Thursday, October 6, 2016

The Sociology of the Murderhobo

Part 1: Two types of fantasy literature and their divergent perspectives on adventuring heroes

Most decent gamers know that the game should center on the player characters. If a gamemaster overemphasizes the setting at the expense of the group that is supposed to represent the setting’s heroes, the players will quickly tire of the game, and move on to something else. But most decent gamers also know that playing their characters as murderhoboes is a negative example to be avoided, or at least downplayed to the extent possible. Players whose characters lack all meaningful social bonds, and only interface with society when it presents him (typically) with someone to kill, something to take, or at best, something to buy are commonly looked down on for reducing a multifaceted and immersive tabletop gaming experience to a video game without graphics. 

To a known extent, the imperative to keep the focus squarely on the PCs, and, on the other hand, the need to embed them within a larger social environment which is replete with particular institutions, hierarchical orders, histories, and symbolic systems point in contradictory directions. Allowing for a little oversimplification, we might say that each approach is informed by a distinct fantasy aesthetic (both of which influenced fantasy gaming in important ways). The ‘hero-driven’ perspective in which society functions as a backdrop is rooted in Swords & Sorcery and Weird Fiction genres. The social world inhabited by their protagonists is violent, corrupt, broken, or simply distant, and irrelevant in terms of helping them overcome the challenges that face them. Their societies have lost, are unaware of, or are actively trying to conceal any information that the heroes might find useful. In these genres, the significant loci in which meanings are created are: ruins, hidden or abandoned laboratories, lost tombs, grottoes in which mysterious cults perform grotesque rituals. These “dungeons”, along with the proverbial taverns (and occasionally libraries) where tips about these sites may be sought, and entertainment between adventures procured, form the central axis around which the world of adventurers revolves. In the nodes where the adventuring life happens, the shackles of civilized society weaken or fall away completely, creating a space for the heroes to explore freely, to prove themselves on the basis of merit, not accident of birth, connections, or knowledge of arcane social codes. 

The resonance of this aesthetic with the Myth of the Frontier that animates a specifically American imaginary is, of course, far from accidental. The figure of the heroic loner (with his posse) echoes the gunslinger of the Wild West – rootless, always on the move, operating beyond the law, laconic. He is not necessarily a cold-blooded killer, but violence is his preferred method for dealing with problems. He is not typically driven by greed, but the procurement of supplies that allow him to perpetuate his way of life require him to take what he needs beyond any payment he receives for putting his gun up for hire. He is not necessarily racist, and perhaps even admires and emulates the free and noble savages that live beyond the frontier; but Indian Country is the terrain in which he operates. He is not necessarily amoral, and generally lives by an idiosyncratic moral code, but he is usually at odds with authority figures, and pessimistic about reintegrating himself into society when the frontier becomes closed.  
Blaze Tracy, a prototype of the FRPG "adventurer"

The closure of the American frontier at the end of the 19th century, combined an ever-greater integration of the United States as an imperial power with the rest of the world produced literary mutations of the Wild West genre that became the progenitors of modern fantasy. The invention of “Western Civilization” to legitimate the US joining of the Allied cause reflected the end point of the conciliation process between the culture of American and European elites that had been moving in different directions since the 18th century. Aspects of European history became sacralized, in order to locate the roots of the Euro-American “miracle” that enabled the West to establish dominion over the whole world. Many of these aspects evinced a heavily racialized character. But in popular culture, the pseudo-Aryan Cimmerian nomad Conan rejected the stifling, corrupt, arcane, and effete character of civilization, just as Depression-era America struggled with the legacy of global economic integration and the burdens of becoming a global power. Simultaneously, the heroes and antiheroes of Lovecraft’s Weird Fiction confronted the immigrant, the politically mobilized but still undereducated industrial worker, the native, whose culture the Western intellectual was now charged with studying, understanding, and managing. But unlike the European colonial administrator who promised rationality and progress as the fruits of his mission civilisatrice, Randolph Carter and Charles Dexter Ward faced only an uncaring and irrational universe, social atomization and isolation, gargantuan monstrosities that hid at the bottom of the ocean and on distant planets, and could expect only madness as the reward for their efforts. For Lovecraft, the frontiers of civilization and science neither offered freedom from the dead hand of civilization, nor held promise of eventual social salvation or integration.
The second, European strand of fantasy literature, offered a very different perspective on the relationship between the hero and society. To be sure, the foundational works of the Epic or Heroic Fantasy genres exhibit certain similarities to their American counterparts. They were critiques of industrial and secular society, and celebrated the country at the expense of the city, and counterpoised the Heart to Instrumental Reason. They championed a binary morality that did not seek an understanding of different cultures, but called for a resistance to, and if possible, the decisive defeat of Evil. They incorporated a decidedly retrogressive vision of history: society degenerated from an ancient Golden Age, rather than steadily progressing into the Kingdom of Freedom. And they drew upon historical and folkloric exemplars whose images had been formulated during the period of the Völkerwanderung, when the Roman Empire collapsed, and the limes avenged themselves and engulfed civilization. The martial monster-slayers like Beowulf, and the cave-dwelling saints of early Christianity were not wholly dissimilar to the cowboy heroes of the American frontier.

Nevertheless the valence of this type of fantasy literature differed profoundly, and in some respects, diametrically from the Western, Swords & Sorcery, and Weird Fiction. Its heroes, rather than being antinomian frontiersmen, were deeply rooted. The hobbits who played a decisive role in the epic struggle depicted in the Lord of the Rings were everymen who loved their country. Though Frodo’s struggles as the Ringbearer ultimately made it impossible for him to reintegrate into the Shire’s bucolic lifestyle, he retires to the paradisical Valinor, rather than becoming a harrier and critic of civilization. The Ranger who would have been the main hero of a Western or Swords & Sorcery narrative comes to terms with his own limitations, and settles down: he marries the girl, and accepts the responsibilities of kingship. In contrast to Conan, who also became a king, Aragorn does not seize Gondor (though some Russian interpreters beg to differ), but comes to rule it by right of descent, and marries a high-born immortal princess, not a stolen concubine. For Tolkien, Aragorn and Arwen were conscious attempts at a(n) (English) mythmaking. The frontier hero Blaze Tracy, and of course Conan, were, of course, also (American) mythological figures, But whereas they and their authors stood for breaking with established tradition, Tolkien stood for recovering a lost one. Whereas their values were entirely pragmatic, and typically at odds with those of religious authority, Tolkien presented the marriage in the Return of the King as an echo of a peaceful Nordic religion, which had become displaced by violent Viking myths in the imagination of 19th century ideologues. For Tolkien, no less than for his friend C. S. Lewis (though in more oblique forms), myth bore a normative, not an iconoclastic, function.   
The Epic Fantasy hero rejects the frontier, and promotes social reintegration

Similarly, though different realms may side with Good or with Evil, they tend toward representing genuine societies. Orcs and people from the "wrong" parts of the world do ally with the Dark Lord, but they are not irredeemable or evil in an absolute sense – even Sauron was not always so. More importantly, there is no undifferentiated civilization or society. Instead, there are men, elves, dwarves, and hobbits – all with distinct characters, traditions, histories, political institutions, and above all, languages, that make them unique. In some quarters, there is a tendency to glorify the earliest days of Dungeons and Dragons, when it was more of a stylistic hodge-podge including science fiction and weird horror elements, and before the sui generis fantasy elements asserted their dominance. The elements that gave D&D its mass appeal are the same ones that made the Lord of the Rings trilogy, both in print and on screen, the most successful of fantasy franchises.  
Along with language and customs, history also serves as a grounding element for epic fantasy. Certainly, the narrative takes place at a time of crisis, when the normal flow of time has been broken by an irruption of a world-shaking evil whose existence has long been forgotten. And yet, the institutions that are contemporary to the narrative – the Northern and Southern Kingdoms, the line of Numenorian kings, the elven realms, and the Dark Lord’s Ring very much derive from the antiquity of this same world that is breaking through the newer archaeological strata that have accumulated in the interim. When that happens, they are recognized as part of that world’s past, not some utterly alien element or incommensurate temporality for which the mundane world is of no importance. And in the end, when the crisis is overcome, the restoration of normal time with the dawning of a new Age is of the utmost importance. The new Age may be prosaic, it might lack the beauty of the old (with the departure of the elves), but it is a time in which a decent, ordinary life (of, say, a hobbit) is possible, and the preservation of such a life bears inherent worth, because the world continues to be threatened by cosmic evil, that aims to wipe out or conquer all life. The significance of the mundane comes across even more clearly in more recent epic fantasy. George R. R. Martin’s world is also threatened with annihilation, yet the author insists on suffusing it with a more-or-less believable economy and states system. The main characters find themselves in existential conflicts, yet ones heavily colored by the imperative of dynastic restoration.

To return to the main issue: if the epic fantasy tradition, with its greater emphasis on the social situation of its heroes is a legitimate and deeply rooted influence on fantasy role-playing games, how do we go about immersing fantasy RPG heroes in such a world? It should go without saying that the degree of immersion is a matter of personal taste, and for most game masters, it lies along a continuum, rather than being a simple choice between a Swords & Sorcery dungeon world and an Epic Fantasy milieu. There is no reason for everyone to prioritize the latter. A world where the power of society is all-embracing certainly constrains player action beyond a point that would be realistic or enjoyable (though playing in such a dystopian world could offer its own rewards). But the point is, there is no reason to automatically assume that the setting for a fantasy RPG is properly an extrapolation of a Western-type frontier.

In Part II, we will analyze the historical emergence of the “adventurer” as a concept and sociological type, and discover that both are rooted in a process of mutation of a mature civilization, closer to that depicted by epic fantasy, rather than one being born de novo along a frontier, or one experiencing a complete or near complete collapse of key social structures that is exemplified by Swords & Sorcery or Weird Fiction.


  1. There's a lot of good stuff here -too much to list it all again after you've done so well enough- but in particular the advent of the contemporary notion of Western Civ. being a part/product of the USA involvement in WWII was especially new to me. Thanks, and keep up the awesome!

  2. Thanks for your kind words. My thoughts about Western Civ originating in the First World War are taken from this article by the world historian Gilbert Allardyce: