Why Do So Many Players Murder-Hobo?

By | June 6, 2015

Hi everybody,

I’ve been thinking afresh about murderhoboism lately, that situation wherein players kill (or attempt to kill) most NPCs they encounter and loot their bodies while moving, homeless, from place to place.  Specifically, I’ve been thinking about why that’s such a predominant part of the hobby.  Ultimately, I think, if it is a problem, it’s an unsolvable one because its source comes from too many separate factors.

For example, new players just beginning to play might at first “play it straight” – that is, follow the same rules in the game that they largely follow in real life.  But once the concept or possibility of simply killing their way through their in-game problems presents itself (as it inevitably does), new possibilities open to them and they can act out what they never could in real life without dread consequences.  I think for many players, “it’s in my way, kill it” becomes a kind of surrogate for acting out their real-life frustrations.  And as gaming is a form of escapism, there’s no self-judgment on their personal value for acting this way: they are playing the game “by the rules,” after all, because there are far more detailed rules for combat than for anything else.

That of course leads into the media-factor of murderhoboism.  Because most RPG rules have very detailed, structured rules for combat and combat equipment, but more nebulous rules for social interaction or empire-building, the games themselves reinforce the notion that they are “about fighting.”  And “about fighting” almost inevitably leads to “about killing,” especially when the shinies are only liberated from the meat-sacks holding them when the meat-sacks are no longer moving.

Further, there is the mass-media effect (at least here in the United States) which depicts the ultimate form of problem-solving as killing the antagonist.  We’ve seen that through the Spaghetti Westerns of the 60s up through the Marvel Movies of today: the only super-villain that has survived encountering the Marvel Superheroes (who didn’t run away in the midst of chaos) has been Loki. For my Marvelites out there, Batroc and Crossbones weren’t really super-villains at the point they were encountered; this would have been akin to level 20s murdering level 1s, a “step too far” even for a bloodthirsty movie industry.

Finally, there’s the GM’s presentation of the Gamescape itself.  Many GMs, particularly new ones, present a world in which every NPC falls into one of two categories:  quest-giver and quest-target.  This will naturally result in quest-targets being marked for extinction, as this is the exact same structure as most video games – which also only tend to provide the “kill it” option for enemies.

So I think, ultimately, players are trained before they even start roleplaying that murder is a solution to their problems.  It might even be biological programming, built into our genetic code to be killers (gosh, that’s dark).  And that’s therefore not a problem that’s going to be solved by any set of game rules or any style of GMing.  It can be assuaged, certainly, and options can be presented other than killing enemies.  But that instinct for force will always be there.

And that’s why I don’t really think murderhoboing is an issue of problem players.  Kill-and-loot is a symptom of what games teach, and is a stage in the natural evolution of most roleplayers.  Very few players enter into a roleplaying situation and are excited by the idea of “I can talk to it instead of just killing it?”, especially early in their gaming experience.  Some move on to a different stage, others are comfortable staying right there.  But when the games people play are in essence fight-and-steal simulators, you of course won’t see complexity of play beyond what is on offer.

And I would conclude by saying that murderhoboing, therefore, isn’t a problem at all.  It’s a style of play, encouraged by certain games and carried forward because of its ease and simplicity.  It only becomes an issue when you’re using a game to tell a kind of story that game wasn’t designed to handle.  Is it an issue that keeps popping up?  Certainly.  But that’s because there are still people trying to play games of intrigue with tactical combat simulators.  And that’s the problem.

Did I miss something?  Am I completely off-base?  Let me know in the comments!