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Villagers in peril are a staple of almost any Dungeons & Dragons adventure (at least at the heroic tier; after that, entire countries and then worlds are in peril). Who hasn’t saved a town from marauding bands of gnolls, solved that farmer’s pesky “ancient evil buried in the middle of his cornfield” problem, liberated the orphanage from banderhobbs, or rescued the village maiden (I’m not sure why there was only one in town, but whatever) from the machinations of an obscure cult who just happens to have demons in their employ?
In the course of the average adventurer’s career, they’ll have visited dozens of isolated towns in need of serious rescue at the hands of someone rolling a d20. This is particularly true if you’re involved in the RPGA, a gaming format where each session often takes place in not only a new city, but sometimes a new continent. Adventurers in a fantasy setting log a lot of frequent flyer miles, and when the dragon lies dead with its loot divided, they go off to log some more, leaving a town behind them.
That’s what we’re going to talk about today: exploring the motivations of common townsfolk and what it means exactly to have an “Adventurer-Based Economy.” No, really. We’re going to talk about the small business owner in the world of Dungeons & Dragons and how that can go horribly awry with the notion of “Stabbingtowns.”
It’s more interesting than you think, I promise. But first, let’s set the stage.
Fun Fact: The few character names in this rant were generated by the official D&D Character Name Generator. I’m not exactly sure why, but the moment I randomly drew the name “Quogeon ManCrag” I couldn’t stop myself.
Why in the name of [Insert Deity Name of Choice Here] would you build your village next to a forest filled with demons? Or at the base of “Gorekrak Mountain,” fabled home of the eyeball-eating draconic death knights? Or on top of something called the Tomblette of Horrors? Perhaps these are not too difficult if we work at it. Maybe the village was there first, maybe the fables came later, and maybe the town was built by cultists to cover up Acererak’s first tomb that he made for the science fair when he was 14. Yet in any adventure, real people still live in these places, oblivious to the horrors until they need an adventuring party to show up at the 11th hour to save the day.
So the better question is this: Why do they stay? If you know your farmland on the outskirts of town borders the Forest of Blood and Mystery, then you’re almost guaranteed to find something horrible eating your livestock on any given morning. Think about every random encounter you’ve experienced just walking through the woods or a particular bad part of a city. The locals risk that experience whenever they need go shopping. Why wouldn’t a man decide that he, his wife, and their children need to find a better life elsewhere? Is he a proud man, willing to see his children die at the hands of orcs for the sake of family honor? Why doesn’t the wife speak up for herself and take her kids back to her parents until the danger blows over?
Then again, maybe it’s a feeling of being trapped. If the D&D world is a place of darkness with tiny pinpricks of light (good) scattered throughout it, it’s easy to imagine that life is the same everywhere. And it’s true to some degree. If the Zantal Coilbone family moves to Calimshan, suddenly wererat street thugs are threatening his property value. Waterdeep? Great, now the Coilbone family just lost another member to a demonic plot involving a door-to-door salesperson and a lot of fire.
So Who Still Lives Here?
So now we’re left with two types of villagers who remain in “Destroyed/Ravaged/Invaded/Corrupted by _________” Town. The first is the strong-willed survivor. He’s proud and, if it weren’t for family tradition and mortgage payments, he’d probably have been an adventurer himself. Probably has a garage band that meets on the weekend made up of other dads from the town. The second is . . . well . . . the useless and afraid. These are the majority of folk that adventurers are going to meet. Don’t believe me? How many times has the crowd in the shopping district lent a hand when the hobgoblin kidnappers were trying to get away from your righteous battle axe of justice? Oh that’s right, never.
Of course, there are other ways of looking at why people stay, if you’re willing to dive deeper.
A king/mayor/tribal chieftain/whatever can’t rule anything if all his people leave. If New York were plagued by flaming poo-bats on a nightly basis, a heck of a lot of people would move away to Jersey. What can a quick-thinking member of the ruling class do to maintain his population? Besides the obvious “build a wall to keep everyone from leaving” option (which springs to mind a bit too quickly, what with me living in Berlin, Germany), there’s a much smoother (and less scary) option that might explain how a king can hold power when he can’t even defend his own people. And you know he can’t, right? If he could, then why did your adventuring party save the town time and time again?
The answer, ladies and gentlemen, is subsidies.
That’s right, I conjecture that many kingdoms offer money to those living in “hazardous” areas, on the condition that they don’t move away. They’re losing money, what with their crops burned by rampaging redspawn belches, their goods stolen by kobolds, and their trade route plagued by orcs something fierce. Offering a subsidy to the common villager living in DangerCrest helps explain why they stay.
