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If not for Gold and Glory...?


Mod Squad
Staff member
I love fantasy worlds with giant wildernesses that are full of ancient ruins and fearsome monsters.

Sure, but there's a problem with that scenario - if those ruins are close to populations, they'd have been explored already. If the monsters were near people, they'd have been dealt with, too, or the population will have collapsed. It doesn't make sense as a status quo near people.

The most successful frame for this I have seen recently is to frame the campaign as being in a time of some change. For example: The Dragon of Icespire Peak. I have played, rather than read, the adventure, and for us it was framed in the following way: The PCs come to town, where the eponymous dragon has recently come to the area.

Now, the 1st level characters are not up for just going and taking on the dragon, but the dragon's arrival has changed the situation in the nearby mountains - various adversaries move out of the mountains to keep away from the dragon, and move into some of the local ruins, and start causing problems. The locals are not up to dealing with monsters and bandits and all, because they haven't eeded to be. The PCs walk into an emerging situation that more or less comes to them, rather than they wander around looking for trouble.

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This answer is between the lines/a summary of some earlier replies: write character backstories. If you don't have a satisfying campaign concept, it might be because you don't have any satisfying character concepts.

Yeah, this is something I learnt from GURPS and Champions all the way back when. Good character concepts can make the game happen by themselves. It applies to any game where characters are encouraged to have interesting backgrounds. Whether the game does it with Disadvantages that give some immediate bonus to character creation (extra points to spend) or say something like FATE and the way players come up with connections to other players by describing some shared scene from the past. Mo background, mo story hooks. But also mo interesting story hooks and outcomes.

We get our best gaming moments when we have a conflict between character needs and character wants. So, frinstance, a village is under attack by bad guys, led by the hero's personal enemy. The hero wants to fight the enemy leader but they need to get the villagers out of harm's way. Cue dramatic tension.

John Dallman

But for a very interesting take on how other people see adventurers, check out China Mieville's Perdido Street Station, an urban fantasy novel that cranks the weird up to 11. They're not the main characters, but at some point a party of adventurers gets hired to deal with a monster, and the view you get of them is fantastic- the viewpoint character who you see them through (not the employer, btw) is both pretty intimidated by them and sees them as of low character; I think grave robbers is one of the phrases used to describe them. Anyway, if you get the chance, it's a book worth reading for that bit alone- and it's got a bunch more to offer, too.
Seconded. Mieville played a lot of D&D as a teenager, and that informs his fiction.


One solution that I've found useful is to say that the PCs are all members of a cult which believes in a prophecy: "The Great Battle between Good and Evil will soon begin".

The PCs are tasked with the following
1. Collecting as much magical firepower as possible
2. Finding safe places for the non-combatants (otherwise known as clearing monsters out of old fortifications)
3. Persuading other people to join the cult (even the lowliest villager/peasant may have a role in the conflict)
4. Obtaining information about the enemy.

In my experience, a "countdown to Armageddon" is actually better that "save the world". Players don't believe that you, the GM, are going to blow up your world.


When working on my own campaign material, something I get hung up on regularly is how to explain to the players what kind of people PCs are within the world of the game and what their position and treatment in society is.

I love fantasy worlds with giant wildernesses that are full of ancient ruins and fearsome monsters. But the typical adventurer role that is assigned to PCs in most such settings never felt real and believable to me. They are freelance mercenaries that roam around the lands to deal with monsters that local militias and the lords' knights can't handle, and fight of other vagabonds that are just like them but have turned to simply robbing villagers and merchants. From any historic precedents known to me, wandering mercenaries in need of money are not the kind of people villages would put their hopes into. Instead they are the very marauders the villagers need protection from. Having to convince people in every town to not chase them away with torches and pitchforks just wouldn't be fun and is not a practical campaign format, unless you deliberately aim for a bleak Sengoku or 30 Years War style campaign.
Similarly, it just doesn't feel believable that typical PCs at the start of their career would be the only hope for communities that have been helpless against a great local threat for months. I guess you could pick a game in which the PCs start at superhuman power, but it still doesn't sit right that a typical fantasy world in need of heroes just has knights in shining armor strutting around looking for trouble to fix out of the goodness of their hearts.

The other alternative is plain old treasure hunting/tomb looting. Yes, that absolutely works as a campaign concept, but such characters would be motivated to turn around and head for greener pastures at the first sign of real danger.

If the PCs are not saint's looking all day for kittens to save, and not selfish people hoping for a quick buck by gambling their lives, then how do you set up and structure a campaign for PCs who face dangerous monsters in ancient ruins in the wilderness?
I never was able to find any satisfying answer to this.
I always start my campaigns out without the PC's being in the middle of saving the world, or kingdom or whatever. Then I get to let them do things that weave them into the local story and grow from there. I "usually" know what they'll be dealing with at the end of the campaign but honestly i've had the PC's change things so much that almost nothing at the end of the campaign was what I had planned originally. I prefer a fluid game where PC's can change things.


