Adventurers, Heroes, and the Endgame for high level PCs

“Excuse me, but why are we doing all of this again?”

One thing that has troubled me with fantasy adventure games for a very long time is the nebulous concept of adventurers, and how they could actually stand up to scrutiny in a fantasy setting that aims to be internally plausible and self-consistent. Something I’ve been writing about many times over the years. There have been precedents of fantasy protagonists who just wander around and happen to run into adventures long before the inception of D&D player characters. But books are a different medium than RPGs and concepts don’t generally copy over neatly between the two, especially when narrative structures are concerned.

The original RPG adventurers where people who risked live and limb to gain huge piles of treasure, because the campaigns where relatively simple and straightforward games of facing monsters and collecting treasures. The game was about the gameplay, not about creating a story that exists in a wider world outside of the current dungeon the PCs are in today. Of course, it expanded to be just that, and very quickly, but there was never a real serious overhaul of what kind of people adventurers actually are how they fit into the societies of their world. We go to fight monsters and loot dungeons because there are monsters and dungeons over there. And monsters exist to the fought, and dungeons to be raided. For the sake of gameplay, this isn’t generally questioned any further. Just do it and have fun.

But the idea of playing campaigns that are more about stories than gameplay has always had a huge appeal, and there are two main justifications, and I wouldn’t shy away from calling them excuses, for why adventurers go on these adventures they go on. The first is the plain old treasure hunter, tomb robber, or murderhobo. These characters just don’t bother with any logical explanation. Fighting is fun, getting stupidly rich is fun. But the risk that adventurers typically face in RPGs is ridiculously high, and adventuring just seems like a fast track to a horrible death. These characters make only questionable sense to begin with, but just don’t hold up at all for the wide variety of personalities players like to give their PCs. At the very end of this path lies the insanity of Shonen anime where 12 year kids end up with a happy childhood of friendship and the daily slaughter of dozens. The other common alternative are the knights in shining armor or superheroes. They do all the same things as the murderhobos, but they don’t do it for the riches. They do it out of compassion for the innocents. They are heroes; that’s what heroes do. It works as a justification for gameplay, but it also doesn’t work for stories with even a little bit of depth that aim for some amount of plausible believability.

What is needed to make the existence of adventurers plausible, is to create a concept of what adventurers actually are alongside with creating a setting in which they serve a believable function and role in society. The typical D&D solution, or you might call it the Forgotten Realms solution, is to treat adventurers as private security contractors and exterminators that deal with various trouble when the official authorities can’t be bothered right now. It’s considered a valid career choice, but don’t question how it’s so easy to get established in the business as complete newcomers when the typical contracts are stuff that the army can’t handle. It also stretches plausibility how in a world with absent official authority, roaming vagabonds get invited into communities to protect them. Yes, it worked in The Seven Samurai, but much of the three hour movie is about how unusual this is and the struggles of everyone involved to make it work. Great for a stand-alone story, but not something you want to deal with in every new village the party comes through. But there are other games where the role of PCs is tailored to a specific campaign concept and setting, like in Blades in the Dark or Band of Blades for example.

Now to finally get to some kind of point, I think I finally found some kind of concept for what kind of people player characters are and their place in society that integrates well into the kind of world that I want to create with Kaendor.

The primary vision behind Kaendor is a world dominated by wilderness and primordial powers, with small and isolated civilizations being scattered far and wide, in an environment that is constantly changing that swallows up city states just as fast as it creates them. It’s a world in a kind of perpetual apocalypse; a frontier without a heartland. One constant in this world is that there are always people looking for a new home to settle as the cities of their ancestors are swallowed by the forests and fall into the seas. As for any valley or island that becomes uninhabitable, another place opens up for farming somewhere else. But every time people leave their failing city states to begin a new life somewhere else, they are making a huge gamble. If the settlement of a new aspiring lord fails, there are often no second chances to try somewhere else. That’s where Heroes come in.

Heroes in the classical sense are not just people who did something brave, but special individuals who possess an inherent greatness. Always highly extraordinary individuals and even superhuman, and often actual demigods. Our own culture rejects such notions that some people are inherently elevated over others and destined for greatness, but in a fantastical setting drawing on elements from Antiquity and the Bronze Age, it’s a very important aspect of how those societies tick. In a fantasy adventure game, player characters are inherently special because the game is fundamentally leaning in their favor and their victory over almost all opposition they encounter pretty much a given. Working this gameplay element into the culture of the setting seems like a really fun idea. Dark Souls is a prime example of this, and it works out beautifully there, allowing you to get invested and believe in a world that exceptionally absurd as fantasy worlds go. In fantasy, you can get away with almost anything, as long as the the world as a hole makes sense in its own internal logic.

As I was saying, the special socio-environmental conditions of Kaendor create a constant demand for special people capable of extraordinary greatness to perpetuate the cycle of migrating populations and rising and falling city states. That is the social niche I see for the institution of adventurers. Adventuring is an occupation that serves to create individuals capable of being the leaders of the following generations by giving them experience about the many natural and supernatural dangers of the wilderness and testing their resilience and capacity to lead. It is to these heroes who have proven themselves and earned a reputation that has carried their names far and wide that people will look up to when they are forced from the crumbling cities that have been their homes for generations.

