Monday, November 20, 2023

In Defense of the Murderhobo

Like any hobby, roleplaying games are replete with their own unique vocabulary and jargon. Spend any time with someone deeply invested in roleplaying and odds are good you'll soon encounter one or more words whose meaning would be impenetrable to outsiders. Even the title of this blog has its origins in RPG – and, before that, wargaming – argot that would make little or no sense to the average person. 

Occasionally, even someone who's been playing roleplaying games for as long as I have will come across a term whose meaning is unclear. Such is the case with "murderhobo," a word whose origins, I assumed, must be relatively recent, since it's not one with which I was familiar. A quick search online reveals that "recent" in this case is relative, since "murderhobo" has been commonplace in online discussions of Dungeons & Dragons for more than a decade now. Color me surprised!

Like "grognard" and "killer DM," "murderhobo" seems to have mostly negative associations. What interests me, as I delved more deeply into this, is how the term seems to have evolved since its initial coinage. At the start, the term appears to have been a partly affectionate jab at the style of play that some claim was the default at the dawn of the hobby: rootless wanderers employing violence to enrich themselves. 

DCC RPG has made murderhoboism its brand
This post is not the place to rehash arguments for or against how people in the early days actually played RPGs. For our present purposes, all that matters is that plenty of people not only believe that the first gamers played games in this way but also that this style of play is, at best, laughable and, at worst, objectionable. Despite the contemporary origins of the term, this censorious attitude toward murderhoboism isn't limited to players of more recent vintage. Even within the old school realm, deprecation of the murderhobo is far from unknown.

That having been said, there is a criticism of murderhoboism that does seem to originate among newer gamers. This criticism focuses on the way that murderhobo characters can derail a referee's carefully constructed campaign. Their acts of random violence represent an unwillingness to commit fully to the "story" the referee is attempting to tell and is thus worthy of rebuke. While I am generally quite dismissive of referees who mistakenly think it's their job to tell a story, I am nevertheless mildly sympathetic to any referee who has to deal with needlessly disruptive players.
Note the adverb: needlessly. Sometimes, players are disruptive for a very good reason. I have personally been involved in sessions where my fellow players decided to barricade a tavern and then burn it down, its patrons still inside, as an act of rebellion against the referee, whose heavy-handed plot they could no longer stand. They were, according to this second understanding of the term, murderhobos, because they derailed the referee's game with their violent antics.

I'm afraid I don't have much time for the first criticism of murderhoboism. Most of the protagonists of the pulp fantasy stories that inspired Arneson and Gygax could probably be called murderhobos, in at least some of their adventures. I find it difficult to look askance at any player inspired by Conan, Fafhrd, or the Gray Mouse – never mind Elric, many of whose yarns begin and/or end with random acts of violence on his part. Certainly, this isn't the only way to play Dungeons & Dragons, nor even my preferred one, but I don't see anything wrong with it and indeed know firsthand that it can be quite fun. Like so many things, I think what's really needed is not so much disdain for so-called murderhoboism as clearer agreement between players and the referee about the kind of game they wish to play.

I've already addressed the narrow sense in which I can give credence to the second type of criticism. That said, I have very little patience for referees who want, above all, to "tell a story," more specifically their story. One of my strongest beliefs about roleplaying is that it is a collaborative entertainment, where the wishes of neither the referee nor the players are supreme. Consequently, "story" is, at best, an emergent property recognizable only after the fact, an attempt to make sense of the unexpected twists and turns arising from the interactions of all involved and the randomness of dice rolls. Anyone who places his own prefabricated narrative above the glorious riot of player choice (even stupid choice) deserves to be terrorized by murderhobos.

In the end, I'm not sure murderhobos need defending, so much as understanding of what they are and why someone might wish to play D&D (or any other RPG) in that style. Mind you, I think that's the case with nearly every style in which one might play, but what do I know?


  1. I see "murderhobo" as a mild pejorative applied to characters who lack connections to other characters in the gameworld or have no goals or motivations beyond looking for stuff to kill.

    Does that make Conan a murderhobo? I dunno, I haven't read much Conan but I had the impression he was a little less one-dimensional than that.

