... now with 35% more arrogance!

Monday, September 3, 2012

Whose Stuff Is It, Anyways?

Do bandits mint their own coins?

They have coins as treasure, right? So they must be minting their own currency.

Savage humanoids -- goblins, hobgoblins, gnolls, bugbears -- have gold, too. And steel weapons. Even though there's no reference to them even knowing how to forge metal, or having much technology of any sort. The JG Ready Ref Sheets list them as "semi-intelligent", not even as advanced as cave men. But they have all this man-made stuff. How did they get it?

It's been popular for decades to say that D&D is about "killing monsters and taking their stuff". It's a joke, but some people take it more seriously and complain about the immorality implicit in D&D. The latest snide bit of jargon is "murder hobos". Those adventurers, they are so terrible, breaking into someone's home, killing them, and taking their treasure!

But where are these creatures living? Usually in the remains of some human construction that was taken or destroyed by an invading horde. Where did they get that gold? If not from robbing travelers, they probably looted that "huge, ruined pile".

What I'm getting at is: the original game proposed reclaiming lost treasure, either taken by savage invaders and bandits or left alone in ruins prowled by murderous beasts, magically-created menaces, and the angry undead. If you change this to fully realized goblin cultures and then propose that the PCs should kill and rob the goblins of what's rightfully theirs... well, that's not a moral failing of the game.

22 comments:

  1. How far back does that history stretch though? Where did the goblins come from? Why did they invade civilization? It is all really dependent on whether the goblins are truly evil but in a lot of games, at least in the majority of the games that I've played in they are humanized. Comic relief sidekicks, goblin villages living in relative peace trying to make ends meet.

    What I'm getting at is what if the goblins invaded because they were simply taking what they felt were rightfully theirs? It happens constantly in the real world, and it is a cyclical human sort of thing to lay claim to something and push morality aside to take it back. This is essentially the major flaw in your argument.

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  2. So banditry is justified if one's robbing bandits? These are reprisial missions of slaughter? It seems to me if one is of a mind to insert a moralistic slant on these things (and I am not to be clear) your explanation only provides the thinnest venner of additional cover.

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  3. I wonder if there's some API or other way to scrape the G+ thread, to auto-insert the G+ comments into the page, or vice versa?

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    1. Technically, I could just give in to Google and link my G+ and Blogger accounts. But there would be repercussions from that that could result in me losing my blog, so I keep them strictly separate.

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  4. You have a point, and I agree that the original game didn't demand an economy for monsters - indeed its implicit monster ecology is sketchy and rudimentary. Unfortunately the argument you use here sits inside the argument you're fighting against, and has implications that I'm pretty sure you wouldn't want to pursue. For instance, you seem to be saying that the violence in the game is justified because you're only taking stuff from thieves, but this line of reasoning was used against native Americans in the 19th century - that they were non-productive, or at least not as productive as the European settlers, and because they defended themselves using rifles and horses brought by Europeans then it was just fair enough to slaughter them.

    I struggle with this whole issue a bit - maybe more than I should over a game of let's pretend - because I get both sides. I get that monsters, as originally conceived, weren't characters but mere adversaries in a war game, play tokens and obstacles. I get that they can be personifications of human fears rather than living creatures with their own destinies and that the dungeon is a realm of adventure where risk pays for reward. I can take my sensitive pomo brain off the hook for a bit and enjoy that. But I don't actually like thinking of problems through the metaphor of monsters and the packaging that tends to surround such thoughts almost always gets icky if you look at it hard enough.

    As for murderhoboing, I say it's a perfectly legitimate style of play (and it seems to be quite popular) where thoroughly amoral PCs engage in a strategic wargame against the whole world - parts of it openly and directly, other parts clandestinely or with long cease-fires until such time as the murderhobos have acquired the power to prosecute their war against, e.g. sitting governments. Conan and John Carter are murderhobos, although they wouldn't talk about themselves that way and they have the good fortune that the world seems mostly to agree that they should be in charge (post on JC forthcoming). It's fun and reward-based and DnD, as much as any kind of "save the status quo" type quest is DnD. And the level-based structure of DnD doesn't necessarily encourage murderhoboing but it does support it, and the fiefdom/domain endgame is an ingenious twist that rehabilitates murderhobos by giving them homes (there's an architectural thesis to be written there). And I think there are useful and interesting arguments to be had about that, if we can avoid writing off each others perspectives.

    And now I'll get off my soapbox. Thanks for indulging me.

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    1. Richard: I find the thoughts you are expressing to be interesting. When I look at real history, all I see is mostly a bunch of murderhobos.
      But it's interesting to just woolgather on that subject of whether or not the PCs are really the good guys. When we finally sit down to play, though, the players usually just want to do something and roll dice rather than struggle with moral dilemnas, so most of that just falls by the way side (and maybe it should, otherwise the game gets pretty tedious I suspect). Doesn't mean that it's not fun to think about, though.

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    2. "For instance, you seem to be saying that the violence in the game is justified because you're only taking stuff from thieves, but this line of reasoning was used against native Americans in the 19th century - that they were non-productive, or at least not as productive as the European settlers, and because they defended themselves using rifles and horses brought by Europeans then it was just fair enough to slaughter them."

      Rubbish. Nobody fighting the American Indians thought that they were doing it to slaughter thieves. Those wars were all about land; land that the American Indians owned and the Americans wanted to put a railroad through, then take all of it for themselves.

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    3. @The Recursion King indeed. Ideology is most often aimed at the economic base rather than the people doing the actual shooting and pillaging. I'm talking about how it played out in Sunday schools and children's books and newspaper editorials and museums of natural history in Philadelphia and New York.

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    4. @richard: the historic treatment of Native Americans isn't really relevant, but perhaps I'll talk about that in a separate post. But: John Carter? Really? Not once does he kill someone to take their stuff, with or without a fake justification. He kills a Thark to defend a female, and (because of Thark custom) is given the Thark's stuff, but he had no idea this would happen when he took action. John Carter is all about moral outrage and gains admirers mainly because he rejects the murderhobo mentality, which is pretty widespread on Barsoom when he arrives. He's considered noble because he will defend the dignity of even an enemy.

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    5. I've just written a long comment over on Brendan's G+ thread about intended and unintended resonances for the fictions we present. I think the discussion Mike Fernandez, Stuart Robertson and Brendan have been having there is relevant here.

      I mention native Americans as an example, but I could state the problem more simply and generally: the argument "it is acceptable to kill members of a race or class because some members of that race or class have at some point themselves been thieves" is (a) racist or classist, (b) utterly lacking in any sense of the arguer's own position in a continuum of violence, (c) presupposes that violence is preferable to other solutions.

      You may add extra conditions to the hypothetical situation under discussion to close some of these issues (invoking the non-analytical term "evil," for instance, or denying culture or human-like status to the enemy), but at its core the argument is problematic, and the extra conditions are likely to cause trouble of their own. Since there has been a long and complex history of murderhoboing and post facto justifying in the real world, there is already a big playbook of arguments and special conditions to fall back on, and each one may be a trigger for someone around your table or, if you have a pretty socially homogeneous table, for any other onlooker.

      Now. John Carter does not adventure for financial gain, it's true. And every time he loots a corpse it's because he needs to for survival (at least in books 1-3 - I'm working through them now). At least, that's how it all looks in his memoirs. But coincidentally every time he kills some body of men he winds up gaining status and wealth, and although he chases around after DT, while pursuing that goal he incidentally causes the deaths of thousands or millions of people without a second thought. Does the fact that he does it for the love of a princess (and consequent status of a prince) make it all nobler than if he'd done it for status or wealth? Ask the widows and orphans of Zodanga, which he incites the Tharks to invade in order to stop a wedding.

      So on the kill monsters, take their stuff metric, NOT a murderhobo. But on the at war with the world for selfish reasons metric, murderhobo.

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    6. D'oh, OK, you weren't actually saying "it is acceptable to kill members of a race or class because some members of that race or class have at some point themselves been thieves."

      Sorry about the lecture.

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    7. also on JC, he does love fighting and killing - the books mention it several times - and he misses it in peacetime, and he's not choosy about his enemies: anyone who gets in his way. He won't kill a woman but he will allow them to be killed by others while his back is turned (Issus), so his gentleman's code of honor is pretty specific and/or flexible.

      That' pleasure in killing is a place most games and gamers don't want to go.

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    8. richard wrote:

      But coincidentally every time he kills some body of men he winds up gaining status and wealth

      Much like any member of the honor-based Thark warrior culture, no?

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    9. richard wrote:

      That' pleasure in killing is a place most games and gamers don't want to go.

      That hasn't been my experience. Yes, the game rewards "defeating" monsters, not just killing them, but in general I see players (myself included) often take the unsubtle head on approach of slaying the monsters, and that's true with the relatively enlightened and middle-aged FLAILSNAILS crowd I've been playing with recently, too. Even relatively restrained PCs tend to act this way, and that's not to mention the more wicked characters that see play with some frequency.

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    11. Tharks are totally murderhobos.

      JC has moments of mercy and generosity after he has asserted dominance over an enemy, but even murderhobos take on a defeated enemy/prisoner as a henchman sometimes.

      JC's pleasure in fighting is described pretty clearly as bloodlust - it's not mere expediency, it's violence as a drive of itself.
      ...and maybe I have seen that among gamers, actually. I've seen gamers take pleasure in winning, and get into the "kick it in the groin" aspects of the game enthusiastically, but I've rarely seen players acknowledge bloodlust in themselves or their characters - IME it's usually just not been discussed. Berserker rage is deployed as a tactic, not indulged as a passion. My experience isn't wide, though, so it may well not be typical.

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  5. http://terruizeng.blogspot.com/2012/09/priests-of-tu.html
    Cycles. Makes for good gameable material at least.

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  6. Your post is a bell that once rung, demands attention.

    Kill every last orc child.

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