Monday, May 2, 2016

A Mere Wrecca


Participants in- and gawkers at- the tabletop RPG scene will have noticed a theme in commentary on D&D and its ilk: Played in the default style, D&D doesn't come out like Tolkien, and this is the subject of much wroth and writhing. For instance, Burning Wheel--one of many attempts to remedy that and the world's accidentally funniest RPG--introduces itself like thiswise:

Like the old grand-daddy RPG, Dungeons and Dragons, Burning Wheel is nothing more than a template—a trellis for the vines of imagination to grow on. But unlike it’s [SIC] predecessors, this system is versatile and powerful; it can handle any fantastic situation with consistency and accuracy.... 
Without being hokey or gimmicky, the system attempts to create an accurate portrayal of the model that inspired all of these games, epic fiction. Initially my mission was only to build the proverbial “better system,” but my true motive emerged as the system took root. I wanted to construct a game that could create better stories—something closer to the thrilling narratives that we all grew up on and that still grip our imaginations.

One of the very many absolutely undyingly adorable things about this intro is the author's faith that everyone of literate age grew up on "epic fiction" and not, say, Conan or Fafhrd & Grey Mouser or Arzach or James and the Giant Peach thus justifying his game's desire to be "closer" to a model he presumes all stabgames aspire to.

JRR Tolkien himself addresses just this kind of confusion in his lecture on Beowulf...

Nearly all the censure, and most of the praise, that has been bestowed on Beowulf has been due either to the belief that it was something that it wasn't, for example, primitive, pagan, Teutonic, an allegory (political or mythical), or most often, an epic; or to disappointment at the discovery that it was itself and not something that the scholar would have liked better--for example, a heathen heroic lay, a history of Sweden, a manual of Germanic antiquities, or a Nordic Summa Theologica.

At the heart of the concern that D&D isn't a Tolkien epic is the figure of the murderhobo--the greedy engine of unplotted terror that haunts the dreams of aspirationgamers everywhere. Urban Dictionary:

Murderhobo: The typical protagonist of a fantasy role-playing game, who is a homeless guy who goes around killing people and taking their stuff. The term originated in discussions of tabletop role playing games by authors seeking to create games aimed at styles of play not supported by traditional games like Dungeons & Dragons.

Typical forum post dredged up by random googling:

The murder hobo has been a problem for RPGs for years. These characters have no purpose or reason aside from killing people, taking their stuff, and then buying better tools to kill more people with. While we all admit these characters are a problem, we don't always have a suggestion for ways to fix them.

Typical blog dredged up by random googling:

If you feel you or players at your table are at risk of allowing a murder hobo (or worse a pack of them!) to flourish then follow these simple steps to inject genuine character and pathos into your game...

Heavens! A pack you say?

Notwithstanding the fact that even Robin Laws seems to not grasp the awesome storytelling possibilities of murderhoboes, intelligent gamers have long been aware of them. However, it's interesting to note Tolkien, the sore spot and source-point of all these dreams of morally-redemptive mythopoesis, himself creeps up to the edge of a similar complaint against Beowulf:

The plot was not the poet's; and though he has infused feeling and significance into its crude material, that plot was not a perfect vehicle of the theme or themes that came to hidden life in the poet's mind as he worked upon it. Not an unusual event in literature. For the contrast--youth and death--it would probably have been better, if we had no journeying. If the single nation of the Geats had been the scene, we should have felt the stage not narrower, but symbolically wider. More plainly should we have perceived in one people and their hero all mankind and its heroes. 

This at any rate I have always myself felt in reading Beowulf; but I have also felt that this defect is rectified by the bringing of the tale of Grendel to Geatland. As Beowulf stands in Hygelac's hall and tells his story, he sets his feet firm again in the land of his own people, and is no longer in danger of appearing a mere wrecca, an errant adventurer and slayer of bogies that do not concern him.

...and if you're fun you immediately go Who's this wrecca? Tell me all about this motherfucker. And if you're really fun you have access to Bosworth's Anglo Saxon Dictionary:

Wrecca, Wræcca: one driven from his own country, a wanderer in foreign lands, an exile, a stranger, pilgrim.

From wrecan--to drive (out) or to avenge--like the Swedish vrak--trash, the Icelandic rek--anything drifted ashore, related to wreck, of course, and wretch and wreak (as in vengeance or havoc).

Wrecca. Good name for a game.
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36 comments:

Rob Schwarz said...

Both the definition and quite suggest murder hobos go around killing 'people'. That sounds loaded to make average adventurers saving a village from trolls sound like genocidal monsters. It sounds like something storyteller gamers would say to put down other styles of play.

