Related: How do I get my PCs to not be a bunch of murderous cretins?


The same group of players and I have played D&D 3.5 and Pathfinder for over one and a half decades combined. We are all personal friends and know each other better than we know ourselves, IRL. Our education levels are very different, our professional lives are very different, and our personalities are all very different, but the one thing that always brings us together is RPGs.

Two of us have played D&D, in particular, ever since AD&D 2nd Edition. We have all explored the World of Darkness, and also play consistently together with MMORPGS (mainly World of Warcraft).


One player pitched the idea of playing a "psychopath" for an upcoming campaign based in Cheliax (Pathfinder). First, I asked that person, in the presence of everyone else during character generation, "What sort of psychopath are you planning on being exactly?"

She responded with, "I think I want to role-play a serial killer."

I asked, "Okay, that could be some very good role-playing. However, don't you think that would shift a lot of focus onto your character just by the nature of your nature?"

She replied with, "Well, I don't know." She looked at everyone else, awaiting input, and added, "Most of my serial murders can be done in backstory and perhaps the campaign can be geared towards my evasion of investigation."

I looked at everyone and said, "You all play psychopaths. All of you. Yes, even you." I directed that last line at the church going wife of my best friend, who, in reality, can't even kill a spider without shrieking for assistance.

Wow, here came the "No I'm Not's" and the "I Have Never's."

I then said, "Look at it this way... All of you roll initiative, attack, and kill, without very little thought and foresight. Most of you think the only way to gain experience is to kill something. If orcs, gargantuan sized spiders, and dragons existed in real life, not only would none of you attack it with a gun, let alone a dagger, but you would have insufferable nightmares for the rest of your life. You do all of this without thinking of any consequences of your actions. You believe everything to be necessary for your existence and personal gain. You see every NPC that you encounter along your way as a plaything or a tool to be used or exploited in your grandeur for power. You don't have any empathy, unless it is 'Wild Empathy' on your character sheet, and even then you roll survival checks for hunting game and getting fish. You swat away kobolds like they are flies, despite having an intelligence score and a language. You kill dragons just because it has treasure. You don't care, really, for anything other than yourselves, and if you have a deity, you walk every line and find every loophole so that you can sin without sinning."

The puzzlement and silence in the room lasted for an awkward two or three minutes.

All of my players immediately flipped into reverse. The next gaming session consisted of diplomacy checks every few minutes, overwhelming caring about NPC's, and donations in the thousands of gold to orphanages and churches.

(The quotes above are not verbatim, as a whole. This conversation did in fact take place, but some colorful metaphors and some other off-color commentary hasn't been included.)


How can I get them to come to a middle ground, rather than extremes? How do I convey this without, again, speaking accusingly?

I mean, they act like Ivar the Boneless one session, and Pope Francis the next session. This has now been going on for a month. They are now so self-conscious of their actions that an entire four hour session of play consists of random daily activities that typically don't even need to be role-played.

(I recognise I have, unfortunately, used accusatory language that has been inadvertently offensive. I really need to know how to convey my point to be less accusatory, yet specific.)

Whenever I mentioned this, I got chastised for having called all of them psychopaths. I want to be able to find a middle-ground somehow, though, between these two extremes.

What do I do?

  • 15
    \$\begingroup\$ It's not clear what problem you want to solve here. Is it that you want them to become more psychopathic again? Why? Is it that they're pissed at you since you offended them and you want that to end? What specifically is it you are trying to solve that you think "middle ground" is a useful end goal? \$\endgroup\$
    – mxyzplk
    Jan 17, 2017 at 19:20
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    \$\begingroup\$ So are you looking for murderous diplomats or diplomatic cretins? \$\endgroup\$ Jan 18, 2017 at 13:59
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    \$\begingroup\$ Reminder: comments are for clarifying content, not posting small or incomplete answers. Nor general criticism of the situation. \$\endgroup\$ Jan 18, 2017 at 21:17
  • \$\begingroup\$ @MichaelRichardson I'd rather them role-play a little more naturally. Even paladins of the past seem to instantly roll initiative against those that are detected as evil. \$\endgroup\$
    – Zangief
    Jan 24, 2017 at 8:14

7 Answers 7


I think there's a misalignment of the game the two sides want to play. The wonderful thing about D&D is that there's no right way to play it. You could spend an entire campaign cutting deals and playing a trader, provided the table can scrape together house rules sufficient to make that work. Alternately, you could play a dungeon crawler and effectively be playing a bunch of sociopaths that massacre their way through drow in the Underdark so that they can steal their lucky charms. Most groups run a more in the middle path where they work with a DM's provided NPCs to get their marching orders to go kill the drow and steal their lucky charms for the NPC. There's of course many other ways to play as well.

