D&D General Violence and D&D: Is "Murderhobo" Essential to D&D?

Snarf Zagyg

Notorious Liquefactionist
When all you have is a hammer, every problem looks like nail.

The recent threads on the removal of alignment from humanoid races (such as orcs, kobolds, etc.) has caused me to reflect more deeply on the nature of violence within TTRPGs generally, and D&D specifically. I had my original thoughts here:

But at the end of that post, I curled around to what I think is the underlying issue I have recently been wrestling with; the nature of violence in Dungeons & Dragons. In the title to the post, I cheekily refer to the question as to whether or not "hobomurder" is essential to D&D, but this is more a post (and a thread) about the nature of violence in society, fiction, and D&D. About the way that our culture celebrates violence, and the way that the rules of D&D channel activities toward violence; in effect, the game itself rewards violence. That's the reason why I started this with the quote I did; traditionally, D&D prizes combat, and when the rules of the game are geared toward combat (violence), it is more likely that every problem can be solved through combat (violence).

My purpose is not to assign any sort of blame, by the way. This is just something I'm thinking about in light of WoTC's recent actions, and I am wondering if other people think the same way?

This brief examination will look at three issues; first is the overall cultural impact of violence, second is the rules focus of D&D toward violence, and third is the alignment aspect.


A. Natural Born Killers.

It's inarguable that popular culture favors and fetishizes violence. This is not something new; Edmund Burke, when writing on the sublime, observed, "Whatever is fitted in any sort to excite the ideas of pain, and danger, that is to say, whatever is in any sort terrible or is conversant about terrible objects, or operates in a manner analogous to terror, is a source of the sublime. ... Little more can be said than that the idea of bodily pain, in all the modes and degrees of labour, pain, anguish, torment, is productive of the sublime; and nothing else in this sense can produce it." We enjoy seeing violence and cruelty , so long as it is inflicted upon someone other than ourselves. A public hanging, a public execution, is the prior version of today's John Wick film; what is past is prologue.

This trend arguably became even more pronounced in America due to the adoption of the MPAA ratings code in 1968, which began to ratchet up the amount of allowable violence through the 70s and 80s while perversely clamping down on almost everything else (from profanity to sexual expression); eventually getting to the strange phenomenon of movies wherein a still-beating heart could be ripped out of a chest in a human sacrifice and scrape by with a PG, but two curse words or sexual innuendo (let alone actual nudity) sent a movie to the realm of R.

But key to this is the trend, in both movies and in television (seriously, 80s TV, man), of the "inverse ninja law." Specifically, that the hero would be able to dispatch numerous unnamed minions and henchmen with varying amount of bloodshed depending on the nature of the show/movie (Commando? Lots of blood. Hardcastle & McCormick or Airwolf? Not so much.) For the most part, mere identity within an evil organization or opposition to the hero is sufficient for death.

And this trend continues to today. For the most part, it is unremarked upon, unless it is elevated to the level of conspicuous slaughter so over-the-top it almost becomes a parody of itself (such as John Wick) or it arguably calls attention to the tension it would have with deeper themes (such as Snyder's Superman). Violence, though, is part and parcel of modern popular culture.


B. If Orcs Weren't Made out of XP, I Wouldn't Kill Them.

I am not going to dwell too much on the "hobomurder" past of D&D; I think that it is both true and overstated. Yes, there was a reason that (for example) the designers had to "stat up" shopkeepers in the City State of the Invincible Overlord in the 70s to keep PCs from slaughtering them to take their stuff; but there were a multitude of games and a multitude of styles. Not every game was so-called hobomurder.

Yet ... the rules of D&D, both then and now, favor violence. While there are different ways of getting XP (GP, milestone, etc.) the one, sure-fire way that has always existed? Killing.
How do you get more stuff? Killing the things that have the stuff.
Pre-published adventures (modules, APs)? Assume that you will kill stuff, with VERY few counter-examples (such as Beyond the Crystal Cave).
Spells? Mostly combat.
Rules and abilities for characters? Geared toward combat.
Combat rules? Almost all about lethal combat, not subduing.
Social skills? Almost always vastly underdeveloped compared to combat sections.

And so on. Heck, the game descended from wargaming, and people discuss the necessity of a grid or battlemap for playing! While you don't need to play D&D in a violent manner, it is very hard to avoid doing so.


C. Relevance to the Current Situation.

Circling back around, I understand why we want to have moral absolutes in D&D. If there is something that is evil, irredeemably and unalterably so, then it makes sense to kill it. There can be no argument, no quarter given, no moral qualms whatsoever about the just use of violence. To use the easiest example, if there is a demon that is unalterably evil, then destroying that demon must be good.

