Don’t Go Adventuring in D&D

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 NumeneraShadows 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.

Genlab Alpha - Scouts
Image © Fria Ligan

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.

Achtung! Cthulhu - Mi-Go
Image © Modiphius

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.

Adventure? Meh.

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.

 

Eberron - The Last War
Image © Wizards of the Coast

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.

Conclusion

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!

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15 thoughts on “Don’t Go Adventuring in D&D

  1. Way ahead of you here. I am currently running a game where the players are all kids who ran away from an orphanage. They are lvl 0 humans with no weapons no food and no skills.

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    1. That’ll teach ’em! I know this isn’t a surprise to everyone but hopefully you’ve had some fun with it. Did your players feel hemmed in by the initial restrictions?

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      1. I’ve done things like this a few times, and yeah the players ALWAYS bitch and moan about it. At first. And then they get used to playing the character, and it’s alright and I daresay they even have fun.

        Part of what’s always gotten me about the whole: “you’re from a small town and you’ve known each other your whole lives” is coming up with proper backgrounds. It’s easy for a player to say: “I was a pirate” or somesuch. It’s a whole other thing trying to get them to say “I was a farmer. My dad was a farmer. My grandad was a farmer.” There’s nothing interesting in it, and so the players just don’t want to go there.

        The other day I saw a Wil Wheaton Tabletop of them playing some RPG I’ve never tried before (which is beside the point); what stood out to me was the DM asking questions like: “Tell me about the time you infected your sister with your horrible monster disease.” I was like, Whoah. That’s the way to flesh out these characters. Don’t have the players do it. Or rather, ask interesting questions about specific events in the character’s background, and let the players go from there. Yeah, I’m definitely going to have to start doing that.

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      2. Yeah, I love stuff like that. The first few times you do it, it feels like your passing the buck. The players may even look startled like “you’re the GM,” but then when they come up with the idea and now it’s a (game) reality they start to feel proud and invested.

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  2. Thats still adventuring. They are still having a adventure by doing those things. Just wanted to say that. 😉 But yeah, those kind of setups work fine.

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    1. You forgot to *mike-drop*. It’s amazing how many DMs out there forget that adventuring could be just travelling to the next town to go drinking with Sir Launcelot, or sit under a tree and happen upon a kidnapped maiden trying to escape. Those same people then bash on the poor players who were trained by them to behave as “murder-hobos” as though the players have no idea how to have fun properly.

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      1. I kind of like murder-hobos but they shouldn’t be the only PC out there. You know when you read a book and it’s like “oh, right, so this is the best friend who’s going to turn out to be jealous and then they reunite and win the day.” Don’t have games that feel like that! Life’s too short!

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    2. Right, hopefully you’ll excuse the hyperbole… Still, with a long-structure game or a bigger goal in mind the distinction between “the goblins adventure” and “the tomb adventure” start to blur since it’s all a big long narrative.

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  3. I’ve actually found this kind of game to be a lot of fun, and much more useful in creating a world for the players to be a part of, instead of just having them be random “adventurers” wandering about killing things. In my current campaign, the PCs are part of a protectorate assigned to the city-state as a special “military” force, dealing with insanity and monsters that’s a bit beyond the rank-and-file soldiers. (They’re basically D&D Ghostbusters hired by the government.)

    It’s been a pretty great way to get them into ridiculous shenanigans while still keeping them invested and giving them treasure (they get paid for their definitely dangerous job).

    So I agree wholeheartedly! Make the players a planned part of the game, and not just wandering murderhobos!

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  4. So this is kind of how I acomolished this…

    Enter the players… content, hanging out in a bar, wanting to make a name for themselves and get rich classic adventurer style…

    I introduced an adventure hook… very typical shadowy stranger who has urgent news of a political assassination. The player characters seeing an opportunity to get their name out there and become famous and Rich immediately Embark to the other side of the city to stop the assassination attempt. They get in position to do so and surprise!!! it’s a setup in the whole party is framed for assassinating some high priest.

    They are immediately surrounded by the town guard and hauled off to jail. They then proceeded to break out of jail prove their innocence and bring the guilty party to Justice.

    The local officials impressed with their ability and talent decide it would be a waste to just exonerate them and let them go so instead levied gigantic fines on them for breaking out of jail in the first place. Now in order to pay these fines they are given jobs from the local Magistrate while fitted with special magical collars that prevent their escape. So far the storylibe works well… it has provided a ton of fun gameplay while offering a very good story based reason for players to not be dumb and miss adventure hooks or just make intimidate checks against a shop keep for the cool sword he saw in the glass case.

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    1. Ha, I had a GM recently try this in a Star Wars campaign. We inherited a ship but the Pyke Syndicate had a lien on it so we had to scramble to earn enough for the first payment before our knees got bashed in. One of the other players immediately responded, “How do we know they have a lien on the ship? I say we just skip the sector.” The GM paled a little but managed to hold things together.

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    1. Nope, read again. If “adventuring” is the classic dungeon-delve-for-money model, these are three alternative approaches to shake things up. If you’re doing it already, congratulations this is for other DMs.

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