The term “murderhobo” gets bandied about a lot in relation to characters in Pathfinder, Dungeons & Dragons and other fantasy adventure role-playing games. It denotes the tendency for player characters in such games to be functionally homeless wanderers without much in the way of a personal history and a casual, indifferent attitude towards using violence to solve every problem they face. The implication is that this is an unwanted and frankly, lazy style of play.

This is, to a degree, true. However, I’m not here to discuss how it sucks when people don’t role-play their characters. To me, the word “murderhobo” highlights something I have been saying for years – going down a deep, dark hole in the ground to effect genocide upon orcs is not the career choice of a well-adjusted person. I do not think this fact has sufficiently wide appreciation in the gaming community.

Sure, the potential rewards are such that even one successful delve can destabilize the economy of a region (or could, if the state of economic realism wasn’t typically even worse than psychological realism), and quite likely more than one will make in a lifetime of turnip farming. However, turnips don’t try to eat your face.

It takes something of an extreme personality to seek out such a line of work, and I suspect that adrenaline junkies would be in the healthy end of the spectrum. Sociopaths would probably be overrepresented. A distinct lack of empathy is almost a career requirement. The mental makeup required to go into a cramped, poorly lit, hostile environment, prepared to kill thinking, feeling creatures, is fascinating. How does killing your hundredth intelligent being affect your ability to relate to your fellow humans?

Of course, there would always be those who are forced into the profession by desperation and those who are just too stupid to consider what they’re doing. The latter kind would get weeded out in short order. However, even the sane people would probably not stay so for long. The kind of stuff that goes on in your average D&D adventure is quite sufficient to cause post-traumatic stress disorder, and your average adventurer would probably develop all kinds of psychological problems by level 5. On the positive side, they’ll have enough gold to hire a psychiatrist.

Personally, I think Lamentations of the Flame Princess has a pretty good take on how horrible dungeon crawling would actually be. To a person who’s even approaching normal, the genre of pretty much every mainstream RPG would be horror.

Now, I’m not saying that everyone should study the psychopathology of war veterans to improve their role-playing (I might give some rather more serious reasons why everyone should study that, though), but I think it’s useful to keep these things in mind. Even if your game is of light-hearted adventure where evil orcs leave bloodless corpses, we should keep in mind that this kicking-in-doors business is not sane.

11 thoughts on “Murderhobos!

  1. Yes, you would think more adventurers would be in it for “one big score” and then retire. But maybe they are more like problem gamblers, always needed that “one big score” which they can never, quite make, before they are willing to leave the murderhobo game.

  2. Depends on your definition of “sane,” I suppose.

    Is it “sane,” knowing that the Nazis are about to invade and just sitting there waiting for it? Is is “sane” knowing that the Japanese are about to bomb Pearl Harbor and just sitting there waiting for it?

    Most times, a good Offense IS the best Defense.I’d said that, doing it to the Orcs or Drow before they do it to you IS “sanity.”

    But then, I’m weird. LOL

  3. This is a good article, but I think that it (and, really, the entire characterization of “murderhobos”) is based on a premise that isn’t necessarily true – or at least, isn’t true as often as people seem to think.

    I play Pathfinder, and I read their monthly Adventure Path series of adventures. In these games, it’s established very early that, while the characters might have some nascent adventuring career, circumstances have quickly pushed them into the position of being the people who need to save the world, or at least their corner of it.

    In other words, the campaign sets itself up less as “okay, and now you’ve found out about another dungeon,” and more of “you are the Chosen Ones…no one else can stop the Thousand Years of Darkness which are now upon us.” To put it another way, the characters are semi-forced into being adventurers, rather than actively seeking out that life.

    It’s not always quite obvious, and is usually much less present (if it’s present at all) in single adventures, rather than pre-made campaigns, but it’s a shift in tone that’s been, I think, around for quite a while now.

  4. Yeah, sometimes there is of course a necessity, perceived or real, to go and solve problems by means of violence, but while it makes sense and may even be called sane, it’s still not healthy. You don’t need to take mental problems into the dungeon, but you may very well roll them off the loot table. Witnessing horrors and participating in violence against sentient creatures is harmful to your mental health. Even if they are Nazis.

    This is a theme that’s currently in play in our Curse of the Crimson Throne campaign. We just played the third session today and our characters still seem uncertain with using violence, since only one of them had any actual experience with life-or-death situations before the campaign’s beginning, and the horrors we’re witnessing (it’s a Nick Logue adventure) are starting to fray away at the mental well-being of some of the PCs.

  5. There’s this short story by Ursula Le Guin called “Vaster than Empires and More Slow” (from around 1970) (tai suomennos “Verkkaan, valtakuntia laajemmaksi” kokoelmasta Pimeälipas) where the interplanetary explorers are outright stated to be crazy because no one who is mentally healthy would go into that kind of isolation. The story follows a group of such people who all have mental illnesses or other conditions that put them in a similar position. It’s a good parallel to adventurers in role-playing games.

    On a more personal note, I’ve noticed it’s easier to play adventurers when I dump charisma and develop some kind of mental disorder or a massive personality defect for the character as a justification for the low charisma. Works for me, as my own charisma is so low that I couldn’t play high-charisma characters anyway.

  6. I think it’s a mistake to look at the psychology of people in a typical fantasy world through the same lens that we use on ourselves. After all, we don’t live in a world with hundreds of other sentient creatures, undead, monsters, dragons, demons and gods. Imagine how your psychology would evolve living in a world where life and death were a lot more blurry. The afterlife, other planes of existence and gods are a certainty. These gods can grant resurrections and reincarnations. Magic can animate the dead and make you immortal.

  7. Yeah, I figure that’s the part that accounts for them forming societies with the values of 20th- and 21st-century westerners instead of the late medieval/Renaissance values that the technology levels suggest.

  8. Psychology my ass. Dungeon delving rpg-s work that way.
    If i want realism i can watch out of the window. Roleplay “realism” ie where powerful people weep about angst of the world, then you can play White wolf games.

  9. I find a certain amount of realism is necessary for me to get any interest in the game. If the characters ostensibly tagged as humans do not behave as human beings do, they become nothing more than mechanical extensions of the player’s will, and to me that kind of playstyle is not interesting.

    Of course, the purpose of doing this with specifically dungeon-crawling RPGs is to point out that the setting assumptions they are proposing are pretty odd when you think about them (also, if there’s one lesson to take away from Vampire: The Masquerade: Bloodlines, in addition to never having more than one colon in a title, is that Vampire sucks for dungeon-crawling).

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