Conflict: The Necessary Evil

One complaint that most anti-RPGers bring up is that the games we’re playing are so violent. The rules -- of any game system -- cover combat extensively. Some game systems (like Rolemaster) have books that solely cover combat. Shadowrun’s main rule book devotes 40 pages to the rules of conducting combat. That is, what happens when a fictional character punches, shoots, or stabs another fictional character. SR2 has several sourcebooks that detail guns and other weapons, items designed to wound, maim, and kill.

Clearly, the anti-RPGers do have a point. There is a large chunk of a RPG’s system designed for combat.

But let’s step back a bit. What happens during a role-playing game session? The Game Master (GM) and the other players work together to tell a story. And to tell a story you need three things. You need characters. You need conflict. And you need a conclusion.

The different players create their characters -- in fact, that’s what about eight pages in the SR2 Main Book specifically cover and you can add on the entire Game Concepts, Skills, Magic, and Gear sections to that, pushing that number to 50 plus pages. So we’ve got our characters. As illustrated in the What is Role-Playing? article, the GM and the players work together (and at times against each other) to get to a conclusion of an adventure. So here we’ve got a conclusion.

There are five different plots in storytelling, although some say there are twenty or thirty. Man against man. Man against himself. Man against nature. Man against God. Man against machine. And Conflicts are our way of resolving these basic plots.

Man versus nature is resolvable in RPGs by using skill tests or attribute tests. A character is climbing down a sheer cliff, roll the character’s Stamina or Rappelling skill against a specific target number to determine how well she did. Man against himself and Man against God fall into the realm of role-playing.

Man against man, that’s where all these combat rules come into play. There are sometimes rules that help to regulate the non-player characters (NPCs) reactions to the actions the player’s characters (PCs) make. But like real life, sometimes fights occur. And as most of the RPGs are action-oriented, fights seem to happen with frightening regularity.

Let’s say you’re playing Han Solo and you’re having a fight with a group of Stormtroopers. There are three ways Han can fight the stormtroopers (well, four if he’s in the Millennium Falcon and turns on that gun he used at Hoth). Han can use his blaster and shoot at them. Han can pick something up and hit the stormtroopers with it. Or Han could punch the stormtroopers. Each instance, the game system should have a way of resolving the combat. And because there are so many variables that a character could undertake during a long, drag-out fight, the combat section has to encompass as many variables as it can. Consequently, the combat section is usually the largest section in the core rule books.

But what about role-playing the Man against himself and the Man against God? Or those instances when Man against man doesn’t degrade into violence? Well, that really has to do with role-playing -- and if you look at the game system as a whole, you’ll see that the entire game system tries to stress this. That’s why the Character Generation system of Shadowrun has you ask twenty questions about your character before you create him or her. Some gamers have even gone as far as to write additional questions before creating the character. Other GMs have the players write an in-game background for the player’s characters. The rules for character-to-character interaction are usually not as detailed as the combat sections since it’s all improvisational acting.

So is Shadowrun a violent game? No less so than the cyberpunk books it’s based on. No less so than the action/adventure movies it has its roots in. No less so than the darker side of real life that the characters are supposed to live in.