Gaming and History Thread- The Conquer or Perish mentality

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  • #1794
    Hans Hellinger
    Moderator

    One of the things that comes up as an issue with both computer and tabletop RPG’s is the level of violence and the assumptions that go with that. A certain very large RPG company states that a “standard game session” (whatever that means), should consist of about 5 combat encounters, balanced to the players ability levels. There are a number of problems with this but today I want to focus on one in particular – the tendency of players to fight to the death, and to exterminate their opponents.

    This can be an issue for two reasons. For one, it’s kind of an ethical issue, if you are simulating the repeated execution of everyone you get into conflict with, it’s a little psycho after a while. Of course for standard Fantasy RPG games, the assumption is that opponents faced by player characters are usually monsters who are categorized as evil, so the grisly chain of slaughtered and dismembered orcs, bugbears, and gelatinous cubes left in the wake of the party is morally defensible.

    Without delving into the ethics of killing monsters, (something explored in amusing ways by the Witcher among other literary sources) in a more Low Magic or Historical type setting it’s a bit more of a problem because the opponents are more often people. Some people are villains to an extent that death is the only answer. Others might be in more of a gray area, and there can be strong disincentives to killing everybody you get into a scrap with.

    The other major problem with this conquer or perish mentality, is that it puts the players themselves at higher risk. This is an particularly important game balance issue with systems like Codex Martialis where combat is much more lethal. Some systems, including many currently active incarnations of DnD, have a built in expectation of player invulnerability. I was recently told by a bunch of people on a major RPG forum (where I originally wrote some of what you are going to read below) that a 1% chance of dying per encounter was too much.

    If you are playing with the Codex system, the chance of dying in a relatively even fight is likely to be considerably higher than 1%, and the chance of losing a fight is higher still. The distinction between losing a fight and dying is important, and the difference for the losing party is basically split between 1) running away and 2) surrendering. Similarly, if they win a fight, players have the option of killing, capturing, or driving away their opponents.

    Guidelines from history
    The hardcore attitude that many modern gamers have inherited from video games and tabletop RPGs alike, of Conquer or Perish, does have it’s historical antescedants. Samurai warriors were not fond of surrendering in combat and didn’t always take prisoners. But in the medieval European world which is the de-facto setting (however many times removed) for a lot of Fantasy genre’s, we do have some examples of a somewhat less ‘hard core’ approach to fighting.

    Historically (for example in the middle ages) it was very common for people to be captured rather than killed. There are many techniques for subduing or capturing in the old fencing manuals. Kidnapping was a kind of an industry in parts of Europe back then, particularly among the so-called “Robber Kights” or Raubritter. It was also very common on the battlefields for prisoners to be captured and then either held for ransom or just released. There were many reasons to spare captives, though it was probably rarer in the West than in Central Europe or Italy.

    In the autonomous towns it was also very common for people to fight with the flats of their swords and try to fight to subdue an opponent, or just fend them off long enough for the Town Watch to get there or for fellow citizens to intervene. According to the German town laws for example, you were allowed to have disputes, even fights if under sufficient provocation, which could lead to a fine, but if you continued to fight after someone called for “Peace!” then you would get in a lot more trouble, such as exile or even corporeal punishment.

    This was sometimes a subject of coarse humor in the fencing manuals. For example this is from the 15th Century treatise on messser (long-knife) fencing from Johannes Lecküchner. Here he has subdued a guy and is playing backgammon

    And here is another one where he got his opponent in an arm-lock and they are about to stuff him into a sack

    This is a technique from a 16th Century fencing manual from another Fencing Master named Joachim Meyer, where he is hitting his opponent with the flat of his sword on their ear. This would be done in sport fencing (with blunt swords) but also in a real fight, such as if someone was drunkenly antagonizing you and you wanted to get their attention so they would stop.

    The master describes it in the following manner:

    “… if your opponent cuts at you from above, then intercept him with a Thwart. As soon as it clashes, pull the sword around your head and strike from your left with the outside flat at his ear, as shown by the large figure on the right in Image K, so that the sword rebounds back away. Pull it back around your head in the impetus of the rebound; cut with the Thwart to his left ear; thus it is done.”

