Thursday, 23 July 2009

Why the Adventuring Party Makes Sense

Here's one of the reasons why I think the D&D adventuring party model makes sense.

When I was 18 I worked for nearly six months in Kyrgyzstan. This was a few years before 9/11 and the NATO bombing campaign on Afghanistan, and the Taliban were at the zenith of their power. They were a huge destabilising influence in the region. Kyrgyzstan's neighbour to the south, Tajikistan, was just coming out of a ruinous civil war that was partly fostered by Taliban-sponsored Islamic militants, and while I was in Kyrgyzstan a band of up to a thousand of these crossed over from Tajikistan to Kyrgyzstan's south - apparently with the aim of formenting revolution. They stayed for the entire summer, skirmishing with government forces and generally causing trouble, before slipping back over the border once they realised the Kyrgyz population was rather less fertile ground than Tajik one. I heard that this was, more or less, a yearly event.

What struck me about this, and what still strikes me now, is that the Kyrgyz government, poor but by no means destitute, and with a reasonable infrastructure inherited from its Soviet masters, had so little authority and control over its own borders. Russian troops, which had been guaranteeing its security for the years after independence, had been pursuaded to leave. But in their absence Kyrgyzstan wasn't able to stop a rag-tag band of idiot insurgents from waltzing into its territory as they pleased.

If modern Kyrgyzstan lacked the capacity to do this, I wonder, what chance did a feudal realm in the dark ages have? This is one of the reasons why the party of adventuring heroes makes a lot of sense to me: when the powers that be can't right wrongs, somebody else has to. And similarly, it's why the party of adventuring tomb robbers and plunderers makes a lot of sense: because who's going to stop them? The prevalence of adventurers in D&D societies isn't a silly cliche; it's a logical extension of the realities of the game world.


  1. Intersting point. But if feudal Europe was really such fertile ground for adventuring parties, wouldn't we have heard of more of them in historical accounts?

  2. @Nadav: mercenary companies, bandits, sturdy beggars and vagabonds, tinkers, tomb-robbers, fake astrologers and quack docotrs, pardoners and sellers of indulgences, pretend gypsies, etc.

    The picarresque were there in the woodwork of society; they just weren't called adventurers.

    @noisms: fascinating stuff mate. Makes you realise how little things have changed since Alexander's days in the part of the world.

  3. Re: The Picaresque
    Yeah - The framework of Chaucer's Canterbury Tales has a couple of characters that I could *very* easily see someone playing.

    I've always found it amazing that so much of Southwest Asia, one of the oldest settled portions of the globe, is still so turbulent. It's practically a monument to the human potential for causing chaos.

  4. All very true.

    However, it's important to note that an "adventuring party" is different from the group of thugs only in intent. The locals, and especially the authorities, are probably going to be very mistrustful of a rag-tag band of misfits, armed to the teeth, claiming to be fighting for the downtrodden and oppressed on the side of good (or just their own enrichment). Same goes for the peasantry who are just as likely to be terrified of such folk, doubly so after they prove their prowess and kill the bandits that have been plauging the area and whom the local authorities cannot stop.

    Adventurers are dangerous people, and it's only coincidence that they happen to be "on your side" for the moment.

  5. Nadav: See Chris and Rob's comments. Sometimes the 'adventurer' tag is explicit, as when Robert Guiscard and some other opportunistic Norman brigands became dukes of Apulia and eventually Kings of Sicily.

    Chris: The worry now is that thanks to globalisation, the little conficts in that neck of the woods can become internationalised. What should have been a squabble between various ethnic groups in Tajikistan became part of a huge and decade long Islamist-related conflict costing hundreds of thousands if not millions of lives.

    Rob: Perhaps it's so violent because it's one of the oldest settled areas! The longest rivalries are the bitterest, after all.

    The terrain doesn't help. Mountains prevent language and culture spreading, so you get lots of ethnocultural fragmentation. And the mountains make it tough for one polity to become dominant. This is also part of the reason why the Balkans, Caucasus and Great Rift Valley regions are so conflict-ridden.

