30 March 2020

Tabletop roleplaying games and violence

Unknown Armies

Unknown Armies is the single tabletop roleplaying game dearest to my heart, not least because the writing is self-aware about how the nasty thrills of the noir horror stories it facilitates are actually … nasty. Well before the “murderhobo” critique of classic TTRPG adventure characters came along, the first edition introduced combat with this caveat:

Somewhere out there is someone who had loving parents, watched clouds on a summer’s day, fell in love, is kind to small animals, and knows how to say “please” and “thank you,” and yet somehow the two of you are going to end up in a dirty little room with one knife between you and you are going to have to kill that human being.

It’s a terrible thing. Not just because he’s come to the same realization and wants to survive just as much as you do, meaning he’s going to try and puncture your internal organs to set off a cascading trauma effect that ends with you voiding your bowels, dying alone and removed from everything you’ve ever loved. No, it’s a terrible thing because somewhere along the way you could have made a different choice. You could have avoided that knife, that room, and maybe even found some kind of common ground between the two of you. Or at least, you might have divvied up some turf and left each other alone. That would have been a lot smarter, wouldn’t it? Even dogs are smart enough to do that. Now you’re staring into the eyes of a fellow human and in a couple minutes one of you is going to be vomiting blood to the rhythm of a fading heartbeat. The survivor is going to remember this night for the rest of his or her life.

Six ways to stop a fight

So before you make a grab for that knife, you should maybe think about a few things. This moment is frozen in time. You can still make a better choice.

Surrender. Is your pride really worth a human life? Drop your weapon, put up your hands, and tell them you’re ready to cut a deal. You walk, and in exchange you give them something they need. Sidestep the current agenda. Offer them something unrelated to your dispute, and negotiate to find a solution.

Diasarm. Knife on the table? Throw it out the window. Opponent with a gun? Dodge until he’s out of bullets. Deëscalate the confrontation to fists, if possible. You can settle your differences with some brawling and still walk away, plus neither of you has to face a murder charge or a criminal investigation.

Rechannel. So you have a conflict. Settle it a smarter way. Arm wrestle, play cards, have a scavenger hunt, a drinking contest, anything that lets you establish a winner and a loser. Smart gamblers bet nothing they aren’t willing to lose. Why put your life on the line?

Pass the Buck. Is there somebody more powerful than either one of you who is going to be angry that you two are coming to blows? Pretend you’re all in the mafia and you can’t just kill each other without kicking your dispute upstairs first. Let that symbolic superior make a decision. You both gain clout for not spilling blood.

Call the Cops. If you’ve got a grievance against somebody, let the police do the dirty work. File charges. Get a restraining order. Sue him in civil court for wrongful harm. You can beat him down without throwing a punch.

Run Away. The hell with it. Who needs this kind of heat? Blow town, get a job someplace else, build a new power base. Is the world really two small for the both of you? It’s a big planet out there.

Oh Well

Still determined? Backed into a corner with no way out? Have to fight for the greater good? Up against someone too stupid to know this is a bad idea? Or maybe just itching for some action? So be it. The rest of this chapter contains rules for simulating the murder of human beings. Have fun.

The rules which follow are rich in scary randomness, by design. Skills are handled with percentile dice; a successful hand-to-hand attack costs the sum of the two dice in hit points (so a roll of 42 does 4+2=6 damage) while gunfire does the value of the roll (so a roll of 42 does 42 damage).

It is also worth noting that UA’s system for handling psychological shocks means that a character can be permanently harmed by performing or even witnessing violence.

Boot Hill And The Fear Of Dice

Though it was recognized as a roleplaying game by the time its second edition was released in 1979, Boot Hill was very much conceived as an old-school, Gygax-designed TSR wargame. There are no skills, attributes, guides, or systems in the early editions unrelated to stacking up bodies. Mechanically, all it simulates is violence.

Boot Hill is the best political intrigue system I’ve ever used.


That the game has simple randomly-generated combat stats helped me design a thorough, reactive campaign setting. If the game had classes, levels, races, or tactical options, I would be obliged to either create combatants by hand or study each in detail, limiting my precise grasp on each faction and their strengths. If the game were even simpler, like Apocalypse World, the players would know too well what to expect from their opponents. Instead I found myself perfectly between the two extremes.

The vicious, tense, and bloody combat made players very afraid of the consequences of mis-stepping. There was a fear, a tension, a thrill every time they even picked up the dice; if they were attacking they knew they were taking a great risk, and if they were being attacked, they knew they may have made their last mistake. Between these isolated combats there were no rules or clattering of dice to distract them from playing their characters and angles; the immersion was total.

There was another benefit to not having any social mechanics at all in the game, counter-intuitive thought it might seem for a game about managing adversarial relationships without combat. While combat in Boot Hill is decided immediately and obviously, and is thus very well suited to open dice rolls, the game’s social conflicts created tension by being uncertain.

Knights Of The Dinner Table

Cyberpunk 2020

Friday Night Firefight™ is a weapons combat system for using modern, futuristic and archaic firearms in roleplaying adventures.


Friday Night Firefight™ is not good, clean fun. Most of the data herein has been complied from ballistics reports, police data, FBI statistics and other not-clean fun sources. These sources tend to point to a couple of basic truths about firefight combat.

Most (80%, in fact) gunfights occur within 21 feet of the respective targets. Some 40% of these happen within 8 feet or less! Most (60%) occur in dimly lit and difficult conditions — dark, tiny alleys, with both participants panting and out of breath, pausing momentarily to snap off a badly aimed shot at a fleeing shadow, then ducking back for cover. Hits are actually quite rare. When they do occur (assuming a large caliber weapon's involved), the victim is usually hors de combat on the first shot from a combination of wound shock and fear. A solid hit with a .44 magnum will usually splatter a real person all over New Jersey.

