One of those questions I see go by on Twitter from time to time is a new Game Master (GM) asking for help in reining in their players whose characters are operating under the “Murder Hobo” trope.
For those of you unfamiliar with the term, no, I don’t mean https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hobo_with_a_Shotgun . Essentially, the reference comes from the fact that most Adventuring Groups / Teams, irrespective of genre / game system, are constantly on the move. If they use that rootlessness to be a “why not” rationale for killing random bystanders, or anyone who annoys the group, or the merchant that wants to haggle, etc … that’s being a “Murder Hobo”.
Firstly, this is a problem at the meta-game level. I’ll talk more in detail about that in another post, but in short, the characters live in this world. They may or may not have a social “tilt” on good and evil, but they definitely have some sort of moral compass. Regardless, they should understand the implications and repercussions of stabbing the serving boy at the inn, instead of paying him for the drinks the lad just delivered.
So Why Are We All Here?
So the first question needs to be from the GM to the players at the table “why is this fun?” or “why does this make sense?” as actions for the characters. You will encounter some players, and by extension, groups, that have decided that they want to be the arch-villain in the game. There is nothing inherently wrong with this, as long as the GM and all the players agree that sounds like a fun and interesting place to take the game.
If this idea / preference from your players comes to you as a GM as a surprise, you need to learn to communicate better with your players. Particularly if this just doesn’t fit with the game or world that you want to run. Stop posting that you have a lousy group on Reddit or Twitter, and start talking with the rest of the people sitting at the gaming table.
My experience is that most “Murder Hobo” behaviour actually comes from one, possibly two player-characters, and the rest of the group is following along because they don’t want out-of-character drama at the table. As a GM, by talking to everyone at once at the table, those voices may get heard.
If the entire bunch of player-characters legitimately thinks that this is the kind of game they want to play in, as a GM, you’ve got two options. First, and most extremely, ask one of them to take over GM-ing duties. Seriously; there a quarter-bajillion new players in “Looking For Group” forums, Reddit threads, and Discord Channels. Go find players that want to play the way that you want to run a game.
While it’s scary to do, it’s surprisingly liberating. I’ve “fired” a group myself; once as a player and another time as a GM. Life it too short to be stuck playing or running games you don’t love.
Be Careful What They Wish For
The other option is to give them what they want and see where it goes. At the end of the day, the player-characters cannot win an arms-race with the GM. So, the game of “players as Arch-Villains” or even just “players as evil serial killers” only lasts as long as you, as a GM, say it does. You do, as a GM, have to be prepared to start killing characters, though. Eventually, some Higher Power in the plot is going to have had enough of the depredations of the characters and simply Wish / Orbital-Strike them out of existence.
Dragons, Deities, Nation-states, Crusader-Heroes, Stellar Emperors, whatever; at some point, The Bigger Fish is going to win, and they will treat the characters like they are the un-redeemably evil monsters they are, and it’s time for a replacement character. If they players will not accept that, and you cannot do that, then close the game.
If you can, and they will, then it’s time to start escalation procedures. Firstly, introduce them to low-level bounties on their heads. Have wanted posters start showing up. Have shop keepers close early when they come to town.
“But bounties are fun though! You get to fight cool adversaries!” — Anon Player
For example in Fantasy Flight Games’ “Star Wars RPG”:
“… oh. shot someone again? Yeah, ok, so that’s bounty has gone up another 2000 credits… so, presume any shopping, resource or social rolls now have 2 more ‘set-backs’ on them. Everyone is terrified of you, and no one wants to deal with you. Whole towns go into lock-down when they see your ship landing on the out-skirts.”
“So you’re rolling six set-backs now, in your attempt to find someone that will sell you fuel and supplies … and with that roll, that’s a total of five threat … so it looks like you are getting attacked by more Bounty Hunters next session. They’ll at least have ‘Adversary’. And, no, you still don’t have food and supplies, and the air on the ship is starting to taste bad and they hyperdrive is making funny noises.”
Eventually, the players will get tired of not being able to move out of their ship, or base, or cave, or whatever, for fear of being shot by a sniper. Or stun-gunned and tossed in a cell at Space Alcatraz, perched at the Event Horizon of a Black Hole.
A Room Without A View
I make it clear to most of my groups that I have a rule for prison terms in DnD5e.
Conviction carries 1d4 months per incident of Theft, 2d4 months per count of Extortion or Threats, 4d4 months per charge of Murder. Roll separately per character being convicted and sentenced.
For every three months behind bars, the character looses 1 stat point, no saving throw. I usually allow the player to pick which stat. On the other hand, particularly notorious characters might have their primary class stat intentionally targeted, to “put them out of business”.
The sentence is doubled for every repeat capture and trial in the same kingdom, jurisdiction, whatever. d4 is for “good” kingdoms / nations, d6 is for neutral, and d8 is for evil.
Mechanical punishment is the greatest deterrent to players. Players wreaking power-fantasy havoc will be deeply worried about long-term mechanical effects to their characters. Initially, it’ll result in “leave no witnesses”, but in _any_ setting, there are always witnesses. Insects, animals, the fabric of Space-Time, the Course of History, etc, etc. The Pursuing Authorities will find out at least 1 time in 4 of the atrocities committed, no matter how hard they try to cover it up.
As for the role-play (RP) reason for imposing mechanical punishment, the reality is that wasting away in a dungeon will atrophy you. Starvation, beatings, disease, lack of exercise, torture, etc. Or hibernation sickness, or intentionally debilitating surgeries, or cybernetic limiters, etc. Whether it’s the body or the mind, it’s a stat drop.
“Please tell the court why you stabbed the tavern keeper?”
“I’m a famous adventurer and my raw power means I am exempt to your petty laws!”
“Fair enough, so that will be eleven months of the best gruel we can find. Shackles and irons, brand them as a Criminal of the Kingdom, and cast Judicial Silence on them twice a day. Get them out of here. Next case.”
What about lawyers? Presuming the game setting even has something like lawyers for criminal trials, then something in the area of 3d4 x 250gp to hire one, and then another 350gp per month of sentencing that needs to be mitigated. The character rolls DC 17; success means that the sentence is reduced by half. A roll of 22+ means the sentence is reduced by ¾. A natural 20 is suspended sentence; keep your nose clean or it all comes down on you next time you’re captured.
The character has to pay the bill, in advance of the roll, regardless of success or failure.
Of course, if your characters are this villainous, then forfeiture of all goods and materials goes with each and every conviction. They get do not get their stuff back; magic items, cyber-gear, starships, whatever. All gone. Start over, try playing nice, and don’t murder at the movies.
But what if the characters escape? Easy; they are back on the run, with even more blood on their hands, and a bigger bounty on their heads, to drive the next pack of even bigger hounds.
The Game World has functionally unlimited resources to locate, target, hunt, capture, sedate, trial, and possibly even execute the characters. Up to and including simply using the genre-equivalent of thermo-nuclear weapons on the last known location of the group. It really does come down to wether you, as a GM, are okay with continuing to run the game with Murder Hoboes.
Eventually, the characters are all going to wind up behind a force-field in Arkham Asylum, or beyond the edge of an Event Horizon, or radioactive ash on a morning breeze.
Even if the characters “win” and take over the entire nation or the world, or the galaxy, or whatever, there are always Jedi, Dragon Riders, Lunar Princesses, screwdriver waving heroes with extra-dimensional English Police Boxes, whatever showing up to try and bring them down and free the oppressed innocents. It Just Never Stops.
Alternately, the players will get tired and want to do something else.
No matter what, you, as a GM, have to commit. The essence of fantasy adventure is that the villain always looses. Eventually, no matter how many Bothans, Klingons or Lannisters die, the villain always looses.
That’s what the players signed on for. That’s what you should give them. Make it epic, make it bloody, make it end on the gantry of a processing facility over a volcano; the choice is up to you.
Are We Having Fun Yet?
No matter what, though, you all need to be having fun. Fun is the point of games. No matter what else games can do for us, particularly our Table-Top Role-Playing Games (TTRPGs), they have to be fun for us. Otherwise, why would we soak this much time and energy into them.
Talk to your players regularly. Make sure everyone is still cool with the game and it’s themes. If they aren’t, then talk about that, and put forward the idea that maybe it’s time to do something else. If the are, then keep doing what you are doing.
Thanks very much for reading this post, and visiting my blog. I hope something I’ve said makes sense or is even helpful. You can catch up with me to talk TTRPGs and GM-ing via Twitter at MichelV69, or most Sunday mornings on Twitch.TV as 902PE_Gaming.
Please feel free to leave comments or questions in the section below. I’d love to hear from you.
All the best, have fun with whatever you are playing, and I hope to chat with you soon.