Friday, January 23, 2015

Fleshing Out Your Background or How To Avoid Playing A Murder Hobo

There's a very specific kind of character who ends up in a lot of games. It could be Shadowrun or Pathfinder, Vampire the Requiem, or Dungeons and Dragons, it doesn't matter; this character will eventually put in an appearance.

This character is referred to as the murder hobo.

The adventurer in its natural habitat.
For those of you who aren't familiar with the murder hobo they're fairly easy to recognize. These characters have no connection to the world, including to the party they adventure with or the society to which they tacitly belong. Their only motivations seem to be blood letting and collecting resources, but without any motivation for either. They are violent forces of destruction who take as much loot as they can for no purpose other than to upgrade their murder tools to take on bigger and bigger targets.

If you feel you or players at your table are at risk of allowing a murder hobo (or worse a pack of them!) to flourish then follow these simple steps to inject genuine character and pathos into your game.

Who Are They Connected To?

Often times player characters are treated as if they stepped out fully formed. Garth Broken-Tusk has never been a child with friends he cared for or a father whose respect he wanted to earn. Kalin Nightblade never spent time as a girl wearing dresses and thinking about boys before she became a knife for hire. No, these adventurers did not exist before their first level, and they stepped out of the mold with no family, no friends, no peers, tutors, or confidantes.

That's a good place to start.

Thus began the training of Alton Snare, First Wizard of Flame.
Every character was once a child (barring androids, golems, and other races who are formed as adults), and they had a life before becoming adventurers. That life wasn't necessarily good, but even child soldiers, homeless sneak thieves, and orphan wizard's apprentices will have people and things they care about. Ask whether or not your adventurer had a kid sister he had to care for after their parents died, and when she found a position with a local lord he realized he had no reason to stay in that town? Did your bard receive his training from his grandfather, whom he sends letters to apprising him of all the adventurers he's gone on? Does your blood-thirsty berserker like kittens?

Regardless of who or what your character is there is a connection somewhere in his or her life. It might be membership in a holy order, a position in the army, a spot in a gang, or just a family that he or she left behind for one reason or another. Point is that these things all had a hand in shaping that character.

Why Are They Adventuring?

I've harped on this before, but motivation is important when it comes to PCs. Sure it's cool that Splitshield Axebeard, hero of the Irontooth Mountains sought out and destroyed an entire valley of trolls... but why? Were the trolls attacking innocent people, and the dwarven warrior felt that had to be stopped? Did the trolls threaten his people and family, causing him to take a stand for his clan and home? Is he obsessed with his own prowess and reputation, so he sought out the biggest, most ridiculous challenge he could find?

Let's go with that last one.
Character motivation does more than legitimize PC violence (though if that's all it did that would be enough). By understanding a character's motivation you understand that character's goals, what's important to that character, and what sort of actions he or she is more likely to take. You could take two characters of the exact same class and the exact same alignment, but if you give them different motivations you will get two very different stories.

Why Are They In The Party?

So you're still determined to play a callous, cynical loner whose only real talent is laying waste to things that get in the character's way. You have no past, no family, no country, and no loyalties. All right, it's your character and you can play it how you want... but why is this character in the party if that's the schtick you're going with?

A lot of the time parties form because players acknowledge that they are in this together and they all need to follow the plot hook the storyteller is giving. That said it's still important to figure out some reason you're all following this adventure from start to finish.

The reason doesn't have to be complicated, but it should be solid. Let's say you're playing a half-orc barbarian from a desert tribe. His greatest loves are battle and spoils, and if left to his own devices he will slay anyone he feels deserving. Why is he in the northern mountains helping to make peace between two warring nations? Perhaps he owes the paladin a blood debt, and so travels with him to keep him safe. Maybe he's in love with the sorceress, and is attempting to figure out this strange feeling. Perhaps the gods sent him a vision and told him to follow the man riding the bear to find his destiny. Or, simplest of all, having fought and shed blood with the party he considers them his sword-family, a bond that in-debts him to them and which draws them closer according to the rules and customs of his tribe.

There are innumerable ways to make your character invested in the adventure. Perhaps he's running from a dark past and trying to re-make himself into a hero so no one ever believes he was once a savage bandit leader. Maybe your character has great national pride, and wants to serve as an example to her nation. Maybe you're in the army, or you're a member of an arcane order, and you've been tasked with fulfilling a mission. Whatever method you use to connect your character to the world and to the game is great, as long as it puts you there for a purpose beyond killing everything in sight and taking its stuff for no better reason than because you can.

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  1. Any advice on how to lead another player from the MurderHobo path?

  2. Motivation. Give the character a motivation besides "I hate these monsters, so I will kill all of them until there are no more." Anything that makes you sound like Batman, the Punisher, or Judge Dredd should be avoided.

  3. I think this is what I like about playing a Chaos Space Marine in Warhammer 40,000: Black Crusade. You have a backstory built in, you have to have come from somewhere. And within every Chaos Space Marine, even the most far gone depraved blood-spattered killer you can think of, you can trace that character back to some wide-eyed Space Marine recruit who thought he was going to become a hero.