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Tuesday, September 4, 2012

Morality and Murderhobos

Look, I'm not saying anything remotely similar to "all player character actions are absolved" because monsters are thieves. Nor am I saying anything about whether playing murderhobos is good or bad. What I'm saying is that if you're getting morally squeamish about "breaking into people's homes, murdering them, and stealing their possessions," it's because you've set up a situation where PC actions are almost certainly immoral. You created a monster, not the game.

Example 1: Aberrant Hive Mind says:
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.
No, that's not a flaw in my argument. It's an example of my argument. If you choose to give goblins a history and suggest that they are only "fighting back", you are adding something to the game. You are interpreting fantasy elements in such a way that it makes the actions of the goblins somewhat justifiable. That's fine, if that's what you want; but you can't then go on to claim that the game is morally flawed because of the way you interpreted goblins. It was your choice, all along.

Similarly, Richard makes a comment that:
...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
No, not at all. Laying aside whether this line of reasoning was ever actually used against Native Americans, what I'm saying is that goblins aren't anything like Native Americans, or any other cultural group on the losing side in a historical conflict, unless you choose to make them similar. Stories of goblins go back centuries, if not millennia, before Europeans ever saw a Native American. Goblins were never perceived as being a species or human-like culture until at least the 19th century, when fantasy writers started to portray them as if they were a weird variety of human. There were actually more like a type of demon. And no, I don't mean they were called "demons" to dehumanize them; they were never, ever human, or even animal. That's not propaganda thought up to smear goblins; they weren't real, they were nightmares.

You can make goblinoids analogous to humans, if that's what you want. But, as I once put it in another argument, "You break it, you bought it." You own any changes you make to the game, and you are responsible for any implications that arise from those changes. You own any encounter notes that you write up or decide to use in the game, and you are responsible for the implications of saying something like "The goblins have a chest full of silver they've received in trade for gems they've been mining peacefully."


  1. Aha! now I get the last part! It read like you were suggesting that it was okay or something, to which I thought, "Well, f**k all that". The first half of the post especially really read like you were advocating murderhoboism. With the above explanation I see what you were saying in the last sentence but the set up very much escaped my comprehension.

    1. I possibly should not have used the opening line about bandits. It was meant to be a set-up for explaining the difference between "their stuff" and "someone else's stuff", and pointing out the unspoken assumption behind condemning PCs as "murderhobos". Some people took that to mean I was advocating killing bandits.

  2. In practice it is rare to not see goblins and orcs being humanized. I honestly can't think of any game I've been in, or module that I've read really where goblins were not some sort of comic relief character when talked too.

    1. ...or devoid of any culture whatsoever. In fact it seems implied that the fact that goblins carry coins and trade that they do have some sort of primitive culture, semi-intelligent as they are.

      goblins as demons. that is an idea I can dig but I've yet to see it done that way first hand.

      you know what would make a good post? portraying goblins as demons. How would you present them in game to set them apart from the humanized goblins that is so pervasive nowadays?

      where I think a lot of fail happens is chaos is rarely portrayed as chaos.

    2. I actually did something just recently about goblins and just about every monster being the by-product of magic, more like a curse unleashed by misuse of magic than anything else. I haven't said much about how to portray them, other than eliminating goblin, hobgoblin, kobold, and bugbear babies and having them kidnapping children. I have some ideas. Perhaps I'll whip something up...

  3. the fact that goblins carry coins and trade that they do have some sort of primitive culture

    Bingo. Dragons and the beastie that guards the Golden Fleece have some Other, non-economic use for what adventurers repurpose as treasure, but if goblins have swords and armour and copper pieces in their pockets then they begin to look a lot like the foot soldiers of the other side - hirelings with funny foreheads. And if you can play a half-orc then that implication seems even closer. As usual The Original Game is ambiguous.

    I'm sorry if I read you selectively. In fairness, the rest of my own comment was all about how goblins can be (and might have been in that mythical First DnD Campaign of Yore) mere wargame tokens.

    I'm going to paste my G+ thing here because I guess not everyone looks at both places. If you don't want me to do that in future, please say and I'll desist:

    ...the trouble with goblins (or orcs) in these debates is they have so many roots and have been used so many ways that they're now floating signifiers - they mean lots of things and therefore nothing specific until you attach some narrative to them, at which point they instantly become metaphorical for something, but for what, exactly? That depends on the narratives you bring to the table. There are Chinese records from around Southeast Asia which describe the Portuguese as malevolent goblins who eat Chinese children (they steam the skins off to make them more palatable). There are German folk tales where goblins live in the woods and lure children into pools, so those goblins seem to be stand-ins for natural hazards, but there are also other versions of the same stories where the same goblins are specifically black and they enslave the children and/or kidnap them and take them to (hated, Catholic) Spain. Priests of Tu describes a human condition that's so common it probably crops up in every nation's foundational myths at some point (even the British "own" Braveheart, and Arthur against the Saxons, and the Anglo-Saxons against the Normans, French and Spanish, and Americans against the Brits, and now the Brits against the Americans, overpaid, oversexed and over 'ere), but the accompanying picture on the Priests of Tu post swings it in a specific direction.

    And not everyone will catch all the narratives that are already embedded in any specific situation, and so for some the signifier keeps floating, while for others it's firmly anchored to some more or less specific set of historical precedents. So yes, metaphors are there whether you mean them or not, but no, goblins are not inherently metaphorical. In the same way that a key doesn't quite demand a lock, it might just be an interestingly toothy stick.

    All that said, as a simple point of language if you include an evil race in your game then you are necessarily replicating the structures of racism. That's not necessarily a bad thing to do in your game - I'm not saying anyone is a racist for doing it - we're playing let's pretend, after all, and I'm not going to accuse anyone of thoughtcrime in their imagining hypothetical situations, and you don't necessarily have to then re-enact History of Peoples of Colour 101 around your table to take the curse off it, but to say you're not dealing in racism because you didn't mean to is just false.

    (And lots of folk tales deal in racism, and quite a few goblins in folk tales are individuals, not part of a racial set or type. Like demons.)

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