Fantasy Literature: Murder Hobos, Sad Puppies, and Change

Fantasy Literature: Murder Hobos, Sad Puppies, and Change

Will Murder Enemies for Food

You cannot step twice into the same rivers.
Heraclitus of Ephesus

In my personal history, role-playing games, or back then Dungeons & Dragons, presented a fantasy milieu straight out of Tolkien and Leiber. The heroes — characters — fought enemies, took their treasure, and hoped for bigger and better enemies and bigger and better treasures. The rules created an expectation that high-level characters would seek political power, ultimately retiring from a lifestyle now mockingly or cheerfully (depending on one’s orientation) called that of the “Murder Hobo.” In short, characters hoped to graduate from “Murder Hobo” to “Murder Duke.”

How amusing to hear that term, which seems to spring from the recent past (2011? Anyone?) and see it unlock a whole understanding of a genre that did not previously exist. For while gamer blogs and discussion lists alternately bemoan or celebrate the Murder Hobo habit, there is an entirely different interpretation. The idea that fantasy RPG, D&D-style characters in general definition are homeless wanderers who kill and steal reveals a perspective on the whole concept of fantasy role-playing games that is distinctly contemporary.

Back in the day, Tolkien’s orcs weren’t, to our young, bedazzled gamer’s eyes members of a misunderstood culture: in Tolkien’s mythos they were genetically evil creatures, spawned by Morgoth in a distant age. Good and evil itself were more tangible, less subjective ideas, and this structure appears in D&D and its many iterations in the form of the alignment system, where characters must adopt a position on being good, neutral, or evil (as well as lawful, neutral, or chaotic).

Orcs are for killing-smallIf we could travel back to, say, 1976, the year I first played D&D, and denounce the group of adventurers I sallied forth with into dungeons deep and caverns cold as Murder Hobos, we Jr. High Schoolers would react with confusion. Player characters were good. Orcs, evil. Says so right there in the rules, right along with how many copper and silver pieces one should expect to find on each orc. And for players who thought outside of the box–pretty much everyone–an orc’s gear brought ready cash, too, and usually more of it.

Ah, those were the days. Of course, not all fantasy gamers followed this exact pattern, but even groups for whom “role-playing” trumped the combat part of the game, the general Murder Hobo concept applies. Why should we care? The foes, fictional. The fun, real. The developing a greater ethical awareness, generally inevitable. One cannot step into the same rivers twice, and one can’t play the same games forever.

Enter the Sad Puppies (SPs), who hijacked the Hugo Awards this year. Read more about them here.

Sad Puppies 3-smallFor the SPs a spaceship with guns blazing used to mean adventure; now it may contain a novel that, gasp, addresses colonialism. A novel with a cover depicting the quintessential Space Marine may in fact bring up gender issues. The horror.

To radically foreshorten the SPs argument, they want the River to not move — more to the point, to have stopped moving some decades ago. But without going into great detail on another topic, let me amend that to say instead “to have stopped moving some imaginary decades ago.” For not only has the River moved all this time, but the River always contained references to colonialism and gender issues. The SPs lamentation for a lost yesterday of SF & F rings as hollow as those who wail for a cultural return to Leave it to Beaver; neither ever existed.

I leave to the reader’s imagination and the future how the Hugo folks will untangle the mess the SP “freepers” plunged the whole awards process into. There may be something we readers and fans of the genre can do. For now, the idea that change is the only constant (thanks, Heraclitus!) occupies my mind, and the eye-opening concept of Murder Hobos is the lens that focuses this always-true yet usually forgotten universal notion on the subject of Fantasy Literature.

Ahaaa, says the clever reader. About time this blogger got around to it. First, back to the personal. As recently as the late 1990’s I participated in a RPG in which one adventure, for us low-level characters, consisted of ambushing goblin scouts, stealing their stuff, and ferrying it back to civilization to turn it into useful things such as better arms, armor, and consumable magic items. Within a year of that lowly banditry we Murder Hobos did become involved with local power politics at a more meaningful level. Great fun.

For that fun to exist one had to suspend one’s disbelief, much like at the theater, and accept the innate formula that our entertainment involved the (entirely fictional) suffering of enemy combatants and non-combatants. None of us real-life people were such monsters, or so short-sighted as to imagine simple violence (or, as this was AD&D 3.5, quite complex and convoluted violence) would really solve actual problems. Were we so evolved in 1976? Probably not. But, to hammer home Heraclitus: one cannot step into the same rivers twice.

