Campaigns featuring Anarchist characters don’t have to be run any differently than any other roleplaying game campaign. Anarchists characters can save princesses from dragons, they can defend towns from rampaging orcs, and they can ransack dungeons for sweet, sweet treasure. They might shout the occasional Anarchist slogan as a battle-cry, but it is possible to run a campaign where Anarchist characters are virtually indistinguishable from a campaign where the characters would lay down their lives for king and country.
It’s possible, but it probably wouldn’t be very satisfying for the gamemaster, or the players. Why play an Anarchist character if you’re not going to play an Anarchist game?
To play an Anarchist character, in an Anarchist campaign, is to have goals and priorities, enemies and allies, that are quite different from a normal campaign. Entities and creatures that normally might be trying to kill you might be allies. Kings and high priests that normally might be your patrons, or at least give you quests and rewards, might be hell-bent on driving you out of their domains, or killing you. Your definition of treasure, monsters, victims, and victory- they’re all up for debate.
Oh, and plan on doing a lot more debating. So what does running an Anarchist campaign mean?
Who is the Enemy?
An Anarchist campaign is predicated on the belief that those in power (kings, queens, high priests, merchant princes, etc.) are not your friend, are not the friend of your friends, and in fact wish you ill. That in terms of legitimacy, a king is no more noble or righteous than a bandit- both rob and kill people, one just wears a crown.
Obviously this is different from a normal campaign, where so many adventures start out with the king, or the duchess, or the village elder, or somebody in charge, giving you a quest. So many campaigns are about the maintenance or restoration of the status quo. Even if the campaign or quest is to overthrow a tyrant, it’s nearly always done with the idea of putting someone else in charge- it’s always a matter of the wrong person having the power, not with power being wrong in and of itself.
This means some changes to how governments and societies work in an Anarchist campaign. The relationship between the peasantry and the nobility, taxation, the strictures of the church- these are no longer things to be waved away, or presented as background fluff between dungeons. These are now sources of conflict. Adventure.
Adventurers often enjoy the tacit support of the populace. They may be agents of the the local lord or high priest. They may have rescued the darling of the community from the dragon, or receive a parade every time they’re in town because of the orcish invasion they repelled just last year. Even if they haven’t endeared themselves to the people, they’re adventurers, historically a class of people capable of getting away with things that would get anyone else arrested by the local sheriff.
Anarchists often do not enjoy the support of anyone but other Anarchists. They often come from sections of the community that are viewed with mistrust, if not outright hatred, by the powers that be and the upper classes. They often dress, talk, or act in a many that marks them as being outside of polite society. Their friends and family are often poor and/or outcasts. When they find they must break the law to survive, this puts them into conflict with the authorities, which puts the characters into conflict with authorities.
Furthermore, they know that their kings, high priests, and other leaders are lying to people. After all, they lie about the Anarchists themselves to the rest of society all the time. They tell people that their leaders are protecting them, when they actual rob and assault them. The king of one country tells his peasants that the the peasants of another kingdom are their blood enemies, and they must be defeated, even though the peasants of both kingdoms have a lot more in common than they do with their respective kings. Worse still, most of the people believe these lies, and react with shock and anger when you try to convince them of the truth.
Anarchist characters learn quickly not to put their cards on the table, and to treat every sleepy village or bustling city like a dungeon that has a habit of dropping gelatinous cubes on you. They know they can’t count on support for an Anarchist quest. They know that every baron, priest, and guard might have it out for them, and won’t hesitate to use whatever means necessary to neutralize the Anarchists, as ‘threats’ to society. They know that every friendly barmaid or gruff blacksmith they talk to might betray them, either for coin, or because they believe that however bad the king or duke is, they’re better than Anarchy.
Gamemasters should cultivate this sense of paranoia. They should have the players half-way convinced that every seemingly helpful person they meet is a paid informant of some sort secret police, every invitation by a baron or princess is a trap, every honor bait, every reward poisoned.
Adventurers are used to taking on impossible odds. That’s what being an adventurer is all about. Adventurers are also used to fighting multiple opponents, many opponents for every member of the party. That’s what being the low-level minion of the villain is all about.
But even with all that, your standard adventurers still have a support system. Kings & queens to give them quest and to reward them for rescuing their offspring. Sages to give them lore, smiths to make them weapons and armor. When they drink at a tavern, they are likely to be met by townsfolk who want to thank them for saving their farm from the dragon. They know that, no matter how bad the odds, no matter how many howling goblins come at them, that they have a whole society of patrons and support figures that have their back.
Anarchist adventurers don’t have that. More often than not, they are the targets of other adventurers who quest for law and order, on behalf of a king. Most smiths don’t want their weapons associated with what they consider to be chaos and mayhem. Anarchist adventurers cannot count on the city watch helping them with their qu
Anarchist adventurers walk into most situations knowing that they will not get the benefit of the doubt. Most normal people will not welcome their help. Most authorities will not only pounce on a reason to arrest them or declare them outlaw, and many will make up reasons. The characters should expect to have to scrounge or ‘borrow’ everything they need, whether be it weapons, gear, or food & shelter.
However, this impression is not true. While standard and official channels may be largely denied to them, Anarchist adventurers soon learn….
Part of a Larger World
…..that Anarchist adventurers have friends all over the place, just not where adventurers usually look. Anarchy as a philosophy finds fertile ground in all sorts of places, from meeting halls of guilds and trade unions, to ivory towers of philosophers, to the windswept rendezvous spots of smugglers. Anarchists may be found in quilting bees, in drinking halls, in temples that minister to the poor and sick, everywhere. It’s just a matter of knowing where to look.
A major theme of an Anarchist campaign should involve finding and and befriending all these individual pockets of Anarchism. One of the greatest threats to Anarchism, and its greatest weakness in your world, will be its isolation. But the ideas of Anarchism cut across class, across religion, across, language, and across species. Part of the experience of Anarchist adventurers will be helping people realize that.
Most adventurers fight to preserve a status quo, to return things to normal. It’s part of the hero’s journey. Normal person is thrust into strange circumstance, and must strive to return to normal circumstances.
Even if the adventurers cause a great change in the world, such as defeating the lich who has ruled for a millennium, most often the motivation and effect to *return* the world to a former state. It is most often a conservative, if not reactionary impulse and theme.
Anarchist adventurers are not fighting to perserve the status quo. They are fighting to destroy it. Anarchists fight, adventure, and quest to bring about something new- a society without government, without kings, without hierarchy. There is no thing, no time, that they are trying to return to. There is no road map, no guide of history or tradition to tell them how to do it, or what it will really look like. Part of the challenge of an Anarchist campaign, beyond the standard bad guys and disasters, is the challenge of dealing with and navigating this new landscape.