Heroic Explorations: Just Add Adventurers

Worldbuilding: Start with your world's purpose
Heroic Explorations: A Dungeon by any other name

So, here we are, designing a setting to accommodate dungeon crawling with a bit of a spin on standard FRP tropes. Let’s open it up with our protagonists.

Brave Adventurers

In the default scenario, the players are professional dungeon crawlers. Adventurers. Let’s start from the mechanical assumptions that Dungeons and Dragons (and other similar FRPG systems)  implies about our characters.

  • They start out more capable than the average peasant and only become more powerful with time.
  • They routinely deal in sums greater than those dreamed of by most merchants.
  • They kill more creatures in a single adventure than most non-adventurers will ever see.
  • They have unprecedented levels of social mobility in a traditionally static Feudal environment.
  • Many routinely and nearly carelessly handle powers the average person would find horrific or terrifying.

Adventuring sucks

So you hear rumors about some hidden treasure in some ancient ruin out in the wilderness, you get your buddies together, grab a weapon, and decide to go get rich. What’s that like?

Cole Thomas, Expulsion from the Garden of Eden

Well, you and your crew head out into the wilderness for days or weeks or however long it takes to get where you’re going. Maybe you have an extra outfit, but maybe you just have the one, and you wear it, day in and day out, through all kinds of weather. Wind. Rain. Snow. Through mud and fields full of nettles. Mites and body lice get into your clothes, and even if they don’t, you itch. All the time.  And that doesn’t even bring the smell into account.

Go far enough, and the bacteria in your food and water aren’t what your gut flora are used to. Digestive problems mount. Every been camping? It’s sort of like that, without the modern conveniences, but the constant threat of violence makes up for it some. Wild animals. Irksome natives. Things that are worse.  Maybe you get bit, maybe you get scratched, maybe you get shanked. Maybe you don’t get rabies or tetanus.

Then you get to the place, the dungeon, the dank pit where your treasure is hidden. A dark place in the earth filled with creatures and cultists and deadly traps. Whatever you dealt with before, this is worse. Up above, it’s savage. Down below, it’s unnatural. Your kind was never meant to live like this. Maybe you’ll die like this, alone in some dank cavern, clutching your guts in as best you can while your vision dims and you whimper for your mother.

But the rewards are sweet

But maybe it works out. Maybe you and your crew survive, and you come on out of that hole with a king’s ransom in treasure. In one fell swoop, you’re one of the richest people you’ve ever met. You could retire right now and be set for the rest of your life. Maybe your kids, too. Your kids’ kids, if it was a good enough haul, or you can invest it.

But maybe you can’t stop. Maybe you get greedy. Or maybe the rush is addictive. Or maybe you just need that one big score that never comes. Or maybe you were never in it for the money at all.

The Absolute Power

"Powerful Northernlight" Jan-Helge Anderson, CC 2.0. Image has been cropped

The experiences you accumulate, along with the treasure, brings you an almost inhuman level of power. Warriors become indomitable engines of destruction. Wizards master arcane forces others can scarcely comprehend. The mundane irritants that plagued them at the dawn of their careers fade quickly, when even death becomes a temporary inconvenience.

The peasant’s concerns of winter and harvest, the merchant’s worries about income and expense, the noble’s worries of family dynasty, these lose all semblance to titanic figures that have slain entire tribes of orcs, who have stared down dragon’s breath.

How can such a godlike force of nature keep in touch with its humanity?

From the Other Side

So we’ve taken a hyperbolic look at what it’s like to be an adventurer. But how do others see them? How do they fit into the social order?

Short answer: They don’t.

Long Answer: The wealth and power Adventurers amass give them a degree of social mobility undreamed of by most. It goes beyond simply becoming wealthy; in a land where most commoners live and die within hearing of the same temple bells, Adventurers fear nothing from plague, famine, or a noble’s displeasure. The only check on their power are social controls.

To the common folk, Adventurers are figures of legend, barely human (or elf, or dwarf, or…) who are held in check only by their own moral compasses, often strange and unusual to the farmer or craftsman, beings driven by ambition. Troublemakers who respect individuality and freedom more than the good of the community. And even when they’re being altruistic, they bring more coin to the area than the local economy can safely handle, driving up prices and creating market disruption.

To the upper classes they’re even worse, wildcards that cannot be fully controlled, only managed, who respect neither blood nor tradition. Even worse, many have a penchant for overthrowing despots.

Adventurers in Heroic Explorations

This give us a precarious position for adventurers in our setting. They exist. They’re a social class unto themselves.  We could simply say that they’re outlawed and Adventuring itself is illegal, and maybe in some places they are… but many of the very factors that enable the Adventurer class – dangerous dungeons and wilderness haunted by fell beasts… creates the need for them.

So Adventurers are, as every class is, regulated. We don’t deny them. We acknowledge them and the impact they have. Kingdoms have laws that address them, cities have ordinances, and in return, Adventurers pool their considerable might to petition for a lighter touch.

They form Guilds.

Where do Adventurers come from?

In a historical sense, we’ll say it’s an ancient tradition. There are legends, songs, and stories about them doing all sorts of things. In fiction, they’re often portrayed either as heroes or menaces. The best legends manage both.

On a personal level, adventuring represents one of the few venues for social mobility in feudal society. Adventurers are wealthy, frequently gain titles and land for service to the nobility, and sometimes form nations of their own. There’s a romanticism attached to the idea.

So, a commoner or young noble sets off to become an adventurer. Maybe they get together with friends or take a position as hirelings to get a taste. Sometimes they survive. Some of those survivors continue on to do it again.

Michael Coorlim

Michael Coorlim is a teller of strange stories for stranger people. He collects them, the oddballs. The mystics and fire-spinners, the sages and tricksters. He curates their tales, combines their elements and lets them rattle around inside his rock-tumbler skull until they gleam, then spills them loose onto the page for like-minded readers to enjoy.
Michael Coorlim

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