On Adventurers

There’s this fictional medieval profession called “adventurer” that comes up time and again in fantasy RPGs. It’s sort of a catch-all for the various classes in a role-playing game. But what it really means is, someone who goes out and does daring deeds to make a living.

It does sound a little odd though, when I read over the blog, to be talking about “adventurers” like they’re a normal fixture of the medieval landscape. That’s simply not true. It’s just a catch-all term because there is no word that sums up all the characters you’d find in a party. “Heroes” is firstly a gendered term,* and secondly not really descriptive of people who, oh… cast Sleep on the room full of kobolds and then cut their throats and throw them in the river. What do a warrior, wizard, cleric, and thief do when they get together? They have adventures. Thus, they’re adventurers. Good enough.

While the concept might suggest thrill-seeking or first-to-do-something journeys, the fact the that RPG adventurer is often adventuring for profit is not actually that bizarre: People used to be described as such when they were, for example, pillaging Africa’s natural resources (now we call them capitalists). The distinguishing factor in fantasy adventurers is that they’re heavily armed and fully expect to enter into combat at some point, usually under the pretence of doing good. I’m sure this is part of the whole role-playing game thing starting out as a war game.

Adventurers tend to be rather insane by normal people’s standards – players are acting out heroic fantasy plots and have no reasonable expectation of actually dying, and their characters might also be able to be brought back to life. There’s no reason not to fight a duel on a tightrope over a chasm filled with spikes. If you’re really lucky, the spikes are on fire and the rope is poisoned. It’s an opportunity to act out the most ridiculous action scenes, so why wouldn’t you?

The adventurer protagonists of Fighting Fantasy books have even crazier ideas. When confronted with a well, is your first thought to climb down it? In these books, it might well be. The limited options presented in the text sometimes don’t appear too logical, and this is because they’re often there to pose risk/reward conundrums for the readers. But as has been noted elsewhere, this is also the thought process of the main character. Sometimes this makes for silly scenarios, but I can live with it. After all, I’m the one who carried a chair around a hobgoblin lair to throw at someone because the rest of the party killed the hobgoblins in the mess hall before I could play out bar room brawl clichés.**

Some key points about adventurers in the books I’m focussing on are as follows:

Adventurers Kill Wizards – This is the stereotypical Fighting Fantasy plot, thanks to the first two books being about taking out wizards. A quick scan of the first thirty shows roughly half are about killing wizards. Two words: Growth. Industry.

Adventurers are Drawn to Dungeons – There must be some kind of natural force emanated by underground complexes filled with lethal traps and dangerous monsters that draws adventurers in. Caves, catacombs, cellars, and crypts all exhibit this same power. Why else would anyone willingly walk into the Deathtrap Dungeon?***

Adventurers are Poorly Prepared – Who in their right mind walks into some of these situations with a single weapon, a boiled leather cuirass, and some lunch? Adventurers, that’s who. If I think about this for too long I start to fret, since in other role-playing games I can’t imagine going on a quest without fifty feet of rope, a dozen iron spikes, and a cheese press.

Adventurers are Idiots – “Oh hey there’s a vase that is mysteriously black inside, I’ll stick my hand in it.” and “I’ll climb down this well, what’s the worst that can happen?” are indicative of a tendency towards reckless stupidity. Then there’s the eating random unidentified items, or drinking mysterious substances. I won’t even go into the bit where kicking in the doors of random cottages is considered a normal day at the office. Then there’s the start of Eye of the Dragon where the main character drinks poison as part of a deal.

So basically, adventurers in FF books are badly prepared professional wizard-killing fools who are magnetically drawn to underground complexes. All right then.

*Stereotypically, but that’s what people fall back to. Also, the feminine counterpart comes with certain cultural baggage.
**I might tell the tale of how that turned out at some point.
***Oh, don’t worry, I’ll get there eventually.


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