I was thinking the other day about all the Dungeons & Dragons campaigns I’ve done in my life. Whether I was running back and forth through the Dalelands, traversing the scorching sands of Athas, or recovering in Sigil from my latest trek to the Lower Planes things were pretty sweet. My characters were all different in their background but they could find adventure and glory if they put their minds to it. Then I thought: why? Today, I’m going to make a case for not doing that.
Simply put, D&D characters all fall into a single über-archetype that spreads over all the various combinations of class and race that you can come up with. They are (in the tradition of Cypher‘s character sentences) eclectic mercenaries who search for adventure. This is an awesome basis for games and it extends beyond D&D (unsurprisingly) to a diverse span of games including Numenera, Shadows of Esteren, 7th Sea, and Degenesis but it doesn’t have to be that way every time. In this post, I’m going to discuss each of these elements in turn to give you examples of how you can turn this assumption on its head without changing a thing about the settings or systems you and your players love.
Not So Eclectic
In a typical adventuring party, all of the characters have varied backgrounds from different areas and possibly different continents of worlds. In a game like Timewatch they could be from different timelines altogether! But… what if they weren’t?
Take, for example, a game like Mutant Year Zero. In that game, all of the characters explicitly come from the same small, isolated enclave and probably have known each other their whole lives. They weren’t thrown together by crazy circumstance or the come-hither look of a grey-bearded quest-giver. They were asked to work together and they are doing so because it’s the plan both in-game and out of it. This is also seen in games like Exalted or Scion (both, probably not coincidentally, going into a second edition) where you might have been born in different areas but now you have a shared heritage and purpose.
So what does this look like in D&D? Well, it depends on the setting. You can always take the approach of Mutant Year Zero and have the party be composed of childhood friends from a small, isolated town. The future’s a blank page but their past is already rich and engaging. In a setting like Eberron you can have them be from the same military unit which they joined as teenagers, sharing years and years of experiences before the game even starts. On the other hand, in something like Dark Sun you can limit players to being from a single city-state (even a single portion of a city-state) without fear of them rioting. Personally, I’d try a game every once in a while where you tell the players “shut up, you’re all from a town with a population of forty, so deal with it.” Once in a while! It won’t hurt them. Whiny players…
Lacking That Mercenary Spirit
So here’s a novel idea: what if your players weren’t murder-hobos who ruined everyone’s lives? Bear with me here, it’s not as depressing a prospect as you might think.
The game that got me thinking about this whole post was Dogs in the Vineyard where you play holy warriors in the American West (better than it sounds) helping out isolated towns and exorcising demons. The characters here are out looking for adventure and can have whatever background the characters want but they aren’t out to get rich quick or to gather personal glory. In a similar vein, characters in The Strange are trying to save the multiverse and characters in Mouse Guard are serving the commonmice of the Territories.
In a Dungeons & Dragons game this involves two steps. First, you need to give the player characters a grander purpose: for Dogs its enacting the will of the King of Life, for Mouse Guard it’s the oaths of the Guardmice. For Dungeons & Dragons it could be traveling through a frontier region on behalf of the king or gathering the seven shards of an artifact to fulfill a prophecy. This will give the players something to do besides tracking down contracts but you also need to give them a way to get more loot without picking fights. Dungeons & Dragons 5e might not require the constant accumulation of wealth but players still want it. Head that off by giving them another avenue: most easily by having their overseers send them fresh equipment when they complete objectives. This way it doesn’t feel like handouts because they’ve done something to earn it… even if that “something” is what you wanted them to do anyways.
The last piece of the puzzle is actually the one that seems the most intrinsic to D&D. What if the characters didn’t go out adventuring? What would they do instead? Well, it actually isn’t that far of a stretch.
An excellent example of this sort of game is an upcoming RPG called Red Markets. Characters in this game have wild times out in the wilderness exploring, fighting, and dealing with bandits and the undead, but they do it on a contractual basis. There’s no “let’s see what’s over there, oh gods its a dragon!” business in this game, you know that there’s a job and you are in it strictly for the profit. In the other direction, games like Blue Planet feature player characters out for scientific inquiry and pure exploration while other games like Achtung! Cthulhu are wartime settings where the characters are confronting challenges because their superiors gave them orders to.
Wartime games are an excellent way to do this in D&D and a way to allow for a varied party as well. If you don’t want to shake up an existing setting with a major war, they could be soldiers in peacetime who have to deal with bandits, protect caravans, defend towns from rampaging monsters… a lot of the things that Dungeons & Dragons characters are doing anyways but now they don’t have to be swayed with stacks of gold or eligible farmer’s daughters. They have orders to do it and so they do it.
If you want them to instead pursue danger and drama without a structured hierarchy, why not remove the safety net entirely? Take a cue from Red Markets and Mutant Year Zero and put them in dire straits. This doesn’t need to be post-apocalyptic like those games, just make the campaign about staving off the worst instead of reaching for the best. Maybe there’s a sickness raging across the countryside and the characters are trying to earn enough to pay for the temples to heal their families when the sickness inevitably reaches their home. Or maybe they were regular adventurers until they
took an arrow to received a prophecy that they would be killed by the “Red King.” Who is this king? What has he got against them? That’s the object of their adventuring now, not just seeing what comes along.
Are you going to try this out in your home campaign? Did it make you think of ways to move your game outside the box just a little? Did you hate it and go out to slay twenty goblins just to cleanse your mind of this anti-sandbox filth? Let me know either way!