Saturday, July 27, 2013

Wanted: Professional Adventurers

The typical mode for Dungeons & Dragons resembles the American wild west more than any caste-bound feudal society. Powerful bands of armed adventurers, answering only to themselves, wander the countryside, looking for trouble.  What law-abiding society wants a bunch of outlaw bikers, armed to the teeth like pisteleros and knife fighters, rumbling into town and representing imminent violence?  Governments make laws against such behavior.

I know, I know - don't over-think your "fantasy" world.  Verisimilitude is overrated.  Call it a personal failing, but having a social framework that reasonably allows for armed adventurers is important to me during setting design.  More so because I trend towards settings that are alternate history or strongly inspired by real world history.

Luckily, there are lots of real world examples of armed adventurers we can look towards for understanding how and where such groups might operate.  I'm just a fan of history, so it's quite possible the readers will have other examples to suggest in the comments.  As a side note, this post is a bit of an add-on to something I saw over at Greyhawk Grognard the other day (Professional Adventurers), pointing out a dislike of professional adventuring guilds.  I agree that I'm not a fan of the approach to adventuring guilds in fantasy games. But there are some real world precedents for "professional adventurers", just not in the way they show up in, say, The Forgotten Realms.

Soldiers of Fortune
Leaving home, joining the army, and going off to loot distant places has a long history for real world adventurers.  I'm using the term "join the army" loosely, it covers a wide range of armed bands.  Historical examples include numerous Roman generals (and other ancient world conquerors) who raised an army primarily on promises of loot and lands, and went off to conquer distant places for personal glory (use Caesar's campaigns in Gaul as the model).  Medieval knightly orders like the Templars or Teutonic Knights (crusaders in general), Spanish Conquistadors, Vikings, and Germanic barbarians (V√∂lkerwanderung) all come to mind, too.  Smaller bands, existing on the frontiers during lawless periods, include examples like pirates, wild west outlaws, or mercenary companies during the 30 years war.

In the D&D campaign, your first level characters aren't likely to be this style of adventurer, and it won't have the necessary degree of player agency for a good game early on - this is a mode of play for the mid to high levels.

Shackleton, Lewis and Clark, Magellan and the famous figures of the Age of Exploration; if the world has large swaths of "terra incognito", another mode for legalized adventuring is the state-sponsored voyages of exploration.

That's a key point - for the most part, both the Soldiers of Fortune and Explorers mode of play assume institutional support - the ruling body or church back home is explicitly sponsoring campaigns of conquest or exploration for glory, god, or territory.  So maybe the out-and-out banditry (pirates or outlaws) needs to be carved out into it's own category of "illegal adventuring"?

Grave Robbers and Salvage Experts
I can't think of any famous grave robbers.  If the adventurers in question are looting the tombs of someone else's culture, they're engaging in salvage; if it's their own culture, they're probably going to be branded grave robbers.  People are funny that way.  So maybe you could call some of the explorers that 'discovered' various Egyptian treasures, like Howard Carter, founder of Tutankhaman's tomb, famous salvagers.  Tomb raiders.  There certainly are other types of salvages - the recovery of some of the Spanish treasure fleets, shipwrecked by hurricanes, and recovered by pirates in the Caribbean, comes to mind.

This type of exploration could easily translate into dungeoneering for lower level adventurers in a game.  I'm just conjecturing here, but perhaps the key difference between real world salvage and the types of activities in the fantasy game is the presence of institutional acknowledgement or patronage.

You could envision a D&D campaign striving for more "realism" would involve sponsorship of delves into distant ruins as the mode of play for lower levels.  Then, when the characters move into the mid to high levels of play, they could launch more grandiose expeditions, now involving armed conquests as they take the lead roles over large groups of men in that "soldier of fortune" style of play.

You have to ask yourself:  if the local rulers or similar institutions know that large treasures, lost secrets, and buried magic are just sitting out there, waiting in the ground for recovery, wouldn't they be the ones to sponsor operations to go and recover them?

Only in "fantasy land" would a king or ruler allow a bunch of no names to recover enough wealth and power to threaten the throne...


  1. 'Only in "fantasy land" would a king or ruler allow a bunch of no names to recover enough wealth and power to threaten the throne...'

    Well, maybe if they were gonna threaten someone ELSE's throne....

  2. A very thought-provoking post.

  3. You let the no names recover the treasure-when there is enough, you let them go down again, take the money they've left in safe keeping, and hit them on their way out, when they are likely to be tired and injured.

  4. What about the Vikings? They set up small kingdoms all over the place. The Normans for instance, took over part of France and called it Normandy. Vikings also took over part of ireland, founding Dublin.

    You have small bands of Celts setting up shop all over the place. Galatia is a good example.

    You have the Vandals setting up Kindgoms in North Africa. You have the various Crusader states in the Middle East. They weren't as successful long term, but all were essentially bands of adventurers.

    1. I identified the Vikings and the Völkerwanderung peoples in the post as historical examples of the "soldier of fortune" adventurer archetype - armed raiders in it for loot and pillage - good models for a mid or high level game.

  5. What about monsters? Where they come from? Who keeps them in check? How many there are?

    Probably the King/Count/Duke/Theocrat/Mageocrat or whatever has is hands full to keep fuss at a minimum...

  6. Famous grave robbers = Indiana Jones

    As an aside, I think a big chunk of how a adventurers "fit" into a campaign depends on how magic is conceived. For example, if magic is a public "commodity" then entities like guilds and public patronage might make sense. If magic is more...unsettling, then adventurers take on the Cthulhu vibe of individuals who are outside the norm, dealing with things that no one else would believe.

  7. I usually don't play the "high fantasy" style of campaign, where every woods is crawling with humanoids and monsters (Forgotten Realms style).

    I'm usually doing some kind of alternate Earth with a bit of magic, but monsters are rare and in out of the way places.

  8. "What law-abiding society wants a bunch of outlaw bikers, armed to the teeth like pisteleros and knife fighters, rumbling into town and representing imminent violence?"

    A society that exists on a frontier may not have much choice in the matter. Same as the American Wild West. :)

    Also, "adventuring guilds" may exist as a way to organize and control the activities of their members. The guild gets pressured due to the bad behavior of some of their members? Then those members get put on probation for awhile. Once they spend some time hurting for work, those members might be more cooperative in the future.

  9. Professional adventurers would absolutely exist, of course. Whether they would be the odd combination of crminal gang, ensemble sitcom cast, and The Superfriends seen in a lot of D&D adventuring groups is another matter. :)

  10. A mercenary company or fellowship of adventurers (ala the Vikings) would be a good backstory for your characters as well. There's a handy little bit from Dust Devils called "Then and Now" that tells what your character did before he started adventuring and what he is doing when the game begins. Examples "Railroad worker; now a town marshal. Was a prostitute; now a Rail Baron. Was a missionary; now a gunfighter." It's an easy, one sentence way to create a plausible adventurer. "Was a gladiator; is a bodyguard." "Was a slave; is a grave robber." "Was a mercenary; is a free-lance adventurer." The patron system might not be a bad fit for this, either. Even Indiana Jones had an institution to back him financially and legally (to a tiny extent.) Leeway in the field (to put it mildly) figures largely into all of the examples you have given of wandering adventurers as well. There is little reason to assume that a patronage would be restricrive; I can visualize letters of Marque authorizing violence and pillage against rival explorers with other patrons. What was Beloque, if not a privateer?!