So, murder hobos. You know what they look like. There’s this big, bad adventuring party, and, man, they just don’t give a fuck. There’s no threat too small to be met with unrelenting violence. There’s no enemy who can’t be utterly demonized. There’s no amount of suffering and strife that can’t be marginalized and ignored. These mother-fuckers have shit to do, and anything or anyone who gets in their way is scum to be ground beneath their boots.
I think most of us have played like this at one time or another. And damned if it wasn’t really fun sometimes. We get to run around and wreck shit with absolute abandon. Blood, guts, screaming, and fire. Always fire. What better way to solve a problem than to light it on fire?
We probably meant to do that.
Taking a step back, though, making some distance between myself and that fun, here’s what I’m going to say about the whole murder hobo thing: please don’t play like that. This is a request to myself, to my friends, and to everyone else who plays role-playing games. I would like you to reject that kind of play. It’s bad. Definitely bad. Maybe evil.
But I guess that’s kind of a big thing to say. Can a mode of play be morally problematic? Even evil? That might not be immediately obvious, so let me go into a bit more detail.
I’m not rendering judgment on fictional content or subject matter, not as such. Games can be as nasty and violent as they please, and there isn’t necessarily anything wrong with that. We can play games where we pillage, murder, rape, terrorize, assassinate, commit acts of genocide, or mix all those together into a great, big atrocity salad. That is entirely legitimate subject matter to present in fiction. No problem there.
What I am going to render judgment on, though, is a particular way of engaging that subject matter. Put simply, we shouldn’t be flippant about ethically relevant subjects. When we unleash our murder hobos and have them lay waste to an unsuspecting world, we’re presenting ethically relevant subject matter. It’s our responsibility, as people creating and experiencing fiction, to engage that subject matter in a way that respects its importance.
In case that’s overly abstract, I’ll give you a concrete example. Let’s say our adventuring party has been hired to exterminate the local orc tribe. The game text tells us that orcs, a type of intelligent, sapient creature, are evil. Actually, it tells us they are Evil. This is a firm category distinction. Given that our adventurers are, on the whole, decent members of their society, they have no real qualms with wiping out a group of Evil creatures. The village burns and the tribe along with it, slaughtered down to the last tiny orclet. The adventurers receive their payment, and the governor who hired them rests easy.
That’s a perfectly reasonable series of events. It’s standard adventure fiction and makes for fairly engaging play. Here’s the thing, though. The adventurers, when they destroyed the orc tribe, committed a genocide. There’s no way around that. They set out to eliminate an entire group of people. Moreover, they were paid. They did genocide for hire. I don’t care if the game text says orcs are Evil. I don’t care if the adventurers were certain of the righteousness of their task. I don’t care if the orcs were armed to the teeth. I don’t care if orcs have green skin and really, really gross faces. It was a fucking genocide.
Some of them are even ruggedly handsome.
Given this fiction, we, the players, basically have two ways to engage. We can acknowledge what’s happening in the fiction, see the genocide and address it as such, or we can ignore what’s going on. And guess what, only one of those options is defensible. There’s only one responsible and ethically coherent way to engage with fiction about genocide. We acknowledge the genocide, treat it as the intensely relevant subject that it is, and make that acknowledgement an active part of our experience. If we don’t make that engagement (and here’s a potentially bold proclamation), then we are creating fiction which, at best, ignores the reality of genocide or, at worst, defends genocide as a practice. In either case, we’re doing something flatly unacceptable.
Too much? Was that completely out of proportion for a game about elves and goblins? I don’t think so, but let’s hit this from another angle. Let’s back off from nazis and orcs. Consider sexism. Consider a game whose setting features a lot of sexism. Maybe it’s a kind of pseudo-historical rendition of medieval Europe (exotic!). Women are expected to feel ashamed of their vaginas, suck all available cocks, birth a mountain of babies, and die unobtrusively (that order is prefered but not mandated). Sexism is alive and obvious.
How should we engage this fiction? Should we avoid the sexist content? Should we play enlightened characters who seek to undermine the sexism in their culture? Maybe. Those could be legitimate ways to play. But I don’t think we have to play like that. We could play characters who are utterly typical in their sexism. Or we could play as super-sexists, a bunch of assholes who wear their misogyny on their sleeves. That could also be legit. The particulars of our fiction are less important than the ways in which we frame the fiction (though there’s also plenty of reason to care about the particulars). It’s the difference between featuring content and normalizing content. We can have sexism in our fiction. There’s nothing automatically wrong with that. What would be wrong, however, is treating the sexism like it isn’t a problem. If the sexism exists without critique, explicit or implicit, then we’ve created sexist fiction.
That’s how it is for all morally relevant content. If our fiction features racism without critique, then our fiction is racist. If our fiction features transphobia without critique, then our fiction is transphobic. If our fiction features classism without critique, then our fiction is classist. Fill in the blanks with whatever ism you prefer. It’s gonna work the same every time. Featuring content without critique normalizes that content and gives it tacit approval.
This means, for better or worse, we have some obligations. As caring, sensitive, responsible, non-asshole authors, we have to find ways to interact with this content. We have to be conscious about our craft. We have to confront all those difficult isms. We have to give a shit about what we’re doing when we play. Alternately, we can try to avoid this content altogether. That’s hypothetically possible, I suppose, but I have no idea what that fiction looks like. Fiction without morally relevant content. Good luck.
So, does this mean no murder hobos? Maybe. I dunno. At the very least we can’t pretend our murder hobos are flawless heroes. We can’t ignore their awfulness. Let them be as terrible as you like, but don’t act like they aren’t terrible. That isn’t always easy, of course. We all have habits and ingrained ways of thinking. It takes effort to counteract that shit, and we’re bound to fail from time to time. We’re bound to make bad fiction sometimes. Totally sucks, but that’s just how it’s going to be. The important thing is that we’re making a real effort, that we’re doing our best to play responsibly and with integrity.
Oh, and I don’t care if your murder hobos are “ironic.” That’s bullshit. When you play that way you’re basically saying “I want to engage in shitty behavior, but I’m going to maintain an emotional distance from that behavior so I don’t feel bad about it.” There’s nothing defensible about that. It might feel better than being outright awful, but it’s still pretty awful. Don’t do it.