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As an example, in the Earthdawn setting, civilization was segregated because of demonic creatures known as the horrors that scourged and ruled over the surface world. The tides of magic that enabled them to invade Barsaive receded, and so the threat that kept people underground was gone, and a new age of adventure arose.

What sort of events drives folk towards the life of adventure? The sort of setting I'm thinking about is that in which the player characters are not the only adventurers, let alone heroes in the world. Are there any published examples worth checking out?

Update: I think I need to narrow down the criteria. I'm trying to figure out an event to launch a campaign that drives not just a handful of adventurers, but entices thousands of mere mortals, many of whom are likely to live thousands of miles away from one another to risk injury and possible death for rewards. Earthdawn falls perfectly into that criteria. I've been busting my mind while trying to come up with another scenario. So far not much is coming to me. I really liked Rob Lang's idea though! Discovery of an unknown civilization/land sounds like it may be just the thing the more I think about it

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+1 For mentioning Earthdawn –  Eric Weilnau Aug 24 '10 at 12:35
    
Please edit your comment into your question. –  C. Ross Aug 25 '10 at 13:12
    
One word answer: apocalypse!!!11... it makes adventurers out of any survivors. –  Mark Rogers Apr 29 '12 at 17:36
    
Have a look at the one piece anime, first minute of every episode retells the story of how the legendary pirate died and created a generation of pirate adventurers –  Skeith Jan 22 '13 at 14:22
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12 Answers 12

up vote 5 down vote accepted

I think discovery of the existence of other nations or an ancient civilisation might cause adventuring. "You mean those caves in the mountains are actually dungeons?".

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Nice, simple with some interesting scenarios that immediately come to mind. The discovery of a draconic empire, just beyond the desert. Encountering an intelligent species of aquatic humanoids while searching for alternate sea trade routes. Stumbling upon a hidden chamber beneath the graveyard, that opens up into an ancient subterranean city, which is still inhabited! –  Aberrant Hive Mind Aug 25 '10 at 10:23
    
Yeah, I like this. Suddenly discover the remains of an ancient, abandoned civilisation. It could be across the desert, or another planet. Establish some beachheads and adventurers will filter in from across the lands to risk their lives for various payoffs. –  SevenSidedDie Apr 30 '12 at 3:41
    
To add to this, the promise of new uninhabited (or lightly habited) lands drove people to travel and settle and risk all in the real world, especially if the motherland is crowded with little room for advancedment. This has happened time and again throughout history with the settling of the American West being one of the more recent examples. –  TimothyAWiseman Apr 30 '12 at 16:10
    
Although my answer was off-the-cuff, I'm going to use this in my next game, so +1 to the original questioner for causing the idea to spawn! –  Rob Lang May 8 '12 at 20:29
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I don't know about published examples, but it seems a simple risk/reward scenario, which anyone can compare to their current situation.

  • IF the current situation is sufficiently disappointing / bad (poor, hungry, under threat)
  • AND adventuring seems to offer a way out (lessen the burden on the stay-behind family, escape the thread, high payoff dragonhoards)

Then people will adventure.

So:

  • Warfare
  • Famine
  • Class system / low prestige / 'stuck'
  • Slavery
  • Compelled by your god
  • Plague

Are drivers to do something else, and

  • High prestige
  • Adrenalin
  • The fight againt Capital Evil
  • Payoff (coin!)
  • Cameraderie

Are rewards that compell people to make that 'something else' be adventuring.

Update after OP clarification (in comment):

You want 1000s of people, from a big region, to take up adventuring? Other than just making one of the negative dirvers (war being an obvious one) impact all these people in a non-ignorable way (an army sitting on your lawn would motivate an entire region), I'd focus om making the payoff more interesting.

  • Say you have a prophecy about the end-times, when the last will be chosen to enter paradise. Who will these people be? Well, the people that flock to the prophet first, once he descends from the sky. Then smack the world with a fireworky meteor.
  • If you'd like to go fairytale: inherit the kingdom + the hand of the king's daughter, if you're the first to XXXYYYZZZ.
  • Flood the damn place. Then teach your peons to dive! ;)
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You should add plague. –  Eric Weilnau Aug 24 '10 at 12:35
    
So done, thanks. –  Tobiasopdenbrouw Aug 24 '10 at 19:47
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While Tobiasopdenbrouw has listed most of the specifics, I would add that any time or any where there is a breakdown of "civilization" there is the impetus for adventuring. I put civilization in quotes because it is subjective. It is based on the perspective of the individual. For example, European colonists viewed American native civilizations as "savage". Based on this, there are many historical examples suitable for adventuring.

