Ancient Scroll’s Secret Room: One Hundred Meters Left or War is a Dirty Thing

As you’ve probably noticed, I like to talk about difficult subjects for roleplaying games. Thanks to Brian, I’ve had a chance to share my views on three topics so far – retiring adventurers, interrogation methods, and slavery.

Today I want to discuss another hardcore but common RPG issue – War.

We all know and love the traditional fantasy RPG hero type: bulging muscles, big sword, incredible strength. And we’ve seen how they can work beautifully while engaged in chopping down hordes of goblins. During RPG campaigns and adventures, our player characters often participate in wars cutting down enemies left and right. And usually, those wars are just. And in those cases, we know without the smallest doubt that we fight on the right side. This is especially true when we (the “civilized” humanoid races like humans, elves, and dwarves) have to face the grim, bloodthirsty hordes of darkness… typically made up by the goblinoid or monstrous races.

However when both sides of the conflict involve characters of the same race, things start to complicate a bit. It’s easy for a player to strip away rational motives, feelings, and doubts from enemies like orcs, especially when some invisible greater power sends them to crush members of a less monstrous race. But what happens when it’s humans on the other side?

Sure, the other guy is an enemy. We know this already or have been told so by our superiors. He has vile plans, usually he is an invader, brings fire, pain and tears to our beloved country. As long as we see an invading force of thousands on the horizon, again it’s easy to avoid thinking of them as having human traits. But in a face-to-face fight? If you ever pause long enough to ask “What is this guy doing here?” your perception of the situation can change in an instant. Why?

Because suddenly our enemy has become more “human,” which makes the situation uncomfortable. He’s somebody’s son or maybe he has a loving girlfriend or wife waiting back at home. Maybe he’s not a professional soldier or mercenary, but was forced to join the army. Maybe he volunteered because his kids were starving. In the end, maybe he’s just a nice family guy like we are.

So why he is fighting in this unjust war and invading our land, burning our homes? Is he brainwashed? Maybe just not very smart? Maybe someone put a spell on him? Why he is doing something that an average person wouldn’t – harming other people?

British 55th (West Lancashire) Division troops...

Image via Wikipedia

If you are able to force your players to think about the motivations of their enemy – a single soldier and not the whole army – your player’s point of view can turn upside down. They may not be so eager to fight any more. They may not run away, but I can bet that they will try do something to minimize the ”kill rate.” And this may change their approach to war forever.

How to do this? There are some simple tricks I use. For example, once I let my players (by accident of course) listen to campfire talk in enemy’s camp. Was the enemy was doing strategy planning? Nope. Were they talking about how excited they were after the day’s murder and destruction? Nope. They were talking about their families and what they would do if the gods got them back home safely… In the morning, the fighting mood in my party decreased like letting the air out of a balloon.

Another trick is to show your players that it’s not just the enemy doing bad things. In one of my games there was war about religious issues (it was a fantasy world, so nobody felt offended). The attackers were really barbaric. But the defenders provoked them many times by bullying followers of their god living for years in the invaded country. As the invasion was coming closer, repression against people of the other faith increased. It was enough to describe one or two situations when ”brave” defenders acted nasty. And my players changed their opinion about the ”barbaric invaders”. They started to ask questions like “Who is the real defender?” and “Who is the oppressor?”

My biggest ”antiwar” adventure was based in the time of the Great War (World War I). My players started the game as a group of US soldiers and played a few sessions. The last session started just before an attack on German trenches and the story went like this…

A wave of soldiers, heavily thinned by artillery and toxic gas, finally nears the enemy trenches. Both sides of the conflict are now engaged in the firefight. From the trenches, the machine guns rattle as the soldiers started shooting at random. Both the PC‘s allies and the Germans suffered heavy casualties. Any moment now the fight will shift to a hand-to-hand approach and the most frightening part of the battle will commence – melee combat.

But my dear soldiers, there is a small twist. Your soldier is no longer an American, but instead you’ve taken on the role of a young soldier in a German uniform on the other side.

A picture of bayonet training.

Image via Wikipedia

You now see, the American soldiers’ frenzied assault on your trenches. You now see that the color of the uniform is meaningless. Why? Because young men, sometimes boys, on both sides of the front line have the same experiences, the same memories, dreams and fears. Just as your team of Americans running straight towards the German trenches do, and just as the German soldiers in their fortifications do. English names aren’t that different from the German ones. Forget about past sessions. All of scenarios we played in this campaign might as well have been something that happened to the German soldiers.

So now, shooting wildly, your squad awaits the furious attack of the Americans. Only a dozen meters left until they reach the trenches. Someone barks out the order “Fix… Bayonets!” Your blood is pumping so hard it almost bursts your veins and each moment a new body joins the fallen. Grenades are thrown while the enemies’ bayonets glitter in the darkness. You can feel the blood pulsing in your ears. It’s strange, but despite the cannonade, you can still hear your own heavy breathing. The world slows down…

Then my players became US soldiers again who, after a murderous passage through the no man’s land, rush towards the enemies’ trenches. The screams, hits, blood and fury hit them full in the face.

In this bloodbath, I asked my players: “What are you doing here boys?”

Why did I do it? To make my players aware that, in the tumult of clashes between huge armies, personal dramas take place. There’s room for fear for what may come as well as little pleasures like a cup of hot coffee or a visit to the cabaret. The global war machine doesn’t care – it swallows and grinds everybody equally just like the toxic gas on the battlefield that, with a change of wind, may suddenly suffocate the allies. Meanwhile somewhere in relative safety, bent over maps, cold blooded generals with rakish mustaches and elegant uniforms decide who’s to live or die. Their sticks move human fates on the map, killing some and saving others.

In truth, war never ends. Each moment, for as long as mankind can remember, there is fighting somewhere in the world  and young men are sent to their deaths. Some of these sacrifices are honored to make them heroes, but most are faceless, nameless bodies stripped of their humanity.

Think about this the next time your characters march onward to another war campaign. Through gaming, we can reexamine some important, sometimes hard, subjects. I know gaming is fun, but I think it can bring catharsis and consciousness as well.

I dedicate this article to the victims, soldiers, and civilians affected by war.

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