Behind the Screens – Deconstructing the Murder-Hobo

Tell me if this sounds familiar:

The PCs are tasked with acquiring a particular item from a heavily guarded camp. You’ve set up a stealth mission. They sneak in, acquire the macguffin, and make their escape with no one the wiser. Instead, the PCs charge into the camp, kill everything in sight, and casually sift through the rubble for the item in question.

No?

How about roleplaying encounter where the PCs need to persuade or coerce some information out of an wily vizier? With a bit of investigation, the PCs could uncover a bit of intrigue from the vizier’s past that would give them leverage in their dealings with the NPC. Instead, the PCs murder the vizier immediately, reanimate the corpse and make it talk.

Still no?

Well how about a sandbox campaign wherein players commandeer a ship and can roam the high sees in search of adventure and mystery? Instead, the PCs decide to sail from town to town looting, pillaging, and causing mayhem.

Huh… well if you’re still not familiar with anything of these situations, consider yourself fortunate that you run games for a group of well-rounded players. The term “Murderhobo” typifies the type of PC that wanders from place to place, slaying monsters/villains/NPCs and taking their stuff. The term also suggests a detachment or lack of involvement in the setting on the part of the PCs.

Of course, there’s nothing wrong with a bit of action in any adventure. There are a whole host of classic adventures written to be almost entirely dungeon delves with barely a thin veil of subplot or background holding things together.  Even in more complex adventures, combat encounters can make up a significant portion of many games. They can be tense and exciting. They can tickle the tactical itch. And they can allow your players the satisfaction of vanquishing a wicked villain or saving innocents from mortal peril.

But all combat all the time? Turning your finely crafted encounters into just another boss raid? What does one GM do against the “Kill ’em all and let Pharasma sort ’em out” mentality? Does the “loot ‘n scoot” so prevalent in Diablo-esque games belong at the table?

The answer, as with anything, is it depends on your group. But from this GM’s perspective, if all your players want to do is kill stuff, level up, and cash out it seems like Pathfinder isn’t the best system to fulfill that desire.

There’s nothing wrong with players being keen for some swords & sorcery. But the rise of murderhoboing in the situations like those that were outlined above are a classic case of mismatched expectations. The GM wants to tell a carefully crafted narrative. The players want to be Big Damn Heroes (or Villains). They want to be Bruce Willis in the 5th Element! Or Milla Jovovich in the 5th Element! Or Chris Tucker in the 5th Element! PCs in Fantasy RPGs tend towards larger-than-life action heroes. And what’s more, players know the story is about them and will tend to act accordingly.

As a GMs, we tend to want to run nuanced worlds with danger and mystery. We want a setting that feels like a living, breathing world. A setting that reacts to stimuli – which means that for the PCs, actions have consequences. We want the PCs to respect the setting at least as much as we do. And along with that respect should come at least a bit of fear.

In my experience, it’s this disconnect that tends to spawn Murderhoboing type behavior. The GM wants to enforce the deadliness of their world, which leads to players feeling punished for their choices, which in turn leave players hostile and more willing to harm things before they get hurt themselves.

The best way to address this disconnect, whether you’re trying to head off the problem or struggling to rein in active Murderhobos, is to have a frank out-of-character discussion about expectations. What are the goals that the PCs (both Players and Characters) want to accomplish. How can you, as the GM, focus the narrative to highlight those goals. How tough do players want their combat encounters to be? What kind of roleplaying immersion do people look forward to? Finding a balance between player and GM expectation is going to be the key.

Have trouble dealing with Murderhobos in your games? What steps have you taken to address the issue? Let me know in the comments section below!

Anthony Li

Anthony Li has been pretending to be someone or something else for about as long as he can remember, which some people might consider a problem. He cut his teeth on 2nd Edition AD&D when he was 14 years old and his only regret is that he didn’t start rolling dice sooner. Due to an unhealthy addiction to Magic: the Gathering he missed the entire cultural phenomenon that was the 3.X era of D&D. After a brief stint with 4E, he was dragged kicking and screaming into the Pathfinder Roleplaying Game where he has since acclimated, adapted, and thrived. Most of his roleplaying experience has been behind in the GM screen where he has trained his dice to confirm crits on command. He always roots for the bad guys.

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