How to Solve the Problem of Players Becoming Murder-Hobos

Marie Cham asks:

Dear , From one dm to another, how can you stop/prevent your players from always becoming murder-hobos and killing their way through your campaign? Sincerely yours, a desperate dm that has tried for 4 years.

Well, I may not be Matthew Mercer, and I may not play a DM on a Youtube show, but as someone who has DMed and been a part of groups that have cured players of their murderhoboing, I may be somewhat qualified to answer.

My recommendation is simple:

  • Play B/X
  • Do not use negative hitpoints
  • Let Characters die because Players make bad choices

The first point really is mostly a preference choice that facilitates the third point. But if you let the choices that players make have serious consequences, even power players will shift their play-style towards more creative solutions than “kill everything”.

Your players party WILL go through a “kill everything with fire” phase of abject terror, where they realize that the horrors out there will kill them, but they haven’t quite figured out how to deal with it. Parties will learn quickly, however, that stone structures do not burn well…

Murder-hoboing is a behavior that CAN be trained away. Social contracts and pleading for your players to behave differently is ineffective because behavior is often facilitated by the game itself (not just the system, but “game”, meaning the sum of the system, the players, the DM, the adventure, etc.). B/X is an excellent training ground for changing this behavior because it shifts the equation in favor of that change. Characters are not overpowered and mistakes/bad decision making can be lethal. No, don’t kill characters to kill them, but allowing characters to suffer the consequences of their choices can put a kibosh on murderhoboing pretty quickly.

This approach is a great remedy for “always chaotic evil” guy, who will start coming up with characters who contribute positively and meaningfully to the group. And it helps murderhoboing parties because that situation usually comes from the whole group rather than a single player. It’s a mind-set that consequences can break.

“Oh, my asshole character died because I made bad choices” is going to bring about real change in a way that sitting everyone down and saying “Can you please not play an asshole this time?” simply will not.

As an addendum, I will say that I absolutely HATE people who say things like “Just tell everyone that you won’t tolerate a murder-hobo campaign! I mean, we’re all mature adults, right?!”

It treats people’s gaming groups as disposable and interchangeable. Sure, kick out intolerable players whose behavior can’t be changed, many people have a limited supply of friends with whom they can play D&D. And the behavior CAN be changed by teaching. Such an approach is needlessly reductive and an unhelpful suggestion, because even though players CAN be taught to play better, this is saying “it’s not worth it teach your players a new way of playing; get new friends.”

You don’t need new friends. You don’t necessarily need a new game–after you’ve done your road-work on B/X, you can switch back to other systems, the skills your players picked up will carry over. What you DO need to do is understand that behaviors at the table can change and are shaped by consequences–reward and punishment, carrot and stick.


13 responses to “How to Solve the Problem of Players Becoming Murder-Hobos

  1. Maybe I’m just not understanding what is meant by the term “murder-hobo” but if they mean players who focus on killing things and taking treasure, I don’t know of any other way to play D&D. That’s kind of what the game has always been all about for me. I couldn’t care less about roleplaying social interactions with the Duchess of Darkhaven or whatever. For me the tactical game is what I am there for–given the resources available, how can I inflict maximum damage to the enemy with minimum risk to my PC?

    If that’s a problem then the only way to solve it is to not have me at the table.

    • The earlier game is more heavily weighted in favor of “taking treasure” over killing things.

      When the reaction system is properly used, only animals (who are as likely as not to flee) and monsters with animal intelligence or less will be “fight” encounters by default.

      Killing everything you meet isn’t optimal because combat is stacked heavily against PCs, while attempting to talk to monsters, if only to trick them, offers nothing to lose. On average, intelligent monsters’ reaction to the PCs will be “uncertain/neutral/mild curiosity”.

      Murder-hoboing also implies a devolution to a party that indiscriminately kills weak prey, including the peasantry, for easy XP and treasure.