Not every player character has to have this lofty goal of one day raising a stronghold that will grow into a great and wondrous city. But even if only a tenth of them are pursuing this dream, it creates a society that values the kind of people who venture into the wild to face the monsters that threaten civilization, scout out potential areas for new strongholds, and recover abandoned resources and lost magic from fallen cities of the past. And it often takes more than just a single Hero to establish and defend a new strongholds. Hero kings depend on an entourage of other exceptional people to serve as their champions, providing other opportunities for those who fought besides them.

Now this is all sounding an awful lot like the classic D&D endgame of establishing a stronghold and running a domain. Which has been covered to some extend throughout various editions, but by all accounts only very rarely became part of actual play. Instead, it was much more common that ascending the throne meant effectively retiring the character from play. And in campaigns where players could have several characters of different levels (because sometimes you want to do stuff that requires a PC to be locked up in a lab for months), having one character retire while the others continue their adventures wouldn’t really be that strange. And I think making this an explicit assumption for a campaign concept might actually be a really nice idea. Domain management is a weird thing that just doesn’t really fit with the rest of fantasy adventure games. These games are group games, while running a domain is a solitary occupation, and the stuff you’d be doing would be completely different from the stuff you’d be doing up to that point. And if you really wanted to play a game like this, it should be about this stuff from the start, not at the end after you spend months doing something completely different.

Instead, introducing a campaign as being about adventurers who struggle to earn themselves a place among the hero-kings of the setting, with the possible establishing of a stronghold and settlement constituting and ultimate conclusion seems like a very interesting and compelling way to approach a game. And like the cool chap in the picture above, the actual ruling and administrating of the domain would constitute the epilogue. Yes, in three of the original stories Conan is a king. But he doesn’t do any ruling in any of them, and leads an army into battle only once. At the end of the campaign, you could have a final adventure of having to defend the new throne of one of the PCs against a rival as the final test, but after that, the campaign would be concluded.

Now one oddity about old D&D is that that the establishing of a domain was generally limited  to characters of at last 9th level. Which seems rather arbitrary, as anyone who clears out a castle and has the money to hire guard could do so regardless of character level. But if you assume it’s meant to be the conclusion of a character’s career, then the whole thing makes a lot more sense. I decided a long time ago that in Kaendor, all mortals are limited to 10th level, so that magic spells cap out at 5th level and everything beyond that being the powers of the gods. The thing with maximum levels in games where much of the motivation comes from advancing to a higher level is what do you do when you actually reach the last level? By the point you reach it, there’s nothing really left to do with it. I quite like the idea that at the point characters reach 10th level, their goal changes from advancing in power claiming their domain. To have a whole final adventure in which the 10th level characters fight for their stronghold and no longer gain XP.

My thoughts on this might be changing in the future, as they always do. But as of now, this is so far the concept for the role and identity of adventurers that I liked the most.

You used to be an Adventurer like me?

This post somewhat continues on my thoughts from two months ago.

When Dungeons & Dragons appeared and became the last common ancestor of basically all RPGs today (I know, it didn’t appear ex nihilo in a complete vaccum), it wasn’t even called a Roleplaying Game. It was labeled on the box as a “Rules for Fantastic Medieval Wargames” and later “Fantasy Adventure Game”. The PCs went to the dungeon because it was there. They looted all the treasures in the dungeon because the treasure exists to be looted. The adventurer’s life of dungeon crawling started as a game mechanic. Some kind of plausible fictional reasoning for why people would engage in an activity with such an outrageous fatality rate for the sake of collecting piles of gold they didn’t actually have any use for was tacked on later. It also followed the footsteps of Greek heros and Arthurian knight. The adventurer makes sense within the world of the dungeon, but its existence becomes much more far fetched and implausible when it is migrated into a semi-ordinary world of towns and farms, inhabited by lords and peasants who are going by their everyday lives.

Seas of ink have been spilled on how the world of the Forgotten Realms makes no sense, in which low-level adventurers have to risk their lives to save villages from deadly monsters if the local tavern owner or herbalist could wipe them all out in a matter of minutes with their legendary magic swords and awesome arcane powers. And when Fantasyland with its D&D conventions reached Japan and found its way into shonen anime aimed at 10 to 16 year old boys, we eventually ended up with stories that specifically acknowledge that the internal logic of the world runs on game mechanics. That American D&D cartoon, that I’ve never seen, probably played a big part as well. (Portal Fantasy is cancer!)

What we ended up with are fantasy world where adventurer is a common profession, with many larger settlements having a local branch of the adventurer’s guild where people come to list contracts for adventuring work like killing the rats in their basement. These worlds make no sense. And no, I’m not talking just about some juvenile anime or bad fan fiction. It’s all the way up in the most prestigious, big budget, and mass audience works of contemporary fantasy.

No, you are absolutely nothing like me.

I feel that to have a world in which people go into ancient ruins to face terrifying beasts and deadly traps, adventuring does not make sense as a career choice for regular people. To be in any way plausible, a setting for adventures of dungeon crawling, monster killing, and treasure looting needs two main elements (and a third lesser one):

First, ordinary people must not be able to fight back against “Real Monsters”. And this also includes professional soldiers. A king can not just send 30 of his best trained and armed men to deal with monsters threatening the realm. If that were the case, there would be no need for adventurers other than cutting costs by outsourcing the work to contractors. That hardly sounds heroic. When I am talking about real monsters, I mean stuff like a basilisk or a manticore. To my knowledge there are no famous tales of Sir Lancelot and the Wolves, or how young Perseus fought eight goblins. Those stories would not be worth telling either. Sure, a fantasy world can have fictional critters. I’ve made plenty of them myself. But those are mostly background flavor, not the stuff of heroic tales.

