Friday, August 19, 2016

Stop Using The Word "Adventurer" And See How it Changes Your Game

I've talked a lot about language on this blog, and how the words we use to describe things tend to shape our perceptions and our experiences. For example, in What's in a Name? How Your Character Class is Limiting Your Creativity, I talked about how it's a mistake for us to assume that the name of your class is an absolute for your in-game appearance, history, and social standing. I've written A Guide To Swearing in Your Fantasy RPG for players who want to have unique, in-game curse words, and years ago I put together In Their Own Words: Finding Your Character's Voice to show that the way we speak often influences how a character is played.

This week I'd like us all to try another linguistic trick with our games. The next time you all sit down at the table, ban the use of the word adventurer.

Freelance incendiary artist is still a valid job title, though.

How Do You Stack Your Gold?

Ask yourself how many times characters at your table have been described purely by their class levels (class levels being a meta concept, and not something that we really see in-game). Now ask, if pressed, how many people would describe their profession as "adventurer"? For step three, ask what the word "adventurer" means in a practical sense. Because, generally speaking, it's a catch-all category that people use as a way to Spackle over the fact that they've left a huge part of their character's life and history vacant and empty. As if they didn't exist before level 1.

You're starting to lose me here... what's the point?
The point is that adventurer isn't really a job description. It's a placeholder. A placeholder you're supposed to come back to, and fill out with something a little more descriptive before the game really gets started.

To do that, all you have to do is ask, "How do you pay your bills?"

The answer should be informed by the character's skill set, but it's mainly a story question. Take the most basic character there is; a 1st level fighter. This character could be a military veteran, who either left the service, or was discharged; meaning he's a pikeman who needs work. Maybe he's a rough-and-tumble bruiser, who favors spiked gauntlets and short knives over fancier tactics. Is he a mugger? A legbreaker for a local gang? Or does the character use his prowess to keep the peace, either as a watch guard, or a bouncer at the local tavern? Is he a prize fighter, cracking teeth and breaking bones for the entertainment of a crowd? Is this fighter an archer? If so, how does he use that skill set? Is he a hunter? Does he perform as a sharpshooter with a traveling circus? If he has ranks in the Survival skill, is he a woods guide, eking out a living trading furs, and escorting merchants through rough country?

All of these vocations explain where the character's skills came from, and what the character does to earn money. Because, when you get right down to it, that's usually pretty high on any list of "adventurer" goals. Sure there might be motivations like revenge, or justice, or saving the world, but no one would ever fight a dragon if the dragon's hoard wasn't on the table. And, by knowing what you do for a living, you'll be able to explain why the party needs you before setting off on the current plot hook.

What Title Does Your Character Use?

We tend to label people based on what they do. And, when we're describing ourselves and our skill sets to other people, we tend to use professional labels as a short-cut. For example, Argon Lockbar is a 7th-level Rogue, a master lock and trapsmith, and he's traveled the world in search of lost lore and ancient relics, both for profit and because he believes it's what's right. If he's an erudite scholar, he might call himself an archaeologist, or a student of history. If he's a little more crass, or honest, he'd call himself a treasure hunter.

Vaults ain't gonna open themselves.
The title a character uses can sometimes upend your expectations for their class, as well. For example, Perine Hensdale is a 5th-level enchanter. Top of her class, she has potent magic at her command. When people ask what she does, though, she might answer that she's a bounty hunter; one who literally talks people into giving themselves up. She might also be a diplomat, keeping her magical skills hushed while secretly using them to secure peace treaties for governments, or just to settle trade disputes between unions. And just because it says 6th-level paladin on Herne Darkwood's sheet, that doesn't stop him from being a wandering sellsword. It just means that he might be willing to waive his fee, partially or entirely, for the right cause.

Motivation Dovetails With Your Job

One of the other major elements of your character is their motivation. But that motivation needs to gel with what your character is doing (and if it doesn't, you need an explanation for why that isn't happening).