If the PCs are not saint's looking all day for kittens to save, and not selfish people hoping for a quick buck by gambling their lives, then how do you set up and structure a campaign for PCs who face dangerous monsters in ancient ruins in the wilderness?
I never was able to find any satisfying answer to this.
Depending on the campaign, sometimes I've leaned into the silliness. In my first 5E campaign, the kingdom had been at war for many years when suddenly, out of nowhere, peace broke out and a lot of people found themselves out of a job. The king and his privy council came to the conclusion that having a bunch of young, physically fit people trained to kill sitting idle was a recipe for disaster so they came up with the Adventurer's Guild. Adventurer's are free to accept "quests" to take care of problems the king doesn't want to spend gold on and they're not even taxed for it. Sort of. Adventurer's have an inflationary effect on their surroundings and the prices in the PHB reflect that. Nobody in their right mind pays 2 gold for a barrel but an Adventurer will because they're loaded and they're too embarrassed to look like skinflints.

I love fantasy worlds with giant wildernesses that are full of ancient ruins and fearsome monsters. But the typical adventurer role that is assigned to PCs in most such settings never felt real and believable to me.
I think to feel a bit more real, adventurers have to be few and far between in the setting. And my example above most certainly does not fit the bill for believable. There are plenty of examples of real life adventurers throughout history. Marco Polo, Hernan Cortez, Lewis & Clark, Pancho Villa, and Alcibiades son of Cleinias were all adventurers. There are always oddballs who don't quite fit in.


Bronze Age Sword & Sorcery: Sundaland
I've built my setting so that it's in a state of (potential) change. Not quite post-apocalyptic but the old orders are definitely on shaky ground. There have been wars, famines, depopulation, changing alliances, hierarchies upended or re-ordered.

The underlying issue is that it's not good enough for many people to just maintain their position, that risks falling down the pecking order or be vulnerable in some way. People (the characters) need to be striving to improve their situation, in a sense they need to run just to stand still.

This gives characters the motivation to go after wealth, build alliances, do favours for people in order to build social capital, improve their skills and gain experience.


One idea that I briefly tried was having my group play as two characters each. One character for each player would be their story character. The story characters were each a member of a council overseeing a small far flung town on the border of civilization. Their characters could "adventure" but the rule was they leveled up by completing major objectives for the town. What constituted a major objective was up to the players with a little help from me as the DM.

Their other character was an adventure character that could be hired to go on quests, defeat villains, and clear out dungeons. They were a revolving cast that handled the dangerous stuff so that the council could oversee the town. One was an apprentice to a story character who never got switched out while the others came and went with each adventure.

The story characters could hire more experienced and better equipped adventure characters by upgrading the town. We did 8 sessions and covered about 1.5 years in game time. Out of game stuff killed it unfortunately and by the time we regrouped others wanted to run their own campaigns and it was time for me to step down and be a player for a while.

Thinking back on it the motivations for the adventure characters were all very one note. Gold and/or glory for most but for some it was freedom from a geas, unravelling the truth about their family, or wanting to do some magical experiments away from bystanders. It was a sentence at most and then they were off. But the motivations for the story characters were wildly different. Sometimes it was the ultimate goal of raising an army to free a neighboring country from a tyrant, while other times it was just trying to come up with a plan to keep everyone fed for the winter. Balancing each character's personal goals with the other characters and the general well being of the town required some inspired play and decision making.


While in history villagers that did not have adequate Protection may have feared roving groups of armed men the way I see most D&D worlds I’ve Played in or run bands of mercenaries or adventurers aren’t what towns are worried about. It’s dragons, giants, goblins etc.
The towns have guards to protect it but those guards are purely defensive and man the walls and the gates. They don’t go into the forest if goblins steal a child or investigate rumours of a gathering of winged creatures at the mountain edge in exchange for gold from the local lord or guard a sage as he explores an old ruin. That’s done by a motley crew of capable and reliable adventurers.
In one campaign I ran the local lords gave out letters of marque to adventuring parties that lasted 6 months. These parties would be told of local towns with troubles when they wandered into them they would talk to the mayor, show the lords patrol letter of marque and get good rates on lodging etc and get work. At certain times they would gather in the lords halls with proof of deeds they had done and submitted to zones of truth and were rewarded for their deeds.


He / Him
I do think it's interesting how some settings have the character motivation baked into them..for example, the game Dogs in the Vineyard has all the characters as, essentially, Mormon cowboy exorcists traveling from town to town clearing out demons and punishing transgressions. Why your character chose this life, and the journey they took to get there, are the ways the characters are differentiated.

