Tragedy of the Murder Hobos

The Village

hellmouthThe village perched at the edge of the vicious hellmouth.

The Murder Hobos were fabulous for the village’s economy. The villagers stopped catering to the needs of sheep and catered to the needs of the Murder Hobo population. Not that there was anything wrong with sheep.  Sheep were pleasant, if smelly, animals. But sheep didn’t have money. They do have hair and with some effort the hair turns into yarn and that’s worth some sweaters.  But, Murder Hobos are unpleasant, smelly, and rich.

The village built a Temple to some non-sheep-based God of killing things, a magic blacksmith, an Artificer, an Identify Kiosk, a Transmuter Banker table, and a shop for a local scroll-writing wizard.  They expanded the pub.  They installed multiple Quest Givers.  They published vicious hellmouth safety regulations.  They sold t-shirts and Underdark bobble-heads.

It was an economic boom town.

The Murder Hobos, fully equipped, descended the vicious hellmouth, killed Umber Hulks, reemerged with a level, their minds scrambled, and a roll off the appropriate treasure table.  They dropped most of their hard-made cash on the economy of the little village, and drank the rest away.  Some Murder Hobos stayed for another go and others wandered off to the next adventure.

Rinse and repeat.

As long as Murder Hobos didn’t tax the hellmouth’s monster population, the village’s economy grew. And grew. And grew.

The hellmouth ecological balance was a careful one. The monster stock met the needs of wandering adventurers if the Murder Hobo allowed for proper replenishment.  Those Umber Hulks needed to get it on after Murder Hobos murdered their friends and neighbors.

The visiting Murder Hobos understood this balance instinctively and, for a while, they maintained an unspoken but equal brotherhood around reaping XP. No one’s level was too high for the adventure.  No one had too powerful magic spells. The hellmouth stayed within an equitable challenge rating. And no one went after the vile Deep Elves lurking deep inside.

Enlightened self-interest is a power that crosses all alignment boundaries.

It was good, it would work, and the village would never return to sheep.

And then the Heroes came.

The Heroes

Nothing screws up a balanced economy based on a carefully manicured and ecologically pure common resource like 20th level Heroes.

The Heroes, having “rescued” some country, choose not to enter retirement.  They wanted one more ride into the maw, one more fight for the little guy, one more village to save and damsel to rescue from her tower.  They were Brothers in Arms.  They were too young to quit and enter lives of quiet contemplation and farming.

The Heroes roamed the land searching for adventure despite no one actually wanting their village saved or their damsel rescued. Pre-rescued villages tried to convince the Heroes to go away. Arbitrarily solving local problems without context is a menace.  But, the heroes arrived anyway, dammit, “went on adventure,” and saved the day. And they left craters in their wake.  Who the hell can stop 20th level heroes?

Later, after another long day of saving villages not in actual peril, the Heroes heard a tale (read: marketing copy) in a pub from an enthusiastic Bard. This tale told of a village perched on the edge of a vicious hellmouth.  Deep inside the hellmouth lurked horrific monsters of the Underdark.   In its deepest reaches lurked vile Deep Elves, dark elves of the inner reaches who ate babies*, plotted to erupt to the surface and rule the world with their despotic hand!  Come to the village, the Bard said, receive 5 free Healing Potions and a Scroll of Raise Dead for your First Venture Down, and use this coupon for 50% off stock for your Second Adventure.

The Heroes went:

This village perched on the vicious hellmouth needs saving.  From Deep Elves!  Before they boil out of the ground and oppress us all!  We are Heroes.  This, this thing, is our final adventure.  We! Must! Save the world!

What no one told the Heroes was this:  the hellmouth wasn’t rated for semi-retired 20th level Heroes.

The Heroes arrived in the village with a cloud of Pomp and Circumstance.  The Paladin gave a great speech about Goodness, closing the hellmouth and saving the world. The Wizard cast impressive protection spells. The Cleric called down the power of the Gods. The Sorceress wore an impractical dress with a ridiculous plunging neckline. The Warlock did a broody Warlock thing. The Heroes waved away entreaties from the Quest Givers to maybe move on.

The Heroes, followed by an actual marching band, descended into the hellmouth to “go on adventure” and close the seething cesspit of evil.

The local Murder Hobos, reasonably, panicked.

It only takes one party to disrupt the balance between consumers and the resource before the rush is on.  Once one group consumes more than their fair share of the public common resource, everyone feels they must super consume before it disappears.  Murder Hobos who don’t ramp up their rampant monster killing are left without any XP or gold at all.  All the consumers, no matter how small, gobble up the resource at an increasing rate until they completely deplete the resource. This is, strangely, completely rational Murder Hobo behavior.

The hellmouth could not restock fast enough for both the 20th level heroes and the Murder Hobo rush.  Where once Illithids haunted, Grells floated, and giant slime monsters ripped faces clean off, the hellmouth offered nothing but empty caverns.  As the 20th level Heroes dedicated themselves to clearing out the menace, Murder Hobos frantically scrambled to scrape up that last bit of XP for themselves.  They killed slime molds. They killed first level rats.

It was the cleanest, most family-friendly vicious hellmouth ever to exist.

And once the monsters ran out, the Murder Hobos discovered another source of XP: each other.

Where enlightened self-interest had kept the alignment bands of Murder Hobos at peace, they now erupted along fault lines.  The monsters were gone. The Murder Hobos laid blame on the other opposingly-aligned local Murder Hobos for the loss of their XP and gold generating machine.

Good destroyed the common free market by over-killing the monsters in the name of… good!

Evil greedily destroyed the resource for their own selfish XP and gold gain!

