D&D General Mercenary-Adventurer Companies as a campaign structure (FR and others)


I've been recently revisiting old Forgotten Realms sourcebooks from 1st edition and early 2nd edition and again falling for the charm of the world, but then quickly running into my usual problem of really not having any ideas for how to come up with things for the players to do that allows them to be proactive. This is kind of a continuation of a thread from last year, in which I proposed that the Forgotten Realms in 1st edition sources is more conductive for adventurers than later revised versions.

Forgotten Realms was turned into the big campaign setting right after D&D had gotten the Dragonlance bug of players acting out prewritten fantasy stories that would make for great novels. A wise old quest giver who explains to the players what their purpose is and guides them through every step of which dungeon they have to go to and which villain to kill next was apparently seen as cool and innovative. But I think all players deserve much better than that, and every GM should strive for more. In an RPG, the characters of the players are supposed to be at the center of the action and the story should be about them. They shouldn't be the spectators in the epic story of a heroic NPC and memorable big villains. The players should be able to make decisions where the adventure and the whole ongoing campaign is going, and not just because the only clue they got is pointing towards the next dungeon in the adventure's script.
Now here it becomes more a matter of personal taste and something that for some people just isn't a problem, but the typical archetype of the RPG adventurer just isn't working for me. Farmboys pick up swords and go out into the world to look for villages who are being plagued by rats and goblins, where the poor peasants tell their tearful sob stories about kidnapped children, and the PCs assure them not to worry because they will take care of it, even if the villagers have nothing to pay them with. And in a setting like Forgotten Realms, adventuring parties like these are crawling all over the place. I exaggerate a bit, but really only a little bit. Most adventures don't really entertain the possibility that the PCs are not positively hungering for a great charitable cause to spill lots of blood and guts for. Players go along with it because the adventure says so, and if they don't follow the script there is no game.
I find this deeply unsatisfying and insufficient. Not only does it leave the great potential of RPGs that makes it unique to any other medium unused, but it also doesn't feel believable that selfless and charitable hero-adventurers could be an established institution critical to the structure of society in a medieval world full of monsters and demons. We deserve better.

Another issue that I noticed specific to the Forgotten Realms is that the majority of elaborate content that takes center stage in the setting revolves around various secret societies and powerful individuals who are pulling vast networks of strings from the background. The business of these people and organization is secrecy and trust. We want the PCs to get involved in all these underworld and backroom conspiracies, but it's really hard to get them involved in believable ways if they are complete nobodies with no abilities or resources worth mentioning as 1st level PCs with no experience who just happen to aimlessly hang out in the same backwater tavern one day. The obvious and easy solution to this is of course to simply have a campaign start with PCs who are all already 6th level characters with personal connections to important people and members of one secret society or another. It absolutely is a working campaign start, but I think there is another less radical option that still allows players to climb their way to the top and make their own inroads into the circles of power over the course of play. And do so proactively without the GM having to write out the whole path for them in advance.

Which I think could be the title of the thread and the actual topic: Reconceptualize the adventuring party as a mercenary company.

We still begin the campaign with all the PCs being 1st level characters with 0 XP and no connections of various different backgrounds. But instead of an impromptu collaboration of adventure minded people who happen to witness the same inciting incident, they are an existing team of people who are in the business of hiring out their services as soldiers and guards. A business that has an established market and a stable base of customers.
Have the players decide on a name for their company and some kind of identifying insignia, like a coat of arms or a uniform color scheme for their gear. Encourage the players and provide them with the resources to keep a number of henchmen as second tier backup and camp followers to round out the company to a dozen or so people. And instead of starting adventures by having the PCs witness some evil deed or another that needs rectifying, have a representative of a minor lord, town council, or wealthy merchant approach them with an offer for a contract of temporary employment.

I feel that having large numbers of small and medium-sized mercenary companies travel the lands to wherever there is work to be found would be a much more believable world than heroic vagabonds who happen to be just at the right place at the right time to rescue an abducted maiden or free a village from an evil cult. It feels also more plausible that these people could make a living that way, and are not reliant on gratitude and the hope of valuable loot by the villains they defeat to get food on the table and a roof over their head. And especially more believable that there are tens of thousands of people all over the world doing this as a regular thing and making a viable career out of it.
It never hurts to go back to the original sources and the 1st edition Grey Box campaign set actually does have a whole section on "Adventuring Companies". It covers three whole pages and appears to be the longest entry in the two books. And what it describes there actually very much supports the image of adventurer parties and mercenary bands. They all have a name and many of them are described as having become minor regional power groups in their own right.
Another thing about the setting that I noticed going through early sourcebooks last year is that the northern half of Faerûn is presented and frequently explicitly described as being a slowly developing frontier region where civilization has spread to only relatively recently. There also are barely any kingdoms, only Cormyr, Damara, and Impiltur come to mind. All the other powers in this part of the world are free cities, with lots of small isolated towns deep in the wilderness with no allegiance to any overlord. What we have here are societies that would have a hard time raising and maintaining true armies of professional soldiers, while for the most part also not being threatened by invasion or occupation from their neighbors. What they are dealing with is mostly bands of human or humanoid brigands and the occasional monster coming out of the wilderness. In those situations they need trained and experienced experts immediately, but then won't have any more need of them for the foreseeable future once the current crisis is over. Small to medium mercenary companies that support and reinforce local defenders in times of special threats seem a very plausible institution and regular business in this kind of environment.