Maybe the money keeps them living large whenever there’s not a bulette showing up in the basement, graboid-style. Maybe they send it to their family in Calimshan, to help out with all those wererat bites I was talking about. Heck, maybe the ruler puts up advertisements in neighboring areas, flyers tacked to horses in the parking lot: “Free Gold! Action! Excitement! Sometimes Horrible Death! Did I mention the Free GOLD?! Come to DangerCrest and join the Family!” Honestly I think I’d move anywhere if they advertised it like that.
The problem with looking at victimized villagers as people who moved there knowing the risks (Venice hesitantly comes to mind) is that suddenly the heroic adventurer doesn’t feel quite so . . . pious. If a sea captain sails into “Dire Sharks Will Eat You Cove,” you kind of blame him for the stupidity.
All I can say is the logic all loops back on itself. Whatever the reason a villager might have for staying in a known zone of death and horror (the majority of the globe in most fantasy settings), they still have to make a living. Although trade, manufacturing, and agriculture are all viable options, let’s look at what it means for a town to have an adventurer-based economy.
An Adventurer-Based Economic Stimulus
Funnily enough most villages in on-and-off again peril live in an adventurer-based economy. You just might not have realized it. When you go into a town, what’s the first thing you look for? Tavern, weapon shop, and maybe the alchemy surplus depot. So from the villagers’ perspective, adventurers in town mean big bucks. They wield gold coins with abandon, and rarely do you find monsters whose pockets are lined with copper or silver, the more common and lower denominations found across the land.
In a similar fashion, monsters mean big business, but we’ll get to that in a moment. Right now let me better convince you how you might have fallen victim to Adventurer Economics. Say you’re in a desolate mountain region and you come across the town of Risky, which lives in the shadow of the ruins of Castle Precarious. Risky has only five buildings, tavern included. The party sits down at the tavern, while a large burly fellow slowly cleans an uncleanable mug dramatically. “What’ll it be?” he asks. And then the magic begins.
When a barkeeper stocks his bar, they’re always quick to make sure the “man and wife” combo is there for travelers from afar with too much gold. Infrequent is the dwarf or manly type that doesn’t ask for dwarven ale—the stronger the better. If there’s a severed goblin toe in there, all the more authentic. Likewise, rare is the elf or pretentious sophiticazi that doesn’t order a thin chalice of the finest and most flowery of elf wines. The city of Risky might be 500 miles from the nearest civilization, but miraculously the tavern will be well stocked to accommodate the most exotic of tastes in many cases. If adventurers didn’t constantly demand exotic beverages, then it wouldn’t make sense for traveling merchants to go across the land themselves, selling rare drinks in the most hard-to-reach locales. Hell, that’s an adventure unto itself: Who are the brave merchants that venture into the dangerous forest to make sure backwater towns have enough racially charged booze?
Adventurers are the tourists in the D&D world. They spend too much, they wreck the furniture, and they pretty much run roughshod over whatever the local customs might be. But still . . . they’re worth it. Have you noticed how the mysterious gentleman sitting in the dark corner of the tavern is the same man who often offers adventurers a job or quest? That guy’s also been paying for drinks and renting rooms for days waiting for some adventurers to show up. Like I said, adventurers are big business.
The funny part is that eventually this kind of economy becomes symbiotic with the monsters/evil the adventurers originally came to defeat. If they truly do eradicate the beasts in the sewers and uproot every member of the dragon cult in town, then what reason would they have to come back?
Savvy mayors will do their best to protect at least a few stray kobolds or carrion crawlers to make sure future generations benefit from a rich tourism trade. Considering how fast news travels in your average fantasy world, it’s easy to fathom that by the time the adventurers arrive to slay monstrous beasts that another adventuring party has beaten them to the punch. So what’s a town to do? The adventurers are here, ready to kill something, and with coin heavy in their pocket. If you guessed that the town would “release just a few monsters they’d trapped, to make the adventurers feel better about the trip” then I give you 10 points. Hell, they might even pass out T-shirts that read “I slew Gargoyles at Riskytown and all I got was this lousy T-shirt”.
This is overtly true if you’re in the RPGA. I love the format, but there’s nothing funnier than meeting another character and over the course of a conversation you find out you’ve both saved the same town from the same danger, just at different times. Sure, there’s a suspension of disbelief required . . . no one thinks a town might be plagued by Spellplague-framing orcs or that their tricks would work on the villages a dozen times. For those not in the RPGA: It’d be like you mastered the Tomb of Horrors only to find out that the guy who just joined the party also did that two months ago.
