Monday, March 6, 2023

The Adventures of Otzi the Ice Jerk

A Player Character

I'm not sure how common it is in the OSR/Post-OSR/NSR/[whatever you want to call the remnants of the blogosphere that exists] spaces, but a common refrain I have seen in more WFRP/BRP leaning rpg communities is that the idea of the "adventurer" is a purely pop cultural phenomenon without a basis in reality, with a usual corollary that as such it should not be simulated in our games. I want to deal not with the corollary, which I think the bulk of my readers will find stupid on its face, but rather the initial sentiment: that people of violent means who were largely unmoored from social structures and walked the world doing violent things for wealth and survival, largely did not exist. I want to argue that the historical record is replete with such people and provide a rather unorthodox example to help us better contextualize PC types in our games. 

In case you cannot tell from the title of my post, I have picked for my example Otzi* the Iceman.** If you did not have a father who was as interested in the archaeology of pre-literate peoples as mine was, or if you just lack similar interests to me, Otzi is the name given to a natural mummy discovered in the Otzal Alps at the Austro-Italian border in 1991. His actual name is unknown, as is any biographical details that cannot be gleaned from his corpse. In the broadest strokes he was a man in early middle age who lived sometime during the Copper Age, most likely sometime between 3200 and 3100 BCE. Some of the details of his corpse are interesting if we think of him as a PC.

First, Otzi seems to have traveled quite a bit, and done so largely by foot. The bones in his pelvis and legs show that he did a great deal more walking than is probably typical of other copper age people. While this has lead some to say he may have been a pastoralist of some kind, it is worth noting that materials in his copper axe (more on that later) probably came from Southern Italy and he had arsenic in his hair and nails consistent with being a metal worker. Perhaps he was playing AD&D and had it for a secondary skill?

Nice axe!

Otzi also seems to have had a fair amount of wealth for a copper age "pastoralist." Most notably is the copper axe mentioned earlier, which is made of over 99% pure copper and would've been incredibly rare at the time. Obviously this axe could be a simple tool, but given evidence later it also could've been involved in acts of violence. He also seems to have eaten extremely well - his digestive track contained the contents of two meals, both of which involved a significant amount of meat (chamois and red dear) as well as nuts, fruits, herbs, and einkorn wheat bread. This means he either had significant enough wealth to buy meat or, more probably but no less-PC like, he hunted in a period that was becoming more and more agrarian. Therefore we can conclude (at least for my stupid thought experiment) he subsisted at the edge of society.

The eyes of a killer

Finally, and perhaps most importantly, our man Otzi was a man of violent means. DNA analysis of his gear showed that he had the blood of at  least three other people on him when he died - one on a knife, two on a single arrow head (meaning that they were killed before the incident that caused his death) and one on his coat. The arrow head is further interesting because it implies two separate fights before his final one, as I think it unlikely he would retrieve and fire the same arrow again in rapid enough succession for it to be considered a single fight. He also, of course, has an arrow wound himself that is almost assuredly the cause of his demise. Notably here too, the arrow has been removed and Otzi's somewhat characteristic arm folding in death may have been due to someone turning him over to get their arrow back. Why they didn't take his fine axe, I don't know.

It's a kind of magic

Ok I lied. That wasn't the final one. Let's do the most preposterous one: he was a regular recipient of healing magic. Otzi possessed a number of tattoos made by rubbing charcoal into an incision in specific points. This seems to have been done on more than one occasion, as is shown by the pigmentation in and repeated nature of the incisions. Some have said these incisions match up to acupunctural points designed to help with stomach pain, and indeed it seems that Otzi had whip worm. I guess it was AD&D after all. Sorry about that disease roll.

*I know there should be an umlaut. I didn't want to have to copy and paste it or do an alt code every time the name came up.

**Am I saying Otzi explored dungeons? Of course not. Who would've built them? 


  1. "...that people of violent means who were largely unmoored from social structures and walked the world doing violent things for wealth and survival, largely did not exist. I want to argue that the historical record is replete with such people..."

    Historical my ass, just look at today's news. Not all those Wagner mercs came out of Russian prisons, just the cannon fodder, and there's plenty more vets where the rest came from - notably battlefields all across Africa. For that matter, South/Central America's overrun with career killers in the pay of narco-lords, and there's an alarming chunk of the US that aspire to start killing their fellow citizens in the name of whatever deranged extremist cause they believe in.

    Only unrealistic thing about murder hobos is how few of them there are in most RPGs.

  2. As a BRP-favoring adventurer denialist myself - for me, at least - what feels artificial isn't so much the sort of people we might describe as "adventurers" merely existing, it's the fact that many game worlds seem set up to cater to these people, treating them as a distinct and valid occupation with infrastructure and culture supporting them. People like Otzi certainly existed, but I'm guessing he wasn't greeted by people eager to offer him quests every time he went to a settlement before stocking up on supplies from the local adventurers' store and discussing past dungeon delves with his fellow adventurers over drinks at the inn.

    1. Aside from the obvious metagame reasons for those things to be included in a setting writeup, it's important to remember that that basis for many if not most fantasy adventure stories AND the economic structure of daily lives in the anglo world is the western --- a post-apocalyptic borderland world created by and for the rootless violent wanderer.

    2. Most societies *did* have some equivalent of those things (gossip in the caravanserai, pilgrim hostels, local jarl's hall, HBC post, Ma Yu Ching's Bucket Chicken House, Norman lord's manor houses etc but actually translating that to a player's understanding can be challenging.

  3. Wow, murderhoboism is as true to history as you can get!

    There were tons of adventurers back in the day. Most of them were known as mercenaries or noble retainers.

    The Williams is the most famous, of course. The kings all had retainers who were essentially adventurers.

    March of the 10,000 is the most prominent such from the Hellenistic era.

    The Greeks, Phoenicians, and early Romans were all about adventuring, trading, raiding, and colonizing, for wealth, glory, or gods. Even some Egyptians got in on it. And if course, there were tons of tomb robbers... Why do you think the tombs were hidden, trapped, and purportedly cursed?

    Migration era Germane even has a name for these kinds of groups, wreccas. Usually a group of exiles who served a heroic noble such as Beowulf. And the Vikings followed, and for that matter, there have been pirates since there have ever been ships!

    Bachelor knights, mercenaries of the 100 Years War. Condottiere, Conquistadors, Ronin, Frontiersmen, Filibusters...

    The list goes on and on and on. Historical example after example of adventuring types...

  4. Ach, the Illiad, not the Williams. Stupid tablet autocorrect!