Violence and the media are so often seen together they have almost come to be taken as being (and it can be argued have often become) the same thing. And why not? The great majority of the stories we love are violent, sometimes in a cinematic, swashbuckling fashion, and sometimes in a dramatic, traumatic bloodbath. In this article I will be looking at violence in fiction, in art, with a particular focus on violence in roleplaying, but still an overall approach. A small caveat before I begin, however. I have no interest in this article in debating whether the amount of violence is a good, bad, or neutral thing. I am here to write about how violence is handled in fiction, and how it can best be handled. Aesthetics, not morals, is my focus here.

Andrew Klavan said, “Violence, along with sex, is a part of entertainment because it is a part of human experience.” That sums up why violence is so ubiquitous in fiction. We know it exists. Many of us have experienced it directly. Ultimately, much as we try to think otherwise and roll our eyes in disdain at those who say it out loud, we are mostly only interested in ourselves. This doesn’t necessarily mean just ourselves as individuals, but can also mean ourselves as family, as countrymen, as members of a particular race, as part of a particular political organization, but ultimately in ourselves as the human species. Other animals interest us because they remind us of us. And art, well, we love art because art is almost always about one thing: us. This is not necessarily a bad thing, particularly in art. After all, what else would art be about? If art is an interpretation of the world around us, it must necessarily be a human interpretation, as we don’t have any other interpretation to offer, nor need we do much to offer it. Art is for us, by us. And violence is one of our major characteristics.

Fiction is about conflict

But beyond that, there is another, perhaps more important for sheer application, reason that violence is such a common part of fiction. Fiction is about conflict. Regardless of what kind of conflict this is, regardless of the number of conflicts, our lives, and therefore, our fiction, are characterized by conflict. Violence, if done right, is the perfect distillation of that conflict.

You ever see Raging Bull, starring Robert DeNiro and directed by Martin Scorsese? This movie is the perfect example of this. It’s an extremely violent movie, even by today’s standards (it was made in 1980), but every instance of violence perfectly portrays the characters viewpoint at that particular time, their future development, and the conflict taking place at the time, not to mention adding to the value and complexity of the work as a whole. It follows, based on real events, the story of New York middleweight boxer Jake LaMotta, whose ferocity and tenacity in the ring earned him the nickname the Bronx Bull and carried him to middleweight world champion, but whose same ferocity destroyed his life in a horrifying cycle of self-destruction and abuse of those he loves. Much of the movie is spent on Jake brooding about his wife, believing that she has cheated on him as he grows ever more paranoid and violent. At one point, trying to make for the title, he faces an up and coming boxer, known particularly for his loud mouth and pretty face. At a dinner before the match, his wife remarks on how he’s a pretty kid, which Jake seizes upon as he grows more suspicious. The match comes and Jake faces this pretty boy in the ring. The fight is brutally violent, with Jake immediately charging and pummeling his contender. Watching the movie, you notice how Jake focuses on shots to the head, giving them all the strength he can, and marvel at the absolute ferocity, fueled by a twisted sort of jealousy, with which he delivers them. The last, punishing blow is a hook to the nose, shattering it and sending blood spurting all over the ring. As many watching the fight comment, “Well, he ain’t pretty no more.”

The audience must never forget what’s at stake

That is conflict distilled, and it is ultimately this distillation of conflict that explains why there is so much violence in fiction, and just how effective it is if used correctly. So, here we have the absolute most important thing to remember about violence in fiction – it must incorporate the major themes of the moment and of the work into itself, and be a perfect and powerful exemplar of them. It must be the story at that moment distilled. And, if there is a big, climactic fight, that must be the entire story it wraps up culled into one pivotal moment. The audience must never forget what’s at stake in these moments. If a fight is boring, it’s not because it isn’t flashy enough. It’s because the audience has forgotten and no longer cares.

What about “filler” violence? That’s okay – if the story is also filler. I don’t go to a typical action movie expecting deep thoughts and powerful speeches on the human condition (though that can be nice sometimes). I expect filler violence, filler story, filler sex, filler conflict, filler drama. Is “filler” bad? Not if that’s what you’re going for. But if you wish to tell a story that can really be considered art, filler is the plague and should be avoided as such, in all its forms.

