Posted by: Opinicus | April 20, 2010

Your Characters are Technically Murderers

Howdy, Opinicus again with food for thought.

Imagine you are in a game where everyone is low level, and you all are just starting out as adventurers.  You see a bunch of people that want to kill you, and you kill them.  What usually happens right after that? You loot them of anything you can get a gold for. Now, in real life, what would normally happen?  I suspect a lot of freaking out and perhaps a bit of panicking.  You just killed a man! What the hell are you doing looting him as if it was Christmas? Realistically, your characters just ended the lives of another person, and most people don’t take to it the way PCs do.  Even if it was in self defense, ending a life should not be as easy as picking flowers, unless your character is a homicidal maniac.  I mean, think hard. Have you ever heard of a character getting PTSD after a grueling fight?  No, the dead bodies fall at your feet and you go on, counting the pocket money they had on them. And your characters will do this regardless of what alignment they are (unless they are role playing a really pious Paladin who will not loot the dead on principle, though you can check out AHT’s post on paladins for role play ideas that go with this post).

Now some people will say that “Oh, it was in self defense!” Fine, fine, they attacked you and you ended them, but what about the times where you busted into an enemy hideout and won surprise round?  Not only did you sneak up on them, you then did a little breaking and entering, then you proceeded to murder each and every one of them, often times chasing down the ones that try to flee. HOW IS THIS NORMAL HUMAN BEHAVIOR?

Let us look at another scenario, one in which I think plenty of people (by people I mean gamers in a D&D game, not regular people on the street you see everyday) have been in, and would probably not even think twice about it.  You’re band of adventurers, all good aligned, are out traveling.  You come across a group of orcs, what immediately happens? You roll initiative.  After slaughtering them, you loot them and go on your merry way. Most of the time, no one thinks anything of this, they were orcs, CR1/2 monsters, little bundles of XP and loot.  But lets look at it from a different perspective.  First, Orcs and humans can interbreed and produce viable offspring, my favorite race the half orc.  By a scientific standpoint, that means that orcs and human are the same species (I’m rusty on my evolutionary biology, but I think it is called Sympatric Speciation).  Now, this means that you saw a group of people, made a quick, stereotyped judgement on them based on their ethnicity, and proceeded to kill them.  I reiterate, based on their ethnicity.  If that doesn’t sound like an old fashioned lynching, I don’t know what does.  One of these days, I’m going to throw a group of orcs at the party, let the party get surprise (so the party initiates violence), and after they slaughter the orcs have them find out that it wasn’t a warband, but actually a group of friends out on a fishing trip and they were returning to their families with their catch for the day. The clincher would be when they run into the the families, grieving for their dead husbands and fathers (of course I’d be very careful of what party I’d throw this scenario at, since I know some players who would gladly slaughter the defenseless families as well).

Now, only once have I seen a character actually be traumatized after killing a fellow human (but not limited to human since the fantasy world is populated with all manner of sentient beings).  I was really stricken by it too.  It was from R.A. Salvatore’s Drizzt series, Streams of Silver I think. (spoiler ahead, kinda, I’ll keep it vague) The character Cattie-Brie, while defending herself kills another human in self defense, and is genuinely torn up about it.  I always thought that was refreshing, you rarely see any character show remorse for killing an enemy.

Now, I do understand that the higher level you get, the more and more bodies you’ve paved your journey with, and I guess if you do something enough, it gets easier and easier (I wouldn’t know, I’m not a mass murderer, never would’ve guessed huh?) So I wouldn’t expect a 10th lv fighter to ponder if killing that last minion was kosher or not. He’s 10th level He’s made a career of murder and he’s damn good at it too.  What I would like to see is 1st or second level characters actually hesitate in preforming a coup-de-grace on the bandits that the mage put to sleep.

Now of course, I’m just as guilty as the players I’ve described. I’ve had characters slaughter enemies and not even bat an eye (unless it’s to get the blood out due to all the arterial spraying). It’s just that it’s so easy to not see the NPCs as people, but as a bunch of stats, XP, and loot all held together with a scaffold of HP, but then again, often times, that’s just what they are.  As a GM, it’s hard to try to come up with motivations, histories, or personalities for a guy that you expect the party to drop in about two rounds. With that, it would almost be cheating the players if I make them feel guilty about the death of every sentient enemy they fight. D&D is about having fun, not soul searching. And I hate to say it, but dropping a fireball into a group of 30 1st lv warriors is a lot more fun than pondering if that last orc you killed had a kid waiting for him at home.

Opinicus out.

p.s. That orc had like 6 kids and a sick mother, and that trinket you looted off him and sold for 2 silver, birthday present for his kid with the crutches. “When’s Daddy going to come home? It has be been so lonely after Mommy was eaten by the owlbear.”  “There, There child, your father is raiding two jobs to support you guys, and sometimes he has to stay out late, but that’s because he loves you all very, very much.”



  1. Like I always said, if you’re going down for murder 1, you may as well lie in wait.

  2. I like your point about Orcs being an ethnicity of human, having taken a little (very little) evolutionary bio (okay, I evaluated a friend’s course!) I had thought about that.

    The only thing I will say that from accounts of RL veteran soldiers, it helps if you DON’T think about them as people just as “enemies”. But that is in an idealistic setting where all enemies wear clear uniforms. This all being said, even history’s most notable hangmen who took lives day in and out complained about seeing their victims in nightmares, every single night. “And a terrible beauty is war” -WB Yeats

    • One thing that makes a D&D campaign very different from war is that there’s rarely just one consistent enemy. It’s one thing if everyone you will ever possibly face works for the Army of the Rotten Crocodile and plans to kill you on site unless you kill them first, but probably isn’t the case.

      You’ll have random encounters, muggings, challenges, flirtations, misunderstandings, and a whole spectrum of other interactions that require fast thinking and reactions. It’s very likely that PCs will make the wrong decision a decent amount of the time, especially if you consider that they’re under stress and assume that the perceived enemy will be using deadly force (even if they won’t).

      In such cases, I think it’s smart for the DM to make it clear either through direct consequences or some other means that the PCs have done something reprehensible. Not only does it add more depth to a game, it also forces the player to think and keeps them from just completely trampling all over the DM’s world.

  3. I have fond memories of when I put in a random encounter with a family of gnolls, and one PC (Joe) was determined to make the gnolls his followers, while the other 3 PCs wanted to either kill them or leave them alone – and the entire encounter nearly broke the party apart.

    Especially once they all agreed that regardless of whether they were enslaving the gnolls, training them, murdering them, or leaving the children parentless and going on their way, they were still going to take all their items – and the one magic item was boots that were permanently shiny. Well, damned if the party didn’t nearly go to war over those boots. It was one of the weirdest moments as a DM that I’ve faced, because such a trivial encounter ended up consuming so much of the PCs’ energy.

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