The Problem With Murder Isn’t The XP Awards

Over at Unofficial Games: Murder gets boring, Zzarchov writes:

This one deals with the problem of wholesale slaughter of your enemies. In this particular post I’ll deal with murdering opposing villains, the big villain or at least the stalwart dark lieutenant. Many GM’s are frustrated that they cannot have a recurring villain because PC’s will not stop until they murder them. Its like a party of Terminators.

This is a mechanically based flaw. You either get the same XP for killing, or its the only way you get killing added to the fact that dead villains can’t trouble you later.

I disagree. In my experience, this is a story-based flaw, not a mechanical one. Players will make sure that villains, particularly major villains, are truly most completely dead even in games where there’s full XP for defeating a villain without killing him, and even in games where there is no character advancement at all.  What players are really interested in is that dead villains can’t trouble you later; tweaking the XP awards so that they have a reason to “farm” the villain for XP isn’t likely to work, particularly on any players that take the distinction between in-character and out-of-character motivation at all seriously.

GMs compound this situation by “teaching” the players that if they show any mercy towards villains the villain will return again later and only be stopped once something dear to the PCs has been destroyed (The Joker Syndrome) .   If you want a recurring villain, you have to think harder about what’s in it for the players and the PCs.  Some possible answers:

  • Recurring villains and the PCs showing mercy to villains (and vice-versa) is part of the genre, and the players and GM agree that they’re playing according to genre.  E.g., a standard “four-color” superhero game.   For this to work, it’s likely the GM and the players should agree in advance that they aren’t going to try and push the envelope: once the Joker starts murdering scores of people every time he escapes from Arkham, it takes a special kind of player to still be satisfied with merely capturing and turning him over to the authorities that run the revolving-door asylum.  The Joker may steal or threaten mass destruction, but Batman has to be able to avert it in the nick of time.
  • The villains are “frenemies“: they don’t (yet) threaten the PCs with the loss of something that they find unacceptable, while sometimes providing the PCs with help or something they value.  Perhaps they’re rivals, but not yet outright enemies.
  • Villains often reform if shown mercy.  This is a staple of certain genres, and can answer the need for recurring characters, though not necessarily recurring antagonists.  Again, the GM has to stick to the genre and make almost all the conversions sincere or risk teaching the players that they’ll regret sticking to the genre conventions themselves.
  • The setting has antagonists, but few real villains.  Mature players are generally reluctant to murder well-meaning NPCs, even if they’re dangerously misguided and frequently in the way;  immature players probably don’t appreciate any effort put into not rewarding them for slaughtering anyone who gets in the way.
  • Along similar lines, mature players are usually reluctant to escalate.  If the villain’s plans always involve theft but not murder, the PCs won’t (usually) respond with lethal force.  If the villain keeps trying to kill the players, why exactly should they be reluctant to respond in kind?  Just because it would be convenient for the GM?
  • The setting is fraught with consequences for murdering villains.  If the PCs are members of a Homicide Unit in a modern police force, killing criminals out-of-hand is likely to result in Internal Affairs investigations, suspension, or even jail.  It’s not a genre convention, it’s the law.  The problem with this is that if the players perceive the GM is exploiting this to frustrate them and undermine their success, they can lose their desire to play that setting.  The course of action dictated by the setting needs to feel like a victory to the players.  E.g. despite complaints about revolving-door justice and certain kinds of criminals being hard to keep incarcerated due to their clever lawyers, the modern justice system is quite successful at keeping serial-killers off the streets if they can be captured in the first place.  If the GM starts using the “Joker always gets out” convention on the killers the PCs arrest while still holding them to realistic standards on the consequences of vigilante justice, that’s just asking for trouble.
  • The recurring villain is out of reach of the PCs, literally or figuratively.  You can prevent the PCs from killing the villain if you can prevent them from engaging the villain in combat.  Perhaps the villain is a mastermind who operates from the shadows, never directly.  Or maybe the villain is just  a supernatural creature that can only be harmed by the Dread McGuffin of Uberness (to avoid TPK after TPK you probably need to make the villain have limited ability to affect the PCs in turn, or have its body/host be defeatable but final victory be elusive). This risks turning the entire campaign into a quest to get the villain, but that may be what you’re looking for.

In any event, as the GM what you should be thinking about is why do you want a recurring villain in the first place?  What do the players and PCs get out of it?  If the answer is just a bonus to XP if they play it right, you probably need to do some more thinking.  Recurring villains work best when the stakes aren’t life-or-death, and when you can keep the players from feeling “I…have had…enough…of you!” Recurring characters are a lot easer than recurring villains in most genres, and I think you can generally get a lot more mileage out of former enemies, now rivals or allies (but are they really trustworthy? dun-dun-DUN) than having the villains all “Keep the money. Use it to buy a funeral. It doesn’t matter where you go… or how far you fly, I will hunt you down… and the last thing you see will be my blade.” unless you want the PCs to go emulating Mal Reynolds.