Heroes Die Matthew Woodring Stover-smallImagine the surprise and delight when I read Matthew Stover’s Heroes Die, his 1999 novel. At the time I enjoyed how it effectively deconstructs (ouch! literary term, beware!) epic fantasy and the many TV and cinema variations on the hero. Of course, this was before the term “Murder Hobos” did much the same thing in shorthand, and certainly well before the SPs yearned for an imagined yesterday. Matthew Stover, roughly my age, definitely hit a nerve with his portrayal of Caine, the quintessential Murder Hobo.

Caine, you see, is in fact a character. Right out of role-playing game. Who adventures in a riotous fantasy environment complete with Western European feudal lords, D&D style magic (in broad strokes), and intelligent non-humans in all the familiar varieties: elves, dwarves, ogres, and so on. For Caine is actually Hari Michaelson, an actor working for the Studio, the primary entertainment provider in a dystopic future with intense class divisions (no unwanted touching between castes, please!), massive over-population, and a police state running the whole show.

Where we role play by sitting around a table (or possibly in front of a computer screen) describing the actions our characters take in an imaginary world, a paper-based consensual hallucination, Hari is sent to Overworld, where he is paid to risk his life in entertaining ways. He’s an assassin, a mercenary for hire, and as one must conclude from his resonant name, a true anti-hero.

He’s got his problems on Earth. His father is desperately ill and lives on Hari’s dime in a special prison that prevents him from sharing his heretical views about the Rights of Man. Hari’s wife, an actor, left him because Caine is a ruthless killer who enjoys his work. A lot. And the Studio boss directing Hari/Caine’s career understands that ambition fulfilled requires bodies underfoot.

Caine has problems on Overworld, too. His estranged wife fights the godlike emperor of one of the two major nations on Overworld, using guerilla tactics to save those the emperor deems enemies of the state. Betrayed by a companion at the orders of the Studio boss, she’s on the run and living on borrowed time, for a powerful spell has cut her off from Earth, and she’ll die unless she returns. Caine, ordered back to Overworld ostensibly to save her, in fact must unseat the god-emperor. Luckily, the god-emperor so desires the head of the rebel who fights him that he hires Caine to find the rebel, which happens to be exactly what Caine wants.

Hari/Caine pursues his goals, both innate and imposed, with a ferocious, foul-mouthed zeal impressive in its own right. The plot owes much to noir, to classic crime dramas with twists and turns, and to the interpretation of fantasy expressed by role-playing games. The novel caustically re-interprets the heroic tradition while mirroring Campbell’s Path of the Hero.

The River changes, or becomes stagnant; more to the point the River changes, and if our concept of the River isn’t fluid, we stagnate. Matthew Stover’s Caine series (subtitled in later editions as the Acts of Caine) demonstrates a keen awareness that the River flows. How amusing, then, that Caine, who portrays an action hero who in profile represents all the SPs could ever dream about, demonstrates the changing face of fantasy literature. What imagined traditional fantasy tale would include this dialogue, a chapter header illustrating Hari Michaelson’s marital difficulties?

“Hey, I’m not the only guy who kills people.”
“Nobody said you’re the only one, Hari. That’s not the point.”
“I’ll tell you what the point is. The point is: that’s how I became a star. The point is: that’s how I pay for this house, and the cars, and get us a table at Por L’Oeil. That’s how I pay for everything!”
“It’s not you who pays for it, Hari. It’s Toa-Phelathon. His wife. His daughters. Thousands of wives, husbands, parents, children. They’re the ones who pay for it.”

By the time this conversation appears, readers know Caine started a civil war by killing a king, Toa-Phelathon. The Studio boss calculated no war is more vicious than a civil war. And years of civil war did ensue. Many on Overworld died, suffered, were irreparably injured — because of Caine. That kind of cause and effect seems a far cry from what the SPs want.

This side journey in this week’s edition of Fantasy Literature had several goals. First, a general introduction to Heroes Die. Second, an illustration of how the term “Murder Hobos” helps illustrate our changed views of the standard role-playing construct. And finally to strike a blow against the hijacking of the Hugo process. “Freeping” is a well-understood strategy whereby a tiny minority gives the appearance of promoting commonly-held views.

