Monday, July 29, 2013

More Thoughts on the Adventurers

The other day, I pointed out different historical examples of adventurers, based on the kinds of things adventurers typically do in a D&D game - explore old ruins for lost treasures, conquer territory, and pillage other people's stuff.  The usual.

I tend to think the most about settings that are alternate earths, low magic, a little more grim and gritty.  Monsters are on the rare side, at least in the civilized lands.  I get the sense most folks play a much higher fantasy game, wild west style, where it's totally appropriate for dangerous and heavily armed adventurers to wander the country side and do whatever they want with minimal interference.

It's not my first choice to do "the wild west with orcs and knights" thing, but it's certainly the easiest.  Other approaches force you to think a little longer and harder about the role of adventurers in the game and how they fit into the social structure.  The wild west solves a lot of problems.  (My family just got me to start playing Skyrim, and it's totally like wandering the wild west, with battle axes and dragons).

Here are some of the campaigns I've run in recent memory, or are currently thinking about, and how adventurers operate in the setting.

The Black City
I ran the Black City much of last year.  It involved a desolate island in the frozen north, home to a crumbling alien city.  Viking explorers have created a trading camp on the shores of the island each summer, to launch expeditions into the ruins.

This one is totally the wild west with battle axes; there is a veneer of civilization and law and order while back in Trade Town, but once a party enters the ruins, it's the law of the jungle.  It's worked pretty well for an archetypal D&D game without having to think to hard about the role of adventurers.

Gothic Greyhawk
Greyhawk is a high fantasy setting, and the players started out on a frontier where humans were rebuilding after wars with monsters a generation ago.  Settlements further up the Sterich Valley were still ruined and uninhabited.  Shortly after the campaign started, a zombie apocalypse swept over the region, depopulating the valley and the home town completely.  There were no institutional impediments to the characters forming their own mercenary company out in the dead zone, and they even started the process of domain building when the wave of zombies moved onward.

Harrow Home Manor
This one's just an idea - it involves a ruined manse on the Yorkshire moors in the 1600's (I talk about it a bit here in this post: Area map for Harrow Home Manor).  Adventurers would need to keep a low profile in towns and villages.  Carrying heavy weapons in town is sure to gain the attention of the constabulary, and returning to town laden with treasure is going to garner even more unwanted attention.  For that matter, the ruins themselves are the abandoned, ancestral ruins of some noble, somewhere.  An early modern game begins to put some pressure on the role of dangerous adventurers vis a vis the rest of society.

The Antediluvian Prison
Last week I discussed the idea of using Biblical folklore as the back drop for a megadungeon somewhere in the Near East - it'd involve themes of a war in heaven in the distant past, imprisonment of the losers beneath the ground, and a great flood wiping out the corrupt civilizations of a past age.

The great powers of the time, like the Romans, are pragmatic and focused on their military.  Resources are bent towards military use.  Expeditions would be sponsored to plumb any ancient ruins in search of lore and knowledge if there was any thought that artifacts or knowledge could be retrieved and used against enemies of the Republic.

Adventurers are probably mercenaries hired by the local governor to exploit the ruins, creating a natural tension between keeping their finds for themselves versus turning over their findings as per the contract.

- - - -

It's easiest to establish D&D style adventurers out on a frontier, making that clear distinction between the civilized lands behind you and the dangerous wilds ahead.  The point isn't lost on me that the campaigns we've played the longest had the fewest impediments on player action, and gave them full license to wander free, fully armed (despite any protestations that it's not my favorite approach).  Hmmm.


  1. There have been a lot of posts recently on who adventurers are exactly. Surely if they're called adventurers, they're adventurers? After all a lot does flow from the word or words chosen to describe a thing. In cases of imagination or creativity, if you change the word, maybe you change the thing too. Details, degrees of resistance etc. can be decided in play, as the situations fall. That might not fit the GM's prepping of the world of course, but the game belongs to all the players.