    Hamlet: Yup, and that hostility is rarely encountered in games - where friendly innkeepers and helpful clerics are a commonplace.

  6. Adventuring parties work in my Greyhawk since there is a constant stream of dispossesed and uprooted individuals seeking their fortunes. I think this would be an unavoidable fact of a world with so many intrinsiclly hostile races constantly fighting for space and power.
    Wars generate migrations and refugees and perpetual low level war would result in a class of wanderers. Adventurers would come to be accepted as a facet of society. The unattached seeking a new place in the heirarchy of society.
    I think this would become the game world equivalent of medievalesque social mobility. Your success as an adventurer would grant you a chance at a higher rung on the social ladder.
    Or, you'd get killed.
    Either way, problem solved for the civilizations in question.

  7. Other examples would be the ronin of feudal Japan and various gunfighters in the American West many of whom were Civil War vets. An area that's strife torn, or even calmed down after a period of strife, is gonna have a lot of guys wandering around with fighting skills and weapons they "forgot" to turn in after the army got disbanded.

  8. I thought you were going to talk about why an adventuring party vs. why an adventuring individual. An adventuring party is generally a small group of peers each with a hireling or two. But the model of a primary leader with a large entourage of underlings of varying levels of authority is equally valid and equally represented in history.

    One problem with the Adventuring Liege is that it doesn't make for a satisfying game for the players who aren't the Liege. But if the Liege is an NPC and the players are his underlings, things can get interesting.

    The Liege must stay with the main force to retain order and manage disposition of treasure and captives. He needs to be around to make decisions. So if along the expedition there is a side adventure he won't just run off and do it even though he's likely the highest-level character there. He will send off some of his men, those proven capable and crafty and loyal: the PCs.

    So we have the PCs supported by a larger company, so that they have a solid source of equipment, hirelings, and adventure hooks. The whole can be a sea voyage (many ships), a hex crawl, or a megadungeon crawl. But if it's a megadungeon it's got to have space for everyone, which means a scale of 600x600 feet per level may be appropriate (2x2 one-page dungeon blocks per level).

    But they must also look to the security of the expedition. They may be called upon to repel attacks, help negotiate with natives, secure supplies, gather information, etc. But they don't need to be bothered with the drudgery of paperwork for the whole expedition - they aren't in charge of that so they never have to touch it.

    For inspiration on the Adventuring Liege or Expedition, consider the Spanish conquest of the Aztecs or the various Crusades.

  9. Hey everyone - I was looking for a way to contact the site owner other than just responding to a random post but I guess since this ones about adventuring parties its as good as any :)

    Anyway, if anyone plays Pathfinder, I started an SRD site similar to at Come check it out and let me know if you have any comments or suggestions.

  10. I totally agree!

    And in fact the adventurer has appeared throughout the popular historical record i.e. in songs, epics, and folk lore, whenever a people or nation have endured a time of strife and turbulence.

    In ancient Greece after the fall of the Minoans, in epic Scandinavia during the Dark Ages, you get tales of wandering heroes -Theseus, Beowulf. In war-torn Middle Ages Europe, you get tales of knights errant. In feudal Japan, ronin. In warring China, wuxia. In Hwarang Korea, Hwarang knights. In the wild west, gunslingers.

    Where you don't get "adventurers" is in places and times where life is civilized and peaceful. During the Pax Romana, for instance (Rome has no equivalent of the hero / knight errant / ronin). Adventurers seem odd to us because we don't have any real ronin equivalent in peaceful, civilized America and Europe today. We have at best pseudo-adventurers, like extreme sports stars.

    However, I think it's wrong to assume that adventurers would be feared and mistrusted. That's 21st century Western thinking, because we would mistrust such people. More likely they'd be heroes to the local populace, if they are generous with their gold, and effective in fighting monsters.

    Islamic terrorist organizations that are hated and feared in the West are often loved in Arab countries because of charitable works.