Kill All Adventurers

I never want to play in a campaign as a party of “adventurers” ever again.

Adventurer is not a profession. No-one real life person in history has ever defined their vocation as “adventurer”. The whole notion of an adventurer is an artificial construct for playing in a game with the most minimal context possible.

Sometimes lack of context can be good, because it leaves room for definition later, or because it allows you to jump straight into the action. And in a board game, or some video games, where the focus is on the gameplay challenge, background details might not be all that important.

But if I’m committing to playing in a RPG campaign, you better believe I’m going to want context. Context is what gives the decisions I make meaning. Context is what highlights the elements of my character that are distinctive. Context is what binds me to the other characters, and allows me to go through trial, pain and furious argument with them, and stay together stronger for our ordeal, rather than exiting their company and the campaign.

I’m not saying I never want to expose myself to the typical experience of adventurers again. There are plenty of professions vaguely resembling the adventurer mindset that would provide excellent context for a fantasy game. Monster hunters? Sure. Hand me my nets and my bear trap. Explorers? That could be fun too. You roll up a navigator, I’ll play a cartographer. Border guards? Law enforcers? Warrior merchants? Action archaeologists? Questing knights? Literal hobos? All of these are good.

But a game cannot function without that level of definition. You need clear signposting so that GMs can signal the kind of campaign they’re interested in running, and so players can make informed decisions about whether they want to play. And once the game starts, that signalling is what informs the kind of characters players generate, the actions they choose to undertake, the tone they work within to give your game consistency and thematic resonance.

Have you ever played in a game where one person’s playing a devout cleric, another’s playing a murderous rogue, and you’re left scratching your head wondering why these two people would ever travel with one another, let alone risk their lives to protect one another?

That is the problem of “adventurer” writ large. Two people who thought they were creating compatable characters, because they both shared the common ground of “adventurer”, and failed to realise that adventurer is a meaningless, amorphous term that provides no commonality whatsoever.

And I can hardly blame those hypothetical players for their misunderstanding. Because this is endemic in roleplaying circles, especially in fantasy gaming. Which not only produces all the problems above, but also informs why I’m so tired of fantasy, even with my limited exposure. There’s only so many times I can muster enthusiasm for picking between the thinly-veiled variants of rogue/warrior/mage/priest. But if I play a trap expert in a monster hunter game, and a veteran interrogator in a fantasy police game? That is genuine variety.

Three years ago, I started running a Diaspora roleplaying game. After completing world generation to our mutual satisfaction, we started on character creation, and ended up with a party of interesting, dramatic characters with multiple dimensions, and even shared history with one another, but NO REASON to continue working together.
So I scrapped all the characters and started again. And this time, instead of generating “spacemen” (the sci-fi equivalent of “adventurer”), we first agreed what the core activity of the game was going to be. The players collaboratively decided they wanted to be the crew of a luxury passenger liner, with each of them having a role aboard the ship. One of the players suggested that every FTL ship by law had a “Consultant” who reported to the somewhat tyrannical authorities that ran the system, a crucial element of setting material that instantly sparked our imaginations and became an integral part of the game to follow. And THEN they started generating characters. One of them played the captain. Another played the ship’s public relations officer. Another played the Consultant, and thus the roots of thirty-odd sessions of intense character drama were born.

Reducing the role of player characters to “adventurer” is a tragic loss of opportunity – especially when it so often reduces all other NPCs in the world to either “monsters” or “people who need adventurers to save them from monsters”. Collaborative world-building is a beautiful thing, and the player party is the seed that beauty sprouts from. To anyone in the same situation I was, who is intimidated by the prospect of wiping clean all character creation done so far – take the plunge and do it again. I guarantee you’ll be grateful for it in the long run.

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