Tuesday, May 10, 2016

Building Houses for Murderhoboes

This is partially a response to Zak's essay about murderhoboes over here.  It's very good.

I agree with that post.  You can have murderhobo games with excitement, drama, and epic arcs.  Murderhobo games need to be recognized as a successful, independent genre, not just "the kind of game you when you try to play Lord of the Rings and fail".

from here
Murderhobo games aren't essentially bad, but they are different.  In this essay, I want to talk about (a) what makes them different, and (b) how to accommodate murderhobos..

This is why people don't like murderhobos:

  • Murderhobos often act unheroic, selfish, and/or cowardly.  If the DM expected his game to generate Tolkeinesque behavior, the DM's genre expectations have been frustrated.
  • Murderhobos often pass through the game without interacting with much of it.  They are only interested in things to kill and/or steal.  If the DM expected them to talk to the innkeeper and learn about the innkeeper's cursed pony, and they passed it by, the DM's expectations are again frustrated.
I say "the DM's expectations" because the DM is the player who has the most (they wrote/prepared the future paths they game might take) and has the most to lose when those expectations are not met (all that prep work), but really, any player at the table can be discontented, even one of the participating murderhobos.

This is only a problem if the people (a) wanted their game to generate something more Tolkeinesque, and (b) if the game doesn't accommodate their murderhobo playstyle.

If you are DMing a murderhobo game and don't want to be DMing a murderhobo game, you could try:

1. Talking to your players like fucking adults.  A horror module isn't going to be scary unless the players let themselves be scared a little.  This requires them to stop making Monty Python quotes and dick jokes (just remember that there is a cost to sacrificing levity at your table).  Talk what the goals are for both the game and for their characters.

This is the best option and I cannot recommend it enough.

2. Make sure that their actions have consequences.  Innocent people die.  Innkeepers charge extra.  Shopkeepers won't let them in the store (because what sane person would?).  Consequences are important in any game, but if you are using them as a stick to beat your players back into line, be careful you aren't being a dick about it.  

3. Mechanical reinforcement.  The nuclear option is to only award XP for roleplaying or story goals.  This rarely works as well as the DM expects.  At a certain point you might be better off switching to a different system.

4. Accept it and run with it.  There are a lot of things to recommend a murderhobo game.  
  • The game is player-driven, because players have a lot of autonomy in what they want to do and how they want to do it.  
  • Characters are free to die, because the game is less about their personal story arcs and more about the situations that they get themselves in, and this allows you to keep death as a real and ever-present threat, like any good adventure story.  
  • And players are forced to rely on their wits, because pre-plotted games are incapable of challenging player's wits (since you can't give players logic problems they can't solve) and murderhobos usually get themselves into exactly as much trouble as they can barely handle.  (I'm assuming that there is more to do in your game than just combat.  If you're playing 4e or something I don't know what to tell you.)

Now, if you are DMing a murderhobo game and want to DM the best fucking murderhobo game you can, here are some things you can do to accommodate those murderhoboes.  You gotta build a house for 'em.

1. Murderhoboes are like water; they run through the fingers of the plot.  This is why your game world needs to be engaging as fuck.

Make it personal.  The plot cannot be about saving the world, because murderhoboes don't want to save the world.  It needs to be about the PCs.  The heavy handed way to do this is to make it about saving themselves, because murderhoboes always want to save themselves.  This is an option, just remember that you don't have to make it deadly, you just have to make it personal.

Rival adventuring parties are a great way to make it personal.  Opening the chest and finding a mocking note instead of the Emerald Eye of Zuul will chill even the embittered soul of a murderhobo.  And there's a lot of satisfaction to be found later on, when prying a fat emerald from the cold fingers of your dead rival.

2. Make the NPCs more like noir characters.  Everyone wants something from the party, and everyone has a secret (sometimes trifling, sometimes important).  

The whole world needs to have hooks, and NPCs are great motivators, because they are free agents with goals of their own and means to achieve those goals.  A powerful noble that wants them to come to dinner and refuses to take no for an answer.  Someone from the PCs background shows up, recognizes them, and takes immediate action.  PCs who are targetted by a mass pickpocket campaign that is something much greater.

And yes, these are just adventure hooks, but they are sharp adventure hooks.  They stick their hand right into your pocket and rummage through your chestnuts.  They aren't just "some farmers saw a thing, go talk to them" or "here's a handbill with a bounty on it".  Make the hooks things that the players cannot ignore.

3. Give adventure no matter where they wander.  Random tables can help with this.  This may lead to the party feeling like the world is insanely dangerous and full of treasure.  This is correct.

Murderhoboes will often flee from overwhelming odds with no significant reward attached.  This is normal and human and you would do the same thing.  Just don't expect them to be committed to a certain plan of action the way that some idiot like Superman would.  And there may be consequences: someone else will loot the dungeon, or the village may burn down and all the villagers transformed into moaning worm-people.  That's okay.

This is why murderhoboes are better suited for sandbox-style gameplay.  It does require more flexibility from the DM.

4. Give them things to do that aren't limited to the heroic.  Heists, NPC assholes who need to die, rumors of great treasures, a death curse that is slowly turning your heart into treacle.

Find out what they want and then give them a clear path to it.  Was the party impressed by the airship flying overhead last session?  Show them an airship that they can win/steal and make them work for it.

5. Give them things that they can't fight or steal.  Negotiating with a superior force is always fun.  When the goblin armada says, "Give us 75% of your treasure or we'll kill you." the party sometimes comes up with interesting solutions.  Or have Strahd invite them to dinner, and make it plain that there will be terrible consequences if they offend their host.

6. Keep the risks high, and the rewards high.  When in doubt, escalate both.


  1. my players would fuck and eat the pony, kill the tavern owner, sell his kin to slaverey and turn it into a drug den brothel

    1. Then make the following adventure having the players taking monopoly over the area's drug market to supply their den, squashing the local competition, steal their whores and set the long term goal of taking over the rich-as-fuck guild/cartel. Don't spend too much time on the details in case the team then decides it's not worth it and buzz off... but the simple creation of the den was already an affront to the area's mob, a Dwarven Megalomaniac who never forgives; One more possibility in the random encounter table.

  2. "6. Keep the risks high, and the rewards high. When in doubt, escalate both."

    A million times this.

    In the same vein of thinking, I like offering a "double or nothing" alternative after ending an event, either through success or failure (repeat until the party either stops or loses it all). Basically giving them the opportunity to get even better result (or avoid a negative result) against ever climbing higher odds but risking losing most or all gains so far (Basically adding the classic principle of "Do you go down one more level in the dungeon or go back to town?" to every type of encounters. This is ironically most effective in social encounters.)

    Don't be afraid of cartoonishly ridiculous situations, either. I escalate like Chuck Jones is my totem animal.

  3. Required reading for most sandbox campaigns!