Gaming Violence and Children

I grew up the son of a liberal Mennonite pastor. My dad was, and still is, a conscientious objector. Instead of serving in Vietnam, he did mission work in Brazil.

I recall conversations at the dining table about people struggling with the idea of paying taxes that went to the United States military complex. I knew of people who had refused to pay huge chunk of taxes, withholding the amount that would’ve went to the military. They would instead give that withheld money to organizations that promoted peace and justice.

My parents discouraged me from playing with guns. But when your primary toy is Lego, guns are easy to make. My parents discouraged me from watching violent TV, but I would sneak in an episode of the A-Team or later the Dirty Dozen.

The summer before my 6th grade year, a friend introduced me to my first RPG: Star Frontiers. I was immediately hooked. I loved the thought of reenacting Star Wars and Star Trek. To explore. To pilot a ship through a dogfight.

My freshman year in high school, the first Gulf War was beginning, and I recall many brave students standing up in chapel – I attended a private Mennonite high school – and saying they were not going to register for the draft. This meant no federal aid for college.

By this time, I had been playing Rolemaster and Dungeons & Dragons, games that placed a tremendous amount of rules explanation on combat and fighting.  And I maintain that by placing emphasis on combat, combat is more likely to occur.

I also began playing Axis & Allies, Civilization, Diplomacy, Magic the Gathering, and Warhammer. All of these games had abstract combat, but the means to victory is always through conflict.

When it came time to register for the draft, I wrote “Conscientious Objector” all over the draft card. I also wrote a letter, which I assume is still on file at my high school, stating that my conscientious objector status was not something that came about on a whim.

And over the years, I’ve continued to play role-playing games; Some sessions are full of combat, others are very light on combat. And while combat can be memorable and exciting, I have always looked upon it as something somewhat competitive.

Combat rules, more than anything, seem to receive the most scrutiny. It is in this arena, where two or more players engage the rules with little concern for the mechanics. Hit points are abstract, just as the damaging attack is.

But violence, that is a different thing from combat. When I am playing, I am not looking to channel some untapped unpleasant destructive urge through my role-playing games; I am simply looking to engage with the game and seek an escape for me and my friends around the table.

There have been times during a game of Diplomacy, where violent thoughts most certainly crossed my mind. And there have been role-playing games where heated arguments turned somewhat ugly, but even then violence was not part of the equation.

Trying to then frame this all in the context of children, I have to look back with my paternal eyes upon my experience. I have always felt physically and emotionally safe playing role-playing games. I know this is not likely the case for everyone, but I believe that is more a function of who you end up playing with than the system you play.

Role-playing games are ultimately a framework for telling a collaborative story, with a focus on providing a means for conflict resolution. RPGs are simply structured “Cowboys and Indians” or “Cops and Robbers” or “House.”

For myself, in middle school and high school, I gained a tremendous amount of self-confidence through the mastery of the rules systems.

Here was an arena in which my friends and I were in control. We were the strong and athletic, the movers and shakers of the world. There was a comfort in having this control, as my country waged war and my parents divorced.

In my rather intense studying of games and rules, I learned about probability, subsystems, abstraction, mental arithmetic, project management, communication skills, managing meetings, planning, writing, drawing, expanded vocabulary, and likely a whole lot more. A long list of things to learn at the expense of engaging in fantasy violence.

This post is in response to Jeremy Garber’s winning comment in my 202nd Post Competition.

Survey of Methods of Advancement

The other evening I had an interesting RPG conversation concerning character advancement.  His opinion surprise me.  However, I’ve since started thinking about the various systems of character advancement that I’ve seen – this is not an exhaustive list, only ones that I’m more familiar with.

Level Only

In this method, when a character levels up, everything about them gets better.  They are better at hitting, resisting, enduring and doing things within the narrative. The classic example would be the earliest editions of D&D and Labyrinth Lord.

One of the key points of this method is that all elements of a character improve with level regardless of the actions taken to achieve that level.  Namely, if I raised my level solely by treasure and role-playing rewards, I’m still better at fighting.  In this method, it is likely easiest to “balance” characters against each other.


In this method, there are no levels, instead, characters advance each statistic independently.  Dresden Files, and if memory serves ShadowRun.  In ShadowRun you get a certain amount of Karma after each session and when you simply pay to advance a statistic.

When points are part of advancement, there is typically a graduating scale regarding point cost.  That is to say Rank 1 costs 1 point, Rank 2 costs 3 points, Rank 3 costs 6 points, etc.  It is a non-linear advancement cost for a linear statistic.

From my limited exposure to these systems, use of the skill is not a requirement for advancement.

Points per Level

In this method, character’s still track levels. However, upon achieving a new level, they receive a set number of points to improve their character – but again regardless of the skills used during the sessions.  Rolemaster and Alternity are the best examples, although the D&D 3E skill sub-system also applies.

In Rolemaster it is possible to create a 10th level fighter that is no more competent in combat than a 1st level fighter – or a 1st level wizard.  This would be done at each level by having the fighter’s character invest their points not in sword and hit points, but in other wilder fancies.

Points & Level Hybrid

In this method, character’s track levels.  But it is an amalgam of the above.  The potential areas of development – the character statistics if you will – are broken into sub-systems.  And each of those sub-systems operate a bit differently, and may overlap (i.e. D&D 3E/4E Feats overlap with the D&D Combat and D&D Skills sub-systems).

By breaking the sub-systems into different advancement methods, the game system can tinker with balance across the sub-systems ensuring that one character classification is stronger in one sub-system than the other.  That is to say a fighter is better in combat than a rogue but a rogue has a wider range of skills.


In this method, a character using a skill advances that skill.  If you want to get better at something, you had better do it.  In this way, characters evolve based on the ongoing narrative.  Burning Wheel, Mouse Guard, TechNoir and Hârnmaster are some examples.

This method requires a bit more attention to any goals that you as a player have for your character.  Do you want your character to defeat some alluded to master swordsman? Then practice your combat skills.


One could argue that Apocalypse World and Dungeon World are point per level.  Each time you “level” you get one point to purchase some advancement.

Diaspora fixes your total possible talent, but allows you to rearrange your statistics within those constraints.  So if you want to get better at something, you’ll need to get worse at something else.

In Do: Pilgrims of the Flying Temple your monks don’t get better but instead changes how and why they interact with the ongoing narrative.

Any others? In particular, how would you categorize Dogs in the VineyardInSpectres and Lacuna Part I, but the advancement mechanisms aren’t registering.

Personal Preference

I like to see characters that are mechanically different.  I like the idea of advancement through use.  I also understand that as players we are not necessarily seeing every action of our characters – I know I don’t follow my character into the bathroom – and therefore arbitrary advancement is acceptable.

Survey of Conflict Structure in RPGs

One of the common elements of the role-playing game is breaking complicated sequences into turns.  This is particularly evident in physical conflict, where turn order can easily mean life and death.  This blog post is a breakdown of different initiative systems that I’ve seen.

Teams 1 then Team 2

Through some mechanism, usually dice, it is decided that one team goes first.  At that point, everyone on the first team performs their individual actions.  Once those actions are complete, the second team performs their individual actions.

I have never used this system, but the advantages are likely related to group size. The simplified turn order is easier for each player to handle their actions.  Think about the old adventures that say for 9 to 12 players, it’s almost a defense mechanism for the poor GM.

Team 1 then Team 2 Stepping Through Phases

Similar to Team 1 then Team 2 initiative, but there are particular phases that might be resolved as demonstrated below.

  1. Team 1 fires arrows, team 2 fires arrows.
  2. Team 1 moves, team 2 moves.
  3. Team 1 throws weapons, team 2 throws weapons.
  4. Team 1 moves, team 2 moves.
  5. Team 1 attacks with sword, team 2 attacks with sword.

Optionally, you could have a step 0 where the team members declare their actions.

Individual – With Phases

Following on the idea of combat phases, except each character selects their actions.  Rolemaster made use of this mechanism.  Old School Hack is another one.

Individual – Round Reset

Each participant rolls initiative at the beginning of the round and then actions are taken in initiative order.  A variant of this is where each player first declares their action, then initiative is rolled, and finally actions are resolved in initiative order (D&D 2E).

