[This has been occupying my mind, blocking my ability to write about other things (like the next part of Woodchipper), so I just needed to get it out of my brain. I've been giving thought to running a campaign set in 1648 in a very fractured Holy Roman Empire and this was relevant to that. Additionally, I've been going through the back catalog of When Diplomacy Fails podcast on iTunes and it has been setting off sparks in my brain. Check it out.]
Adventurers have existed for far longer than role-playing games. The use of the term in D&D was probably an outgrowth of the tabletop wargames out of which D&D developed. This article will discuss what a historical adventurer was in Europe during the Renaissance (14th through 17th centuries) and how this maps to an adventurer in a RPG.
Adventuring in the Renaissance was more of a military/mercenary career choice, where adventurers went looking for military glory (or at least military spoils). This meant either adventuring in heavily populated Europe by joining in on one of the almost innumerable wars happening on the Continent or going overseas to conquer/plunder the “less civilized” peoples.
Adventuring In Europe
Being an adventurer in Europe is a matter of picking a side in a war, joining up, and hoping you don’t have to fight too much, but get plenty of opportunity to seize spoils of war. One of the advantages of being an adventurer in Europe is that you ARE in Europe. So if things go bad, you can slip away and make your way home, or at least to a safer war. If you are part of a military company (mercenary or otherwise) you are, theoretically at least, drawing pay, even when you aren’t fighting.
One of the traditional motivations for joining the military was the claiming of spoils. As part of an army in Europe, what spoils you seize (loot) are immediately usable or sellable for coin. There is a chance that the actual owner (or a relative) will come looking for their family heirlooms, possibly with some sort of legal writ. This unfortunate occurrence is more likely to happen when fighting in a defensive war, as opposed to invading “enemy” territory. Finally, any food you “requisition” from the locals is guaranteed to be something recognizable and you or one of your buddies will know how to cook it.
The downside of being an adventurer in Europe is that any land you may be conquering is never available for you, only the officers (at best) and only if your side wins the war and the noble in charge hasn’t already promised it to his cronies, for use of their troops, or his creditors, to get an extension on repayment of the loan. Another issue is the sheer number of soldiers in Europe - armies can easily number in the 20,000 to 40,000 soldiers range. Very large armies makes for very low odds you’ll be able to stand out for some quick recognition (and the attendant bonuses), especially if you are trying to do so with minimal effort. Finally, you ARE part of an army and subject to orders from superiors - and punishments for failing to follow those orders.
So to summarize: Europe’s near home, there are plenty of opportunities to get rich looting (and probably not get hauled into court), and the food is recognizable. The downside is that there is a lot of competition for recognition, requiring real effort be made, on top of which, what land changes hands always stays in the possession of officers and aristocrats, never the common soldier.
In most ways, adventuring overseas is the opposite of adventuring in Europe. First, it is a long way from home, usually via ship. These trips can easily last months, assuming the ship is not attacked by a hostile European power or just pirates or disease starts passing through the passengers and crew. Or the passengers get sold into slavery (rare but more likely if you are not Christian or the captain owes a lot of money and you look weak, possibly due to disease).
Once you arrive, there are the twin issues of disease and starvation. Europeans are not well adapted to the tropics, especially during the Renaissance when medicine wasn’t very medical or successful. This is particularly true during the summer months, when soldiers are expected to be fighting. Depending upon where you are landing and/or when during the Renaissance, food supplies at a colony make be very tenuous. The first few years of a colony’s existence, especially in the early Renaissance when knowledge of what it really took to establish a colony was rudimentary at best, food was scarce for the colonists, let alone any soldiers for hire just showing up on a ship. There were also very disreputable recruiters operating in Europe, looking for people to start a colony or, more importantly, pay for a spot in a colony that might or might not exist. Later, the names of known and established colonial ports becomes more common knowledge and the questions become: “Do they have enough food there?” or “Are we bringing enough food to supply the colonists AND soldiers?” If you are going someplace that needs soldiers, hostile forces may make food supply chancy.
Finally, once you arrive and find out what the real situation is, sneaking away and hot-footing it back home is not really possible due to the long ship ride necessary. This requires cash for passage home or working off the passage, but if you had any of that, you wouldn’t be overseas for a military adventure, would you? On the positive side, assuming you and your military companions don’t die of disease or starvation, looting is a very viable option for securing cash and goods.
Back in Europe, you need a lot of soldiers to be a military force of and use. Free cities alone can raise armies of between 5000 and 10,000 soldiers, more if they are a major trade port. Overseas? Some of the largest armed forces can only field armies in the 10,000 to 15,000 soldiers sizes, and that’s to cover entire regions. More often battles between European forces overseas number between 3000 to 5000 soldiers in size and units as small as 100 to 200 soldiers can become legendary. A force of around 100 can conquer entire native nations (assuming you are using firearms and the natives aren’t).
