Calls to Harms… (RPG Blog Carnival – 12-2011)

As we start the second full week of December’s RPG Blog Carnival, discussions about the entries from last week, particularly ‘Honeymoon Adventure’ have led me in this direction:

The care and feeding of heroes without fudging or molly-coddling

Do, or Do Not...

If a hero is someone who is willing to answer a call to action, and is perhaps made heroic and altruistic rather than “merely” charitable by this response by virtue of the risks involved in it, in an RPG this must therefore represent only a part of the equation. Unlike Life, RPGs have a clear and present source of risk and reward in the form of the GM, and there is no doubt that this person is not only pulling strings, they are placing them first. If we find ourselves in a position where the only heroes are those we have carefully planted in the setting’s history, or those who are busily turning what was intended to be a tale of their heroics but is actually a tale of their rampant self-interest, really…  who is to blame?

Never ending maze, drift on numbered days, now your life is out of season…

If you are a GM, it is the easiest thing in the world to simply decide the characters are heroes and your wish becomes law within the game. They are as grand and heroic as you wish as soon as you wish them to be so. This has worked throughout literary history as a fine device of focusing on the stories of heroes, as after all, not all stories of heroes have to belabor the point of how they came to be heroes, just as not all stories of people have to dwell on their childhood and awkward teen years. Sometimes it is perfectly acceptable, or in fact ideal, to start with a full-grown hero in the thick of things.

Ok… what then?

We are told that heroes are born not made, and while I suppose that is more or less true (except when it is not) it certainly is not the question facing us today. What is facing us is more a sense of ‘A hero is as a hero does,’ and the two elements which contribute to that are how the players in your campaign choose to act, and how you as the GM choose to set the stage for them to act and act upon. In actuality – even though you exert your desire and transform the PCs into heroes – unless they act like heroes, and unless they are faced with the choices which define heroes they are merely heroic by description, not action.

I need a hero!

In character creation, not all games sell themselves as hero makers. In a lot of games we are creating professionals in various fields who get caught up in noteworthy events. None of these ever really need to be heroic, or even good. Shadowrun, Call of Cthulhu, Mutant City Blues, The Morrow Project, Twilight 2000, Palladium Fantasy…  in so many games the player sits down to create a professional with a set of skills and a certain outlook on life that, GM willing, will lead them on the path to great gaming – but not necessarily heroism. In a supers setting such as Superworld, Mutants and Masterminds, or even Aberrant, the mindset of building a character who fights crime or works for the betterment of humanity is more than just implied – it is essentially mandated. However, it is such a fundamental trunk of the concept that it actually runs the risk of disappearing altogether with the rest of the forest. A character, created with the concept that it IS a hero, often might not be built to become, be, or remain a hero. What this leaves us with is that games designed both with and without the trappings of the heroic, can leave us with no heroes on deck to answer any calls that may come.

Ask not what you can do for your country…

Seemingly a century ago, a close friend (the devious mapper of Port Blacksand) told me of a series of Marvel Super Heroes games he had run for some mutual friends.

Birdman is dead!

– a story for another day

The main thrust of the tale was how satisfying the game got when the forces of good had to align to stop… one of the heroes. A player, high on the potential of his character, acted without concern for others and so in capturing the villains often flattened the landscape. This sort of theme is old hat now, but keep in mind that when the stories were told the Cold War was still on, we had yet to be subjected to the coldness of a world without Cliff Burton, we wouldn’t stumble across Watchmen for quite a few more years, and the GM was not yet in high school.

Once captured, the hero, much like his player, was left to wrestle with the idea of actions having consequences and as was stated above, a hero is as a hero does. The hero is not the hero if what they do is not rooted in the well-being of those they should be protecting. Hunting villains does not make you a hero if you do it for your own satisfaction or need. Destroying parts of the city in your quest to beat (not stop, capture, or save people from) the villain makes you different from that villain how?

The player, given every opportunity to rise to his character’s calling, chose to fight in the mud and blood like a common thug… the sort of common thug that can throw train cars and bend iron girders into weapons.

The rub

As GMs, it ostensibly goes without saying that we are responsible for the scope and sequence of events in our games, but in the heat of play some things can be lost if we let them. Like players, we can react to events, or focus to the exclusion of larger details on what needs to come next like… rocks fall, everybody dies. There is a middle part there that is not at first obvious but is nonetheless there. Rocks fall – a hero rises to deal with the rocks – everyone is therefore what? It’s hard to say really, because the success of the hero should be no more guaranteed than the obliterating power of the rocks.