Free Market!


Free Market!


They hunted each other in the Underdark darkness. They fought viciously over scraps and bits. They did the job the secretive, evil, not actually seen in this story Deep Elves never did: they killed off the local Murder Hobo population with judicious stabbing.

The fighting boiled out of the hellmouth and into the streets.

The Murder Hobos set the village on fire.  (Quickly put out by the local Artificers.)

The 20th level Heroes declared themselves successful and demanded the young Lord richly compensate them for their un-asked-for and unwanted heroics.

The village teetered on the edge of civil war in the streets and monstrous, ecological collapse.

Ending the Free-For-All

20th level heroes are the #1 source of economic fantasy village collapse.  The village used to make good, steady money off local red dragon tourism. Or the village made great money off catering services to the local horrible cult living in the Temple of the Super Evil God.

Now that the Heroes killed the red dragon and dumped the hoard on their tiny economy, the village lost their tourism edge and has to struggle with skyrocketing inflation.  Or, the Heroes cleared out the Temple of the Super Evil God, murdered all the cultists-slash-customers, and left a smoking ruin in their wake.

These boom towns become bust towns once the Heroes leave and the town’s unique economic services are no longer needed.  Villages plunge into poverty.  Population sinks as people move to more successful sheep towns.  The village turns into a ghost town.  Eventually, orks move into in the abandoned village’s ruins.   First level Murder Hobos adventure here for their first taste of XP. They start the slow climb to 20th level so they can destroy future villages for future first level Murder Hobos.

It’s the circle of NPC fantasy village life.

The young Lord knew his village faced extinction at the hands of 20th level Heroes.  He was dealing with a classic case of “privatize the benefits, socialize the costs.”  He could:

Get his Earl to declare that the Earl owned the vicious hellmouth and completely privatize the resource.  Hand out Murder Hoboing permits that strongly limited the monster kill rate.  Police the take as Murder Hobos exited the hellmouth.  Then, have the Earl get the King’s resources (read: army) to kick out the Heroes with force.

This solved a short-term problem but who knows what the Earl would do vis-a-vis the profits and the village. Likely nothing good. This plausibly Medieval solution would end in corruption. The young Lord imagined a black market springing up around the vicious hellmouth and thieves peddling falsified and illegal Underdark hunting permits.

Or, the young Lord could build a socialized Murder Hobo collective around the hellmouth so the Murder Hobos themselves had skin in the game. They could all hug.

If the Murder Hobos owned stake in the hellmouth, the young Lord thought, they’d stop killing each other and start working out solutions together to protect the ecology of the system. The collective would work out hellmouth access rules and sell permits to one another on an open market with prices floating based on hellmouth monster population. The Good would “protect the environment” and the Evil would get their “access to an open market system.” But, this required too much trust in the local Murder Hobo community to respect the open market’s decisions without someone taking a fireball to the face.

Some government entity and permit system must step in.  Someone must act as a gating influence.  But, he had to blend of these two solutions, the young Lord thought.  Neither heavy-handed government solutions nor pure market solutions would work. These guys are heavily armed. Some blend allowed the young Lord to stop the vicious hellmouth’s destruction and get the Murder Hobos under control.

They had a meeting at the pub.

The young Lord said, because the hellmouth was on land previously grazed by sheep, the village tacitly owned the land and the hellmouth.  But, the village government was not going to enclose the hellmouth and rigidly parcel out monster hunting rights to those with the biggest bribe. Instead, they were going to build a board made of Murder Hobos and local business owners.  The collective monitoring board would offer permits at a market rate. If the hellmouth population was high, the community could set liberal limits.  If the hellmouth depleted, the community could restrict hunting.  Permits cost what permits cost based on demand.

This allowed Murder Hobos to buy-in to the system while keeping community government standards. And when Murder Hobos over-leveled, they could sell their right to the community and hand it to the next up-and-comers.

Thus, the local Adventuring Guild was born.

But, as first step, the village had to get rid of the 20th level Heroes menace.  Heroes who could level their village to the ground with a thought.  Heroes who wielded enormous fireballs and Wish. Heroes who spoke to Gods.

Violence wouldn’t work.  Bribery wouldn’t work.  Cajoling wouldn’t work.  There  was only one solution to the 20th level Heroes problem.

The young Lord decided to sue.

Over time, once the 20th level Heroes were busy defending themselves in court and the Murder Hobos formed into their Vicious Hellmouth Collective and Adventuring Guild (can join for dues, easy access to hellmouth permits) the hellmouth slowly recovered.  It wasn’t fast. It took time for the remaining monsters to breed.  But the precious balanced ecology of the Underdark lived on.

And somewhere on the mid-Underdark behind hidden doors and ladders, the Deep Elves breathed a sigh of relief because, really, they were all out of tentacles.

  • The Deep Elves themselves would be shocked to learn they ate babies. “We’re mostly vegetarian,” they said. “Hard to keep cows in the dark.”

Writer’s Note: There are literally hundreds of solutions to the Tragedy of the Commons problem.  This particular one came from Elinor Ostrom and Oliver Williamson’s 2009 Nobel Prize with their paper on CPRs and community management.  Here’s a link for you to take a look at.

Image Credit: Art by Jaydot Sloane of Vanity Games –


  1. As always, great read

  2. Your columns are fantastic reading!

  3. More more more! Best column out there.

  4. Sean Robert Meaney says:

    I think i’m waiting for that article on slavery: that thing that happens when the Murderhobos dont have anything else of value other than the villagers.

  5. Please write more! You’re articles are all that keeps me going in this life! 😉