Monday Morning DM: Can Murder-Hobos Belong and Other Thoughts on My 5e Experiences.

I used the term “murder-hobo” in public the other day and I realized that to anyone who does not play D&D, they might seriously think I was endorsing lethal bum fights. I was on a college campus, so this seemed extra likely.

The context of my comment though, as it would make sense to gamers, concerned the idea that even though I – ostensibly – enjoy a sandbox, hex-crawling style of play – I wonder if sometimes I only think that I enjoy that. I worry about this because it doesn’t just inform my fun as a player but it affects my thinking when I’m planning and running a game.

If I may take a brief aside into video games, I really struggled to enjoy Fallout 3, but I very much enjoyed Fallout: New Vegas. The difference being, for me, that New Vegas included this whole layer of civilization which was lacking in F3. In New Vegas, I was able to connect with different factions, have recurring enemies, build a storyline around my exploration and I didn’t just feel isolated like I did in Fallout 3. I make no objective claims that one is better than the other – it’s just that New Vegas satisfied my need to be a part of something in a way that the purely open exploration of Fallout 3 could not.

This difference really affects my enjoyment of playing an RPG at the table too. I enjoy old-school play to the extent that I really enjoy fragile characters and having to make tough choices and the mystery of a wide-open map with a million stories to be told. But out of the OSR movement, I naturally gravitated right to Adventurer Conqueror King System because of its emphasis on civilization (especially in sharp contrast to the great wilderness). During the explosion of settings surrounding D&D, Second Edition, while everyone was raving about Planescape and Dark Sun, I was quietly sitting in my corner running Birthright (and I would love to see a Birthright revival in 5e). The domain rules appealed to me precisely because they inherently connected player characters to the setting. You were a regent (or if a non-regent, then connected in some way to survive the world of regents). When I was running Warhammer Fantasy, I unbundled the “blooded regent” rules from the domain system and used it in conjunction with my homebrew world. That was a seriously fun game.

Taking another example, out of all the Pathfinder Adventure Paths, the only one I was ever pulled toward was Kingmaker. The whole concept of getting a hex-crawl which was explicitly tied to the idea of building a domain was fascinating to me. It served both purposes and we had some very memorable roleplaying based around the council the team put together to run their budding kingdom.

Amber – my gaming crush from way back – is another example of finding this freedom. Characters created for Amber games are intricately and explicitly tied to forces larger than themselves which will demand their allegiance (or rebellion) and with which their interactions are vital. That said, during the course of any given session it is likely that the players will roam all over Hell and half of Georgia (as my Granny used to say) because they can literally go anywhere. But they still have important, inescapable social ties which are as much obligation as they are sanctuary.

So why is it – as I am running my second 5e game – that I find myself falling back on the habit of treating D&D like a set of disparate adventures thrown together in episodic fashion and not able to find my footing in building a sense of community and continuity? It’s a question that keeps me up at night.

There was an announcement that Green Ronin is going to bring back the Blue Rose RPG. I was excited about this for two reasons. First, I’m a huge fan of romantic fantasy. Second, I’m a fan of the AGE system and I am interested in seeing it supported outside of Dragon Age. That said, I was not enamored of the world/setting of the Blue Rose RPG which shares much more in common with Mercedes Lackey than Tamora Pierce (or new writers like Rae Carson). Don’t get me wrong, I can enjoy Mercedes Lackey’s Valdamar stories – and I certainly respect their longevity – but even for a civilization-loving gamer like myself I find everyone just a bit too reasonable for my tastes. Everything is just a bit too ideal. I mean, I wish the world worked like that. At the end of the day though, I appreciate the complexity of motivations which often seem to drive the characters from the later waves of Romantic Fantasy. That said, I am happy that Blue Rose is coming back if for no other reason than it had a beautiful aesthetic and presented a very different kind of fantasy – which is almost always a good thing.

To return to my problem which prompted this think aloud session… What is it about running D&D which shoves me back into module mode? Why do I find it so hard to create, in D&D, the same kind of free-floating wonder I am able to capture in Amber or other games? Why are there so few opportunities in the D&D realm to mix sandbox-style play with a world full of connections? Is it because the nature of sandbox style play (the freedom to roam) is conflicted by the need to have connections which, by their nature, tie your PCs down?