Ugh... mastery of the arcane arts is so unfulfilling.
For example, say your character is an arcane scholar. He's a professor of history at one of the finer institutions, and always keeps his classes riveted with his lectures. But he, himself, craves being in the field. So he tends to take sabbaticals to go to dig sites, and to track down lost ruins or ancient mysteries. On the one hand, this is an adequate description of Indiana Jones. It's also a snazzy concept for a bard, a wizard, a sorcerer, or a witch, and it means that at no point in time will the answer to, "so what do you do?" be, "I'm an adventurer!"

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  1. Good advice. I may have mentioned him once before, but I had a prospective player for my Changeling game who's concept came across as a murderhobo. I did warn him about the dangers his character would bring onto himself, and even thought about demonstrating it in a Session 0 interview that, if he didn't at least fake sanity, he would have to struggle just to survive.

    I suspect one of the root causes may have been that he's gotten away with the no-background adventurer in games that focus on adventuring. That sort of thing is okay if you've got a GM who has a dungeon crawl in mind or if you just want to play a video game RPG, but not when the GM wants character drama. I encourage anything that'd let players get more character development practice.

    The other part I think might have contributed: He probably assumed I was looking for a typical "adventurer" character, like many RPGs are built around. Changeling is about the long road home, not bravely delving into the unknown.

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  3. i had a Nyxad multiclass Assassin/Illusionist who referred to herself as a "Count's Highly Educated Niece" and an "Apothecary's Daughter." she also joked about being a "spoiled heir".

    she impersonated the persona of an educated child from a position of privilege (mostly true) and generally played the innocent child act to keep herself out of trouble. but being the wealthy little girl she was, lots of creeps wanted to enslave her. luckily she had wealth to hire bodyguards.

  4. Adventurer isn't a placeholder, it's a general term, the same as trouble-shooter or handyman. It means you are someone who deals with a wide variety of situations. Certainly a character should have a more specific specialty when asked what they bring to the mission, but it is not out of place for the town mayor to announce "We need a team of stout adventurers to deal with this!"

  5. My rogues NEVER admit to being rogues or thieves. My best rogue was a halfling "cook" who happened to be good with knives...because cooks are good with knives. Of course, his cousin was a locksmith, and he spent that one summer with his uncle, the jeweler, and hey, I think someone dropped a couple of gems.

    And he could cook. But he wasn't a thief. No, he was an honest cook. Talented as all hell, but still a cook.

  6. I have a character whose profession is Courier and she also serves as Captain (but not navigator) on a ship at the head of a famous crew. Perhaps most interesting fact about her is the profession of Courier is a cover for her profession of assassin and spy. The crew (and other NPCs) do not know of her being as assassin (although some know more than others, including some refusing to verify their suspicions), but she can never admit she is an assassin (and in-fact her birth name is not what everyone calls her, which is also different from her assassin name).

  7. I don't have a problem with adventurer. It's the sort of term that I can easily imagine being banded about Golarion or whichever game world to describe people like the player characters. Some people I know would substitute the term mercenary but to me a mercenary is paid to fight wars and be a bodyguard. Adventurers on the other hand don't always have a patron and delve dark places that normal people, even mercenaries, wouldn't dare to go in search of greater reward.

    It is also a game so I can happily see people referring to themselves as rogues, wizards, clerics and hunters. Sometimes you have to go with the game and not worry.

    The only term that I have issues with is murderhobo.

  8. Generally I only ever use "adventurer" in a very specific sense, meaning a sort of man-of-all-work world traveler (the way an RPG party generally is). An adventurer could be a sellsword one day, a farmhand the next, and maybe spend a couple months as a minor government functionary. In my mind, it's a vague term simply because it encompasses a a lot of varied experience, and if I put it in a backstory it's either because the time the character spent adventuring isn't actually that important aside from imparting worldly experience or because I want to leave room to allow myself and the GM to tie them more closely to the world and the campaign down the road.