Regarding your specific problem, it appears to me that you and your players are not seeking the same game, and one or both sides isn't acknowledging that this is a cooperative game between DM and the players. Both sides need to be interested in the same play style for things to work at the table. Unfortunately, it appears that a discussion didn't occur early on to handle this matter and it appears you let your frustration on the matter explode at the table, and now everyone's cowed into submission for fear of angering you again and possibly the whole game being scrapped as a result.

The fact that the players have shown up and so dramatically reversed course is, in my opinion, a good thing for you. This means that they want to play, but they don't want it to be a burden for you. So I would recommend the following prior to your next session:

  • Apologize for your behavior at the outset. You may have been right, but how you presented it may not have been. It brings you back down to their level and helps remind everybody that we're all friends here. D&D is not a game worth losing friends over.
  • Discuss with the group how they envision the game should be and compare it to how you view it. Be advised that they may feel compelled to state that they want to be super diplomats, so ask if they had more fun playing murder hobos. It is extremely important to acknowledge that neither way is 'right'. We're playing make-believe, so it's a lot less necessary to worry how the Orc chieftain feels after the session's over.
  • Be sure to discuss how you want the game to be, but be sure to provide a bit of "why" on that. You are the DM and the arbiter of the rules, but if you've no players then you're god of a pretty barren wasteland.

If you spend the entire session having this discussion and get no playtime in, that's fine. This is a very helpful discussion to have at times.

Personally, I occasionally have the opposite problem where I blow up a the table because I don't like the way a rule gets adjudicated. I've gotten better at it, but I do need to check myself and apologize when I get out of hand. I think folks would prefer it didn't happen at all, but when it does a lot can be accomplished with a sincere apology and discussion. This has gotten easier as I've gotten older (I'm 33) compared to when I was 20 something and knew everything.

  • 7
    \$\begingroup\$ My friend & I, aged 35 and & 37 respectively, started RPG's together when we were in middle school (8th grade to be exact). I am a mechanical engineer. He's a union butcher. I graduated college. He's graduated high school. We love each other. I mean, we aren't related, but we trust & love each other more than our actual siblings. Our wives, now, play with us, and a few of their friends. I majored in engineering & minored in history. I've enough psychology classes to not be an expert, but know enough to argue with all of them. We all are the best of friends. But, man, I screwed up this time. \$\endgroup\$
    – Zangief
    Jan 17, 2017 at 16:29
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    \$\begingroup\$ @Zangief Sounds like you should bring some beer then. Apologize, talk about it, and laugh about it later. No sense letting this incident hang over the group. \$\endgroup\$ Jan 17, 2017 at 16:44
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    \$\begingroup\$ This answer is just so full of win. We are all just humans, we screw up, sometimes we don't even notice. The good thing is that we can apologize and should (usually) be forgiven. \$\endgroup\$
    – r41n
    Jan 20, 2017 at 12:48

You tossed the gauntlet down and they picked it up

Before I begin: do you sincerely believe that your players are doing this to spite you or to get back at you for that conversation? If so, an out of game conversation about that discussion where you referred to the PCs as psychopaths -- and your apology for being heavy handed if that discussion shows that is needed -- is in order before you play again.

Once you've settled out of game concerns together at the table, let's look at some in-game concern.

In game issues

Is this change in style really a problem? We play for fun.

Are they having fun?

You've been playing a long time, and your players have picked up the challenge you presented to them by stretching their playing style to something more than the "murderhobo" featured in the linked question.

If they are enjoying this, that's good. Fun is good, let 'em play. (Easier to do in a mostly sandbox campaign than in a mostly plot/goal designed campaign).

If you feel that there is overemphasis on mundane pursuits, that will be addressed in last part.

Are you having fun?

  • If yes, then we are done ... no problem. We play to have fun.
  • If no -- your question raises the specter of you not having fun, and DM's are allowed to have fun too -- then read on.

    What isn't fun for you? If your players are pursuing goals that are outside of your prepared campaign / world and adventures, and they are not embarking on adventures that you'd like to see them take on and overcome, then one approach that I've used in the past is that even mundane activities can trigger decision points.

    Caveat: There is a risk of dipping too heavily into the railroad / script / plot method of DM'ing, and not enough from sandbox method. Finding the middle ground to that balance will vary as you get feedback from session to session. Actively solicit that feedback from your players.

Present them with choices and decision points. Then, let 'em play!

A large part of Role Playing is making decisions and choices that aid and abet the flow of play. The underlying theme is that choices have consequences. What are the consequences of the choices that they make? If there aren't any, add (or insert) choices that have consequences.

  • Campaign Assessment: If there are particular hazards / goals / adventures that are important to getting them to hit one of your various BBEs, no encounter is too innocuous to get woven into a chance to create a decision point. The approach is something like "Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon."

