Saturday, 16 May 2020

The Adventurer-Dense to Adventurer-Sparse Spectrum: Vance to Tolkien

In Jack Vance's fiction, adventurers tend to be commonplace. (Indeed, in some respects almost everybody in Vance's novels are adventurers, because you rarely meet anybody who isn't vigorously pursuing some personal private quest, vendetta, mission or task of some kind.) Think of the various magicians and their rivalries in the "Dying Earth" stories; or the entire global economy of Tschai and its reliance on adventurers bringing treasure ("sequins") out from a dangerous wilderness; the idea that people write histories and popular non-fiction books about all the many adventurers infesting Beyond in the "Demon Princes"; or Interchange in The Killing Machine, which is predicated on kidnappings being so routine that the practice has developed formal institutions of arbitrage.

Vance's fiction, in other words, is adventurer-dense. Other adventurer-dense fictional universes which spring to mind are the Star Wars galaxy far, far away, Titan of the Fighting Fantasy books, and most D&D settings.

In adventurer-dense settings, you get an adventurer-friendly infrastructure developing. Institutions arise to facilitate what adventurers do, from your bustling inn brimming with hirelings and rumour, to your adventurer's guild, your market in ancient treasures and exotic weapons, your sages willing to shell out fortunes for rare collectibles, and so on. (Arguably, the true potential of adventurer-dense settings has never come close to being fully explored; would a system of adventurer insurance come into being? How about hireling labour exchanges? Or guilds for different adventurer types - woe betide a dungeoneer who is found to have been adventuring in a cave system or forest?)

For Tolkien, adventurers are rare. At any one time there appear to be roughly a dozen of them in the entire world, and they seem to be specifically chosen. They don't run into each other, and there is no adventuring infrastructure - Rivendell and Beorn are about it, at a stretch. His fiction is adventurer-sparse.

Gene Wolf tends to create adventurer-sparse settings, as do many of the more popular "big" fantasy authors, like Robert Jordan, David Eddings or Robin Hobb.

Is your world adventure-dense, or adventure-sparse, and what are the implications?

22 comments:

  1. Id argue that there has been a good discussion on the systematic outcomes of an adventurer-dense setting (though of course, by no means a total exploration): Dungeonomics by Multiplexer over at Critical-Hits has a long-running series on taking DnD tropes to their logical (economic) extreme. The Adventurer Party Bond Market post is a good starting place, though the beginning is never a bad starter either

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    1. Indeed, Dungeonomics came to mind to me too! I loved the post on parchment for scrolls. In fact, Noisms, you should read the series if you haven't.

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    2. I'll have to check them out!

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  2. One of the weird things about most of the campaigns I've played in is that we always seem to be the only adventuring party, yet to NPCs it is apparently perfectly normal to encounter a crazy diverse group of armed, shady & colorful misfits. We're play in de facto adventurer-sparse settings, but everyone acts as if it's an adventurer-dense environment.

    I've thought about that until I read your post.

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    1. I think outright hostility to strangers was the norm throughout most of human history - I've often wanted to play around with that more.

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    2. That's possibly true, but in a game it could also lead to a routine of trivial confrontational encounters (which don't have to end in violence of course). That could quickly become a drag. Instead of a fun & easy trip to the village to restock, get some specialist help or just have some light R&R, these trips become another chore. Like foraging when out in the wilderness, usually a relatively unproblematic but still necessary & repetitive task that on occasion can distract from the main adventure.

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  3. King of Dungeons rpg is by design and in practice adventurer-dense, being centred around adventurer's guilds, rivals for charters to explore dungeons.

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  4. My I would say most of my campaigns are Adventurer-Dense - Star Trek, Star Wars, Superheroes.

    My current Red Dwarf setting game is interesting because its Adventurer-Sparse because there simply isn't anyone else in the universe as far as the PCs know, until we come across someone or something of course.

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  5. How high adventurer density is portrayed in DnD can often come across as really corny, especially if the PCs never come across rivals trying to grab the treasure before they get there etc. etc.

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    1. Yeah, you need to have a way of explaining why there is any treasure left anywhere I suppose.

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  6. I've always leaned Adventurer-Sparse - settings with an Adventurers' Guild, professional dungeoneers (or similar) always seemed faintly ridiculous.

    An area, however, than seems to me suitable for (relatively) Adventurer-Dense settings is colonial history. Reading about the early British East India Company makes it seem suitable as a setting for rootless mercenaries. I'm on less firm ground with piracy in the Caribbean, but that has a similar feel. (By extension, the Western or Space-Western of Star Wars also seem apt). So settings like Qelong or Hot Springs Island feel appropriate to be Adventurer-Dense.

    Perhaps Tolkien's Rangers could be parsed as Adventurer-like, though (especially in Ithilien) they are more military like. Not that I feel a Commando unit is unsuitable for Adventurers.
    (https://worldbuildingandwoolgathering.blogspot.com/2017/04/small-military-units-party-of.html)

    Is Arthurian Britain Adventurer-Dense?

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    1. Yes, for definite. I wrote a post about that ages ago - Bandeirantes in colonial Brazil.

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  7. I would think that the density of adventurers should have an effect on the economy. If a region is crawling with treasure-hunters who turn out to be successful, and they start dumping rare ancient coins into the market, prices will jump locally, local people will get the cash to move elsewhere, and parasites will move in. Who is going to hold the adventurers' treasure for them? Most of all, the authorities will want a cut. I'd think they'd start regulating access to treasure-rich sites.