Why do we bring this up? We've tried to distill lots of real combat firearms data into a simple, user-friendly form; a form that means you don't have to deal with reams of table and charts to accurately commit mayhem on your fellow players. The result is that while Friday Night Firefight™ is deceptively easy to use, it is also deceptively dangerous. In this game, a large caliber handgun is something to be truly respected. If you’re the sort who likes to charge into a gunfight with both barrels blazing, be prepared to lose your first character. And the next. And the next, until you get the point. This stuff is dangerous. Good luck.

The Genius Of Friday Night Firefight

Time and time again, I’ve watched police bodycam footage, watched competition footage, read AARs, watched combat footage... and every time, bar none, I’ve been able to create a turn sequence and series of modifiers in Cyberpunk 2020’s combat system that would result in the exact events that played out in reality.


I’ll say it over and over again: Don't deviate too much from the core mechanics of Cyberpunk’s combat system. When it comes to realism, Pondsmith et al. pretty much got it right the first time with FNFF.

The reason FNFF combat is so realistic is because I very deliberately set out to simulate real ranged weapon combat as closely as I could. Damage, for example, was based on muzzle velocity, bullet weight and referenced against real ballistics damage reports from the Army and FBI (as well as two buddies who were actual Ranger medics in Iraq). Range difficulties came from police and FBI records from real gunfights and range data. I also own and shoot a variety of handguns and rifles so I have a pretty good “feel” for how they feel and operate. Because there’s no replacing experience.

And although people complain about the armor, that was also constructed based on real armors of the type--in most cases, handguns aren’t going to penetrate Kevlar body armors while rifles will plow through it with ease unless you add plates. And the stuff is heavy (I know, I own body armor), which is why stacking and encumbrance are a real thing in FNFF.

Most people don’t believe or accept the tons of work that we put into making FNFF realistic. LEOs and military guys do though, and they tell us all the time. So I appreciate the work you put into this demo and would like to thanks you for taking the time.


John Tynes — the designers of Unknown Armies responsible for the warning about violence at the top of this post, created a little 1996 TTRPG-meta-game-about-TTRPGs.

No roleplaying game currently in print encourages players to act out roles that are fully in accordance with the laws and customs of society, either those of the real world or of the fictional world that the RPG is set in. Murder, theft, extortion, burglary, and other serious crimes are the bread and butter of RPG storytelling; regardless of a game’s higher purpose, it still amounts to story after story that consist of nothing significant other than gross criminal behavior covered in a glossy coat of genre acceptability.

Whether your character is a vampire, medieval hero, occult investigator, cybergear netsurfer, or starship pilot, few game sessions will pass without the players taking actions that would be considered a crime in our world---and probably a crime in the world of the game. Roleplaying game storytelling has used the crutch of crime fantasies since the beginning, and there is no end in sight. Layers of drama and symbolism aside, is there not something wrong with a storytelling hobby that glorifies criminal behavior as the primary protagonistic component? What is the true source of our enjoyment of this hobby? Is it the portrayal of an alternate personality? Is it the exploration of a given set of genre conventions? Or is it the illicit thrill of engaging in criminal behavior, sanctified with a safe trapping? What is the source of our [fun and enjoyment] anyway, and why?

POWER KILL is meant to suggest a few answers. Or at least, to ask a few questions.

Race Informs Violence in TTRPGs

Orion D. Black challenges all of these commentaries.

You lowkey wanna know why there are more Black people in D&D than there are in indie titles? I firmly believe that it’s not just exposure. I believe that, regardless of the obvious racial issues present, players have the ability to act without consequence. And that is a place of power that white progressives only view negatively, because white culture dictates that if someone has the ability to take over the world, then they will. Black people see an opportunity for justice and freedom.

Removing opportunities for exceptionalism makes a lot of sense if you’re only thinking about how white culture says “I must be the most exceptional.” Black culture says, “I want to be exceptional,” as do most marginalized cultures. That exceptionalism grows through community and our care for one another, because we know that when one person makes it, everyone who has participated in stabilizing our collaborative health gets to make it too.

Just because white guilt surrounds it, and because your culture strips its validity away from everyone else, doesn’t mean that the right choice is ignoring it. Because doing nothing means you’re leaning on the existing pretenses… whispers (which are raaaaaacist).

The Olivia Hill Rule

Not simply about violence, but not not-about violence:

In #iHunt, I featured a rule. it goes a little something like this:

No fascists

If you’re a fascist, you’re not welcome to play this game. It’s against the rules. If you you’re reading this and thinking, “You just call everyone you disagree w ith a fascist,” then you’re probably a fascist, or incaable of drawing inferences from context and acknowledging a dangerous political climate that causes the oppresed to be hyperbolid. Don’t play this game. Heal yourelf. Grow. Learn. Watch some Mr. Roger’s Neighborhood or something.
As you can see in the Reddit thread and pretty much any comments section when it comes up, the real value of the Olivia Hill Rule is that it forces cryptofash to out themselves. It’s bait they absolutely cannot resist.

19 March 2020

Public option

This should be handy to have in my pocket: a blog post on the evidence that the Obama administration scuttled any hope of a public option in the Affordable Care Act behind closed doors.

This exemplifies how lefties like me read Obama. He dogwhistled progressive values, but did not actually fight for progressive policy because he does not believe in it — which his boosters attribute to the hard limits imposed by Republican opposition, but which lefties read as him deliberately leaving opportunities on the table.