Now, what about violence in role-playing? It must be admitted here that there is, in general, far too much violence in our medium. It’s become standard to have about five fights per story moment in Dungeons and Dragons, the mainstream game of the medium. And almost all of those, if not all of them, are filler, and completely useless. This attitude comes from experience being based upon encounters, i.e. moments of conflict, which sounds good, until one considers that most, if not all, of these are combat oriented, and that not all character development and experience comes from moments of conflict.

[T]ension is conflict

But even elsewhere, in games where excessive combat is not rewarded and thus not necessarily encouraged, it all too often rears its ugly head, simply because it is so convenient, and so horribly mangled, as filler. What applies in violence to other mediums applies here as well – if attempting something more than filler, filler must be culled from the work. Often using violence as filler is excused by claiming that it helps diffuse tension. Since when did tension become a bad thing? Personally, I like tension in my fiction. Why? Because tension is conflict. And conflict is what’s it’s all about. So let the tension build. In fact, go one further and bend the tension into character tension, story tension and you have the players right where you want them. When you finally unleash violence upon them, they will savor the drama and never forget what this fight is about in the middle of it. Throw violence at them all the time and every fight will become dull and happenstance. Even challenging fights will fade into boring obscurity, not fraught with drama and danger but only with dice rolls and number crunching. Besides, players have a natural mechanism for releasing tension – joking. There is no need for mood breaking filler fights when the players have ways of dissipating the tension themselves. And, remember, almost always, in drama tension is a good thing.

So, violence is at its most effective and worthwhile when used sparingly but powerfully. So what’s a good rule of thumb in role-playing? I tend to think that, barring special circumstances, at most one combat per session is the best way to do it, particularly in games like Dungeons and Dragons, where combat takes a long time. This allows one to either cap the particular arc being explored in the session, get a new arc started, continue an existing arc, or do all or any combination of the above, as well as any other uses I’m sure you can think of. You don’t need multiple combats to do these things. You just need one good combat.

Now, beyond the number of occurrences and addressing the major themes of the moment and the work, what is the best way to do violence in your story? That really depends on your particular story. Some stories call for long, drawn-out, ridiculous action sequences. Others take violence in short, powerful, deadly, realistic spurts. And many fall somewhere in between or even go careening off the scale. But, in role-playing, there are mechanical considerations to pay attention to and help enhance the mood.

Keep the action moving quickly

With the more cinematic approach, skip most every roll that doesn’t involve pummeling someone to a bloody pulp. If a player wishes to use a chandelier to swing across the room and jump kick the bad guy there, and the action seems to be at least somewhat within his capabilities, then skip the complicated jump, etc. rolls, and only make him roll for the attack, the one that most matters. If he fails, make it dramatic. If he succeeds, make it dramatic. Keep the action moving quickly, and discourage long discussions on tactics.

With the more realistic approach, up the damage potential of everything. People really don’t get up after being pounded with a machine gun, even if only a “few” of the bullets hit. Make lethal weapons deal more damage. Encourage intelligent fighting from cover, time spent getting your equipment ready, etc., in short, what people do before a real gun fight. And limit their resources. Doesn’t get more tense or more realistic than when every bullet counts.

Of course, there’s many more ideas on how to impress the mood your going for, and I’d be quite happy with you all putting down your suggestions in the comments. What I have here is just some thoughts to get you started. In short, violence is far too important and dramatic a tool to be used willy-nilly. Make sure it distills the conflict and major themes of the moment, that it’s used relatively rarely, and that, when used, it is extremely effective, and it will be a powerful, unforgettable part of your storytelling. Just like it is in real life.

Seems to be a fair summary of the thing.

Violence is, of course, endemic to the medium of the RPG, particularly D&D, in no small part because of the known origin of the genre in historical miniatures wargaming. And there is a certain amount of wish fulfilling in the violence, as well, as the proto-/stereo-/archetypal gamer is something of a target for violence in school; being able to, even vicariously, enact some of the violence in turn has a cathartic effect, though it can, as with all things, go entirely too far.