    Needles has an excellent and maybe even unintentional contribution to the discussion here. Linked with that...

    "I tend to think the most about settings that are alternate earths, low magic, a little more grim and gritty. Monsters are on the rare side, at least in the civilized lands. I get the sense most folks play a much higher fantasy game, wild west style, where it's totally appropriate for dangerous and heavily armed adventurers to wander the country side and do whatever they want with minimal interference."

    One way of overcoming this difference of expectation is having the adventurers protected, knowingly or not, by a patron of some kind - the people they interact with are effectively charmed and the odd nature and actions of the adventurers go unnoticed, at least up to a point. The adventurers and/or players may or may not realise what's going on.

    Maybe it could go even bigger. Could the world itself be supporting them, smoothing out their rough edges? Until they get a particular thing done.

    It plays with the nature of D&D as a group activity and moves the focus more into the hazy space between game and table.

  2. Speaking of The Black City, can you update us on the status of its development? I so would love to use the setting!

  3. Just started lurking on your site and the Black City Project is wicked f-ing awesome! Vikings and Cthulhu-esque alien city. I have been a longtime CoC fan and a recent OSR follower and your site rocks. I have been rolling around in my highly disturbed mind a Viking-themed CoC adventure in North America near what is now Innsmouth and your site has got those juices flowing again. Keep up the great work and looking forward to more BCP!

  4. In Kenneth Hite's The Day After Ragnarok, he offers several campaign structures that each deal with how adventurers interact with the setting, with the variables being agency, patronage and ties to a particular locale. In Traveller, a prime example of a sandbox game, patrons are one of the go-to hooks that GM's use to bait the PC's into action. There's a lot to think about here; I do keep going back to the age of sail in the Carribean; Spain and England are the patronizing powers rather than Rome; explorers are given a great deal of agency and expected to fend for themselves for years at a time; treasures are regularly plundered and then lost in transit due to the dangers of sea travel; violence is expected and rarely punnished; duty to the crown ensures both purpose and reward; the environment is as hazardous as the opposition. The main difference between the Caribbean and the Black City is the lack of patronage; the Vikings were essentially all free agents, acting in fellowships to gain personal wealth, very much the old west. If you look to the Caribbean, you can have your Gothic sensibilities and eat them too...or something.

  5. I love the *thought* of a free-agent Caribbean sandbox, but I always come back to the question: What is the game really about?

    If it's going to feature dungeon crawls, why go to all the trouble of rules for islands, ships, combat, and sailing around the Spanish Main?

    If it's about buccaneer type of stuff, is a level-based (highly lethal) system like D&D the best fit?

    Anyway, that's what has held me back from going at the pirate stuff full tilt.

    1. May I ask what problems you have (or foresee) running a buccaneering sandbox with a level-based system?

    2. Dungeons provide a convenient yard stick for equating dungeon level and character level with danger level so the DM can turn over the reigns of planning to the players and let them manage much of their own risk. It's much harder to do in a wilderness sandbox (especially one as far flung as the Spanish Main).

      Either the DM needs to provide level-appropriate challenges where-ever the player ends up (blech), or create pre-built content that totally disregards player level when stocking the wilds. The latter runs the risk of 1st level buccaneers stumbling onto that haunted, high level island. Which is fine, there are things like rumors the players can pick up, but it at least warrants the question whether a level-based system is the best fit for that style of far-traveling game.

    3. How about something similar to the West Marches approach? The wilderness (or in this case, the Spanish Main) is divided into rough areas (groups of voyages and islands), each having a different difficulty level, which can be signalled to players through rumours, for instance.

      If using a level-less game, opponents would still have a difficulty (granted it could be measured much less obviously), hopefully still rather varied (from mooks through seasoned veterans through powerful voodoo priests and lord admirals). The level-based system only helps the GM (and the players) by making it transparent, so that they can make informed choices about where to go and whom to engage with.