Zak Sabbath said...

Of course:
attack by innuendo rather than actual argument is a real thing.

Which you kinda make yourself vbulnerable to by describing people who'd do that as "storyteller gamers".

To put it more clearly: people who complain that rootless wanderers are "a problem" (rather than simply not their taste) simply bad people, regardless of the kind of game they themselves want to play.

Gus L said...

Among a certain set of players and GMs (say 5e Redditors or DL2's text) see these complaints about the "mythic" murderhobo contrasted with descriptions of good games that contain so much rampant pointless massacre. Only in the "epic" game it's a "camp" of orcs or draconians slaughtered without mercy rather then grasping NPC's of "good" races.

To me most complaints I see regarding murderhobos are complaints about a combat focused railroad game with little exploration world building or rp where the player decide they are bored following plot points. Are they 'acting out' trying to show displeasure at thier lack of agency? Are they annoyed at pointless GM monolouge between scripted combats and trying to 'skip the cut scene' by killing NPCs? Do they really want to play 'bad' characters? Does it matter?

The issue in all of these cases is GM overreach, the GM thinking the players don't want to tell thier PCs story, but instead want the GM to tell the (epic) story while they roll dice.

Gus L said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Zak Sabbath said...

Those complaints about obviously dysfunctional games (railroading+people who don't want to be railroaded) are not the ones I talk about here.

Zak Sabbath said...

Those complaints about obviously dysfunctional games (railroading+people who don't want to be railroaded) are not the ones I talk about here.

mattruane said...

You know, one could make the argument that Herakles is the ur-Murderhobo. Pretty much his labors are examples of going out, killing things, and taking their stuff. Sure there is a purpose behind his actions (to seek forgiveness for his murdering wife and children) but Herakles goes back to kill some of the individuals who he encountered during his travels.

I'd even make a strong case that even Jason and most of the Argonauts are proto-murder hoboes, seeking a magic item at all costs regardless of who is going to stop them. Honestly, how much more murder-hobo can you get that cutting up the body of Medea's brother and tossing it into the Black Sea behind them so they can escape.

Literature is filled with the murder hobo or a similar character. I do wonder if we would even be having these conversations if something like Mazes & Minotaurs (as the authors explain) had been the source material, rather than Tolkien, for Gygax and company.

Zak Sabbath said...

We'd still be having it, as the conversation surrounding comics proves.

The desire for morally redemptive art and/or the desire to claim some tinkertoy Campbellian processes can make art "deep" are like siren songs to less intelligent people.

ddwl said...

"The desire for morally redemptive art and/or the desire to claim some tinkertoy Campbellian processes can make art "deep" are like siren songs to less intelligent people."

Can you prove this?

It seems a lot like the statements you criticize the Drama Club for making.

Or is this statement completely independent of gaming products?

Adamantyr said...

Another interesting note, when L. Sprauge de Camp interviewed Tolkien, he found out that Tolkien quite enjoyed the Conan and Fafhrd/Grey Mouser stories. And both of those are definitely the foundation of the itenierant adventurer model.

In fact, Fritz Leiber explained it as being part of his own experience during the Depression, when you would take on odd jobs anywhere to make extra money and may have to travel to find work.

My experience is that the "murderhobo" is not a result of a gaming system, it's the players. And how is that even wrong anyway? If someone likes to kill things and take their stuff that's just the kind of game they like.

Nobody games "wrong". They just may be at the wrong gaming table, playing with the wrong people.

Konsumterra said...

wrekka is the name i used for anti super hero robots in my game

Konsumterra said...

The supposed great epics that people aspire to are mostly nationalistic revisioins of the late 19th century and tied up in the racist taxonomy of Victorians. They were used to make claims of land ownership in Europe and to claim the people of the timer were linked to the landscape into ancient times. Modern fantasy still has many problems from this.

Murder hoboes are pretty honest. I can imagine if you get to 9th level and buy a castle and get a title, you would pay bards to write of your heroic deeds, unfolding destiny and great virtue. Perhaps build a statue and a few generations later you are a hero.

Most of my players enjoy catharsis of playing murder hobos - especially those who have to be nice all day for a living. Some don't enjoy this. I suspect while i like dr who I shouldn't join in on a game group playing it.

Gus L said...

I'm not sure which complaints your specifically discussing - the ones above seem to be general and vague, so they strike me more as a general fear of disruptive play given the label "murdehobos".

When I see the general complaint about murderhobos I tend to suspect a complaint about the breakdown of a railroad/storypath or players annoyed by a lack of agency.

