It’s the quintessential party. A fighter, a mage, and a thief roll into town, ready to do their business. What is their business, exactly? “Slaying goblins, toppling despots, recovering magical items, all for an exorbitant sum of gold and experience points,” they say. When the deed is done, they lounge in the tavern, and the grateful townsfolk ask, “From where do you hail, sirs? (And possibly madams?)”
“Oh, we were just in Mostone last week. Cleared out a bugbear camp just beyond the outskirts of town.”
The townsfolk with hum with excitement and appreciation, but one determined innkeeper says, “No, no, where is your hearth? Where do you call home?”
The fighter, the mage, and the thief exchange uncomfortable glances. “Well… our adventuring days began when we met in New Bailiwick and were asked to recover the Golden Dragon Egg.”
“Where are your families? Where is your mail delivered? What bank do you use?”
“Look, old man,” says the mage, prodding the innkeeper’s chest with an arcane finger, “we saved your crummy town, we didn’t sign up to play twenty questions. So shut up, let us drink in peace, and give us a free room for the night for our heroism. We’ll be out of your hair in the morning, and we won’t burn down every building in a two mile radius.”
The innkeeper’s brow furrows, a puzzled expression on his face. “This isn’t twenty questions. That game only lets you ask questions with yes or no answers.”
“That’s it.” The fighter slams down his tankard and goes for his claymore. Four hours later, these adventurers — these murder hobos — set up camp just beyond the edge of the smoking rubble that was once a happy home. They fall asleep to the perverse lullaby of distant screams, and after a quick breakfast of eggs and bacon they’re off to Port Morlak in the morning to halt an orc king’s invasion.
The Murder Hobo Phenomenon
If that example didn’t illustrate what a murder hobo is, here’s a more straightforward definition: murder hobos are a class of player character present in both tabletop and electronic roleplaying games. These bloodthirsty vagrants migrate from quest to quest, mission to mission, plying their trades in the most violent manner. Unlike Old Matty who lives under the bridge just down the street from you, these hobos are not filthy or poor — in fact, they tend to be outfitted with the most fashionable armor and weaponry and require at least one NPC to carry all their treasure.
Sounds like your typical PC group, right? But murder hobos are distinguished by a few outstanding characteristics. First, like their vagabond namesakes, they have no homes and frequently no families. A considerable number of them are orphans with such wretched childhoods that they’re unable to consider even the tamest of romantic relationships, though they’ll be quick to partake of sexual activity if given the chance. The few with still-living parents are invariably the children of nobility, corrupt but redeemable nobility, or downright evil nobility.
Second, murder hobos have no profession or work history. Despite a proficiency with blades, guns, magic, medicine, computers, tracking, piloting, or any number of other complicated skills that would at least require an apprenticeship, if not a doctorate, their only trade is adventuring. The masters under which they study have a greatly truncated lifespan from the moment they take on these students if they do not first turn to evil. (Or indeed, if they were not evil the entire time.) Murder hobos receive no set wage from a regular job, and undertake no quest without the promise of a reward.
Finally, violence is the first and last response to adversity for a murder hobo. Though some may adhere to a code of honor, every undertaking is conceived as an ambush, strike, assault, or siege. Monster races are invariably perceived as evil and deserving of smiting. If sent on a diplomatic mission, they are sent as the muscle rather than the negotiators, and they will always make sure there’s a fight so they don’t get bored. When encouraged to consider a stealth- or diplomacy-based solution, they will roll their eyes and make denigrations concerning the acquisition of loot or XP.
The Origin of Murder Hobos
It’s easy to blame the murder hobo phenomenon on some defect present in the “player” species. Even GMs who are players scoff at the notion that any player can be trusted to see NPCs as anything more than a stack of numbers: difficulty to hit, approximate value of equipment, experience payout.
That’s not right. Look back at that definition and see for yourself: players certainly make decisions that characterize them as murder hobos, but there are other factors. Background, environment, agency, and reward all contribute to what makes a murder hobo so vicious and displaced, and these are all areas over which the GM has power.
The problem, at its root, is lazy GMs. We have created these monsters through questionable game design and poor decision making that we refuse to correct. By letting our flaws infiltrate our subconscious creativity and refusing to do anything to improve our craft, we have doomed entire fictional worlds to the whims of a group of wandering, distractible demi-gods.