I borrowed that once for a 5e game I called Plague Dogs. It was a fantasy world torn apart by diseases (we played this about 6 months before COVID hit) which were explicitly caused by transgressions with demons. The characters were all Hounds of St. Hestian, sent out to plague towns to find the transgressors, kill the demons, and enact justice. All the characters had the same path, but their individual motivations varied. One was paying off a debt, another was secretly working for a demon who wanted to clear the competition, etc.

It reminds me of something Monte Cook once wrote about the assumed adventuring day. If I recall it correctly, he said that the 3rd Edition settings taught players that the adventuring day looked like this: learn about a dungeon in town, travel to dungeon, overcome challenged and get treasure, return to town to spend treasure and upgrade equipment, repeat.

I wonder if when building a setting it's less important to worry about supplying character motivations than it is to communicate what an "adventuring day" looks like?


Staff member
Some people become explorers and adventurers voluntarily, some involuntarily.

By the latter, I don’t mean the common “orphan murderhobo” (OH). Other events can make you an involuntary wanderer. Closely related to the OH are refugees from wars, persecution, or natural disaster.

Some people get abandoned at birth, either in the hopes that they will be found by someone of goodwill…or to die. How they survive shwpes them.

People get lost by accident or otherwise cut off from returning home. A kidnapper or large predator carries off a child, but the child is rescued. Someone exploring the local caves gets lost or survives a cave in, and has no idea where they are when they emerge. (Or the converse for a subterranean dweller.) A fall overboard…

There’s the old standby of amnesia.

Or being transported through time, space, or dimensions barriers.

For those with experiences like these, the urge to return home may drive them to travel the world. For others, unintended exposure to the wider world may kindle a need to see more.


I guess a good modern analogy is superheroes? Why do they do what they do? A certain suspension of disbelief is needed.
I lean into this idea, but from a slightly different angle. The PCs are exceptional, because they are fated thus by the gods. Heroes of a future mythology of sorts.


Staff member
You know who else goes adventuring? Employees. Hirelings.

Richard Branson wasn‘t up there solo, he had 2 pilots and 3 other employees. Most of Columbus’ crew did the journey for pay. Guards, scouts, cooks, and others accompany virtually every caravan that ever was.

And a paycheck isn’t exactly “for the gold” as thought of by most adventurers.

I actually played my first “hireling“ back in the late 1970s, only a couple years into the hobby. My PC was a human fighter- statted out with maxed physical stats and 6s in all the mental ones. He was the bodyguard for the party thief, who DID have money.

Just because a PC starts with a role as a henchman for an NPC or another PC doesn’t mean he remains one his entire life. (Though he very well could, depending on the campaign.)


I do think it's interesting how some settings have the character motivation baked into them


I wonder if when building a setting it's less important to worry about supplying character motivations than it is to communicate what an "adventuring day" looks like?
I certainly think there's a lot to be said, when talking about RPGing. to focus on processes of play rather than the fiction that we will imagine, without talking about how we are to actually establish it.

Of classic RPGs, Moldvay Basic and Classic Traveller are pretty good examples of this. And DitV is a modern classic!

Avoid all the clichés.

At the heart of fantasy is Tolkien, which had a richly developed world in decline, which explained why there were a couple ruins for exploring.

I rarely if ever use the 'band of adventurers wandering around'. As noted already, it is junk. What I do is create a title (usually bravos) and a purpose. The purpose varies from campaign to campaign, but often it takes the form of a substance which has been scattered across the land by means arcane, natural (meter shower, for example), or design (cultist activity). To dispose of this material, which if left unattended or misused will eventually cause harm, a bounty has been placed upon its retrieval.

Therefore, your band of wandering bravos now have a place in society, and a reason to wander about obscure areas (obviously, the material cropping up in civilized lands has long since been snapped up) asking questions. It also puts the bravos in a position to help out those they encounter (for a fee). It makes the PCs hustlers, small-time independents trying to make a buck on what seemed like a really cool idea when they were back home herding turnips. They will not likely be well-respected occupation, but a needful one which will not be unwelcome provided they behave themselves.

And why risk the local militia (Local boys with families) when you can send some wandering nobodies to deal with something dangerous? If nothing else, the bravos will thin the threat's ranks before being slaughtered, making the job easier for the militia.


I feel it depends on your campaign set up. If you are playing an adventure path,, the reasons are somewhat baked in. Same could be said of a homebrew campaign with an over arcing story. If you just have some cool adventure ideas and want to loosely string them together then the motivations are less readily apparent. Some of my favorite campaigns have been either sandbox with no main storyline where we were just literally walking around looking for interesting things to explore or enemies to face. In some of those we were part of an 'adventurer's guild' where you could go and get assignments or talk to others about adventure hooks.

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