Game Theory – Adventurers as Celebrities?

3 October, 2010

So, I was reading the obituary of Alex ‘Hurricane’ Higgins in the Economist*. Higgins was a poor boy made into a celebrity because of his amazing skills as a snooker player. Go and read the obituary, do not worry, we will be here when you get back.

Now, replace the serene arena of the snooker tournament with the sacred dueling circle of the wizard’s guild. Replace Higgins, the snooker playing genius, with Hathins, an arcane genius with the natural talents of a sorcerer, willing to fight a mages’ duel for any penny ante bet: a scroll, a potion or even a pint. As he is such a talented and skilled sorcerer, he quickly becomes one of the most successful and feared magical duelists in the land.

With his success comes more money than he knows what to do with, leading excessive drink and other excesses and disasters. After a few accidents in the arena, some of which are messy wins that seriously injure his opponent, Hathins is banned from the duel and without that . . . he breaks down. Soon he drinks his way through his remaining money and seeks out illegal duels for the thrill. Blacklisted and broke, the once famous sorcerer ends his story a sad and broken man.

Many adventurers have backgrounds of being from poor families and achieving success because they are extremely good at what they do, which usually involves sticking sharp points of metal into other people or incinerating them with magical fire. But these sorts of adventurers are not people who are used to dealing with large amounts of money, people of higher social status or the wider world.

Like many modern celebrities, it seems like things could go very wrong for these suddenly famous adventurers, as newly rich, newly powerful people. As visiting any celebrity news page will show you, the lives of celebrities are far from smooth and they are the subject of constant problems, vicious rumors and worse. The newly wealthy and famous adventurers would be prey for all sorts of hangers on, parasites and others. They may not be good at managing the money, spending it all on “ale and whores” –as Skull the Troll put it– (or “hookers and blow” to use the modern equivalent). As well as the problem of dealing with those people who look up and admire them, in other words, their fans.

While this probably should not be the major focus of a campaign, it could lead to interesting subplots and side adventures as the adventures learn and try to cope with their celebrity status and the problems that it creates.

Have you every used an adventurer’s fame to fuel an adventure? Have your players every taken advantage of their character’s inexperience in society to feed a plot? Is the comparison of adventurers to celebrities fair?

*Yes, I read the Economist, I have interests besides gaming you know. You should read it to, it is one of the best sources of information available on current events.


  1. These are some of the things I think are coolest to think about with classic D&D adventurers (and which were actually handled better with original and advanced D&D back in the day I think) – what is the social impact of adventurers? If they are common, what does that mean? If the PCs are unique, what does that mean? When the king, a 10th level Aristocrat NPC, gives a quest to a group of 12th level PCs who could wipe out his entire royal guard in a few rounds, what does that mean?

    Or what about the fact that, as written, a powerful wizard or druid can kill hundreds of people in a few rounds, but can’t use magic to light a camp-fire? What kind of society, what kind of priorities, leads to there being loads of kill-you spells and almost no spells that actually make everyday life easier for the common person? (Prestidigitation kind of gets around this…sort of, but with a few exceptions it utility ends there)

    I’ve had some groups who really wanted to delve into these issues which are frankly perpendicular to the main thrust of D20 RAW, and other groups who had no patience for it whatsoever and couldn’t care less.

    I’ve definitely based whole sessions, even whole campaigns, on some of the absurdities of having high-level adventurers running around. I think it can be fun to play up the issues that the stated setting of D&D implies. Contrary to what I see a lot of people write or hear them say, a D&D setting makes awful fiction (except as irony) and is nothing like Tolkien or other classic fantasy novels. It is it’s own absurd, beautiful, convoluted lunatic world. Magic weapon shops? Superheroes focused on ale and whores? Dungeons around every corner jam-packed with lethal monsters? Tomes of kill-you spells? Religious seminaries that have heavy armor training as part of the core curriculum?

    Could any setting be more absurd!? But for me, that’s the fun. Assume every lunatic thing the core rulebooks tell you is true. Now, imagine what it is like to live in this world. Just that question, for me, is a source of infinite adventure ideas – though there are definitely players who don’t want to go there with me, when they do, it can be really entertaining.

    • Certainly it can be played as an absurdity but a coherent world can be forged from the metal of the setting as well. It simply depends on what the group wants out of a campaign.

      True, as written the rules impose a weirdly arbitrary quasi-setting that makes very little sense and aspects of it quickly spiral out to a reductio ad absurdum as you point out. But there are seeds of sense and a rational world there too, it just depends on what part of the axis one wants to play at.

      Personally, I am not much into the absurdities that the game’s rules can generate and much more interested in making an interesting and fun game. I am happy to clamp down on the power level of the game as needed to make the setting matter to the players and internally consistent for us all. But every group has a different balance and play style.

  2. Character level is no indication of political power and influence. That 10th level aristo may have the backing of a powerful mercantile family, be sponsor to an order of wizards and have other interests that would cause difficulties if they attempt it.

    And often, uneasy is the head that wears the crown.

    • Very true. But successful adventurers have that aura of success and danger (and big bags of cash) that is likely to make them noticed, though maybe not in a positive way. That why I likened them to celebrities. Some people will look up to them, others think they are a threat to public morals, some will want to use them and so on.

      • That’s one possibility, you need only look at people like Buffalo Bill Cody or Sir Francis Drake to see how celebrity can work for the adventurer.

        Equally, notoriety is as likely as fame – Mark Anthony and Blackbeard are two examples of how adventurers can meet a sticky end though they are famous.

        Fame is a fickle mistress, especially in a world where magic can reveal secrets to an inexperienced spellcaster.

  3. I think certainly a certain degree of celebrity would attach itself to adventurers, though as you point of notoriety or infamy would be just as likely. In a way, even use of the term “celebrity” distorts because we have such a modern media driven conception of that–which would of course be totally different in a possibly pre-printing press even world.

    • There were famous athletes in Greece, star gladiators in Rome, popular actors in Elizabethan England, so there are celebrities in all eras. But, yes, the printing press does make it easier to spread fame (and infamy).

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