Heroes, Heroes, Heroes…

I’ve thought a lot about entering a post into this month’s RPG Blog Carnival being hosted at Casting Shadows…

But I’ve really struggled with what I want to say about heroes. It occurs to me that I talk about them all the time but I don’t really know what I’m getting at with all that talking. What I’ve realized is that, despite all my talk about loving heroes, I think I’ve lost my faith in them. I can see heroes in fantasy — but they’re always there because an author put them there — and I don’t really have a “hero” in real life… Remember when you were in elementary school (or maybe middle school) and you’d have to bring in a picture of your hero — stuff like that. Eh.

Heroes in fiction are a weird animal — especially in fantasy fiction. Look at Luke Skywalker, a very recognizable fantasy hero (ignore the robots, Star Wars is fantasy) even to non-gamers and think about his story. Here’s the thing:

1. Luke is (for all intents and purposes) an orphan.
2. Luke comes from humble beginnings.
3. Luke has adventure THRUST upon him — he gets little choice in the matter.
4. Luke, despite his humble beginnings, has real power. He also doesn’t have a mortgage, two cats, a car payment…

Luke’s only role in the story is HERO. He doesn’t actually have to do anything else. He just gets to focus on being a hero. Now, don’t get me wrong — I love Luke. But he kinda has it easy… the universe set him up to be a hero.

When I was a kid, I always preferred Lando when we’d go out and play Star Wars. It’s tough to explain but as I got older I realized that what I liked about Lando was that he was this slick, con-man type. He was a right bastard who betrayed his friends… but he gave up everything he’d built to fix his mistakes. And he needed help. He couldn’t do it alone. And after the escape, when he could have disappeared and gone back to the life of a con, he instead stuck around and led an assault on the second Death Star. And even then, he couldn’t have done that if Han hadn’t trusted him with the Falcon.

I like cooperative games better than competitive. I like role-playing because I perceive it as a shared storytelling exercise full of amazing characters more than min/max, optimized nightmares… and I think I look for the same in my fantasy heroes. Heroes who have the full time job of HERO are boring to me. I need my heroes to have other stuff going on in their lives — and I need them to be normal first, hero second — and I need them to have relationships (flawed or otherwise) so that they seem like real people. Then I can see them as heroes. I miss the idea of a flawless, perfect hero. I still want one. But I’d rather have one who has lived, failed, fought, failed some more, and learned to fight again.

I loved Rocky Balboa — the last Rocky movie — when it was out a few years ago. He said, “just keep moving forward.” I liked that. And he wasn’t the best, or the guy from Rocky 3 and 4 who punched out Mr. T and the whole Soviet Union… he was a guy, grieving his wife, sad about his relationship with his son, getting older, and he just needed to keep on being who he is. And it sucked. But he did it. And along the way he forged some very interesting and mature new relationships… and that’s why I loved it.

In The Last Unicorn, the charming prince threatens to kill the wizard if he doesn’t save the Unicorn… and Schmedrick tells him, “not all the magic in the world can save her… That is what heroes are for.” And Lir dies to protect her, and his death changes the world — because the Unicorn fights. Prince Lir was a “full-time hero” when he wanted Amalthea to love him. But he became a hero when he died for a Unicorn that he thought never could.

I could go on… I could mention characters from my games, Brandin and Mira… I could tell you the heroic tale of Targus and Valin. There are lots of heroes. But as was brought up in another post for this month’s carnival — Choice is what matters to me, what makes me love a hero. Doesn’t matter if they are little choices or big… heroes aren’t about the ADVENTURE — but about their choices.


7 responses

  1. Thanks for participating~

    Good call on the specific heroes and the role of choice in their “heroicness.”

  2. Your comments over on Runeslinger’s Calls to Harms post helped clarify to myself why I have never run a “save the world” campaign. Your post here extrapolates on this concept further. Nicely done.

  3. Thanks for the comments. Runeslinger’s posts have actually caused me to really struggle with how I’m thinking about heroes a little bit. I’ve started asking a lot of questions — but questions are a good thing.

  4. There’s more to the nature of heroes. A hero often embodies the greatest aspects of the culture that produces them. We can’t talk heroes without using the Greeks as our template. Achilles is perhaps the greatest of greek heroes, who spends more than half his story throwing the greatest hissy fit in history. That said, when he switches to hero mode, not even a god can stand against him. Odysseus similarly embodies the cleverness of the greeks, out-thinking his enemies (although, Odysseus, unlike most heroes, isn’t the direct son of a god, and so has a somewhat harder time with his tasks).

    It’s harder for RPGs, where the characters are reflections of the players. The hero in an RPG is, I suppose, that character willing to brave the unknown in an effort to protect those who will hardly ever know they needed protection in the first place; Unrequited Risk is the name of the game.

    ..considering what I want to say.. it may require an entire blog post of my own. It may be fun to delve into the topic properly, Hero with a Thousand Faces, or Myth and Knowing… good starts, at least.

  5. I agree with you wholeheartedly. Hero for the sake of hero is boring, and when I see this in popular media I can’t help but roll my eyes and apply some MST3k. “Stand back gentleman, this is a job for a main character!”

    I think Rocky was a very good example you chose. The movies as a whole were wildly successful for two basic reasons. Rocky is a very relatable guy to the majority of the population, down on his luck in tough financial straights and just trying to make a living. Through hard work and perseverance he’s able to live the dream but his personality and outlook remain grounded due to his past, seemingly another life by the third movie.

    I think a good campaign can follow this story to a degree. The players start off at the bottom of the barrel but through extraneous effort, dedication and a little bit of luck they rise up and move towards a new future. By going organically from nobody to Hero their characters remain relatable and have believable personalities. The worst thing a player can feel is that there character is there because the plot dictates it, not because of any will or achievement on their part.

    I suppose this is why I always disliked higher levels in classic D&D as suddenly acquiring a keep, monastery or thieves guild always seemed completely out of blue. More often than not it didn’t feel earned and instead felt like the guy you were playing suddenly started walking in a much bigger pair of 9th level shoes. Hmmm, that might actually be a fun premise to run as a game.

    1. Red Hobbit,

      Yeah, I love the Rocky story for that reason. I mean, I was always kind of fascinated that the Rocky statue is actually really there, in the real world, even though he was only a character in the movies… and the problems he has in the third movie are what make it really interesting — not Clubber Lang.

      That said, I’d like to think that good DMs were building toward the achievements of PCs in their high level games — not just letting them suddenly wake up one morning with a thieves guild or a keep. Just another example of how the GM and the player need to be working together to make the game most successful.

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