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Conflict between culture, religion, and society does the trick for me. The implementation can be as complex or simple as you want it to be.

The way to make players care is to give them a stake in the setting you created. For example they are responsible for a shrine. Or members of a guard unit. And so on. Whatever you have them involved with you give them benefits as well as burdens. The benefits should be as good or better than anything they get from owning a magic items or other similar "treasure."

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Lack of resources is a good motivator. If the area where the main civilization is becomes bereft of food, shelter, etc, then perhaps the entire city simply uproots on a search for a better location to live (sort of the "Battlestar Galactica" thing without the Cylons chasing them). Perhaps the journey is so long it's taken a generation, and now most of the thousands of children in the gigantic caravan have been raised to be the future protectors of the group, becoming fighters, mages, priests and rogues as part of their training. The campaign begins as the tens of thousands of nomads FINALLY have ended their years long journey and found a place to carve out a living. Suddenly, thousands of trained men and women are no longer needed to protect the settlers, so they are freed to explore the area and make their own way with the skills they have learned.

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Very Biblical. Then again, Battlestar Galactica is slyly Biblical too. :) –  SevenSidedDie Apr 30 '12 at 3:54
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The fact that other groups of adventurers will sprout up seems straightforward to me in most worlds. I'll list some and what they make me think of:

  • Unknown or recently discovered continents or places. (Eberron)
  • Possibility to earn easy money. (S.T.A.L.K.E.R.)
  • Looming danger and a chance to fight back. (Lord of the rings)
  • Nothing to live for at home anyway. (Can't think of one, but sure you can)
  • Honor, prestige, legend. (...)
  • Greed, ...

since you specifically call for an event, create a world where one of these things didn't exist, and only recently became a thing. * Eberron: There is time of peace and stability and it's only improving. Better time than ever to make it in the world! * Fallout, S.T.A.L.K.E.R., ...: nuclear kaboomsplosion, duh. * Wild wild west: "Gold you say?"

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Almost every fantasy setting designed for adventuring can be analysed as a post-apocalyptic world:

  • There are ruins everywhere.
  • Legends of ancient civilisations of great accomplishment.
  • Lost artifacts of said ancient civilisation scattered in ruins across the world.
  • Current cultures are subsidence-based and don't fill the wild spaces where civilisation used to be.

So it may be cliché, but the tried-and-true event that motivates adventurers is a civilisation fall or apocalypse long enough ago that it has become legend, but recent enough that the surviving or replacement civilisations haven't yet built back up and occupied the old territories. This leaves lots of room for adventuring and lots of stuff lying around for adventurers to interact with, much of it powerful or valuable.

Along these same lines but less cliché are variations on the world-changing or upheaval event, and different timelines relative to the collapse:

  • The aftermath of war.
  • The discovery of a new world.
  • The return, rediscovery, or reopening of a lost or forbidden territory.
  • "Alien" takeover that disrupts the functioning of a culture (where "alien" could just be foreigners—think the Spanish Conquistadors).
  • A prophesied apocalypse is about to happen and civilisation falls apart in the panic (world-cracking new moon growing in the sky, etc.)
  • The first winter after the world changed (this is the conceit of Desolation RPG).
  • Popular revolt against, or just apathy toward, weak ruling powers that creates an effectively lawless territory (à la Wild West or pre/post-Roman British Isles).
  • Exploring and exploiting the "strange" lands of a conquered territory and people. (British->China, Romans->Everyone, Moors->Spanish, Mongols->Everyone; this one's ripe for grey morality and questioning adventuring tropes)

Essentially, anything that upsets the status quo and opens some kind of new or pre-existing place for risky exploration with the lure of wealth will naturally lead to relatively large numbers of people (if still a small percentage of the total population) choosing those risks.

The lawlessness really only has to be a blip of time historically, because most games are not going to span more than a few years, let alone twenty or two hundred. Even the briefest period of instability can be ripe for adventuring.