Thanks for a good read.

Interesting stuff, Tzuriel. I'm mulling it over.

lol well, take your time zip. I'd love to have a healthy discussion when you're done...

And you're quite welcome, Folgha. It was quite a joy to write, I must say.

And yes, roleplaying does posses a special legacy here, but violence seems to me to be endemic to all fiction. And, like I said, even in games that take their origin far from D&Ds wargaming seem to have a problem here. I think the wish fulfillment is a part of that, but for me, but, like most vices, it probably has more to do with laziness and boredom, really.

As I get older, I find I've become very sensitive to violence. My teenage-self would have called my adult-self a total wussy. But my adult-self thinks my teenage-self was misguided, stupid, ignorant and angry... maybe even a little bit sociopathic.

I think I've noticed a trend in the violence in movies lately. It used to be that when a "good" character died in a movie, it was usually quite dramatic. Either the character died trying to accomplish a noble task, it upped the stakes, or galvanized the protagonist's resolve. Movies over the last decade have become increasingly callous toward "good" characters though. It seems to date back to around the time of Pulp Fiction, when Vincent Vega accidentally splatters Marvin's head against the windshield, which becomes the seed for a screwball comedy. That sad fact that a kid was killed doesn't really function into the interplay.

Now, I like Pulp Fiction, so don't get the impression I'm criticizing it. I just think that that callousness has since transcended irony, and now it's epidemic. Death and violence in popular film has no consequences. It's just "cool" to have gore.

And it deeply concerns my adult-self, who doesn't want to live in a world of perpetual-teenage sociopaths.

lol I just had a rather long drawn-out conversation/argument with my father concerning this. As usual, it turns out we agree a lot more than we thought, it just took us forever to realize it. Anyway, I can definitely see your point. I personally loved Pulp Fiction, and didn't see the callous violence as a flaw because it was intended to be ironic, a commentary on movies and fiction. However, there's no doubt that that callousness has become a problem. I don't think it's as much of a problem as some people do, but then again, I'm not a big fan of action movies, so I haven't seen as much of that. Most of the movies or tv shows I watch take violence very seriously, and the fact that a human being's life is now totally over is not glanced over. But that's exactly what I'm talking about in this article - the violence should be meaningful. I hate fluff violence.

However, there's a certain hypocrisy towards violence in older movies that aggravates me to the core. While the good guy's death is often tragic and important, the bad guy's death is often not important, as if his/her life had less value than the good guys. That callousness towards any death I find to be troubling, whether "good" or "bad," particularly because that callousness tends to grow and become a serious problem. However, sometimes in art the death is approached callously purposefully, whether to be ironic like in Pulp Fiction, or to show a problem with the callous characters, like in Munich. As all things, the callousness has its place if used correctly and purposefully.

Of some relevance to this thread, though it's videogames they're talking about:


Maybe the bad guy's life does have less value than the hero's life. Maybe the badguy degraded the value of his life until the best thing to do was eliminate him.

Not saying I actually believe that, but you know, devil's advocate and all. Seems valid to examine the question of whether one person's life may be more valuable than another's. There's the initial "of course the value of one person's life is no greater or less than anothers!" reaction, but think about it.

A famous athlete dies, it's a tragedy. A homeless drunken vagrant dies, it's a pity. No one will set up shrines for me like they do for Michael Jackson. That vagrant is unlikely to even have an actual funeral, much less have anyone show up for his burial. Is my life less valuable than Michael Jackson's was? Is that of the vagrant? Society would seem to say so.

(Related tangent: It's not OK to hurt dogs in movies, but no amount of violence done to Nazis is too far. Again, Nazi = evil, but think about it.)

Some answers to these questions would be great philosophies for villains... hmm.