The characterization of picaresque open world play as 'murdehoboism' is an unfortunate turn of phrase, but I don't think feeling trying to figure out mechanics that offer a way to tell 'epic fantasy' better then D&D does as itself a bad project. Heck Pendragon does a pretty good job of enabling an entirely different sort of story then D&D by mucking with mechanics.

Brian Vencill said...

The Lord of the Rings isn't particularly murderhobo-centric, but other Tolkien works have certain elements of this sort of thing. The Hobbit is about a band of displaced dwarves seeking vengeance and riches. Beren, Turin, Feanor, and Tuor all feature character traits similar to the murderhobo archetype.

Ro Annis said...

I was never a big fan of playing D&D in the epic "Tolkien" style. It worked to play that way for a few minutes, then everyone would just start having fun, much like the Burning Wheel link. It is when the game is at that spot that I think the game really works. Concerning the Wrecca, I think one of the issues is the way experience is handled in D&D. Basically, you get points when 1) you kill monsters and 2) take their stuff. No points for saving the villagers, trying new things or anything else. This pretty much encourages players to be Wreccas.

Zak Sabbath said...

Saving villagers and trying new things obviously leads to getting gold and therfore xp.

If your group wanted this to happen and didn't rig up the adventure so that's how the reward worked, they made a mistake.

GP as reward is infinitely malleable to the demands of plot/

Zak Sabbath said...

I can give many examples, of course:

Cam Banks, the denizens of Grognards.txt. the folks who attacked Shanna Germain on RPGnet, the ones who attacked the women in our group and Fred Hicks are all unintelligent and also want their games to carry moral lessons, and discuss the deleterious moral effects of games they dislike often.

Zak Sabbath said...

"the ones above"

To what does this refer?

Ro Annis said...

The mechanics of a game system have a major effect on the way the game is played. Players of D&D have (thankfully) come up with all sorts of ways to make their game work, in spite of how TSR/WOTC wants you to play. I think tying gaining XP (and levels) exclusively to Killin'-N-Hoardin' is a waste. This shouldn't eliminate these activities, but be additive to them. Killin'-N-Hoardin' is fun, but so is coming up with a really whupass plan, having the nads to carry it out and perhaps even failing in the process. You should get XP for this. It encourages expansive play.

Ro Annis said...

...is it ok to say "whupass"? Oh, yeah I had to push that I'm over 18 button, so it should be ok.

Zak Sabbath said...

Suggesting that there is a " way TSR/WOTC wants you to play" is unsupported. The game is broad on purpose.

-"I think tying gaining XP (and levels) exclusively to Killin'-N-Hoardin' is a waste."

This is a statement of taste, and so not really something can be argued with, though if you can kill or hoard without trying new things, you DM is very bad.


Your scheme doesn't necessarily inspire "expansive play" it inspires creative plans that are not particularly competitively rigorous. So :clever on one level but not on the other.


Awesome plans which fail get no xp. Awesome plans which succeed get xp.

This encourages "expansive play" PLUS creative thinking.

If you get xp no matter what, there's no incentive to really think of a great plan, just one creative enough that your GM goes "Ok, you are trying to be creative, here's xp".

Ro Annis said...

I agree, it is a statement of taste. That is why I would never say such and such a group should play my way or some other specific way. I also agree that a more rigorous successful plan should warrant a greater Xp award. As far as TSR/WOTC...my claim is unsupported, it is just a nagging suspicion that I will have to keep an eye on as read more and more.

Menace 3 Society said...

I do think part of the appeal of the murderhobo in games as well as literature is that the reader/player gets introduced to things at the same time as the character. If the PCs are upstanding members of their community then they are going to have all kinds of background information and history with the place, old friends and former rivals and ex-lovers, as well as knowing a lot about places themselves. It can be tricky to do this with a game or narrative without either defying player/reader expectations (character does X, which seems normal but is unusual in the setting) or dumping large amounts of information all at once. Not impossible, of course, but easier, especially if the DM is randomly generating these things on the fly.

Charles Saeger said...

I found that my own game, wherein I had made a point to throw plot out the window, seems to play like Eyes of the Overworld, albeit with more moral protagonists (it would be tough to have a long-term game with protagonists less moral than Cugel).

JDJarvis said...

I've been playing with murderhoboes for about 35 years. Read up on what delightful people real world adventurers, mercenaries, and thieves are/were and the average band of D&D murderhoboes are pretty mild by comparison.

Gus L said...

The examples of complaint about murderhobos cited in your post.

Zak Sabbath said...

"I'm not sure which complaints your specifically discussing - the ones above seem to be general and vague, so they strike me more as a general fear of disruptive play given the label "murdehobos".