Maybe next year I pony up a few bucks and participate in the Hugos. Maybe anyone who has ever benefited from the (admittedly imperfect) Hugo selections should do the same. After all, much of what we select from the sea of published work rises to the top via Hugo nominations and wins. Even Black Gate appears in the Hugos. See a list of past nominees and winners here: That’s a lot of history!

We don’t have to leave the voting to a tiny minority of fans. Only a silent majority lets such wacky things like this year’s slate happen. Participate in the flow!

All flows, nothing stays.
–Heraclitus of Ephesus

Next week: on to the novel in more detail!

Edward Carmien is a writer and scholar firmly in the orbit of the fantastic. He’s spent some of his recreational time learning skills useful in the fantasy milieu: he can ride a horse (poorly), shoot a bow (badly), hike long distances in the wilderness (pretty well), do others injury with the art of the empty hand (nowadays, who knows, he’s got five decades now…), operate small watercraft, and so on. Tabletop wargaming, gaming, computer gaming, CCG gaming, and cooking are some of his other pursuits.

A member of the SFWA and the SFRA, he writes (not enough), teaches (full time), parents, and husbands in and about Princeton, NJ. Check out his many crimes and misdemeanors in the fantasy field at

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Joe H.

It occurs to me that Robert E. Howard may have created the original Murder Hobo, at least until he ascended to the jeweled throne of Aquilonia.

Wild Ape

I think I would agree with a lot of your post and it is hard to argue with Heraclitus about going back. Perhaps the Sad Puppies and others pine for the past but they might have selective memories of the past just like their opponents do. I know I don’t want to go back, but I don’t want to leave behind some of the values in the past either.

Murder Hobo–That is a very well thought out barb to the old D&D game. It certainly does depend on one’s perspective or definition of hobo or hero. Michael Moore, Oscar winner, did that same thing when he recharacterized the actions of a heroic SEAL team sniper, Chris Kyle as a cowardly and unheroic acts. I suppose it depends on your perspective. Michael Moore was lauded with praise by the same SJW crowd and I’m sure many in the ranks of SF/F fandom who would rally to that banner just to stick it to the Puppies’ heroes and make them sadder.

I have never read this book. Deconstruction as a literary device makes for good story sometimes. I don’t think the Sad Puppies should be exempted from criticism but then I don’t think any group of people should be exempt. The Puppies seem very new to have actually become an establishment and I don’t know why you think they are. They haven’t won a Hugo yet and probably won’t. I do agree by getting more people involved would be better for all of fandom but when that day comes, if it does, people had better be prepared for a variety of fans with more peoples than a Star Wars cantina. There aren’t any Puppies that I’m aware of who are afraid of more participation at the Hugos. That is one of their goals–to get more people involved. They are saying that the Hugos are not representative of all of fandom. Do you think 1,800 people are a good indicator of ALL of SF/F fandom?

Saying that the SPs want to go back to the days of Leave It To Beaver was funny hyperbole and I think it did a good job of marginalizing them. I don’t think many do want to go back to the 50s. I did take some offense though about that remark. I interpreted what you said, perhaps wrongly,that the SPs want to go back to the good old days when white men had more “racial comfort”. Are you saying that SPs can’t be objective or that we don’t value many of the changes that have been made in society since the 50s? Brad Torgerson has a mixed racial marriage, I bet he would have something to say about how backwards the 50s were. He’d be in jail though if he lived back then, maybe even hung. What exactly do you think attracts the SPs to the Leave It To Beaver age? I think I disagree with you on that if I understand you right.

I like what you said about participating in the flow the most.


Edward, maybe you should read what the SP actually wrote about why they are doing what they are doing, and not just what their detractors wrote about them. Other than that, great hit piece.

Wild Ape

@Joe H—I think in Conan’s case he went from Murder Hobo to 1 Percenter, it must be an epic class. I stopped playing D&D a while back so I can only speculate.

If next years theme is Murder Hobos I’m torn on the graphic novel suggestions. Which was a better Murder Hobo literature—Groo the Wanderer or Hagar the Horrible? I’m leaning Groo but I’m open to suggestions.

Joe H.

Groo. Always Groo. Although I did read the first volume of Rat Queens and think it should probably count as well.