Individual – Circular Rounds

Each participant rolls initiative before combat begins, and for the duration of combat actions are performed in initiative order.  D&D 3E and D&D 4E come to mind.  There are rules for stepping out of the initiative order.

Scripted Simultaneous

Burning Wheel makes use of a scripted action sequence, both for physical combat and for social conflict. In the case of Mouse Guard for military or propaganda campaigns.

This system models the chaos of conflict.  Once the first bullet fires, everything is a mix of instinct and reaction.

Burning Wheel’s mechanic breaks conflict scenes down into multiple exchanges. At the beginning of each exchange, the players can survey the current state of the conflict and then privately script their actions.  Once the scripts are set, they are revealed and adjudicated.

Which means you may have wanted to swing at that guy with your sword, but he’s now inside your swing and poking you with a knife.  You’re still going to swing, but you’ll have quite a few penalties.

Within this mechanism there is the savoring of laying out a plan and the tension of watching the events unfold.  Very satisfying, and it does an excellent job of adding tension.

Social Initiative

Diaspora’s space combat takes a very novel approach for space conflict.  Each round is broken into phases for positioning, electronic warfare, beams, torpedos and damage control.  Unlike other conflict systems, the first person to declare the action is the first to resolve their action.

There are advantages to going first (i.e. striking a deciding blow). There are advantages to going last (i.e. striking where they are already hurt).

To facilitate this system, a caller is required.  They are the arbiter of when a particular phase is done.

Point, Counter-Point

Traditionally, most turn based conflict resolutions were focused on modeling physical combat.  As role-playing games have evolved, for better or for worse, the idea of structuring social conflict resolution has been explored.

D. Vincent Baker’s Dogs in the Vineyard accepts that conflict can begin almost anywhere ( i.e. a barbed word, forceful push, stabbing knife, or pistol shot), and works to address that.

If you want to start a conflict, do it, and roll some dice.  The defender rolls dice as well, and an exchange begins.  First the attacker makes a point, followed by the defender, then the attacker.  In many ways it is like the Individual – Circular Rounds method.

However, unlike other games I’ve read and played, Dogs in the Vineyard allows conflicts to seamlessly go from banter to pistols.  Other systems may completely exclude social combat, and when someone says “I draw my gun”, the conflict resolution mechanism changes.

Characters Only

Another relatively new mechanic for me is the idea of removing the Game Master from the pool of people that participate in the conflict.  This is the method of Apocalypse World and Dungeon World.

In both of these games, the action resolution mechanic incorporates the idea of Success, Partial Success, and Failure.  Applied to conflict, a Success might mean I hit and damage my opponent and they don’t hit me.  A Partial Success might mean that both my opponent and I hit and damage each other.  A Failure might mean my opponent hits and damages me and I don’t hit them.

Order of when characters act is far less important, as the characters moves define their outcome.

And More…

Hollowpoint looks to who has the most of any numeral (i.e. 5 sixes were rolled) and they act knocking out other dice, then who has the next most of any numeral.

Reign Enchiridion, which I haven’t completed, looks to be somewhat similar to the Hollowpoint (though I assume Hollowpoint received inspiration from Reign).

What if?

What if the conflict resolution had a determination phase like Race for the Galaxy?  In Race for the Galaxy everyone blindly chooses the actions that they will be taking that round.  In taking the action, they get a bonus, but everyone else also may perform the action.  So imagine sitting at the game table and choosing between: Move, Magic, Missile, Melee, and Defend.

In Conclusion

This isn’t meant to be a comprehensive list, but instead highlights some of what I’ve seen.  Personally, I’d love to see more mechanics akin to Dogs in the Vineyard where conflict seamlessly moves from one domain to another.  I also believe Diaspora and other FATE-based games are onto something when they have a unified stress track.

Contributions to the Rolemaster Standard System

Over a decade ago, before D&D 3E was launched, I was working on converting several D&D deities and characters over to Rolemaster Standard System from D&D 2E.  As I’m want to do, I was pushing a system change on the group.  I felt that Rolemaster would better capture the stories that I wanted to see.

Below are a list of articles that Pete and I submitted to the venerable Guild Companion.  These spell lists were created primarily for priests of the various gods in the campaign.

