Does your group sometimes engage is mindless murder-hobo playing style? Does it bother you? Do you realize that you could be a part of the problem? But you could also be a part of the solution.
Shortly after the first episode of campaign 2 by Critical role aired I got a call from a fellow DM, who was in awe over Matthew Mercer’s DM style and his troupe of great players. “Why can’t I be more narrative focused like Mercer?” my friend asked and continued: “Why do my players always resort to murder-hoboism? All they want is to get from encounter to encounter as fast as possible and earn as much XP and gold as possible. What am I doing wrong?”
I tried to tell my friend that he shouldn’t be too bothered by this, after all, if all his players are having fun then he has reached the first and main goal of roleplaying games. “But I’m not having fun!” he answered.
Now, that’s a real problem. I have experienced this myself, sometimes the players behaviour, murder-hoboism or power-playing, slowly drains the fun out of gaming. You try everything to change the playing style, but to no avail. You try to talk to the players and still the group engages in behaviour that does little to further the narrative, other than killing and looting everything in sight.
Perhaps you are the problem…
Few years ago, after playing with a group for some time that was pretty deep in the murder-hobo mud puddle, I decided to audio record a session where I was a game master. I simply used my smartphone and had it behind the screen, unbeknown to my players. What I discovered was something I had never given any thought at all.
I was not only a part of the problem, I instigated it and fuelled their behaviour through my narrative style. I still remember listening to the recording a few days later, absolutely in horror. What I had always thought to be a player problem was first and foremost my problem.
Narrative and presentation matters. In fact it matters a whole lot. And through it you can manipulate and set examples for the players to follow.
You see a human male, wearing a golden but bloody plate mail, emblazoned with a roaring lion, the lion’s eyes inlaid with bloodstones. A rosy hue surrounds the armor. The man’s hand rests upon a longsword with an ivory hilt.
You see a dark haired man approaching, as he gets nearer you hear the steady clicks of his armor’s buckles. He stops, eyes you warily, his hands rest upon the ivory hilt of his sword. He looks at each of you, his grey eyes cold, tired but calculating. He reeks of sweat and you can see there’s blood on the roaring, golden lion emblazoned on his armor.
These two descriptions could be applied to the same encounter. Still, even though the descriptions are more or less saying the same thing, A focuses only on what you see and is more tell than show. B is more show than tell. How would you, as a player, respond to either of these? Think about it.
In my recording I found that I was more prone to use A kind of narrative style. And it not only horrified me, but also showed me without a doubt that I was the problem.
Show, don’t tell
We, as game masters, should try to show our players, rather than telling them, what their characters see, hear, smell, taste and feel. We are narrators and by taking that part very seriously we can set the bar for the other players. Most will follow suit and do their best to take part in the narrative the way you present it.
This is what makes Matt Mercer, Jeremy Crawford and other rockstar DMs so good. Even though we aren’t playing at their tables, we can still see in our mind’s eye the scenes they paint with words for their players.
It’s one thing showing your players the scene and another thing choosing what to show. In examples A and B there’s a huge emphasis on the human male’s armor and weapon. This could have the effect that loot-hungry players only notice these two things, not the fact that (as evident in example B) this could be a general coming from the battlefield.
By being picky and choosing carefully how you portray NPCs, monsters and villains you not only help your players understanding what the narrative expects of them (Yes, every good dungeon master uses tools like these to nudge their players in the right direction), but also helps them making the best decisions in every scene.
Set the scene
One of the tools that the rockstar DMs often use, is that they set the scene from A to Z. They even take control of the PCs to make sure that the scenes are set up the way they like. If you just look at the way Mercer introduces the PCs at the beginning of the new campaign, it’s definitely not through open-ended questions. He decides where the PCs are sitting in the common room and how the scene moves forward. He creates a scene which encourages roleplaying and interaction between the PCs.
Using the narrative
If you describe a scene and the description lacks a clear focus, your players will feel lost and don’t know what to do. When Nott and Caleb enter the common room, Mercer describes at first the overall feel and look of the Nestle Nook Inn, then his description becomes more focused on certain NPCs, until finally he describes the few empty chairs. Through this funnel-like description he nudges the players to sit down at either of the tables where there are available seats.
By using narrative tools you can usher the PCs in the direction you want them to, without them feeling that they are being railroaded. Through the narrative and the way the narrative is told you direct the players’ attention to the things that you feel are important and make sure that the key hints don’t go unnoticed. This can be a delicate path to follow and it takes sessions upon sessions to master. But remember, that even Mercer, Crawford and Perkins were once all novices.
Narrative over rules
The rules are not, never have and never will be the main focus point of roleplaying games. They are simply a framework, guidelines and you have full control over them. If that or this rule doesn’t fit the narrative, throw it out or create a house rule.
If you watch the rockstar DMs you quickly notice that they have no qualms over arbitrating or not using the rules as written in the rulebooks. They even add rules that they feel make their narrative better, just see Mercer’s rules on Resurrection. After all, this is a game that evolves around storytelling and when the rules get in the way or need better clarification, don’t hesitate.
Tell stories you’d love to hear
Watching Mercer it’s obvious that he really likes the stories he tells. Listening to my audio recording back then I realised that I didn’t. Therefore I felt that things were going south.
If you like your story and you are telling a story that you’d love to play or hear, your enjoyment will cross over to the players. The more you enjoy it, the more they enjoy it.
This is crucial and I can’t stress this enough. Love what you do and be known for what you love. If you only take this with you after reading through this article, you will be a better dungeon master and your games will become more like the ones you see on Critical Role or other roleplaying web shows.
Practice makes better
You don’t need to be a voice actor who has mastered three different accents to be a great game master. You don’t need to know all the rules by heart. You don’t need to know setting like the back of your hand. You only need to be the master of the narrative. You only need to be ready to have many different players take part in it and give them the freedom to explore the narrative from the inside out. But first and foremost, you must be ready to have fun and help others have fun. All the other things, voice acting, the rules and the lore, you’ll get there.
Ever since I made that audio recording I practice every day. Just a little bit each and every day. I tell my kids stories, I partake in roleplaying games with my friends and use every free moment to think about the stories I would love to hear, play or say. And I feel that I’m getting better, far from perfect but slowly improving and that’s my goal.
Be totally honest with yourself
Being completely honest with yourself is sometimes really hard, but being your own critic can be really helpful. Listening to myself and hearing how I was the problem, not my players, was really hard. At first I tried to tell myself that my failures were someone else’s fault or because this player said this or rolled this way or that. In the end I had no one else to blame but myself.
It was a hard lesson, but in the hindsight a good one. I have many good friends that are dungeon masters and I run my ideas by them, listen to their advice and comments. And that comes for free, you know. After all, they are only a phone call away and they know I appreciate their help and that they can count on mine.
Don’t be afraid to reach out, get peers to review your stories or even ask your players after sessions if they liked the session, what they liked and what they were unsure about or didn’t like. Note down their answers and take their comments to consideration, after all they experienced your story first hand. And when you get the chance to be the player, don’t hesitate to give praise to the game master, where praise is deserved. And if the game master reaches out to you in hope of getting review, be honest and respectful. Together we all become better storytellers.