Paragons & Pariahs

Recently I have been discussing and thinking about Old School RPG design and New School design. This has mainly been spurred on by looking over the latest and last public play test release for D&D Next. While I admit certain vexations with design choices in the latest play test it is not the subject for today.

One of the differences between NS and OS design is the starting power of player characters. Old School design’s base simulates normal people developing extraordinary talents and rising above humble origins. On the other hand, NS’s base of power assumes a PC to already be an extraordinary person, a cut above their peers and have a solid understanding of their power be it martial or magical. According to some 4th Edition materials 1st level PCs should have already cultivated some renown in their immediate location. Heroic tier (levels 1-10) is centered on becoming regional/state celebrities. Levels 11-20 should have PCs becoming household names in the known world of the prime material plane and venturing into other planes of existence. By the last third of levels PCs should be influencing the path of existence in multiple planes, foiling the plans of deities and their immediate lieutenants.

Considering all this information I find it important as GM when prepping and running a campaign to determine what place adventurers have in the world. Are they held in high regard as heroes, champions of good and bastions against evil? Or are they sellswords, common thugs, and greedy thieves whose morality goes only as far as the gold they’re paid?

Also consider any sort of infrastructure for adventurers. Are their adventuring guilds, contract brokers? It is important to consider how adventurers learn of new jobs. Is there a system of certification, are these people licensed or bonded? Do they need to present references to potential patrons? In a current campaign I am playing the party is about to take a field examination for an adventuring license. Basically it is a government administrated exam for the lowest level of certification. Having this certification allows the party to take on jobs deemed dangerous. However, before the we had to submit paperwork along with character references. The group has already earned some small celebrity in the city and were able to provide references from the city’s guard captain and one of the city’s religious leaders.

As you can guess there is a strong central government focus in the campaign and thick coats of bureaucracy tie up anything important.

To make an analogy the difference between the general reception of adventurers by the public can feel like a caped crusader, generally accepted despite being a vigilante and characters from the Borderlands games; dangerous and deranged psychopaths the general public would rather avoid.

When a party of adventurers come to town are they greeted by the entire population, a party thrown in their honor? Do the common folk gather round, eyes wide as adventurers regale them with their latest travels, tales of weird magics and terrifying monsters. Maybe they find everyone hurried into their huts, shutters drawn closed and the village silently watching them, anxiously waiting for them to pass down the road. The latter may be more likely if the party tends to always walk around in heavy armor with shield and armed to the teeth. To the common folk I imagine a band of adventurers looks very similar to brigand raiders that ride out of the hills.

This will also determine the sort of NPCs who are likely to either approach the party for help or agree to help the PCs. If you run a campaign where people have a general fear and distaste for adventurers they are more likely to find company in despicable and seedy NPCs. A positive view on adventurers on the other hand may have the party invited to dine with the local lord, perhaps even be granted lodging. Nobles starved for entertainment and news of the world beyond their holdings would likely jump at the chance to spend an evening conversing with worldly travelers.

If you are looking to better understand this dynamic I suggest checking out the seminal film Seven Samurai, a black and white movie by film legend Akira Kurosawa. You can watch it for free on Hulu. It is part of the Criterion Collection and is generally regarded as one of the best movies ever. Before you watch it there are a few things I can’t remember how clearly are stated in the movie so I’ll list them here. You probably know some of this but these are integral to fully understanding how the movie relates to the topic.

  1. Ronin are master-less Samurai. Either their lord dies or their services are terminated because of monetary issues. Though not a major point it is common for Samurai whose lord has been killed to commit ritual suicide. Being a Ronin is a bad thing.
  2. The bandits of the film are also comprised of Ronin who busted the honor code of Bushido and turned to banditry to survive.
  3. Samurai are upper class nobility, something like a European knight. Being a Ronin is like being busted down to the dregs of society, like a pauper… if the pauper was also a trained from birth professional warrior.

Even if you’re not interested in the dynamic presented here you should watch the film anyways. It’s a classic film and worth seeing.

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