Exploring Non-violence


I GM-ed a multi-generational D&D3E family game over the Holidays. While that was very rewarding, I was left with some slight doubts. It felt great to bring people together for a fun time and to have some family togetherness, but I saw my young cousins get excited about killing and looting and stealing, which was off-putting to say the least. It made me think about the example I was setting for them at such a young age, and what sort of habits I might have myself that I am unaware of. It made me start thinking about ways to keep the game fun, but to encourage problem-solving that does not always include wanton killing.

At first I was at a loss for solutions to my dilemma. The typical non-violent game of political intrigue doesn't hold the attention of the 12 and under crowd, and I wanted to have a game for my whole family. Looking through my stack of game materials I realized that although the mechanics of the d20 system allow for non-combat skills to take a front seat, few, if any, of the important encounters in published adventures are focused on non-combat skills. I wanted to make a game for my family that would let us all have fun, and at the same time provide positive role-models for the young'uns. Luckily, there are a lot of good models we can follow from popular entertainment that don't rely on lethal violence for their excitement, and some of them are even appropriate for the younger players. I will outline a few non-violent game models in this article, and in future articles I will detail encounters and adventures that incorporate these ideas.

Adventure - This model pits the PCs against their environment. They must use all their skill and knowledge to navigate an uncharted sea, climb to the top of a mountain, slog through the jungle to uncover the ancient temple, or explore explore forgotten ruins. Traps, wild animals and unfavorable conditions are the focus of this game, which emphasizes physical prowess, willpower and survival skills. A large part of the fun in this game is derived from the environment being fully engaging and the object of the expedition being truly interesting. If your players prefer the 'you walk for three days to the next town' type of travel, this game may not be for them.

Detective - This genre encompasses a huge variety of settings, from film-noir private eyes to prime-time cop shows like Law and Order and CSI. This type of model is the easiest to use for the younger ages, because it can be clear-cut and fast-paced. It is most similar to standard combat oriented play. The players will have ample opportunity to beat up the bad-guys, but the emphasis can easily be placed on capturing them unharmed for questioning and to stand trial, or on gathering clues from informers, crime scenes and computer hacking. Depending on the theme of the game, the GM may choose to use the setting to reinforce faith in the justice system, expose the evils of corrupt cops, explore the fine line that many law-enforcement personnel walk between right and wrong, or just provide a convenient backdrop against which the players may display their combat prowess against thugs, criminals and low-lifes. This game type can still rely heavily on combat skills, but introduces investigation and interaction skills as important aspects of the game.

Natural Disaster - This model has the excitement and danger of the combat-heavy game but focuses on quick-thinking, athletic skills, and helping others. There probably isn't enough meat in this model to cook up a whole campaign, but for short adventures it can provide an interesting change of pace or serve as the focus of a one-shot adventure. Whether there is a raging forest fire, tsunami, hurricane, tornado or earthquake, the natural disaster can endanger the players just as much as a combat encounter. The heroes may have to organize the evacuation of a village before the lava hits, rescue patients from a flooding hospital, hack into a heavily guarded computer before the building crumbles around them or find a source of water before the village wastes away during a drought.

Political - Reuniting the bickering factions, sowing dissent in the enemy land, slinging mud at a political rival and vying for control of a criminal organization all fall under this model. This game focuses heavily on role-playing with an emphasis on interaction and investigation skills. There may be moments of violence, such as an assassination attempt, but they should be the exception, not the rule. For a silly, kid-friendly game the PCs can be high school students running for class office and student council, with all the high emotion and angst of a typical teen drama.

Puzzle - This model speaks for itself. This game usually focuses on a mechanical or magical device that must be studied and manipulated or a riddle that must be solved. Usually this style of adventure focuses on player, not character, knowledge and skill. Rolling a die to solve a riddle is not any fun, but hanging around with your friends for a few hours mulling over word puzzles and speculating about the powers and origins of a device can be entertaining if your group is interested in the concept.

This list is not meant to be exhaustive, but I think most combat-light games fit into one (or more) of these categories. Tune in next time for the first in a series of adventures written to minimize combat and encourage some good habits in my younger players.

Great article, Captain Dwur! I look forward to further installments....

* Thumbs up*

Great start. I'm very interested in the focus on the younger players as well as generally reduced hack-n-slash.

One question: how would you classify a sporting competition?

I was very impressed with a tournament setting within a Legend of the Five Rings module that I was attempting to adapt to a D&D rule set. The players could join in many traditional events like archery, tug of war, horse-riding events, etc. to win coin and notoriety.

