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.