See P. XX: Four Heroes and a Murder Hobo

Page XX

A column about roleplaying

by Robin D. Laws

“Okay, so now that the monks are locked inside the tower, I set fire to it. That’ll teach them to look down their noses at me! Burn, monks, burn!”

“As soon as it’s my turn to guard the prisoner, when I’m sure the others are all asleep, I stride over to him and slit his throat.”

“I’m tired of taking guff from the gnome king. I have my heat shield cloak on, so the confined space of this throne room? One word: fireball!”

Ah, that classic moment of roleplaying dysfunction, when one person in the group decides it’s time to cross the line from lovable rogue to psychopathic scumbag. This classic move of the uncollaborative player either wrenches the storyline onto a grim sidetrack of consequences that fall on the entire group, or shreds the plausibility of your ongoing story.

As a GM you ideally want to allow for big player-driven shifts in the storyline. However, the majority of a group shouldn’t have to put up with a plot shift they find fruitless or destructive just because it’s hatched, not by the GM, but by a player gone rogue. If everyone bought in ahead of time to a scenario in which the team is ruthlessly hunted by the authorities and forced to flee the amenities of the civilized world, that’s one thing. But if everyone else would prefer to stick with the original premise and solve murders, stop Cthulhu from rising, or rise in the power structure while filling their plush lairs with magical relics, it’s quite another.

If simply ignored, one player’s overindulgence in the fantasy of action without social constraint punches a hole in suspension of disbelief. The world doesn’t seem real if a character commits an atrocity and none of the forces that would push back against him bother to act. Even if the GM does portray the logical consequences of blatant murderhoboism, the other player characters suffer a credibility loss. By continuing to hang around with a maniac, they expose themselves as mere playing pieces, not people anchored to previously established characterization.

Unhappy players tend to let themselves get trumped by a couple of concerns here. They justly want to preserve the principle of player control over character actions. Many groups steeped in the trad gaming style are reluctant to see authorial concerns openly discussed, as if this particular breaking of the fourth wall is somehow worse than saying “Roll your initiative” or “what skill are you using to do that?” These hesitations give selfish players all the leeway they need to seize control and steer your game off a cliff.

As GM, especially if you’ve seen this player pull this before, I say bash down that fourth wall and sort matters out before his call to action leads to hours of un-fun play or damages narrative credibility.
The sneaky version of the chaos-wreaking player engineers events so that other PCs can’t stop whatever nonsense he plans to wreak. He may have succeeded in cutting out the characters, but that needn’t stop the players from exercising a measure of control. Break the fourth wall, zoom out into authorial mode, and poll the rest of the group:
“Are you still going to want him in your party if he does this?”
“This will totally change the premise of the series, into a fugitives-on-the-run thing. Is everyone okay with that?”
When the GM doesn’t intervene, alert players can speak up to voice the same concerns.
The player taking his character into psycho mode is doing more than just dictating the actions of his PC. He’s unilaterally imposing a major change in direction on everybody. As a GM you’d expect to ask for buy-in before a radical, and likely unwanted, shift in plot and tone. Here you’re requiring the player who is doing exactly that to get the same collective permission before going forward.
Often the player isn’t consciously trying to sabotage the game for everyone else, but is acting on a momentary impulse without seeing the big picture price. When you point this out, he’ll either adjust his action to keep it within AHP (Acceptable Hoboism Parameters) or back off entirely.
Should the player dig in his heels, you can turn it around into a question, asking him to show how the proposed monk-burning, prisoner-killing or gnome-exploding can occur without changing the direction of the game, undermining the reality of the world, or altering the way the other players portray their characters.
Be wary of answers that have him doing the reprehensible thing in a sneakier way, so that the rest of the party supposedly doesn’t find out about it. This still elevates his character above the others, painting them as chumps and the murder hobo as the clever one. This remains selfish play even when coated in a patina of plausibility.

