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Friday, 9 April 2021

Killing no murder?

It was a Victorian setting, and the player-characters had pursued a mad scientist to the top of the world. (There's something about mad scientists and the Arctic.) They trounced her hirelings, broke up her lab, put paid to her callous experiments, then one of the characters snapped. 'We'll never bring her to trial,' he said before giving her both barrels of his shotgun.

That summary execution might seem shocking, but I've been hardened by years of refereeing. We had one player-character whose thing was butchering 'witches' -- a term he seemingly applied to any woman with a scheme in the pre-industrial era. On Tekumel I've seen captives hurled in their hundreds into the fiery pits of sacrifice, and slaves slaughtered to pay a demon for a minor gift.

Most horrible of all (it still makes my flesh creep) was the time in Crossgate when the characters got hold of their longtime enemy Lord Belvoir, who had unwisely stopped at the manor house without his men. It was Twelfth Night, but what they did made Lavinia's fate in Titus Andronicus look tame. They truly got medieval on his ass -- but then, it's Legend, so 'medieval' is exactly right. Isaac Babel would have recognized it:
'I'll put it this way. With shooting you just get rid of the person. Shooting lets him off easy, and it lets you off easy too. With shooting you'll never get down to the soul -- where it is in somebody, how it shows itself. So I don't spare myself. More than once I've stamped on a foe for an hour or more. You see, I want to get to know what life is like, what it's really all about.'
As the referee, it's not my job to comment on the characters' deeds. Nothing should be out of bounds. Roleplaying, like art in general, should be free to go anywhere, and in refereeing I have to be like God, who never has anything to say when a child is raped or a man has his hands macheted off. After the game it's a different matter, and then I will sometimes confess that the PCs' moral attitudes give me a shudder. I regard capital punishment as barbaric and vigilantes as scum. Vigilantes who dress up their killings as justice are committing plain murder.

Naturally the players get prickly about that. They don't want to be thought of as murder hoboes. They see themselves as heroes -- and so they should. If you're in character, of course you think you're in the right. Hitler believed he was a good guy just as much as Gandhi did.

'I'm not the Red Skull,' one player retorted, 'I'm Judge Dredd.' If the judges of Mega-City One existed in real life, they'd be the goon squad of somebody like Ramzan Kadyrov, not stalwart defenders of civilized society. But let's face it, pretty much all cops in drama are rule-bending, violent, arbitrary, partial, unstable and dangerous. Stories have their own rules and (one of the big mistakes a beginning writer can make, this) likeability is overrated. Player-characters should be interesting, they don't have to be likeable -- at least, they don't have to be likeable to civilians in a comfortable 21st century democracy.

A murder hobo PC is boring. They'll shoot every NPC in the face and they do that because the player's imagination is too limited to see the NPCs as real people. But characters who wreak terrible violence because of their own sense of justice, however warped and self-righteous that may be, can be very interesting indeed. They're Bond, or Dredd, or the Punisher, or Philip Jennings. There's an inner contradiction that has to go somewhere, and the player is inhabiting the character thoroughly which means they're on an interesting journey too. Consider for example E M Forster's self-analysis of his time in Egypt:
'I came inclined to be pleased and quite free from racial prejudice, but in ten months I’ve acquired an instinctive dislike to the Arab voice, the Arab figure, the Arab way of looking or walking or pump-shitting [pissing] or eating or laughing or anythinging—exactly the emotion that I censured in the Anglo-Indian towards the native. It’s damnable and disgraceful, and it’s in me.'
Forster had found in himself a knee-jerk racism that horrified him. He didn't go so far as murdering anyone, of course, but it was nonetheless a darkness within that he came face to face with and, with his scrupulous honesty, confessed to. Roleplaying lets us do the same and come away knowing ourselves and being better people for it. Or so I hope of my more violently inclined players, anyway.

1 comment:

  1. I don't know if I made it clear enough in the post, but in case not: I'm not against PCs being murderous. The only crime is if they are lazily murderous, that is they don't commit murder for interesting character reasons. The examples from my own games, shocking as I found them personally, are all moments of great drama, like when Walt kills Jane in Breaking Bad. I was aghast; it was brilliant.