Frequently we see GMs online complaining that their players are a bunch of murder hobos. If you’re unfamiliar with the term, it is one used to describe adventures who solve all of the problems in their game with violence without trying other solutions. While this might be a player mindset we also feel the need to highlight that there are plenty of ways to prevent your players from being murder hobos. On the flip side of this, if that’s the kind of game your players want we also want to highlight ways to adjust your own expectations.
Author’s note: while we understand that there are problems with the use of the term murder hobo, we feel that the ubiquity of the term is functioanally useful to this discussion. We’d like to see this term die out. Hopefully through building better games we can help make this term obsolete.
Why are Muder Hobos Such a Common Problem
Muder Hobos in role playing games like Pathfinder and Dungeons and Dragons are a seemingly common occurrence. Not only are they common enough to merit an unfortunate moniker, they’re also common enough as an unwanted problem that many people actively discuss this issue online. While we can sympathize with some of this discussion, we want to point out some potential root causes for murder hobos existing in the first place.
80% rules for combat, 20% anything else
Dungeons and Dragons is a perfect example of games that focus extremely closely on combat rules. Most of the rules for DnD are about combat or things that aid combat. Even the item tables and purchasable goods described are mostly centered around combat as well. While the game is primarily about adventuring, the way the rules are set up presupposes that violence is the answer to most problems.
Where this becomes an issue is that new players see all these rules about combat, but few rules or even guidance for anything else. What this leads to is a collection of characters faced with obstacles and only one tool available to solve their problems. In actuality there are usually a near infinite amount of ways to deal with a threat in DnD, but for the most part violence is often the easiest solution and the one the players are given a firm grounding for utilizing.
This easily leads to murder hobo parties because players start to get experience early on in solving problems with violence and every time they do it becomes more of a learned way to solve problems. This forms a cycle that takes a conscious effort to break from either the players or the GM, but as stated before, the rules offer little guidance in other problem solving areas.
Clear Cut Bad Guys and No Room For Discussion
Often the next easiest thing that leads to murder hobo parties is actually caused by the GM leaving no room for discussion. When a group of bandits starts combat with a clear intent to wipe out the whole group and no room to talk, the players will push to use the same level of force in response.
Worse still is even if the players want to take their enemies alive, the rules on that are buried, unclear, and sparse in games like DnD. Other systems have better solutions for this, but generally incapacitating enemies is something that doesn’t happen in most TTRPGs.
In a similar example, sometimes GMs will over use enemies that fight to their death. Any intelligent or even survival focused creature should always try and flee at the very least. If possible, surrender may even be preferable. With that being said, we’re betting a fair amount of people reading this haven’t seen much of this in their games. Keith Ammann covers monster intelligence and survival really well in his book The Monsters Know What They’re Doing, and we’d highly recommend it to anyone who runs Dungeons and Dragons.
Misalignment Between GMs and Players
Sometimes players just want a straightforward violence heavy game. Where players get mislabeled as murder hobos by GMs here is in the case that they never talked to their players about what style of game they wanted to play vs what the GM wanted to run. This disconnect and lead players and GMs frustrated as neither group is aligned on the type of game they want to play and both groups can build up some resentment that could easily be avoided with some communication.
This is one of the reasons we recommend that everyone run a session 0 for their games. It really helps everyone get on the same page and ultimately saves everyone a lot of frustration.
Also, worth noting, if players just want the combat and don’t care about anything else, you can run DnD as a table top skirmishers game, closer to Warhammer. This would use more miniatures and complex combat setups, but it can be a lot of fun if that’s the style of game everyone wants to play.
Preventing Murder Hobos
While there are tons of ways to prevent murder hobo behavior in your games, we’re going to focus on a few of the simplest ways. To this end, we’ll start with the most straightforward first.
Talk to Your Players About Being Murder Hobos
If your players solve every problem with violence and you don’t want them to, have a discussion with them about this. It’s as easy as saying to them that you want the game to run differently and asking them politely to try other alternatives than just running in and killing everyone. On your end, you’ll have to put in the work to make non-violent solutions possible and even enjoyable, but if you’re committed to it, asking your players to change the tone is the simplest way to get things aligned and resolved.
There is also the chance your players say no. This too is an outcome you need to prepare to deal with, but not by retaliating, but by either adjusting your game to accommodate it, or in the worst cases telling people that’s not the kind of game you want to run and dissolving the group. While it can be sad to walk away from a game, it’s better than resenting your players for something that might run for years.
Look at What You’re Doing to Prevent Violence
Often GMs who have murder hobo parties don’t immediately realize that they’re not holding the player characters accountable for their actions. Did they murder a shopkeeper? Send them to jail. Have the kingdom disavow them as heroes. Revoke their guild memberships.
By showing players early that there are serious consequences for misusing power and acting violently in situations where it would not be appropriate. The easiest way to highlight consequences is to show them that they simply aren’t the most powerful people around at any given time. If your players can wield god-like powers, so too can other people in the universe. These people are essential to enforcing the law in fantasy worlds where anyone can be a weapon.
Social punishment is also an important role in the game. If your players start being a violence first party, let their reputation get out of hand. Have job posters refuse their party and other quest givers turn them away. If this happens to the group they will likely have to find another way to achieve their goals. It could even be a point of character growth for them. Still, if you even get to this point, it means you will need to have a discussion with your players.
Make Non-Violent Solutions Easier and More Rewarding
The best way, short of talking with your players, to prevent murder hoboism is to make being a murder hobo far less lucrative and far more difficult than a non-violent solution. This means that there needs to be access to non-violent paths through discussion with NPCs, rewards for doing so such as roleplay experience or actual information that pays out, and a convenience that outweighs violence.
If the players are rewarded for doing things non-violently, they will try non-violent options because ultimately they want the reward. If that still isn’t enough it generally means that violence was a much much easier option, or non-violence didn’t feel like an option. As the GM you need to make better solutions feel better, so don’t minimize your role there. If you start a dialogue as an NPC, but are really aggressive with the player characters, then they won’t think that non-violence is on the table. It’s a fine line to walk between being a bad guy and being open to surrender, but if you want it to be there, you have to figure out how to sell any outcome.
In this solution, you also have to leave room for violence on occasion. Sometimes it doesn’t make sense that enemies would come quietly, and sometimes non-violence becomes viable because of the initial bout of violence. The main idea is to make sure the ways players have to deal with solutions is varied and that sometimes the violent solutions should obviously be the worst of the options available.
Murder Hobos Can Be Solved
If you’re running a game for a group of murder hobos, don’t despair. There are options. Talk to your players. Accept your role in creating a monster. Work together to make a game that plays more like an RPG than a violence simulator. Ultimately, every group is different, but no one makes progress on problems they don’t try and solve head on.