    In Medieval Europe while brawls, highway robbery and kidnapping for ransom were all commonplace, killing people in a robbery, during petty disputes or due to feuds was much more rare. The reason was twofold with both a carrot and stick incentive.

    On the carrot side, ransom was lucrative. You might be able to get a year or more income from ransoming a knight or a merchant. Even petty ransoms were a way to make money – during the 100 Years War between the English and the French, common soldiers started ransoming each other for small amounts of cash. Another issue was that today’s enemy could often be tomorrow’s ally. When Poland defeated the Teutonic Knights at the Battle of Grunwald in 1410, they captured 15,000 German soldiers and mercenaries. The Polish king ended up paroling (unconditionally releasing) 14,000 of them and holding the rest for ransom. He knew that he would need them as allies in upcoming battles with the Mongols and the Russians.

    On the stick side, killing or even maiming captives could lead to long term negative consequences. First you could become the subject of a vendetta from their family, as you can see so often in Italy. Second, authorities would escalate their sanctions against you if and when you were caught, and increase their efforts to catch you. Free Cities used to have special “Feud books” where they would enter the names of people who had committed serious crimes against their citizens. Medieval Nuremberg retained a company of men their rivals called Hetzrüden (staghounds) who they would send out to settle scores. They would also post bounties on people. In extreme cases, such as in 1523 when some Robber knights started cutting off the hands of captured merchants and sending them to their families to encourage swifter payment of ransoms, they would go to war. That ‘hand cutting’ was enough for Nuremberg to invoke her alliance with the Swabian league, and send out their militia to burn the castles of some 32 Raubritter, or robber knights, whose names were written in their Feud book.

    They helpfully brought a painter along named Hans Wandereisen who acted as a sort of ‘war correspondent’ who painted the scenes at each of these castle burnings. This is one of them, that is Nuremberg militia on the bottom left with the striped red and white flag. You can see all the others here if you are curious.

    Capture scenarios are often great adventure hooks. Even when the situation is dire, crazy things could and did happen. This guy is an infamous 14th Century Robber knight called Eppelein von Gallingen. He killed some captives and his name and coat of arms was put into the Nuremberg feud book, which you can see here, and they put out a wanted poster of him which you can see here. He was eventually captured by the city of Nuremberg. They were about to hang him up in the town citadel, when he convinced them to let him sit on his horse one last time. They allowed it, since his hands were tied and he was up in the castle, but he spurred the horse and jumped over the wall and into the moat, then managing to escape. The exploit was so famous that even in Nuremberg there were murals of the guy and songs about him were sung. They did get him about ten years later but he had a pretty good run..

    #1798
    Hans Hellinger
    Moderator

    Captivity and ransom can create all kinds of story hooks and opportunities for drama and adventure. Being captured doesn’t necessarily mean languishing in a gaol with nothing to do for multiple sessions, nor does it mean you’ll be fighting with sticks and bare hands when you do try to break out. As soon as you overcome the first guard you’ll have a real weapon to use.

    Captivity and ransom create many opportunities for entertaining mischief. Go help somebody pay a ransom. Go rescue somebody. Go rescue your own people. Coordinate a jail break. Capture the some of other / enemy group and arrange a hostage exchange. There is a ton of fun that can be mined out of this kind of thing, that can help take your game beyond the routine ‘hack through another mob of orcs’ type of gameplay. If you want to.

    It also gives your party something else to spend their money on. Saving some cash for the possibility of paying a ransom is a good idea.

    Another thing common in the real medieval world is the cash fine. Though we tend to assume all crimes were punishable by death, nobles and towns and Church leaders were just as wary as everyone else of making their neighbors mad, so they often erred on the side of caution, and the fine was by far the most common form of punishment. You could indeed be broken on the wheel if you committed some heinous crime, but if you got in a fight and the authorities weren’t sure who was really responsible, at least in Central or Northern Europe, it was common for them to just issue a fine. The fine could be pretty steep, or it could be moderate or token, that depended on a lot of factors (including the ability of the accused to argue their case, which gives more opportunities for using those social skills).

    #1802
    Philologus
    Participant

    One issue which people often bring up is that most players are allergic to loss of agency, and captivity is a loss of agency. People thinking about games inspired by pulp fiction and silly action films like James Bond have thoughts on how to work around this, but trust between players and GM is the most important. Its also good to make sure that in the rules, running away is a viable option.