15 thoughts on “The Problem With Murder Isn’t The XP Awards

  1. gleichman says:

    I like this response, saves me the effort of doing my own.

    A side note…

    Why are so many rpg gamers so quick to jump to using the term murder? I mean seriously, how can you by defintion murder the ‘villian’ assuming he really is worthy of the label ‘villian’?

    A Villian isn’t someone you’re having a debate with. In most usages it’s a clear and present danger to life and limb…

  2. Joshua says:

    I’m not sure. Maybe using the loaded term “murder” is to convince people to consider the morality of the fictional actions? I’m not a big proponent of using games to “explore” morality, so I’m probably not the best person to explain it.

  3. Zzarchov says:

    I’d like to point out a flaw in your reasoning:

    “even in games where there’s full XP for defeating a villain without killing him, and even in games where there is no character advancement at all”

    Is a far cry from what I use:

    Reduced XP for killing him and still has character advancement.

    Again, its not to force you to let the villain live, its to make it a choice.

    Advancement or Ending the Problem?

    Even “The Joker Syndrome” isn’t all bad, (as mentioned)

    As for murder as a term. Its a fitting term when the villain is incapacitated or surrenders and you finish him off. Its the difference between shooting an enemy soldier and shooting a POW.

    Them’s my 2c.
    .-= Zzarchov´s last blog ..A follow-up to Social Conflict Mechanics =-.

  4. Russell says:

    I agree that rewards is a poor way to handle story issues. I think there are two separate concerns raised by the OP, One is a desire to have a recurring villain for dramatic purposes. The other is a moral or aesthetic aversion to the endless bloodshed that occurs in some games.

    If you really want a recurring villain, it is best to handle this by in-story means. Make the villain unkillable initially, either too powerful for the players to handle head-on, inaccessible to them (or with really foolproof escape plans), or with some consequence that would make killing them prematurely a (known) bad move for the players (hostages, blackmail, possessing vital information, or being a foil to an even worse threat.) If after all the planning you do to make the villains unkillable, the players manage to kill them, congratulations! You’ve made them work for a great victory! Or if the players kill them despite forseen consequences, great! Now play out the consequences…

    The other issue is to make games less bloody. I think some RPG violence is anti-climactic and unpleasant, and so try to minimize it. I think the best way to do this is by making non-violent solutions a possibility and making them work. Have some fights not be to the death. (For example, in one session, the PCs were helping a rebel of a hostile group defeat the group’s leader and take charge. The fight was to the death of either the old leader or the rebel; whichever was defeated first, their followers would defect to the other side.) When a fight seems lost for the villains, have them surrender rather than do grudge attacks. (It also If a villain surrenders, have them sincerely reform and provide the party useful information or other assistance. I’ve also gotten a lot of mileage from the players feeling responsible for surrendered enemies. I usually have enemies be a little too scrupulous about reforming and fulfilling vows they make under duress for any kind of realism (why are the “evil” people always more honorable than the PC’s?) but I think it’s worth it to avoid massacre scenes. I think giving extra xp for surrender scenes or turning henchmen against the boss might encourage this kind of actions, at least by announcing that they might work in your game.

    However, while these approaches are quite successful at minimizing deaths of random encounters and underlings, they don’t really work that well for the true villains (and I’m not really counting on them to do so.) A turned henchman is useful to get at the boss, but why have mercy on the boss? Does the boss deserve mercy? (Usually not)
    If the boss does deserve mercy, and gets it, then you shouldn’t mess it up by having them turn evil again after they are out of the PC’s reach. So that still doesn’t give you a returning villain. So a solution to the “bloodthirsty PC” issue isn’t really a solution to the “recurring mastermind” issue.

    By the way, I see nothing wrong with a game with bloodthirsty PC’s (although its not really to my taste) or without recurring villains. They’re only a problem if the players or GM don’t like it.

  5. Joshua says:

    @Zzarchov – I don’t see the far cry between full XP for defeating the villain without killing him and reduced XP for killing the villain, so I’m not sure where the flaw is supposed to be.

  6. Geoff says:

    I love the points you make about dealing with murder/elimination of villains.

