When the serial killers are actually the heroes

I’m in a Hunters Hunted game at the moment, the result of spurring one of our friends to let us make use of the recent Kickstarter book that a couple of us had bought.  I’ve always been a fan of the different Hunter books from White Wolf, be they the original Hunters Hunted, the Year of the Hunter line, or the Hunter: Reckoning game itself.  The World of Darkness is a pretty interesting place, and being more or less uninitiated normal folk had a certain weird flair to it.

The main downside to any of these games, however, comes in the form of having players already familiar with the setting in one way or another.  If you’ve already run a Werewolf game for a given group, they can identify the tribes and locations in question without breathing hard.  The intrinsic weaknesses of their foes are a given, when just a short time before, the players were living with these things as their personal drawbacks.  If you’ve played as a monster, there aren’t many surprises when you have to face them from the other side.

The other thing that starts to get a bit weird is the fact that, to a greater or lesser extent, your characters are little more than serial killers.  It doesn’t matter to the local constabulary that Ed Perkins from down the road was a weird supernatural creature that posed a serious threat to this aspect of their small town life.  What matters is that you killed Ed, and he’s been my neighbor for the last thirty years.  And it may be a huge victory for your group to have torched the stronghold of the local Sabbat, but all the investigators are going to see is an arson that burned down a local nightclub with thirty people inside.

What makes this worse is that there’s the tacit understanding that this is the World of Darkness.  Everything is just a little bit worse and that much deadlier.  It’s already been established that the FBI runs an Occult Crimes division, and with heightened security in the wake of the September 11th attacks, Homeland Security is going to be that much more powerful and overreaching.  If there’s something that would remain weird and unsolved were it to happen in our world, you can pretty well guarantee that there’s an agency in the World of Darkness that would take up the fight and throw a task force at it.

That’s just the antagonist side of things, however.  How do the player characters manage?

The instant response is that role-playing games are traditionally built around a group of characters that have no real problem with the business of killing.  Dungeons & Dragons started the ball rolling with your standard adventuring party, whose advancement hinged on how many orcs and goblins they had to kill to get to the next level.  Gamma World changed this up by framing it in terms of post-apocalyptic survival, but the principle was the same.  And so it went, changing only when superhero games started shifting the paradigm.

The difference is that, in most games, there’s a safe sort of insulation between the actions of the heroes in the game and the consequences that can be imagined by the players.  If your character in Star Wars ended up killing a couple of Stormtroopers in the escape from the starport, he’s not likely to lose any sleep over it.  If nothing else, a galaxy the size of the one in Star Wars implied a certain statistical nature to the deaths.  There are said to be well over a million worlds in the setting, so a couple of Stormtroopers won’t change that very much.  And besides, being Stormtroopers, they were already on the wrong side of things anyway, right?

If you shift that last example into a World of Darkness game (or really, any game that’s supposed to be set in what amounts to being a more or less contemporary world), your characters gun down a couple of policemen while they try to escape an impound yard.  We all know that this is going to be an immediate story for the local media.  There are going to be funerals, parades and interviews with the grieving widows and children of the men that the characters had to get past.  Everyone’s seen at least a couple of news stories to this effect, and it’s going to put a human face on the antagonists that the player characters were forced to deal with.

Then you have to take into account how well the monsters that the characters are hunting have hidden themselves from normal society.  If your rampaging werewolf kept a cover identity of a crazy old man who lived alone on a desolate mountaintop, that will be a lot different than the vampire prince of a city that kept the identity of the young scion of the local industrial concern.  Especially if the vampire in question has surrounded himself with an entire corporate structure filled with sympathizers.  It’s one thing to eliminate the boss in a targeted assassination.  That would be something that could be rationalized away relatively easily; kill one to save many.  If you have to eliminate most of the upper management, that’s a bit harder to justify.  If they’re mostly human as well, that’s a hard road to walk.

Naturally, a lot of these questions are ones that only become important if the GM deems them so.  I’ve been in plenty of games where moral consequence is left on the sidelines and simple enjoyment of the scenario is all that’s required for entry.  Roll some dice, kill some monsters, go home.  But I’ve also been in enough games where the GM is willing to put the psychological screws to the player characters, up to and including the point where there’s a question as to how reliable the characters’ beliefs are.  It’s one thing to go out hunting a werewolf because you believe it to be the thing responsible for a number of recent disappearances.  It’s another to hunt the werewolf to its lair and kill it, when you’re not 100% certain that you killed the right thing.  Or if it was a werewolf at all.

As I have noted, this sort of moral ambiguity doesn’t tend to show up very often in most games.  And perhaps that’s the reason that I think it needs to be looked at in games where it has a context.  If nothing else, it gives the characters something different to consider while they’re trying to fight the good fight.

Especially if the good fight isn’t as good as they want to believe.

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Posted on April 15, 2014, in Gaming Philosophy. Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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