The Adventurer (Trope)

A very basic element of nearly every tabletop RPG is the concept of “The Adventurer”. You will not find many games where players are taking on the roles of bakers, social workers or civil servants. Typically character roles or class are not occupations or real life tasks. Regardless of what fancy name the roles have – you actually play an independent adventurer without social obligations or an employment contract. Sure, you have to somehow generate the silver pieces or credits to pay the sleeping room or your breakfast, but you normally don’t do that by getting up early, going to work until noon/evening and you don’t do things like cultivating a field, building a house, putting away rubbish, making beds or doing laundry for other people, etc.

No – the adventurer has other goals in life. He wants to become rich and famous, or just rich. Not by doing chores but by pure luck and a bit of breeziness. You either do things that are a little bit or totally illegal, or at least morally debtable. You sell your sword to anyone who pays you, some characters even become hired killers. Even if you only protect some very important person by using your fighting skills and arms, you will lead a rather violent life and will have little restraint in using force of arms. Being a wizard is just another type of mercenary who swaps the sword for spells. You may be a healer, though, refraining from violence and only stitching together your comrades, who happily hack and slay (and get hacked and slain once in while), which is not much better than doing the beheading by yourself. Adventurers are considered to be heroes, but what is a hero? Someone who protects his/her people from harm? What if his/her people are causing harm and have to defend against retaliation? What if the borders of wrong and right can not be drawn by an alignment stat on the character sheet? Life is complicated and people are, too. There is no wrong or right decision that stands above all. Life is about attitudes and decisions, all decisions are doing harm to someone or something, even if the intentions are very good and the consequences were unclear when making them.

The adventurer relies heavily on the society he lives in, even if he spends alot time in the wilderness, he or she has to come back into that society regularly. He usually learned skills and knowledge from that society, took some sort of wealth or starting capital from it (you rarely work as a miner for 20 years until you can actually buy yourself a rusty sword and start your dream career). Yet, he thinks of himself of standing outside of that society in many aspects. Yes, he has to respect authorities and the law, but he does not belong to any sort of social standing or group (like all the craftsmen or merchants do). In some games there is even a fantasy variant of medieval estates – like an adventurers guild (as fantastic as a thieves guild). In many games adventurers are allowed or accepted to do things normal people are not. They usually do carry weapons or drive vehicles that would cause constant check-ups by the law enforcement for normal people. Just think about how the city guard of Cologne would have reacted to a bunch of guys dressed in full armor walking up towards their gate. Walking around in arms was not normal (and not convenient or useful unless on a battleground). Carrying around lots of money and spendign it was even less normal and would make the adventurer look very suspicious to normal folks, authorities and villains alike. People do not go to the blacksmith of a castle or city and simply buy a sword by putting a handful of gold coins on the table – not unless you are a well-known local noble. Making business was personal in old times, even merchants would not trust a deal with a suspicious foreign person, fearing to get the bad end of that deal if anyone else finds out about it. In sci-fi games money transactions and deals would most likely be very strictly controlled and it could be very hard to buy a handgun on the blackmarket in a society that only accepts digital money. Bringing medieval concepts into such future societies (some people still use good ol’ coins) is normally the explanatory workaround, but not good world building.

Adventurers often find riches and treasures on their journeys (or take them from someone or something by force). Sometimes coins (good luck carrying 3000 gold coins back home over 100 miles) sometimes jewels or jewelry or goods like (magic) weapons, spell tomes and stuff like that. The hero can try to make use of such items by herself if possible (often a spell tome is pretty useless to non-wizards), ot try to sell the stuff. Finding someone who is interested in it and ready to pay the real value of such an item can be pretty hard, though. Some items might be well known items, an adventurer presenting them to a buyer or wielding them might find that quite many very powerful und unfriendly people wish to contact him soon. Mighty items and a hero make a fearsome combination to the normal population – other heroes and villains, monsters and deities could see this as a chance to easily get a hand on that “blade of slaying” themselves.

Adventurers would be admired, but also feared and often rejected by normal society. A local baron might not wish to invite them into his hall to listen to their adventure stories, if the troupe is known to have an ongoing feud with the hostile neighborhood or an evil dragon who is out for revenge and could set the castle ablaze any moment. Greed is often the key to get any contacts at all for adventurers, nobles and powerful people would want to participate on the success of the adventurers. But at the same time they would probably try to manipulate and cheat them, whenever possible. Naive concepts where everyone honestly loves heroes don’t convince (just compare Templars in RPGs and Knights Templar in real history).

In recent years books and movies have seen a growing number of anti-heroes, with roles that are barely good, just before the brink of moral evil. They do bad things in the name of the good or themselves, like betraying, lying, cheating, hurting or killing good people for the greater good, or simply by doing nothing at all for people in need unless getting a personal reward out of it. Those characters are closer to reality than the shinging white knights of classical RPGs that happily sacrifice their lives for a minor cause. Such concepts are pure escapism and usually still bigot and hypocritical in the end. Otherwise every adventurer would become a medic or healer and use his or her skills to help ordinary people, not crazy adventurers looking for loot or fame.

This is true for all classes and roles presented in games, another common trope called”character class” is an entirely subordinate trope in itself.

Normally all adventurers or heroes would finally become some sort of ruler/authority themselves or get terminated by those. The combination of independance in mind and action, power and wealth would be a direct threat to any authorities in place who would not accept that for long. Authorities would try to bind adventurers closely by making them court wizards, personal guards and consultants. They would probably offer them to become generals or advisors, but only if they would proof that they totally accept the rules of hierarchy and end their liberal adventure’s life in return. Otherwise adventurers will soon find themselves amongst outcasts and outlaws (which can be fun, too). It would still be hard for an experienced adventurer to become the leader of men and women who deem loyalty, familiarity and devotion higher than boldness. They would hardly accept an unknown person not from their own ranks above them.