Good people don’t often kill people and when they do they generally suffer with the psychological problems that doing so causes. Even killers and torturers don’t kill or hurt others without dehumanising them first. Even soldiers have to be taught to kill, even in kill or be killed situations, the military recognises that training someone to pull the trigger is far simpler than getting them to live with the consequences. I remember hearing stats (is a half remembered TV documentary more reliable than the internet as a source?) that only about two to five percent of people can kill in combat situations without later having mental problems with what they’ve done. Of that small number some are pure psychopaths or sociopaths while a small number can see the decision to kill rather than be killed or see those around them killed. So what does this have to do with roleplaying games?
I’m going to leave player characters aside for the moment (it’s less disturbing to view them as one percenter hero kinds anyway) and focus on NPCs. Understanding what drives your NPCs gives you ways to make them more convincing and makes your baddies a bit less Ming The Merciless. While sometimes your evil mastermind might just be a plain callous psychopath not all his henchmen are likely to be.
One of the easiest and most common ways to dehumanise your enemies is with use of language. This is why we so often hear racist terms used by people. By referring to those we dislike, or want to dislike, with group names we make them other than ourselves and thus less human. This means we don’t need to empathise with them and we can treat them badly without concern.
So, to finally get round to roleplaying, if I’ve got a group of bandits in a tower near a borderland town and I want to depict them realistically one thing to consider is what language they use to describe the townsfolk. Do they use racial slurs? Do they describe something about their easy life as being weak? By having the group use the same small selection of words (pick four or five common phrases) to describe those not of the group/gang you’ll create a feeling that they separate themselves off. Likewise the townsfolk will probably have the same types of names, but not the same names, for the bandits.
Nations do the same thing, as do groups co-existing, we tell ourselves legends about our values and how they’re different from those of other groups. We break down our empathy with others by describing them differently, picking and choosing the differences rather than the similarities. So if you’re running a game with a political vibe take a minute to think about what things different groups within the city/kingdom choose to isolate those they don’t want to empathise with. Putting races aside are one group immigrants, worship different gods, worship the same gods in a different way, believe in a different type of government/economic ideal? These things don’t even have to be real, they just have to be believed. For example does one group believe that another is favoured by the ruler/army/city watch? Do both groups believe that when neither are right? Once you’ve picked which things to emphasise then have a think about common sayings for your population, they don’t have to be violent or vindictive, just a way to separate parts of the population.
Monstrous humanoids are a bit too easy to pick on in this way but I believe they will also be more believable if they use racial slurs in this way. Most of us have represented an orc sneering the word human or elf as a put down (probably along with weak or puny) and it’s a good start but pick a couple of other sayings for them that can be overheard in conversation between individuals and it’ll deepen that feeling.
Interested in what people think, if people already consciously do this, etc.
For anyone interested I’ve also vlogged about this as an experiment so if you want to hear ramblings I’ve embedded it below…