    In many forms of D&D, fighting is the core activity, so people writing scenarios need to keep providing it and it can’t be too risky or repetitive. A way around that is to make the campaign about something else, like solving a mystery, driving out the hated ruler or terrible invaders, or freeing the Old Gods from their chains (and again, picking a rules set which make things other than fighting fun).

    The social / asocial violence model is also useful. Many games are about asocial violence, but they also want to be about fair fights (unless its adventurers vs. Tucker’s Kobolds). That is a hard circle to square, because muggers or highwaymen rarely pick the group of 4-6 ablebodied people bristling with weapons. And many players want to be wandering heroes not enmeshed in a network of family relationships, guild memberships, childhood rivalries, and all the other things which affected many of these fights in 15th and 16th century Europe. A wolf taking a deer (asocial violence) does not behave like a wolf showing a strange wolf that he is bigger and stronger (social violence). I don’t have such good answers to this.

    • This reply was modified 5 months ago by Philologus.
    #1804
    Philologus
    Participant

    Sometime I would like to see someone like Jessica Finley or Pamela Muir write up for academics that the 15th and 16th century martial arts which Sydney Anglo thought were so brutal often give choices like “now that you are safe, throw them to the ground like this or break their elbow like that” whereas the 18th and 19th century fencing which Sydney Anglo thought was so refined and friendly focuses on stabbing people through the head and torso. They are happy to give that rant to fencers but I don’t know who else they are reaching.

    Roleplaying games often neglect these less lethal options which is why Doug Cole came out with different versions of improved grappling rules. But if players are used to attack attack attack, getting them to use less lethal options is tough.

    • This reply was modified 5 months ago by Philologus.
    #1806
    Hans Hellinger
    Moderator

    But if players are used to attack attack attack, getting them to use less lethal options is tough.

    Yeah I’m learning that this is a really entrenched style of play, essentially an endless series of more or less rote encounters, balanced precisely to the players abilities, with an unwritten but firm contract that the players can’t die. I’ve never played that way. I’ve played in games where there is almost no combat, but instead it’s about solving a mystery and / or engaging in a lot of social drama, and games where there is violence but it’s kind of rare and intense (like a Clint Eastwood Western as distinct from a John Wayne Western), and games where it’s almost continuous (ala Mad Max or one of the Resident Evil films).

    What kind of creeps me out is that everyone seems to play now in one specific manner, ala dungeon crawl that is essentially like one of those haunted house rides in an amusement park that is guaranteed harmless and literally on rails.

    The bottom line for me is that DnD is supposed to be a ‘gateway drug’ of RPGs, so people who play it should always have the option of playing a wide variety of ways. As in, almost no combat or a lot, or very lethal or safe as a pillow fight if that’s what they really want.

    Low Magic / Low Fantasy, and Historical or Historical / adjacent games seem to be popular based on the chatter I’ve been reading on RPG forums and Social Media in these last few weeks, but it’s clearly a niche. Some of the people into that type of game seem to be more drawn to the “Old School Renaissance” variations which are out there.

    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Old_School_Revival

    Codex Martialis handles violence, including grappling, very well but it also makes it quite a bit more dangerous, especially if you are using the recommended Hit Point cap. So the “standard” 5 combats per session is probably a bit much. Using Codex rules, you probably want to plan a fight as best you can, and try to maximize your advantages as much as possible. When I ran games using Codex, serious fights were fairly rare, maybe one every session or even every other session. More inconclusive skirmishes might happen a bit more often than that.

    As for bandits robbing heavily armed travelers – actually yes they did that quite a bit, I have numerous (primary source) anecdotes from the 15th and 16th Century where exactly that happened. In one case, a group of 40 knights and supporters were accosted by robbers in Germany and the bandits only backed off when they revealed every one of them had a loaded crossbow ready to shoot. In another case, Henry Bollingbroke of England, the future King Henry IV of England, was robbed, kidnapped, and ‘shamefully mishandled’ by Robber knights in Mecklenburg while on his way to Crusade in the Baltic with an entourage of about 80 men including mounted knights and longbowmen in his party.

