This is more of a philosophical, “me working through issues” kind of post brought up by some inter-party conflict at last week’s session.
There’s a core sense of revulsion at the notion of killing women and children, probably lodged squarely in our reptilian hindbrains and reinforced by millennia of social mores. You go into war and you kill the men who are fighting against you but when you take their village you don’t kill the women and children, lest you be considered monsters.
Okay, setting aside the inherent sexism in the stance that women are by default not a threat and should be spared.
Let’s say you have an Orc village that is raiding cattle and stealing stuff. Some soldiers were sent out to deal with the Orcs, but they apparently weren’t very good soldiers because they got themselves killed and then, because it is what Orcs in this setting do, eaten.
Now here come the Heroes. The soldierly Orcs are dealt with and here you have this village of an intelligent race who like to nosh on other intelligent races with all the men dead and just the women and children left. What do you do?
Because from our current modern position, yeah, slaughtering them is horrible. We as players have arrived at that contextual relativism stage of Perry’s Model of Intellectual and Ethical Development where we have enough trouble slaughtering intelligent races like Orcs just for being Orcs, but going after the non-combatants? Monstrous.
But at the risk of being immersionist, what about the thoughts of the characters within the setting? We’re talking about a world here, your standard D&D-type world, where there are MONSTERS. And they come for you in the night and eat you. Fundamental survival is a real and ongoing concern, much moreso than we can even imagine here in our nice safe modern world.
And hey, here are some of them. These specific ones didn’t come after you, the men did. And heck, they were only stealing stuff – they didn’t eat anybody until you folks in the castle sent those soldiers out after them in the first place. But they probably have some human/elf/miscellaneous in their bellies right now. And had things gone poorly, you’d be in the pot. And those kids – do you think they’re going to grow up to be vegetarians? Or will they hold a grudge because these humans and pointy-ears killed their daddies, and some day they’ll be back to gnaw on your bones. Heck, without the men to do the hunting for them (I know, I know!) the women will likely take up spears and be coming after you in the night. Or if not you, somebody else, somebody who can’t defend themselves as well.
It’s a little closer to a fascist mentality than I usually like to hew (“these kids will only grow up to be terrorists anyway, so we should just nuke the whole place”) . But here you are. And what do you do?