You've definitely got a point here, Liquid. I like how you're engaging with the question, but I think you're doing so on the wrong level. Here, you're talking about how society treats the death of different individuals. Really that reflects what a particular society thought of those people, not what the real value of their lives was. So for me the real interesting debate would be whether one actually could devalue his own life. Is there any act so heinous that there is no more worth to the life of him who does it? I know in mainstream Christianity there's only one act that is unforgivable - denying the Holy Ghost (as for what exactly that is you'll have to consult various groups and such). Most people settle on murder or particularly wrong sexual acts (molestation of one's child, for example). While my gut tells me I'd gladly put a bullet in a child molester my heart wonders if there could be any less violent (and therefore less damaging to me) way of taking care of this problem. That's what makes dark fiction so engaging and powerful - it asks deep, powerful, extreme questions. And that's why violence is such a great tool in fiction - it puts those questions to us in a way where we can't avoid it. And so you're right. This is excellent material for villains. Violence always is.

To bring it back to the topic of roleplaying, in most settings the answer here is Yes; a persons life can have less value on the cosmic scale. I hesitate to bring anything even close to a dreaded alignment discussion out of this topic, but it has some validity. In a world where Good and Evil are actual tangible forces (and they are in most, though not all, settings) an individual can in fact devalue his life on the cosmic scale and therefore have less merit.

Those people tend to die fireballs, with no death-throes-speech.

I also hesitate to suggest that someone is engaging a question on the "wrong level". The very act of having an open discussion is to invite those other "levels" (some may say "points of view") in order to shed light from another angle onto the subject at hand. I agree with LiquidWeird's PoV on this in that in fiction (mostly movies, but other forms as well) something is being implicitly *said* by the careless application of death to a minor or evil character. It's one of those tropes of the screen that let's us know what is going on right away; if they die quickly and pointlessly they weren't important to begin with, if they die horribly they were a villain or an object to spark vengeance for the main character, and if they die during one of Michael Bay's "this shit just got real" camera panning shots (how I loathe thee!) then they were a main character and probably gave a speech or saved a dog while doing it.

Of course, the other side of this debate is that all of that is too pedantic and we don't need our art spoon fed to us. We should be able to figure it out for ourselves and not be pandered to by the filmmakers. But having said that, what type of movie are we talking about? If it's action movies and the like, then keep in mind Eddie Murphy's character in Bowfinger when he rants at his agent, "'Thanks for dropping by Cliff?' Yo, it's too cerebral! You gotta know that the cliff is a cliff, that Cliff is Cliff, and that the cliff and the Cliff are the same! We're tryin to make a movie, not a film!" I've noticed that the cheesiest, shallowest movie plots translate very well to the medium of the roleplaying table...the more complex and subtle ones do not (In The Name of the King, or whatever that lame ass Statham movie was called is a great example. It was utter fail as a movie, but wouldn't have been a half bad way to set off a campaign had it been stretched out to that length and not rushed through).

Personally, I find that my players have far more fun when I pander to them a bit. That isn't a comment on their poor taste, lack of depth, or moral standing on the topic of violence. It's more a comment on the hobby itself. I like deep immersive stories, and I like violence to be realistic. I give them both of those. But, it's also supposed to be a game. A fun game. If they don't get at least the threat of violence during each session, they still like the campaign...but the fun factor gets turned down to about a 5.

Or, to put it more succinctly; violence is not the whole of fun, but it is still very fun.

lol I apologize, Liquid. What I meant to say was that there seemed to be a particular thing you were going for and that you got distracted with how society views it, and didn't stick with the actual thing. But that easily could've been what you were going for.

Better, Scott? lol

I see your point, which is why I didn't call for eliminating violence period. I love my roleplaying violence too. I just think there should only be violence when it's necessary. To me, that means make it necessary for there to be violence once a session, maybe twice. Violence is fun, as drama, which is also fun, which is why we demand it in our stories. But too much drama and no comedy gets too heavy, and too much violence and no calm gets old. So you gotta balance it out. Give them their fun, but too much of anything can be too much. And be willing to hold back for a session and see what happens. You can get some really good reactions out of your players with this.

