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Why Are We Always Fighting?

by Nick Bate

If you’re anything like me, fight sequences are a pretty ubiquitous feature of your roleplaying sessions. That’s hardly surprising; there’s a long history of combat in gaming and its pop culture influences. Besides, fight sequences can be hugely useful. They provide clear forward motion—the opposition is obvious (it’s the guys shooting at you!), and the stakes are high (they’re trying to kill you!). A dramatic, well-staged fight is fun.

However, those strengths can quickly turn into weaknesses. Fight scenes can easily distract from depth. Another helicopter crashes into a building, another gunfight breaks out on an overpass; there’s action, the heroes are in danger, but none of it particularly matters. Character options are constrained, too. If every session features combat, every character will devote resources to ensuring they’ve got something to contribute in a brawl.

So why not try a completely violence-free game? Explicitly removing violence gives you a chance to double down on your game’s core premise and on its characters. The fight sequence crutch is gone, which encourages you to focus on what your characters want and how to stage interesting conflicts.

Fate Core is the perfect system for this sort of thing, since it places all conflicts on roughly equal mechanical footing, regardless of type. Taking out the fighting allows you to really focus your attention—prep and play time, characters, even rules hacks—on other things.

In the coming pages, I’ll talk about explicitly removing violence from your game. Doing so requires buy-in from everyone in the group, and is likely to have profound consequences on setting design. We’ll discuss the sorts of things you need to consider when you sit down to plan a new campaign, and the ways in which you can use the Fate Core rules to reinforce a non-violent premise.

Building a Non-Violent Game

There are two big questions that you have to tackle once you’ve decided to play a non-violent game:

  1. What are our new core conflicts? (Or, what will we do instead of fighting?)
  2. Why is there no violence? (Or, what’s stopping me from hitting that guy?)

Your answers to these are likely to be interrelated, so be prepared to move back and forth between them. You can tackle them in any way that suits your group, but the questions work well as part of collaborative campaign design. Grab a few note cards and a few friends, and we’ll talk these questions through one by one.

Core Conflicts: Expectations And Stakes

Fighting is such a common way to introduce tension into a roleplaying session that removing it could rob your game of drama and momentum. To solve this issue, you should discuss as a group what sorts of conflicts you’d like your game to feature in place of all those action-packed gunfights.

Hand everybody at the table a note card, and have them write down a type of action scene or conflict they’d like the game to feature: heists, chases, races, sport, interpersonal drama, politics, puzzles, investigations, or something else. Encourage everyone to add an interesting spin to the basic conflict. For example:

Next, add an opposition to each card. You can work on the card you wrote, or redistribute the cards randomly. Who or what is stopping you from achieving your goals in each of the conflict scenes you’ve described?

Now you need to establish what happens if you fail. What do the characters have at risk? Whatever it is, it should affect them personally and immediately. Most people aren’t good at processing nebulous, far-off consequences, and that can rob conflicts of crucial tension.

Once you’ve been through this process, bring the note cards together and either decide which options you’re going to use, or (even better) consider how you can integrate them.

Depending on the size of your group, you might need to chat about which suggestions you’re going to keep and which you’re going to put aside, since you don’t want to clutter your game. You may decide to make one of the suggested conflict types your primary mode, with the others as secondary. Don’t throw unused cards away, though. You can use them to add variety down the line, or maybe incorporate them as background elements to add depth to your setting.

Using our example above, we might decide that the most common form of conflict in our game will be heists to steal magical artifacts. These can be used to improve the performance of our robot avatars (The Big Game might make for a good climax to a session or an arc). Councilman Evans won’t be the main focus of our game, but we do note that he’s the owner of RoboTeam. That little background detail makes the sporting season extra personal for the characters, and could become more significant as the game progresses.

The goal here is to discuss in some detail what you’re going to be doing instead of violence, and why you’re going to be doing it. That way, when the familiar fight scene is no longer an option to provide forward motion, the alternatives are clear.

A Ban On Fighting

There’s still one question you need to answer: why can’t the characters just fight? This is crucially important, because it will come up. When guards corner the characters in the middle of a heist, or the characters discover a rival mechanic trying to sabotage their car, they’ll be tempted to start swinging.

