The Rise of the Murder Hobo - D&D Teaching Moral Values
DM: You find the “Hendel’s Handy Wares” exactly where the innkeeper told you it was, on the main highway overlooking a small bakery on one side and a tailors on the other. The sign is simple, yet neat, showing a backpack, rope and sword.
A small bell rings as you enter the shop, welcoming you in with the smell of linseed oil and polish. You see orderly rows of shelves with a good selection of the kind of equipment that you would need for adventuring. Over to the right you also see gardening tools, and over on the left wall you see a small collection of weapons.
On hearing the bell, a burly dwarf comes out of the back room. A small boy dwarf seems keen to follow him, but the shopkeeper turns him round and gives him a small shove and says, “go and look after mum”. Hendel is a burly dwarf. He is aging and has put on a few pounds, but as evidenced by the scars of his neck and arms, has seen some action in his day. He also seems very comfortable walking with the well worn mace at his side.
Rogue: I go and look for some extra daggers!
Barbarian: I go to the shopkeeper to ask if he has any magic items.
Wizard: I look for bone dust and silver wire.
Ranger: Are there any nice bows?
DM: <to the Rogue> On one of the shelves you see a bandoleer of five throwing daggers. You see a small neat sign showing that they are 12 gold pieces. You test them out and they seem very well weighted.
<to the Barbarian> “Sadly, there’s a high demand for those. I don’t get to see many, and any that I get in disappear very quickly. With the Great Forest nearby, we get a lot of adventurers wandering through. Fewer come back, and I don’t have the gold in stock to buy up much of the treasures they have yet. You could try Old Culver’s shop. She sells herbs and potions and I think picks up the odd item off the adventurers too.”
<to the Wizard> No bone dust, but a reel of about ten feet of silver wire is about 2 gold.
<to the Ranger> There is a good selection of bows, but nothing to match your Elven bow. There is a well made large quiver which can carry 25 arrows instead of the normal 20. It’s 15 silver.
Rogue: I try and bargain with him about the daggers.
DM: Roll a persuasion check.
Rogue: <rolls and then groans> 5.
DM: “Sorry mate, those are dwarven steel. You won’t find finer blades between here and the Black Mountains.”
Rogue: I wait until his back is turned and steal the daggers.
DM: Roll for stealth.
Rogue: <rolls, then groans again> 9!
DM: “Oi! Stop that…”
Barbarian: “I draw my battleaxe and go into a rage!”
Whilst I have seen some disagreement in discussion as to what a Murder Hobo is, what I would rather discuss here is what I see as a rise in a lack of morals amongst characters... or is it in the players?
I would certainly not define a player or group who just wants to play characters whose sole purpose is just to kill things for fun as Murder Hobos. Rather, the "murder" part of the name is about killing innocents: villagers, town guards, shopkeepers and nobles, maybe for fun, and maybe for the profit.
A little research tells me that the name seems to have originated from rpg.net around 2010, but since then has quickly become part of common game parlance.
In a recent D&D game I played in, the characters rushed into a small town to save the people from an attack by kobolds and dragon cultists (some of you will know the adventure I'm talking about). The town was on fire, and whilst escorting a large group of townsfolk towards the central keep, hiding and trying to avoid the roving bands of cultists, one of the group of teenage boys I was playing with suggested that they loot the houses. Playing a paladin, I explain that I was very against this, but I also had to argue with the boy why it was morally wrong. He temporarily conceded the argument when I explained that we were protecting the villagers and that THEY WERE RIGHT THERE! They were watching us, their heroic protectors, and how would they act if we started looting their homes? At best, they would run away from us; at worst, they would attack us.
Whilst he wasn't proposing that we murder innocent people, it was his lack of simple moral principles that surprised me. In real life, I know the teenager to be a sweet and thoughtful boy. In game, he still did not really see why what he had proposed was wrong. His reasoning was that the houses were going to burn down anyway, so why not just take the stuff before they burned down.
This has got me wondering: were there genuinely a lack of morals here, understanding what is right and wrong, or is it just a disconnect between game and real life?
