Game Master talk: “Murder Hobos”



def. The typical protagonist of a fantasy role-playing game, who is a homeless guy who goes around killing people and taking their stuff.

Due to the holidays I only have time for a quick blog, but thought I would delve into this a bit–especially since Thanksgiving is really the “Last Supper” before we went all Murder Hobo on the native Americans!

A lot of GM’s pride themselves on running games that focus on other narrative elements than just combat; but let’s be honest, players love combat and Rolemaster’s critical charts makes combat more immersive and ultimately rewarding. RPG’s reward MurderHobo behavior! Video games have further reinforced this style. Digital games, limited in part by the defined experience and finite sandbox, also tend to focus on conflict and combat as the primary mechanism for player gains and advancement.

Despite mechanisms like “Alignments”, religious constraints and the good v. evil meme, many PC groups default to “kill whatever you encounter and take their stuff”. We certainly played like that when we were younger and in almost every game session since there has been at least one group member that opts for combat before anything else. In a game system that has terrible monsters, cruel creatures and real evil, their needs to be little rationalization: bad monsters should be killed!

I tend to a more grayscale approach to morality in gaming and Shadow World lends itself well to that. Most encounters are with other humanoids and while many of them may be selfish, greedy or dangerous they are probably not evil in the purest sense. Generally, people act in self-interest.

So while a GM can design an adventure that focuses on non-combat elements, that doesn’t mean the players will stay on script. So, how can you build some constraints into your gaming group?

  1. Actions have consequences. Combat results in criticals, and criticals can result in serious or permanent damage. At lower levels PC’s may not have the resources to regenerate a limb. Certain injuries could cause stat loss (temp and permanent). Scars can reduce Ap. Healing costs $$$!
  2. There are fates worth than death. Even if they triumph over the PC’s, opponents may still be seriously injured and will need to seek refuge and healing. They may not necessarily delivery a “coup de grace” on the players, but they could certainly loot them and take their valuable stuff!
  3. One size DOES NOT fit all. I’m not a believer that magic armor, bracers, rings etc have inherent magical “resizing” ability. In fact, that sounds like a fairly high level ability to enchant into an object. My players don’t expect to simple loot and put in opponents armor and have it fit or work effectively. This reduces some of their impulse to kill anything with nice stuff.
  4. What’s in a name? Horses have brands, armor may have insignia or religious symbols, “named” weapons may have a reputation. Flaunting your opponents marked equipment may be problematic—PC’s could be considered thieves or looters!

Hey, I like combat as much as anyone but when you really think about it, the “murderhobo” concept defines PC’s. What are your thoughts?

5 Replies to “Game Master talk: “Murder Hobos””

  1. I find the more players in the group the greater the emphasis on combat. It is harder to to engage all of your players all of the time when the central theme is more political, intrigue or crimimology based. Those genres play to the strengths of particular types of characters.

    I am not a give away GM. I almost never give away permenant magical items until poeple are in the 6th to 10th level bracket. I do this because I have seen the tail wag the dog so many times when a magical item distorts the way the players develops their characters skills to make best use of an item. If the players know that killing the bad buys will not be a supermarket sweep of magical loot the net cost of a combat may easily be more than loot gained from it. The party in my face to face game gained no loot in the previous adventure but probably used up 400gp worth of healing.

    I am not suggesting no magical treasure, but single use items are more interesting with lower level characters as when do you choose to use something that is a one time only offer?

    Another consequence of this is that I did actually put some magical treasure in the evil wizards lair amongst all his alchemical wares in the second or third adventure they did. When the party looted the place they threw the whole lot into the latrines just to piss off the wizard without a thought to whether any of it was magical. It is still there to this day in theory.

  2. Yes, I actually use property ownership at starting levels; built it into the “wealth” table that the PC’s roll on when generating characters. (I think there is a blog here on that topic). Having a home base and roots in a community seems to change the players attitudes a bit.

    Peter, I also use a lot of “one and done” items (we have a Simple Imbedding list that destroys the object when the effect is intiated: potions, salves, candles, powders, charms etc). I also nerfed magic items so they don’t automatically have PP’s and the Daily effect needs to be recycled. So a Ring of Firebolts Daily 4, would need the wielder to provide the PP’s to cast the Firebolt spell and it can be case every 6 hours. (24/4). Under the RAW a Fighter, once attuned to the ring, could blast off 4 firebolts in a single short fight. In my rules he would only be able to cast it once and would need to have developed “Channeling” skill (our meta-skill for PP’s).

    Finally, I think disconnecting XP’s from gold and even killing things helps mitigate the murderhobo phenomena. The goal oriented XP system Matt did in RMU works well.

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