    I would suggest that a with foresight and planning, there should always be a bargaining chip to make the prospect of elimination less appealing. For example, the party may be hired to turn in the villain and eliminating them would nullify the contract and jeopardize future contracts. Or it may be a character alignment issue won’t allow that option. Or if the characters are mercenaries or chaotic, the villain may offer something worthwhile in exchange for their life… perhaps a clue for a new adventure… or something to extend the campaign or the release of an important character… something the party would find valuable and justify the continued existence of their enemy.

  7. Zzarchov says:

    There is never the less quite a far cry. The goal isn’t to have every villain be a recurring villain, not to force the players not to kill. Hell, even with a capture, death is still often the fate of the villain (usually after a trial).

    Its to make it a choice not a problem. There is more to gain from keeping the villain alive (at least until you have trial) than to ALWAYS killing.

    This allows for those type of games where you have an old villain escape etc, without it being fiat. Fiat is often very frustrating for players if they have no say over it. This allows for more organic gameplay.

    And in gameplay, this does work, especially when the numbers get big. Players ask themselves what the best course of action is, and there is more than more than one good option.

    They can get 10,000 XP and end the problem of this villain risking them again, or they can get 25,000 XP and risk him getting away.

    Thats far different than 25,000XP and end the problem VS 25,000XP and risk him getting away.

    The first option is a choice, the second is a very simple problem.

    Side note:

    Im glad to see you read my blog. Im personally a fan of alot of your work.
    .-= Zzarchov´s last blog ..A follow-up to Social Conflict Mechanics =-.

  8. gleichman says:

    I’m amazing that there are designers who actually think that groups are bound in their actions or play style by the way they write XP rules.

    Or that bribing them to do something produces good play instead of pandering.

  9. Zzarchov says:

    If you don’t think that rules influence gameplay, you should really think twice about gameplay. While it is true the GM’s Fiat can act as “unwritten rules” to guide gameplay, its still a rule even if you don’t write it down. That is the nature of human behaviour. Its why its a roleplaying GAME and not therapeutic roleplaying or training roleplaying.
    .-= Zzarchov´s last blog ..A follow-up to Social Conflict Mechanics =-.

  10. gleichman says:

    Don’t play foolish word games Zzarchov, claiming ‘unwritten rules’ as nothing different than game mechanics is the act of someone more committed to a fantasy than a game design viewpoint.

  11. Siskoid says:

    Another way to keep a recurring villain safe is to make him the guy the players love to hate. If every social interaction they have with the villain is funny and/or cool, if his very presence makes the story more epic, they’ll be more likely to want him to stay in the game world as a “story engine”. They just love to foil his plans!

    I’ve usually had success by combining this with “mastermind” and “consequences to killing him” (politically powerful, so retaliation would have been too great) and one other way:

    Cheating death: The villain SEEMS to die, but you can’t find the body. After the killing blow, for example, he might fall in a pit, or the roof could cave in, whatever. Always have an out. It’s fun to reintroduce the villain from the shadows and the realization that he survived is usually great (but you can’t do this TOO often, or else you have to do it as a running gag).

  12. vanphil says:

    Joshua, I completely agree with you in this case 🙂

    But I also think that players play a major part in these situation. I played with people who reacted with backstabbing whenever caught stealing, and with other people that tried to spare and redeem demons & devils.
    I can say it is really difficult to set a story with a recurring villain when people on the table ask to roll for initiative whenever the DM sets up an encounter…

  13. Joshua says:

    @Zzarchov – “should we kill him for 10,000 xp or risk him getting away for 25,000?” isn’t a very interesting question compared to either “Do we want the kind of campaign where villains recur” or “Is my PC the kind of person who would kill a helpless enemy?” And the answer to the interesting questions will tend to render the first question moot.

    Do you really want to encourage the kind of play where the players say “Well, I don’t really care for campaigns where the villains come back, and my character would definitely be all for killing the villain while he has the opportunity…but, damn, 150% more experience is hard to pass up!” That’s where the feeling that this is just a bribe to get them to play the way you want instead of the way they want comes from.

  14. rachel says:

    Super duper late to this conversation, but I thought I’d comment because I had a situation like this last night, where my players – who I had pegged as consummate hack-n-slashers – STOPPED a confrontation with a gang of halflings who’d come to break their kneecaps, and defused it with diplomacy. And I gave them full XP, but I was kind of baffled, because I hadn’t anticipated the possibility at all. It threw me off my rhythm for the rest of the evening.

    But, hey, it makes the game more interesting, in fact. There are more directions this could go: maybe the gang will trust them now, or they could work together on something. Maybe they’d be good allies in a time of need. It’s much more interesting than just “the gang hates you and will periodically jump out at you in dark alleys.”

    But it still took me by surprise, because I’d taken my own players for thugs.

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