Later in the same session, another player (and another teenage boy), was very keen to collect all the daggers that the dragon cultists were dropping. We killed the cultists as a party, but bizarrely, he turned around and started to ask each of us whether we wanted to buy some daggers off him. This boy does lack social skills however, and I think relating to the party, and the idea of being part of a group, was difficult for him.
This got me realising that these boys were playing D&D as if they were computer games. In many video game RPGs, there are often no consequences for murder hobo behaviour and even with cooperative missions, every man (or woman) is still out to grab all he can for himself. I have found since this game, that the teenage boys who I have played with (mostly my students) generally struggle more with a sense of being part of a team, components of the party with different strengths and weaknesses, working together for a common goal. Sharing loot can be very much a selfish grab to see who can get the best loot first and some even hold on to loot (some quite powerful magical items) that would better serve a fellow party member. Again this is very much a trait I have seen in video games where you have probably never met (and probably never will) your teammates in person and they may be halfway across the other side of the world. There is no connection there. In the D&D sessions, this has often led to party disagreements, even fights (in game. I wouldn't allow that in real life), and generally some disgruntlement. Handled carefully, this can have productive educational by-products in terms of the students learning to work as a team and how to communicate their anger better.
I don't play video games a lot, but when I do, I enjoy RPGs. I remember playing the groundbreaking RPG Ultima 7 (released 1992). I was fascinated, back then, by the ability just to wander into any house and take things. Obviously, I did it because I could, and then I used or sold what I found. The same was true in the similarly groundbreaking Baldur's Gate series (first seen in 1998) and still true of many of the RPGs that are coming out today. I am told that games like Divinity: Original Sin (2017) are building in consequences, e.g. stealing and murder have a knock on effect to later decisions.
There will always be the argument about the possible negative effects of gaming, and having grown up in the first generation who experienced the problems of game addiction, as well as seeing the effects first hand through my students, I think that for the majority of well adjusted young people, they will grow up with a relative normal set of moral values. There are, however, an increasing minority of those who are not well adjusted though. Take a look at the figures for rising mental health issues among teenagers, also those who are diagnosed with learning disorders. Whilst there is very much a case that we are becoming better at detecting and diagnosing these issues (some would argue "too good"), there are also an increasing number of contributing factors (e.g. increased screen time for young people, break up of the traditional family unit and unsettled home lives, diet, lack of sleep, etc...). With mental health struggles, learning difficulties, increasing school pressures and hormone and emotions running high, young people are going to make wrong decisions. They always have done, and I certainly made my fair share. Informed by a lack of moral guidelines, or good adult role models, these wrong decisions could be so much worse.
Whilst I do not think the murder and killing and the morally dubious nature of video games is damaging most children, I think that the lack of parenting, having good discussions about what is right and wrong, and a lack of good role models is contributing to a weaker understanding of morality in children. The morals shown in films, TV series and videos games also doesn't help in these situations. Unfortunately, and I see this a lot more in Asian settings, many parents being happy to let their children spend entire days during their holidays or weekends on their computers. I know that Western parents can be just as guilty, but it is becoming more prevalent in Far Eastern cultures that the raising of children has often been left solely to the mothers, and even more increasingly, maids and nannies. I see this a lot in Hong Kong, Singapore and Malaysia, where foreign (often Filipino) helpers are very cheap and have become the norm. Whilst many of these nannies are excellent, I have seen many who are treated dreadfully, not just by the children, but by the parents (who then set a terrible example for their children).
Perhaps I Have A Romanticized…
Perhaps I have a romanticized, rose-tinted and nostalgic view of my youth (believe me, it wasn't great being a nerd and growing up in the late 80s and early 90s), but nerds came to D&D having read tons of fantasy fiction. We had lofty ideals of honour, duty, nobility and saving the damsel in distress (I didn't say they weren't also a little sexist). On the other hand, whilst they may not have played these specific games, most of the nerdy teenagers nowadays come to D&D with the backdrop of Grand Theft Auto (commonly known as one of the games with the worst morals ever), Assassin's Creed, and Fallout, not to mention the Horror Genre (and those have a very different set of moral guidelines). As such, I am becoming much more of a fan of encouraging children to read, and that in itself encourages more engagement with tangible characters, their feelings, but also engages the child’s imaginations and often introduces the moral struggles and principles of the characters.
