Embracing Your Inner Murder Hobo

There’s a piece of jargon in RPG circles: Murder hobo. It refers to a trope in RPGs where a group of players travel from place to place in the game master’s world and answer most problems with violence.

It’s used dismissively or in exasperated fashion, and I used to agree; but lately, I’ve come to think that, in a way, embracing one’s inner murder hobo can, for a time at least, help gamers to find their own strength in life.

I’ve been listening to a lot of Happy Jack’s RPG Podcast lately (and so should you; it’s great). I noticed the hosts often trot “murder hobo” out when discussing instances where a game master has plotted to have the non-player characters overpower and secure the players’ characters in order to present an entertaining jailbreak adventure or introduce some new PCs.

Time and again, each anecdote turns to players who have visceral emotional reactions to the idea, who have their characters fight tooth and nail and even kill themselves (or, at least, throw themselves on their enemies’ swords) rather than be captured.

Featured image borrowed from the Lady Business blog. Yes, I’ve read some Rat Queens, but sadly my local comic book shop closed a few years back.

Murder hobo-ism gets something of a bad rap in RPG circles. It’s seen as the simplest form of play, one that often runs roughshod over any attempts at subtlety or exploration of character.

I tended to agree with the sentiment – until recently. I think the seed was planted by listening to the episode of Happy Jack’s where guest Scott Kurtz discussed Val, a character in his comic series, Table Titans. I included it in a blog post three years ago, but it’s worth re-posting a pertinent part here:

(Val’s) memory of when she was a dwarf is as real as her memory of being picked on in school. She’d rather remember – believe that she was a badass dwarf than the girl that was picked on in school. She wants to game a lot because in games, she can makes memories that she really appreciates and better define her.

Scott Kurtz, Happy Jack’s RPG Podcast (Season 16 Episode 01)

But the seed got well and truly watered by an article in which a gamer discusses how gaming brought out a side of her she didn’t know existed:

The role-playing involved has a way of prompting self-reflection. I first found my enthusiasm for battles somewhat disturbing. However, thinking about it afterwards, I realized my reaction wasn’t caused by a vicarious blood lust as much as it was a subconscious urge to be more assertive in real life… Instead of looking up to a role model, the game prompted me to discover the badass warrior within.

Tina Hassannia, “Why playing Dungeons & Dragons has left me feeling empowered in a way Beyoncé never has.

One of the joys of playing a character in a roleplaying game is the chance to assert ultimate control over yourself, or at least your fictional better self; I can certainly understand an unwillingness to cede that control, no matter the reward. It’s a chance for people who have had to back down on (or water down, at least) the things that matter to them to appease some sort of external force, to finally have the chance to have a hill they can well and truly die on.

And the results can be incredible. Here is an episode of the epic web show, Critical Role, where a bunch of voice actors get together every week to play Dungeons & Dragons. Here, guest Mary Elizabeth McGlynn, actor, voice director and, in this episode, first-time D&D player, gets the finishing blow on a mighty white dragon (who has come close to killing several other members of the party, including Mary’s character Zahra). She works with dungeon master Matt Mercer to narrate the epicness of the moment:

Just listen to Mary’s “Yes I fucking CAN.” What a feeling that must have been! And what a reaction from everyone else at the table!

To borrow from Tolkien, the great many of us exist in the cages that life builds to trammel our wild things. Sometimes it helps to gain strength from that memory when you walked out of the charnel house in shredded armour, and the only thing dripping blood in more quantity than the cuts on your body was your sword.

We want memories of those times when someone tried to make us knuckle under and we found the strength to make the last act of defiance. I did that, motherfucker. You just try and intimidate me into settling for a lesser percentage.

I’m not sure if I can make this happen in the Star Wars RPG I’m running (at least, not without handing a shitload of Conflict points out – which would also be cool) and maybe not the Starfinder campaign I’m working on (you know, the one where most of the party are going to be skittermanders), but some friends are coming to me to introduce them to the hobby via Dungeons & Dragons – maybe that’ll be a good place to allow some good folks to let their inner Conan the Barbarians out.

And you know what? Maybe I need to be a murder hobo sometime. I’m an only kid and have been a people pleaser for a good chunk of my life; I feel I need that glint in my eye as much as anyone else does. I think I need – not an Evil campaign, but maybe a Motherfucker campaign.

Maybe getting to play a Glitter Boy who tends to treat every problem as having a Boom Gun solution will give me a chance at that…

It was love at first sight.
(From the RIFTS roleplaying game core rulebook; art by Kevin Long and Kevin Siembieda.)