There are two ways to ban violence in your game: hard limits and soft limits.

Hard Limits

A hard limit makes the ban on violence explicit. It’s not a moral code or law enforcement, it’s something way more absolute. A law of nature, decreed when the God of War was cast out from the pantheon. A genetic modification made to all newborns, the First Law of Robotics, or maybe a psychic dampening field.

This is perhaps the easiest route to take, since it externalizes the restriction on violence. Characters don’t choose to avoid throwing punches, they physically (or mentally) can’t. The exact nature of the hard limit will have a profound effect on your game world. Who decides what constitutes violence? How do characters feel about the ban, its originators, and its enforcement? How (if ever) are the rules broken?

Soft Limits

If you’d rather not have non-violence play such a central role in your setting design, consider instead a soft limit. In this case there’s no explicit restriction on violence, but circumstances conspire to make it unlikely.

Kids might get into the occasional scuffle, but everybody knows bullies are bad. People in positions of authority—politicians, celebrities, teachers—are unlikely to risk their jobs or reputations by getting into a fistfight. Master thieves avoid violent confrontations that draw unwanted attention.

Enforcing soft limits requires more finesse than hard limits, since the GM shouldn’t just say no. Your first tool is buy-in from the players; you’ve agreed to play a game that is free from violence. Beyond that, you can use in-game repercussions. You don’t need to inflict these straight away—if a player suggests a violent action, it’s okay to remind them that it will have consequences for the character.

If you’re looking to add some mechanical teeth to reflect the repercussions of breaking soft limits, every time a character engages in some form of violence, throw a Fate die into a bowl. As soon as you’ve got four dice, roll them to create advantages against the characters that reflect their willingness to engage in unacceptable behavior.

You can control how immediate the consequences of violent acts are by varying the rate at which dice are thrown into the bowl, and when the bowl clears. Consider also the difference between using this roll to target the perpetrator of the violence, or the entire group; both are viable options, but make sure everyone understands the risks before the dice hit the table.

Physically placing a die in the bowl has the added benefit of calling out the inappropriate behavior. The presence of that growing pool of dice is a reminder that the players are repeatedly transgressing.

The Skill List

Once you’ve developed a premise, it’s a good idea to take a look at tweaking the skill list to support it. There are two overtly violent skills in the default Fate Core list: Fight and Shoot. One option is simply to remove them from the list. That’s a viable choice, and probably essential if you’ve opted for a premise with a hard limit on fighting.

Alternatively, you might tie these skills directly with some sort of formal training (ideally rare and unusual), or require characters that use them to be registered. That way an act of violence uniquely identifies the perpetrator, which makes it a risky proposition. This is a form of soft limit, and it makes a nice hook on which to hang plot developments.

If you choose to remove Fight and Shoot from the skill list, you’re left with only one method for making attacks: Provoke. Depending on your premise, that may be sufficient. The danger is that the character with the highest Provoke will dominate every conflict, or every conflict scene will feel very similar. If you choose to stick with just one attack skill, you should focus your attention on setting up the circumstances that allow the attack to be delivered; that way, characters with a variety of skills can contribute.

Look back over the default modes of conflict that you have discussed with your group. Can you introduce new skills that deal with these conflicts in a more granular way? This may involve splitting existing skills into narrower fields of influence, or adding the Attack action to new skills for use under specific circumstances.

Taking two of our example conflicts from earlier, we might modify the skill list in the following ways:

Magical heists

  • remove Burglary

  • add skills dealing with specific security types, e.g., Astral, Magitech, Mundane

  • add the attack action to Rapport, targeting guards

  • add the attack action to Deceive, again targeting guards

Robot avatar football

  • add the attack action to Physique, for grinding out territory during the game

  • add the attack action to Athletics, for using speed and agility to gain ground

  • rename the Craft skill as Mechanic, for on-field repairs

  • add a Signals skill, for jamming attempts between pilot and robot avatar

Fate System Toolkit discusses modifying skill lists (page 23) and adding complexity to non-standard conflicts (page 54). This is all related to the Bronze Rule (page 9): virtually anything can be represented as a character. Imagine the sorts of obstacles you expect the characters to face. What do their stress tracks look like? What modes of (non-violent) attack do you expect will come into play when dealing with them?