To be honest, I think there have always been players who have played D&D as murder hobos, and DMs who have allowed it. Thieves were certainly a class in the original D&D. I would say however, that those games will lack the depth, longevity and, dare I say enjoyment, than a game run by a DM who brings moral quandaries and dilemmas into the game; a DM who gives the players places, people, or even animal companions that the players care about.
The difference in playing D&D is that a good DM will try and accurately simulate real life. Whilst I get that we are dealing with a fantasy setting: flying castles, unicorns and dragons, if the DM doesn't bring some believability into the game, it just gets silly. I have had this argument online several times. Some players, and even DMs, have argued that reality has no place in D&D because of the aforementioned flying castles, unicorns and dragons, but if we do away with reality how do we determine how far a character can jump, the reason why a dagger does less damage that a two-handed battleaxe, why charisma determines our persuasion checks. It's not that some things don't quite make sense with reality (and I do ignore how incongruous the mechanics of many things in D&D are), without grounding things in reality the world becomes too surreal as to be unbelievable and you might as well be playing an abstract computer game like Tetris. So, to make it believable, a good DM will have consequences for morally reprehensible behavior, and certainly an adult working with teenagers hopefully will have some moral obligation not to let them do horrible things to innocent people. I went to a seminar once where the (fairly successful) comedy writer talked about why sitcoms need to reflect real life to be successful. To make characters more than two-dimensional, the characters have to reflect the morals and emotions that a real person might experience and so become relate-able. The success in a sitcom star is that relate-ability. So too must a world that a good DM is creating. This includes consequences for selfish and horrible actions.
In addition to this “DM crafted consequential education in morality” there is also the aforementioned peer regulation. Unlike computer gaming, party members are less likely to show extreme examples of selfish, rude or mean behavior face-to-face, especially when playing with friends. Players are also quicker to express their frustration at each other in a face-to-face roleplaying game setting. As I write that, I am aware that online players will quite happily swear at each other and say things to each other that they would never do in the real world, but those expressions are instant and just as quickly gone as is the nature of fleeting online interactions. Real life dissatisfaction can brew, grow and spill over into real life relationships. Unless they are completely lacking empathy, and I have known one or two players who seem to be lacking in that area, the player exhibiting the socially unacceptable behavior soon comes to realise that they are subject of the other players' ire. This social regulation is at the heart of why parents of toddlers are so ready to have their very young children go to parties and "playdates". Little children very soon learn the consequences of selfish behavior and often tears and friendship "spats", whilst noisy and unpleasant to deal with, have productive long term social educational value.
As someone who works with teenagers, a teacher, and more so, a school master, I see an increasing need to consciously work to instill good moral guidelines. It’s not just as simple as “don’t plagiarize” or “don’t cheat on your tests”, as a pastoral specialist, I have often had to deal with friendship issues, and even issues like drinking, smoking, drugs, and breaking the law in other ways. The social engagement that Dungeons and Dragons brings is incredibly valuable for teenagers both in a social way, but also from a moral aspect. Look up any list of “Top things that schools don't teach, but should”; on it are usually items about respect for others, how to socialize with others, good teamwork skills, emotional awareness or empathy, and/or communication skills. These can all be tied into a giving a teenager a good moral framework and things that can be learned naturally and very contextually by playing Dungeons and Dragons given the right guidance.
I'm afraid that I have become a bit of an "Evangelist" for the benefits of D&D for teenagers. As a devout Christian who also had a mum who tried to stop me playing during the “Satanic Panic” of the 80s, I find that both bemusing and amusing in equal parts and just a touch concerning. For now, I’m just enjoying the gaming. Of course, there are the times when I just want to “go and kill things with my mates”.
DM: After filling your backpacks and hauling the body of Hendel and his family into the back rooms, you leave the shop. Roll a perception check.
Party: “9”, “7”, “2”, “11”.
DM: It’s not until you are outside the door that you notice the group of twenty well-armored town guards with crossbows aimed at you. It seems that your fight with Hendel alerted some of the townsfolk. A tall bearded man steps forward, aims his sword at you and shouts, “put down your weapons!”...
As a mathematician, I am well aware of that my opinions and even observations are from a very small sample group. This is why this is an opinion piece. I would love to hear of your experiences and opinions.