A Justifiable Venture

Numerous random discussions online combined to raise a weird question in my mind: What if adventuring was more like making a TV show?[1]

I don’t mean that it’s entertainment – there are games that cover that idea – but rather, what if it was something that had a very visible element (the show/The dungeon crawl) but also had a large “offscreen” presence in the form of the production crew. It’s not a 1:1 mapping of course (no writers) but the idea works in a general sense, especially because it’s not based on how TV shows are actually made, just the crazy impression I get from John Rogers’ stories of Portland.

Imagine for a moment the town near an ancient dungeon. Inside it are powerful monsters and, more importantly, treasure enough to profoundly destabilize the local economy. Somewhere in the Capital city, a young sage hits on some research about this dungeon and takes it to the guild and presents his findings.

They think it sounds promising, so they give it to one of their officers who is given a certain budget. The expectations is that there will be a substantial return on this invitation based off the treasure in the dungeon. Historically, this would mean walking off to a nearby tavern and telling a bunch of heavily armed nutjobs about the Dungeon. Thankfully, things have gotten more civilized since then.

Today, the officer and his staff gather the talent for a venture. This includes a crew of adventurers on the guilds approved list. Adventurers are the stars of this – they’re very well paid and well treated in the whole endeavor, and assuming their contract has been well negotiated, they’re generally due a flat fee and a percentage of the take (and some have magic item riders). They travel in style, but behind them become several wagons of crew. Quartermasters, subject matter experts, accountants, appraisers, smiths, laborers, guards and others all make up the production staff.

This caravan rolls into town. Maybe they buy out the inn or set up tents, but whatever the case, they stat doing the legwork. Local maps are updated, the route to the dungeon is surveyed, nearby dangers are mapped. This is a boon for the town – the caravan spends a lot of money on food and housing, and local talent gets recruited for scouting and mapping.

If any of the local dangers represent a hazard to the venture, the Adventurers can be brought in to deal with it. This can be the basis for some negotiation. Most adventurer contracts have language about helping access the dungeon, but interpretation of what that means can be a bit problematic if, say, a den of trolls is near enough to threaten the camp, but not actually impeding travel to the dungeon. The Officer (aka Director) gets to deal with these things, and one of the trade offs of bringing very experienced adventurers is that while they’re great at what they do, they’re a lot less likely to be arsed to help unless they must.

One everything is in place, the adventurers go into the dungeon. and much of this is familiar, but with the qualifier that they have a support staff on hand. They have substantial supplies to fall back on, expertise to draw on (remember that Sage? He’s got a producer credit and a chair on “set”, and he’s available to answer any questions). As areas are secured and mapped, crew may establish a secondary base in the dungeon itself, and there are extra hands for hauling and inventorying loot, documenting ancient runes and looking for secret doors. Experienced directors are hesitant to send crew into the actual dungeon, but an experienced crew of adventurers understands how important it is to clear things to allow for crew safety. It’s good for them, and death payments are often taken from their bonus.

If all goes well, the dungeon is cleared and inventoried. Persistent magical dangers are documented and sealed as appropriate. Everything is surveyed and measured and delivered to the local lord, with whom terms have been reached to offset the tax burden in return for securing the area. The whole thing goes back to town where payments are disbursed – most everyone gets a flat amount (adventurers get a lot, but it’s a decent payday for everyone involved. Venture work pays well, but it’s not consistent)) but key players (adventurers, the director, producers) get a percentage based on their contracts.[2]

Now, if the adventurers die, then this is a bad turn. Depending how far they got, the venture may yet turn a profit, but the whole production packs up and moves on (usually quite quickly, in case whatever killed the adventurers comes out). On paper, the director is supposed to just head back in shame, though occasionally some will attempt to salvage things with resources on hand – either using local talent or calling in favors. This is risky, since it can mean extra cost, but sometimes the payoff is worth it. Alternately, the guild may review the final report and determine it’s worth another Venture, but that’s rare. By that point, the site has probably been descended upon by independents.

And there are independents aplenty. Some are fly by night operations, just a crew of adventurers and maybe a minimal support staff. Some do it because it’s the “traditional” method, but most often these are just adventurers who couldn’t get a guild contract. A successful independent adventure can be extremely profitable, but they job is much risker, especially in the more dangerous dungeons.

A lot of successful adventurers start out as independents, working local gigs, cleaning out goblin warrens and mayoral tombs, hoping to catch a break. A particularly good turn can draw the attention of the guild, and into the world of contract venturing. And that’s the dream. (At least for a while. Adventuring is a dangerous job, and the smart ones become interested in directing ventures themselves.)

It’s good work, if you can get it, but there are only a handful of really valuable dungeons discovered each year (as well as the blacklist dungeons – those which are well known, but which have been the death of numerous production companies) and competition for them is pretty fierce. But it only takes one big dungeon haul to make for a fairly profitable year for the guild, so it continues to be willing to take some risk.

  1. This is the sort of thing that is economically preposterous unless your world genuinely has lots and lots of dungeons full of treasure. Like many do.  ↩
  2. Net is a suckers game.  ↩

9 thoughts on “A Justifiable Venture

  1. Bryant

    I ran my Greyhawk game with a bit of flavor like this, back a few years ago. I didn’t go full-on, but typically a group of adventurers would find a merchant consortium to insure them: in exchange for the right to broker all unwanted magical items, the consortium agreed to front ransom money (which was a big deal: sentient creatures tended to ransom their captives rather than kill them).

    Win-win for everyone, since the consortiums also tended to be better at getting full value for magic items than a random crew of adventurers.

  2. Virgilio benavides

    Extrapolating a bit here: Big events could even be ‘magic sphered’ for high profile venture guild members by specialist arcane crews

    1. Iain

      You could throw in a Bard or two as an NPC (or PC), tagging along and immortalizing the entire endeavor in iambic pentameter. Or providing a sound track for the folks watching back home.

      Dungeon crawl as reality TV.

      Running commentary will be provided by a former adventurer, usually with a nickname like, “Four Finger Frank.”

  3. Dave McBride

    Wow cool idea. As I was reading I came up with the idea that the players make up the “replacements” who get convinced to go in by the “producer” who wont let it go. And of course being players they win big and become the newest hot Venture party. For it to work best they would need to be made up of a bunch misfits that just happen to work really well together. A couple of them from the town, and a couple of independant Venturers. Done right they could all have an interest beyond becoming a Venture “star”.

  4. Scott Kullberg

    I see a distinction being drawn between the local ‘extras’ who handle the boring but still dangerous stuff like trapped corridors and kobold warrens but then step aside for the big names to fight the real monsters. This works even better if you’re willing to lampshade the MMO-style hard distinction between ‘boss’ and ‘trash’ monsters.

    Then you have more ways for an unscrupulous officer to play games- using the extras as fodder to weaken the boss or having them step up once something happens to the ‘pros’. Or they learn that the officer is arranging ‘failures’ deep into a dungeon- far enough that not having to pay the talent is worth not getting the last treasures.

  5. Paul Pinkosh

    I had this develop in a game one time. The party were camped outside the entrance to an ancient dungeon. They were attacked in the night by a troll. They killed it and buried its remains near their campsite. As the months went by and they continued to explore the underground complex, eventually people began to gather outside the place. As the adventurers were rather successful in their exploration, the camp outside the dungeon became a sort of boomtown. All sorts of camp followers, skilled tradesmen, and the like eventually settled there. In fact, it became so well established it eventually became a permanent town called “Trollsgrave.”

    Think of the suppliers, prostitutes, opportunists, entertainers, lackeys, cooks, doctors, and the like that end up following a medieval army. Every army had its unofficial market for good and services. The people who really made money in the Gold Rush were not usually miners. It was the guys who sold shovels.


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