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Fantasy Rising: The Power of the Fantasy Genre

Heroes real and imagined

Matt Snyder
November 16, 2001  
"You guys ready? Let's roll."

Those were the last words of Todd Beamer. He died on September 11 with the rest of the crew and passengers of United Airlines Flight 93.

It is believed Todd and fellow passengers learned hijackers had already crashed planes into the heavily populated World Trade Center and the Pentagon, so they decided to stop their plane from being used by its hijackers to inflict similar damage somewhere in Washington D.C. He may have actually saved the White House.

Todd Beamer is a hero. So are those unidentified souls who helped him confront the terrorists, knowing they would certainly die. His story is one of the few from that miserable day that makes me proud to be human. Mostly, I spent that day suspended somewhere between shock and anger. I will never forget it. It was a Tuesday.

Wednesday is gaming night at my house. My gaming group gets together weekly. We're a far-flung and ever-shrinking bunch, so we really look forward to getting together regularly for a rousing round of role-playing. That week -- that Tuesday night, in fact -- I got in touch with one of my fellow players to ask him if he was able to drive down for the session.

"I don't know," he said. "I don't much feel like it with all that's going on."

Almost instantly, I thought, "Oh, come on! Don't wuss out on me." Pretty foolish of me, I admit. Thankfully, just as quickly as that first thought came another, and I shared it with my friend. "We should play," I told him. "Otherwise, the terrorists win. They change our everyday lives."

It was a small thing, considering the calamitous world events. A petty thing. A geeky thing. But we both believed it, and we still do, of course. He came down that next night for a wonderfully escapist session of good ol' D&D. For those three or four hours we weren't thinking helplessly of mass murder and how angry or sad we were. Instead, for those few hours we were heroes.

No small victory, I always say.

Fantasy heroes

I've always been drawn to heroism. I think it's one of the fundamental reasons I love role-playing so much. Heroism seems to be at the core of role-playing, particularly at the core of fantasy role-playing, my bread and butter. The hobby lets you become a hero in a way that my other media don't.

Code of conduct

As a player (or even in some ways as a GM), before you go leaping off to slay the dragon and save the princess, you need to figure out who your hero is. Establishing a good assessment of your character's ethical boundaries is valuable in role-playing. Give the characters you play some serious consideration. That way, when that moment of truth arrives for your hero, you won't have to think. You'll act, and the bards will sing ballads of your deeds for ages ...

No matter what kind of hero you role-play, whether virtuous knight or lovable scoundrel, it's important to define your character's code of conduct.. The more you develop, the more your hero comes alive. You can begin by asking some basic questions. For example, whom does your character care about enough to risk his own skin should they need help? Is it a lover? A family member? A noble lord or master? Does your character put enough faith into a cause or a belief to risk his life? What is it? A religion? A family's oath of vengeance? A warrior's code? Will your character kill to survive? Will he (or she) kill for money?

There are, of course, many more questions you can consider. But, don't absolutely limit yourself to the code of conduct you establish when creating your character. Let game play shape your hero's behavior as well. Say your character's background includes his animosity toward members of another clan who raided his village and took away his siblings. But, during the course of play, your hero is ensorcelled and watches helplessly as members of that clan bravely defend their homes, including your hero's kidnapped sisters, against a necromancer's horde. How might your hero's attitude change? Is he as likely to be willing to kill members of the clan? Does the encounter matter to him enough to change his attitude?

I think the most important question of all for your heroic character is "Why?" Why does your character pursue the path of heroic deeds? What motivates him to pursue the path of heroic endeavors? Consider one bold hero from myth, Achilles, greatest Greek warrior in the Trojan War. During most of the Iliad Achilles refuses, in effect, to be a hero for the Greeks because their leader Agamemnon insulted him gravely. But, with the death of his dear comrade Patroclus, he's motivated to his greatest battle yet. He becomes so enraged he literally defeats a river in battle, and that's just for starters! Meanwhile, in Troy, Achilles' honorable nemesis Hector leads the Trojans dutifully and heroically, even though he wishes only to be at peace and be with his young son and wife. Hector becomes a tragic hero. Why? Because of those he cares about -- his father, King Priam, his wife and child and his people, the Trojans. His sense of duty propels him to honor and heroic deeds. Ok, so role-playing isn't always classical poetry, but you get the idea.

