Monday, June 15, 2015

Murder Hoboing as Reaction.

I’ve long ponder on why player characters reverting to “murder hobo” behavior is so common in RPGS. One reason is surly the “now you see it, now you don’t” nature of module presentation the other I suspect is the information vacuum that many a PC is stuck inside.

The “now you see it, now you don’t” nature of module design is a situation wherein this really dangerous and hopefully rewarding situation is “discovered” and the race is on to resolve the situation but the a situation had to relevance previously and has little impact once resolved (beyond piles of gp, experience points, and a few magic items).  The Haunted Tower of Chilling Doom just wasn’t relevant until the adventure hook is noted and pursued by the players and once it’s challenges are overcome, foes slain, and loot hauled off The Haunted Tower of Chilling Doom is irrelevant again. The events matter (briefly) but the place doesn’t, the whole situation is a transient excuse for the events with no significance beyond the occurrence of those events.

The information vacuum is another beast seldom recognized by RPG DMs. The information vacuum is caused by the manner and breadth of information presented to the players and how that information relates. I know the concept may seem curious to many a GM who has spoken for several minutes to a room full of players and lavishly presented a host of information and then seen vacant stares, freshly made dice towers, and a couple questions that have little or nothing to do with what was just said. Players are searching for little bits of information that are relative to their goals and ambitions for their PCs if they don’t see those little bits, well they don’t see anything, it’s effectively a vacuum.

Resolving the problem of the information vacuum and “now you see it, now you don’t” may both go hand in hand with making the game better for the players and maybe tame some of the murder hoboing in a campaign.  Adventure locations have to remain relevant and GM oratory should have some use beyond window dressing.

Adventure locations remaining relevant is a tricky matter until you stop and consider: why wouldn’t someone want to take over The Haunted Tower of Chilling Doom once the grues and hoojums have been cleared out. Possibly having to sneak in again adds reason to mapping the place the first time around and players are rewarded for having paid attention and treated the location as relevant beyond begin container for some experience points. If the PCs get to keep the place for themselves it retains relevance. The desire to wander away and treat each place and NPC as a transient foil or root to greatness for PCs may reduce the inclination to go Murder Hobo.

The information vacuum is hard to recognize but it’s there. If the payer doesn’t know the answer to questions like “what’s this place smell like?”, “how warm is it?”, “how high is the ceiling?” when they think about it then in all actuality it really just isn’t there to many of them, they have an empty canvas they have to fill with action and without direction provided by information that direction can be wandering and murderous. Now don’t drown the players in information but pepper them with it as needed, consider relevance and how things can be built on; leave room for players to question and build on the nuggets of information doled out let the rich tapestry be built by GM and player instead of presenting an information drop that will be ignored in the main keep the information fresh and relevant part of a scene the players are part of instead of someone’s home vacation slide show no one really want to see.

All murder hoboing surely isn’t the cause of adventure presentation and information vacuum but begin aware of the two issues may allow a GM to motivate players to do more than fumble about a campaign bringing death and destruction wherever possible in the name of more experience points.


  1. I think these are the primary roots:

    1. The game world is fictional, and therefore there is no inherent ethical consideration for its inhabitants.

    2. Therefore, if there are no consequences for the PCs' actions (either short- or long-term), you've functionally eliminated all ethical consideration. A lot of GMs don't do consequences, or handle them poorly so that the players are experiencing inconsistent feedback/punishment (which has been shown to create behavioral chaos in animals and humans alike).

    3. The murder-hobo behavior is, in fact, rewarded in many games. So you can often end up with a consistent carrot (mechanical rewards) and an inconsistent stick (the GM failing to implement consequences). The result is predictable.

    4. Finally, in a lot of games the only sure mechanical solution to a problem is "kill it". This mechanical default is significant all by itself, but when you couple it with a GM who is trying to railroad the players, the players will often take control over their fate by pushing the mechanical button they can control.

    And what you're talking about ends up addressing a lot of these roots.

  2. "Murder hoboing" is the natural result of a poorly run game. You can tell the game is poorly run if you have an information vacuum, if the players are allowed to do whatever the crap they want without regard for rational consequences, if the only player agency is in the form of the "Kill it!" response, etc.

    That being said, I have to make a contrary claim: sometimes it's okay for the players to play the game as it was originally written. Sometimes the players enter a dungeon with the understanding that there will be no consequences for their actions beyond the immediate risk/reward mechanics of the game. And that's okay. That is a social contract that we should be careful about changing, lest we change the very nature of the game we play.