The second thing is that PCs can’t just be adventurers who thought fighting monsters would be an interesting career choice. This goes completely against the first point that I just established. PCs need to be Heroes, with a capital H. Extraordinary people who have been gifted with exceptional powers and abilities. The heroes of ancient myths are very often descendants of gods. And even in Athurian tales, you could argue that noble knights are a unique kind of people, different by birth from the ordinary folk and granted special status by god. This is something I’ve never seen mentioned in D&D outside of Birthright. Which I guess might very well be an American thing. But then, Superheroes are also one of the most American things ever, and they all have unique superhuman powers from birth, or incredible funds from a highly privileged upbringing. Now I am a very outspoken critic of Tolkien and seeing The Lord of Rings as a big apologetic manifesto for the racial superiority of the English aristocracy, so I can fully understand if people don’t like the idea of PCs being destined to be Heroes instead of earning their merit through hard work and dedication. But a special trait that makes rare individuals capable of becoming Heroes in ways that are completely out of reach of most people does not have to be tied to specific ancestral bloodlines. You can also have something like Star Wars, where being strong in the Force is a rare inborn trait that apparently can appear in everyone completely at random. But I think it’s important that player characters are not random people, and not everyone can become a Hero. If that were the case, nothing would stop the king’s 30 best trained men from becoming 8th level fighters and deal with all the monster problems in the realm themselves.

I believe that for a good background setting designed for campaigns that center around dungeon crawling and monster slaying, having a distinction between Heroes and normal people is important. And it can even be valuable to have that distinction be consciously understood by the people who inhabit the world, and make it part of their culture. I feel that the whole life of adventurers makes so much more sense and feels so much more believable in such a cultural context. It provides a reason for why the PCs gain access to the highest ranks of society that are usually barred to common folk, and why people put all their hopes into them. It’s a relatively easy way to make the setting shape itself to the game, rather than awkwardly trying to make the game fit a setting.

Earlier I mentioned a third worldbuilding element that helps making a world of treasure filled ruins much more plausible, which is one possible most people here would already have heard about long ago. It is the idea that the implied environments of early D&D were all post-apocalyptic settings. And it certainly helps. Why are there so many dungeons everywhere, often within a relatively short walk from the nearest settlements? Why are they loaded with huge hoards of treasures and magical items? And most importantly, if they are that easy to access, why haven’t they been plundered centuries ago? It all makes a lot of sense when you assume that there was a civilization much wealthier and with much more magic than there is today. And it also used to be that way until relatively recently.

There are so many magic items in abandoned ruins and old tombs because at the time, these were not nearly as rare as they are now. The minor king who was buried with his legendary sword and ring of incredible power did not take the greatest treasure of the realm into his grave. Those were only baubles with sentimental value to him, but sacrifices his successors could afford to make to honor his memory. And why do adventurers keep breaking into these tombs to loot all these magic treasures today? Because these tombs and forgotten stashes are the only places where you can find such items now. It’s less treasure hunting than salvaging. Not to say that all the magic items used to be minor junk in the days of Atlantis, but their presence in tombs and old castles makes a lot more sense if you assume that these items were not nearly as valuable as they are today. One reason for it being people being able to make more of them. The creation of new magic items being nearly impossible is a big factor in making the looting of old ruins worthwhile and the pillaging of grave goods more justified. If your average town alchemist or blacksmith can make minor magic items, this aspect starts coming apart at the seams. Wizards being required to be 9th level to start creating magic items might seem excessively high and seem a bit implausible. But when the goal is to make the creation of new magic items exceptionally rare and difficult, it does make a lot of sense.

It all also becomes more plausible the more recent you place the fall of the previous civilization, or at least the rise of the new one. Even low-level PCs can still find great treasure in relatively easily accessible dungeons because they are among the first people who have come to raid them since treasure hunting became the primary way to gain access to such riches and items. The people in the village may know about the old ruin up on the hill, but since the founding of the village the PCs are some of the first people who have shown up and might have a shot of surviving crossing the first threshold.

So yeah, my points. Insert witty conclusion here.

Mythic Fantasy and the Days of High Adventure

Among the many different branches of fantasy, one of the more obscure ones that is rarely seen in the wild is Mythic Fantasy. I believe it’s actually more a hypothetical idea than an actual concept anyone is working with in practice. I’ve seen it come up a few times in Fantasy-RPG books for gamemasters, as one of several suggested options for what different forms of styles a fantasy campaign could possibly take. The general idea seems to be fantasy that takes its main inspirations from Iron Age myths of the Greeks, Celts, and Germanic peoples, which tell tales of gods and superhuman heroes. And that’s usually about the full extend of detail for how this kind of fantasy would work. The only concrete suggestions I’ve seen is generally “I don’t know, I guess you use some medusas and minotaurs, or something”. But I say no, that’s not how you make a mythic fantasy campaign. That’s just reenacting Greek myths as an RPG. When we are talking about how we can give a fantasy RPGs like D&D different tones and flavors to make it more similar to other styles of fantastic stories, the goal is to put the default material into a new context. Stories of ancient myth are one thing, but I think when we use the term Mythic Fantasy, we should apply it to something else. Mythic is the adjective that describes that thing. Fantasy is the noun that is the thing.

