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.

2 thoughts on “You used to be an Adventurer like me?”

  1. These are really good observations, and I intend to get some mileage from them for my next game. Especially capital-H “Heroes” who are recognized as such by the commonfolk. I am also reminded of The Witcher stories, which seem to do a good job explaining why a supernaturally talented dude wanders around and gets hired to take out big bad monsters by peasants – because he’s the only one who can. (Forgive me any misunderstandings, I only dabbled in the Witcher novels and watched the tv show.) Finally, I sometimes fall back on the 4th son of a minor noble archetype, I think suggested by Gygax in the old PHB. That the 4th son is well-trained in the martial arts and has disposable income for armor, weapons, magic, etc. But being a 4th son has basically no chance to inherit the estate/throne, or anything else of significant value. Thus, he turns to an “adventuring life” in search of glory and the riches that will finally endear him to the realm – or enable him to build his own.

  2. Alternate approach: Magic swords were considered dishonorable by knights, who had to swear that they were not in possession of any before entering tournaments.

    As a society moves from conquest (weapons are necessary) to peace time (weapons are unnecessary) to decadence (weapons are fashion accessory) the knowledge of how to create magic weapons slowly dies out and then is actively banned from tournaments.

    Depending on what the magic sword was used for, the knight could have their tournament records erased, face execution, and could even be erased from their family records after death.

    However, not just anyone could get access to a magic sword in the first place. The culprit was likely someone with a military pedigree, under pressure to represent the family name at tournaments, and uphold a legacy of winning (at any cost). While their name was removed from family records, the “unmarked grave” was a fortress that the family held during the war. The old fort had several secret escape tunnels, some of which remain a state secret. Open a secret door, carry the body down the secret stairs, and the body is “buried” in that it is underground. The family can have a ceremony at the fort, honoring their family, officially those who fought to defend the fort (but unofficially those who are removed from the family records).

    As decadence continues, the surviving nobles become more removed from the idea of “lord protector of the realm.” They fill the void with lavish parties, the lavishness supported by taxing peasants. Overtaxed peasants grumble and eventually plot rebellions. Unsuccessful rebels are caught, executed, and are sentenced to unmarked graves lest the “grave of the martyr” become a meeting place for future rebels. Digging unmarked graves costs money that could be better spend on decadence, but fortunately the decadent nobles have an old fort that already serves as “an unmarked grave.”

    As decadence continues, rebels continue to rise up, and unless the rebellion succeeds there is a steady flow of dead bodies to the unmarked grave. A steady flow of dead bodies feeds scavengers like rats, who form the basis of a dungeon ecosystem. “The small monsters eat the rats, and the bigger monsters eat the smaller monsters.” So the place with the magic sword becomes filled with monsters, hence a “dungeon.” As it was once a fortress, it may have several defenses to defend against enemy invasion, or “traps.” However, what about “adventurers?”

    Given the series of rebellions that the above text is working with, the players could be the “war orphans” of previous rebellion. The surviving members of the rebellion would hide the children of rebel leaders from the decadent nobles who might fear an Indigo Montoya “You killed my father, prepare to die.” Perhaps rightly, but consider that the survivors of a rebellion would not likely stay in lands ruled by the same tyrant.

    With the rebellion failed, they would seek a better life in other lands. Surely not all nobles are decadent? Trading one tyrant for another in an age of decadence, the members of the failed rebellion hear whispers of a new rebellion. Perhaps the rumors are heard from the very orphans they are trying to keep safe the previous tyrant, but consider who would make a good rebel.

    Innkeepers not only pick up rumors, but they have spare rooms to hide rebels and meetings. Most of their usual guests are travelling merchants, who could smuggle “an old friend” and a few orphans out in their caravans. Particularly if they are willing to “earn their keep.” An innkeeper who lost their inn would be “hesitant” to join another rebellion, but the child of a rebel leader has rebellion in their blood.

    They’d be eager to join the rebellion, in secret from their adoptive parent if necessary. Many rebellions require secrecy, and some stealth missions work better with rebels who are small and easy to hide. They children of rebel leaders might join up while still very young, as more of a “sidekick” to the rebellion than a “leader.” Annoying at first, they eventually earn the begrudging respect of mentor figures. A child with such a mentor might have unusual skills.

    Fighting a rebellion requires fighting skills, as well as the skills of a thief. In a fantasy setting, rebels might make use of magic. “Forbidden” magic sounds different to a band of rebels who are considered “outlaws” by a tyrant. However, a lot of rebellions have noble ideals, perhaps based on religious ideas. Friar Tuck is as much a part of the Robin Hood story as Little John. A cleric would not be as out of place among the rebels as Prince John and the Sheriff of Nottingham would have you believe.

    Yet whatever skills the child of the rebel leader possessed, they would still be “too young” for the really dangerous missions. Considering the number of failed rebellions we’re using as a basis, this might be a smart idea. They were too young to participate in the “final mission,” but now that they are finally old enough, they have no one to follow.

    With no real plan, they try visiting the unmarked grave of their mentor. They tell their adoptive parent that they are going to visit one of their innkeeper friends, a trusted friend who was an informant for the rebellion(s). Rebels speak in code, and when decadent nobles care more about tax money than people, rebels may start to refer to the people who are worth protecting as “treasure.” “Rumor has it there’s ‘treasure’ up at the old fort.”

    Greedy nobles might check up on these rumors, but mostly they know that the ruins only have dust and dead bones. The guards who are doing the actual legwork of checking on these rumors report that the bones have been “gnawed upon,” but the decadent nobles have no interest in anything that isn’t gold. Penniless peasants are similarly disappointed by the rumors, and might not even be able to find the secret door to where the “treasured” rebels are buried. However, if “treasure” is a code, coins could be a trail marker.

    Reversing “X marks the spot,” coins could be left in the old fort by members of the rebellion to mark “the grave of the martyrs.” They might also stash supplies useful to the rebellion, health potions and things like that. Puzzles and riddles could be left to challenge “new” members of the rebellion, either new recruits or special cases like the Player Characters. If their adoptive parent(s) had their way, the child of the rebel leaders would have a normal life without ever knowing about the land of their birth and the tyrants who rule it. If instead they became sidekicks to another rebellion, they might have considerable skills but the test is to see if they are ready to lead.

    If they emerge victorious from the fortress of magic weapons and monsters, what comes next? The spymaster of the tyrant(s) are likely watching over the graves of the rebels for those who might use them as a martyr. In a reverse Robin Hood situation, assassins sent by the decadent nobles might pretend to be bandits waylaying the travelling adventurers. Depending on how far the decadence has spread, the “lord protectors of the realm” may have gone from competing in tournaments to hosting gladiatorial games. Part of the “bread and circuses” used to distract people from their corruption, they import lions and feed them criminals rather than participate in the messy business of jousting, etc. In a fantasy world, more exotic beasts than lions can be found and even tamed. Where the conventional assassins of the spymaster fail, a decadent noble might call upon their “lion tamer” to find something able to kill the children of the rebel leaders.

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