I struggle with this. As a DM/GM of over 30 years, with many successful campaigns at my back (at least, based on feedback from my players… I am often my own worst critic) why is it that I still struggle with a game I genuinely enjoy? It vexes me.

Let me close with this. I was reading some of the introductory material to Silent Legions and I found the discussion of sandbox play there refreshing. Specifically, the idea that “the stories it produces are all in retrospect – the tale of the choices the PCs made and the consequences that came of them.” This is a well-crafted thought and explains precisely what it is that makes me love the idea of sandbox-style gaming. It captures the spirit of what I have done in my best games – the ones I have run that even I love looking back on – which involves a give and take between the setting and the PCs such that sometimes they will have to accept consequences for choices not made; the road not taken and all that. If I can capture that again – if I can capture that sense of freedom and wonder compounded by a living, breathing world – I think I’ll be happy. Until then… I’m not sure what comes next.

Thoughts, feelings, reactions, stories? Feel free to share.

As always. Thanks for reading.


2 responses

  1. I was running King Maker for a while myself. The interaction between exploration and crawl is always fun.

  2. “What is it about running D&D which shoves me back into module mode? ”
    The players’ expectation of what D&D has become?

    At least in my experience that’s my answer. I remember playing in modules that were part of the world we played in back in the early 80s. Might have been a made up world, might have been a literary world I had not heard of, or it might have been Greyhawk. The point was it was a world with living breathing NPCs (which is a credit to the GM not to the designers). And in that world, White Plume Mountain existed seamlessly with homemade adventures where we had to steal back a princess (Hyboria, perhaps?) We had gained a reputation from playing from low level to higher, overcoming homemade “adventures” and store bought modules. And one of the player’s character married that princess. He was granted a fief and we were noble retainers, but the type that were friends first, like the Norman knights. And when fortress life got boring or The Lord needed money to fund some reconstruction, we sought out everything from brigands to monsters to explorations of long lost mountains with futuristic technology that was our (Lord’s) right within the territory we were given.

    When I DMed back in those days, I followed my DM’s M.O. In fact, I learnt the game by playing it and not by reading it. There is a subtle privilege there. So much was passed on by my DM to me hands on.

    Cycle the clock ahead three decades. I return to RPGs at the end of 3e. And everyone has read the game books but no one is coming from a shared theatrical (Hyboria, remember?) or literary interest. The cinemas were full of CGI Conan and Swords and Sorcerers and even the TV had its share of high fantasy Seekers. But no one knew an Ivanhoe from a Norman knight, or even what that would mean. These were the stories we read to augment the long periods between a new Andersen or Moorcook book. With so much fantasy to chose, there is not much to actually share and much of the depth of experience is lost. This is to the edition culture of D&D what the difference is between a Sean Connery Bond film to Pierce Brosnan Bond film, plus the shiny is off and D&D is just another RPG system to most of my new RPGs players. They expect what they have been told to expect.

    And they’re all murder hobos. (BUT NOT when I played with new-to-the-hobby players, to whom the RPG players explained were playing wrong.) Angry Villager rules are for XP now, not story immersion. Story is not for engagement, but for dice splashing combat and skill checks between bouts of Angry Birds. Get sent to find a murderer in Garrotten: kill everyone and let the authorities sort the bodies out. Have a policeman stop the PCs and its XP time; or the GM is heavy-handed. The players are okay if the next town is very much like Garrotten right down to the street names and NPCs. And travel? That’s all done by teleportation spells. Travel gets treated like downtime rather than adventure. I mean, who wants to pitch a tent and have some player initiated campfire stories (even if in my past these were old rehashes of Monty Python routines).

    Travel was character development in my day. Now that gets handled with a several page back story synopsis explaining why the Angry Villager Rule cannot apply to the pathological murder hobo – the noble, the brilliant assassin on the run from the other brilliant assassins (making him just a touch more brilliant), the level one archwizard whose player knows how to optimize battle against mobs using sleep and diminution spells, etc.

    And maintain a holdfast? I mean this was the purpose of players in AD&D 1e. This was what made Charisma more than a dump stat! But today.… And marriage? You really would have to be joking with the players I had. They would al ask: where is the adventure in that?

    Let me tell you of the days of high adventure!

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