Stress and Consequences

Stress, consequences, and concessions are used to determine who is victorious in a conflict. Just as skills tell players what their characters can do, stress tracks point to the paths they can use to overcome opposition.

Physical stress is problematic in a non-violent game, since it implies that inflicting physical harm is a viable route to victory. There are a few ways you can deal with this issue.

External Pressures

If your game features some sort of conflict that is hard on the body (football!), or a soft limit on violence, then you may wish to leave the physical stress track as it is. In this case, you can use external pressures to discourage characters from inflicting stress through violence.

We’ve already discussed a few options, but another powerful possibility is to rename the physical stress track as “pain” or “trauma.” Names can modify behavior—there’s nothing noble about inflicting pain! Bear this in mind when you’re describing the results of violence, too. Consequences like Shattered Femur or Blood Everywhere feel very different than Broken Leg or Unconscious.

Removing Physical Stress

You can simply remove the physical stress track. In a game with a hard limit on violence, that should work just fine. If your limitation on violence is soft, however, then every punch or gunshot will go straight to consequences.

That can be positive, since it dramatically raises the stakes in a fight. The risk is that it actually makes violence a more appealing option, particularly as a quick method for dispatching nameless NPCs, with whom the players have very little investment. If this becomes an issue you’ll need to fall back on the external pressures we discussed earlier.

Replacing Physical Stress

Probably the best option is to replace physical stress with alternative stress tracks that reflect the core conflict(s) in your game. Consider options like wealth, reputation, followers, relationships, or something stranger like the environment, how close the authorities are to tracking you down, or your connection to mystical power. Doing so directs play away from violence, by making victory contingent upon targeting something that can’t be harmed with a bullet.

Climactic Final Scenes

Climactic finales can present a particular challenge in a non-violent game. Since the players probably aren’t facing injury or death, you need to ensure that they’ve got something personal at risk in the climax. Think about something important that they’ll lose if they don’t carry the day, like a job, a friendship, property, an opportunity, or even a skill or power.

Better yet, physically embody the stakes in the scene. If the players are striving for a football scholarship, make sure they’ve met the college scouts, and stick them in the stands. If the characters are fighting to save their homes, hold the climax in front of the bulldozers with their families watching on. An audience, particularly of people the characters care about, is extremely useful for heightening drama.

A dramatic backdrop works just as well for a non-violent climax as it does a fight sequence. Set your showdown on the floor of the Galactic Senate, or the disintegrating bridge of a starship. Time limits work great, too—if the players have to steal the magic MacGuffin before the building is demolished underneath them, that’s bound to add tension.

If your game features more than one core conflict type, then pile all of them up in the climactic scene (the Return of the Jedi gambit). Stealing the crucial magical tool you need to defeat the opposing team during the game, even as the bulldozers bear down on your family home, is considerably more dramatic than dealing with each of those problems in turn.

The climax could also be the perfect moment to challenge the restriction on violence. Present the players with the opportunity to remove a hard limit, or with incentive to break a soft one. Or have their opponents initiate the violence, and see how the players respond. Tread carefully, though, and make sure that this twist is appropriately foreshadowed—it’s easy for a sudden burst of unexpected violence to feel trite or desperate.

Conclusion

Next time you’re watching an action movie, think about which action sequences carry the most weight and emotional impact. You might be surprised. Sure, sometimes it’s the ones filled with beautiful violence, and sometimes it’s the brutal ones (hello, Eastern Promises). But just as often, I think you’ll find that the fighting is incidental.

The best conflict is about character. The airplane scene in The Incredibles, where Elastigirl realizes that her kids are involved, whether she likes it or not. Even the tank scene in The A-Team reboot, which is as much about the reality-defying power of Hannibal and his crew as it is about drone attacks. Nobody dies in Ghostbusters.

Hopefully this article has provided you with a few ideas for running non-violent games. Even if you’re not keen on removing violence altogether, thinking about alternative modes of conflict will only make your games richer. It encourages you to engage with the hopes and fears of characters on a deeper level than just their sense of self-preservation. Who knows, you might find your characters reaching for the gun second, if at all!