We could be heroes… (Blog Carnival 12-2011)

I have been gaming for a long time, but I haven’t played many heroes. I have had my share of great and memorable characters, but few I would call heroic. Even as a GM with a strong tendency toward using settings which encourage hard choices and calls toward a higher purpose, I have rarely had players whose portrayals took their characters toward the heroic. Not all stories have heroes… in fact, I would argue that few do, and when we are faced with them, many find the hero to be an object of confusion or derision.

Heroes don't hide, we just don't look

Although the great comic characters of the past rarely devoted much time or space to dealing with origin stories, our present day society cannot seem to grasp the idea of a heroic character without devoting an entire film to how they made the mind-boggling choice to use their abilities and talents for the betterment of those around them at great cost to themselves. Something has changed in our civilization, and someone needs to explain heroes to many of us – despite the real world examples which the disasters and tragedies of the last decade have shown us still exist. The heroes have not gone, but perhaps we have moved on.

The main character of a tale, while dynamic and the focus of all the action and attention is not by default the hero. Great deeds while heroic in scale are not by default heroic in nature. This is not new, but perhaps in contrast with a Reality TV reality, it has – like Corn Flakes, become so.

What is a hero? You know them. They are all around us. They are the ones who do their duty despite risk and personal loss. They are not fools. The fool does what they do never knowing the madness of their actions. The hero knows, but chooses to do it anyway despite the pain, despite the loss, despite the very real threat of death or worse – not because these have no meaning but because they do. Not because they do not love their lives, but because they are willing to trade their life or their comforts for the life or safety of someone who had no choice. They are the ones who shoulder responsibilities and burdens belonging to others. They are the ones who say, “Here I am, send me.”

In many ways, we hate them.

Heroes begin life among us, and we exult with them in their moments of triumph, but unless they are rudely snatched from us by Fate, or unless they head off to aid others on the other side of the sunset, we will soon find ways to tarnish and tear them down, until they are down here with the rest of us.

Perhaps the most heroic task placed before any hero is the burden of heroism itself. Look at Arthur.

Not long after college, I ran a Call of Cthulhu campaign for a group of coworkers. That campaign was different from most that I run in that the penalty of madness or death was not starting a new character, but sitting out until allowed to begin again. There was no set limit on this re-entry point. It wasn’t just until the end of the session, or the story – it was undefined. They were a very competitive lot and very interested in risking more, and accomplishing more, but also in staying sane longer, and living longer than the others in the group. As ambition and self-satisfaction were in the drivers’ seats of the players motivations for running their characters, this is one of the last places I would have expected to find a heroic character, and so – justly – this is exactly where I found one.

After a few grand, but moderately dangerous investigations, the characters were beginning to grow haggard, paranoid, and had found clues which suggested the presence of a cult deeply embedded in an international academic community with ties to major universities around the globe. They knew that to take on this cult would elevate the threats they faced, and that failure would mean death or worse. With dependents to protect and intimations that perhaps a far darker fate for humanity could be the result of failure my players debated among themselves how to best handle this situation. No one considered running or hiding to save their families partly because that would take them out of the story and partly because it would drive one more nail in the wormy coffin of the world. Taking what precautions they could for their loved ones they headed to Europe and there began to suffer the losses which are common to heroes everywhere. Their allies began to die. Their relationships began to break down. They began to lose the ability to relate to ‘normal people’ and had no patience for the rules of the societies through which they had to pass, but which seemed to conspire against their crusade. They lost sleep, and were tormented by dreams of failures past, present, and future. They grew weak from exhaustion and injury, and at every turn it seemed the threats they uncovered were ten times worse than the threats that they repeatedly gave all to overcome… until they were asked to really give it all. With several characters close to the mental breaking point, one missing an eye, one missing an arm, and another in a wheel chair they found themselves needing to choose one more time – face the enemy, or run for dear life.

One ran.

One was drugged by the others and placed in what they hoped were good hands.

The rest descended down into the Catacombs beneath Paris and prepared to do battle with the forces arrayed against them. It was then that I began to see something. Throughout the campaign to that point, it had really been one voice exhorting the group to a higher purpose, and it was one voice which had led them to this place and the valiant stand they were making against encroaching darkness. Where the other characters fought to best enemies, this one fought to save the world. Where the others battled near their friends and allies, this one lead them and fought and bled with them. Where the others sought advantage and gambled for victory, this one was willing to lay everything on the line again and again because, “Who could refuse to oppose this?”