As far as pandering to players, I see your point. Roleplaying is much more extemporaneous than other forms of storytelling and so it's hard to build things like themes and motifs into it. I think it's worth the effort, but it does suck a lot of energy, and your players generally don't feel the need to do the same, and certainly rarely appreciate it. So, in our desperation (lol), we pander to the players. "This represents your connection to the divine, dammit!" I think subtlety is best when it comes to things like this, but you do have to give your players what they want to keep them there. So pander a little bit, but aim for high drama and high art. You won't always get it, and you have to remember it's a game, but like all fiction, it can also be so much more than the sum of its parts.

Well, you already know that I see gaming as more an art than a mechanical excercise in rules. So you've got me sold there. High drama, motif, theme; all of these are far more important to me than any other aspect. It just feels quitre often as though I'm the onl yone getting any enjoyment or fulfilment out of those aspects. Not because my current players are obtuse though; I think it's more because that just isn't why they game.

On the topic of holding violence back for a session, I agree that it can add something and also make the violence more enjoyable when it returns. I forgot to mention as well though that I as the GM also get bored without a few action scenes in each session. It's really one of the only times I get to engage the game as a Game rather than just have it be me playing NPCs.

I see what you're saying. Yeah, I'm the opposite of your players. I play the game for the same reasons you do, especially as a player, which is why I can get easily frustrated with a game because others aren't engaging on the same level. I've been mostly lucky in that regard, however.

Interesting thoughts. Speaking mechanically (which I feel is necessary here, sorry if it throws things into a different tangent), most of the time, combat encounters are the easiest ones to run, and also what most players are equipped to handle. But, I tend to run my game in chapters. Some chapters are combat-heavy, while other sessions are just a few hours of solid role-playing for NPCs. One of the main things I always try o do is use the concept of "RP experience" to motivate the players as well as other, tangible rewards--if I want my characters to RP, it's easier to go with the carrot than the stick. However, I know my players, and most of them are combat characters. In my campaign, almost everyone but one player built a complicated, combat powerhouse. Our three most "Role-playing" players, due to both matters of time and space, fell out of this campaign rather quickly. So I had to change from more role-playing to combative beat-downs rather quickly.

However, I have learned over the last year that one key element in violence in games can help--continuity. Screw random encounters, I've got the factions that want to kill the players, and those are the ones I tend to use. Why? Because its helps with immersion and develop a good, healthy hatred of the enemy. And what's the point of having a nefarious villain if he doesn't make the good characters crazier than rabid hyenas?

Sincerely yours,

Theo! Dude! I was just thinking the other day, where's Theo? He should come back lol. Sit down and stay a while, man. Check out the play-by-posts we've got here and play yourself. Those games are mad fun.

In response:
I see your point, and agree. Personally, I like to have a good mix, as in I like my sessions to have both violence and roleplaying, in good measure, but there's definitely times where the entire session being one or the other is good. Climax, anyone? I actually find roleplaying easier to run than combat, probably because I don't tire of it as quickly. I don't like long combats. The tension and excitement quickly give way to tedium and then it's no fun. Anyway, I agree completely concerning random encounters. They're a waste of time and should never have been suggested. Everything that the GM brings about should be important. As for the players, well, you know how they are...

Random encounters are a rather helpful mechanic to many DM's, allowing combat to be intergarating without much forethought. Why? Because let's face it, it's usually fairly simple in D20 terms to look up the region/area, pick a fun-sounding monster from the appropriate CR table, and wing it.

yes, combat is almost always somewhat tedious. Why? Because it has more rules than roleplay. It has to. That being said, I try to think of as many random things as I can in combat rules if know someone in the party's crazy enough to try X. Why? Because I've got a party of chandelier riding, floor-animating, undead pickled chicken-head animating and throwing lunatics.

And yeah, ti's been too long since I sat around and bothered you guys. Heh.

Well, we're glad to have you back. Yeah, it's like a disease. As soon as the players sit down at the table, they go crazy. They could be totally normal, intelligent, thoughtful people in real life, but in play they are crazy people. Oh, well. Just the nature of things I suppose.

I can see how random encounters are a helpful mechanic to many DMs, but I still don't like em. I think they get in the way of telling a good story. They're really a crutch. If your story is boring enough that the players need some blood on the floor, then sure, throw in a combat. But make it important. If the players are bored, your story's broken. Use the combat to fix it.