Toward a genealogy of the adventuring party

Tom’s comment on a previoust post raises a really big issue that I haven’t seen anyone in the blogosphere really discuss — the literary origins of the D&D model of “adventuring parties.”  The blog Monsters & Manuals has a good “in-game” justification for why there might be adventuring parties in medieval fantasy worlds, but where did this element of the game come from?

From what we know about Dave Arneson’s Blakmoor and Gary Gygax’s Greyhawk, the earliest players of D&D’s progenitors tended to align themselves into allied groups.  At least some players adventured solo, but the rule seems to have been groups of players, each controlling one or more characters.  A good deal of ink is spent in the rules and early Dragon magazines discussing how alignments and character types work together in D&D (no more than two rangers in a party, paladins not associating with chaotic characters, etc.), and there is a general sense that the notion of “Alignment” came from choosing sides in wargames and then justifying which characters would adventure together. It’s easy to forget that early D&D campaigns often seem to have involved dozens of players and multiple adventuring parties (and multiple DMs).  From a purely practical gaming perspective, obviously if you are to have multiple players, you need to have them adventuring in groups to make the game manageable.  The “combined arms” of historical wargaming must an influence too — shock troops = fighters, light troops = thieves/scouts, artillery = wizards, and so on.

But turning to the literary influences of D&D, where does the “party” come from?  Obviously there is the Hobbit (dwarves, wizard, hobbit burglar) and The fellowship of the ring (elf, dwarf, men, hobbits, wizard).  These are not what you’d call “balanced” parties, consisting almost entirely of fighters.  But these parties are certainly the main, if not only, archetypes the casual gamer will be aware of.

James Maliszewksi’s article at the Escapist explores the books Gygax says inspired him, and while I have only read a few of these books and authors, they consist largely (but by no means exclusively) of sword & sorcery “pulp fiction”.  The S&S genre, as Tom pointed out, tends to have one hero, with perhaps a henchman/companion (think Conan and his various companions, Elric & Moonglum, etc.)  In other cases there are two adventurers (Fafherd & Grey mouser being most prominent), but rarely larger groups.  I think it is probably the episodic, continuing-story nature of pulp fantasy that influenced D&D more than the characters, even if Gygax rather adamantly contended that Elric or Conan would be more fun to play than Aragorn or Frodo!  Another excellent article at The Cimmerian mentions the contrast between “self-contained” and “sequel-sustained storytelling”, and this more than any particular idea is the most important contribution of S&S novels to the D&D game.

Going way back to epic literature, sagas, and legends, there are plenty of solo adventurers (Hercules, Grettir, etc.), pairs (Thor & Loki, Gilgamesh & Enkidu, etc.), and parties (the Argonauts, Beowulf & his followers, the knights of the Round Table, etc.).  Frequently the “parties” are one or a handful of major heroes and a larger group of followers/henchmen, but in some cases we see groups of heroes.

Folklore and legend has a good number of adventuring parties, although they often have closer ties than your typical D&D party.  Robin Hood & the merry men, the Ten brothers of Chinese legend, and others abound.  But generally speaking heroes are solitary, or head and shoulders above their henchmen, sidekicks, and companions, and these do not make models of D&D parties.

In “serious” literature, there are many examples of parties of adventurers (the Three Musketeers, many sea and war stories, and so on).  The “picaresque,” a literary genre best exemplified by Don Quixote , Candide, and other satirical works often have two or more characters adventuring together.  The adventures of Baron Munchausen fits the bill, in parts, too.

Fantasy literature has it’s share too.  Three hearts and three lions, Poul Anderson’s novel that directly inspired the D&D versions of the paladin and troll, has Holger Carlsen, a paladin who adventures with a swanmay and a dwarf, and later a Moorish knight.  Clifford Simak’s works come to mind too — The enchanted pilgrimage involves a party consisting of characters of various races, and Where the evil dwells also has a true “party” on an adventure, and these were published in 1975 and 1982 respectively, placing them around the height of D&D’s popularity.  Larry Niven’s Ringworld is really sci-fi, but published in 1970 (& so before D&D) and involves a multi-racial party adventuring to and on a massive unknown world.  I am far too unfamiliar with science fiction to give a detailed list but my impression is that the pulps often feature groups like we see in Flash Gordon and the books of Haggard and E.R. Burroughs.

Nowadays it seems likely that younger FRPG players will have read the infamous pastiches/retreads of JRRT (the Shannara books, and in my opinion at least the first Dragonlance book), and more likely the Dragonlance series, the Drzzt series, and other D&D-spinoff novels and Warhammer spin-offs.  They will also possibly be familiar with the many Japanese, Korean, and American manga graphic novels.  I am far from familiar with these, apart from seeing them cross my desk as a librarian (and of course seeing the oft-lamented manga-style art in WotC products!), but I have seen many series that feature parties of adventurers in fantasy worlds, such as the Slayers.  If the Peter Jackson movies hadn’t been made, I think it is likely the new crop of FRPG players would barely know about Tolkien.

I’m not up to the task but I think it would be fascinating to see a bibliography of adventuring parties  of three or more characters in literature.  Any takers?

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Published in: on February 1, 2010 at 2:58 am  Comments (3)  
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3 CommentsLeave a comment

  1. I’d say the earliest adventuring party is Jason and the Argonauts, followed by Sindbad then by Odysseus.

    To be honest, I’d call the adventures of the Argonauts the first. It has all the hallmarks of a good RPG story: the story told from multiple angles (some of which conflict), a group of minor celebrities with major ones thrown in for those “you just had to be there” moments, tricky puzzles to solve, the Swiss Army knife feel to the crew (getting the right crewmember at the right time to solve the puzzle), etc.

  2. Thanks for the comment!

    I have to admit I never read the Argonautika. I read the Iliad in college, and did my best to wade through the Aeneas, but I’d really have to find a prose translation.

  3. […] A party of adventurers , including Good (a decommissioned British sailor), Curtis (a hulking Danish gentleman), Allan Quartemain (a British elephant-hunter), a Hottentot tracker, and Umbopa (a mysterious African manservant), go on a quest to find the Dane’s missing brother who vanished on his own quest to find the legendary source of the Biblical Solomon’s riches.  They have a series of adventures involving travel through deserts and over mountains, wild animals, and intrigue and a huge battle in a dangerous lost kingdom.  Allan Quatermain, the narrator, admits that he often terrified by the proceedings.  Part of the action takes place inside a mountain, featuring traps, secret passages, and fabulous treasures.  So basically it is a Victorian-era D&D adventure.  Great fun. […]


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