I used to want to be an adventurer, like you…

Since my last D&D campaign wrapped up, I’ve been thinking about where to go with fantasy campaigns in the future. The campaign always felt the most fun and entertaining to me as GM, when it was the least like D&D, and I didn’t really enjoy running it during the parts that were conventional dungeon crawling. These past weeks I’ve been spending a good amount of time with researching and working on ideas about fantasy campaigns that are not either “kill lots of monsters to get rich” or “kill lots of monsters to stop the Dark Lord”.

This hasn’t been a completely new thing for me, as I’ve been coming back to the questions of what fantasy RPGs could look like if they are not mostly fighting for the sake of fighting. But after running D&D 5th edition with a group of mostly other D&D GMs as players, and often talking with them about how certain things worked out, it’s become really noticeable for me how much “kill lots of monsters” is baked into the most fundamental assumptions of most fantasy RPGs.

One new idea I was pondering was to make a campaign that is all about exploration, revolving around characters who are explorers driven by curiosity instead of greedy treasure hunters or killers for hire. Almost everything that is written about exploration in RPGs really is about mechanics for overland travel and wilderness survival. Which to me isn’t exploration. That’s a resource management minigame. The remaining part about exploration is discovery of wondrous places, things, and phenomenons. This can be a very considerable draw and player motivation in videogames, but visual art to be experienced at your own leisure doesn’t translate to a almost entirely verbal group activity. To really play a roleplaying game, you need interactivity and you need a story. And exploration and discovery in itself is not a story. They are elements to support and embellish a story, but the story itself still needs to be about dealing with obstacles. “Exploration” is not the answer. It’s something that I definitely want to be a major part of future campaigns, but I think it does not work as a simple replacement for “treasure hunting” to achieve the shift that I want.

After making the choice to step back from exploration as the main goal and focus, I had some talk with other GMs and players about what a fantasy campaign could also be, which led me to looking at and thinking about games like Blades in the Dark, Pendragon, Ars Magica, Legend of the Five Rings, and Call of Cthulhu. Which all are very much not dungeon crawling games. And something they have in common is that the player characters generally don’t fall into the category of “adventurers”. There is fighting in these games and there are plenty of ancient abandoned places, but adventuring is not the profession of most PCs. Now I don’t have any interest in playing an anthropomorphic toad in a waistcoat that drinks tea and debates human rights with a giant talking mushroom. Or even a nobleman discussing strategy and the justice of their fight against evil neighbors in a throne room. I still want the adventure, with spooky caves and weird monsters. But perhaps stepping back from the idea of the PCs being full time professional adventurers might be a step into the right direction. Instead of facing constant violence and threat of death as a way of life, it can be an extraordinary event in the lives of the PCs? And something that is dispreferable, not just ethically but also mechanically.

Okay, now after this very long preamble, I come to my actual point: I’ve been browsing though my favorite works of fantasy/adventure fiction to look for characters who could make interesting templates for PCs in a fantasy RPG without really fitting into the adventurer category.

Princess Leia (Star Wars), politician, diplomat, and rebel leader.
Lando Calrissian (Star Wars), smuggler, gambler, and scoundrel who tried going straight becoming a resource magnate.
Bilbo Baggins (The Hobbit), ignorant, self-interested rentier.
Sallah (Raiders of the Lost Ark), wealthy man in Cairo who knows stuff.
Naomi Hunter (Metal Gear Solid), Rhodesian doctor of genetics and ambiguous morals.
Olga Gurlokovich (Metal Gear Solid), which is cheating because she’s a hardcore badass, but her involvement in the adventure is very interesting.
Dandelion (The Witcher), who embodies every single cliche about bards but is still a great guy.
Shani (The Witcher), medical student.
Cedric (The Witcher 2), trapper and trader who probably does not participate in the terrorism of his associates.
Khan (Metro), Madman? Prophet? Wizard? Ghost?
Nux (Fury Road), cannon fodder.
Tanda (Serei no Morbito), physician.
Ginko (Mushishi), Exorcist? Pharmacists? Witch doctor?

The very first thing I notice with these is that more or less all of them are supporting characters, who provide primarily moral support to heroes who are legendary masters of combat. Indiana Jones isn’t really that known for his amazing fighting skills, and Bilbo counts as protagonist on grounds of being the point of view character, but I think you see what I’m getting at. (Ginko is clearly the hero of his story, though.)