Best of all, European powers are willing to give away large amounts of native lands to those willing to fight for or pay for it (natives need not apply). There is lots of land available, especially in the New World after many of the natives die from European diseases (and Europeans). Holding title to your land from richer or more connected Europeans may be an issue, but you and your companions are military adventurers and probably know a few things about fighting, right? Plus, maybe you and your companions can raise an army of your own and become important in your own right (as long as you can pay salaries and keep your troops fed). Also, if that land you claimed has natives with good stuff on it, you can keep anything you take because you own the land and you can’t steal from yourself can you?
Finally, as a European, you are at the top of the social order. You might not get invited to all the best parties and social events unless you have money or loyal troops, but the governmental officials and the courts will always side with you over any natives, slaves, and often descendants of European colonists (but you better have some good bribes for that last group).
So, summing up adventuring overseas: there is plenty of opportunity for land and no repercussions for looting while on campaign, but food may be hard to come by and disease is a regular travelling companion. With a significantly lower European population it does not take anywhere near as many soldiers to raise army (or as much money to buy local government officials) and start a new life as a despot. You are at the top of the social hierarchy (if not the social ladder) due to birth and have access to better weapons and/or tactics than any natives you have to fight (assuming your officers didn’t buy their commission).
Adventuring in a RPG
Adventuring in a RPG combines elements of both adventuring in Europe and adventuring overseas. There is some travel involved in RPG adventuring, but how much varies greatly, depending upon the campaign - in some campaigns everything happens in or around the same town or dungeon and in others a great deal of travel happens. The amount of travel also effects the types of food available, but for most campaigns the food tends to be a homogeneous pseudo-Renaissance cuisine.
The adventurers are usually the only ones active in the area, so there is little competition and a small group can have a large influence over events. That said, they are rarely if ever paid for doing what they are doing, although rewards and bounties may factor in, and the looting of dead monsters usually substitutes for regular pay. Depending upon the campaign, the ability to claim land by the adventurers is possible, usually the land previously occupied by monsters, evil humanoids, or mad wizards the adventurers have recently slain. While most RPGs have a lot of combat, it almost never factors into a war, which is one of the major points of divergence from historical adventuring.
Adventuring in a RPG tends to follow a common path. First, the adventurers band together. This can be for mutual defense, a mutual desire for wealth, or being childhood friends looking for a better life than farming or trade guilds offer. The adventurers either go looking for trouble or trouble comes to them (independently or because of something the adventurers did or are doing). The trouble is often evil humanoids (which might contain a redundancy) raiding the area, either as the vanguard of a larger force or just “going a’viking” on their own for loot. Exactly how this latter activity is different from what the adventurers are doing is often brushed aside, but can make for some fascinating role-playing opportunities (or just lead to a fight among the players). Adventuring in a RPG also tends to involve a story or plot for the adventurers to work through. This can happen in a city (which guild is trying to take over the city and should we stop or help them?), the surrounding lands (who is sponsoring the raiding parties attacking the barony/duchy/kingdom and why?), or as a series of smaller stories that might be interconnected.
Another of the major variances between adventuring in a RPG and adventuring in the real world is the inclusion of “dungeons”: a large collection of interconnected areas containing monsters, traps, and treasure. Classic RPG dungeons are underground, either excavated and built out, a cave system of some sort, or a mixture of both. They are concentrated opportunities for conflict and looting, the meat and potatos of most (D&D-based) RPG games. This allows for adventuring close to home (or a base of operations) combined with transportation to an “other” place, a place where the rules of interaction change. This is similar to the difference from between a modern war zone and the R&R towns the troops fall back to when being rotated off the front lines.
The West Marches
A notable exception to the “standard” RPG campaign is the West Marches-style campaign. This type of campaign most closely mirrors adventuring overseas. The adventurers come from a long way away and are assisting in the exploration/colonization of a wilderness area that might or might not be occupied by “natives”. Adventurers are based in a single town that is the landing point for colonists/explorers and represents a small toe-hold on in a much larger wilderness.
One of the basic tenets of a West Marches campaign is “there is no adventure in town”, meaning that if the adventurers don’t leave their base of operations, nothing happens: no intrigue, no role play, no walking around town - nothing. Therefore, the adventurers must go out into the wilderness and see what’s out there. They have to decide what to interact with and what to run away from on their own. This leads to a more emergent story as the adventurers interact with things and disturb the status quo.
This was a very high-level view of historical adventuring compared to adventuring in RPGs. There is a lot of commonality between the two groups of adventures. Both groups seek wealth to better their position in life. Both groups are martially competent and therefore dangerous to the common people. Both groups are loose cannons that can be useful or dangerous to those in power. Differences are found in types of skills (no wizards able to throw fireballs in the real world) and possibly intent.