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.
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.