There’s a word for a player who consistently takes his fun at others’ expense, even after you’ve pointed out that his is what he’s doing: goodbye. It’s crazy that this has to be repeatedly said, but you wouldn’t play basketball with an unrepentant ball-hog, or go fishing with somebody who blasts music that scares the trout away. If he doesn’t care whether the rest of you are having fun, he’s asking you not to care about his enjoyment either. Okay, let’s say he’s a beloved friend who happens to be a jerk in this one sphere, or someone you empathetically put up with because no one else will. Find some other less exasperating context to hang out with him. Otherwise you risk killing your love of roleplaying—or, before you see it happening, that of your other players.
In some cases a player who does care about the rest of the group may feel that this unforgivable or premise-altering action must take place to preserve her sense of the character. But she should be prepared to stake that character’s fictional existence on it, releasing the other players from the implicit obligation to keep the PC on the team. After a suitably dramatic parting of the ways, with or without the use of a hanging tree, the player then creates a replacement character the group has good reason to welcome into the fold. And, one hopes, keep there.

13 Responses to “See P. XX: Four Heroes and a Murder Hobo”

  1. Kit says:

    running into this very thing right now. One of the PCs (a true neutral wizard) wants to raise a dragon into a Bloody skeleton, for which he is willing to planar bind a demon and have it cast Desecrate. He plans on keeping this hidden from the extremely good NPCs he’s supposed to be helping. I’m going to let him try but inform him that no matter how he might play his character, he’s going to detect as evil because, well, he is. If he dies this thing is free to kill at will. I understand that at some point the NPCs might find out and am willing to derail the entire campaign from its current path and take it in another direction, but I’m not willing to let him have his shiny, overpowered toy without the possibility of repercussions. I’m hampered by the fact that our group is a social one as well – our weekly games include dinner and so on – but I’m willing to let him have to deal with the fallout from his choices. Thanks for the thoughtful column.

  2. Chris says:

    “wants to raise a dragon into a Bloody skeleton, for which he is willing to planar bind a demon and have it cast Desecrate.”

    I dunno, that sounds pretty neat.

    “I’m not willing to let him have his shiny, overpowered toy without the possibility of repercussions.”

    Also sounds great, repercussions often end up as great plot hooks. I guess my GM style is pretty flexible, so I look favourably upon player initiative like this.

    I understand the article to be saying that killing obviously important NPCs “because it’d be hilarious”, or “because I’m bored” is derailing and annoying. However, a wizard succumbing to the lure of corrupting magical power seems to have good potential.

  3. littlemute says:

    This is usually in games where PC’s are nearly immortal or the game is totally balanced to their characters at all times (pathfinder published adventure paths) and also where the adventures are so boring and banal that this type of things occur because players are not challenged (pathfinder published adventure paths, any 2nd Edition D&D module).

    When X bad player tries to attack, it’s fair to roll init for ALL players, and let the others act as they may, to run, to stop X player and to gut him in front of the Gnome’s throne, or join in the attack (they’re just Gnomes anyway, and belong in your garden as statues and not in any fantasy game). Otherwise, please give me a reason to commit another long, drawn out TPK, please please please try to burn the Gnome king with your fireballs and let the rest of the story be about your PC’s being flayed and mutilated and fed alive to starving dogs or infected with cerulean feeding polyps or blinded and sent out into the world wearing only a gunny sack or whatever angry gnomes of a dead king (that don’t belong in any fantasy games in the first place) do.

  4. Andy says:

    A(nother) thoughtful and useful comment from one of my favourite game designers, thanks! I do see, however, other issues sometimes lurking behind “murderhobo” scenarios. Take the gnome king situation, for example. If the gnome king (or his advisors) have any real knowledge of how the world works in terms of ‘heroes’ and ‘adventurers’, how come they casually treat powerful figures who ought rightly be treated with as another ‘government’ as common folk? Why aren’t the PCs calling the king (or one of his advisors) to come outside and showing them a fireball just close enough to let them feel the heat, and then saying “Look, majesty, if we had come here as enemies we would just have razed this place to the ground and taken what’s valuable, already. We haven’t done that because we’re here to offer you our help and friendship, so how about we cut the crap and you start levelling with us?”

    As a GM I say beware of getting precious about your NPCs’ status. Admit that the PCs are powerful (to the extent that they are). Let them show and use that power non-destructively, and they may feel less impulse to use it destructively.

