Killing rules, or does it
Posted by Ron Edwards
Designers of superhero role-playing games have suffered far more agonies over whether, why, who will and who won’t, how-to, do-or-don’t, and what-have-I-done, regarding killing, than any fictional superhero ever did.
This is not about the ethics, not about what heroes do and don’t do, and not about what is or isn’t in the comics. I’ve written extensively about those in Kill, kill, kill, and before that, in How did I get these mutton chops? There’s yet more to say, more to consider, regarding killing in the comics, and killing as an act in stories which are not themselves about murder. There are many ways to “do superheroes” without killing as a major issue, and many ways to avoid doing it individually even when it is, but that can wait for a later time.
Instead, it concerns the fact that role-playing game design frames decision-making, and further, that instead of such decisions being quite coherent in some limited competitive framework, they are fraught with consequence in a fiction that is twisting in and out of shape by the moment.
So, here, enmeshed in design, we’ll take it as a given, that killing people, for superheroes, is a known act and therefore a considered option during play. Therefore this is a highly specific question of game design, and in the context of Champions, which is – if you’ll forgive me – super quantitative, here are the issues:
- Making things more expensive in points
- Making things more expensive in Endurance
- Making things more effective as tactics
- Making things which provide more agency
- Making things that are cool and scary
Bored yet? Want to talk about real-world stuff and comics? But it’s the same! These are the procedural versions of what goes on in Ye Genius Writer’s head or in Ye Genius Artist’s heads, which my favorite medium exposes rather than leaving it safely locked behind bone.
[Quick point: I am not yet addressing things that kill that aren’t super-powered, and aren’t used as a super-character’s equipment, like guns and bombs and so on in the hands of others. Definitely an issue for this game, but not yet well-conceived.]
The idea is to clean out all the parallel tracking and differently-structured point systems, so that doing this is simply and only an available act which happens to cost X, Y, or Z based on how you structure it. That leaves all the ethical and thematic stuff where it belongs: with the group, to be conducted as acts of play.
I am, after, all the author of such things as Sorcerer, It Was a Mutual Decision, and Shahida – any game I’m designing is aimed at who is playing, and what they want to make of it, rather than something they get. But also at provoking the best that they can do. So here are the things I’m hoping to see receive judgment in the form of story, now that the structure and decisions for killing are hammered into a different shape:
- killing as the ultimate heroism (“maturity”)
- killing as manliness, especially for women
- killing as vengeance, torture, and gorn
I mean, we could discuss and ponder and deconstruct all of that to our heart’s content. You know something, after 25 years in academia, I’m convinced that rates … oh … about negative pi on the authenticity scale. When we make stories via intuitive decisions framed by transparent procedures, though – look out.
All right! I promise! Next post will be full of politics and comics, and plenty of them.