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Wanted Dead or Alive: Heroes

by Sean Hillman
Sep 11,2002


Wanted Dead or Alive: Heroes

Hero. The word conjures a hundred images in any one person's head. To a Role Player it might be an image of your favorite character getting that last satisfying swing in on the dragon. To a soldier it might be the Sergeant who was always hard on you but carried your bleeding ass out of the steamy jungle. To Americans it might be the face of any number of NYC Police and Firefighters who gave their lives on 9-11. Of course, to one of the Taliban it might be something totally different.

Yet the word seems much like the forty year old whore who walks the streets of the red light district in any city you care to mention. Experienced, yes, but the years of abuse have made it cheap and old. "Hero," like everything in the modern human experience, seems to have been done to death.

What does the word mean to you, as applied to the Heroes in your games? It is undeniably etched into our collective vocabulary to such an extent that even the most despicable of PC's is considered to be a Hero, or at least classified as such, seeming to cheapen an already inexpensive commodity. The RPGA's Living Campaigns, for the most part, encourage the players to be Heroes, and to do the right thing, etc. Yet none of this really defines Hero for us.

Why is it so hard? Why can we not easily define a word that is so heavily used? Subjectivity? Possibly but that's too easy of an answer. We're looking for something deep here, remember?

Lets take some examples: We have the aforementioned Firefighters who died on 9-11. What makes them Heroes? That one moment on that terrible afternoon? I think it's easy to answer yes, but who were they before that moment? Chances are, one or more of them beat their wives, husbands, or kids. One or more looked at kiddy porn. One or more may even have cheated on taxes. We didn't know these people (yes, someone did, and maybe some of YOU did, but I did not know any of them personally) and looking deeper, we could find that except for that moment, they had done nothing heroic in their life. Take nothing away from the bravery they showed, but except for 9-11 would we have ever thought of them as Heroes?

"To a New Yorker like you a Hero is some sort of weird sandwich, not some nut who takes on three Tigers."
-Oddball, Kelly's Heroes.

I love that quote (it does appear on my Forum sig after all) and it certainly illustrates different perceptions of Hero. Getting back to gaming, I think we naturally think of our PC's as Heroes regardless of the situation. It IS our game after all and we are the Protagonists. Hmmm...

Hero = Protagonist*Game

Interesting concept. I mean we do not read novels where we root for the main character to fail, do we? What the hell kind of literature is that? Ok, so Gilgamesh raped, and killed, and raped the dead, etc., but he was the Protagonist, and therefore the Hero of our tale. Really? In any book about the last ten days of the Furher Bunker, we see Hitler as a Protagonist, but unless you're Rudolph Hess I hardly think you can consider him Heroic in any way. That's the problem with it though. Hero means something different to everyone. How can we get away from that?

Hero = Action^2

Quite simple, really. One thing every Hero has in common is that they are a DOER. They make a choice to act where others will not. "Well hey genius," you say, "everybody acts." True, but not with the resolve of a Hero. Heroes are determined to finish what they start. They choose a course of action and stick with it, often times to the bitter end. Sure, some choose not to act, but they've still made a CHOICE. So, to make things a little more clear, we also could have written the equation as

Hero = Action * Resolve

Yet even that hardly defines the essence of Hero. So your Protagonist acts. Well, true. Yet in a fantasy setting those acts involve robbing tombs, stirring up Humanoids from their genocidal "Adventuring," coming back to town to stir up the economy with an influx of gold and jewels, and to bed some of the women or men (OR women and men, depending on the character), etc. Heroes? Maybe. Maybe.

In this column, I am going to be bringing in the historical perspective of Heroes, plus as much gaming perspective as I can. And next time, I start with some Historical Perspective, and how it has defined gaming. Maybe you goblin-baby killing, money-grubbing, loot whores are Heroes after all.

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What do you think?

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