Thursday, December 4, 2014

The Murder Hobo's Dilemma… "Are we in the Dungeon yet?" - Dungeon World

(Full disclosure, I'm sure this is more an issue for me, with my wanting more realism in characters and plot than realism in rules.

I've know played in three sessions of Dungeon World and I've been enjoying them but last night I realized that there was something that kept me (yes, I managed to let the group decide I was their leader, must to my chagrin) from leading the group full force ahead into adventure. The premise of the game is a modern day Twin Cities metro, but with magic and dungeons, where Adventuring Companies (emphasis on the company) send adventurers into dungeons but otherwise it's straight forward fantasy version of the present. The GM was explicit that the normal humanoid fantasy races, goblin, orc, kobold, weren't inherently evil, and that is leading to some quandaries. I had gone in expecting a fairly lighthearted game, and tenor of play-wise, it's been fairly lighthearted but the plot has been drifting much grittier.

In the first two session, the party, with the conceit that we were the local "neighborhood watch" went into a dungeon near a graveyard and fought a mixture of goblins and an elf (or two, I don't rightly recall if there was more than one) who were in what the GM described as a teenage party pad (wrecked furniture, oil barrel fire, empty keg) and while the elf was a member of a previous adventuring party to disappear into the dungeon, the goblins were definitely high school kids, ya know, wearing letter jackets and such. Now, there was a lower level of that dungeon with a definitely evil undead creature of some kind, so I think we partly rationalized things as "oh yeah, the evil undead thing was controlling them, so we're not total murder hobos for slaughtering those unarmed teenagers".

Fast forward to last night's session, which began with frat members throwing bricks through our houses because one of the goblins we killed was the little brother of one of the frat brothers, a fact that we got when we captured and interrogated one of the brick throwers. This led us to the Frat House where we had been told there would be a party and I assumed that we would sneak into the dungeon below the frat (because, there should be a dungeon, right?) during the chaos of the party. Instead when we arrived there wasn't the raucous, chaotic party we were expecting to give us cover to sneak down into a dungeon, instead the game slowed to a crawl as we started exploring options for getting to a dungeon without going full Murder Hobo and cutting a bloody path through what could be innocent (or at least) not evil frat members.

Now, this is probably a larger problem for me than other players because (A) I enjoy exploring Morality in RPGs and (B) because I don't find Thieving Murder Hobos to be a compelling or interesting RPG trope. One of my favorite things from the old WoD Vampire games were the morality paths, even the boring old Humanity path, because it gave players a chance (though often underutilized, in my experience unfortunately) to explore what toll (or not) being a bloodsucking monster of the night would take on a person who thought of themselves as human, or to explore a non-Humanity morality that would let someone justify being a bloodsucking monster of the night. And in a game like Unknown Armies, that I've run several times before, even though it's set in the "present" the assumption of the game is that you're part of a supernatural battle of cosmic weirdness, so occasionally going crazy and murdering some teenagers probably makes more sense the would be taken over by something supernatural or even just be on the other side of your cosmic battle or be necessary for some ritual reason. Plus, Unknown Armies has a robust set of Madness Meters that gives the GM tools for reigning in crazy actions by the players and giving consequences for extreme behaviors and situations. D&D and D&D style games, like Dungeon World, can struggle more with this as they rely on a fairly rules light and often problematic Alignment system (1, 2) and don't have a built in moral rules set like Vampire or Unknown Armies.

Now, this is less of a problem in a more traditional D&D game where the distance of the Fantasy setting makes it a little easier for players to ignore their descent into Thieving Murder Hobo-hood as they get to kill "monsters" like Lizardfolk and goblins and take their stuff and since they were "monsters" they obviously deserved it. Now, that isn't to say that you can't explore some morality in D&D, back in 3.5 days our Empire of Man game had a "sneaky" campaign where we were morally-ambiguous agents of an evil (or at least ruthless and unconcerned with non-Elf life) Elf King. One of our missions was exterminating an entire village of Orcs, men, women and children, and planting evidence that the Human empire did it. But many D&D games don't go into that depth or worry too much about the society and ecology of "monsters". Side note, back in high school Thomas actually ran and I played in a session (or two?) of Violence: The Role-Playing Game of Egregious and Repulsive Bloodshed which critiques fantasy Murder Hobos by letting you play thieving murder hobos in a present and examine how it's different when it's an apartment building instead of a dungeon and pensioners instead of goblins, we did horrible things in that game with a sawed off shot gun and a brick on a wire.