Given D&D is a game that is inextricably tied into violence, then, there might be some questions raised when it is not a demon, but a human or humanoid; perhaps it is as simple as an 80s film, and in this fiction, by opposing the protagonist, they must be put to the sword. Or perhaps not.

I keep circling around to this issue because I am torn between competing impulses; on the one hand, D&D is a game, and a fiction. It is fun and escapist. To sit around and spend all my time wondering about the morality of killing kobolds seems about as sensible as worrying about the ethics of capitalism while playing Monopoly.

...and yet, maybe there is something about this underlying violence. I am certainly less comfortable blithely ignoring the issue completely than I was. I am just uncertain what, if anything, there is to do.

I thought I'd start a thread to see what other people were thinking about this. Thoughts?

EDIT: Title edited to reflect we not murdering hobos.
 
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DND_Reborn

Legend
First, nice post.

Second, I think it is vital for people to understand that while combat often occurs, taking a creature to 0 HP =/= death or murder. A creature at 0 HP could fall unconscious, drop its weapons and surrender, etc.

Third, D&D is often about "quests" or "adventures" and so on. Does that need to involve confrontation with another creature in a violent way? Not at all. Overcoming obstacles can be any kind of obstacle. I try to impress on my players that violence is not necessarily the answer, but I also want to keep things in a perspective that doesn't break immersion. For example, if a devil is hell-bent (no pun intended) on killing your PC, talking probably isn't going to help.

I think one thing that would be incredible if WotC can pull it off is to offer non-lethal alternatives to hack-and-slash (more use of terrain, tactics, etc.) in combat and include more challenges with DCs above 12 or 13 so PCs really have to think of a way to overcome whatever is there. Even at higher levels a DC 20 is not much of a challenge anymore. Perhaps this would involve rethinking some mechanics of the game?

Finally, unfortunately, death is the final victory. An opponent might surrender, but nothing says they won't come back to try to kill the PC tomorrow--and tomorrow they might succeed. In that sense, the best thing a PC can do is to make certain "there will be no survivors."
 

While hobomurder seems to be a stereotype of D&D and I've seen a some posters claim that it is what the game is built around, I've not actually been in a hobomurder game in a long time.
Combat is a fairly common occurrence in D&D games, but to most characters of my experience, it is not the first resort.

For a lot of people the game has moved on from its rather morally basic origins.
 


Snarf Zagyg

Notorious Liquefactionist
While hobomurder seems to be a stereotype of D&D and I've seen a some posters claim that it is what the game is built around, I've not actually been in a hobomurder game in a long time.
Combat is a fairly common occurrence in D&D games, but to most characters of my experience, it is not the first resort.

For a lot of people the game has moved on from its rather morally basic origins.

I'm bolding that bit. Maybe this is a miscommunication, but unless you mean that you rarely have combat, and that when you do it is usually non-lethal, I think that this fully applies to what I was saying with regards to violence.

If you didn't read the post fully, I said this at the beginning:

In the title to the post, I cheekily refer to the question as to whether or not "hobomurder" is essential to D&D, but this is more a post (and a thread) about the nature of violence in society, fiction, and D&D. About the way that our culture celebrates violence, and the way that the rules of D&D channel activities toward violence; in effect, the game itself rewards violence.

Hope that helps!
 

shesheyan

Explorer
1) Conflict is necessary to adventure fiction. The DM creates imbalances in the world which trigger potential adventures.

2) D&D has always had Morale rules. Fleeing, surrender and negotiation with the opponents are a thing in my campaigns. This is a roleplaying game after all.

3) Senseless hack & slash killing is boring. Play a computer game instead.
 
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Snarf Zagyg

Notorious Liquefactionist


Umbran

Mod Squad
Staff member
I keep circling around to this issue because I am torn between competing impulses; on the one hand, D&D is a game, and a fiction. It is fun and escapist. To sit around and spend all my time wondering about the morality of killing kobolds seems about as sensible as worrying about the ethics of capitalism while playing Monopoly.

You do realize that Monopoly is based on a game designed to show how monopolies are bad, and how other elements of economic policy should be, right? It was originally intended to make you consider the system, not just glorify "winning" at it.

 

Phion

Explorer
Great post. Ultimately D&D started by trying to recreate fantasy setting so in turn it incorporated the "Heroes journey" model which is by extension a male's wish fulfilment (comprising of values such as strength/ masculinity). With it's increasing popularity it is natural that the game will evolve to incorporate factors that will appeal more to the opposite sex and other communities.

