non-violence (and slime gods)

As convention season approaches, New York Red Box Charter Member E.T. Smith made an intriguing remark while musing about convention games:

I barely even notice game descriptions [at conventions] anymore. They nearly always, to me, read like a variation of “Some dudes are doing something you don’t like. Stop them with violence,” so they don’t tell me anything about what might make the game interesting.

(emphasis added).

And he’s right.  It would be pretty neat to play some games where the primary conflicts couldn’t be solved through violence, if only as a change of pace.

Figuring out how to do a “non-violence” session of D&D:

  • Maybe violence is just a strategically dumb move, like if every monster in the dungeon is way tougher than you.  This becomes more of a stealth mission, either trying to creep into a place, or trying to escape.  For several years now I’ve wanted to run an adventure where PC’s are accidentally teleported into a much deeper level of the dungeon than they anticipated . . .
  • Maybe violence isn’t the focus of the adventure, though this begins to get into areas of play that aren’t well-supported.
    • A cross-country or oceanic race, for example, would offer the chance to overcome a lot of wilderness hazards.  (In D&D, most wilderness hazards take the form of monsters you have to kill; I much prefer Mouse Guard‘s approach to wilderness and weather hazards.  But I suppose with old-school “imagine-the-hell-out-of-it” principles players could try to cope with travel emergencies.)
    • An attempt to solve a particularly vexing problem by means of researching a new spell or magic item.  Spell research is one of those cool things that tends to happen away from the table, but trying to acquire super-bizarre metaphorical ingredients, like “the tears of the moon” or something, might require a lot of creative thinking from the players.
    • An attempt to build a stronghold.  I can imagine all sorts of stuff going wrong here: incompetent architectural design, labor trouble, low-key interference from neighboring powers who want to test the new guy on the block.  And of course the peasants are watching to determine if this new guy really deserves their respect.  Again this gets into social-style adventuring that isn’t always handled well by D&D rules, but would probably be an interesting change of pace.
  • Maybe violence is morally problematic – like, the whole scenario is caused by horribly wrong violence and its tragic after-effects can’t really be remedied by more of the same.

Some of this stuff, like magical research and stronghold-building, skirt pretty close to the carousing mechanisms that the New York Red Box uses between sessions.  (The workings of the carousing system has been pretty opaque to me as a player: Tavis uses some kind of Apocalypse World -derived 2d6 + Ability Mod system, where 10 is an unqualified success, 7-9 is a compromise somehow, and 6- is a bad failure; Eric I think is using something like a saving throw system.)

Anyway: as an RPG player I’d like to play in the occasional game that wasn’t predicated on solving conflicts by the application of superior force, that’s all.  (I am not saying that violence in gaming is bad; just that it’s boring sometimes.)

tax: 2e Slime Cult Specialty Priest

Been mucking around with 2e lately.  The 2e Cleric is ridiculously powerful.  Perhaps as an acknowledgement of this, the 2e Players Handbook introduces Specialty Priests, which are sort of like themed mini-Clerics.  The 2e Druid is arguably one example of this though they don’t explicitly say so in the text IIRC.

Anyway, specialty priest who worships primordial subterranean slime gods:

Restrictions: Constitution 15, Charisma 12.  Followers of the Slime God must be hardy to endure filth and ordure, yet they remain mysteriously compelling.  Alignment: any non-good and non-lawful.  The Slime God is indifferent to human welfare and scorns efforts at systematizing.

Weapons Allowed: Non-metal armor and weapons that are mostly wood.  Flasks of burning oil, acid, and poison are permitted.  The idea is to be immune from most Ooze attacks, while mimicking them in return.

Spheres: Major access to: All, Charm, Creation, Divination, Elemental, and Necromantic.  Minor access to Animal, Healing, Plant.  According to the cult, slime exists at the juncture between insensate matter and all living things–the protoplasmic goo is a link between plants, animals, and the raw elements, and the quintessence of life itself.  I’m throwing in Divination and Charm just because I like the idea of extremely charismatic priests driven mad by unspeakable insights.