Irv the Mole

Nowadays, there is very little note passing in our campaigns.  It used to be after a session there would be a handful of notes.  But this practice has fallen out of favor in our group.

At one point, I had a large poster tube that stored all of the crumpled passed notes.  At the end of the session, since I typically played host, I would go around the game area, pick up all of the notes and without reading them, put them in the note tube.  Slowly this collection built up.

No other session in my gaming history has generated more pieces of notes than the one-shot Rolemaster game that involved Irv the Mole and a motley of other characters.

The session started with a myopic pick-pocket (Irv the Mole), a greedy halfling ex-cultist, a wrongly accused bard, a highwayman (of the non-Waylan Jennings variety), a duelist, a rough and tumble brawler, and perhaps another character, all being sprung from jail and tasked with fetching a cart that was out of town.

A simple quest for a one-shot session.  The characters quickly arrived at the cart, and there was a bit of role-playing.  The group had found some item of interest in the cargo of the wagon, but Irv had found a secret compartment under the wagon containing a bag of jewels.

Irv’s player sent me a note saying he wanted to keep this discovery a secret, and made a pick pockets roll.  At this, I broke the session a bit, looked at everyone’s character sheet, and rolled their opposing perception checks and passed each other player a note saying what they saw (most everyone saw Irv’s pick pocketing).

At this point, the scene tension grew, and the disagreements started flying as fingers were being pointed and an argument was being made about how to split the wealth.  There were notes being passed, concerning weapons and looking around for exists.  But gasoline was thrown onto the situation when the crossbow happy highwayman said to no one in particular:

You know, we could split this two ways.

At this point, everyone immediately went to writing notes about their character’s actions.  Frantic decisions.  The halfling realized the highwayman was not talking to him.  Mind control spells were cast. Irv knew he had to run. Swords were drawn.  Crossbows nocked.  All kinds of chaos was afoot.  For a good hour or so everyone scripted their actions and we resolved them.

And because this was Rolemaster, everyone knew the crossbow was likely an instant kill (or at least an incapacitation).  Also, everyone knew that once that bolt was fired, the person would be relatively defenseless.  Casting times were important.  Single cuts from the sword could kill.

Ultimately, Irv died as he couldn’t run fast enough. The other details of the conflict are very fuzzy as it has been 10+ years since, yet I continue to look fondly and favorably on that session.

That evening, I believe our gaming group generated over 150 individual notes that we then fed into the note tube.

A year or so later, with a rather full tube, we spent an evening reading through all of the notes from the year or so of gaming.  It was a magical evening, as we reconstituted actions from numerous unrelated campaigns and adventures.  The notes were both from the GM but also from the player, and often times there was not just the action but the rational and the contingencies.  We were able to so easily reconstruct that magical evening when sill Irv decided to take a bit more than he was entitled to.

And to my shame, I have since lost those notes. Those bits of memories that connected me to gamers who no longer game at my table.  In fact, I would surrender my game collection to have the Irv the Mole notes again.

What is the favorite character that I have played

Recently I read Will Hindmarch & Jeff Tidball’s Things We Think About Games.  In a nutshell, the book is a collection of gamer koans.  One of the koans, in brief was “Ask a gamer what their favorite character is.  Not who it was, but what it was.”

Asking who their favorite character was, you’ll get a whole lot of narrative crap.  Stuff that will reek of “We’ll it was funny at the time.” or “You just had to be there.”  But if you ask what their favorite character was, you’ll get information about the type of character they like to play, and ultimately an insight into who the gamer is.

My favorite character can be summed up in three words: Swiss Army Knife.  I want to play a character that can engage in any challenge.   This is why the Factotum from D&D 3.5 remains my favorite character class.  Here is a class that is competent in combat, can fire off a spell or two, can heal a fallen comrade, and has a “coin trick” that can be called on to tip the scales in their favor.

In addition, I like the idea of having finite resources that I need to manage and best optimize.  It is why I always gravitated towards the semi-spellcasters of Rolemaster (Gotta love the Mountebanc) and the wizards of older D&D editions.