Takes all kinds

Obviously, paladins and chivalrous knights aren't the only fantasy heroes.. Fantasy and myth is filled with all kinds of heroic figures: Rage-filled Achilles, virtuous Galahad, noble Aragorn, brooding Elric and even the comical Tasslehoff. Heroes come from all walks of life and from all traditions and cultures. John Wick explained on a forum recently that he intended Legend of the Five Rings to be about the Eastern hero, and his subsequent work on 7th Sea was about the Western hero. While the games are about two very different brands of heroism, they both do a great job of placing heroism as the central theme for players. Those games make it easy to be a special kind of hero.

Don't overdo it

No one likes a do-gooder. Playing a character who leaps at every opportunity to vanquish evil and donating all but 10% of the rewards to the church of [Insert PC god here] really isn't much fun. Such a character is a Dudley Doright, a caricature of hero who isn't terribly interesting. Too often, this hero devolves into comic relief for players. Invariably, things don't go the character's way, and the hero dies comically in a suicidal effort to capture one's own particular ... idiom! That or he becomes the foil for fellow players. "How are we going to sneak into the castle with Sir Saint, here?!?"

Don't underdo it

On the other hand, playing a character who balks at selfless deeds, looking only for selfish rewards, is off-putting, too. Most fantasy role-players want to be heroic. It's a part of why many folks play -- so they can do something extraordinary they might not normally do in everyday life. A player whose character spoils that motivation weighs down the whole group.. It's easy to fall into the routine of expecting "tangible" rewards, particularly in fantasy games that make such rewards common (usually treasure or magic items). Give it some thought the next time a "damsel in distress" implores your character for help.

Keep it human

The most endearing heroes are those with flaws. It's an easy temptation, especially in the fantasy genre, to make heroes larger-than-life and ignore their faults, those qualities that make them seem more "human" (even if they aren't ... human, that is!). The heroes that we identify with the most aren't the supermen who laugh in the face of danger. Instead, we're more endeared to heroes that we can identify with because they're as flawed and uncertain as we are, yet still rise above their challenges. That most famous of modern fantasy heroes, Frodo, is interesting because he's, well, small and even ordinary compared to his more talented companions like Legolas and Gimli. He takes on a quest of epic proportions, even though he's uncertain and filled with fear. In the end, Frodo is a changed, um, hobbit, having carried on heroically, though not without a few missteps along the way.

Fight the good fight

Well, that only scratches the surface of heroism, so to speak. But, with recent world events, it's a topic constantly on my mind. At times like this, we need heroes, even to be heroes if only for a few hours of imaginative fun. Fortunately, we can look to folks like Todd Beamer for inspiration. "Let's roll," he said. A fitting phrase for gamers, don't you think? I'd love to hear some of your greatest heroic moments in gaming on the forum below.

To learn more about Todd Beamer's, visit the Todd M. Beamer Memorial Foundation website.

Have a good one, and roll on.
Matt TQo0~^DҒt< ek&Ǿ$\۵ZFȃuwݝIŃU QYir2HR2.u3MFoعq]4#A`pP5(b& )b)ⰾp7(i<[-2gL#5[f g?*rVGf8*)s'+20ϟ̑F}KB<7wSL\gbvm9WiRބYŜvd y0'p2I_Fc2>#o A )VL[Qk?3`)<У[(*W.JH ?tXCt谙 X:@ \0w ~LqĤE-rFkYœj4q 5AQ6[AxG [>w|?( fХθY䝛$c=_qNĦoǸ>O_|&/_Mi7"宥CЧk0dӷLh;TmuCGU-!Ul{ h<\bQX.~"O2*yPcz!ŠGg

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All Fantasy Rising columns by Matt Snyder

  • Heroes real and imagined November 16, 2001
  • What a World, Part Two October 2, 2001
  • What a World July 20, 2001
  • Welcome to the Machine June 22, 2001
  • Back to basics March 7, 2001
  • Off to the races April 28, 2000
  • Fantasy is Not Dead March 16, 2000

    Other columns at RPGnet

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