  5. Michael Drew says:

    Absolutely, excellent article, thank you. My Delta Green game had a similarly derailing moment in the first mission we played (Victim of the Art). One player, owing to a lack of understanding of the situation and a brief moment of my GM paralysis, attacked a suburban mother in daylight so they could get access to her house. Long story short, one cell member summoned a fell creature to bust the others out of jail. It has actually worked out quite well. I have been screwing with them since, running a large witch hunt for fake Feds behind the scenes and with several missions planned making them clean up their loose ends and shut down the investigation. This was not, I will admit, the original intent but it has given an episodic campaign an overarching structure. It has also emphasised DG’s illegal nature, and is showing them the lengths the conspiracy will go to to ensure secrecy.

    If you do blow the heading off at the pass, allowing the action to stand but requiring the fallout be suffered can be quite effective at adding a dramatic edge to a campaign. Of course, the players all have to buy in to that change. My big mistake was missing the chance to explain the situation and allow the player the chance to reconsider – although I wonder if the campaign would have been as effective.

  6. Craig says:

    This is not a GM’s challenge – it a PC challenge. Part of sitting down at a table is the social contract of working together to establish a cooperative fiction. If you have four heroes and one opportunistic ass, many times a ton of gameplay can be unraveled by one “But it’s what my character would do” – which can be frustrating for players and GMs alike.

    The written scenarios above are examples drawn from the air, not from actual play – trying to justify a players bored impulse to derail a game is an exercise in pedantry. Why he attacked the Gnome king is irrelevant – the assumption is it was a murderous impulse.

    As to “Please give me a reason for another TPK” – this is unfair to others at the table, and if it has happened at your table I offer a warning – this type of competitive GMing will leave your table empty when a more balanced GM comes along. Expecting your players to gut another PC is shirking your responsibilities as a GM to control the table and keep the game fun for everyone. My table has five, one of whom is a power gamer and two of whom are new players who really enjoy gaming but would never *ever* consider killing another player (despite how much they might want to). Expecting them to counter a pisspot who’s derailing the game is unfair.

    I agree with post about the “Bloody Skeleton Dragon” is kind a cool idea but I would challenge the player with this comment: “Your Bloody Skeleton Dragon (BSK) will make you a villain. Are you okay with that? Is the rest of your party okay with that?”
    Because, like all mortal creatures, he has to sleep sometime. And even if he’s trying to keep something like this secret, his adventuring professional colleagues will sus out something is up. And when they do, they might not be willing to kill you but there is no restriction to them leaving you behind either – and choosing a character who could travel with them without such consequences.
    And in response to Andy: I’m not sure if this is being precious about NPCs. It’s about any action where the logical consequences for a entire party are severe and a single player enacts them without consideration of the rest of the group. I belong to the Apocalypse World school of thought: I look at all NPCs through the crosshairs and they die in numbers.
    *However*. In a recent scenario, a player in a open street fired upon the leader of small community. Before he did so, we discussed the fact that the community had a) nothing against the party and b) was exercising his legal right to challenge the characters. The rest of the players decided they would try to keep things calm and talk first. He fired anyway. So, NPC written off and a gunfight takes place – which the characters handily win. *However* they couldn’t kill everyone and so became wanted. And the supplies they were looking for, alas only the NPCs knew about. But they were dead. And there was much hard feeling in the party.
    I wonder, after reading this article, if before he had dropped dice, I had dropped the fourth wall and asked: “If Jon does this, it will outlaw the lot of you and deny you the supplies you’re looking for. The people of the area will look upon you as cutthroats and murderers. Is the party OK with this? If not, would you like to find someone else who might be a little less murder-hobo and more heroic to fit with the party?” if the answer might have changed the outcome of the scenario.

    • littlemute says:

      “As to “Please give me a reason for another TPK” – this is unfair to others at the table, and if it has happened at your table I offer a warning – this type of competitive GMing will leave your table empty when a more balanced GM comes along.”

      Craig, I will not remove my player’s ability to make choices. To not be able to try to kill the Gnome King is a choice I will not remove, even if it means the adventure I just prepared goes into the toilet, and the rest of the session is very angry gnomes bent on evisceration. My players know this and are free to go off to any other GM (I live in a city where I think there are more GM’s than players sometimes) if they want to have the Pathfinder Adventure Path experience with immortal characters. Players have a tendency to have their characters say and do terrible things when confronted with entities they cannot control or destroy, many times more than daring the GM to use said entity to destroy them. I do not hold back this destruction when warranted because it’s usually telegraphed for miles. You want to piss on Elric while he’s sitting on his throne, or defecate in his hall or steal his drugs? That character is getting stormbringer, and what the other characters do during and after that point is part of the choices each gets to make. Do they lay prostrate? do they run? do they attack? do they speak out to stop the other character? This is not competitive GMing.

