Two thousand years after the fall of Oriac, seven adventurers came to Negune. Many adventurers had come before them, but all had either returned home or perished. These seven would prove different. […] For over thirty years, they traveled to every land of Negune. They slew monsters, saved villages, and bred good will throughout the land.”
I wrote that a few years back as part of the history of my Ascendant Crusade game. It’s the story that explained the way the nations on the continent were broken up. One for each of the heroic adventurers who had shown up out of nowhere and fixed everything. It’s a setting I was passionate about for many years, and I still have a place in my heart for it. But this particular tidbit is a good example of something that has come to bother me a lot about the stories that come out of D&D games. “Everything was bad. Nobody was competent. Fortunately, a small group of nobodies from nowhere fixed everything.”
I’m not a story guy. You wouldn’t have to try very hard to find quotes where I vehemently deride the over-emphasis of story in tabletop gaming. But I can’t pretend that story doesn’t play some role.
What really gets to me about this trope is the idea that players are SPECIAL. That even at first level, they’re basically the only instrument of change in the world. The only characters with agency. Of course, in matter of fact, they are the only characters who have agency, but rubbing it in their faces like this just seems gouache. How can you ever feel like you matter if the world is obviously constructed for the sole purpose of making you feel like you matter?
Which brings me to questgivers, an essential element to the game. They’re the folks who get stuff moving by giving the PCs something useful to do. There are a few essential elements that make up a questgiver’s character. First, they want something done. Second, they’re going to rely on strangers to do it for them. Third, they’re probably going to offer a reward for getting that thing done.
Lets start with that point about the PCs being strangers. We (as in you and I, looking at this text on a computer monitor) live in an anachronistic period of history. A period created by recent inventions such as the train, the automobile, the telephone, and the Internet.
These inventions allow us to buy our groceries & build our relationships outside of our immediate vicinity. Prior to this era, any community that wasn’t a cosmopolitan city would be tight knit. Strangers were immediately recognizable, and nobody liked or trusted them. So what would drive someone from that community to ask a stranger for help, when there are doubtless plenty of strapping young locals who would be happy to help?
We’re better at dealing with strangers now because everyone is a stranger. We don’t have a huge pool of neighbors to draw upon for every little thing. But that’s not true in a less modern setting, such as the ones we typically play D&D in.
Which brings up my next point: in any given place, there are tons of people who can get stuff done. Getting something done is a privilege. Ever notice how politicians will often stop other politicians from getting something done, even if they want to get the same thing done themselves? They don’t want the other party to get the glory of accomplishing this task. This is not a new practice, it’s as old as human society.
If you’re a king, you want your heir, or at least a strong supporter of yours, to do the cool things. Doing cool things strengthens their (and thus your) position. Likewise, if you’re a town of 30 people, you’ll want your own kin to handle a problem. It’s a matter of civic pride. And if a small town really can’t handle it themselves, then they’re going to expect the king to handle it. And the king is going to want to handle it, because if he doesn’t protect people from dangers, they’re going to start wondering why they pay taxes. It takes more than simple momentum to maintain an effective government.
Which brings us to the point of payment. People who do good things for money are not heroes. They don’t generate good will. Heroes are people who do good work without any promised reward. Heroes may be rewarded with positions, jobs, and land after the fact, but these things are not negotiated in advance. Certainly not out in the open, and certainly not for a simple cash payment. People who negotiate in advance for cash payment are called mercenaries.
Mercenaries are not heroes.
So when are mercenaries hired? In wealthy societies where the populace is unwilling to risk life and limb to protect their own lands, mercenary armies often replace home grown ones. But your PCs are not an army, they’re a handful of dudes with weapons who are willing to kill stuff for money. Who hires people like that?
People who want you to do some bad shit. People who want to deny knowledge of something. People who want to blame “those outsiders.”
In other words, questgivers are evil.
Now this isn’t a rule without exceptions. There will always be bounties on villains. There will always be towns at the end of their rope looking for 7 samurai. There will always be kingdoms ruled by despotic children who only send out soldiers to enforce tax collection. But there is pretty much NEVER going to be a long chain of dudes who want to hold your hand while you become an icon of heroic heroism and noble nobility, all while making sure your endeavors remain profitable.
Further, this doesn’t mean that players can’t be heroes if they want to be. It just needs to be their choice. They need to help people without being asked. When they do help people, they can’t then ask for payment, or ask for rewards that are not offered freely in gratitude. “Hero” is a tenuous title, and unless you’re dead, it can flip over to “tyrant” in a heartbeat.
It’s not my intent to argue that games should be more realistic as a general rule, or that this is the only way to play. Far from it. Anyone familiar with my work knows that realism bores me. The minute that somebody tries to justify a mechanic by saying it’s “more realistic,” my instinct is to just tune them out. But this idea of “the traveling adventurer” as an unambiguous hero shatters any sense of believability a story has for me. The way the word “adventurer” is used has become almost as cringe-inducing for me as the time I had an opportunity to have a one-on-one conversation with my favorite university professor, and I spent the whole time talking about why his favorite TV show was dumb.
Play the way you want to play, of course, but for me, accepting a quest should mean that you’re about to do some shady ass shit that will probably hurt some good people.