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The Play's the Thing

I Need a Hero

by David Goodner
Nov 19,2003


I Need a Hero

By David Goodner

Welcome back. Sorry for the delay. I moved last month, and found out I had a lot more stuff than I thought I did. Things were crazy, but now they're more or less back to normal.

So, last time we discussed various villainous archetypes. This time out, we'll talk about heroes. Like last time, I'm breaking my discussion of heroes into two parts. The similarities end there, though. I'm not so concerned with "realistic" heroic archetypes. They aren't so easy to pin down as the villainous ones, since most people can be heroes in the right circumstances, and there aren't really obvious psychological traits to distinguish them. I'm going to concentrate for now on more literary Heroic archetypes.

Heroes tend to be a lot different than villains. "Well, duh," you say. But the big difference might not be the one you expect. What really tends to separate the heroes from the villains in practical terms is that villains tend to be pro-active, while heroes tend to be reactive. This is one of the enduring conventions of storytelling. In general, the "good guy" is the Protagonist of a story. That leaves the role of the Antagonist to the "bad guy." And all it takes to be an Antagonist, when you get right down to it, is to cause the conflict that drives the plot.

So, like villains, heroes are defined by their motivations, but those motivations are often imposed from outside. The ultimate villain wants to destroy the world, which he can start doing any time it strikes his fancy. The ultimate hero wants to save the world, which he can only really do once someone has started to try to destroy it.

My first offering of Heroic Archetypes is going to be the "Leading Men." Leading Ladies are fine, too. And, in fact, any of these archetypes might just as easily fill a supporting role in the party. Gaming tends to be a lot more ensemble driven than some genre fiction, since each player probably wants his chance for center stage. In the literature from which gaming takes its inspiration, though, these heroes will tend to be the leaders or central figures:

The Chosen One

The Chosen One has a destiny thrust upon him, usually accompanied by some sort of special abilities to allow him to face it. Often, his destiny is also a doom, and even with his new power, he can fulfill it only in his own death.

A Chosen One is intimately tied to the plot of his story. He's generally Chosen to defeat the primary antagonist. How he was Chosen can vary. Luke Skywalker was Chosen because of his heritage. The force was strong in the Skywalker line, and he was its scion. Buffy Summers was just chosen pretty much at random. Only the "Earnest" movies present a less likely hero than Buffy at the beginning of her career as a hero. Hal Jordan (Green Lantern for those of you who aren't comics geeks) was Chosen because of his personality.

One interesting variant of the Chosen One is a character I like to call the Nexus. They're very common in Anime. The Nexus is usually a fairly weak character, surrounded by much more competent ones, but is possessed of a power that is absolutely crucial to the team's success. Unfortunately, most of the time this power isn't very useful in day-to-day activities.

The Chosen One usually begins the game fairly inexperienced. It's his destiny, not his training or skills, that make him important. But he grows in power quickly. This can be hard to simulate in an RPG where advancement is more or less the same for everybody. If your GM is up for it, it's possible to just ignore normal character advancement rules. I've done that a couple of times, and it works great if all the players are onboard. If not, you can usually do a decent job by taking high level powers with relatively low skills.

To play the Chosen One, you're going to have to have the GM on your side anyway. There has to be room for a Chosen One in his game. Some games just aren't appropriate. A Chosen One is almost mandatory in a Buffy: the Vampire Slayer game. A Chosen One in a Delta Green game might be a little odd.

The Nexus variation is easier to work around, and can be a really fun challenge to play. You need to have a somewhat forgiving system, and be ready to deal creatively with dangerous situations. It's easy to smite Stormtroopers with the Force. It's harder to figure out how you'll fight off a horde of demons when you have the power to either do nothing in particular, or open all the barriers to all the dimensions surrounding earth.

In general, Chosen Ones are warrior types. They almost always have mystical abilities of some kind, and in general what those abilities are good for is smiting Evil. Beyond their mystical powers, many Chosen Ones are fairly limited. Some aren't, though. As they grow in power, they can grow in a lot of areas as easily as in just one.

