…and we’re all really puny.
Those lines, from the classic mid-90s Warner Bros. “Animaniacs”, nicely sum up one of the recurring themes in the games I run, and, in general, the games I enjoy playing in: The world extends far beyond the tabletop.
In a recent thread on RPG.net, someone asked if people liked/disliked the idea of “adventurer’s guilds”, the concept that “adventurer” was a profession which was generally recognized in the world. The OP (Original Poster) didn’t like them; I did. By the time I joined the thread, it had turned into a tedious digression on the meaning of the word “hero”. (All threads on the Internet end in one of two ways: Either someone’s called a Nazi, or the Grammar Nazis show up.) Anyhoo, in that thread, I pontificated on my beliefs (you know, like I do in every thread on every forum everywhere), and while I’d like just C&P my post because I’m a lazy bastich, RPG.net is down right now (must be a day ending in ‘y’), so, in summary:
I like worlds where the PCs are important, because they’re the PCs and the players are sitting around the table singing “Here we are now, entertain us”, but where they’re not, on a world scale, unique. They’re not the first of their kind and they won’t be the last. While they’re saving the world from the undead dragon invasion, some other group of adventurers, somewhere else, is saving the world from a mad arch-lich. This is something which goes cross-genre. If the PCs are the Avengers, it’s a much better, deeper, more believable world if there’s also the Defenders, the Teen Titans, the Fantastic Four, the X-Men, the Justice League, and lots of duos who were too lame to get their own book but who the company thought could survive if they were in a book together. How much fun would Vampire be if the PCs were the only bloodsuckers around, if there wasn’t an entire society of glorified leeches lording it over each other like High Schoolers?
PCs need equals to interact with. They need a society of their peers, people to seek aid from, or compete with, or battle.
If the game is very narrowly focused on a single story arc, this can be less so. If the game is intended to be more episodic or support a variety of play, it’s good for the PCs — whatever they are — to fit some role in the world, or to have peers. Even in a “secret knowledge” world, ala Buffy/Call of Cthulhu, where the great masses of mankind live in blissful ignorance of the horrors which surround them, there should be organized societies like the Watchers, or gangs of self-taught vampire slayer’s like Gunn’s in “Angel”. Someone had to write all those forbidden and blasphemous tomes the PCs are reading in Cthulhu, and it’s likewise inevitable that at least a few of the mad cults you’re going to run into were stopped a decade or so earlier by some other Investigators, only one of whom is still alive and is now gibbering in a madhouse.
This is one of those areas where many people have the exact opposite reaction — to them, a world full of adventurers is an unrealistic one. Consider this, though: Which makes more sense? That the Enterprise, a ship intended for the same diplomatic and exploration missions as its sister ships is the only one which, week after week, runs into godlike aliens, seductive green space babes, and temporal rifts, or that such things are pretty much par for the course, and if, one week, the USS Enterprise manages to complete a scan of a star system without a single redshirt dying, it’s highly probable that the USS Lexington just emerged from an unexpected time warp where they’d been catapulted to feudal Japan and the captain now has a shiny new katana to hang in his ready room?
Others protest that such things make the PCs less unique. I disagree. First, the PCs are going to be unique simply by virtue of being PCs — they’re the only things in the universe not created by the GM. Second, on the world scale, there are still thousands, to tens of thousands, to millions of non-adventurers to every adventurer. This is especially true in games where character power levels inflate over time — there simply aren’t that many 20th level anythings running around, and the few there are are mostly locked in a kind of stasis, balancing each other out.
There are practical considerations, as well. A world full of Adventurer Class Individuals (ACIs) is a world where replacement PCs can show up, believably. They may even have some knowledge of what the heroes have done, since they move in the same circles.
Lastly, it’s always good to remind the players that even if they’re big fish in a small pond, they aren’t the only fish. If they grow too complacent, to sure they can get away with anything because the NPCs have no one else to turn to, let them find out that someone else was called in to deal with the orc raiders, because they were half a continent away kicking the dust in some mummy’s tomb.