Women and Children First


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?



11 Responses to “Women and Children First”

  1. Chris Says:

    And this is about where the D&D-as-Bronze-Age model (pace Keith & Frank) starts to make sense for me.

    OK, you’ve killed the combatants who raided your burg to rustle the woman and ravish the sheep, but what do you do with their next-of-kin? One word: slavery. No, seriously. Enslavement turns the defeated tribe (orc, human, elf, hobbling, w/e) from a ticking time bomb of revenge into an asset that someone else will pay to take out of your hair.

    Enslaving the defeated? Par for the course. After all, someone has to build the monuments, fortresses, tombs and dungeons that litter the landscape.
    Butchering the defeated? That makes you a byword for savagery, and tends to combine everyone else against you…

    • Christopher Tatro Says:

      Logistical problems of 6 PCs taking a whole village of Orc women and children as slaves, I think that suggestion would be perhaps even more likely to prompt inter-party conflict based on modern sensibilities (I know that’s how it was done by the Romans and such but damn it’s a loaded concept).

      Also, I’m being dim here but Keith and Frank?

      • Chris Says:

        Sorry, Keith and Frank were two guys from the WOTC Char Op boards. They wrote some thought-provoking rationalisations for the odder parts of the D&D3E rules, as well as some excellent and simple fixes for the more broken bits.

        Their collected thunks on how the rules model a society really quite alien to our modern sensibilities are here: http://tgdmb.com/viewtopic.php?t=48453

        The “Dungeons: By the gods, why?” section of their Dungeonomicon was what brought me back to megadungeons and to traditional gaming.

    • Christopher Tatro Says:

      Also as for the logistics, I am reminded that we did have a bag of holding…

  2. Jeffwik Says:

    I also feel a little bad about using lethal force when nonlethal force would suffice, despite the logistical difficulties with taking all those male/combatant orcs prisoner. It’s pretty monstrous to execute POWs, after all.

  3. John O'Brien Says:

    To my mind, not only is it role playing, it is role playing in a pseudo-historical fantasy setting. One’s reaction should be based purely on character concerns, not on player concerns. If you are playing a LG type, you probably won’t be putting everyone to the sword. If you are playing someone LN from a land where slavery is legal, you will probably be taking slaves. If you are LE, why are we even having this conversation?

    Lather, rinse, repeat for all of the other alignment permutations.

    Anyways, my point is: one’s actions should ideally be based on one’s character, not whatever social mores or emotional baggage you bring to the table from your Papers & Paychecks™ real life. And I say ‘ideally’ because I know it is hard for many/most people (myself included sometimes) to divest themselves of their own personality, ideals, and biases at the gaming table. That’s why most of my characters tend to be variations on a theme– swashbuckling libertines spouting off about égalité and crap. Keeps me from having to make the hard decisions. 😉

  4. Bryant Says:

    I wind up hitting two issues here, which are related but which are not the same.

    The first: what do you do with the captives? Killing them may be consistent with character morals, and there’s nothing wrong with that. I do think you need to recognize when your character has shitty morals.

    I.e., don’t be pulling the “but it’s what my character would do!” thing on the GM. We’re past the point where we justify dickish IC behavior as roleplaying, with this question as with others.

    As a GM, I also advocate consequences. You whacked women and kids? Sure as sunrise, some monsters in the campaign are going to respond to that appropriately. Mutual Assured Destruction is not a new concept, and it’s the reason our taboo against killing women and children evolved. I actually think it’s kind of silly to pretend that wouldn’t happen in a fantasy setting.

    Heh. Cue follow-up scene where the grizzled warrior goes pale. “You did… what? Oh, we are SO FUCKED. That’s gonna piss off every tribe north of the border. Would you guys be willing to just turn yourselves over to them? That’d help a lot.”

    The second issue: I can’t do evil races any more. Just can’t do it. It’s too redolent of real world racism. Yes, it’s a fantasy world… but why do I need to postulate fantasy world rules that happen to parallel things believed by the idiots of our world? I don’t make up fantasy worlds in which Ayn Rand was right; I don’t feel like making up fantasy worlds in which Pat Buchanan is right, either.

    And once you get away from that presupposition you lose a lot of the argument for killing the kids, because they /don’t/ have to grow up evil.

    • Christopher Tatro Says:

      On the first: that line between standing behind your character morals and the dickish “it’s what my character would do” can sometimes be a thin one and that’s definitely a thing that I, as a player, need to work on.

      On the second: I see the connection to the first more strongly. Nobody wakes up in the morning and says “I’m really evil!” It’s all perspective, and in this case the perspective of the PCs is that the Orcs are evil.

      As for making up world where Pat Buchanan is right, does this mean the whole G Gordon Liddy’s MEN OF ACTION campaign is off the table?

      • Bryant Says:

        For me, the line between being true to your character and being a dick with a bad excuse is drawn along the axis of group consent. (How’s that for a metaphor?) But group consent is really easy if you just talk a lot.

        On the second: well, it ties right back to the first, right? The PCs consider the orcs evil? Sure. The PCs are Minutemen who think that all orcs are lazy cannibals and will inevitably grow up to be more of the same? Huh.

        Now, hey. I do run games in which the PCs are bad people. Vampires, say, or jack-booted inquisitors. I also make sure I’m putting some light on that aspect of the game. Sometimes more, sometimes less, but I don’t think it’s ever missing.

  5. Ivan Says:

    “I can’t do evil races any more. Just can’t do it. It’s too redolent of real world racism.”

    How does that apply to good races, then? Elves are nature-based spiritualists who use every bit of the animal and whose lands are being taken over by humans, but hey, they don’t mind because they’re going into the West.

    I struggle with this a lot. The Boozehounds “Against the Giants” game had a lot of moral complexity, including the “women and children” issue. That was a game set in a war-torn world, and I wanted to reflect that.

    The new game is a Conan-style sword and sorcery game, and you know what? Gnolls are evil, man. They’re just bad. And running it that way enhances the feel I want to get across in this game.

    That’s how I deal with it, anyway. Playing something and pretending something doesn’t mean I believe or accept it – if I only ran things on my moral code it’d be a pretty weird little game of pacifist spiritualality. Fun for me, not so much for most.

  6. Moth Says:

    I thought you just killed all of them and then wept when talking to your girlfriend about it.

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