What do I do about “murder hobos” in my games? I encourage them. Many referee’s wring their hands about this topic. If you want to play a heroic game and you want your PC’s to be heroes, this is probably not going to work for you. Personally, I let players do what they want, and then face the consequences. If that sounds like something you might like, read on.
I like dark humor. It is like food. Not everybody gets it.
Maybe I am mentally ill or have some character flaw. I was a Marine infantryman for four years. When you are wet, tired, hungry, bored and miserable; one way to deal with it is to say tell transgressive jokes that make your friends laugh. Marines being Marines, we would try to one up each other. My tolerance for “dead baby” jokes became quite high after four years.
I think fictional characters doing horrible things to other fictional characters in comical ways is hilarious. I like movies like Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels, and Pulp Fiction. I always laugh when Vincent and Jules are arguing about who should be cleaning Marvin’s brains out of the back seat of the car. When players do that sort of thing in my games, I cackle with glee. It’s funny to me when Stilgar the Red Monk sets donkeys on fire to create a distraction and cause some problems for an invading army. I know most people struggle with this in table top role playing games. It is probably not for you, but many of us like it and we’re tired of pretending that we don’t.
You’d think that I’d be into the ubiquitous videos of real life violence or people getting hurt doing stupid things. I do watch a little of that to be a somewhat informed citizen of the world but not for entertainment. As soon as I see some moron climbing a ladder in a grainy phone video, I click it off and go onto the next thing. Even watching bullies getting comeuppance from their victims can be difficult for me. I don’t know why one is funny to me and the other is not. Murder hobos in my games make me laugh. Murder hobos in real life are horrible but they did exist and that may be another reason to include them in your games.
In my reading of the medieval world, murder hobos might be the most realistic thing in fantasy role playing games. Let’s consider the Vikings. Here’s what scholar Tom Shippey has to say…
The fact is that in the Vikings’ own language, Old Norse, vikingr just meant pirate, marauder. It wasn’t an ethnic label, it was a job description.
But while most Vikings were Scandinavians, most Scandinavians definitely weren’t Vikings, not even part time.Laughing Shall I Die: Lives and Deaths of the Great Vikings by Tom Shippey
Here’s a group of men who, among many other feats, carried their boats over land to the Volga river. They brought furs, and amber to trade for iron, precious metals and gems. Along the way; they raided, they robbed and they captured a lot of people to sell as slaves. The Vikings took slaves, rowed to Byzantium and sold them. While hanging out in Constantinople (taking in the sights and selling their slaves) the Vikings became the Byzantine emperor’s hired muscle. In the case of Harold Hardrada, after a career of killing people for fun and profit in the Eastern Mediterranean, he went back home and killed some relatives so that he could become king. It doesn’t get more murder hobo than that.
The high middle ages saw major economic growth between 1000 and the Black Plague. Between the 6th century and the 10th, most of Western Europe had become a subsistence economy. There was trade but it was minimal and most people never so much as touched a coin let alone used one to buy their bread.
The commercial revolution of the late middle ages was kickstarted by landless peasants. Vagabonds mostly, these enterprising souls took on jobs at harvest time, bought whatever they could at a low price and sold it somewhere else at a profit. Eventually, they accumulated enough capital that they became merchants full time and emerged as the middle class of western Europe. In the early days, some were beach combers or breakers who would take their salvage to the closest market town and sell it. Some of them would take up mercenary jobs. Some robbed people and sold their stuff. Mostly, they got away with it. They banded together for safety and mutual benefit. Over time, these merchants became the driving force of urbanization in the middle ages. They built cathedrals, universities, ports, guild halls, city walls and roads. They became respectable but started as a bunch of homeless wanderers doing what they had to in order to survive.
Any of this sound familiar? The player characters are a first level band of nobodies with enough coin to buy gear and some rations. They go looking for a way to earn because they are broke and plodding along beside an ox under the hot sun sounds like a boring and miserable way to live. They have adventures. Acquire some stuff and sell it in town. They go looking for more adventure and the cycle repeats until they are high enough level and have enough coin to build their own keep or thieves guild or wizard tower. I don’t know if Gary intended to mimic the historical rise of merchants in the middle ages or if that structure just emerged but it is interesting to see a similar pattern.
I find it helps my worldbuilding if I have to account for homicidal transients. I wrote a few weeks ago about the “Asshole Rule” of worldbuilding. Sometimes, the assholes are your PC’s. My favorite way to run a campaign is to build a “world”, drop the PC’s in at a spot where there are a bunch of assholes doing asshole stuff and see what the PC’s do about it. Sometimes they fight the assholes. Sometimes they join in the assholery.
I assume that my players might travel around killing people and taking their stuff. Therefore I ask, “What are the people the PC’s are preying on going to do about it?” People want to be able to raise their families, grow crops, take care of their animals, and live their lives without a merry band of murderers mucking things up. Life is hard enough at it is for a peasant living on subsistence farming. A village of peasants where someone has raised the hue and cry will run to the local lord and demand he do his duty and deal with the problem.
The lord is going to be pissed when his labor force is being fruitlessly inhumed. When his steward comes back from the annual tax collection and says, “Sorry my lord but all the peasants in that village are dead and someone stole their coin so I don’t have any grain or taxes for you.” The lord doesn’t care about the peasants but he needs them to harvest his rye and pay their rents. No peasants means; no harvest and no gold. He’s calls up his warband and off he goes to heroically murder the murder hobos. He puts a price on their head when they move out of his reach. Soon every adventurer in the land starts on a chase to get the bounty.
If the PC’s are going around murdering people, have the people murder them back. Simple.
Murder hobos are fun.