Professional Adventurers

I have to say I am not a fan of the concept of “professional adventurers”.

That is, settings which self-consciously have people who call themselves, or are called, “adventurers”. Places where there are adventurers’ guilds, places with message boards in the town square with notices posted by people looking to “hire adventurers”, places where adventuring parties are given “charters” by the local nobility… Basically, places where “adventurer” is a job description, the same as one would call oneself a baker, a sellsword, an innkeeper, or a blacksmith.

To my mind, “adventurers” should be extraordinary. A band of wandering mercenaries? Sure. But a band of people who wander about looting tombs and slaying nobles they deem “evil”? Not so much.

Now, the concept of adventurers as a class of people for whom that’s what they do (and all they do) is a trope as old as fantasy RPGs. It’s something that’s embedded in the DNA of settings like the Forgotten Realms.

But if one looks at the “Appendix N Literature”, the adventurers, so to speak, were the exception rather than the rule.

How many Fellowships were there in Middle Earth? How many organized groups of professional tomb-looters were there in the Young Kingdoms, composed of a mix of various types of people? Did Conan find many “bands of fellows” other than mercenaries or bandits? Certainly none that were wandering about the landscape, traveling hither and yon in search of adventure. An individual or a pair, perhaps. Fafhrd and the Grey Mouser can arrive in a village near Ool Hrusp without attracting notice. But the classic “band of adventurers?” Any large group would be assembled for a specific purpose, like the company of Thorin Oakenshield. They didn’t just wander Middle Earth looking for adventure. They assembled for a specific quest, with a definite objective.

I don’t see how any world can sustain the existence of numerous groups of wandering adventurers with any shred of verisimilitude.

The local nobility would rapidly find the constant arrival of heavily armed and well-magically-equipped bands of what are essentially brigands to be rather destabilizing. In lands that are at peace, such groups would be quickly shunted off to greener pastures by the Powers That Be. In lands at war, such well-armed groups would be pressed into service, and if that proved impossible, would be deemed to be in league with the enemy and dealt with forthwith.

One exception might be in the case of a megadungeon in close proximity to a populated or urban area. Since the activities of the explorers are focused on the ruins rather than random wanderings, it could be argued that they are more focused on a single objective. They are not the randomly wandering “adventuring party” of some campaigns.

Written by 

Wargamer and RPG'er since the 1970's, author of Adventures Dark and Deep, Castle of the Mad Archmage, and other things, and proprietor of the Greyhawk Grognard blog.

11 thoughts on “Professional Adventurers

  1. Overall I'm inclined to agree with you, but I think one setting where it might work would be a "new world exploration" type set up – Conquistador companies, the early expeditions of East and West Indies companies, and the like all show some real world examples of organized bands setting out for "adventure" and loot.

  2. The adventuring party is basically a special ops team with no definite allegiance. You're quite right that no noble worth his salt wants them around. If they cause problems they're harder to get rid of than standard mercenaries (man for man they're stronger and more coordinated, and they are far better at evading pursuit). If they solve problems then people begin to wonder why they need the noble.

    So how do they come to be employed? Well it's similar to Shadowrunner teams. Somebody wants something done that requires a very special set of skill-sets. For some reason the powers that be can't help. So somebody asks around, who has a rep for dealing with this sort of thing? Like Shadowrunners "professional adventurers" would spend most of their time not adventuring. Most of the time your fighter is guarding caravans, your wizard is teaching 12 year olds how to stare at candles, your healer is dealing with sniffely noblity etc. But every so often real work comes up or someone you know gets a lead on something you want and you're an adventurer again.

  3. I often felt as you do, but just because Appendix N doesn't feature "professional adventurers," the problem is not one of verisimilitude. I submit that there are many historical examples of such (e.g., during periods of colonialism, piracy on the Main and elsewhere, pioneering the American West, etc., to name a few commonly appreciated theaters in which adventurers competed for plunder at the end of a blade under sponsorship). You needn't look further than Raiders of the Lost Ark for a cheeky "N-grade" cinematic parallel, for what are Belloq and Jones but two opposed state-sponsored adventurers?

    Even Conan used to run with companies of sponsored adventurers under Aquillonia (to e.g., Venarium) in his youth. Conan would have gladly accepted mercenary quests in Nemedia if he had any recognition, and so turned to thieving (in Zamora), and later formed his own thieves' guild in Corinthia with some of the Gunderman he fought beside at the Battle of Venarium! And of course Conan formed his own band of adventurers in Turan before accepting a litany of paying jobs on the Road of Kings, during his return west.

