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I'm working on a Dungeons & Dragons setting and want a comprehensive and logical explanation why, in a feudal society similar to Western Europe in the Middle Ages, there might be bands of armed adventurers (both male and female) wandering the country, slaying monsters, and frequenting taverns.

Does it follow that if you introduce magic and monsters guarding dungeons filled with treasure into a historical medieval setting, you'll see an adventuring class emerge? Have there been any real world analogues to an "adventuring class" (obviously without the monsters and magic)?

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I'm curious about the vote to close. This seems to be a well written question about the plausibility of common RPG trope. Although it explicitly asks about plausibility and thus almost requires some conjecture, it seems to be answerable in a relatively objective way. –  TimothyAWiseman Apr 17 at 16:31
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This question has generated huge amounts of arguing in comments. Most of you should know better. For those of you who don't, use your answer to make your point. Edit your answer to be more comprehensive to argue against general points made in other answers. Use the intention to argue as an opportunity to make your answer better. Beyond that, our flamethrowers have plenty of fuel. –  Brian Ballsun-Stanton Apr 21 at 11:21

11 Answers 11

up vote 20 down vote accepted

Would adventurers arise if treasure was about...

To your first question, yes. Though it is more about "dungeons filled with treasure" then necessarily the magic or the monsters. People tend to seek ways to make profits, especially if those can be made quickly. People are willing to take on risky endeavors to do so. Today, in the "First World", we tend to talk about risk more in terms of capital than human life and get squeemish about things that are inherently risky to our lives. But even today jobs like construction involve a mortality rate and people still do them. In the past cultures were more accepting of risks to life, and it remains that way in some so called "Third World" countries. So, yes if you have a large amount of treasure that can be claimed but it is being gaurded by monsters, you will rapidly develop a group of people that will go after it (and even more rapidly and more openly if it is legal to do so, but it will still happen if it is illegal.)

Analogues

As for real world analogues, there have been a few though they tended to be seen as more villainous than heroic. Graverobbers were (and to a degree still are) very real, and they sought to take items of value (in Western cultures, mostly jewelry buried with the dead, but in some cultures large amounts of wealth could be buried with the wealthy. Most famous were the tombs of the well off in Ancient Egypt). Many adventures in D&D remain essentially grave robbing only with monsters gaurding the grave and often some sort of back story that makes it either "good" or a "necessary evil" to help with the morality.

Another close analog is highwaymen. They would lay in wait for passing groups and then either force them to pay a toll they imposed themselves or outright rob them (sometimes killing in the process). They difference is that they were generally regarded as criminals if not villains. In RPGs we have the adventurers go after "acceptable targets" by introducing monsters or by having them hunt down the criminals, but it isn't that different in concept. Speaking of hunting down the criminals, bounty hunters were and are real; though in the modern day it is much more about tracking down the fugitive and then persuading them to return than it is about action filled chases and melee fights.

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Highwaymen and other brigands are an excellent example of “adventurers” in historical Europe. They were often bands led by or composed of minor nobles who had too much time on their hands and not enough money to go adventuring or crusading elsewhere. (Those who did have enough money were out stirring up trouble with neighbors or distant enemies.) Jack’s answer also alludes to this. –  Bradd Szonye Apr 18 at 1:26
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Don't forget the classic example in American history - the California gold rush. Major cities that grew full of adventurers even came out of that, e.g. San Francisco. –  Jason C Apr 19 at 1:21

In real history, almost no land except impassible mountains and deep desert wasn't settled, and there are exceptions even then. The population of the world during the European medieval age was much lower than today, but widely spread out in all the known habitable regions of Earth.

Take that, and now add powerful, inimical monsters to the wilderness. Suddenly, most of the world is not safe to settle. The predatory monsters exert a pressure against the expansion of human(oid) settlement, creating population pressures. When birth rates plus that containing pressure cause the existing settled land to become even slightly a premium, a class of people who leave home to find better lives will spontaneously arise. Adding treasure to the wild places only increases the chance a poor family's "extra", youngest children might swell the ranks of that class. Those are your adventurers.

Most of them die, of course. The life expectancy of an adventurer is not great. But this is part of the balance: civilisation bleeds off its excess young, and in the process a few of them might slightly move the frontier outward, creating more space for the existing and future population. An equilibrium is maintained among expansion, death by monsters, new adventurers, and birth rate.

What about women?

