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Player Killers Exposed

by Lexley Vaughan

Player killers: everyone hates them, so why do they do it? Maybe being hated is why they do it? But who wants to be hated?

Well there are several reasons why they do it, but first we'd better pin down just what is meant by the term itself. Player killer is something of a misnomer, in that:

A witch!  A witch!

She's not a witch, she just a very naughty boy.

Of these points, the first seems just a question of pedantic semantics. I suspect the term (which is understood by players of most internet muds) was invented by relative newbies who didn't understand the difference between a player (person at keyboard) and character or persona (person in game). Newbies are most likely to be outright killed if they get attacked. They're also quite vocal, because they don't know how enough of mud culture to behave properly, so their use of the term would quickly become the dominant one. That's not the whole story, though. Although the character is killed, it is indeed the player who feels the loss - and this can be very painful. I have felt physically ill from losing a character to the sword of another player - it's somehow far worse than losing it to a mobile, which seems more like it's your own fault. So the thing to note from this is that player killers ("pks") really can make an assault on the player, using the character as some kind of emotional conduit.

The second point, that few characters are killed, is also deeper than it seems. The command they use is kill <player>, so it's not stretching things too far to say they're therefore "player killers". The interesting thing, though, is that it's the intention to kill which is important. Pking is more than just one command, it's a whole mind set. The attackers most often do want to kill their targets, but they may spend an entire playing session never managing to lay a glove on them.

The third point is most interesting. Killing a character is not seen as a bad thing under certain circumstances, which seem to hinge on the issue of provocation. Some attacks are regarded by the most of the community as justifiable, and draw no disapprobation. You're not a pk if you attack someone because:

There are other, greyer areas. Whether you'd get branded as a pk for attacking someone who you believed was a known pk but wasn't, for example, depends on your past reputation and whether you can make a case for it among your peers. A similar set of criteria is used to determine whether or not a character has overstepped any rules against bullying that the Powers That Be choose to impose.

So, we can now define a pk as: someone who plays with the intention of killing another player's character in the game without reasonable provocation. "Their mere existence" does not constitute "reasonable provocation"...

These are the people that the remainder of this article concerns.

There are many reasons why players pk, but after months of observation I have concluded that most fall into one of a small number of categories. I shall now enumerate and comment upon these, although I warn any pks reading that some of the categories aren't exactly complimentary...

The Newbie
Some players come into muds from other games where the whole point is to kill your opponents, for example Quake 2. There's no malevolence involved, they've just got the wrong end of the stick. After a few fights where they get the wrong end of the axe, they find out that killing players isn't actually what it's all about, whereupon they either turn into model citizens or go find some game where it is what it's all about.

The Wannabe
These are recent ex-newbies who want to be seen as pks because they think it's cool and glamorous, but who don't stand a chance of becoming one in the near future. They take the next best option, which is to hang about with people who they hope may know vaguely what they're doing. They therefore tend mainly to occur only as part of a pack of other wannabes, swarming after highlife in the hope that they'll last long enough to see the fatal blow. They're mildly dangerous in such groups, but very easy to swat at your leisure individually.

The Achiever
Achievers are people who go for points points points. At some stage, they may try a little pking (usually using a secret character, so their friends don't hate them for it) to see if it's a viable way of getting points. They usually conclude it isn't, and go back to racking up points from treasure and mobiles instead. You don't usually have to fear these guys much.

The Explorer
Explorers are people who like to figure out how the game works and what everything does, not necessarily attempting to get points and go up levels. I am an explorer at heart. Some explorers will do a little pking because that's an important aspect of the game and it deserves study. In general, though, they will only go for known pks, because that way they're likely to learn more. You're normally going to be safe from these people - it's not like there are many of them anyway.

The Broken Achiever
Sometimes, an achiever can be killed one time too many, and something snaps. "OK, if people are killing me for points, maybe I should kill people for points" goes the argument, even though people rarely are killing for points. There's little or no concern about how this affects the victims - the broken achiever rationalises it with excuses like "well I got beaten up and no-one stopped it, it must be OK". These pks are worrying, because they have a lot of game knowledge and a fair amount of fighting skill. Their achiever roots come through, though, and they tend to be predictable. Just as they always do the same areas of the game the same way each time they play, so they'll always pk the same way. This way does involve use of massive force against inferior opposition, though. Fortunately, these guys don't react well to being attacked before they can set themselves up, and they aren't first-class fighters in their own right, so they tend to be killed time after time until they snap back out of it and into standard achiever mode again.