  7. Kobi says:

    I am not seeing a problem with this here, personally. This isn’t a condoning of muderhoboism, not by a long shot, but it is a post of support for organic story telling and letting the players sort out these kind of things in character.

    A GM stepping out and imposing authority on the direction of the story (as defined by character actions) is a form of rail roading, and, IMO, rail roading is bad.

    Be a brave GM, don’t be precious or over protective about the plot that you want to tel. Be flexible enough to go with the flow, and encourage your players to do the same. Forcing characters into an always sane always rational always reasonable cookie cutter mold makes often for a boring game.

    One player choosing to murderhobo it isn’t an issue. In fact, it can be interesting to throw a little chaos in the mix. The players, if they object, will sort it out themselves, and in the meantime it may produce interesting and challenging situations in the campaign world.

    • Munroe says:

      Breaking the fourth wall to poll your players about the direction of the game is hardly “railroading”. Part of the role of the GM is as a host to make sure people are enjoying themselves.

      You wouldn’t (or at least shouldn’t) let a guest at a party you’re throwing spoil everyone else’s fun by their behavior. At some point it’s your job to meditate and, if necessary, ask them to leave. Saying “but it’s a party, you can’t tell me what I can do!” doesn’t cut it.

    • camazotz says:

      I actually had this happen recently in an OSR sandbox setting (a literal hex crawl) using White Star. I even documented the campaign session-by-session and you can see the entire thing unravel on the session when the “murderhobo” (an old player who returned for a session) and his friend decide to go completely off the rails. The session was interesting, yes, but the action was clearly due to the player’s interest in causing problems, possibly due to boredom or a dislike of the setting/group and not at all related to any desire for moving the game in an interesting direction. I rolled with it as I always do, but it helped that in the end the other players “self corrected” by nuking (literally) the offending duo. If I’d read this article before, I may have taken a different tactic and asked them what their real goals were (which, I feel, was deliberate disruption for shits and giggles).

  8. srd says:

    I think the gist of the “precious NPCs” point is a disconnect in how D&D is typically played. There’s an expectation that kings are kings and PCs should know their social place, when in fact 10th level PCs are more like Exalted in power, unless important NPCs themselves have lots of class levels (as was common in Mystara.)

    If it’s possible for PCs to safely nuke a throne room, then either throne rooms should have countermeasures — like magical defenses, or lots of NPC hit points, or not letting PCs inside and negotiating only by proxy — or the power dynamics should be completely different, as mortal NPCs try to placate superhuman PCs.

    Of course, that’s just the third example; the first two, of burning or throat-slitting prisoners, don’t require any superhuman prowess, so this is really a digression.

  9. Moose says:

    Yea, srd has a bit of a point there.. the problem with the claim that “this will change the game to the PCs on the run from the authorities” is that in most games the PCs can easily defeat or evade the authorities. If they couldn’t, you run into the problem of “so why do they need the PCs when their police could deal with the evil guy?”

    I’ve had this in Shadowrun.. an annoying problem with that game is that despite the fact that the PCs are _meant_ to be “on the run” to some extent, the stats provided for the authorities are such that they are either easily defeated or 100% certain GM-fiat kills.

  10. Aenghus says:

    In a conventional RPG where the referee’s on charge, s/he’s still one of the players and deserves to enjoy the game as much as any other participant. If s/he sees the game being unilaterally hijacked in an unwelcome direction s/he not only has the right to bring the issue up beforehand, but arguably has a responsibility to do so to allow the other players an out of character venue to express their opinions of the proposed new direction of play.

    The freedom in RPGs is not unlimited as people have individual limits. Even if the majority of the players are happy with the new campaign direction, the referee may not be willing to run a game with the new themes, so a new referee would be needed, or the game would fall apart.The minority of players who dissent may drop out or continue to play while unhappy.

    Matters of genre, theme, ethical tone and campaign direction are inherently subjective and generally depend on some sort of consensus and trust being built up in a particular group. Unilaterally changing the ethical tone of the game damages group trust if there are dissenting opinions.

    RPGs with more distributed story responsibility inherently have more ways for players to collaborate and resolve questions about campaign direction amicably.

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