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+1 for linking generic fantasy settings as a post-apocalyptic world. –  Sardathrion Apr 30 '12 at 9:34
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While somewhat hamhanded, here's one that came up in a campaign I ran a few years ago. One of the players was a cleric, and instead of choosing a specific deity decided to dedicate himself to an ideal- in this case, the ideal of adventure! His primary goal in life, and the way he expressed his worship, was to get into trouble, seek out excitement, and etc. While this was just one character, between him preaching the word of adventure and the party bard telling all sorts of stories about him, the spirit of adventure grew to be widely respected and acknowledged alongside the regular deities, and due to the player's involvement got a lot more screen time. I used to drop a few NPCs around every town, dungeon, and roadside they found who had heard the stories and decided to dedicate themselves to adventure.

If you want something unusual, I'd fast forward to thirty or forty years later, and have Adventure be not just an equal divine entity, but what the majority of the population believes in. Each family gives one of its children to adventure, (dark ages europe giving extra children to the church) adventuring is a high profile occupation, (like a sports star in America) and the institution of the church of adventure acts as a launching pad for new adventurers. (Maybe even has a starter kit of some kind- sword+buckler+your first health potion for a measly 14.99!)

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welcome to RPG.SE! Interesting first answer. –  wax eagle May 2 '12 at 18:56
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I think there are two additional factors to consider:

  • Heritage
  • Addiction

Heritage is quickly said. Your parents are diplomats, merchants, or missionary clerics, and you grow up in a system that shows you the way out of the door very early in your life. Add local injustice, or personal loss (such as of a brother, father, or mentor) to exacerbate the independence. With independence and knowledge comes adventuring.

Addiction (aka "war is a drug") is when you realize that something you do changes yourself forever, and you want more of the same. A perfect example can be found in the movie "The Hurt Locker". At the end of the movie, a battle hardened bomb-squad soldier decides "that's enough" and goes home. He finds himself dealing with boxes of cereals at the local supermarket, when he realizes that his place is not there anymore. He kisses his son goodbye and leaves again for the battlefield. This to say, that adventure can be a job, but it can start out of a very subtle mechanism who makes you crave for more and more. Even if you know the risks and you dream of a quiet and nice life, once you obtain it you realize its dull, insignificant nature when compared to your previous experiences.

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There is another reason for young people to start adventuring en masse and it's a "cultural" reason: in your civilization it's tradition for young people, when they "come of age" to leave their families and travel / adventure on their own and with just a nickname for at least a year far away from home and the people that they know, before coming back and being entitled to have their heritage, respect, marriage, noble title, etc.

There may be yearly fairs where all the young people that "comes of age" in that year is conveyed and meet potential employers for dangerous expeditions, or buy maps of treasures or listen to the pleads of people in need of help to rescue thir lost beloved, or join the army or groups of similar young people and go adventuring together, etc.

It works well ;-)

When your characters will be "important", they may go to the same fairs in order to hire some young adventurer, on their turn...

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In order to justify the existence of adventurers, there must be a market for their services. Adventurers are often-times basically bounty hunters or free-lance explorers. So one question to me is, why would an authority figure hire them over using their own establishment (police, guards, detectives, army/navy)? One good reason is that there could be some breakdown in the establishment - a war in a far-off land, for example, that leaves the local guards understaffed, and now highway robberies are at an all-time high. Or perhaps there is some corruption scandal that prevents real work from being done.

An example for treasure-hunting - in a campaign I am in now, our characters are living about 150 years after a great disaster killed 90% of the humans on the planet and wreaked havoc on the geography. And before the calamity, magic was somewhat common-place, but now it's rare or non-existent. So there is both a lot of treasure and magical artifacts left behind by those who died in the calamity. But a more general example of that is "ancient magical civilization that died out."

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Look for real life example in history: the different gold rushes, the Conquista, and the exploration of the silk road for example. Even events such as the Great Game can provide you with countless ideas. Look at the historical reasons of mass migrations during Roman Republic times in Gaul, during the Roman Empire in Europe (The Huns), and Viking invasions and settlements. Wikipedia is a good start off point but don't stop there: it is not an authoritative source.

Literature can provide you with countless examples, Beowulf being the classical one that inspired many things -- including the Hobbit. Any book dealing with the questing archetype will have reasons why people go out and search for things.

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