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The PCs are a faction

How do you get the players to pay attention to the world? Learn its history, take an interest in its lore, care what happens to it?

This perennial question prompted some useful philosophy from Jacinto. It also made me realize that I have a basic assumption behind the games I run, which is apparently not common and which changes everything:

All my games are domain games from day one. The PCs are a faction in the world: if they have treasures, someone will come for them. If they build something, it will be used. They need to defend their stuff, they would do well to get a home base, and they are never invulnerable between adventures.

And that made me realize that the basic assumptions of a lot of campaigns are the opposite: you are drifters, crossing a world without friends. Of course you are not farmers or other regular workers! You have no families or dependents – you are free agents. You enter situations where the locals have a problem, and now it’s your adventure – but not exactly your problem, in that you can walk away both from the situation AND from the aftermath of your actions.

Adventure texts sometimes say these things explicitly. More frequently they just assume them. And as Jacinto points out, those assumptions frame the action of the game in a way that fundamentally affects its problem space. Without any practical, mechanical, formal constraint on the players’ tactical infinity, it nonetheless structures the constraints on what the players will think of doing.

Why do adventurers tend to be disconnected drifters? I don’t know. Maybe so they don’t need complicated back-stories, maybe so they can enact eucatastrophes without demanding a new social contract from the beneficiaries. Patrick Stuart recently pointed out that this “heroic” social disconnection goes all the way back to the mists of proto-Indo-European myth:

A key point for us is that killing the son, in Indo-European terms, is like ‘killing the parents’ in children’s fiction; it enables the adventure.

Sane parents stop their children going on adventures so for the story, or game, to happen, and for the Hero to happen, they need to be missing, powerless, incompetent or dead. (Like most Disney parents).

Likewise the D&D adventurer will ultimately ‘age out’, (though in practice they remain near-psychotic self-driven loners in otherwise communal societies), but if they were real they would probably gain families and embed themselves in a socio-political milieux, as people tend to do as they age.
How then may they adventure? You can do socio-political court dramas, but how can they meat-and-potatoes, risk-and-exploration adventure?

…by accidently killing their son and/or heir in tragic and fated circumstances, this then ending their ‘family line’ (assuming a patriarchal society) this disconnects them from the world of line-building, politics and embedded power structures

Mechanically, early/BX D&D both leans very heavily on these assumptions and reinforces them – the rules work hard to avoid characters having any necessary social position.
To review:
– a D&D PC has a solitary mechanical reward structure built in: success yields xps (exact mechanism debated), xps yield levels, levels yield bigger encounters (whether those are selected by the DM or players). Nothing in this loop depends on a wider world or society – it’s treated as a sort of natural growth;
– a dungeon is a placeless place: a sealed environment that usefully does not leak into the wider world, where normal society is suppressed in favour of the critical moving parts of protagonist, monster, treasure;
– dungeons often contain their own powerups and debuffs – magic items, potions, time-based healing, daily spell recharges, sometimes even shops and wandering henchmen, allowing players to remain at the coalface of risks and rewards. It is true that many published adventures work to tie the dungeon to a wider world – or at least a village/resupply depot – but the mechanical language supporting indefinite dungeon-clearing has been present in the D&D rulebooks at least since b/x. (Video games have leaned into these mechanisms, often jettisoning any world-building outside their core violence/acquisition loops. It is remarkable that they did not have to invent anything other than the pieces in the D&D books in order to do so.)

And there are genre justifications: D&D is often described as a Western exactly because it’s full of High Plains Drifters…. while at the same time facing perennial complaints about how Drifter PCs tend to believe like Clint-Eastwoodish murderhobos (instead of, presumably, John Waynish lawmen?). If you attack this as a moral problem rather than a structural one, by tying the lifeways of The Drifter to a separate value system of helpful heroism, you get the “A-Team” – outsider PCs who repeatedly meet the locals, catalyze change, and move on. Which raises the question: “if you’ve made this place a little better than the rest of the dirty world, why do you leave?” Murderhobos have their answer built in – their actions make them fugitives. To achieve the same result, the 80s A-Team had to import an unjust, implacable enemy in the form of the US government. Back in the 50s the White Hat Drifter just gazed off across the desert and declaimed that he had to keep moving, but that kind of genre emulation is a heavy lift when the players have already invested lots of play time in learning about the corrupt lord in the castle and the villainous duke across the valley and the finishing school for Distressing Damsels that was always being raided by goblins until the PCs neutralized them.

