I’ve said before that every adventuring group is different, and that’s essentially true. However, it’s worth pointing out that one trend, a particular style of play, does tend to echo across many different groups: the “murder-hobo” approach to adventuring.
Now, I use that term specifically because it’s well-known in gaming circles, but I’m aware some people in gaming may not like that term, or might even consider it to have different definitions. For the sake of today’s discussion, we’re going to define the term (specifically in relation to gaming), before unpacking how it tends to keep cropping up in so many different groups of players.
Murder-Hobo, as the name suggests, refers to a player (or, more commonly, a group of players) whose character simply wanders from place to place within the world of the game, killing things and moving on. Usually, they try to find someone to pay them to kill things - like a desperate mayor offering the brave adventurers a pittance to slay a dragon - and that’s essentially fine. But murder-hobos will usually kill anything that gets in their way, ask no questions, take whatever money they can get, and move on once they’re done.
For some groups, this manifests as a more general violence - trying to kill anyone who might annoy them in a bar, for example - but that’s not necessarily the case. Most murder-hobo groups just go from job to job, hired to slay monsters and rescue towns. Because, in many ways, that is the format of Dungeons & Dragons.
Now, I should specify that this isn’t always the case - many groups/adventures do not follow this format. Some groups avoid this trope by keeping the players in one isolated location, which means anything the players do has consequences that unfold around them. Other games might be more driven by a particular quest - such as Lord of the Rings - where the players don’t wander, but are instead swept up in a specific story. They might have occasional side quests, but the adventure is more characterized by a mission, and the objective is not necessarily gold as much as it is the completion of the quest.
However, at the end of the day, this is a game designed to reward players for fighting foes. At its core, this is a game where combat is a major component, and you’re expected to gain “experience” for each kill. Additionally, if you follow the patterns set up in the handbooks and the pre-written adventures, you are likely to find at least a bit of cash on most people you kill.
To be fair, later editions of the game have tried to address that issue - 4th Edition encouraged DMs to award equivalent XP if the players use their skill to successfully avoid a fight, and 5th Edition provides an alternate, “milestone”-based approach to leveling, where your characters advance at key points in the story. In fact, this is a system some GMs (including myself) had already adopted before 5E ever arrived, and the great thing about RPGs is that any rule can be changed if the group agrees to it, which helps the GM define a unique tone. But if you’re just running the game as it’s written - and even in most variant takes on the game - it is still assumed that you will be fighting monsters across a diverse landscape.
The murder hobo, by its nature, is the product of the RPG. Because the game presents a world where your heroes are exceptional at what they do - and most of what they do revolves around fighting.
Now, that may technically describe your group, but maybe you feel like your group doesn’t “qualify” as murder-hobos. Sure, you go on missions to kill monsters, but you’re just trying to help people! And if you realize that the “horrible creature” raiding the village is actually just desperate and scared, you’ll absolutely try to find a peaceful resolution! That’s totally fair - while you might technically be wandering weirdos who solve your problems with murder, that term still doesn’t feel like it applies.
That’s why some in the gaming community don’t like the term - it’s a pejorative, after all, and it’s reductive. Even if it applies to your group, it’s a bit simplistic. But for some groups, that’s how they prefer to play the game. For them, game night is like poker night - they’re just getting together to have fun and feel like winners. And sometimes, that just means they want to go from town to town and fight neat monsters. And folks, honestly, that’s totally fine.
The things to watch for are the war crimes - does your group torture people for information? Do they tend to take a lot of hostages and use them as human shields? Do they get bored with NPCs and decide to kill them for no reason? If that’s the case, then your group just might be murder-hobos. And as the DM, you have a decision to make - do you let them do their thing? Or do you try to steer them away from it?
If you’re cool with the game going that way - where it feels more like a video game, where they can just kill people without consequence and they just want to grind and gain levels and fight badass monsters - then feel free to go ahead with my blessing. But if you don’t want your players to be the true monsters - or even if you just feel your players don’t realize the gravity of their actions - then you may want to consider throwing some curve-balls at them.