  • Tool kit: create NPC's, rumors, plot hooks, and situations (I used to put them on 3x5 cards, kept behind the DM screen) to be put into play when or if play drags. These are in outline form, with link to a PC, something local, something out in the world, and a label with the choice of "Good, Bad, or Ugly."

  • Keep organized: On your 3x5 card, jot down how many degrees of separation (if it is a hook and not a one-off) between this hook / decision and a BBE or world based goal.

Tags on the cards

Each trigger gets tagged with Good, Bad, or Ugly.

  • Good: help someone, straight forward assistance, no strings attached
  • Bad: Defeat/fight some emergent threat, no strings attached, danger averted or overcome.
  • Ugly: Either of the above with a string attached. That string leads to more action, decision, or information that is tied to a degree of separation for the local, regional, or global "problem" that adventures will eventually be challenged by.

Even mundane pursuits can trigger decision points

If you feel that too much time is spent on mundane pursuits then spice up these pursuits with triggers and decisions.

  1. Example: player is crafting a better sword while rest of party rebuilds orphanage that recently burned down.

  2. Trigger event: Burglary at the foundry. Most of the metal ingots are stolen, the owner is in a coma. To make that sword, the PC needs those ingredients.

  3. Good, Bad, or Ugly?

    Good = track and retake that small wagon load of ingots. Make sword.
    Bad: track and defeat/kill thieves. Recover ingots. Make sword.
    Ugly 1: the thieves are connected to a nearby craftsman who feels that your town's craftsman is competition he needs to remove. Deal with that person and recover ingots, make sword.
    Ugly 2: Like 1, but those thieves are also in the pay of a local BBE who has hired that other craftsman to make weapons for the bandit squad he is building to expand his extortion racket.

    The decision point presented is either taken as a challenge, or the PC does not get the sword. The follow up tag varies depending on how "sandbox" or "plot" this encounter needs to be in your judgment. And, at the end of the session, solicit the players' input. Fun? More fun? Less fun?

    Rinse and repeat as necessary to get the action moving. Each trigger or decision point has an impact on what one of the characters thinks is important.

    The same can be done with arson, people going missing, something stolen from PCs, rumors (both true and false) and simple disagreements with local NPCs that lead to social interactions that call for a decision. (Why has the local carpenter started charging more for building materials, and why is he so grumpy? That orphanage repair needs another load of lumber ...)

The players make a decision, then let 'em play.

  • \$\begingroup\$ "Do you sincerely believe that your players are doing this to spite you or to get back at you for that conversation?" Not out of spite, or in spite. I think, without directly asking them, out of fear of misconception. \$\endgroup\$
    – Zangief
    Jan 24, 2017 at 8:16

Is there really no way for you to give their new characters worthy opponents?

Not to answer a question with a question. But, give their new characters what we call stakes. If they don't Stop The Baddie(tm), will their newly-sainted characters care about the horrible, evil consequences of letting the adversary get away with their abominable intentions?

I personally would have fun with this as a game master. I'd fully accept the turning of the tables, and I'd do my best to give them convincing killbait enemies.

If they manage to stop the baddie with only pacifistic tactics, awesome, they're geniuses. But your job is to make them want to take your adversaries on because they care about the situation.

So, step 1 is, make sure they care. Plumb their backstories. Send them on missions which give them further investments in their identities, their loved ones, their NPC allies, their hometown/homeland, their creed, whatever it is they say they care about, threaten it and make them roleplay caring about it more. Make them taste the victory of caring about it and defending it.

Start off lightly, then escalate it.

When they reach that point of being forced to make hard decisions, that's when it gets fun.

It's a new kind of fun. This is a different game than the one where all they need to think about is how to optimize their violent power for the sake of picking up loot and gold. This is a game where the drama is dramatic. Where the threats are personal. Where the victories are righteous, even if they choose to fight. Even if they choose to lie and betray. Even if they find that even good-guys must justify their means when faced with unacceptable ends.

I'm reading the explanation as if the players are now doing what they want, having had something which is distateful to them pointed out. I'm not reading it as they're now trying to please you because their past in-character behavior is distasteful to you. If I'm reading it wrong, then, I think you can still give them a good time by making clear that in order to overcome the challenges you're going to give them, they have to make the hard choices. Is it better to be nonviolent and allow a horror to come to pass? Or is it better to sacrifice one's own virtue and creed in order to prevent some atrocity?

Here's the other thing: Sometimes players don't necessarily show you what they really want. I've seen many, many times that a player creates a character who ostensibly has some nonviolent creed, and the player is really just hoping and waiting for plausible reasons to let the character flip. Fighting is fun gameplay! This game sounds like one where people are ready to mature past greedy murderhobo'ing and start fighting meaningful, stakes-driven, world-influencing fights.