Oh, right. The point at the top of this post: why should the PCs care about the world’s lore? Well, if it’s implicit that the lore will only be relevant to the current fight, that next month the PCs will be off to some new troll-pit… yeah, that disincentivizes taking too much interest in local affairs. The problem is not just that the lore has to justify its importance to the selfish PCs’ deeper mechanical/structural quest for levels, it’s that the players’ idea of their characters is of people who are fundamentally disconnected, whose interests do not naturally engage the world, but instead have to be excited by some novel and limited opportunity (something that can be mapped).

So……… OK, but what if the PCs weren’t drifters? Are you not then locked into “socio-political court dramas” (like Vampire)?


First, let’s take Vikings. None more adventurey, right?
Vikings are farmers.
They vote in local councils over, like, building and fishing rights. And they also go viking – they choose to leave their farms behind and go cattle-raiding across the sea, probably a few times each year. Certainly often enough that some of them can do it full time. The treasure they bring back translates straight into political power, bargaining advantage and marriage prospects. And then they need more of it.

The Timawa of the southern Philippines are a lot like Vikings, but with more of a formal social role as the warrior/raiding arm of an otherwise more settled society. Treasure can get them promotions to noble rank, which would otherwise be cut off to them, since they’re (mostly) second sons who won’t inherit the family farm. They’re explicitly not farmers themselves but still, they adventure from a stable home (farm) base, with a respectable social position.

“But these are mere pirates! We want heroes!”
Well, they’re heroes to their own people. If you’re playing a fantasy game, one of the great affordances of fantasy (maybe its defining characteristic) is its ability to paint your rivals as universal threats and the protagonists as noble defenders.

If the people the PCs raid are actually strong enough to be an existential threat to the PCs’ way of life, how is that different from points of light D&D? For an example, check out the Mappillas of the Malabar Coast of India – denounced as pirates by the Portuguese in the 16th century (while the Portuguese were stealing the Mappillas’ established trade routes), celebrated as anti-colonial freedom fighters by post-independence Indian historians. (Sadly, for a gameable hoard of info on these guys you’d need to search academic references, because wikipedia doesn’t really cover the discourse that calls them “pirates” or talk about their military operations. Instead it just talks about how the Portuguese sailed up and started attacking them – perhaps a useful redress of colonial attitudes, but not so handy for writing RPGs.)

More familiar maybe to D&D heads, yer ancient Greek heroes – Odysseus or Jason and the Argonauts – was often heads of households who dropped their ploughs to pick up spears, going adventuring for years at a time. They’re classic Drifters (on the wine-dark sea), sure, but their call to adventure does not cancel their social integration: they’re still playing the domain game, expecting to return home and reap the benefits of their victories, their favours, divine and profane. While out adventuring, they represent their home peoples among the foreigners. They are engaged in socio-political courting right as they’re heisting Golden Fleeces. And they’re making a web of social contracts with the people they meet, help and frustrate, keeping maps and records of the challenges they face and of those they postpone until such time as they can get a good crew together, one that could e.g. steal a queen or end a long-running war.

Having a domain – resources, commitments, reputation – they have something to lose, which makes their defeats as interesting as their victories. If they hear there’s a magic sword in the area, they want it, not just to use it themselves, but also to stop the villainous neighbouring lord from getting it. They have an active self-interest in understanding the world around them and ferreting out its secrets, because those secrets may actively interfere with their plans. Oh yeah, and they have plans, maybe even long-term ones, which need to be informed by intel – “lore,” if you want to distinguish it from the more immediately instrumental knowledge of maps or weapon stores. How trustworthy is the nomad chief? Should they ally with the religious zealots or the greedy traders? What will happen if they break the dam and reveal the old, flooded temple? Are there factions they don’t know about, interested in the fortunes of the goblins? The costs of ignorance could be devastating.

If the GM is keeping a lively world going, then just securing and maintaining the domain (from outsiders, mutineers, or ancient land curses) is a challenge that requires planning. Expanding it, or moving to the greener grass across the valley, or making it an important hub among the kingdoms – those are challenges fit for a campaign – ones that require knowledge as well as muscle power.

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