Basically, I want a character that requires strategic decisions to ultimately bring a wide variety of tactical options to bear.  Which can be incongruous to the idea of wanting less tactical combat.  I suppose it simply highlights that I want to be challenged in the game I play, both tactically but also strategically and narratively.  I want to both see where the story is going but push the story in a direction I want to see it go.

J is for Jaiman the Land of Twilight…kind of

I don’t know the year that I first bought Jaiman the Land of Twilight, but I know it was in early high school, 1991 is my guess. Jaiman is a sourcebook for the Shadow World setting which supported both the Rolemaster and Fantasy Hero rules systems. At the time, I wasn’t allowed to buy anything Dungeons & Dragons. Ignore for the moment, that my Star Frontiers books proudly displayed From the Creators of Dungeons and Dragons.

With Dungeons and Dragons, off the table, I had to look to other settings.  I had purchased some of Iron Crown Enterprise’s Middle Earth settings, but I didn’t want to muddle in the Professor’s masterpiece.  Middle Earth was clearly his world, and only Peter Jackson has the moxie to alter that story.  Instead, I settled on the Shadow World; In particular Jaiman the Land of Twilight.  The setting had rules for one of the larger systems at the time (Rolemaster), and was interesting enough: There was an epic evil, ancient abandoned technology, standard fantasy races, time travel, and maelstroms of errant magic to hinder travel. It would do…Then again, I never played in that world.

The problem was that everything seemed so very over the top, or at least always a little to epic. (i.e. To travel very far, you needed to secure the help of a powerful wizard/navigator who could easily handle the troubles you would encounter). There seemed to be little room for the small guy starting out; After all there were Dragonlords seeking to crush an entire continent; Or the Unlife seeking to unravel existence itself; Or powerful immortals with blasters and anti-grav fields.

What the setting managed to do was seed my imagination for things that could happen. For highlighting the “end game” of a large story. After all, if you’ve saved the very fabric of existence, how can you possibly have an encore? I internalized these ideas and figured, if I ever want to play an epic story, I’ll need to start small.

There are problems with this…Namely, I see the end game that I want the story to get to, and I have the starting point, but getting from beginning to end requires dedication, persistence, and continued investment. And if you are trying to coordinate a hobby amongst a group of friends, having those three components each step of the way can be an extreme challenge. After all, people move away; lose interest in the game, campaign or character; or the entire story was not properly shepherded (I’m very guilty of that, as Matt will clearly attest).

Inevitably, each of these truncated story arcs leaves me a little sad; I want to see the conclusion of these tails. But, a collaborative story is hard to tell when collaborators are no longer there. It is also hard when I allow all kinds of loose ends to build-up without providing resolution.

So what is the fix? I need to think in terms of how I can tell a story in only a handful of sessions; Tell the story that needs telling and get out. Interestingly, this dovetails nicely with a recent trend in role-playing games; Explicitly and deliberately make the character creation (and world creation) a collaborative experience. These collaborative world/character building rules are front and center in Burning Empires, Spirit of the Century, Dresden Files RPG, Burning Sands: Jihad, Starblazer Adventures, and Universalis.

Aside Number One

I distinctly remember looking longingly at the World of Greyhawk Fantasy Game Setting box set at the bookstore in the mall in Pekin, Illinois…Then Normal, Illinois. All the wile, refraining from purchasing it. After all, Dungeons and Dragons was “evil.” I’m fairly certain I should’ve bought that box, because the World of Greyhawk was built by one of the creators of the role-playing hobby, Gary Gygax.

Aside Number Two

Only after writing this did I recall that I ran something in the Shadow World. I couldn’t tell you about the story, I just remember that the group had to hire a navigator and they ended up getting to work with a belligerent, probably rather drunk, baratone-voiced pixy.

Aside Number Three

During my prohibition from buying D&D games, I bought a whole bunch of the contraband, and kept the books in Trapper Keeper™ folders.  I figured with my mom’s extremely limited vision (yes I know I’m a terrible son) and the fact that we weren’t conjuring demons, making sacrifices nor committing suicide; all would be well. This was clearly a case of my thinking “Ask for forgiveness, not permission.”  And besides, some of the Rolemaster and Shadow World books had images of demon conjuring prominently on their covers. Continue reading