A Chosen One usually has a fairly predictable path of personality development, not unlike the classic stages of grief. There's usually some disbelief, some resistance, then an embracing of the destiny and a gradual growth in wisdom and power. A Chosen One frequently has a mentor, and that mentor's death often marks a turning point.

The Chosen One is almost certainly the central character in the group. His destiny is probably what brings the group together, and none of them can succeed without him. In a game, this can be a little of a problem, unless everyone is on board. The characters can believe or not believe as they choose, but it's important that the players are willing to take supporting roles.

Of course, one easy solution is to have a group of "Chosen Ones." If every character is visited by fickle destiny, then everyone is on equal footing again.

The one big problem with a Chosen One is that eventually he's going to get around to doing what he was Chosen to do, unless his destiny is ongoing, like "fighting the demons and the vampires and stopping the spread of their numbers." After that, he either needs to find something else to do, or he's just going to sit on his hands for the rest of the game. In a close-ended campaign, that's no problem. In a long-running game, you've got to make some preparations. The Star Wars Expanded Universe material dealt with this pretty well. Luke was Chosen to defeat the Emperor. After that, he had to find a new purpose, and found it in rebuilding the Jedi order. The skills he'd learned as a warrior didn't always serve him, and he had to learn new ones.

There are lots of Chosen Ones in literature to use as examples: Luke Skywalker, Neo, Buffy. Moving into some older material, King Arthur could claim the title, as could the judge Gideon from the Book of Judges. A pretty good example of the Nexus (even though she's not the main hero) is Melfina from Outlaw Star. She's the navigation module of the ship, which allows the other characters to fly the ship, but isn't too useful elsewhere. Dawn from Buffy: the Vampire Slayer is another good example. As the Key, she was the most powerful being on the planet, but her power didn't really help her.

The Questing Hero

Where the Chosen One was chosen passively, the Questing Hero chose his role himself. He has a driving goal that makes him walk the path of a Hero. His Quest is the focus of his life, and possibly his death.

The first question for the Questing Hero is "What?" What is his Quest? What does he have to do? That will almost certainly be up to the GM, and will quite likely be a driving force in the game. Quests come in two main flavors: close-ended and open-ended. "Avenge the death of my father at the hands of the Six-fingered Man" is close-ended. Even if the player decides to keep the Six-fingered Man alive through healing magic and torture him for decades, the quest is pretty well over after the first half-hour or so of screaming. "Fight crime in Gotham" is open-ended, particularly since the GM is likely to come up with a string of increasingly bizarre bad guys to commit crimes, and have old ones break out of prison every so often.

The nature of the Quest presents the same problems a Chosen One's destiny might. If it's close-ended, it needs to be worked into the game's timeframe. If the game will last longer than the Quest, the player needs to figure out what he'll do when it's over. Lots of Questing Heroes want to retire after they do their great deed. Retired PCs aren't much fun, though.

The second question is "Why?" The Chosen One's motivation is usually to reconcile with a destiny he never asked for. But usually a Questing Hero did ask for his, or at least had it thrust upon him as a direct consequence of his actions. He may have decided to pay a blood debt, or he may have to accomplish his quest to atone for a crime. Or he might just really want whatever he's Questing for. This last kind of Questing Hero can easily become a villain, depending on how far he'll go in pursuit of his goals.

Those two questions will lead to the "How" that is pretty much what the game is all about.

Questing Heroes are more likely to be seasoned and competent than Chosen Ones. Young, inexperienced heroes can take up Quests, but so can experienced adventurers. Since the Quest is usually a choice, even inexperienced Heroes usually have time to train and prepare for their roles.

Again, warriors are typical. That's largely because warriors are the traditional heroes of genre fiction. But a warrior makes a good lynchpin for a group anyway. Combat is something exciting that everyone can participate in, and a dedicated warrior needs help from a lot of other adventurers with varied skills, giving everyone else a good chance to shine. Besides, most Quests come down to the simple instructions of "go somewhere and kill someone."