    The issue is whether you want to tell stories about professional adventurers, not whether they exist comfortably in reality or fiction. In OD&D, the dungeon is a fitting frontier for competitive adventuring… if you want it to be! If you'd rather tell stories about heroic adventurers exploring lost crypts for the first time, then that's fine too. In thirty-one years of role-playing I've occasioned at both.

    If the line between "adventurer" and "mercenary" comes down to sponsorship, so be it! There is much intrique to be had and opportunity for grand storytelling when adventurers compete under contract, when adventuring rivals clash in town and dungeon, wheels of power grinding away in court and castle, nations rising and falling with treasures unearthed…

  4. In theory, I agree. It is sort of like superheros and MMOs. If everyone you meet is a superhero, then it seems quite odd.

    But aren't the rules sort of implying that an "adventuring" class of citizens exist? I recall Gary talking about "inflation" due to adventurers hauling in treasure as an explanation for the prices of items.

  5. Others have commented here on the historic, rather than literary Appendix N nature of professional adventurers; too, as Zirzird mentions, Conan actually did fall in with various professional adventuring groups from time to time. But it is Random Wizard's note on Gary's mention of inflation in areas with adventurers that is most pertinent, I think, to what Gary intended with "professional adventuring companies."

    Recall the origins of the Greyhawk campaign, in that it all began with the looting of the recently-rediscovered dungeons under Castle Greyhawk. Over time, through the campaign, different companies of adventurers evolved to loot the dungeons. It can be surmised from the nature of the dungeon that such adventuring companies did not exist prior to the opening of this new "frontier," much in the way that conquistadors came into being with the discovery of the New World and cowboys came into being with the opening of the Wild West.

    Prior, in Greyhawk, most such bands were mercenary or bandit groups, as you have noted. Thus, the "by the book" professional adventuring company only exists as long as there are dungeons to loot. A modern historical equivalent would be the "archaeologists" of the early era of archaeology; Belloq and Indy, as given in an earlier example, were little more than state-sponsored looters.

    Thus, in a world where a lost, wealthy past can now be explored due to the rediscovery of the deeper, riches-filled ruins exists, professional adventurers would certainly come into being. And they would in turn get mixed in with, merge into, and break off from mercenary companies (Sellswords, Free Companions), bandit companies (Robin Hood's Merry Men, bagaudae), and even nomadic and barbarian tribes (Kozaks, Afghulis, etc.) as opprotunity and need exists…

  6. I disagree that the examples cited really are analogous to the "wandering adventuring companies" that populate most D&D worlds.

    For example, the Conquistadors were brought together for a very specific purpose; to conquer lands in the New World for Spain. They were not made up of men who had previously wandered about Europe toppling governments and looting their treasuries. They were a team with a specific mission.

    As for Conan, again, those were not wandering bands of "adventurers" in the D&D sense of the word. I would argue that a band of mercenaries (who do move from one kingdom to another, but only really work in the context of a national military that has hired them) or bandits (who generally stay together as a cohesive whole in a single geographic area such as the southwestern shores of the Vilayet Sea) is different in character from the sort of wandering adventurers whom we see in the Forgotten Realms (for example).

    In D&D, "adventuring parties" go anywhere and do anything, often from month to month. They slip lightly from tomb robbing in the Dalelands to assisting a rebel prince in Cormyr to tracking down bandits plaguing the Sword Coast. But they always maintain a coherent whole (fatalities notwithstanding), and thus have an identity that is dependent neither on their activities nor their locale, and thus are fundamentally different in nature from the other sorts of groups that we see either historically or in fantasy literature (with the exception, of course, of the literature which has come into existence since the advent of D&D and fantasy RPGs in general, which have been influenced by its major organizational conceit).

  7. To me it's a question of the rarity of adventurers (and by extension, individuals with Class levels) and the extent to which these adventurers are sanctioned or regulated by the various fantasy governments in the game-world.

    Personally, I have preferred a low-to-medium magic, "adventurers are rare" sort of campaign, thereby obviating the need for an advenurer's guild or other overlay. Gygax's workaround seems to have been to reward PCs with nonexclusive salvage rights to the dungeon; implicit was the benefit to the local noble, who either got the monsters cleared out of the local ruin or removed a few pesky free agents from the balance of power …

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