Violence in gaming


So, I know I always talk about this and am a little obsessed, but it's something that has been bouncing about in my head and I thought it'd be a good thing to throw to you guys. I'm currently running a gangster game, where the players are Irish gangsters in the 20s, and I want to impress the horrifying reality and the addictive adrenaline rush of violence upon them, to portray it realistically. This came up because we recently played through the first moment of real, rolling dice violence in the form of an assassination of a rival gang. It was fun, and part of the problem could be that it was really late, but I don't feel like I brought across the horror of the violence to them. They were excited, but the emotional weight of the action was not captured, at least fully. What can I do, without going overboard, to lend this weight to it, to take it back from the abstraction of die rolls and impress that bullets are actually tearing flesh,and people are actually dying? I'd love advice on this. Thanks in advance to any who post.

Resonance. You still have a chance to impress this upon them, even if the fight is over. Maybe their favorite bar is closing now, because the wife of the owner was caught in the crossfire and he doesn't have the will to continue anymore. Maybe they hear a radio broadcast that Someone Famous has now died (their characters don't know this person is famous, but the players might - what if they hear that they shot and killed Amelia Earhart accidentally). Maybe the boy who they bought the local paper from every morning now only has one arm because the doctors could do nothing better than to slice the bullet-riddled arm off. Maybe it's nearing Fall or Winter and, instead of seeing windows shut tight, the entire first floor of a building is billowing and flapping bedsheets, trying desperately to keep in the cold after the windows were all shot up. Maybe a love interests' brother was in the gang and blames your PCs for his death. These are all things that can happen after the battle to say "hey! you were the cause of these effects, bub."

In my head, the 1920s (and any pre-Internet, pre-"modern" age) was always about community: everyone knew everyone else, they knew which sides of town they belonged to, they knew who was turning stoolie, etc., etc. The world was smaller back then.

I love spending time fishing through the TV Tropes website, allowing each new link I open in a new tab to take me further into seemingly meaningless time waste. On one such foray I came across plenty of information on guns and their effects on people. Most specifically, the links i was following pertained to the damage that guns really do in the real world as opposed to how they are portrayed in fiction. Some of the tidbits may be useful to you. Look it up.

Especially in a time when medicine wasn't as advanced as it is now, being shot was absolutely terrible. A person was actually more likely to survive being shot in the chest than if they were shot in, say, the leg. As in Morbus' example of the young paper boy above, being shot in the arm or leg usually meant *at least* losing that limb. The entire concept of "shoot to wound" is a fallacy based more on plot dynamics than on real world firearms physics. If you shoot someone in the shoulder, that arm will likely never work properly again as the joint is destroyed and even modern medical science has a difficult time putting such a joint back together out of the splinters of bone it has become. All those times we see people shot in the leg to prevent them from getting away (because the plot calls for their capture)? Yeah...right. The femural artery is as big as a finger in grown adults and slamming a chunk of hot metal through that part of the leg is almost certain to cause damage to it...likely resulting in that person bleeding to death before the gun fight is even over.

Likewise for first hand accounts of being shot coming from soldiers that have been in real combat. I think the example I read likened it to getting hit with a hammer as hard as can be imagined. Though this actually is far less power than a bullet would hit with, it's something that is easier for someone to wrap their head around than getting hit with a bullet. There is a point beyond which the human brain can't actually correlate the proper amount of pain being experienced and shock sets in immediately. It is precisely at this tipping point of human experience that the true power of firearms becomes apparent. There are plenty of accounts of soldiers being shot multiple times without actually realizing it was bullets hitting was just a series of strong impacts to the body in various locations that left the victim confused and trying to figure out why they are now lying on the ground instead of storming the bunker like they were only seconds ago.

Sound is another important factor. Most people have a somewhat skewed view of how guns sound (or else we wouldn't have the fallacy of the modern "silencer", prompting the companies that make them to call them "suppresors" instead. I could go off about this at length, but suffice to say that the little "fwt fwt fwt" of a silenced handgun is a predominant fantasy foisted on us by the needs of any given plot rather than the actual reality of the situation). The cacaphony of a pitched gun battle would be something truely dreadful to be present for. Consider this; a nearby gunshot is likely the single loudest thing a human is ever to hear. Period. Anything louder would cause even more damage to the ears, and thus lowering it's actual impact as a "sound". Multiple shots in an enclosed street (and make no mistake...those Tommy guns fired .45 ammo and that is *not* quite at all) for a prolonged period of time leaves it's mark on those present even if none of them get hit. To wit: the main reason that special forces troops (Navy SEALS etc) have suppresed weapons is not to be the sneaky ninjas with guns that movies portray, but so that when in close quarters they do not deafen each other permanently. The psychological effect is even more relevant, though it's hard to get players to believably (or willing) portray someone's sanity unravelling due to PTSD.

One thing I've always done, be it in fantasy gaming or otherwise, is to accentuate the sound of violence. Not just the sound of the guns as I described above, but the wet tearing sound of a sword going through someone (or more realistically, of that sword slamming into and then becoming lodged against bone as the structure of the human frame would stop even the most effective swing of the hairy barbarian). Or the meaty slap of bullets pounding against someones chest. The ragged cough of blood and lung fluid that accompanies the hollow-barrel *whomp* of your opponent being struck full in the back with your hammer.

Violence is a truly terrible thing to behold, and in real life is so much more visceral and sudden than it is often portrayed in media. In some ways it is actually less gory than you see in media, which in my opinion at least lends it a far more ugly pretense. I try to describe it as such when running a game; quick, jarring, and ultimately final. I used to go the other way and my players, when we were all younger, loved me for it. My more abbreviated style these days hits them harder as they had become desensitized to the blood flying everywhere in arcs and cascades. It was making it some sort of macabre ballet and they couldn't wait for it. Now, they seek to avoid it because I don't describe it as anything nice to watch at all.