I’ve been thinking about this these past few days, and I’ve come to a couple of conclusions to how you can create original fantasy material, in a newly envisioned world, and present it in a way that evokes a similar overall feel without just directly copying existing material.

The Monster

This is a big one, and I believe, the most critical of all the points I am going to make here. Modern fantasy in general, and fantasy RPGs in particular, seem to have lost touch with The Monster and forgotten it’s central role it plays in many of the oldest tales that survive to this day. Not all stories need monsters, just as not all fantasy needs to evoke the style of ancient myths. But we just don’t see The Monster anymore. RPGs in particular are full of “monsters”, but these tend to be swarms of critters that appear as the heroes come around the corner, and after a short action scene, are immediately forgotten one’s the turn around the next. Monsters are there to be fought, because fantasy is supposed to have monsters that are fought, but they generally don’t really have any impact on the greater story.  The story plays out between human(oid) characters. And I believe this even mostly holds true in D&D, with its big tomes of high level monsters. Yes, you might occasionally have fought a beholder or aboleth. But how often was that creature the main villain of the adventure that the entire story revolved around? What interactions did the PCs have with that big monster before they opened a door and found themselves immediately attacked? These monsters may make big and memorable fights, but from what I’ve seen over the past decades now, they are almost always just window dressing for a story that would work just as well without any monsters in it at all.

This is very much not the case with the monsters of ancient myths. There may be both perception bias by me and survivor bias by the ravages of time, but most if not all of these tales are about one monster. Medusa, the Bull of Minos, the cyclops Polyphemus, Cerberus, Fenris, Grendel, Humbaba, Ravana. They all have a name. They all are known to the people living near them and greatly feared. They have a history. They are not just some random creatures that live by themselves deep in the wilderness, minding their own business. The heroes who fight these monsters are not simply showing of their strength and power, they are performing a great service for the community. Yet somehow, we don’t really see that in modern fantasy. I think having these unique great monsters, that are an active thread to society and that ordinary people can not deal with are a central element of what makes a story feel mythic and really need to be included when trying to make a world that feels like Mythic Fantasy.

The Courts of the High Kings

Mythic tales as a whole seem to have a much bigger focus on specifics than the general, compared to what is overwhelmingly seen in games. Take any setting book for a fantasy RPG and look at the description of cities. If there is any useful information at all, it tends to be general stuff about the overall feel and appearance of the city, for when a group of mercenary adventurers is coming through on their way to new adventures. Cities often are central to mythic stories as well, but usually they are not described at all. When mythic heroes come to a city, they really are coming to a king’s court. That’s really the only part of the city that matters. Perseus comes to Knossos, to meet with King Minos. The city of Knossos is irrelevant to the story. All that is important is the palace of king Minos. Beowulf travels to Heorot, the court of King Hrothgar. We would assume that the king’s hall is inside a small city or town, but it is of no importance of the story. The name of the king’s court is not.

As a broad generalization, mythic tales like to give specific names to all the important characters and places. Myths will often take care to mention the homes and lineages of even secondary characters. It is possible, and perhaps even likely, that the original audiences of these stories would have been able to glean a great amount of context from these pieces of information. The home and lineage of different characters could inform deeper meanings in the things these characters say or the things they do, that are now lost to us. But even so, I still think that we would recognize such thing as being characteristic of ancient myths. And this is something that shouldn’t be too difficult to emulate in a game. When introducing new characters that are to some degree relevant to the story, don’t just tell the players their names and outer appearance, but also have them be introduced as “the son of X, brother to the king of Y”. It does not have to actually mean anything, but it still creates an impression that these things would be greatly meaningful to the people within the world of the story. Present NPCs as important leaders and emissaries, and have other NPCs treat them and speak of them as people who have influence and power, or at very powerful and influential friends. The world of myths is in many ways a very small one, in which everyone knows everyone and everything is connected.

The heroes should be Heroes

In common usage, the term hero is often used to simply mean protagonist. Or simply any person who did something risky out of kindness. But that’s not the original meaning of the term. A mythical hero is a person who stands above all others and exist in a different category than everyone else. And furthermore, they perform great deeds that bring a significant and permanent benefit to society as a whole. Unsurprisingly, many ancient heroes are said to be demigods who are descended from divine beings. A hero almost has to be superhuman by definition. Heroes are the people who go down in history, and they don’t even have to be good guys.

If you want to have a game that feels like stories of myth, the protagonists have to be heroes. And in any kind of roleplaying game, the players have to play the protagonists. There are many awful examples of published adventures where this is not the case and the PCs are merely spectators watching the real heroes do cool stuff and save the day, which has been emulated by countless numbers of GMs. But that’s objectively bad gamemastering and adventure design. The medium of roleplaying games demands that the players play the protagonists of the story. The game is the story of the PCs. In mythic stories the protagonists have to be heroes, and in roleplaying games the PCs have to be the protagonists. This means that in a Mythic Fantasy campaign, the PCs have to be heroes. And what makes or makes not a hero are not their deeds, but the perception of their deeds. A hero is who the people regard as a hero.