Granted Powers: command Oozes, Otyughs and Fungi (as evil Cleric commands Undead).  At Level 7, transform into Ooze (as Druid’s shape-changing ability).

Ethos: To the anti-priests of the cult, we weren’t created by any gods in the service of a divine purpose.  We crawled into the sunlight after countless eons of muck for no discernible reason.  If you’re puzzled and confused by the world you live in, that’s perfectly understandable: it’s not supposed to make sense.   We’re just globs of muck, doing what globs of muck do: eat, shit, puke, ejaculate, and die.  There’s no relief from that: it’s the bedrock of our existence.  And if the social institutions of the surface world appear corrupt, hypocritical, and historically contingent–almost as if there was no divine plan at all–well, that shouldn’t come as a surprise .  If you’re expecing our society to be pure and wholesome, you’re misunderstanding who and what we are.  There’s no destiny.  There’s just the continuous consumption of rotting flesh to shit out nightsoil to keep the thing going.

Amid all that mindless biological twitching, there’s a lesson to be learned.  Don’t let people tell you to do stuff on the basis of some goofball ideology.  Here and now is what matters.  Being left alone, and leaving others alone even if it means they’ll drink their own piss, is a cardinal virtue: you don’t have authority to tell others what to do.  And that applies to yourself too.  You have to reconcile yourself to the fact that your life and its attendant suffering is pointless.  Don’t have hopes, or daydreams, or wishes for anything other.  Just this: over and over, just this.

12 Responses to “non-violence (and slime gods)”

  1. 1 TheJollyLlama875
    July 2, 2011 at 10:57 pm

    Your pseudo-nihilist ooze clerics are awesome.

  2. July 3, 2011 at 2:48 am

    Thanks! Evidently, Zen intersects anarcho-primitivism at Cthulhu.

  3. 3 Greengoat
    July 3, 2011 at 6:14 pm

    Ah, very good pondering of non-violence as theme in a game. I think there is a good market for a total bolt-on social mechanic for all forms of D&D. It is hard to work out narrative problems when it has an almost totally non-violent or non-aggressive solution because D&D not only doesn’t have those rule systems, (skill challenges, say what?) but the game actively punishes you for not killing things and taking their stuff (see XP rewards).

    4E needs a small little social combat and social feat addendum, taking a hint from Mouseguard or Burning Wheel. Just add them as “Social Powers” and “Social Feats” choices at certain levels like everything else but on a separate progression tree so they don’t compete with the “killing-stuff” feats and powers.

  4. July 3, 2011 at 6:58 pm

    I’ve been on a non-violent kick myself, and the game I’ve been itching to play is the newish Doctor Who: Adventures in Time in Space, by Cubicle 7. Its initiative mechanic gives priority in the following order: talkers, movers, doers, and fighters. This is done to emulate some of the series trademarks, such as the Doctor talking down laser-wielding Sontarans, or the Doctor running away from a squadron of Daleks before they can shoot him down.

    As Greengoat points out, though, D&D doesn’t really have the framework in place to make an initiative system like this work outside of simple GM fiat, which is probably the simplest solution.

  5. July 3, 2011 at 7:26 pm


    I’ve been meaning to see if Cindy wanted to play the Doctor Who game. If you’d be willing to run a session or two maybe you’d have two players at least.

    Non-violence in Doctor Who is kind of a tricky issue! The Doctor himself never hurts anyone directly. But the most recent versions of Doctor Who seem to take delight in threatening people with overwhelming force wielded by others.

  6. 6 Greengoat
    July 3, 2011 at 8:12 pm

    For Doctor Who I like that all the robots and aliens of the week wield Shakespearean accents courtesy of the BBC. (haven’t seen the new one however)

  7. July 4, 2011 at 6:48 am

    But the most recent versions of Doctor Who seem to take delight in threatening people with overwhelming force wielded by others.

    This is by no means a new thing! Threats of deadly force — not to mention death via deadly force — was par for the course in the original iteration of Doctor Who.

  8. 8 richard
    July 4, 2011 at 8:47 am

    On the non-violence: yes. Yes yes yes.

    Stronghold building is excellent, but you’ll probably want to test it at some point, which means you’re preparing for violence, unless your stronghold is really a company or ship or some other not-violence-focused thing.

    Negotiation games strike me as the most rewarding, perhaps. What if you have to strike deals and wheedle your way through the dungeon (for this I love the hyperviolent context of the dungeon, BTW, to shock players out of their habits in the most familiar environment)?

    Stealth, wilderness survival and find the gizmo all strike me as essentially puzzle games: it would be easy for them to revert to die-rolling festivals. Creative game design is needed to force players to think their way around the environment, but I think you have to be even more creative to get the players thinking creatively themselves: not just solving puzzles you design. That’s true of all gaming, of course, but removing the violence somehow makes it clearer.

    Perhaps the best way to stimulate non-violence is by building it right into the characters: you are pacifists, or you are ambassadors or pilgrims or monks or otherwise inherently non-violent characters. Now go solve these problems. Making the non-violence environmental or situational is really a challenge to the players to change the situation so they can get violent again.

  9. July 13, 2011 at 3:52 am

    I should mind the Mule more often, as I nearly missed this. James, non-violence is indeed a worthy challenge to pursue at the game table. Its been one of the things that got me into the Starship Voyages project, trying to build a play style where its more desirable to parlay with the antagonist alien empire than to just blast away on sight. However, I hope you’re not too disappointed if I clarify that my original comment wasn’t intended as a criticism against violence for its own sake. Generally, I’m fine with the conceptual mayhem inherent in this hobby, and regularly enjoy the thrill of imagining stabbing ugly bastards in the face frequently and enthusiastically. No, what I meant was that, with violence already a given, it seems redundant when write-ups for con games try to sell themselves by talking up that violence. Sort of like if a bar tried to win my patronage solely by declaring “alcohol sold here.”

  10. July 27, 2011 at 6:19 am

    I often noted that classic Traveller was highly non-violent, to the point where D&D players resented it.

    Classic Traveller has player characters going to prison and getting their laser carbines taken away. Classic Traveller has an entire adventure, “Exit Visa,” based on dealing with bureaucrats and commuting time constraints. Classic Traveller has “Across the Bright Face,” which emphasizes the hazards posed by an impersonal alien environment. Classic Traveller has merchant trading adventures.

    The problem is that while all of these mechanics sometimes work, they don’t necessarily excite the players. In fact, the players often think that talky games are boring, and act to disrupt them by either killing the NPCs or else dragging the party out of the room.

    Here’s a typical experience from my Call of Cthulhu days:

    GM: Okay, here’s this carefully designed interior room with a shelf of books. You can search for tomes…

    Most players: Are there any written in Arabic?

    Bored player: Is there any other door out of here?

    GM: None are in Arabic, there’s a lot in medieval French. There’s just one door, the one you came in.

    Bored player: I leave this room and look for other rooms.

    Most players: Wait, wait, if we get split up we’ll all get killed.

    Moral of the story: It only takes one bored player to cause the entire party to miss prepared clues.

  11. 11 Robert
    July 31, 2011 at 1:20 pm

    Well, I only go to one con each year, and this year the games I played were: GURPS Cthulhu, Villains & Vigilanties, B/X tomb raiding (actual Egyptian-style mustsbas & pyramids with more exploring than fighting), and an Empire of the Petal throne game where we were sent to confirm the death of a sorcerer. (And “confirm” is not euphemistic here. The only combat was a encounter with a Tekumellian “dragon” on the way to the sorcerer’s place.) Admittedly the V&V session was all about doing violence upon the bad guys, but it has “vigilante” in the name od the game. ^_^

    A couple of the things I do that I think help my D&D games have more non-violent activity: Using the morale rules often means that the PCs end up talking to a surrendered opponent, which leads to talking with the rest of the opponent’s group or using information to get to their goals without fighting. I interpret “defeat” liberally, so parley or sneaking past can earn just as much XP as violence.

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Past Adventures of the Mule

July 2011

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