat virgins.)

    Success in previous wisdom checks confers progressive bonuses in subsequent checks. The checks cease entirely when failure becomes impossible.

    Situational modifiers may apply--I assume that undead, for example, are particularly terrifying.

    I've never bothered to write down the specifics of the system, but I find that it helps rectify, at least in the beginning, the injustice of PCs being immune to morale checks that NPCs must make. The grognards I play with hate to miss those wisdom checks, but they concede that the system is realistic.

    I've had a few analogous real-life brushes with mortal peril, and I find the system models very well my personal transition from knee-shaking ineffectiveness early on to unnerving fearlessness later.

    1. @ Bryan:

      The one time I came home to think there was a burglar in my house (the door was cracked and I saw movement through the window), my adrenaline shot through the roof and I went into full on "fight" (not flight) mode, kicking in the door and yelling at the top of my lungs like some sort of Norse battle cry.

      Turns out it was a surprise birthday party my wife had thrown for me.

      We never know how we're going to react to "situations of direness" and probably circumstance plays a big part of it (outrage of someone being in one's home versus guilt associated with breaking into someone else's stronghold). I don't think it really needs to be modeled in the game rules (adventurers being made of "sturdy stuff" and all that), but it should be considered.

      As in, something to think about.