One major aspect of realizing this in a game is in the way that NPCs talk to the PCs and behave towards them. Heroic PCs should be treated as being exceptional people who stand tall above the common men of women. Heroes mingle among the highest ranking people of society, and they will gain the personal attention of kings and queens when they arrive in a new city, who will treat them with the same honor and respect as foreign dignitaries. Even when the PCs are from simple backgrounds with no titles and few possessions to their name, their deeds elevate them to being part of the elite.

To make this really work and feel believable in an actual campaign, PCs need to exceed the prowess and skills of ordinary warriors pretty early in the campaign. Having PCs start at a higher level or with larger numbers of character points is one option. But I am personally much more in favor of instead having ordinary NPCs all be of the most basic type. The default soldier and brigand are usually good enough for all common soldiers and brigands throughout the entire campaign. When the PCs reach 5th level, there is no need to have them encounter ultra-elite soldiers and brigands. If they can just steamroll over any ordinary warriors they encounter then let them. They are heroes. They are supposed to be superhuman. Equally important is that this makes it more believable that the ordinary soldiers are not capable of dealing with the monsters that threaten their cities and people. In some fantasy setting, many adventure ideas are frequently shot down with the simple reason of “why doesn’t any of the powerful NPCs or the giant armies take care of the problem?”. The answer to that is simple. There are no powerful NPCs. There are no armies that could be wasted to die at the feet of an ancient horror.

Swords of Legend

As with monsters and NPCs, another way to make a game feel more mythic is to apply the same principle of specificity to magic items. In mythic tales, there are no +1 swords or mass produced amulets that are found in some random hole in the ground. Every magic item is unique. Often they have a name, and almost always they have a history. They don’t just lie around to be found by the first person who stumbles upon them. They are either pried from the dead hands of slain main antagonists who used them for their evil purposes, or given as gifts from influential people as rewards for outstanding deeds performed by the heroes. Or alternatively, the heroes go to on a quest to retrieve the items from their ancient resting place, overcoming many hardships and foes along the way.

But even with this in mind, that doesn’t mean that you can’t have any magic items that are discovered unexpectedly in forgotten ruins. A great example of this is early on the movie Conan the Barbarian. Conan has been released from slavery by his master and is being chased by wolves, and trying to climb to safety on top of some rocks, falls into the well hidden entrance of an ancient tomb where he discovers his new sword. Since the movie has barely any dialog, neither the scene nor the sword gets any mention later in the film. But as the story have it, it was supposed to be a highly special and remarkable sword, a relic from the great and powerful realm of Atlantis that has long faded into myth. And in that scene where Conan discovers it in the tomb, this really comes across. He does not just find a sword lying around. He discovers an opulent tomb, with an ancient warrior king in his armor, sitting on a great stone throne, covered in dust and spiderwebs, the sword in his skeletal hand.

We do not know the name of the sword, or the name of the king. And we do not know any of their stories. But the way in which the sword is found makes it clear that this is not just some random sword from the shelf, that you can sell to a village blacksmith in bundles of ten. This is a unique artifact with a great history, even though the tales have been forgotten. And it still might just be a sword +1.

Illustrations by Justin Sweet, showing scenes from various Kull stories by Robert Howard.

But why, tho…?

As I have whinged about here many times over the years, the biggest difficulties for me about the preparation for new campaigns has always been finding some kind of decent motivation for why the PCs should care about the main threat or antagonist of the campaign, in a way that gets the players invested beyond the basic “Well, that’s what the GM wants us to do”. I’m not a fan of this type of typical campaign and find it much more interesting and rewarding when the players take the oar and pick the direction they want to sail in next. Most often the excuses that pass as motivations are “we’re the heroes and that’s what heroes do” or “someone’s paying us to do it”. Both of these work, of course, for a basic game, but I always aspire to have my campaigns to be something more than that.

But you can absolutely overthink these things, too! After some not very impressive attempts at setting up campaigns in which the characters are motivated by a desire to rediscover the lost history and arcane secrets of the land, I decided to go back to the basics and embrace classic Sword & Sorcery instead of trying to do something clever and original about it. In the end, actually playing is the whole purpose of the entire exercise. Exploring new ways of what a hero can be in fantasy today and going is better left to other forms of creative outlets. What a game needs to be first and foremost is playable.

While conventional wisdom (that is, ultra-orthodox purists) tells us that Sword & Sorcery is never about assaulting the Dark Lord in his castle from where he is trying to conquer the world, an awful lot of classic Sword & Sorcery stories actually do conclude with the heroes assaulting a powerful evil sorcerer in his castle and putting an end to his plans to conquer the world (or at least the kingdom). It’s just that the hero doesn’t do it for the purpose of saving the kingdom or its people. (Unless it’s Conan, who literally does that in The Hour of the Dragon.)

I really quite like the idea of having a Sword & Sorcery campaign with the goal to defeat an evil sorcerer and had a very interesting conversation about how I could come up with decent motivations for the PCs. And the best suggestion I got was basically “let the players decide”.

At first the whole thing felt a bit backwards, because it goes completely against the common storytelling conventions of RPGs, where you begin with the player as ordinary schmucks doing regular adventure stuff, and hopefully by the end of the first adventure the true nature and goal of the campaign will be revealed. But you really don’t have to. Nothing is stopping anyone from starting a new fame with the pitch “We’re going to play a campaign in which you play characters who have all sworn to find and kill Wangrod the Vile.” That actually sounds a lot more exciting than the usual “we’re going to play a game in which you play adventurers and the story will be revealed later”. Nobody will be disappointed that you spoiled something that would be revealed within the first 5% of the story. That’s what people in the business call “the premise”.