Everyone at your table is in the middle of a mental re-orientation, it sounds like. Sometimes what happens in a situation like that is, people come to say "the old way was more fun, let's just go back to that". Sometimes they appreciate the new way.


I'd suggest that there may be an impression that you're not playing the same game they are. You might investigate the Same Page Tool as a way to be sure you're all expecting and enjoying the same kind of game.

Once you know what kind of game your players want to play, you can either accommodate them, or find some level of compromised, or perhaps try as a group to find a GM who can run that kind of game without qualms.

Bottom line, in my experience over the past forty years, most PCs are sociopaths, psychopaths, or just plain murder hobos (which doesn't imply the players are). The games that present situations for real roleplaying and reward same have been a welcome change over that time — and those are the ones I've sought out and tried to stay in. Hopefully you can find agreement with your player group and go back to playing a game you all enjoy.

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    \$\begingroup\$ I will say, that the "Humanity" aspect of "World of Darkness" really helped in people thinking about X leads to Y, rather than X equals Y. Maybe I am at a loss for words for the "3.5" system that we all love and enjoyed (and led to Pathfinder) with it's inherent power-creep and rocket-tag. \$\endgroup\$
    – Zangief
    Jan 17, 2017 at 16:02

Remember this is a game, and in a game you only have to do the fun parts.

For example, when characters spend a week on the road traveling, you don't make players spend a week waiting for them to get there.

Similarly, when characters fight monsters, you don't have to make them feel guilty or traumatized. You can just congratulate them on their combat prowess and move on. It's true that this is not realistic, but you're playing this game to have fun, and people will have more fun if they're not feeling guilty.

If this bothers you, a compromise is for you, the DM, to not put the players in positions where they're expected to kill sentient beings. Let them fight mindless undead, or animals, or constructs, or oozes.

It sounds like things are awkward now with your players. I don't know of a great way to fix that, other than to tell them that you now realize it's just a game and you're not going to judge them for killing things. If the players continue playing super-empathically, you might consider switching away from D&D to a system that is more able to model their new playstyle.

  • \$\begingroup\$ We all know it is a game, that's why we show up to play - the game. But giving an answer stating you don't know what an answer is... \$\endgroup\$
    – Zangief
    Jan 17, 2017 at 17:31
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    \$\begingroup\$ Dan, you might want to emphasise or reword the sentence that contains the answer (“other than to tell them…”) since it seems to be missing its intended audience. \$\endgroup\$ Jan 17, 2017 at 18:04

Take a lesson from writing and "show don't tell."

The problem with the DM telling people their characters are a bunch of psychopaths is that the DM's word is truth. This tends to lead people to make snap decisions to align what they have been doing with the latest DM decree.

Fortunately, you have more powerful tools at your disposal. You control the plot. If your campaign increasingly forces them to deal with the consequences of their actions, both positive and negative, they will be forced to do this kind of self-reflection themselves. When they slaughter a bunch of individuals for trying to take their stuff, make the next chapter include a trip to the home of the individuals, where the players have to interact with the newly orphaned children there. If they steal a bunch of money from the king, let the plot take them to a point where they can see the reallocations the kind is having to make.

Obviously those examples are intentionally extreme, but every action we take has both positive and negative repercussions. Make them deal with those repercussions and they can decide what sort of characters they want to play.

It also helps to put NPCs out there who are willing to help them stabilize their fluctuations by offering a moral compass. This may simply involve talking in the tavern, or it may be more extreme. If your players decide psychopath is the way to go, they may find themselves further and further on the fringes of society, with fewer NPCs out there to help. Perhaps that's a good time to introduce some of the more hellicious planes, which would show these characters where they're going and also give an opportunity for more extreme stabilizing characters (such as angels).


Create a World With Expectations They Can Accept or Ignore

You shouldn't railroad them, but you can decide how easy one path is over others. Perhaps they could charge the castle, but it needn't be as easy as sneaking in, which needn't be as easy as talking their way in or vice versa.

If you want them to play diplomatically:

  • NPCs react with shock or horror
  • Challenges resist constant aggressive solutions
  • Thought yields more rewards
  • Have constables that take the law seriously

If you want them to play aggressively:

  • NPCs cheer them on
  • Challenges resist constant diplomatic solutions
  • Violence yields more rewards
  • Constables give them their quests

If you're struggling to right the ship, make it clearer that they're entering a rougher part of the world or time period by changing the description, quest, NPCs, or local lore. If all else fails, use baddies that don't count as characters like zombies or insects for a session.

A healthy mix of all is perhaps best. Consider making it hard to solve multiple challenges the same way.


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