In the darkness under Paris, the others saw what I had started to see. When they began to crumple and fall under injury and mental strain, this one character stood between them and their assailants. When injury took an arm, and spell took youth, and horror eroded sanity, but still the enemy kept coming, they begged to be allowed to run, but the answer was, “If we run – who will stop them?”

Who was this stalwart defender of life and light? Was it a soldier, or noble? A child of privilege and specialized training? No – and you already know that. None of these, but hero through and through. She was in fact a psychologist from a small German town, recently moved to the US.  She was not wealthy, nor athletic, and she knew few people. There was no difference in the method of character generation, and her player was derided for the less than optimal decisions made at that time. From the start of the campaign to the end, she was never a powerhouse or a ‘heroic’ scale character, but yet…

When she began her investigations it was to help someone others had already chosen to abandon. In those early days, she did not know how to properly navigate the laws and culture of her new home, she did not know how to fight, or use weapons, or understand how the alignment of the stars could be made to serve or harm the world and the helpless people on it, but once involved  – these things could not be made to stop her, and would not stand in her way. Where she was weak she sought to grow stronger. Where she was lacking knowledge, she would seek training, and where there was need, she would offer aid.

When her companions were dying under Paris, she gave her life to save theirs and in so doing, she saved the world… for a little while.

There was no mechanical advantage for seeking out a heroic end – in fact, there was a clear disadvantage, despite the dramatic value of the sacrifice to the tale itself. When the player was asked after that very heavy session why the character had done what she had done the answer was simple, “It was the right thing to do.”

What beats within the heart of a hero? What can make the mundane magical, and the weak strong? It’s all around us, all the time…  if we look.

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8 Responses to “We could be heroes… (Blog Carnival 12-2011)”
  1. anarkeith says:

    Wow. Great post. Thanks for sharing!

  2. burnedfx says:

    My original post started off similar to yours, not using the same words, but stating a similar situation about having not seen many heroes played. Most, if not all, of my players are always focused on self-preservation.

    That is not to say that they don’t occasionally take risks to “do the right thing,” but the majority of the time you can bet they analyzed the situation and weighed the pros and cons with questions like, “What do I get out of this? Will I live? Is it worth it?”

    I am of course talking about how the players role-play the characters, not the players as individuals in real life. I would not consider my current players selfish, but in-game, when it comes to heroics, I’m not sure they could hold a candle to your German psychologist, who just wanted to do the right thing.

    More telling, of how this behavior might be more common at the table, is how everyone else asked of the hero, “Why did you do that?”


    • Runeslinger says:

      Very telling, indeed. It was a pretty potent experience for all of us. I think the player wanted to see what it was like to play a bookish character and thought it might be funny or otherwise entertaining to be so vulnerable – really playing against type, and against their normal habit. That said, the character was nicely developed in terms of persona before play began and quickly grew more so during the early stages of the campaign. Playing a character has a lot of different benefits in a lot of different situations, but this was one of those rare moments when the stars were right, that by playing the character as the player believed it should be played according to the characteristics they had freely envisioned for that character, that the character was able to inform the player about how life could be lived, and how heroism is not solely the province of the stalwart and strong, but sometimes can fall to the person who is simply willing to resist evil.

      Of course, the flip side of that is having a situation where the character or person can make an active choice, and is not initially in a position to have to do things just to survive. My next entry – if I can pull it out of the ether – is intended to deal with this idea.

  3. David says:

    I wrote up a post for the carnival yesterday.

    Good theme!

    • Runeslinger says:

      I saw it, and posted a link here. Good stuff!

      I tried to leave comment on your blog, but got ‘bloggered’ and had to concede defeat. Anyway, thanks for participating~

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  1. […] theme of the December 2011 RPG Blog Carnival, sponsored by Casting Shadows, is “heroes”, with an emphasis on what it takes to be a […]

  2. […] post is part of the December RPG Blog Carnival: “We Could Be Heroes…” hosted by Casting Shadows. Visit the host and check out the other blogs that have contributed to […]

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