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
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.
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.
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…?
- December RPG Blog Carnival: Heroes – Living and Dead (Casting Shadows)
- This time, does it really have to be personal? (ask.metafilter.com)
- Bribes, Fairness, and Fiat – the nature of some rewards in RPGs from The Rhetorical Gamer (morrisonmp.wordpress.com)
- A Beginners Guide to Superhero Gaming, Part One from Greywulf’s Lair ” RPG (greywulf.net)
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