Sometimes, it is the hardest thing in the world to narrate the shaping of the results of player action, rather than a reaction. Neutrality, and our best laid plans, might be lost in an instant when part of the group of PCs suddenly takes things in a direction that has no hope of ending up where we had hoped that they would.

In a post I wrote a few weeks ago called Character Poisoning, I suggested that building a false fantasy about one’s character can only lead to disappointment. I feel the same is true about a GM’s story. With players, pre-visualizing events and creating realms of imagined successes and awesome heroics in the backstory can lead to completely unrealistic expectations for performance in play. Likewise with a GM, viewing yourself as the author of a story, and viewing the experience as running players through a story literally, pretty much influences the sense of how things “are supposed to turn out.” What can be forgotten is that there are dice involved for a reason… things do not have a predetermined ‘supposed to’ for an ending. If they did, we’d be buying the book, not playing the game. The key here is chance. A hero needs opportunities in order to appear. A hero needs the choice to respond or not, and a hero needs to face a risk in order to be heroic at all. Predetermination does not play much of a roll in there, except to screw the whole thing up if allowed to take a hand.

Where are we?

As I mentioned last week, in three decades of gaming I haven’t played many heroes, and I haven’t played with many heroic characters, but I have often played with a heroic mindset. Quite a few of my characters over the years would certainly have become heroes – in fact they probably make up the majority. My most memorable characters for those I game with are actually usually the ones who break this mold, as in their carefully studied approach to NOT being the hero, they can be quite distinctive. If most of my characters though have been of a heroic mindset, but most of my characters have not been heroes… how does this happen? It’s simple really.

They were never called.

They did great and sometimes even awe-inspiring things (I summoned a dragon!) but these were simply the solutions to problems, not heroism. They answered the call of Fate by living out the dictates of prophecy and legend, but this was duty, not sacrifice.

As I write this, I find myself wondering how often I have planted seeds in my settings which once released to grow in the sandboxes of my world would result in a call to heroism for the players and I find I am not sure. There have times when such things have happened as a sort of happy accident, and other times were despite my best efforts, the will of the story and the rolls of the dice took things in profoundly different directions. These were not failures in terms of story, by any means, they were instead the means to measure the rarity and value of the heroes which do arise, and a further inspiration to seek to inspire heroes in gaming as one would in life so that perhaps we can become better through association, if not outright action.

And so…

A hero can be said to be what a hero does. What they do is firmly in the hands of the players. What they can do and more importantly, what they can be called to do, are firmly in the hands of the GM.

Not all potential heroes will answer the call, but if there is no call…?

10 Responses to “Calls to Harms… (RPG Blog Carnival – 12-2011)”
  1. anarkeith says:

    Interesting distinction between heroes, heroic characters, and a heroic mindset. As a player in a couple of games, and GM of a couple of others, I see this distinction played out quite a bit. Lately, I’ve seen a lot of game-mechanical-related heroic characters (that is, characters with heroic capabilities), a few players with heroic mindsets, and fewer heroes. I just played the last session in a campaign that finished with epic-level 4e D&D characters that featured some decidedly less-than-epic die rolling on my part. Suffice to say, one doesn’t feel very heroic saying, “uh, 34 to hit AC? I only rolled a four. I guess that’s probably not going to hit…?

    That’s something I’m struggling with in modern tabletop RPGs. The emphasis on mechanics and the use of mechanics to enable heroic action (and the tendency of players to self-limit to the available game mechanics.)

    The call for heroic deeds needs to be made in unison between GMs and players. The GM should provide the opportunity (or recognize when the players have made the moment a heroic one) and the players should feel that they can propose an action that is so heroic in nature that the GM must quantify it with a die roll (or hand wave it, if it feels right to do so.) Then all involved must deal with the consequences. I wonder how many truly heroic moments have arisen in gaming after epic-level failures have occurred? Interesting food for thought!

    • Runeslinger says:

      There does seem to be a strong correlation between the occurrence of dramatic failures and the resulting shenanigans to extricate the party from them, with the frequency of hearing the tale repeated afterward.

  2. burnedfx says:

    In Jr. High, specifically in Heroes Unlimited, everyone was technically a superhero. However, you’d find them robbing banks, seeing how much of the police force they could take on, or how many national monuments they could destroy before the “good guys” came after them. A favorite theme was grabbing hostages from theme parks, since there were plenty of families available. Sure, they’d go after that wanted villain, but it was for the reward and not for any sort of justice.

    Similar to your Marvel Super Hero example (I’d love to hear about Birdman!), this was in the mid eighties and it was unexplored territory for our group. We weren’t getting our ideas from movies or television.

