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When Violence Meets Honor in History and Games
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When Violence Meets Honor in History and Games

June 21, 2012 Article Start Previous Page 4 of 5 Next

Regular events and Procedural Mission Creation

Though open world games often have day-night cycles and are played for months of game time, no recurring events happen without the player's participation. I spent several days in the churches of Red Dead Redemption, but I did not witness a single Holy Mass. All societies are structured around rituals like these. For instance, regular events breaking the daily routine of medieval city life included church service, weekly market days, holidays and festivals with dances, races, sports and different kinds of contests. Other events happening at irregular intervals could be trade goods arriving at the harbor, bands of raiders plundering nearby villages, a visit by the local count, student riots, tax collection, the execution of a robber baron and so on.

If it were a game, similar to the Assassin's Creed world, the player might be given a choice to watch or to participate. All these events could instigate side missions or activities, and missing them should not be game-breaking. They will happen again later in the game, so the player will have another chance at, say, rescuing a robber baron.

In cities, crowded places would be dangerous, like taverns, brothels, guildhalls, or narrow bridges, but there would be little danger of dying in a fight. A player character might enter a tavern to pick a fight, or she might avoid them.

Dangerous places may also be a source of randomly generated side missions: a person asking the player for help against an opponent -- who might then hold a grudge against the player and return with friends a few days later. I am aware that Skyrim offers random side missions like these; but I do not know if they are all strictly one-shot or if they may have consequences later on.

Another way to make the game world feel more alive would be to give major NPCs a bit of freedom to follow goals of their own, similar to opposing factions in strategy games like the Total War series. The concept of honor could be a part of this. The basic premise for a game world using the concept of personal honor would be that in populated areas non-lethal combat is acceptable for player character and NPCs alike, but murder would be punished.

NPCs should have an honor rating that guides their actions; instead of just being decoration or quest givers, they should follow certain goals of their own, depending on variables defining their character. Though the game would have to contain agent-based simulation elements, it would not need to be a complex society sim, but provide interactions that allow interesting situations to emerge, like those unique "transgressive" play experiences Espen Aarseth describes [pdf link] that happened to him while playing The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion. Of course, if a game is designed to produce these situations regularly, they do not constitute transgressive play anymore.

NPC stats might include Greedy, Belligerent, Forgiving, Popular, Alcoholic, Amourous, Hostile against X (insert other NPC) and so on. Getting into a fight should be one option NPCs have when interacting with each other, depending on their ratings -- imagine The Sims with daggers. Fights for honor among player characters and/or NPCs in front of an audience will usually be non-lethal and end in honor/status gain or loss with its consequences. The amount of honor gain/loss might depend on the number of spectators. That way, relationships between NPCs can change over time, conflicts may arise and be resolved, and the player/s may be involved or not. Strings of side missions could evolve out of these situations.

Personal honor and reputation as a driving force for player and NPC actions could lead to dynamically changing game goals, independent from the main storyline:

Short term goals: Actions and Interactions that demonstrate personal courage

Medium term goals: Appearance and possessions (clothes, house, horse/car, weapons)

Long term goals: Social position in the game world

It is common for players to strive for goals like these, but not for NPCs. Main quests would still have to be scripted, but could major NPCs be given "free rein" to follow their built-in ambitions? Would this add to the fun of the game, or would it make it unplayable? The unpredictable nature of the game would add to replayability, but probably also lead to difficulties trying to design such a mix between society sim, strategy game and action adventure.

Combat Sports, Duels and Show Fights

A simple application of non-lethal combat would be the introduction of different combat sports to the game world that would impose certain restrictions upon the player's fighting style, for instance by disallowing deadly techniques or limiting the use of armor and weapons. Strangely, this is rarely done in games. Many games feature some sort of arena combat, but most often, like in Oblivion or Borderlands (2009), this is just anything-goes and to the death.

Illustration 2: Armored foot combat with halberds, held in a wooden enclosure in a city square in front of a large audience. Woodcut from Weiss-Kunig (written ca. 1514, printed 1775) pg. 94a. CC BY-NC-SA Heidelberg University Library

I have tried to put the multitude of combat situations that occurred in the Medieval and Early Modern world in a simple roster. We could say there were eight distinct (though often overlapping, technique-wise) "fighting styles":


Combat situation




Unarmed, not armored

Wrestling, boxing, brawling

Ambush, robbery

Armed, not armored

Klopffechten, theatrical fencing, Fechtschule, prize fighting, some duels, combat training

Judicial combat (commoners), warfare & feud (peasants, other untrained combatants), some duels, ambush, robbery

Unarmed, armored

Tournament (subduing opponent after losing weapons)

Judicial combat (knights/nobles), warfare, feud

Armed, armored


Judicial combat (knights/nobles), war, feud

The use of such a complex system probably would not be feasible in a game. But combat in tournament-like situations could be restricted to non-lethal means. Jousting, as far as I know, only appeared as a mini-game in 1987's Defender of the Crown and its remakes, and the somewhat similar Conqueror A.D. 1086. In these games you could win or lose honor, gold or land in the joust; important things were at stake, just not your life.

You might lose against a formidable opponent at first, but later you might be more skilled and defeat him. In that way, tournaments and other non-lethal combat forms can be used as motivation and to start a string of missions. For instance, the player character might witness a great tournament early on in the game, knowing that only many game hours later she, too, will be able to take part in such an event, and still later maybe able to win the big prize.

Other combat situations also could be easily adapted for use in games. The player character might be hired as champion for a trial by combat. Or she may be asked to instruct a clumsy noble, who has been challenged to a duel, in the art of fencing. Show fights, other than life-or-death combat, would require employing techniques that please the audience, a system similar to that used in wrestling games like the WWE Smackdown series. In a theater performance, the player character would have to fight convincingly without hurting their opponent. So, using in-game combat sports and show fights, the player would be forced to adapt her fighting style, adding variety to combat encounters.

Article Start Previous Page 4 of 5 Next

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