I had trouble nailing sporting events down when I was writing the article, but I think they could be an adventure type. I was also considering another genre completely that covered things like trying to reach some goal before another group of players or NPCs, like a cross-country race or some kind of Junkyard Wars-style challenge. Mechanically, this simply replaces the static difficulty of fixed terrain with the dynamic difficulty of an NPC skill check, but remains mostly the same as the adventure mechanics.

That works for me, thanks. I was going in circles with the "games within a game" idea. The perspective from mechanics makes it a lot clearer.

Competitions can be great role-playing tools. I've played ina few games where athletic competition was involved, usually for a glorious prize of some sort (magic weapons, etc).

Also not mentioned are contests of art. In a game where court ettiquite is important, contests of misuc and poetry (especially improvised) should not be uncommon. Dancing, flower arranging, drawing or painting could also be used.

The important thing here is to make it not just cut and dried roll a die, add your mods, and the winner is. As (GURPS) examples:

Archery contest: Taget starts at 25 yards. Each Contestant fires 3 arrows (applying distance modifiers as well as aim and whatnot). Margin of success (from 0 to 9) is added up for the 3 arrows. Top 25 percent (plus persons tied with the cutoff, move on to the 50 yard target. Keep moving the target out until theres a winner. When I played this, the contest was a trap for our best archer, who lost becasue he couldn't propel an arrow to the last target. The prize was a cursed bow.

Footrace: On a straight course, this isn't great play, but on a twisty course where route matters it can be fun. Fastest move characters move first, ties roll against running skill (or default) and highest margins move first. Other characters may have to not move full rate or take longer route at prime areas are blocked. Don't forget to add pushing, pulling, and other dirty tricks.

Poetry Contest. Each writer rolls for:
content; using savoir faire, politics, diplomacy or other appropriate skill.
Technical; using Poetry skill
Performance; using Perform or Bard or Singing.
Each judge rolls against similar skills or IQ (plus performers margin of success) for how it was recieved. Sum of margins of success rates the performers for that judge. Compile the judges results however you like.

Sub-example: The King has declared a poetry contest on the topic "My (the Kings) new hat". OUr PC rolls chooses to focus on it effecton the kings visage, rather than the details of the hat and rolls agains diplomacy instead of tailor. He makes his roll by 3. For technical, pretty much a straight poetry roll which he makes by 7 (theres no point competing if you arent competant). He chooses to perform (poetry) rather than read or sing it and succeeds by 5. The King rolls against IQ (+5 for margin of success) for content and makes it by 8 (he liked the part about seeming more majestic). He rolls agains poetry(+7) and misses by 3 (he doesn't know alot about poetry and a near rhyme wasn't near enough for his tastes). Finally, he rolls against IQ + Hearing (+5) and makes it by 4. Total of success is 8 + (-3) + 4 = 9. The same 6 rolls are made for each other entrant and the results are nearly obvious. Modifiers might be made for the first few poems (the king isnt bored yet) and the last one (it's finally over).


A game I ran once was a court case. The players got to be lawyers, plaintiffs, accused, witnesses, and a judge. As a lawyer each player would articulate his case and then the judge player would decide if the argument was valid. If it was indeed valid it would add a +2 to the lawyer role (either a diplomacy or bluff skill check). The bonus could be negated by a successful cross examine by the opposing the lawyer. This was great fun for both the players and the GM, because everyone got to go up and speak their piece.

Uh oh,

Great article, indeed.

Please, everyone, keep giving examples of non-violent modes of play, scenarios and so forth.

Aces and Eights has some nifty rules for court proceedings and card games. Not to mention a cool rules system for (violent) quick-draw duels.

Hi, i was thinking about this for few years. I like to play games but killing (even on screen) makes me feel bad and non-social. The adventure genre witch crossing terrain is a theme could be a perfect alternative to violent rpgs. The atraction ingredient could be an extreme agility of character (with great motion-capture animations) that could climb steep slopes, jump from tree to tree, cross swamps. Great graphics is also a component of attraction for players. Other idea is to walk in the forest as a naturalist scientist and to study animals and creatures i.e. try to sneak close to group of monkeys (or elves :) ) and study their behaviors. Eventually solve social problems between species within a forest by completing quests.

Making a game from a scratch is a huge project but it would be easier to create a mods or expansion packs to existing games. Maybe we could form group and start making mod based on Oblivion or other modable title with nice engine?