The game (in my opinion anyway) is likely going to focus on areas that reduces the importance of the combat pillar and increase attention on the exploration and narrative pillars. This is good as it keeps things fresh and encourages people to try new things and broaden their thinking process.

However we need to also consider how much outside factors/ politics will influence the game. Are we going to get rid of knives in d&d in response to the rising knife crime? Are we going to get rid of the acid damage due to increasing acid attacks in clubs? If your answer to this is "of course not!" then why not? If enough people have been harmed by it and you care so much for peoples feeling why would you not do everything you can to make them comfortable (a typical argument I see)? What makes their real world woes less valid than say BLM? I say this not being malicious but highlighting a moral quandary of when a game needs to be left as just a game.
 


Phion

Explorer
You do realize that Monopoly is based on a game designed to show how monopolies are bad, and how other elements of economic policy should be, right? It was originally intended to make you consider the system, not just glorify "winning" at it.


And how many 7 year olds realistically stopped to consider that? Regardless of intent, the reality is people will focus on winning within a game and not many will be looking for a philosophy lesson.
 


Snarf Zagyg

Notorious Liquefactionist
Great post. Ultimately D&D started by trying to recreate fantasy setting so in turn it incorporated the "Heroes journey" model which is by extension a male's wish fulfilment (comprising of values such as strength/ masculinity). With it's increasing popularity it is natural that the game will evolve to incorporate factors that will appeal more to the opposite sex and other communities.

The game (in my opinion anyway) is likely going to focus on areas that reduces the importance of the combat pillar and increase attention on the exploration and narrative pillars. This is good as it keeps things fresh and encourages people to try new things and broaden their thinking process.

However we need to also consider how much outside factors/ politics will influence the game. Are we going to get rid of knives in d&d in response to the rising knife crime? Are we going to get rid of the acid damage due to increasing acid attacks in clubs? If your answer to this is "of course not!" then why not? If enough people have been harmed by it and you care so much for peoples feeling why would you not do everything you can to make them comfortable (a typical argument I see)? What makes their real world woes less valid than say BLM? I say this not being malicious but highlighting a moral quandary of when a game needs to be left as just a game.

Really good thoughts, especially your ending note. I really don't know at what point you end up in an endless argument between, "Sometimes a cigar is just a cigar," and "Ceci n'est une pipe."

Acknowledging that drawing a line can be tough, doesn't mean that you don't draw the line somewhere. It's always easier to see in retrospect- I don't think very many people today disagree that making the game more inclusive to women by getting rid of ability caps and toning down the art (to use easy examples) was bad or hurt the game, for example.
 

Mistwell

Crusty Old Meatwad (he/him)
While it is not essential to play hobomurderers in D&D, I think it is essential that the game at least support that type of play for those who choose to play that way. It's as essential to support that model as it is to support political intrigue, exploration, investigative, and other types of common play models that various groups enjoy.

If it's not your thing, then I hope your thing sees support as well. But, I sure hope the game continues to support hobomurder style too, because I often enjoy it. When life in the real world gets super serious and you're playing with you lifelong pals online who are scattered around the nation now and have families and are also experiencing super serious lives, it's pretty damn fun to just murderhobo sometimes. Sometimes, you just are not in the mood for moral quandaries or serious roleplay.

It's funny, in my teens the game started out with murderhobo style in the 80s for me, then it moved to heavy intrigue and investigation and lots of deep role playing in my 30s, and now that I have reached my 50s we're back into murderhobo style. Consider that, if it's not your thing right now, it might once again be your thing in the future too.
 

Oofta

Legend
Should Batman kill The Joker? I mean, I get it. Largely thanks to the comic-book panic of the 50s and because people love recurring villains, Batman doesn't kill. Well, except when he does but that's another story.

But take The Joker. No matter how many times Batman sends him to Arkham, the Joker always escapes. Like every time. Every time Joker escapes he terrorizes the city, usually with a pretty high body count. At what point does the moral calculation change to saving innocent lives by ending the threat once and for all?

It's the same with some TV shows. The protagonists have just mowed down a couple dozen nameless guards, have the BBEG in their sites but then let him go. Why? Because if they kill the BBEG they'll "be just like him". Seriously dude? You saw him kill your own mother, you know if you don't kill him he'll set off a doomsday device that will take out half the city and now you've decided to be a pacifist?

Which kind of goes back to something I was thinking about starting which is Crime and Punishment in D&D. What if you don't have prisons? What happens when there are no authorities to turn the bad guys over to? What happens when the BBEG is running away and you know he's planning on releasing a magical plague to wipe out half the city? Actions or inaction of the PCs matter.

Generally speaking the PCs in my campaign are not dealing with petty theft or minor crimes when they cross paths with criminals. They're either dealing with murderous cults trying to stop atrocities or are effectively fighting the front lines of an ongoing war. If they're fighting a hostile aberration, it's because that outsider is at the forefront of an invasion not because they broke into the aberration's house to steal shiny stuff.

End of the day, yes, it is just a game. If the PCs can find a way to make peace or avoid conflict altogether, fantastic. If they just want to wade in and start hacking the bad guys? We can do that too. I don't encourage either approach (I don't use XP).

My big takeaway? Is the group having fun? Are we telling a story we enjoy? If so, we're doing it right.
 

Enrico Poli1

Adventurer
In my opinion...
Violence is ingrained in human experience. In ancient times, for millennia, males had to protect the females during pregnancy, and hunt to gain food. This is the basis for male aggressivity: violent males are more likely to survive with their female and offspring. This is also the reason girls prefer bad boys to nerds. The reason for which boys istinctively prefer weapons for toys, while girls prefer dolls. The reason for which we like aggressivity in sports and movies.
On this basis, western culture built a true mystique of violence and war, glorifying the characters of the Hero as a monster-slaying warrior (i.e.Hercules) and as a knight (i.e.King Arthur).
Listening a Myth, reading a fable, or playing D&D, you can live an experience in which you identify with the Hero, who fights, kills the monsters, and saves the princess, becoming adult in the process. It is truly rewarding.
This is the reason that I am in love with this game.

So, while in modern real life violence is unacceptable, in myths, fables, D&D (but also in sports and movies) violence is positive and actually required: a man needs violence to become an adult, but since violence is controlled nowadays, at least It can be surrogated in tales and sports. It is... educative. It Is MORAL. Actually, abolishing violence in movies and D&D is a very BAD choice.
 

When I play God of War (the new one, which strives for some moral nuance), I don't want to wander around for an hour not fighting as I discover a reason to dislike one particular guy whom I then have a morally justified fight against.

I want to run into monsters and stab them because that's exciting. I want to bash undead skulls. I want to rip the limbs off trolls. And then I want a morally justified battle against a real significant foe.

I don't want a monster to beg for mercy and then die at my hands. Ew, gross. But I want situations presented on a platter where I can just have some fun and overcome a challenge by 'playing the game right.'

It's so fxxxing exhausting to try to solve real problems in my actual life. I sometimes just want games where I can get easy catharsis. It shouldn't be hard to find ways to do that that don't involve killing innocent people.
 

I'm bolding that bit. Maybe this is a miscommunication, but unless you mean that you rarely have combat, and that when you do it is usually non-lethal, I think that this fully applies to what I was saying with regards to violence.

If you didn't read the post fully, I said this at the beginning:

In the title to the post, I cheekily refer to the question as to whether or not "hobomurder" is essential to D&D, but this is more a post (and a thread) about the nature of violence in society, fiction, and D&D. About the way that our culture celebrates violence, and the way that the rules of D&D channel activities toward violence; in effect, the game itself rewards violence.

Hope that helps!
Yep. I posted mostly to agree with you, particularly on the first paragraph under part B of your OP.

To clarify about combat, IME it is generally glorified somewhat, but because it usually occurs in a fairly righteous fashion: Often defence of others and against foes that are either unable or unwilling to resolve in a different way.

The game that I've seen the most violence against non-irredeemable beings is actually the one I run for Eberron, in which the party is in opposition to some generally non-evil aligned factions. However between the Paladin, Cleric and other good-aligned characters, the party tries to avoid fighting and tries to stick to non-lethal options if they can.

Combat is the most rules-intensive part of the game. I think more complexity and options might work well in the other pillars as optional content, possibly similar to the skill challenge system of 4e. Resolving non-combat challenges usually has more interaction directly with the DM rather than the rules in a lot of games though.
 

Fenris-77

Small God of the Dozens
One nexus for this discussion is probably encounter design. Personally, I don't design combat encounters, at all. I design encounters that have goals, and one of the ways to accomplish those goals, sometimes, will be combat. When the goals are things like get across the clearing, or maybe to escape before the gate closes, or pretty regularly get the shiny thing whilst avoiding the many guardians, then the encounter will have options and handholds to support several solution types - many kinds of actions are possible. When the encounter is kill the orcs, then what you get is dead orcs.

Another nexus for discussion is the CR system. When the players know that the encounters are balanced for their ability then the stakes for choosing combat as your resolution tool are pretty low. If your game doesn't use CR, and the players are actually supposed to think hard about whether or not the beast in the cave is going to eat their lunch with ease, then players tend to look harder and longer at non-combat options.
 

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