Worrying about the believability of female adventurers in fantasy is ironically contrary to real history. Women have always fought. The medieval world was much more diverse than we typically believe—mostly, because when we dream up a fantasy setting, we tend to unconsciously assume that the broadest, simplest tropes (such as "Europe is white" and "men were the fighters and rulers") exist because they were true. In reality, medieval Europe was quite cosmopolitan and liberal about who could do what and go where. Fantasy tropes are misleading when it comes to minority representation. Ethnically, most of Europe was never lily-white—what with the "swarthy" Mediterranean and Eastern European cultures who ruled during the Roman Empire and the centuries of "Moorish" Hispania (to mention only two), only small portions of Europe were ever "white" (and stayed "white") as we tend to see in fantasy art. The same goes for women—many rulers, landowners, and warriors were women, despite typical fantasy art.

So, ironically, to give a plausible justification for both male and female adventurers, you just have to look to real history and avoid the unrealistic sameness of standard fantasy settings.

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"Adventurers" in the real world

Real-world "adventurers" engage in:

  • Trade. A lot of human activity is based on the exchange of stuff for other stuff that you want more.
  • Exploration. Mainly to open up new opportunities for trade. Depending on the era, an explorer might be motivated by the desire to stake out their own land claims, rewards from patrons, or the fame and fortune that comes from being a celebrity.
  • Raiding and brigandage. This is like trade, except you're using violence and the threat of more violence to take other people's stuff.
  • Fighting. Kinda way down on the list, really, because it's more dangerous than trading amicably or forcing powerless people to give you stuff.

Examples to look at include Vikings, free-company mercenaries, and privateers.

The thing is, a lot of these people operate in large groups and generally try to avoid fighting. This may or may not be a good fit for the game you have in mind. For example:

  • Older editions of D&D generally reward weaseling out of fights and expect you to have a big gang of hirelings and retainers following you around (especially if you integrate some wargame rules).
  • A game like Burning Wheel, Apocalypse World, or Reign lets you abstract the big group and focus on interpersonal drama, the political power of leadership, &c.
  • More recent editions of D&D are geared towards small team-on-team fights, not wandering the countryside with a crew of 40 at your back.

Note that a lot of archetypical D&D parties aren't really socially-accepted "adventurers" as much as they're just bandits and graverobbers. Fundamentally, that puts them in the social class of outlaws and outcasts — they have few obligations but no legal rights. Realistic vangrancy is seldom a fun or profitable occupation, though.

"Dungeons" in the real world

Dungeons full of loot aren't really part of a realistic medieval setting. There are barrows with grave goods and stuff. These aren't exactly expansive complexes. Also you can try to rob relics from, you know, an active church with people in it. It's going to be kinda difficult to make either of these activities seem suitably grand and heroic, though. Probably the only real historical analog to dungeoneering is later European Egyptomania.

It's easier to integrate monsters and magic because there's a much deeper storytelling tradition to draw on, with room for protagonists of all sorts of social backgrounds — questing knights, cunning peasants, desirable young nobles, outlaw heroes, magicians, witches, destined kings, &c. — whereas dungeon-delving tends to imply scalawags looking for treasure.

It's also pretty easy to place the magical and monstrous in the out-of-the-way corners of the world, far from mortal eyes and mortal ken: the deep dark forests, forbidding mountains, impassable swamps. Whereas treasure-filled dungeons, being principally tombs and ruins, imply preexisting civilized stuff all over the place — in other words, it's effectively a post-apocalyptic setting (which many fantasy settings do). In reality, societal collapse never really happened on such a scale, even during the transition from the Roman Empire to Late Antiquity.

Do there need to be other "adventurers?"

Is there a reason you need there to be a whole social class of adventurers, though? I mean, were superhero stories worse when Superman was a special snowflake instead of a card-carrying member of a superhero club?

It's a lot easier to fit a fantasy-game premise into a "realistic" world if you accept that the PCs are rare and extraordinary people. A single forlorn castle haunted with ghosts fits easily into almost any setting. A whole passel of them, and a special social class dedicated to plundering them — well, that requires jumping through all sorts of hoops and it's still likely to come off as nonsense when you're done.

"Okay, actually I just want have all the D&D tropes make sense"

The best way to do this is to forget medieval Europe and build the setting from the ground up to create the situations you want, incorporating individual elements you want without trying to replicate the actual social structure and relationships of a real historical place.

Take a look at Doomed Slayers, which sets up adventurers as specially-chosen champions of civilization outside the normal bounds of society, or Magic's Zendikar setting, which depicts a landscape constantly in flux, creating new dangers and opportunities for explorers every day.