Now, what difference does all of this make for the players in actual play? How does this give structure to the campaign, make adventures more open-ended and proactive, and get the PCs involved with the scheming secret societies?

As already mentioned before, I think the party should be planned out right from the start as an already existing group of PCs who form a professional mercenary company. With a name by which the group is known and builds up a collective reputation, and insignias or uniforms by which they will be recognized in places they've never been to before.
If it's a small group of players, have them have NPC assistants. These can guard the horses or the entrance to a dungeon while the PCs go inside, or could even be left behind to guard the town they are hired to protect while the PCs are out on patrol. It does not have to dramatically change the gameplay and lead to every player controlling two additional henchmen all the time, but a group of 12 feels much more like a mercenary company than a group of 3 or 4.
If the campaign has a large group of players, then there is a great justification for why not all PCs are always in play every time. The characters of players not currently playing could be out on patrol while something happens in town, or guard the town while something happens on patrol.
Instead of the PCs witnessing a crime and offering to help by going after the evildoers, I would instead have the group be approached by a messenger send out to find mercenaries or hear rumors about a town not too far away having serious troubles and likely having work for mercenaries. This feels like a very organic approach to adventure hooks for me not relying on contrived coincidence.
The two types of contract I have in mind are "Help protecting the town/village/keep for x weeks/months" and "Remove the threat to the town". Both types of contracts are actually great setups for mini-sandboxes. While under contract, the party would be provided accommodations or set up a permanent camp instead of burning through their purses, and they would have a place to stay for a while instead of moving from town to town every two or three days. Instead of straightforward quests of going to the ruin on the hill and clearing it out over one afternoon, the bandits, goblins, cult, or whatever can be located "somewhere in the surrounding wilderness". Since the party is in town for the foreseeable future, there can very well be a dozen of small sites in the forests and hills, some small dungeons of their own and other the huts of some NPC or another who might have information regarding their long term goal. Instead of telling the players what they have to do, send them out to explore the nearby surroundings and hunt for clues, which they then have to piece together themselves to come up with a plan that ends the threat one way or another. (Or they fail and the village gets destroyed and abandoned.) Once that little sandbox is played out after a few weeks, the group can then pack up shop and follow rumors of other towns where they might be able to find work. It's also nice that this setup is convenient for getting in a lot of downtime where the calendar can advance considerably without questions coming up why the PCs are drinking away their coins in a backwater tavern for months instead of moving on to something else.
Finally, I feel that it would come across as more credible that the various secret societies would hire a mercenary company with an established reputation and track record to do certain works for them instead of putting up a note "help wanted" and pick whoever happens to respond first. As mercenaries for hire and not volunteer kitten rescuer, it also becomes a much better possibility to have the PCs get involved with the various villainous organizations. The shifty looking mayor or grumpy baron does not have to appeal to their better nature and bemoan the suffering of his people to get them signed on. It's a job and it pays, and for as long as it doesn't ask them to do anything needlessly cruel to the peasants even good hearted PCs would have little reason to object at first. Villainous NPCs might also be much more likely to approach and try persuade a group of mercenaries while it would make little sense for them try making offers to those damn crusading Warriors of Light.
In a world where serious combat power is frequently outsourced to independent contractors and those mercenaries have a reputation that spreads cross the region, these companies can become minor powers in their own right. This opens the door the more powerful lords taking notice of them or villainous factions deciding that they need to be taken off the board.

One thing I think is needed to make this work well is to have regular village militias be quite weak and perhaps tone things down a bit with the personal strength of significant NPCs. Unless rapid level advancement is your thing, I think a group of 6th level PCs should be a significant force that can totally change the tide of a conflict between two groups when one of them hires them.

I know this is getting more rambly the longer this goes on, but I think I might have gotten the point across. What do you think of the potential of this? How would you approach it?

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Victoria Rules
Having adventuring companies, as opposed to a single adventuring party, isn't just a FR thing; and is IMO an excellent structure for a West Marches style of game or any game where the players each have several PCs in the setting rather than just one.

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