It’s not too late, though. We can fix this. All we need to know is how to begin.
Correcting the Problem
The first thing to do is ascertain whether or not you have a problem.
No matter what you may have heard, even in this article, murder hobos have a place in the gaming hierarchy. They’re practically required in video games due to the limitation of technology. Having a dynamic world with NPCs that adapt to the player is something only human GMs can manage at this point. (We’re getting closer every day, but more on that in another post.)
Even in proper tabletop games, though, they’re sometimes unavoidable and occasionally desired. Old school D&D, for example, not only didn’t encourage the players to set down roots but in fact had no conceivable reason why you would want them to. One-shot and pre-published adventures in any number of systems would get bogged down if every player had to become familiar with why Saelia joined the Rebel Alliance and her relationship with eighteen extended family members, plus a fiance. Finally, maybe you don’t want to run or play in a game where the characters’ histories make that much of a difference, and instead you want one where the focus is on the action here and now. There’s nothing wrong with any of that.
But just in case you don’t like your players being murder hobos, you should realize they probably don’t want to be murder hobos either. There are some things you can do to minimize the opportunity for this kind of behavior, which should be enough to get your players to change their ways. Being a murder hobo is easy, a crutch to fall back on when you’re feeling trapped or uninspired, so showing your players that there’s more fun to be had getting involved will go a long way to breaking this habit.
Consider these problems and possible solutions:
- Background: Not having a background is a good way to encourage murder hobos, and not using backstory is a great way to validate their choices. A lot of RPGs today are incorporating backstory into their core mechanics, including D&D 5th Edition and FFG’s most excellent Edge of the Empire, which helps to alleviate a lot of the strain on a GM trying to convince her players to give her some sort of backstory. It’s also a good idea to insist your players give you enough hooks, and try to dissuade them from turning themselves into orphans — don’t forget, you have the power of veto.
- Environment: When NPCs don’t behave like rational people and are boxed into flat, static personality types, the PCs won’t feel like they’re in a believable world and so won’t be as able to suspend their disbelief. When a player realizes he or she is sitting at a table playing a game, that player will act more like… well, a player rather than a person. Making NPCs that act with a little agency of their own isn’t difficult. Whenever you have a named NPC, just quickly sketch out what they want and how they might get it. This can be as vague or specific as you like. If you can, throw in some details about their daily routine and why they’re in that particular town/spaceport/hellmouth.
- Agency: A PC should feel like they have options, and games where there’s no room to be creative will be one that breeds murder hobos. Players will feel cheated if they put ranks into social skills that are never used, which is a valid feeling. Even if the game makes clear that monsters like kobolds and orcs are always evil, there’s still room for negotiation. Let the players strike a deal with the smuggler baron rather than duke it out with her loyal followers. Huge set piece battles make for great cinematic moments, but there’s something to be said for a tense diplomatic staredown, too.
- Reward: Similar to the above, a lot of players feel like the only source of growth as a character comes from combat. GMs who are too lazy to get creative with their interpretations can fall into this, too, seeing the XP for “defeating” monsters as only valid if they’re killed. Always reward your players for acting to move the game forward, and don’t be shy about heaping on benefits for creative thinking. The “Scathing Tirade” talent comes to mind from Edge of the Empire, enabling a character to do strain damage by launching into an eyebrow-searing diatribe on anything from the target’s disposition towards alien species to the fact that the target’s outfit doesn’t match.
It’s not a perfect list, since there are any number of factors contributing to the murder hobo problem. The most difficult to overcome are the true murder hobos, players who really only care about the killing and little else. The good news, though, is that even they can have a place in the party, provided their characters’ murderous tendencies are balanced out. Even a whole party of murder hobos is fine, so long as everyone knows what they’re getting into. For example: the party in my Halo game would qualify as a squad of murder hobos, and for good reason.
Remember, murder hobos are not themselves bad, but it should be a choice. Never let your players resort to murder hobodom if there’s anything you can do to encourage them otherwise. Give them a home, a career, and some loved ones, and watch the magic.
Just make sure the magic isn’t flying into their beloved dog’s face for the XP.