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I've recently become aware of one example of societal collapse that left ruins everywhere: Britain, at the time of contact with Rome, had experienced a huge population crash over the previous century(-ish? I need to do more reading on this), leaving the previously well-populated island sparsely-settled and littered with the remnants of civilsation. This partly contributed to the Roman's perception of Britain as "barbaric." –  SevenSidedDie Apr 17 at 21:09

The Closest 'Real World' Equivalent to DnD Adventurers is the Noble Class

One of the best, and only, ways to enter the Noble class from the peasantry was to be so ridiculously puissant at combat that you were given a command - and from that tiny band of men, achieved so much so prominently and notably that you were given a higher rank, and so forth. Saving the Duke personally on the field of battle, etc, was a quicker version of this.

In DnD, where individuals have the firepower of an entire battalion of cavalry, Adventuring is the fast-tracked version of that. The ambitious, the talented, the driven - those are who adventure. 'Adventure' is really a misnomer - those are who grasp the rungs of power with both hands and delve deep beneath the earth into a god-king's tomb full of the corpses of those who have tried on the 1% chance that they'll learn a new spell or find a +1 sword.

That said, in any realistic setting (medieval or otherwise), everything is geared towards competitive advantage - in the case of settings of mostly humans, this means Nations. Although the idea of a Nation is less deep-set in a medieval era than one of our modern educated nuclear-equipped ones, ultimately there has to be some sort of structure to keep out the Mongols - and so any magical power (+1 swords) or powerful individuals (adventurers) would need in some way to be tied to the State.

And so we come back to Nobles. Where in the medieval era they were trained to be officers and heavy cavalry (good officers and heavy cavalry ruled the battlefield in those eras) and paid in land, in DnD they can literally cut a dragon in half with a sword, so they're probably paid in 'whatever they want' and are vastly more important than even the nobility were to medieval nations.

Wandering Bands of Armed Men existed in medieval europe - they were called Bandits

Or mercenaries, and there's a pretty thin line between the two. Some people leave home to become soldiers and desert, or the crops fail, or whatever, and they end up bandits. There were a lot of them all the time, they were desperate, and tended to get murdered whenever anyone's armsmen or bailiffs caught up with them.

Likely though, men broken by circumstance wouldn't be the ones fighting terrifying monsters. But Adventurers could be viewed in a similar light - even, both, with low level or unknown adventurers being seen as little better than vagabonds or mercenaries, and high level ones being treated like rockstars and courted by noblemen's daughters.

Ultimately, people are greedy and scared

People will do whatever benefits them, or what they think will benefit them. This is rarely very logical. People bow to power, of any kind, if they can identify it. People try to better their station, even if it is already exalted. People will demand protection and safety, or beg for it, whichever they think will work.

There's a lot of roles for 'adventurers', from Monster Hunters to Landed Nobility to Mercenary Scum. It could, and should, differ from culture to culture (think about it - Romantic France Adventurers vs Byzantium Adventurers - how would they be treated?), but regardless of the differences, there should always be this - they should always be Important. People respect and fear power, and someone who can cut through a steel door with a teaspoon? He's powerful, and he's scary.

How a nation treats it's powerful individuals should be a clear and defining feature of that nation, even if it pretends to scorn them rather than giving them lands and handsome men.

Sources: Setting building, Frank and K's Races of War, common sense

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In some eras of Medieval Europe, there was a military unit known as a lance. It is like a squad, but also mirrors adventuring parties really well. This is especially true if you consider some of the attributes of lances:

  • Everyone had a role or specialization within the lance (the knight, page, crossbowmen, the dude with the bill-hook, etc.)
  • Basic lances had three men: knight, squire, non-combat squire. This number could increase to "a half dozen men." If you add in magic in the world, it would make sense to have one magic user. That would make lances be a (minimally) four-person group.

  • Not all lances were run by nobles; sergeants could run them as well. One could imagine that peasants with basic training and the correct equipment could attempt to form a lance as well.

Lances which were not bound to a noble were free lances, and it is where we get the modern english word "freelance" and "freelancer." It would make sense that, if there were no wars going on, you could engage in equally high-risk adventures and get treasures from mythical or abandoned places.

This is even more likely when you consider the aftermath of plagues; where towns, keeps, and other places were emptied quite quickly. (This situation can become more common by the various super-deadly things running around in the typical D&D world, like rogue magic users, raiding goblins/orcs, dragons, etc.)

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For the simple reason: Because when you add dungeons full of loot, this becomes the 'gold rush'. The get-rich-quick that doesn't work for 95% of the people who try it.

For the complex reason:

Unless you're doing some house-ruled system with a lot of differences in how things work, fantasy worlds are not usually analogous to medieval Europe. Yes, it has castles, swords, and bows and arrows, it has kinds and barons and knights... but that's where the similarities end. You also have teleporters, instant healing, curing diseases that we in the modern era cannot. You have giant cities of learning, only possible with advanced farming techniques - which is probably helped along by urban druids. Those small-village shamans actually CAN cast magic, and that makes a huge difference.

