What’s more realistic?

A group of heroes waits in a tavern until adventure finds them …

… or a rich, well-connected patron provides them with the means to set out on the next adventure?

As cliched as both options can be, I’ve been rethinking my aversion to using the patron as a means of hooking into an adventure.

What’s caused this change of heart? I’m reading David Grann’s story of Victorian-era British explorer Percy Fawcett and his lifelong quest for “The Lost City of Z.”

One of the things I’ve learned is that patronage was an essential component for the real-life explorers who ventured into the frontier in the nineteenth century.

For Fawcett, who was nearly penniless despite his status as a gentleman, this form came from the Royal Geographic Society, and later, from a group of London financiers called The Glove. But he was hardly alone. Outfitting expeditions cost money, with transportation and equipment taking the lion’s share. It also took influence. Foreigners entering another nation to do their exploring had to ask permission, first, and this required more than good manners and a smile.

One thing I found interesting is that an adventuring rival Fawcett feared most was an independently wealthy physician, Dr. A.H. Rice, not because of his skill, but because he had the means to mount an expedition whenever he wanted, increasing the chances he could reach a location first. The rest of the adventuring fraternity often had to plan their expeditions for years, soliciting funds and waiting for the right conditions (war or an epidemic often being the things that delayed many efforts). But for those with ready cash, such obstacles were easily overcome.

This is nothing new. Part of the story of Christopher Columbus that is so familiar is his seeking the favor (and not insubstantial support) of Queen Isabella of Spain before sailing West and bumping into the New World.

In running gaming adventurers, often the patron is nothing more than a fairy godmother who, with a wave of her wand, can produce a carriage from a pumpkin that transports adventure-seekers to the next treasure-filled dungeon. Or, as in the case of the Pathfinder Society, is a source of an adventure lead itself, like Commissioner Gordon on the other end of the Bat-Phone.

I think, following the explorer model, a GM can create scenarios that better reflect the role of a patron.

Casting Call: Groups of adventurers, all with their own projects, appeal to a single entity with an interest in exploration. This requires the party to “audition” their idea and compete with others. Maybe having a party not be chosen during a couple of these might mean the party will be more appreciative of a patron that eventually choses them.

Shared Vision: A patron seeks them out because word is they have a shared vision for an expedition. There’s just one hook: the patron’s help comes with strings attached. The patron (or someone the patron knows) has to tag along, the patron has a theory needing testing, or the patron wants first dibs on some of the treasure.

Rich Widow: There is one person with means and rival groups both seek the patronage. Which group will curry favor and win that patron’s good graces? The patron usually has some peculiar preferences that need be satisfied.

Dirty Money: Not every patron is on the up and up. Does the party know they are dealing with an unscrupulous fellow? You betcha. But are they willing to overlook an indiscretion here and there? Sometimes it helps having a patron who doesn’t play by all the rules. If anything, this can sometimes result in having a colorful character as a patron.

If there are any GMs out there who have effectively used a patron to jump start your adventures, I’d love to hear your stories. Share them in the comments, please.