This is part of the “Playing with Youngers” series, but requires no additional context to read and enjoy. Find the rest of the series here.
Hittin’ all the hard topics. Whoopee!
When discussing the topic of death in games with younger players on Reddit, a person asked, “Do [the players] kill their enemies in these games?”
My answer: not really. I say that because all of the characters have protections of some sort, most of which don’t cause instant death but instead “knock-out” their opponent. I always say to think Super Smash Brothers, Minecraft, and Zelda as far as cartoonish, stylized violence in my adventure games.
As long as we’re talking cartoons, let’s talk Avatar my favorite show of all-time-ever. Avatar: The Last Airbender was an absolute pro at having people defeated without killing them. In that show, bad guys and good guys alike used the four elements (water, earth, fire, air) in duels and battles. All of the attacks made were “bludgeoning damage” to put it in D&D terms. Water and air pushed you around, earth slammed into you, and fire did both although it also caused burns. You could have characters attacking each other all day and not see major blood loss or broken bones, hence the TV-Y7 rating for the show.
The mundane piercing, slashing, and stabbing weapons also played a lesser role in the world of Avatar. No guns, for example. Swords were just blades to be crossed again and again in order to wear down an opponent, as was the case with Sokka and Jet. They often finished their foes with a blow to the back of the head instead of a stab in the gut. The Yuyan Archers used bows but never shot anyone directly, only pinned their clothes down or otherwise prevented their escape. Bolas also pinned people and explosives functioned just the same as firebending. Even the knives thrown by Mai didn’t cut anybody. If you can’t figure out how to show and describe violence without blood and bullets, I can recommend no source better than Avatar.
When equipping the players, the tools the players have directly influence how they can and cannot interact with the world. For protections that create “softer-violence”, I’ve been having a lot of fun in Electric Bastionland and my other adventure games with giving characters weapons that bludgeon and have more than one use. I think of Samwise Gamgee fighting orcs in Moria with a frying pan. Or Elizabeth Swan on Isla De Muerta using a rowing oar to smack pirates. Or Shovel Knight using… his shovel. There’s even a telescope and a broom in the starting packages for Adventure Hour.
Bludgeon weapons are easier to describe for child-friendly violence (boy, what a phrase). Think about people using fists or their feet in a cartoon. How would you describe the action? What does victory look like? Defeat? Being punched on the arm sure does hurt, but the wound isn’t nearly as visible as a sword cut or a bullet wound. In Avatar, people just looked more tired or had their clothes torn a bit or had some dirt on their faces after taking some damage, all of which works.
But back to dealing with baddies. I’ve mentioned baddies getting knocked-out, but having them run away after one jab to the jaw does just as well. You can still be realistic without being gritty. But maybe you want to obscure death in your game further. Even without killing the bad guys, there have been a handful of “Disney villain deaths” (warning: TVTropes!) in my adventure games. Maybe the player pushes a baddie off of a cliff, or the bad guy is swallowed whole by a crocodile or chased by a monster off into the sunset, etc. Did they die? Probably yes. But it didn’t happen on-screen. That can leave more room for drama if they ever return later on, of course, but usually I play straight. Because what happens when the players defeat them again? “We need a more permanent solution to prevent this guy from escaping… I’ll guess we’ll just hang them?” Let the original impact stand. If a person is removed from the game by the players, they better have a good, believable reason for coming back.
So that’s how to deal with players dealing with bad guys. Go watch some Avatar to see how to deal with minions and mooks. Then notice how Disney villains are taken out: usually by their own hubris, or after attempting to play a nasty trick that backfires, or from a great height (don’t forget to add some obscuring fog at the bottom).
There is true, malevolent evil out there. And as Iroh says, some people are crazy and they need to go down. Let younger players do exactly that with a righteous and gallant style.