By way of example;

Your sword comes down in a tight arc, too fast for the parry thrown up hastily by your opponent. It clips the tip of his chin on the way down before the tip catches his collar bone and it sinks in deeply to his chest. Continuing the motion, your blade comes out the bottom of his chest, blood trailing behind it like a line showing where you'd been as you spin on the ball of your left foot and face the next man coming towards you with his axe raised and a scream on his lips.


You push his blow away with the edge of your sword and then jerk it downwards, breaking his collar bone with a sharp crack and lodging it into him. His face goes blank with shock and he topples to his knees, the bright red blood he coughed out when the blade struck him spattered on your face as you struggle to free the sword from the grasp of his ribcage. A scream to your left and flurry of movement distracts you from his dying gasp of "wha-wha-wha..." as you glanace over to see a wedge of steel plummeting towards your skull.

One is more elegant and would be well suited to many fantasy novels that portray violence as a wet but beautiful dance that is done by fictional characters and presented to the reader for their enjoyment. At no point does it seem like something that is actually taking place though, and the very elegance of it's description serves only to further remove the player from the actions happening aroudn their character. It is something being watched as opposed to something being *done*. It is in the exposition, but not in the moment. The second gives the impression of *presence*, and serves better to imprint the urgency and immediacy of the violence happening at the end of the characters blade and all around him as well. I guess it depends on personal style; are you running a Kabuki theatre or a realistic roleplaying experience?

The exception to this would be the graceful moves of someone that truly does spin around in a ballet of death. Characters like this are awesome, but if violence is handled briefly and quickly then when these types make an appearance they actually stand out for what they are supposed to be.

In regards to the neighborhood shootout you described, one thing that may not come across to the players is that *they just shot up their own neighborhood*. Often, especially in Irish neighborhoods, these types of characters were seen as something better than the law. Blue collar guys from the neighborhood with deep ties of blood and loyalty to the block. They may be corrupt, but they were openly so and limited their grift to outsiders. It wasn't brought home unless someone else brought it there, and then it was dealt with swiftly and brutally. They protected their people and their neighborhood...granted it was usually at a profit but the protection of their neighborhood was improtant to them for more than just cash purposes. If they are blasting it up, the people in the burrough will respond to this. If the PCs don't act "properly" after the fact (making restitutions, letting it be known that it won't happen again, putting the blame elsewhere to garner "hey, we got shot up too" pathos, etc) then the people won't be on their side for the right reasons. History is full of examples of gangs that lost their hold on their neighborhood because the obediance out of respect became obediance out of fear. When this happens it's easy for other gangs to move in and direct that popular discontent. The police suddenly find that their are those in the burrough that are more likely to talk to them now that Jimmy got his arm amputated after the shoot out. It's notoriously repeated (and very very true) that Irish neighborhoods didn't talk to the cops, but that's because the block was protected by the gang, not endangered by it.

An unspoken (or in some cases directly spoken) alliance between the criminal element and the residents of a given area was usually in place. "We'll keep this area safe and look after all of yous, we'll keep out the hustlers and the dealers and the pimps. We'll make sure that on any street in this burrough you can walk safely, and your daughter can be alone in the dark at night, and nothing untowards will happen. In return, we're the law. You have a problem you come to us, not the cops. If something gets dealt with, it gets dealt with by us. We're all Irish here, so let's keep it Irish. No talking to no cops about anything. Period. We look after our own." As soon as that social contract gets broken then their will be consequences.

I don't know how much this helps you in your present situation. If you try to impress on them the awfulness of violence in a realistic manner and it still doesn't stick, then you have to impress on them the *consequences* of the violence, as Morbus mentioned. It's not like you want to root out the bloodshed from your just sounds like you want it to mean something.

One other tack you could take; ask them if they are just desensitized players who see violence as a means to an end since "it's just a game anyways", or if they are rather instead playing *characters* that don't give a damn and are really "mad dog killers" as they called them back in the dayo. If the former is the case, then you have to accept it as what it is sadly. If though it's the latter, then you have a great oppurtunity for roleplaying; in the actual criminal past of Irish and Italian families in New York and Boston there were very few of these types and they were usually kept on a long leash away from the daily goings on of the "business", left to their own designs, only to be pulled in when someone needed a bit of wetwork that got attention and made a very public example. After this they were usually wacked or left to twist in the wind and take the heat for it (because something on that level *will* generate heat and someone *will* have to go down for it to satisfy everyone concerened on both sides of the law), knowing that if they didn't rat they'd be taken care of. To imagine a whole crew of mad dog killer types running loose, or having some degree of authority over their own neighborhood or business? That crew would be the target of all the other crews until they were rubbed out. That's just too much heat, and in the words of Tootie Cicero "You're gonna f*&k everything up".

These characters have some dark days ahead of them if they don't talk to whoever the bigger fish is and "make it good by him" for their blatant upset of the balance of power on both sides of the law. Payoffs, free work, and looking over their shoulders constantly for the guy that some other crew or family brings in to get rid of the ones that are making way too much noise.

Picture the conversation. A chain smoking, unshaven detective meeting some peckerwood block boss in a park on a cloudy afternoon. He tells the old guy, "Look, I know what it is. This is what it is and I knew that when I started taking the cash...but if these guys don't go away I got no choice. Our agreement to look the other way didn't extend to messes like this; if you can't do something about it, there's cops that will, after work and out of uniform like. I mean Jesus Christ, Sean...that kid Jimmy? His uncle's a beat cop. My guys are screaming for blood and one of us has to make sure they get it...bring the Kitchen back into order brother, before we all get put out over this."

Dark days indeed.