Plus, you have magic items - and in D&D, and many other systems, these can last thousands of years without damage because it takes a magic item to damage a magic item. So you can have a farming family go into hock for generations to a wizard, in return for a single magic item that grants them a +5 to their Profession(Farmer) check. You can, I am sure, extrapolate from there. Anvils of Craft(blacksmithing) +5. Knives of Craft(woodworking) +5. Etc. Fantasy is really more akin to sci-fi with a mystic instead of technological scientific progression. You never developed pistols and laser-guns, because why? It's so much easier to get a magic autoloading crossbow. Why research better farming machines and breed better crops when you have a whole support structure of floratheurges that give you two harvests a year?

Think of the setting. A small farming village set up in a valley, with a centuries-old wizard in a tower up on the mountain. The farming village, for generations, has brought him food, done his chores, fixed his walls, darned his socks, gathered rare herbs and materials for him, etc, etc, etc ... and in return, he's bolstered their fields, made magic knives and plows for them, fought off the occasional goblin horde... a good deal all around. Some situations like this might be ruled by fear... other villages might see him as the village father and benefactor, a benevolent and much-loved figure. Heck, several of them might be descended from him.

If you're just taking medieval Europe and dropping magic and dungeons full of loot into it ... you're missing out on a lot of how that magic and loot affects their society. The gender roles will mean there will be virtually no female adventurers... because of necessity. Women are desperately needed to make babies, in that time era, because babies means children, children means workers, workers means more food, food is the basis of all life. Serfs scratch by on subsistence, and even 'large cities' of the day are fairly small. "Large armies" number in the hundreds. A single fireball-slinging wizard would completely disrupt the balance of any war. I remember looking up the numbers once, can't remember exactly, but it takes a RIDICULOUS number of farmers to support one non-farmer during that time era.

What this means is that if you keep a medieval attitude, magic has to be kept away from the general populace a lot. You probably won't have magic loot in those dungeons. You won't have adventuring wizards, and magic swords will be legendary.

In short: If you have lots of magic, and lots of adventurers, it's probably not medieval. If it's medieval, you probably have very little and rare magic, you probably have very few adventurers - but plenty of gold hunters.

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The reasoning is good, but I do have one big criticism: you can't take it for granted that magic does alter the setting from pseudo-medieval Europe. Not everyone who plays fantasy RPGs is interested in the magic-punk subgenre; lots just want to play bog-standard fantasy. Not to mention, this is a logical outgrowth of only recent D&D editions—not all fantasy RPGs (which is what the question is about) have the kind of magic system that logically leads to magic-punk. –  SevenSidedDie Apr 17 at 16:54

Does it follow that if you introduce magic and monsters guarding dungeons filled with treasure into a historical medieval setting, you'll see an adventuring class emerge?

Why not? If the prospect of pay for fighting other humans is incentive to mercenaries irl, then being paid as much as you could carry in gold, gems and magic items, doubly so in some magic world. Grab them loots!

Have there been any real world analogues to an "adventuring class" (obviously without the monsters and magic)?

Of course, several spring to mind: Genoese crossbowmen. Swiss pikemen. Viking 'Varangian Guard'. The Gurhkas. Légion étrangère. Present day Academi and other PMCs. And many many other groups throughout the world at one time or another.

Major medieval battles were often decided by which side could better pay for skilled mercenaries to sway the fighting.

Also, it is interesting that nobles and high ranked knights were often forced to yield in battle for the purpose of ransom. While their squires and soldiers were cut down around them. That was a major factor in heraldry, your banner advertised both your unit position to your allies, and to the enemy knights, very often your value alive.

In a magic world, if some knightly dude was prancing around a battlefield on a unicorn with his Magic Flaming Sword on a banner and shield, he'd very soon get a lot of attention. His men would of course be killed out of hand, with their mundane weapons left to rust in the dirt. Supply and demand would make a mundane sword no more valuable or better quality than a farming implement. +1 would be a minimum. This makes me think the economy in such a world would be pretty weird, much weirder than bands of people looking around the countryside for hidden dungeons.

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Mercenaries have military discipline, take orders from their employer, and get paid regularly; adventurers do not. And the Gurkhas are regular soldiers not mercenaries, as the agreements that regulate their continued presence in the British Army explicitly spell out. –  TimLymington Apr 19 at 12:52

Historical bands of wandering warriors usually emerged after significant social upheaval. A class of unemployed warriors can be an offshoot of demographics and a sudden unexpected era of peace (ronin), diminishing public finances, or expansionism spreading into a lawless frontier (cossacks, cowboys). Groups of wandering warriors can be fostered by a disparity between wealth at home and undefended riches to plunder abroad (vikings). Warrior Caste systems can emerge and persist for social reasons beyond strict needs (kshatriya).