Doing so allows you as a GM to prepare a lot of material in advance, but also leave it up to the players to decide who their characters will be and what their motivations are. You set up the goal, but the players create the motivation. Motivations that they care about and that feel interesting to them. You could of course prepare what the motivations of the PCs will be and tell the players to create characters around that. But if a player isn’t really feeling the excitement for that motivation, that doesn’t work out that well. As it concerns the story and events of the campaign, the motivations of the PCs don’t really matter. As long as the players keep working on the goal to confront and kill Wangrod, things will play out the same way.

Conan the Barbarian might actually be a really good reference for how such a campaign could be structured. When Conan is freed and sets out to find Thulsa Doom, he has no idea where he is or even who he’s looking for. The only clue he has is the standard carried by the warriors who raided his village. First he tries to make a deal with a witch who seems to know something about the symbol, but that ends up getting him nowhere. Then he raids the snake temple looking for more clues, and finds the emblem which tells him he’s on the right track. After the raid, he’s taken to the king who reveals that he’s also an enemy of the sorcerer and finally gives Conan a name. Because he wants his daughter back from the snake cult, he provides Conan with the information where to find the sorcerer and things play out from there. I think that could be a really cool structure to be used for a campaign. The players make their character tailored to be seeking an evil sorcerer and defeating him for whatever reason. Information about who exactly the sorcerer is, where they can find him, and how they can defeat him can be very good motivations to go on all kinds of otherwise unconnected adventures. And information of this kind can be put into the possession of basically every NPC, which makes this structure very flexible. If one adventure doesn’t work out and they don’t get the information there were promised, they can always get it somewhere else. If they leave one adventure for later, you can always just switch around what specific information the respective NPCs have to share to keep the flow of the ongoing investigation. You’re also not strictly married to any specific length for the campaign. When things seem to drag on, you can always have the NPCs give out bigger chunks of information, and should everyone want to make the campaign longer, you can throttle down the rate of progress that is made with each adventure. And even with the sorcerer dead, it doesn’t have to be the end of the campaign. Along the way the players might well have made many friends and new enemies that can be worth coming back to once the original goal has been completed.

The Other Guys

Some other great characters who don’t really fit the general adventurer type but still end up in them.

Doctor McCoy (Star Trek), snarky starship doctor.
Vir Cotto (Babylon 5), good-hearted aide to a horrible diplomat.
Samwell Tarly (Game of Thrones), scholar conscripted into an undead-fighting army.
Tali’Zorah (Mass Effect), starts as an apprentice engineer.
Zayne Carrick (Knights of the Old Republic), failed Jedi apprentice.
Anna Volovodov (The Expanse), nurse, charity worker, and Methodist minister.

(What is it with all these doctors?)

I also remembered last night that I’ve been at this place before. Four years ago I already wrote a couple of posts about turning high fantasy adventures into the opposite direction of murderhoboing. In A Case for Hope and Heroism I was still thinking about making slight adjustments for how adventurers could be part of their world, but it came out of the same general idea.

Back then, I lined out nine points for how high fantasy campaigns could possibly be less confrontational and focused on violence:

  • The heroes seek to restore peace and order over destroying evil.
  • The heroes get involved when witnessing injustice.
  • The heroes aim to be examples to others.
  • The conflicts have sources that won’t go away by killing the enemy leader.
  • Mercy and offerings of peace will pay out in the long run.
  • Violence can help to get out of a tight spot but will always mean more trouble down the line.
  • The antagonists have various reasons to fight and at least some of them can be persuaded to change to other methods.
  • Heroes will sometimes fail, but having tried is what matters.
  • The heroes give and risk more than can be reasonably expected of them.

I think all these points still apply when you have a party of player characters who don’t qualify as traditional adventurers. Certainly a line of inquiry to follow.

The more I think of it, the more I feel like a campaign like this should be run with a system based on the core principles and mechanics of Apocalypse World. (Or something else, but I’m somewhat familiar with AW.) The main thing on my mind to start with is the choice of basic character attributes. Having stats like Strength, Dexterity, and Constitution wouldn’t really reflect the defining traits of such PCs.

What I think most probably should be an attribute is Courage. That’s what it would be all about in the end. Though I am not fully certain what this would mean for characters with a low Courage score. I also think that something like Sanity in horror games is a bad idea, because fear and panic is something that the players feel for their characters. Not something that the GM tells them their characters are feeling. Courage might run into similar issues, depending on what such an attribute would be used for.

Persuasive is also a no brainer. And I think Athletic would also be a good one, for when you have to rely on your strength, endurance, and agility to do what is needed.

But, being a game of high fantasy, I feel that a combat system still is a must. Not necessarily something that you’d want to use, but something that the situations will sometimes require.

This is all a very long way from being anything like an actual game, but I’m feeling quite motivated to see where this could be taken to.

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.

Exorcists For Hire

Three months back I wrote about giving quest givers some kind of existing relationship to the PCs to make adventures more personal and to create a stronger sense of the party having their own place in the world, and also make it feel more plausible and natural that of all the people they get picked to deal with the situation. Hiring some random dangerous vagabonds to deal with very sensitive matters always feels forced to me, and even more so that said vagabonds can make a career out of these jobs.