Ape, I pine for the past, too, but rather than trying to take everybody else back there with me, I can sit down with my LP collection, my Ace Doubles, my DC “Mystery in Space” comics, and a few dozen issues of “Galaxy” from the ’50s and have myself a little retro fest anytime I want. I lived through the days of “Leave It to Beaver,” and I can very clearly remember how scared I was, in October of 1962, that the Russians were going to bomb us some night and I’d wake up to find we were in some awful “Twilight Zone” apocalyptic nightmare. I enjoy going back to some of those old stories and novels, but one hell of a lot of great SF and fantasy has been produced over the last half century, and I only wish I could live another fifty years to see what kind of stuff shows up in the May/June 2065 issue of the “Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction.” There’s so much new stuff out there that I despair of ever getting to read even a tenth of it all, but thank the stars we have such a wide variety that there’s something out there for EVERYONE, no matter what their creed, or race, or ethnicity, or gender preferences, or political bent. I’m gonna hope all this Hugo hoopla is just a blip on the fan-based radar that runs its course and disappears. I do agree that more people should be involved in Hugo voting, and I’ve said that elsewhere in some of these responses. And no, I don’t think 1800 people represent all of fandom… and that suggests that the time might be very ripe for a change — and a significant one — in the way the Hugos are nominated and winners chosen. Electronic submissions by subscribers of the various SF/F magazines, print and otherwise? Toll-free numbers to call, one per phone number? Mail-in certificates enclosed in print versions of novels? Unique e-book passwords for nominating/voting? Hell, I don’t know, but I’d bet there are many out there who have been following this extremely lively — and even volatile — discussion who’d readily agree that something has to happen to fix this, or else the Hugos become meaningless, and for the sake of writers like Connie Willis, and many, many others, that would indeed be a sad conclusion to this issue.

[…] “Fantasy Literature: Murder Hobos, Sad Puppies, and Change” – April 18 […]

Martin Christopher

I am not a fan of highbrow sci-fi either and mostly enjoy somewhat preposterous, action heavy and pulpy adventure fiction. Which is why I never cared for Hugo Awards. And an award that aims to promote such fiction sounds really good to me.
But why do some people seem to believe that the existing Hugo Awards, which are much more highbrow with an established audience, be changed to become such an award? And sabotaging it to bully out the present fans and writers just seems like a total dick move. If they don’t like the kind of fiction this award promotes, they just should found their own. Stealing other peoples award and repurposing really isn’t a civil way to do it. And if they are right in that the larger public is much more interested in lowbrow adventure, then it should quickly become a big success.

Conan started as a second attempt of King Kull and was already a king in his first two stories. Tales of his early adventure as a young men came after that. And even in those, he doesn’t usally go into the homes of weaker creatures to steal their valuables. When he does go into places to steal, he runs into the current owner entirely by accident and then tries to fight his way out to escape with his life. I don’t think he ever kills anyone for loot. (Though it’s implied when he is currently a pirate or leader of a horde of raiders, but then it’s just murdering with no hoboing).

Wild Ape

@Martin Kallies—Sad Puppies played by the rules for nominating books. They encouraged you to vote and had a slate of books that they suggested. I had a few of my own picks and ideas and I read over the Puppy list and found them to be worthy. I don’t get why you think that is a “dick move” or bullying. I think the reaction is to paint the Sad Puppies as bullies taking over an award. SJW talking points sprouted up on several major newspapers and flew across the blogosphere about how the Sad Puppies were a cabal of racist, rape apologist, misogynist, homophobic white males led by wife beater Larry Correia. I think voting in a democratic process is not bullying or winning a nomination is not a dick move. I do think spurious tactics ie character assassination, smear campaigns, and lies–which are the same tactics used against gamersgate, conservatives, or sympathizers of such are victims of SJW are bullying and “dick moves”.

I share your love of Conan and probably what is considered lowbrow fiction. I think Conan always proves to carry noble values that the so called civilized world does not. Hobo is a derogatory term for someone who is homeless. I don’t think Edward was trying to degrade the homeless but he used the term hobo to illustrate a point–hopefully. Heroic stories like Conan are not lowbrow in my view. They harken back to the times of Gilgamesh and Odysseus.

@smitty59–I’ve wondered why the price to vote was $40. It seems steep to me and perhaps the price is put there on purpose–ie to remove the rabble and average fan. I think with numbers kept low it would be easier to manipulate the system.