    In a High Fantasy game where you are slaughtering gelatinous cubes and ogres and orcs all day, perhaps a Conquer or Perish mindset makes sense, but if you are playing in a more Low Fantasy or Historical setting then I think the constant slaughter / never retreat / no quarter asked and none given, makes a lot less sense, and you don’t have to be entangled in guild relationships or feudal obligations for that to be the case. We don’t gratuitously kill people like that in real life or in even moderately plausible genre shows (unless they are zombies or something).

    That said I don’t think there is anything remotely bad about your character being in a guild or having feudal obligations, I think that sort of thing makes the game more interesting. It’s pretty much what this whole website is all about – bringing the history into the role playing (and as context into HEMA).

    I agree with you that murdering people with smallswords is decidedly not somehow more civilized than throwing them down in an armlock. Sydney Anglo just has that Victorian horror of the medieval which is still quite common.

    #1807
    Hans Hellinger
    Moderator

    As for loss of agency, given the number of charm, suggestion, and similar spells in the repertoire of DnD spellcasters and monsters alike, I don’t see that as a good excuse either, though I know there are many gamers who will make it.

    #1808
    Hans Hellinger
    Moderator

    How could ‘running away’ not be a viable option in the rules? That is the most ridiculous thing I ever heard. Anyway, I make the rules for the books we sell here. Running away is “A+OK”.

    #1811
    Philologus
    Participant

    How could ‘running away’ not be a viable option in the rules? That is the most ridiculous thing I ever heard. Anyway, I make the rules for the books we sell here. Running away is “A+OK”.

    Check out the rules for exiting combat in 1e AD&D.

    I think one of the problems of 3.5e and 4e were that they tried to turn tabletop gaming into a copy of a MMORPG, rather than taking advantage of the things that are possible face to face but hard or impossible to code. Its easier to code an endless stream of random fights to the death than political intrigue over who will become the next mayor or negotiations with the gnolls to beat up the bugbears together.

    Opponents with mind-control magic are rare in most games! The way many players object to lack of agency is something observed, not a theory. In our games the party got captured and enslaved pretty often to avoid a TPK (or just locked up for sundry felonies) but that requires trust.

    And there were a lot of player-character deaths (so many deaths!) I think I ran one campaign where players reached about 5th level in D&D.

    • This reply was modified 5 months ago by Philologus.
    • This reply was modified 5 months ago by Philologus.
    #1814
    Philologus
    Participant

    That said I don’t think there is anything remotely bad about your character being in a guild or having feudal obligations, I think that sort of thing makes the game more interesting. It’s pretty much what this whole website is all about – bringing the history into the role playing (and as context into HEMA).

    Again, I am just observing that many players want to be free from daily obligations and complications when they sit down at the table. Empire of the Petal Throne exists, so does Bubblegumshoe and Worminghall and Aces and Eights, so #notAllPlayers. I think many people would be interested in a campaign about journeymen on their Wanderjahr in the same city, or settlers in a new free town, especially if you add some SF / fantasy element behind the scenes. Give the players who want to misbehave opportunities to misbehave while giving the ones who like engaging with the world problems and opportunities with guild memberships and lovers and relatives and disputes over land rights.

    • This reply was modified 5 months ago by Philologus.
    #1816
    Hans Hellinger
    Moderator

    Check out the rules for exiting combat in 1e AD&D.

    I don’t have those rules handy nor time to look them up. But even if they banned it (which I doubt) I think 1e AD&D was incomplete and uneven enough that everyone house-ruled at least a little. My groups usually had at least a few wargamers, many ex- and current military, and plenty of people who have been in real fist fights and brawls in their actual life, not to mention fencers and martial artists; so we all had a concept of what disengagement meant and what the hazards and challenges inherent to it were. Sometimes retreating was as interesting as fighting (such as using bounding cover etc.). But everyone knew, and every person with any knowledge of history or experience of the real world knows, that sometimes you have to run away from a fight.

    In other words, the details may be fraught, but I don’t think the basic concept was ever controversial. The fact that it seems to have become so is bizarre.

