Monday, January 4, 2010

Wild, Fantastic Hazard Had Been Their Lot

"They were immediately and absolutely recognizable as adventurers...They were hardy and dangerous, lawless, stripped of allegiance or morality, living off their wits, stealing, and killing, hiring themselves out to whoever and whatever came. They were inspired by dubious virtues."
- China Mieville, Perdido Street Station

When I was in the early stages of planning my new game (began in GURPS and now reincarnated in Warriors & Warlocks),  part of what occupied my imagination was a reconsideration of what an "adventurer" was.  The concept is such a staple of roleplaying, that I had for sometime just accepted it at its face and hadn't much thought about what it meant.

Well surely Fafhrd and Gray Mouser are adventurers in the rpg sense, as is Conan (for much of his life), and Imaro (at least the short-story version--he gets a little more "epic" in the novels).  Nifft the Lean fits the bill.  Owen of Marrdale and his companion, Khitai of David Mason's The Sorcerer's Skull would probably be welcome at guild meetings, too. 

But there are an awful lot of fantasy literature protagonists, though, that may have elements of the RPG style adventurer, but also, quite reasonably, embody some literary archetype.  We've got hidden monarchs, brave little tailors, cursed wanders, battle-haunted veterans, and wrathful avengers.  Elric, Kane, Salmanson's Tomoe Gozen, Taran Pig-keeper, and Arthur, King of the Britons, are all wonderful creations, but not archetypal adventurers--if one uses the term strictly in the D&D since.

Nothing wrong with that.  In fact, a little bit more backstory in a gaming character never really hurts, provided it serves as a springboard for good adventures or adventure elements.  Convoluted backstory with no game use is really just indulging the desire to write fiction in the guise of gaming (which may not be a bad thing either, but it's beside the point).  But none of those literary archetypes really encompasses the professional adventurer that one sees emerge from game manuals or sessions. 

Yes I know, I keep saying that but not really defining what I mean.  Well, let me direct your attention to exhibits A and B at the opening of this post.  First we find Dave Trampier's cover to the AD&D Player's Handbook which encapsulates perfectly the concept I'm driving at.  James Maliszewski at Grognardia dissects it just shy of perfection here, so I won't try to compete, only amplify by quoting his cogent observation about the enthusiastic fane-robbers: "These aren't necessarily heroes. They may be heroes, at least some of them, but they don't seem to be motivated solely by altruism."   To which I might respond, rhetorically: "solely?"

Exhibit B is the quote from China Mieville's wonderful, first Bas-Lag novel, Perdido Street Station.  This is not a book about adventurers per se--any many ways, it's an anti-adventurer book--but such individuals exist on the fringes of the society.  Perhaps good aligned D&D characters might take offense at the description (though their behavior might suggest otherwise), but for neutrals and evils its a critical hit.

When I think of adventurers in this context, and not as characters in a typical fantasy novel, I begin to see a whole new group of literary touchstones.  Are the scalphunters-turned-bandits of Cormac McCarthy's Blood Meridian that far off?  At least for a mostly evil-aligned party?  On the more virtuous side, how about Chabon's titular Gentlemen of the Road?  Moving from tumultuous history to dark future, I'd offer Case, and Molly, the protagonists of Gibson's Neuromancer.

We don't have to stick to literature.  I see a lot of inspiration in film, too.  Why don't we give our adventurers a Ennio Morricone score?  Tuco, Blondie, and Angel Eyes in The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly may not be robbing crypts, but their hearts are in the right (or wrong) place.  Fist Full of Dollars (or its original Yojimbo) could almost be a D&D adventure if either director had bothered to include one short dungeoncrawl.  Probably the same could be said of The Wild Bunch.  I'd love to see a player do a medieval fantasy take on Holden's Bishop Pike.  Or even better: Borgnine's Dutch Angstrom as a dwarf.

Enough Westerns?  How about something from the Tarantino catalog?  Reservoir Dogs sort of ends like a number of my high school D&D games.  Pulp Fiction even has a scary dungeon.  From Dusk til Dawn has a whole adventuring party raiding a vampiric temple--only its cleric can't turn undead.  "Hardy, dangerous, and lawless" would certainly describe the Brothers Gecko.

You get the idea.  The traditional fantasy inspirations and their knockoffs will always have their place, but there are other sources to go to find models for the sort of folks that would brave dark labyrinths, kill things, and take their stuff.

Let's make the most creative use of those "dubious virtues," shall we?


Jim Shelley said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Jim Shelley said...

Very interesting post - where would put someone like Indiana Jones?

Trey said...

Indiana Jones could certainly be an influence though his adventures have a a bit of different tone than most dungeon-delving rpgs I think. He doesn't quite have the violence of the rpg protagonists like the western and crime characters I mentioned.