Let’s talk about murder for a minute. Not, like, actually killing people, but about the word. In several recent discussions online about gaming in general and D&D in specific, the word “murder” got thrown around pretty loosely. Typically in the context of characters killing enemies (and usually taking their stuff). It seems like the term “murder-hobo” is a favorite of a lot of people for the characters their players run, or imagine other players run. But I’d like to remind everyone about the importance of precision in language (especially in discussions of morality (perceived vs. absolute) and alignment. Words mean things. And even if a large portion of a population agrees that a certain word means something slightly different than the rest of the population, we would do well to return to the established meaning of the word and not be so blase about declaring certain actions to be thus or so without understanding what thus and so might imply to someone who doesn’t share the “group definition” of the word.
Murder. What does this word mean?
nounnoun: murder; plural noun: murders
- the unlawful premeditated killing of one human being by another.verbverb: murder; 3rd person present: murders; past tense: murdered; past participle: murdered; gerund or present participle: murdering
- kill (someone) unlawfully and with premeditation
Ok, that’s pretty clear. At least it is to me. But it would appear that a large portion of the gaming community has a more liberal definition of murder. And I don’t mean applying the term to the killing of sentient nonhumans. No, most of the usage I have seen has had the implication that killing of any kind is murder, which when looking at the definitions above, is simply not the case.
But what does it matter, you ask? Isn’t this all just semantics and kind of pointless? Maybe. But then again maybe not. When you start throwing heavily charged words around in a casual manner, you begin to have two effects on the world at large. First, you desensitize some to the usage of the word, and dilute it’s precise meaning so that the word no longer carries the meaning that it once did to an audience. Second, to others you extend the meaning of the word beyond it’s original bounds so that it includes other cases which are not actually covered by the word to be associated with the ramifications of the word.
Stop all that linguistic claptrap, you! Say what you mean in plain English!
Ah, yes. Very well. To murder someone (you cannot murder something), it must be an unlawful, premeditated killing. That is a very serious crime, and is only undertaken by twisted individuals, however permanent the twisting might be. To kill enemy soldiers during war is not murder. To kill a criminal who has been sentenced to die is not murder. To kill an animal is not murder.
Unpleasant and undesirable, yes. Murder, no.
So why do I bring this up on a blog about gaming? Because in several discussions (mostly involving alignment), any sort of killing is often deemed murder. Enemy combatants. Aggressive, dangerous monsters. Unintelligent animals. Adventurers routinely go about killing creatures such as these. But to do so is not (usually) murder. In the same way, characters who make a living by killing these threats to society are often cast in a light where they are at least as dangerous to society, and often more so than the creatures they dispatch!
If you use alignment in your game, do not be caught in the trap which tells you all killing is murder, and therefore evil. It is very possible for a Good character to kill creatures, even many creatures, in a just manner. In a medieval style setting, death is a constant threat which is often faced. No one was under the illusion that pacifism was a viable option. Even if you didn’t do the killing, the armies of the king did the killing on your behalf, to keep you from being killed (or worse) by those who desire what you possess and are willing to murder you to get it. And you were darned glad of it, too!
Yes, yes, I’m getting there.
Be that as it may, yes, killing is obviously undesirable if it can be reasonably avoided. Having cause to take a life should be a profound source of sadness, if only at the need for it, if not also for the extinguishing of sentient life. But sadness at a necessity does not make the necessity inherently evil, or even wrong.
Life is too complicated to give us the luxury of using a single word.
Them’s my two cents.