So here's the dilemma I've been having with this Dungeon World game. It's set in a fantasy version of our real world, so like the real world, it's not clear who is "good" and who is "evil", but it was pitched as more of a lighthearted game about being dungeon explorers in a current corporate inflected culture not as a gritty game of moral questions or as an over the top game where the PCs can descend into full on Thieving Murder Hobo-hood without consequences. Had it been either of those two other styles, I would have crafted a far different (and probably more bloody minded) character, instead of my curious and more intellectual dungeoneer.

What I entered the game expecting was a world like our own but with dungeons teeming with "Evil" lurking under the surface, so that above ground would behave close to real life, with it's annoyances and restrictions and in the dungeons below adventurers would struggle against monsters, traps and "evil". Or as I put it to the GM when I gave him my feedback "I thought we'd be more treating above ground as normal and then being able to go into a dungeon and know that in the "dungeon" everything was fair game so that Above Ground = Good, Dungeon = Evil (or at least, ok to murderize)".

Thinking about it has made me aware of the signals that RPGs use to designate appropriate behavior for the PCs for when they can use violence without consequence or when they should expect that any violence they undertake will have consequences later. The dilemma I found myself facing last night, playing, was "Are we in the dungeon yet?", that is, are we in a place where violence is an acceptable answer or are we still in a "real" world where pulling swords and attacking frat boys is more likely to land us in jail than reward us with treasure. Hopefully our Dungeon World game will have this distinction become clearer to better allow players to make reasonable decisions for their characters, since, if nothing else, at least the GM and I are both thinking about it now.

Personally I think the plot and setting just need a little more definition and a more obvious Evil. Hints have been dropped that Undead are irredeemably evil (otherwise I might have tried playing Urggghhhh, a skeleton fighter going through the motions of life) but we don't have any sense that there might be intelligent evil Undead controlling large groups of living humanoids outside of dungeons. Without an evil to oppose and to justify our actions we become simple Murder Hobos. Invading a frat house and killing, or at least attacking, innocent(ish) college students lacks the glamour of fighting against evil monsters and begs the question "Are we the baddies?" While it might be fun to discover that the frat is actually an evil cult that performs Human sacrifice, I think given the tenor of the game as more of a lighthearted dungeon crawl instead of a gritty espionage or mystery story means it'll probably be more fun to discover that much, much sooner than later so that it becomes acceptable to take out the evil cultists instead of moving as gingerly as we can through the frat because we *could* be wrong and then we'd definitely be the baddies.

A lot of this goes to tone, tenor and player expectations that I've been thinking about a lot. Because we expected a pretty easy going game we made pretty easy going characters, not expecting too much to wrestle with heavy moral quandaries so when we found ourselves in the middle of an ambiguous moral situation where our previous actions (killing a high school student) lead to a confrontation with an antagonist who was not obviously evil and has an understandable motivation for wanting to do us harm (we did kill his little brother, after all) it certainly through me off my game, so to speak. Just another reason for me to try and refine my campaign and game pitches to ensure that both the GM and players on are the same page about what story we're telling and whether the PCs are glorious heroes, flawed anti-heroes or unrepentant villains and how the world and society around them reacts as they move through the world.

I need to re-watch a ton of Adventure Time episodes to find some good examples, but I know this is an issue that comes up now and then and is done well by the show. Most times Finn and Jake save violence for the dungeons or obvious monsters, or utilize it when they come across a Princess or civilian shouting "help" or "save me" but there are times where Finn steps back and wonders if they're the good guys or where Finn steps back and realizes he's gone too far and then has to make amends for his previous over exuberant use of force.

1 comment:

  1. I did find that copy of Violence this summer when I was looking through the small stash of games at the homestead...


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