The Broken Explorer
These are the worst kind of killers. As with the broken achiever, something inside just goes TWANG and they suddenly bring all their arcane experience to bear on killing other players. They're very good at it, they use different tactics from one game to the next (although they do usually have some particular favourite) and they don't care about being killed because they weren't hoping to accumulate points anyway, it's just a minor inconvenience. Unlike broken achievers, though, they're not remaining true to their nature if they turn pk. Therefore, there must be some other reason for them to remain as pks after they've vented their initial fury; this would almost invariably be because they were either psychos or provers (described next).

The Psycho
Psychos are players who enjoy inflicting pain on other players. They are small in number, and, like fox-hunters, will try to deny that their actions have anything at all to do with cruelty, but they're really just deluding themselves. They do it because they can get off on it, end of story. They can be quite dangerous, because although they only study a narrow part of the game, they do so in some depth, so they can actually meet with some success. Their weakness is that they don't like being the victims of attacks; in their minds, the power equation is one-way only. A reasonably well-organised group of characters can take them down without much problem, and eventually the suffering that the psycho endures as a result is enough for them to drift away. Unlike all other forms of pk, though, it's impossible to talk a psycho out of pking; they do it because it's at the heart of their very being.

The Prover
"Provers" is the name I've given to the group of pks which most people think of when they hear the term "pk" - you'll see why shortly. These are the guys who have superior fighting skills, who enjoy the hunt as much as the battle, and who sit in safe areas trading insults or offering patronising advice afterwards. Classic pk behaviour - and the classic behaviour of people who have an inferiority complex. Deep, deep inside they lack confidence in themselves, and feel the need constantly to prove their worth. This manifests itself in muds through fighting prowess: "I beat you, therefore I am superior to you" is how it feels to their psyche. What they want is respect, and it doesn't matter if that respect comes bundled with hatred. Even the most evil mass-killers in the world are often respected, though they are despised by one and all. Provers would deny all this, of course, because their egos can't take it. However, they share a common trait which is also a classic indicator of inferiority complexes: they prefer to show their skills off against much weaker opponents. Unless they completely out-gun an opponent in all departments, they are unlikely to attack. Fear of defeat is also why they have a tacit agreement not to attack other pks; it's not an "honour among thieves" thing, it's a "we're both as scared of losing as each other" thing.

The Big Whacker
These pks are always male and charismatic. They use the game as a stage to show the other players who's boss, a bit like rutting stags. If anything, they have a superiority complex, rather than an inferiority one. Hi there, Mr Macho! They can be very, very good at killing, but they're also reasonably selective. If they know they have your respect, which they probably deserve anyway as they're so good, you're pretty well safe from them. They don't like to be thought of as bullies, and will therefore usually give you a much fairer chance than provers do (but not too fair - losing is not on their agenda). They don't tend to get along very well with other big whackers, though...

The New Wiz
"Wiz" is the term I'm using to mean the topmost level in the game - administrator, immortal, god, wizard, whatever. There are the people who have power over the game itself, who can do things like build new rooms and objects, snoop player input and mete out instant justice. In a well-run game, they're not allowed to use these powers to kill non-wizzes (i.e. "mortals") off, so they have to do it by playing as mortals themselves. But being more experienced, they're also better at killing... So you can almost guarantee it: someone makes wiz, they disappear from the face of the planet for 2 weeks, then all of a sudden there's a strange, new pk out there in the land. Who knows what kind of indoctrination goes on in wizland, but almost every new wiz seems to try their hand at pking, even if they were vehemently anti-pk before they made it. They don't always stick at it, though, which is refreshing. The ones that do will do so either because they fall into one of the categories previously described or because they fall into one of the ones specific to wiz mortals, which follow. Note that wiz mortals are probably the dominant species of killer (or at least of effective killer) which is why they get their own sub-categories. They're skilled (hello, they made wiz), they're daring (what do they care if they die?) and they know every trick and strategy you use (they snoop). Not all of them, though, are in the "pull up the ladder" business that new wizzes seem to be. Thank heaven for small mercies...

The Pkk
Some pks are so disruptive that they need to be taken out of the game, or there may just be too many active pks around for the game to feel right that a few need to be culled. There are wiz pks who will discreetly do this - thank goodness! They count as pks because they will attack without personal provocation, and they'll often trample all over other players to get their way. I was once subject to an amazingly complex force spell that pretty much busted my reset, the whole purpose of which was to stop me getting in the way while a pkk gave a smug prover a severe kicking. Pkks sometimes double as spicers, since they're both used for calculated reasons.

The Spicer
Spicers are wiz mortals who add spice to occasional sessions by coming in mid-way through prime time, when everyone has had a chance to arm themselves and stock up on defences. They then proceed to rip through the highlifes like a chainsaw through wood, with everyone at their level or above a target. It is genuinely exciting, so long as it doesn't happen too often of course :-) . It's also terribly depressing in that it shows you just how much you have to learn. These guys are the very best, and they're more than fair. Hats (reluctantly) off to them!

The Auto Pk
They pk because ... that's just what they do! They don't know why any more, they've been a wiz for so long that they've forgotten what life as a mortal is like. They know there was some reason they did it originally, and they may have some platitudes about "testing" rattling around in their heads somewhere, but they've got stuck in the rut of alternating between their wiz and their pk, and so they just keep on going. You have to make sure you flee from them at least once on your way to wiz, so they can feel like they're doing something productive (while reasserting their "the old dog can still bark" status), but, to be honest, they're not really needed. They're just one more hurdle you have to jump on the route to the top.

Having looked at the various pks, and the reasons why they kill, it's worth considering why they think they kill. Almost all will try to conceal the real reasons, the only exceptions being broken achievers (when they say they're doing it for the points, they really mean it; all they deny is that hurting other people bothers them - as if everyone wants antisocial grumpies as wizzes). The root cause of their concealment is either shame or professionalism (but usually shame). The result of their spouting feeble excuses is almost invariably anger (which is, of course, why some of them do it). It helps, though, if you know what to expect.

Here, therefore, are some common pk excuses, and matching rebuttals.

"I'm Only Role-Playing"
In an effort to protect themselves as people from their actions as characters, many players will wheel out this excuse. It doesn't wash. "Hey, I'm a nice person really, I'm just exploring my darker side." Right. Well now you know the consequences of exploring your darker side - the corruption of your lighter side. I'm "only role-playing" when I beat the pulp out of your other characters.

"The Game Needs Pks"
It does. It just doesn't need you, you arrogant bastard.

"It's Just A Game"
I agree, but it's not a game that's about killing people. Some games, like Quake 2, you play with the expectation of having to fight, because that's the whole point of it. It isn't the whole point of the mud I play. It's some of the point, sometimes, but if it were really "just a game" would you get that adrenalin kick from killing people that you do..?

"Players Who Can't Fight Deserve To Be Killed"
Even accepting this ludicrous argument (when I'm a wiz, can I finger of death you, on the grounds that players who can't FOD deserve to be killed?), it's not like pks practise what they preach. Players who can fight regularly get killed, because they are just so massively out-gunned. If I enter the game and am immediately attacked by someone who is well-prepared, then even if I'm a better fighter than they are by some distance, I'm still going to have to flee. If I'm lucky, I can then listen to them boast about how they beat me; if I'm unlucky, I get tired instructions on what I could have done to defend myself, too. Well, not playing would do it...

"The Game Lets Me Do it"
Yes, well it lets you stand around saying "parp parp parp", but nobody does...

"No Offense, I Need the Points"
This is particularly galling coming from pks, since they patently do not need the points. Pks use this excuse to imply that this is just a temporary measure, and they're not really getting a thrill from beating up on other characters, and everything will be just fine and dandy later. It's not. If you pk someone, they have a right to revenge even if you later turn from pking. Plead for mercy, worm, and hope they grant it.

Hopefully, I've given a little insight here into why pks do what they do. What you make of this is up to you; I don't suppose it will go down very well with pks, but then they don't go down very well with most everyone else. It all comes down to the psychology of the individual, their relative maturity, and good, old-fashioned emotion. Some people have yet to learn how to behave; some have a self-centred view of the universe; some want to take revenge on the game for what it's done to them; some want to counteract what they see as imbalances. These are the pks.

Most of us, though, just want to have fun.

Further Reading

Dip into the world view of pks at It's a site run for and by pks. It's meant to be for pks in general, although as most of them play Ultima Online it's heavily slanted towards that in as much as that's what all the tactical articles seem to be about. Since it started taking ads, it's lost some of its integrity; there's a lot of the "ooh, aren't we naughty, we're being evil" types there now, i.e. wannabes.

There's an article about pk excuses at It intersects somewhat with this article, but goes into more detail about specific reasons pks give for behaving as they do.

Richard Bartle's wonderful research paper Hearts, Clubs, Diamonds, Spades is an excellent starting point for anyone interested in the reasons people play muds, and the way that mud communities develop. It has some discussion of pks, but is more concerned with how the various player types interact than why some of them are utter sociopaths in the first place.

Lexley is a keen MUD 2 player and runs a magazine called Witch? that this first article appeared in. The magazine is for players on Wireplay in the UK. a magazine for Copyright © 1999 Lexley Vaughan. Reproduced with permission.