I’m all for having more voting membership. I like the idea of balloting inside the books with keycodes and many of the suggestions you made. The more involved in the vote the better. Sad Puppies are about fans voting for the stories they like. I suppose I have faith that most fans don’t give a rip about identity politics and they can recognize literary qualities too. SJW is the anti-thesis of that. They are insecure that the public can’t make good racial, gender, and literary decisions by themselves on their own.


I think the cost of supporting memberships has changed over time, Ape, but I do know you get more than the “privilege” (if that’s the correct word now) of nominating/voting for Hugos. You get the convention updates, your name in the official booklet (if those things matter to anyone), and the various progress reports — usually at least four — plus the final program guide that attending members also get. At least, that’s what I’ve gotten just for being a supporting member. I’m sure that $40 covers the costs of all that, to some extent. It may have been much less than $40 a while back, and I think it’s even been as high as $50 recently.

As for Martin’s comments about the “highbrow” quality of Hugo-awarded stories: check out the first volume of “The Science Fiction Hall of Fame.” There are some stories there that might be considered “highbrow,” but that’s not the criterion used to judge the stories that made it into that book. And if indeed some writers have attempted to be a little more literary in the past, it was likely an attempt both to reach a wider audience, and to bring SF out of the literary ghetto and receive acknowledgment for being a literature worthy of attention by more than just twelve-year-old boys. There are a great deal of SF novels and stories that can hold their own when compared to the great writers like Hemingway, Faulkner, Steinbeck, Dostoevsky, Tolstoy, and all those guys you hated reading in high school and college. Personally, I think there ought to be required reading lists in high school that include Edgar Rice Burroughs, if for no other reason than to get high school kids reading. Highbrow has its place; so do the works of Burroughs and Howard. It’s ALL good, each in its own way.

Martin Christopher

Sure, all has its place and all deserve to have their awards. But I find this bickering and slap fighting over which group can have the Hugo as their award very undignified.
There are now the Gemmell Awards for heroic fantasy and nobody is going to stop anyone creating a sci-fi adventure award.

Sarah Avery

@Martin, speaking of the Gemmell Awards, voting is currently open here.

Sarah Avery

, I think you’ve put your finger on a moral nostalgia that a lot of us in the genre feel, including people like me who might in some circles be dismissed as a social justice warrior. There is still something cathartic about rolling the dice to kill the monster and take the treasure, especially after a long week in an ethically fraught real world. A Lovecraftian hostile cosmos offers a satisfying set of rationalizations: the tentacled deity hit me first — plus, it was trying to end the world! If we were all making lists of things we loved back in the day, I’d probably have a lot of items in common with the Puppies.

The longest-running RPG campaign I played in was a crazy homebrewed system that transplanted the sanity damage system from Call of Cthulhu and the radiation damage system from Morrow Project onto the skills and stats system from Runequest and the physical damage-tracking system from MERPS. The most complex part of every game out there was the part our GM adopted. The result was like the Millennium Falcon — rickety, but still the fastest hunk of junk in the galaxy. He ran our party through a magnificent multiverse with a cast of millions. Our party’s comic relief genius played a character who proudly hailed from The Land of Lame RPGs, and whenever we were confronted with a politically, ethically, or logistically complex situation, Artie the Awesome would wail, “Kill the monster and take the treasure!” As I watch the Sad Puppies debacle unfold, I can’t help thinking of Artie.

Fiction tells all the truth but tells it slant. Fiction that lies about how doors open –or dilate, or switch off force fields, or hear you when you speak, friend, and enter — can work all the better for the lying. Fiction that lies about the human heart will, at best, age poorly. If it lies about the human heart in a way its audience recognize immediately, it will fail immediately with most readers. Denying the full humanity of all humans is the most base and most basic of lies. You can write an entertaining book that indulges in lies and omissions about the human heart — that’s the only way I can account for the commercial success of category romance as a genre — but you cannot write a great one.

William Blake, the old canonical poet SF/F can’t leave alone, needed to write both the Songs of Innocence and the Songs of Experience. Man, the Songs of Experience are often a total downer. They’re full of families in extreme poverty, starving children of opiate-addicted parents, political corruption, and the most sustained cry of grief and rage anybody has ever crammed into rhymed tetrameter. But without the Songs of Experience, the Songs of Innocence would be a lie. “Little lamb, who made thee?” is treacle if it is not paired with the Tyger’s question, “Did he who made the lamb make thee?”

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