That seems insanely generous--they explicitly complain about things that are value-neutral:

"
These characters have no purpose or reason aside from killing people, taking their stuff, and then buying better tools to kill more people with.
"

That's not vague--that's explicitly saying "this thing that is harmless is bad"

Marty Walser said...

The premise that you can't play an anti-hero in these games (or that they don't encourage it) is complete BS. On the contrary, these story oriented games make you consider your actual character's motivations for behaving the way he does beyond just getting XP for killing and looting You know that, but bringing that up in the article would destroy your entire straw man.

Zak Sabbath said...

The premise that you can't (or are not encouraged to) play an anti-hero in "these games" (what games?) doesn't appear in the OP.

So you should apologize for lying in your next comment.

The only other game I cite in the piece is Burning Wheel--which is angsting not about anti-heroes but about _epic fantasy_ .

Further:

-Anti-heroes are not the subject of the piece, they are a category that overlap woth but aren't identical to antiheroes

and

-if you need a game to force you to consider your PC's motivations, you're an idiot.

So: once you apologize for lying we can discuss these complex ideas.

You've already lied in my comments before and been banned, so I'm being EXCEPTION?ALLY patient by allowing you to keep talking here.

Don't screw up this opportunity.

ddwl said...

But can you prove otherwise? The statement that I quoted generalizes all people who might want those things. While you provide examples of specific people who fit your model, you don't provide any evidence to the contrary when asked. I would then assume you don't know anyone who could prove you otherwise. That's fine, there is a tendency to not hang out with people who have different tastes.

The Drama Club likes to claim people are bad/dumb for wanting certain things in their games. You did the exact same thing with what I quoted. Like this statement: "The desire for sexy/gory art and/or the desire to claim some superiority of OSR/DIY mechanics in gameplay are like siren songs to less intelligent people."

Zak Sabbath said...

"But can you prove otherwise?"

Otherwise than what?

"The statement that I quoted generalizes all people who might want those things"

No, I did not say:

"all people who desire morally redemptive art are stupid"

I said stupid people are really attracted to the idea of morally redemptive art. That attraction is characteristic of that group. ie: the majority of the stupid believe it.

This is the important point: ""The desire for morally redemptive art and/or the desire to claim some tinkertoy Campbellian processes can make art "deep" " are both positions ONLY
people who have made a mistake in reasoning could take. That is: people are literally bad for wanting games to try to do those things, since they don't work.

So that desire is, by definition, more distinctive to the stupid than the intelligent.

If you can find a counterxample of a person who wants those things but isn't stupid: provide it.

"you don't provide any evidence to the contrary when asked."

Of course: i don't need to provide evidence to disprove my own ideas. I have them precisely because I've seen no counterevidence.

" I would then assume you don't know anyone who could prove you otherwise."

If you have a counterexample, provide it.

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The problem with your statement is people aren't dumb for wanting sexy/gory art (these things are attainable and value-neutral) while ppl who want the kind of art I describe have actually made a mistake. My statement can be supported by evidence (these kinds of art never produce moral redemption or "depth") or, that one can't.

Like I say "Water is wet", they say "water is made of bees". Statement int he same form but one is wrong.

As for "superiority" --anyone who claims their games' mechanics are "superior" rather than "better for their purposes" is, objectively, a less-intelligent person. The fact that you didn't know that is alarming.

ddwl said...

People who make mistakes in reasoning are bad. People who make claims of a game mechanic's superiority are dumb. Got it. Nevermind.

Zak Sabbath said...

"People who make mistakes in reasoning are bad. "
Definitely--especially if they don't apologize when's it pointed out to them.

"People who make claims of a game mechanic's superiority are dumb."

No _a_ single game mechanic--a game's mechanics plural, like in your example of a dumb person claiming all OSR game mechanics are "superior".

Obviously a single rule can be better than another single rule since they can both be about the same situation and one can simply work better.

Gary Furash said...

There's also the interant wandering iconic hero, like Shane, Robert Parker's Spencer, Lee Child's Jack Reacher, the movie Tombstone, etc. who has a set of beliefs that don't really change, gets pulled into situations, and then solves them, often with violence. That's a very American concept, and I see it play out in a lot of role-playing games I run, but I can imagine why that idea isn't really popular.

Zak Sabbath said...

these are just more Wreccas as far as i can see. and they are very popular

josh said...

I like being a wrecca/killbo but if i want to have a home and shit all of a sudden i can always adopt that as my new goal. In dnd i can do this in a crunchy pulpsensibleway. In fact with a little work i could turn dnd into ANYTHING. So yeah, murderhobos are hella cool.