If you want to change their behavior, there are a lot of things you can try - but here are some that Do Not Work:
Introducing a character of your own to babysit them. If you assign a paladin or cleric to join the group to keep tabs on them, you’re just adding a challenge for your players to try to overcome. They’re going to test the limits of your NPC - he can’t be in all places at once, after all. And at a certain point, he’s just going to feel like a shackle meant to keep them from having fun.
Accusing them/issuing ultimatums out of game. In general, I feel that addressing a problem like this head-on is only going to make your players defensive. It’s not uncommon for someone accused of murder-hobo behavior to say, “But that’s what my character would do!” Whether or not you agree, that’s not your decision to make - at the end of the day, you are the DM, not the writer of a novel. It’s not your story alone - it’s the entire group’s. Telling someone they can’t play a certain way doesn’t solve the problem, and threatening them certainly doesn’t.
Punishing them by withholding XP. In general, you shouldn’t be “punishing” your players for behavior like this. Most players, if you remind them of their alignment, their goals, or even just the severity of their actions, will re-analyze their behavior - and if one or two of them do not, then that might just lead to some compelling drama.
Here are some options that Might Work:
Take away the assumption that everything they do is all right with everyone. My friend Jeremy Fox and I have discussed this many, many times. In his games, adventurers are almost universally hated. His feeling is that they don’t actually solve most problems - if a band of heroes kills a dragon, then some other monster or organization is going to fill the power vacuum and begin oppressing those same people. By breaking the assumption that all heroes are beloved for their “good deeds,” you’ve changed the power dynamic between the players and the world they occupy - and that can’t help but affect their behavior.
Let them stand trial. In episode 24 of Critical Role, the players used lethal, perhaps excessive force, on a group of villains - one of whom was an old woman. She was a powerful wizard, but she was retreating when the group executed her, preferring there be no loose ends. Even in the moment, the group was torn by the decision - but the next day, the city guards came knocking, and the group was forced to stand before the king (with whom they had previously been friends) and answer for their actions. Even one of the NPCs who had been in a minor courtship with one of the Player Characters began to look at that PC differently - sure, he was protecting his allies, but the words “I executed an old woman who was running away from me” should give anyone pause.
Talk about it in character. Whether you’re a fellow player or the DM, you can address these trends without starting a fight. Some of my favorite moments of D&D games I've run or played in have featured characters discussing how comfortable they are with violence, and debating some of the moral lines they may have crossed.
Your goal shouldn’t be to stop your players from playing the way they want to play - if they want to use lethal force in a bar fight, that’s fine. But if you bring in the cops for every “trivial” action the players take, then eventually you are going to make your players aware of their own actions. In truth, that’s usually the problem - they don't understand that there might be consequences. Most players will back off when you remind them that the world has consequences for their behavior, or even when you just say, “Hey, you know those thugs you killed? Their families pooled their money and hired a bounty hunter to bring you to justice.”
The truth is, no gaming group is the same. But due to the design of most RPGs, a lot of groups do end up acting as sellswords that mostly hunt monsters, and that’s essentially the definition of a murder-hobo. So, does that term apply to you and your group? You can be the judge.
Discussion Question: I think we can agree that the murder-hobo isn’t as easily defined as some other terms - really, it’s more of a state of mind. Keeping that in consideration, what have been some murder-hobo moments in your games? Mine is probably when our cleric casually suggested they torture someone by cutting their arms and legs off with the cleric’s flaming axe (with the reasoning that a flaming axe would cauterize the wounds, and thus keep the subject from bleeding out). The player has since claimed his character "didn’t know what cauterizing was," and thus didn’t understand the gravity of his actions... (Though, when you think about it, did that mean he was just suggesting they cut off a dude’s arms and legs without being sure what would happen?) BUT! There’s no judgment in the comments! What moments in your games may have surprised you, in their murder-hobo-ness?