All I’m proposing here is that tiny towns surrounded by horror live off the exploits of adventurers in many ways, and the idea that those “repeats” of adventures might actually be repeats isn’t so out of the question (and could make for truly humorous plot hooks if members of the local populace are caught in the act, seeding their town with monsters). Besides suspension of disbelief, it’s either that or the town needs to be rescued from a “Groundhog’s Day” time loop by adventurers or Doctor Who.
How Do I Get to Stabbingtown?
If players are introduced to the idea that folks are well aware of what adventurers do, it might just help shake away some of the clichés. If a patron offers a shifter “werewine,” it should raise some eyebrows. Maybe it’s the real thing or maybe it’s just some weird product that’s an offshoot of the “dwarves drink dwarven ale/elves drink elven wine” premise. Other possibilities include dragonbrandy, halfling shooters, shardmead, and maybe even heavenly devabsinthe.
But if players know that villages in peril might be catering to them as an industry and not just as their source of salvation, it throws a few things into question. Which means you’re more than welcome to take this to an even further extreme.
Let me introduce you to the idea of “Stabbingtowns.” Across the land, flyers are showing up warning of an ancient tomb releasing unspeakable evil across this mostly unheard-of town. Other flyers beseech the goodhearted to stop the orcs from burning the fields. Yet another? Black dragon. They beg for adventurers to come and save them.
Truth of the matter? Stabbingtowns are deathtraps of metaproportions. Let’s get serious for a brief moment. How much do you think it would take to make common people snap if they lived in isolated poverty and, when the monsters came, rich adventurers (remember, your magic armor costs more than what most make in a year if not a lifetime) showed up, demanding more money and treasure from you to help out, were abusive to the bar staff, and looted the bodies of anyone they beat down in a barfight?
Let’s go back to the town of Risky and say the adventurers lost. Rampaging hellhounds defeated them and, after a while, moved on. The villagers rose from their cellar hiding places and saw dead mercenaries at their feet, their magic armor and weapons just sitting there. A small fortune was made from selling the dead adventurers’ gear and no one thought of making it a habit—until it happened again a year later, when a chaotic wizard on the run dispatched three heroes in the tavern with a bolt of lightning.
You probably see where I’m going with this. Stabbingtown is a town that’s been designed so that adventurers don’t necessarily make it out alive. The huge influx of money from secondhand magical artifacts fuels an economy where they can afford to take more risks. No city guards? Sure, why not? You want a permit to dig up the cemetery? Sounds classy. Mr. Barleon wants to start raising rage drakes? A strange mystery cult wants to build a temple on the outskirts of town? Yeah, we’re cool with that too. I can even imagine Stabbingtown building a fake dungeon and then just sealing it up behind adventurers, only coming back a month or so later to loot the bodies. It’s dark, sure, but it has a grim realism to it. I mean, in a harsh world such as this, what kind of people survive?
In my own game I use the term “Stabbingtowns” as kind of a legend. It’s a type of town or situation that adventurers should be on the lookout against. For a more pop-cultural reference, it’s a lot like Lawrence Fishburne’s role in the recent flick Predators, where he, the lone survivor on a death planet, attempts to kill his would-be rescuers to keep himself better equipped. The idea isn’t new, but it’s a natural spin-off from what we’ve been talking about. Stabbingtowns aren’t smart moves for a community—it takes only one surviving adventurer to ruin the whole thing. But as a stray plot device hammering home the desperation of a people living on the edge? It’s not too bad.
Leaving the dark place behind, there’s nothing wrong with having your villages be the equivalent of a maiden who swoons and faints into the arms of the monsters at the first sign of trouble. Heroes need communities in peril to help justify their lifetime study of throwing fireballs and decapitating zombies. Likewise, there’s nothing wrong with an adventurer playing the part of the loud and obnoxious tourist—there’s a tradition of that whenever small communities host dwarf barbarians and eladrin magi.
Maybe we’re not meant to look this closely at how adventurer economies work or ask why a villager just doesn’t move away from the haunted valley. Maybe we should just go back to the way things were.
Then again, things are much more interesting this way. “Interesting” is often a more dangerous place to live than any haunted forest. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have to go talk to a gnome about a time-share. I’m getting a break on the price because of some ankheg damage. How bad could it be?