What I didn’t really adress back then however, was what exactly the PCs do as their day jobs. How did they become qualified to deal with roaming monsters, hauntings by spirits, and demonic artifacts? Since the Kaendor setting is designed from the ground up to provide opportunity for encounters with spirits and supernatural forces, and I deliberately avoided adding military conflicts or endemic banditry, I feel that the setting is really lending itself to to parties that are well equipped to deal with spirits, demons, and curses. While a campaign about adventurers who make their bread and butter with exterminating bandits and goblins, with the occasional evil wizard or giant thrown in, does feel implausible to me beyond the point that I am happy to ignore, a group of specialists who are called upon when their services are needed, does feel more believable. It’s not even much of a stretch that they might go on extended “patrols” beyond their home turf now and then, to see if more remote settlements might be in need of their services.

Armed travellers looking for opportunities to make money through violence shouldn’t really look that different from the bandits and raiders they are regularly fighting to most villagers. But groups of clerics and druids with their retinues of guardians present a completely different picture from demons or other supernatural horrors. It feels much more justified that people would welcome them with relief and approach them to plead for their help.

It does actually change very little when it comes to how adventures are prepared and played out. Just avoid having regular bandits, monstrous raiders, or normal wild animals as threats. The rest would be very much the same. But it’s the context that changes.

So why don’t you use the regular guards? What do you need us for?

I’ve been playing RPGs for almost 20 years now, most of it as a gamemaster. And the one thing that has always bothered me the most, with every single campaign, was to find a way to get the first couple of adventures going in a way that doesn’t feel terribly implausible and forced. When a new campaign starts and the characters are more or less blank canvases, your only practical options are having a dungeon sitting right outside town and the players checking it out because they know that’s what they are supposed to, or to have a random stranger approach them and offer payment for getting a thing or rescuing someone. It just really doesn’t feel believable that people would trust this to unknown vagabonds instead of joining forces with others from the community. It is more reasonable at higher levels, but 1st level PCs are not much more capable than a posse with spears and bows led by a halfway capable leader.

I think to some degree, this is a personal problem. It’s something nobody else ever seems to worry about and players are completely happy to run with when they are dropped into a new campaign. But it always bothers me a lot and I feel it’s the primary reason why it always takes me so long to get a new campaign started.

But after all this time, I finally got the solution. And it’s really stupidly simple.

The characters may be more or less blank slates at the start of the campaign and completely new to the area they know nothing about yet, but that doesn’t mean they had no existence before the start of the campaign. Even if the players don’t know about them, the characters will have friends, relatives, and acquaintences outside their nondescriptive native villages.

It makes little sense to try to get help with very sensitive things from random strangers of dubious appearance. But things change completely when they come with personal recommendation. The letter from a distant relative might be a bit cliched, and I wouldn’t use it myself. But you can very well have the party arrive in a random, looking for a place to rest while making new plans, and randomly meeting people from their previous life. And these might just be the people who right now happen to need some tough and smart guys to help with a serious problem. To them, seeing their old pals showing up out of the blue at just this moment, would be a blessing from the gods.

I don’t know why I never thought of this before. It’s terribly simple, but compared to most generic low-level adventure hooks it’s amazingly elegant. The best thing about this is that it should work with every adventure ever written. You can always insert a minor NPCs whose only role is to introduce the quest starter to the players.

I really wish I had thought of this 15 years ago.

Wilderness Adventures for characters of level 4+?

Common wisdom appears to have it that parties in B/X transition from pure dungeon adventures at 1st to 3rd level to the wider world of wilderness adventures after reaching 4th level. The Expert Set adds rules for characters of 4th to 14th level and rules for wilderness adventures. And of course B1 In Search of the Unknown and B2 The Keep on the Borderlands are the most classic dungeon adventures and X1 The Isle of Dread was the first D&D hexcrawl. So obviously it must be true. Basic characters stay in the dungeon, Expert characters expand outdoors.

But I’ve come to wonder whether this really is the intention behind the way rules are split between the Basic and Expert Set. My suspicion is actually that the choice to split the rules into multiple sets was done with the intent to introduce both players and GMs to the rules gradually and not overwhelm them with everything at once. Which I think might have been a pretty good choice. The original Basic Set was a total of 60 pages. The Rules Cyclopedia comes to 300. That’s a lot of stuff to digest in one go before you feel confident that you know what you need to start playing. If you want to teach the basics of the game, you do need the dungeon, but outdoor adventures are indeed something that can, and perhaps should, wait for a bit later. Once everyone who is completely new to the game has got the hang out of the basics. By putting level 4 to 14 into the next set, the amount of spells that players (and GMs) are exposed to is much easier to overlook and you also get a collection of monsters that for the most part wouldn’t be absurd to face for a new beginning party. (Looking at you here, Dragon.)

I suspect that the separation of content was done as a teaching aid, primarily for GMs. It’s not so much that adventures change at higher levels, but that GMs can expand once they have become familiar with the basics. When you look at the Expert Set it says that “now” new paths of adventure are open, but does not do so in the context of character level. It is “now” that the GM has access to these expanded rules of the game. The Rules Cyclopedia does not touch upon this whole subject at all, from what I was able to tell.