      • Okay, I can see that distinction. In the game I’m currently playing pretty much everything we encounter is a valid target. Outside the dungeon we just do bookkeeping–so much for equipment, so much for healing–all of the actual gameplay is in the dungeon.

        Now, I’m not above using subterfuge, including talking to monsters when they can talk. But my overall goal is to clean out the dungeon and extract as much treasure as I can. As I mentioned in one of the after action reports on the Mixed GM’s blog, I came into D&D from tabletop wargaming and tend to think of RPGs as wargames with a unit size of one character.

      • Oh, yeah, and I’m not even suggesting that the “kill all the monster, get all the treasure” approach is wrong.

        I THINK that the issue that the OP had was in regards to playing in a system that facilitates out of control and unmanagable PC behavior by empowering the players to act without consequences.

        I know that when my friends and I played Exalted, a game system in which the PC class is incredibly overpowered compared to whatever the GM could throw at you, we were unstoppable monsters that wrecked things because we could, and nothing the GM put in front of us posed a challenge or offered new story hooks or development.

      • Oh, yes, overpowered PCs can kill a game, but I tend to think of that more as GM issue than a player issue. And I agree, the best cure for that is a system that has real consequences. The flip side of that, in my opinion, is that it also be a system where new PCs can be generated quickly.

        I like Jeffro’s comparison to the “Free Parking” house rule in Monopoly. If it’s too easy to avoid the consequences of poor game play the game drags on and loses all excitement.

      • Yes. That’s why I recommend people try out B/X, even if they don’t end up making it their main game. The ability to quickly come up with new characters so that PC death doesn’t drag the game to a screeching halt is nice.

  2. The first two rules don’t apply to the game systems I use but:

    “Let Characters die because Players make bad choices”

    THAT needs to be drilled into every would-be GM before they ever start their first session. In my experience, ignoring that rule ALWAYS leads to disaster.

  3. Cirsova: Just that magazine, you know… Retweeted Christopher Ruocchio

    “Dangerous Opinion:
    Short Round wasn’t the annoying part of Temple of Doom
    It was Kate Capshaw.”

    Can’t BOTH be true?

    Although I would pay to see that grownup Short Round movie…

  4. I think your solution to “Murder Hobo” is exactly as you suggested: the full range of consequences pour down due to the players’ actions.

    If the party decides that scooping up XP is all about killing *anything* in their path, then the next village they burn down or the next castle they plunder (just because it’s there) yields commensurate consequences. The local lord may place a bounty on their heads, send out patrols and sheriffs, direct his wizards and sorcerers to harry them, and generally make life miserable for them.

    Oh, and he’ll send riders to the surrounding landholders and lords, friend or foe, to see that the same results hold if the party flees from his domain. This *is* a party of bandits and murderers, after all.

    Rick Stump covers a some of this in one of his articles:

    • It’s also noteworth (and I may not have touched on it in this piece) that B/X provides relatively low rewards for killing. Yes, you get SOME XP for killing monsters and NPCs, but it’s paltry compared to XP you get for treasure, and characters dying can create an XP vacuum such that trying to fight everything just isn’t worth the risks.

      • There’s nothing like letting the Level 2 to 5 Murder Hobo Party meet up with about 50 to 75 Fighter Level 0 farmers and laborers whose relatives in the neighboring village were slaughtered. Oh, by the way, many of theses farmers just returned from the Beastman Wars, a la Northfield, Minnesota.

        They know how to fire from cover and concealment, and they can split up into heavy crossbow fire teams in two ranks of three each. Nets, deadfalls, pits, spears, pikes, and lassos are suddenly things of fear to a party.

        Survivors get free neckties!

        Good times!

    • I’ll note that we DID try to murder-hobo once when we were doing Sailors on the Starless Seas as a DCC one-off. We’d gotten cocky because we were kicking the module’s ass. And we promptly learned our lesson that the gulf between a level 0 adventurer and a few human guards with a single level is vast and cannot be overcome by economy of actions alone.

  5. Pingback: How to solve the murder-hobo problem – The FAR System

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s