    For those who give GP for XP, this presents a dilemma. XP for GP before or after they are taxed?

    The economy should be moved whenever treasure-seekers are bringing new wealth, but I'd think that it's adventurer-dense settings in which the authorities have developed infrastructure to deal with them and to get their cut.

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    1. Yeah, I like these ideas - never really put them into practice but often thought about it.

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    2. In an adventurer-rich area, I'd imagine there would be a class of unscrupulous para-adventurers. These are fighters and magic-users who lurk outside of known adventure areas waiting for the adventurers who did the hard work of extricating the treasure, emerging with wounds, spells spent. When they come out, the para-adventurers are ready to take the goods!

      I expect that nobody would like such an end to a tough couple of sessions, so we don't do it.

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    3. I'd spring para-adventurers on the party like any other similar rat bastard trick: only after giving the party plenty of clues that they're lurking about so the party has a chance to take counter-measures. Kind of like you scatter about statues outside the medusa's lair.

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  8. There's a wealth of adventurer-dense settings with formalized mechanics just over there, in the anime.

    "is it wrong to pick up girls in a dungeon" has a town built around a megadungeon, with an elaborate system of guilds and factions and an economy entirely based around adventurers.

    Anime in general tend to be strongly MMO based, (the densest of all!) but then do some world building to try to account for this intense density.

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  9. I think this touched off memories of bad Dungeon Magazine adventures from the 90's in which adventurers were assumed to be a regular part of life and there were monsters everywhere but basically all townsfolk were civilians and the towns were completely undefended.

    The sort of nerve this touched with me was that there's often a big disconnect between the setting and what actually happens in adventures. Stuff like:

    1. The setting is explicitly adventurer dense, people at the inns instantly peg the PCs as a band of adventurers, etc. but the party never actually MEETS any other adventurers ever.

    2. There are monsters everywhere and the party constantly gets attacked by them while walking down the road but all villages are completely undefended and have no real system in place to respond to the monsters that are freaking everywhere except hope some adventurer comes by at the right time.

    3. There is a feudal system in place but nobody gives much of a crap about rootless heavily armed wanderers coming through killing shit.

    4. There's magic every freaking where but it doesn't seem to have affected society at all.

    Etc. etc. etc.

    Vance-style adventurer density works because adventure everywhere seems to be baked into the setting in a way that makes it not clash. If you want a less bizarre setting being very very adventurer sparse seems to make sense, at long as there are reasons for the PCs to be jamming their heads into the corners of the Earth where adventures can happen.

    One setting building exercise I worked on had "what would a world in which the standard D&D stuff was everywhere actually look like?" as a main theme. Lots of soicietal rules-lawyering around magical curses, heavily fortified settlements, and a lot of weirdness despite each individual thing being bog standard D&D.

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  10. I always thought that the idea of 'being an adventurer as a job' rather breaks suspension of disbelief. I prefer thinking that in most rpgs you are expected to play picaros from a picaresque novel. Rascals interacting with and in the margins of society
    and between supernatural wilderness and corrupt, opulent civilizations rife with strife and problems. There are many historic examples of these situations, late era Roman Empire filled with banditry and invading barbarians,16th century Europe with various nations intermittently at war, Renaissance Italy is probably the motherload when it comes to this.

    I feel the idea of adventurers and epic quests ironically come from Lord of the Rings. Appendix N is clockful of 'picaresque' fantasy. Fafhrd and Grey Mouser are basically lone-wolf robin hood outlaws, you already know Jack Vance, every Roger Zelazny novel more or less has an outcast magic noble as its protagonist. Books like Don Quixote, Voltaire's Candide, and Benvenuto Cellini's Autobiography feel more like early Dnd than many official Dnd novels. Picaros don't need to worry about infrastructures and authorities wanting a cut of the profits so much because they are outlaws living in a chaotic, multi-faction world.

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  11. It depends on the setting that I am running. Some are 'adventurer'-dense and some are somewhere between dense and sparse.

    Weirdly in a game that I am doing loosely based on shadowrun the setting is adventurer-sparse but the experience is adventurer-dense. It merely takes the idea of the supernatural existing in a near future and is set a folky Winnipeg, Canada setting. In the setting, supernatural phenomenon and cybernetic enhanced humans are actually quite uncommon, but because the player characters are outside of the system and don't legally exist, their only option are to be Eco-Anarchist shadowrunners, all their needs and interactions take place in the seedy underbelly of society where otherworldly monsters and cybernetic implant freaks frequent.

    In my Yoon-suin game things are a little different, it is mostly adventurer-sparse yet there are people who need things done and don't ask the ones who offer help any questions and hirelings in the form of mercenaries and wandering holy men. All of my players are either disguised or outcast nobles with inhuman ancestry, or foreigners, often with a band of otherworldly beings in tow. For a real-world analogy, my NPCs react to my player characters like how Japanese peasants from the Heian era would react to white Europeans and Chinese, dragon-king descended princes coming into their village leading the night parade of one hundred demons. Either they are respectful but completely weirded out or don't know how to react.

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  12. Played in an Adventurer sparse campaign where our characters were clerics who had been sent out to a small holding. Helped the ruling baron clean up his valley and were eventually put in charge of some of his troops. Worked very well.

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