They are people you wouldn’t pick as backup when planning to go into scary holes in the ground or face savage foes in battle. (Except Olga and maybe Lando.) But they all do end up in circumstances where this becomes a necessity and handle themselves very well, often ending up participating in the resulting violence.

What could a campaign look like in which all of the player characters are people like these? Where they are not following around a master swordsman, gunslinger, or elite special agent? Really more a hypothetical concept at this point than even work in progress, but a direction I really want to follow further.

It makes me think that perhaps some kind of Apocalypse World hack would be really well suited for such a game. While there a piles and piles of those, strangely enough almost none of them are high fantasy games. The only notable exception is Dungeon World, which I think completely dropped the ball by trying to recreate the experience of D&D. What’s the point of playing D&D adventures with mechanics designed to be a full anti-D&D? Unfortunately I am not familiar with the ins and outs of AW hacks, and the one that is the most similar to my idea is an example of what specifically not to do with the system. So I don’t feel like I should be the one to make it, but it certainly would be neat to have one.

2 thoughts on “I used to want to be an adventurer, like you…”

  1. I think the real incentive to play RpGs is “strategy” in the broad sense, i.e. when confronted to a certain issue, how your character shall solve it. Don’t forget that RpGs are (really !) an offspring of wargames. (If I remember well, Major Wesely “unwillingly” invented Braunstein, a fictitious German city that the players had to take control of by any ways, ex: as a spy, and the winner of the game was… Dave Arneson). So fighting is one possibility of game actions, but it’s not the sole one.

  2. Pardon for commenting on a post two months old… anyway,
    The game genre that immediately comes to mind as fitting your criteria of ordinary (or extraordinary!) non-adventurers regularly being pulled into adventure is, for me, not a tabletop game at all, but rather what could be called “colony simulators” (Rimworld being a PC game I have been playing, but Dwarf Fortress is the classic example – helpfully, it uses a fantasy setting). The core gameplay loop is to task the colonists to collect resources and build infrastructure in order to meet the diverse needs of your colonists and become self-sustaining, all while threatened by raiders, crop failures, disease, the quirks of the colonists themselves, and eventually inhuman existential threats (subterranean demons or ravaging hordes in DF, AI-controlled mechanoid hives in Rimworld…). In an advanced colony you may end up with a small corps of professional defenders, but much more frequently it is simply necessary for every able-bodied colonist to take up arms when the worst threatens.
    These unexceptionals trying to live amid the exceptional would be your player characters (and NPCs too) if translated to tabletop.
    In such a translation, what in TRPGs is called “downtime” would be a significant part of the game: the normalcy, what the player characters seek to accomplish in the days or weeks or months between the demands of adventure. It could be made quick and fun with a robust (but not sprawling) set of mechanics, but that would require some thoughtful design work. Plying trades, community leadership and arbitration, clearing land, building homes, etc. would be good starting points, but the trade-offs between depth and simplicity would be a challenge to balance.
    As in the PC games I mentioned, defense is one of the few game activities that would qualify as adventure. Beyond that, speaking specifically from my experience in Rimworld, there is a caravan mechanic (really, it should be called an “expedition”) to accomplish such diverse goals as trading with neighbors, recovering ancient technology, and most importantly accomplishing optional quests like rescuing stranded travelers, delivering material aid to allies, and clearing nearby hostile bases, which are all good options for voluntary, or even player-driven, adventure (as opposed to just fighting for survival when necessary).
    I’m sure that in the process of modelling a community trying to thrive in difficult circumstances there is the danger of replicating real-world colonialism in gameplay, but also perhaps the opportunity to explore alternatives to colonialism through play; whether those possibilities have ethical import is beyond me to determine, so I will leave it at that.
    At the end of it all, the primary challenge with such an approach is player investment. To engage and enjoy, they have to care. Needs, means, and accomplishments would have to be presented in human terms, and not just numbers, stats, and other such abstractions. Who do you meet? Who is in need? Who are you helping? Who is helping you? Who must bear the consequences of your actions? Presenting answers to those questions, and guiding players to think in those terms, seems the most difficult task – though I suppose that applies to any game with a goal beyond utilizing the rules to “win,” and so should not be thought of as a unique challenge here.
    Apologies again for the tardy comment – I am quite behind my RSS feed, and so hope I am not presenting thoughts on a problem you have already solved in subsequent posts! I suppose I will get there eventually if that is the case, haha.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *