Welcome Back to the Labyrinth

"We have been away far too long, my friends," Ashoka declared, his face lit by the eldritch green glow of his staff. "But we have finally returned to the labyrinth whence our adventures first began."

"Just imagine the treasures that lie within," said Yun Tai, flexing his mighty muscles. "Wealth enough to live in luxury the rest of our days."

"And arcane artifacts of great power," added Ashoka his words dripping with avarice. "All ours for the taking!"

"Umm...guys?" Nysa interrupted. "Do you hear something dripping?"

Saturday, August 28, 2010

The Psychology of Adventure

"We are plain quiet folk and have no use for adventures.  Nasty disturbing uncomfortable things! Make you late for dinner!  I can't think what anybody sees in them."
-B. Baggins

I've had ample occasion to ponder and sympathize with this point of view over the past couple of weeks doing field work on the north end of Lake Winnipeg.  I'm often amused at how field work is often idealized by laymen who perceive it as glamorous adventure.  Well, okay, sometimes it is, but mostly it's nasty, disturbing, and uncomfortable and all too often makes you late for dinner.  The glamor fades pretty quickly in the sweltering heat while you're being devoured by thick clouds of mosquitoes and black flies; or, as was the case this year, cold and wet.  It rained for days without pause.  Some days the wind gusted so strong that it rained sideways.  One day the rain turned to sleet - even in Canada, that's just wrong.  At least the black flies had the sense not to go out in weather like that.

The first two days of work consisted of exposing new limestone beds by shoveling and sweeping ground cover off of them.  This is pretty unromantic, tedious work, and my blisters are only now healing.

Cleaning the Outcrop

After the newly exposed section was uncovered and cleaned we were finally able to settle down to the real job at hand: levering up limestone slabs and carefully examining them for fossils.

Graham Young examines rock with hand lens
 As uncomfortable as my field work often is, there are very seldom any monsters trying to kill me. (though one of my friends was mauled by a bear, one of my professors died in a helicopter crash, and I once had a run-in with a crazy shot-gun wielding farmer in northern Wales, but that's a story for another time).  All this has led me to wonder what sort of person would pursue adventuring and dungeon-delving as a career.  Many protagonists in fantasy literature are reluctant heroes, thrust into dangerous adventures by circumstance rather than by choice.  Notable exceptions are pulp-era heroes like Conan or Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser, but even they often get swept up in events not of their choosing.  Only role playing game characters actually go looking for trouble.

A couple of weeks in the field always gives me new appreciation for the comforts of home that I might otherwise take for granted: a soft bed, a comfortable chair with a good book and a pot of fresh coffee.  Just imagine the life of the itinerant wanderer: sleeping on the ground in all manner of weather, being roused in the night to battle the menace that some sadistic bastard rolled up on his random encounter chart - only to finally descend into the subterranean depths risking an all-too-likely death in hope of hauling out some treasure.  There's got to be a better way to make a living.

It's funny that I've never given a lot of thought to what motivates adventurers, given how often I've played one, but I think it must be a combination of one or more of the following traits: desperate, suicidal, or just plain crazy.

Desperate: there isn't much that someone won't do when they have nothing left to lose.
Suicidal: personal tragedy can lead to a death wish; when you don't have anything to live for, there isn't much that scares you.
Crazy: this covers a lot of ground, from thrill-seeking adventure junkies, gambling addicts, and misanthropic outcasts who don't fit society's mold.  I think most player characters fit into this category and share a lot in common with the sort of men who went off to try their hands at prospecting during the gold rush.

When you compare the number of player characters that die to those that retire wealthy, you've got question the reward-to-risk ratio.  In my own case, I've put in a lot of long, back-breaking hours over the years to accumulate my bit of "treasure," and this past summer there were a number of rare and outstanding fossils found, including two fully articulated eurypterids preserved together on a single slab, one giant eurypterid - possibly the largest Ordovician eurypterid ever found, and a brachiopod with it's fleshy pedicle preserved (something I've been searching for my entire career), but none of them were found by me.  It makes it worse, somehow, to be enduring grueling field conditions when people all around you are making incredible finds and all you've got is a rock.

This, too, is reminiscent of adventuring.  You know, when it comes time to loot the bodies of the orcs you just killed, and Bob the Cleric finds a magic ring while all you find is some tarnished copper pieces and a dead rat.

Despite it all, I'll keep putting my characters in mortal danger in hopes of someday making that big score, just as I know that next summer will find me back in the field, enduring the discomfort and the blood-sucking insects, in hopes of making an even bigger score.  I can't help myself - I must be just plain crazy.


Shane Mangus said...

Food for thought, and an entertaining read. I am glad you escaped the plague of flies and the near Biblical flooding to share your tales of adventure! :-)

Nykster said...

Great post Sean, but I must disagree for your reasons of adventuring. My own character Theon wasn't actually looking for glorious battles or treasure. Simply the reason he is still alive(see backstory). One quick attack by some orcs and he's made some companions. When they decide to go do a little bounty hunting in order to earn some cash he feels obligated as a cleric to keep them safe.

Speaking of bounty hunting, there are "fugitive recovery agents" in today's society who risk life and lib on a regular basis with the knowledge that they will get only a meager pay out.
Not to mention the late Steve Irwin, the "Crocodile Hunter" who risked his life daily to entertain and educate the world about dangerous animals.
Police officers, fire fighters, pest exterminators, and military men don't do what they do because they are crazy...ok some of them do, but most do it because it's a job that has to get done.
If there were no adventurers, who would clear out the goblin warrens before they would over run? Certainly not the ones who are thrust into adventure, because by the time they were thrust into said adventure it would be too late.
For every successful hero who became a hero unwillingly, there are a dozen dead heroes who have tried to stop the "bad thing" from happening for the simpe reason that it's the right thing to do, and maybe i'll make a couple bucks at it.

Sean Robson said...

@Shane: Thanks, man!
@Nykster: I think you've missed the point of the post. Police, firefighters, and the military do not court death, they do not go looking for trouble and never take unnecessary risks. Adventurers do - hence the term 'adventurer.' They aren't doing a job that's got to be done, they are looking for adventure.

You are also confusing 'adventurer' with 'hero,'and these terms are not synonymous. Your band of adventurers robs tombs and pokes into dark places in search of treasure or bounty - any benefit to society is purely coincidental.

And Steve Erwin is the perfect example of exactly the type of character I'm talking about - just plain crazy. He was an irresponsible glory hound; he did stupid stunts and it caught up with him in the end.