You can probably debate if all these groups emerged for exactly these reasons, but they all give some plausible templates for why a group of armed wanderers would emerge in a fictional setting.

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Consider the Vikings, who had neither a feudal system nor countries in any meaningful sense. Being attacked. whether by neighbours or by wild animals, was such a common threat that most men and some women learned to fight, and acquired the equipment to do so. Those settlements that had enough of a fighting force to defend themselves succesfully even at the worst of times had a surplus at the best of times, and it is wasteful (and possibly unwise) to keep armed men sitting around with nothing to do, so a few ships would be sent out viking. The etymology and original meaning are uncertain, but in reality it included exploration, piracy, raiding foreign lands for treasure, and trading in high-value goods. Sound familar at all? And, of course, the countries so attacked needed to develop their own defences, and to find something useful for the army to do in the off-season: some say the Vikings were responsible for the rise of the feudal system in Northern Europe.

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Groups have always formed around everything.

Take a modern business partnership as an analogy. Businesses are risky, require a lot of investment, and the partners are all there to split up the risk and investment. The USA is a good model of businesses - there are a lot of role models, a lot of investors, and a system has sprung up where they have more power than the government.

It is extremely risky for one person to go into a dungeon full of monsters. A suit of armor and a good sword may cost a fortune for an independent adventurer so a group of people may take what they have and do it. A person will eventually grow too old for adventuring and may happily live in his own castle. He may choose to become a trainer and pass down his resources to other willing adventurers. Veterans may charge money to train new ones. Some may take proteges for a small cut of the loot.

Adventuring would not be a profession that many parents want their children to go into. Much like the modern freelancer or entrepreneur, it's a path that many are either forced into or something that people with such passion were unable to avoid.

Someone out there might have joined a military or mercenary group for a career. Maybe he gets paid a paltry 3 silver/month as the MVP of his group, while his seniors keep the majority of the loot after wiping out a monster hive.

Adventurer's guilds may pop up in the same way that many modern groups do. They're there as a point of networking. Someone wants quests? They'll go to a reputable guild first. The guild makes its money from taking fees from the elite adventurer class, selling overpriced drinks, arranging overpriced events, and maintaining contacts. The best guilds are on a first-name basis with royalty... a life as an adventurer is a faster path to wealth and power than selling drugs or becoming a music star.

I've always thought it was unrealistic that in many games, there is only one big adventurer guild in the world. Many cities should have several of them, much like how hotels spring up everywhere in a modern city. The cliche should be adventurers spending their life's savings on joining a guild, desperate for any quest, instead of meeting in a tavern.

The actual job may pay little. If you look at the economics of the drugs industry, many of the lower class runners get paid very little. But it was better than the alternatives and there was a future in it. Hustlers may expect a short lifespan, but should they live, they'd be filthy rich.

It might be like a software company or law firm, where everyone is treated as indispensible, and expected to specialize and generalize at the same time. Bard and clerics, despite their specialties, are still expected to fight.

Possible business models formed around adventurers:

  • Fast money for a risky lifestyle
  • Promises of easy fame and links to royalty
  • Merchants selling overpriced goods to the rich adventuring class, who make hundreds of times the wage of a serf in one dungeon run
  • A subclass of commoners who are proud of being doormats to the adventuring class, but are too risk averse to do it
  • Fencing looted artifacts to artifact collectors
  • Brand naming for blacksmiths and armorers, possible sponsorship too
  • Quest agents who go around finding work for adventurers and negotiating rewards
  • Veteran adventurers teaching their techniques to younger ones
  • Veterans investing and hiring younger adventurers to loot dungeons that they didn't have the chance to, or are too scared to do
  • That sleazy guy who convinces a naive adventurer to clear their barn of rats and goblins, without payment, because it's good for their portfolio
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The League of Boot and Trail described in the 3.5 ed Complete Adventurer (p. 175) resembles the Adventurer's Guild you've outlined above. –  RobertF Apr 30 at 16:40

According to a documentary which I saw (it was about swords) men in Europe during the 1600-1800s would always walk around with a sword. Duels were common. A scar on your face was a mark of manhood. Fencing academies were commonplace. People used to walk around armed a lot more than they do now.

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I think you need to unpack this a bit more for it to qualify as an answer to the question. –  mxyzplk Apr 17 at 23:12

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