    The characters in Diablo 2 are murderhobos. It's still a fun game though.

  2. A DM can put as much plot, intrigue, sub-plots, etc. into any RPG...But it all boils down to "kill monsters and take their stuff". Anyone who says otherwise is lying to themselves. IT's an RPG, not some Tolkien-like epic. But you do you, folks.
    Whatever story I have is inconsequential to the desires and motivations of the PCs. That's why I've gone from a carefully crafted plot-driven campaign to a mostly sandbox style. I find it much more easy for me as a DM, and the players seem to enjoy it as well.

  3. "Anyone who places his own prefabricated narrative above the glorious riot of player choice (even stupid choice) deserves to be terrorized by murderhobos."

    I love it. :)

  4. I agree with virtually all of this, with the minor quibble that yes, everyone I know played like this.

    I just invited an older player to my table, and I used the term, and he looked confused, and I explained it, and he said "oh, like all D&D"

  5. I think you can play RPGs a million different ways and so long as you are not actually harming another player in some way, all of them are fine. But people should be clear up front about the types of themes to be explored, style of play, etc... Do that and you'll have far less difficulty. Tolerance of individual differences and preferences goes a long way as well. Provided you're doing that, "there is no badwrongfun." That includes murder hobos, 4th edition dnd, games about playing bunnies, games about furry animal folk having high school drama, lasers and space Wizards, LARPING, by the book dnd 0e, shopping for magic items and having cooking contests, a historically accurate medieval jousting simulator with so many rules no one can actually comprehend them all, or whatever else interests you. It's all just "let's pretend" with a few (or a lot) of extra rules, after all.

  6. "Murderhobo" doesn't evoke the classic dungeon-crawling rogues of D&D for me, but rather players who indulge psychopathic or antisocial impulses through role play, usually in more narrative games. If you referee enough narrative-oriented RPG sessions, you will encounter players who indulge gratuitous violence at every opportunity in ways that do not always feel psychologically healthy. Also, narrative RPGs in which the GM does need to impose some structure have a long and legitimate history in the hobby—I'm talking about Call of Cthulhu and other games that evolved from its style of investigative role-playing.

    1. I'd rather have them live them out in an RPG than real life, therefore it's a healthy outlet for such impulses. Otherwise, calling their behavior "psychopathic" or "anti-social" is a bit much. Unless you're an actual psychologist/psychiatrist, using such terminology is a bit over the top.

  7. As I read this I glanced at my mug, emblazoned with "Murder Hobo" and a d20. :D I favor emergent gameplay over a predetermined story personally. The trope of wandering heroes seeking adventure and treasure is pretty common and when events do take a story driven bent it's generally the players choice.

  8. Jack Vance's Liane the Wayfarer is the ultimate murderhobo in my mind.

  9. When talking with new players or talking about my campaign style, I reference the term murderhobo or "kill things and take their treasure," not because extreme definitions of those apply, but because it's easier to come at the campaign style from that direction than to accidentally imply that the campaign is more deeply into social interaction etc. than it is.

    The result is that I don't have players that are dissatisfied because I haven't woven some story, or presented them with a tangled intrigue or some other mystery.

    But yea, there is a set of people who are offended by the idea of old school adventuring.

  10. Technically speaking (pushes up glasses)... when it comes to Tolkien, The Hobbit is pretty much "killing monsters and taking their stuff." So...

  11. >"a historically accurate medieval jousting simulator with so many rules no one can actually comprehend them all"

    Please kind sir, where can this tome be found?

  12. I don’t often disagree with you, James, but I’ll politely do so this time. I regret this term ever becoming a part of our hobby. As always, however, I’ll put my personal opinions aside and say I fully support people playing games in any manner they wish.

  13. I've always taken the "hobo" part of murderhobo to suggest characters acting as if they have nothing to lose, disregarding predictably negative consequences. A plotted adventure is far more brittle than a sandbox, but a sandbox can be ruined by terrible PC judgement too ... or at least steered into territory of consequences that are ... difficult to play out enjoyably.