    I think one of the problems of 3.5e and 4e were that they tried to turn tabletop gaming into a copy of a MMORPG, rather than taking advantage of the things that are possible face to face but hard or impossible to code. Its easier to code an endless stream of random fights to the death than political intrigue over who will become the next mayor or negotiations with the gnolls to beat up the bugbears together.

    Agreed, and I can’t really blame them, World of Warcraft, Everquest etc. were hugely popular for a while, and making far more money than any RPG. But they almost ruined it, I think what kept it all viable was the OGL / D20 contract which allowed a lot of third party variants to thrive. This led to Pathfinder and the “Old School Revival” I mentioned up above, which proved the viability of alternatives to the existing path Wizards was going down.

    The thing is today, 5E is very successful in it’s own right, and I think maybe while keeping some video game elements, they have figured out that it’s also worth emphasizing some things that table top RPG’s do well and video games do not.

    Also by the way, mentioning that any particular version of DnD is similar to a video game is forbidden talk on gaming forums right now. I’m about to get banned from one for even hinting about it.

    Opponents with mind-control magic are rare in most games! The way many players object to lack of agency is something observed, not a theory. I

    Well here I have to disagree – if you look at the 3.5 or 5E Monster Manual there are plenty of monsters, including some of the most popular (Vampires, for example) with all kinds of Charm and Suggestion magic. The only difference is that along with the rising ubiquity and routine nature of magic in these games, they have also nerfed the effects somewhat, so for example the durations are shorter (again I think video game influence here).

    In our games the party got captured and enslaved pretty often to avoid a TPK (or just locked up for sundry felonies) but that requires trust. And there were a lot of player-character deaths (so many deaths!) I think I ran one campaign where players reached about 5th level in D&D.

    Sounds like your games were a lot more like my games, and therefore there are at least two of us still out there who understand that RPG’s can be played a different way than this carnival ride version they are emphasizing.

    #1817
    Hans Hellinger
    Moderator

    Again, I am just observing that many players want to be free from daily obligations and complications when they sit down at the table. Empire of the Petal Throne exists, so does Bubblegumshoe and Worminghall and Aces and Eights, so #notAllPlayers.

    Well I think you can (with the right structure) do this in a way that is more about giving opportunities and options to the players and maybe the occasional plot hook, without burdening them with obligations. So a bit of a tweak on the historical but a bit closer to the reality.

    And yes, I’m well aware, more realistic or historical type play is a distinct minority, but I’m noticing some chatter about it.

    I think many people would be interested in a campaign about journeymen on their Wanderjahr in the same city, or settlers in a new free town, especially if you add some SF / fantasy element behind the scenes. Give the players who want to misbehave opportunities to misbehave while giving the ones who like engaging with the world problems and opportunities with guild memberships and lovers and relatives and disputes over land rights.

    Yeah that is precisely what I am trying to do. I am creating a world in Central Europe which is basically historical, except adding in the supernatural elements that people of the time believed in; saints have real powers, the Leshy or the Wilder Mann lurks somewhere out in the woods, dangerous spirits congregate around the fields during harvest time, the Magus can summon demons, and the cunning woman can cure ailments and wounds, or make a talisman for you to improve your odds in a sword fight.

    #1820
    Philologus
    Participant

    IIRC, the 1e AD&D rules gave the enemy a certain number of free attacks at a bonus on anyone trying to leave combat. The flavour text and scenarios of early D&D definitely encouraged players to pick their battles and run away if outmatched (and creating new characters was quick, so if Eadmund the Fighter was consumed by the sphere of annihilation, you could roll up Rodrick the Thief during pizza break). And the incompetence of starting characters before 3e also encouraged a “misadventures” style of adventure more than a “competence porn” style.

    Also by the way, mentioning that any particular version of DnD is similar to a video game is forbidden talk on gaming forums right now. I’m about to get banned from one for even hinting about it.

    Its not an issue on the two gaming forums I still check or post on.

    The good thing about tabletop gaming today is that its so diverse. Where 20 years ago you had 2e D&D, World of Darkness, CoC, and “everything else” and in practice you were playing with your friend circle, today there are all kinds of sub-communities and publishers and you can find them online or on social media. Some people want to pretend that their little sub-group and its customs are the only one, but that is people I guess

    #1821
    Hans Hellinger
    Moderator

    Indeed! I am one of them!

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