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The Dawn (and the Death) of the Age of Heroes

by Sean Hillman
Oct 16,2002


Wanted Dead or Alive: Heroes

The Dawn (and the Death) of the Age of Heroes

Last time we tried to get a handle on what the basics of being a Hero, or at least our perceptions of what being a Hero are. Perception is the real Villain here. We perceive Heroes to be a certain way, to have a certain behavior, to perform certain acts, which will awe or entertain us. Even the Unsung Hero, who we will discuss in depth later on, has fairly high expectations from his or her audience.

So in gaming and in literature we tend to perceive the protagonist as the good guys. Yet does "Good Guys" = Heroes? I would say no, it takes more then being a good guy or fighting on the correct side to be a Hero. However, the ideal seems a bit unfair. We idolize the bad boy superhero, the Elric, the Odysseus, the Batman, but hardly give a thought to the little guy who cleans up afterward. Of course his story is not very interesting to us and so he (or she) tends to be completely ignored. Especially in role-playing.

So if all Good Guys are not Heroes, are all Heroes Good Guys? It really depends a lot on perspective. Do all Heroes follow the rules? No. In fact to be a Hero I would think that one has to push the rules aside in favor of his or her actions.

Hero = Action2 * Unconventional Thinking

A Hero, the kind of Hero we are talking about here, is someone who goes beyond the boundaries of conventional though to achieve their goals. A soldier who holds position against overwhelming odds is brave. A soldier who attacks these overwhelming odds is a nut! Yet that is just the sort of person we idolize and is the basic template upon which many characters in RPG's are modeled.

Yet there is a huge difference between the soldier who attacks the on rushing horde and one who blows up three bridges full of civilians to stop an enemy advance. Clearly this person believes, whether or not they feel sorry for the victims, that the end justifies the means. Achieve your goal, no matter what the cost. The ideal of going beyond the call of duty is a double-edged sword.

So where does this leave us in the analysis of the Hero? At this point it all seems rather confusing. We have bad guys who are considered Heroes. Good guys who are not and morally ambiguous individuals who do Heroic actions but the price of their heroism is not something we are sure we can live with. Of course all of this also depends on our point of view. So how can we be sure whom to call Hero in our games?

Its possibly easier then we might imagine.


The Protagonist in a story is not always the Hero, if we define Hero as the Good Guy. Literature is full of Protagonists who do not even measure up to the dubious term of Anti-Hero. The story is about them yes but they are not Heroes. One good example is, interestingly enough, the Iliad. If we take Odysseus out of the equation, what we have is a story of selfish men, women, and gods running around wasting each other over a ten-year span. Occasionally we see glimmers of friendship and generosity but for the most part we are treated to a story of brutality and greed.

However, if you were to pick out two or three of the main characters they are considered Heroes. Why? Simply, they inspire their side to perform greater and greater feats of battle. The war rages back and forth for a decade and only by the sheer will of their Heroes do the sides keep fighting. Even the death of one of their figures, Achilles, cannot keep the Greeks from continuing the war.

In our role-playing games, the player characters are the Protagonists of the collective story the Game Master and the Players are writing. We see it written all the time when someone is describing their game, "And the Heroes went... bla bla bla " Its very nice that the GM or the appointed Player who is recounting their stories considers the Characters Heroes. My question is why? What have they done that is so heroic? Save a village from Kobalds? Been there. Done that. Slain a dragon? Yawn. Heroically killed off the Malkavian Sabbat Lord of Hooey? Hell, the Kindred have been wasting each other for years. Tell me something that you did that was LARGER then Life. What you say? Slaying a Dragon is not a big deal? Well, no. In the larger Mythology of role-playing the Slaying of a Dragon is commonplace, even boring. Everyone has fought Cthulu (and been eaten, don't lie!) Everyone has walked into the Umbra, killed Cain, beat up Elminster and made Raistlin their shoe shiner. Lets not even mention the super hero games.

Even if we were to take one world, lets say your standard fantasy world, where people have been offing those overgrown Dinosaurs we know as Dragons since the beginning of time. A High Level or Highly Skilled Character who slays a Dragon is not a Hero in the sense that he or she has not gone beyond the call. They were never in any real danger.

Now give me three low level or low skilled new adventurers who just left their homes because they decided their tired of allowing the village virgins to be eaten. Along the way they meet an Orc who is tired of his tribe having to serve the Dragon. Although they hate each other, the four band together and go to the Dragon's Lair, not really knowing what the hell they are doing. Of course logically the four will probably die or at least be enslaved. THESE are Heroes.

In literature we can go back to the Iliad. Achilles friend, Patroclus, dons the armor of the Greek "Hero" and leads the Greeks out to battle because he believed in his cause so much that he took the enormous risk of donning Achilles' armor (the Trojans hated Achilles after all and would be gunning for him).

So we have established that not all Heroes are good guys even though they may do something that benefits society at large. We have established that they perform feats which the common man would seem abnormal is not insane or suicidal. I believe this is how we in Western Society tend to see our Heroes, though we tend to use the word far too much. So where before we focused a lot on what Heroes weren't now we have a better idea of what Heroes are.

Hero = Action2 * (Unconventional Wisdom)

This does not answer the question fully though. There are still too many holes in the equation, too many areas left grey. Still a lot of Heroic ground to cover.

In our next installment we are going to take a look at what some other cultures and Myths consider to be Heroes and try and take a closer look at the phenomena of the Anti-Hero.

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