Another strong piece of evidence, as I see it, are the modules B10 Night’s Dark Terror and X1 The Isle of Dread. Terror is a Basic module for characters of 2nd to 4th level while Isle is an Expert module for characters of 3rd to 7th level. Both begin at Basic levels and continue up into Expert levels and they are both wilderness adventures. The creators of these modules clearly did not write under the assumption that “you have to be this high” to go on adventures in the wilderness.

Adventuring seasons and long term campaigns

A few weeks back, Joseph had been writing about the idea of having parties going on adventures only for some months of the year when weather permits it and then returning for the winter to deal with business back home. It’s an idea that goes back at least as far as Pendragon, but also more recently appeared in The One Ring. And in both cases it seems to be an element that is quite popular with players and that constitutes a pretty important part in giving these games their unique spin. It basically has to main effects on a campaign.

One is that players have to regularly return to a safe haven for overwintering, which can nudge players to get involved in more urban or social adventures which they normally wouldn’t seek out. It also allows for a good blend of exploration adventures and domain management if that later aspect is desired.

The other thing that it does is to create a much stronger sense of the passing of time. One oddity of megadungeons, super-modules, adventure paths, and other kinds of published campaigns is that they often take characters from first level to high levels at an incredibly fast pace. Often just a couple of weeks or a few months at the most. After which they are as powerful and experienced as NPCs who have been at it for decades or even centuries. Even if the campaign includes time jumps like “after 5 weeks of sailing” or “several months later”, these things don’t tend to be felt by the players, to whom it might just as well have been “later that afternoon”. By regularly alternating between adventuring season and winter camp, you at least communicate the idea that the campaign stretches over a couple of years.

To add this aspect to your game, you don’t actually need any specific rules for it. All you really need to do is track the passing of days on the calendar. Even if it’s just a simple campaign of going to the dungeon and poking around, placing the dungeon a few days travel from the next village and putting each village with a dungeon a week or two apart  from each other will lead to a lot of time passing between each session. If you have a sandbox (one that isn’t about filling out a 6-mile hex map), put the various locations a good distance away from each other and players should very quickly rack up pretty long travel times. Once the campaign reaches the end of the ninth or tenth month, simply tell the players that weather is getting increasingly awful for camping in the wilderness and that they should find a place to stay until the fourth month or so.

If it fits the campaign, you can then simply jump ahead to the next spring and continue from there. There are also a good number of great adventures that can be had during the winter. But these are usually not long expeditions into the wilderness. Much more commonly these are things with isolated villages being threatened and no help coming until spring. The kind of places where you would expect adventurers to stay for the winter. These don’t have to be elaborate adventurers. They can easily be just simple one-shots for a single session, but can also be pretty big things as well. The advantage of this is that you will have the players remember that they actually have experienced a winter and it’s not something that was only mentioned once in passing. For my Ancient Lands campaign, I am planning to make a simple Random Event table, on which I will make one roll for every month in winter camp. With a 1/6 chance four times in a row, something is almost certainly to happen; perhaps even two things. These would probably have to be rolled in advance and not at the table, so you can prepare some material for it. But again, it doesn’t have to be big things. “Frozen Zombies” or “Winter Wolves” would be enough as a hook for the GM. Then you can start with destroyed farms or dead cattle in a stable and have the players deal with it as you usually would in a sandbox. Since the players are kind of stuck in the place and have nowhere else to be, they probably wouldn’t resist looking into it.

But when it comes to running an campaign with a level based system I also got another idea. There’s a small and perhaps not too well known rule in the 1981 Basic Set that characters can never gain enough XP to level up twice after a single adventure. However, the book doesn’t really specificy what constitutes an adventure. I am assuming it means a single session, but when you’re playing the long game you can also think much bigger. Like a whole year bigger. Which, when you consider it narratively, still isn’t really that long. A young adventurer who goes adventuring every year could easily reach 9th level well before age 30. Make it twice as much and you end up with PCs reaching their maximum number of Hit Dice around 40. That seems very appropriate to me.

In fact, it would be quite critical that the campaign is laid out so that characters don’t reach their annual XP cap on a regular basis. The required XP scores for advancing to the next level are roughly doubling with each level which leads to lower level characters catching up to higher level characters pretty quickly. Be they replacement characters for dead ones, new additions to the group, or characters who have suffered energy drain. If all the characters in the party reach the XP cap every year, then the lower level characters will never be able to catch up. So when you estimate how much adventuring the party will be doing in a year, I think aiming for half the XP needed to have the highest level PC reach the next level would be a good baseline.

If the difference in character levels gets really big you run into some problems with encounters anyway, but it’s going to be troublesome here as well. You can easily have characters with an XP cap a hundred times higher than others, which can very likely mean that the lower level PCs would reach their maximum right after the first session of the season, which I guess wouldn’t really feel that fun for the players. One possible option would be to have a year in which the highest level characters don’t go on adventures. However, unlike with spliting the players into two groups and having them adventuring separately for one or two adventures, you can’t really have these adventures simultaneously when you want the lower level characters to catch up with the higher level ones. The players with the higher level characters would have to wait until the other group has finished its adventuring season before they can get back into the action. I think that wouldn’t really be feasible for more than one session or two. Perhaps those players might like to play henchmen or create secondary characters, but I am not sure if they’d be really happy with that either. While I’ve heard that it used to be quite common for players to semi-retire their high level characters and start new ones in paralel, I don’t know if this is something players would still enjoy doing with the expectations they have today.