The most common questions that people ask when they see this site is Murder Hobo Club? Really? What the Hell? Are you advocating getting together to murder the homeless? Or are you homeless murders who share tips? Are you insane? What the hell are you thinking?
Well, the phrase murder hobo is something that has some resonance for me. For reasons I can’t understand, it’s something that has come to mind randomly over the last few years. I think I originally heard it on the Order of the Stick forums, or the Pathfinder forums. It referred to a style of gaming that I think has become all too common. The characters, the heroes of the narrative, rather than having a noble goal, end up wandering around, with no ties to a society, randomly murdering monsters, some of which have been proven to be intelligent. And for the most part, rather than questioning the implications of such actions, gaming culture has glorified them.
I recall one public roleplaying game that I was playing in, during which the majority of the damage done to the party was the result of my chemist character throwing around magical molotov cocktails. He was being effective, the enemies rarely had a chance to harm any of the party members. From one point of view, this was a well built character. He efficiently removed the opposition to the party.
From another point of view, he was something of a monster. Even if he was doing the right thing, for the right reasons, he going about it the wrong way. He had completely disregarded the advice of Nietzsche. He had quite clearly become a monster, while fighting monsters.
At that point, he and the party of adventurers, they weren’t heroes, they were wandering murder hobos. Around then, I realized that something just wasn’t quite right and I took a break from playing that character.
Later, I was running a public game and I realized that I hadn’t been alone in my descent from hero to monster, it was something more common to the gamer experience. While most systems have rules that make it less likely that you’ll do splash damage to innocent civilians, many systems have impressive destructive powers that would have at the very least a psychological impact on the civilians who observe your actions. Rather than praising these “adventurers”, writing songs about them, looking up to them, and all the things that these grateful villagers supposedly do, it seems more likely that they’d either be hiding from the party, or getting out the pitchforks and trying to chase them out of town.
The shift towards anti-heroes in fantasy media and geek culture isn’t something new, but I think in many cases the consequences of this shift are neglected or ignored.
When I’m playing Shadowrun, I know I’m taking on the role of someone who lives outside the system, as the game is about being a deniable asset. While it is possible to create a party who are all on the right side of the law, this is not the expectation or the norm. It’s understood that you’ll be breaking the law, and getting well paid for it. It is a game that focuses on the many shades of grey.
Fantasy Roleplaying games, and by that I mean games in the style of Dungeons & Dragons or Pathfinder, tend to assume that the party are heroes. The core assumption is that you are the good guys, trying to save the world from the forces of darkness.
Both D&D and Pf have the 2 Axis of Alignment, Order vs Chaos and Good vs Evil. There are plenty of memes and postings out there talking about how alignments gets abused, and for the most part, it gets treated like a joke. After all, these are games, we are playing them for fun; we’re rolling dice to enjoy a story with friends, to relax. To get a chance to escape from the stress and mundane aspects of our ordinary lives. So, why take them seriously?
Well, at some point, we realized that the idea of role playing had some merit as a tool in psychotherapy. We realized that being able to play out various scenarios helped us to engage with ideas on a less cerebral way than merely thinking about them. So, if role playing is valid as a psychological tool, then shouldn’t we consider the psychological aspects of our roleplaying?