    I don’t think we considered if anyone was a hero or a villain. I remember doing my best to respond as the government and military and ultimately having to design a team of real heroes to challenge them, since they were ludicrously powerful.

    It wasn’t the groups go to behavior. In our fantasy and science fiction rpgs, they answered the call to heroics often, even if I didn’t specifically plan it to be that kind of situation. You would see friends helping friends, the strong helping the weak, and so on.

    The anti-hero only emerged in our superhero games. The games with the word “hero” in their titles. I never ran a “save the world” campaign, but their was definite distinction in their behavior in a “hero setting” when it came time to do the right thing or what they really wanted.

    I have no idea why we collectively acted one way versus another. I remember it was fun. Perhaps that’s why we didn’t question it.

    • Runeslinger says:

      I have it good authority that the dark side is seductive. What male teenager doesn’t want to be seduced?


      • burnedfx says:

        Yes, it probably was just boys being boys at that age.

        On the other side, just yesterday, the girls finally rescued a group of slaves. There is no reward and they went out of their way to make sure none came to harm. At one point it would have made more sense to just grab the “valuable” slave and leave the rest, yet they stayed to decide another way out of their situation.

        Oddly enough, I didn’t set this up as a chance to be heroic. I had jotted down notes that each slave was worth a certain amount of xp if they lived, expecting casualties. I had no idea they would go to such lengths to make sure they made it out safely.

        To reiterate, aside from the one they came for, their was no in game reward for saving these people. I did not even tell them about the xp bonus until after, because I did not want to influence their behavior.

        In this case, I’m hesitant to say it’s because they were girls being girls. Especially since they can be just as bloodthirsty, if not more so, when appropriate.

        • Runeslinger says:

          That’s great! Something about the presentation of the slaves may have resonated with them. The idea is pretty high on the abhorrent things to do to another person list.

          I bet it was nice to be surprised by what they did, and how they went about it!

          Out of curiosity, when preparing for the encounter, did you have any thoughts about the slaves?

  3. burnedfx says:

    There are fourteen of them. Only one of them is of significance to the players. I have names for them all, just in case it comes up. The humans are from a nearby city and local farms. There are two halflings and also an elf from the Reiuwood forest.

    The only one I have developed is the one they came for, but as the game plays out that could change. Sometimes I don’t even know who is important in the end.

  4. morrisonmp says:

    I love this piece. I think you hit on a lot of very important ideas here.

    I’ve written myself about the need for the Call. I have often tried, both subtly and overtly to place “The Call” in front of players and characters. Nearly as often I have seen the call fail. Not because the Call itself was bad, or the players were poor — but because (I think) of your other point… players aren’t starting the game making heroes. They start the game making Fighters, or Wizards, or Street Sam’s, or “Faces” and this very act of creation tends to confound expectation.

    Your point about players making professionals — that really hit home with me. I’m amazed at the way that has never really occurred to me in that way before — despite playing very similar games to you it seems. Your point is well taken and I’m going to spend a few days thinking about that one, I’m sure.

    It’s odd, but the game where I’ve seen the most “hero” development, both as a player and GM is Amber — a game where the default assumption (built right into character creation) is that everyone is out for themselves and competing and a game with no randomizer — no dice. My theory about this is that all the Amber games I’ve run and played in have focused on times of extreme crisis and forced the PCs to really examine for themselves what they hope to accomplish and why it matters.

    But I also agree with you (and think this is most important) that PCs must have choices. Choices — even seemingly trivial ones — can be the difference between feeling like a hero and feeling like a heel.

    In the first really long Amber game I ran we had a player who would always say they were a hero whose character ended up nearly ruining everything by making a truly selfish (but entirely appropriate) choice at a pivotal moment — and also a character whose player had played them as mostly selfish along the way make a very selfless (and yet also completely appropriate) choice at a pivotal moment at the climax of the campaign. And we’ll never forget either… Choice is the most important factor in being a hero in my opinion.

    • burnedfx says:

      Morrisonmp, you may have answered a question I was asking myself when I had previously written that I have never run a “save the world” campaign.

      I think to me, those types of campaigns give you no choice in being a “hero.” If the goal is to save the world/universe/whatever and the players are not given the option to say, “Screw that!” then no choice to be a hero was ever made.

      • Runeslinger says:

        I am glad the piece resonated with both of you. Choice is the most important factor for me, too. Looking back, I suspect my interest in playing darker characters in my D&D days was primarily to provide that sense of choice. I was all for rescuing the town of hapless villagers, but it lacks value and valor if you do it because that is what the module happens to be about.

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