A Questing Hero could have special powers, but he could just as easily have none. Sometimes, one aspect of his quest is to acquire a power he needs to defeat some enemy. Usually, the Questing Hero doesn't present the same advancement problems that the Chosen One does. He's less tied to the supernatural, and the ties he has aren't usually as prodigious.

Like the Chosen One, a Questing Hero can easily be the focus of a group. He's likely to deliberately hire or ally with the other PCs, rather than meeting them through chance or being found by them. He's a little easier to put into a secondary role, though.

The Questing Hero can develop in a number of ways. Unlike the Chosen One, the Questing Hero has nothing really holding him to his Quest but his own will. There might be negative consequences if he fails or quits, but he can choose to suffer those consequences. The Quest is likely to be difficult, arduous, and dangerous. In pursuit of it, the Questing Hero will have to risk other things. You're a lot freer to play with the consequences of the Quest than you are with a Chosen One.

There are plenty of examples of Questing Heroes. I've already alluded to Batman and his crusade on Gotham's criminals. Robin Hood had his Quest to restore King Richard. Aurealeus Pendragon, with his quest to unite Britain, is a very proactive Questing Hero. Perseus, of Greek myth, could be argued either way.

The Sympathetic Monster

The Sympathetic Monster is a traditionally evil character in the service of good, or one thought to be evil even though he's not. He's nobler for his isolation, and for the fact that few of those he helps will ever appreciate it.

Of the three types I list here, the Sympathetic Monster could be the most varied, and the one most easily shifted to a supporting role. There are three main types, with plenty of room for customization. The first is the truly reformed bad guy. Vampires are very popular these days. Through his own choice, or otherwise, he has done terrible things, and now he wants to atone for his sins. Perhaps he has a true chance for redemption, a curse that can be lifted. Or perhaps he just plans to live out his days in constant attempts to do good.

The second type is a character who looks like a monster, but is noble within his soul. His inner goodness is contrasted with an outwardly evil form. The world expects him to be evil, and he does good anyway.

The third is a normal character with a curse that turns him into a monster temporarily, like a werewolf. His greatest adversary is himself, and he has to either defeat it, or somehow reconcile with it. Often, he quests for a cure, or simply travels, forced to move from place to place as his curse destroys one home after another.

No matter what, the monster has a hard road ahead. He'll be met with distrust, fear, and violence by the very people he's trying to protect. The forces of evil will treat him more viciously still, or else constantly try to tempt him to embrace his dark side. And after he suffers betrayal upon betrayal, he'll start to think they have a point.

Like the other two archetypes in this column, most of the Sympathetic Monsters I can think of are fighter types. They often have supernatural abilities as a result of their monstrous natures. Frequently, these abilities come at a cost. A vampire has supernatural strength and senses, and other powers besides, but only because he's a bloodthirsty predator. And often, he courts the chance that he'll lose control over his thirst by using his powers.

If the game has a place for Sympathetic Monsters, they don't usually present any mechanical difficulties. They can be expensive characters, though. Usually what sets the monster apart is a hefty chunk of powers beyond mortal ken.

The Sympathetic Monster is one of my favorite characters to play. He has to struggle to do things the other heroes take for granted. Every relationship he has is infinitely precious because it's so fragile, and was so hard-won. His moral decisions all seem more important, too. He might have vicious animal instincts, or sadistic urges. When he fights, is he fighting too viciously? When he intimidates enemies, is he stepping over the line into cruelty? How long will he be able to keep up the good fight in a world that will never appreciate him?

Examples abound in our age of tragically hip anti-heroes. Angel, and before him Nick Knight, represent the reformed monster. Vincent, from Beauty and the Beast, and the Fantastic Four's Thing are good examples of the second type. The Hulk, or almost any werewolf, are good examples of the third. The classics don't have as many examples, as the idea of looking for the good within evil is comparatively new.


That's it for this installment. There's still plenty of room for more. Next time out, I'll discuss some "Supporting Cast" roles. If I think of some more, this series might get stretched out to three columns.

See you next time.

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    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