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The Play's the Thing

We Don't Need Another Hero (well, maybe just one more)

by David Goodner
Dec 24,2003


We Don't Need Another Hero (well, maybe just one more)

By David Goodner

I almost always lead off my columns by saying "Welcome back," and I'm getting really tired of it, but I can't really think of anything better to say, so... er... welcome back.

This time out, we continue our discussion of heroic archetypes. Last time, we covered "Leading Men," the type of character that frequently becomes the focus of a group in popular fiction. This time we'll round out the group with some of the "Supporting roles." Of course, in an RPG, things are rarely quite that simple. Few of the groups I've played in ever really had a clear-cut "Leader," and generally when they did it wasn't so much because of story focus as because one player was more charismatic, smarter, or louder than the others. But the division of Leading Character/Supporting character is useful enough as a division, and sometimes useful in a more literal sense. For instance, a game of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, played pretty close to the source material, will almost certainly have a leader in the Slayer (and some of the other characters I'm about to cover, too). Pendragon also has a built-in leadership role. In theory, whoever has the highest Glory is in charge. In point of fact, in every game of Pendragon I've played, the guy with the highest glory went around acting like he was in charge, while my character actually came up with all the plans and did all the hard work, but my experiences probably aren't typical.

So, on with the show.

The Wise Elder

Merlin, Obi Wan Kenobi, Teaspoon (let's see who gets that one); the Wise Elder is a classic archetype as old as heroic fiction. He (generally guys) might lack strength, but more than makes up for it in knowledge. Generally, the Elder is not the focus of the group, but an advisor. He often has some past ties to whatever threat the group is facing. Perhaps in younger days he faced it himself, or perhaps he is part of the cause, and now is trying to make amends by aiding a band of young heroes.

Wise Elders come in a variety of packages. Gandalf was an awesomely powerful being. Merlin wielded knowledge from beyond the realm of man. Teaspoon was just an old gunfighter, no better than anybody else, just more experienced. The key factor is wisdom, whether gained through secret knowledge or experience. The Elder offers his wisdom to the rest of the group, who are often too young and impulsive to appreciate it.

In general, his role in the story is not so much to advise, as to offer a measuring stick by which the primary hero's wisdom is gauged. In the classic cycle, the brash young hero begins by frequently ignoring his mentor's advice, and gradually matures until he doesn't need it anymore. Usually, the Elder dies then, symbolically showing that the Hero has matured.

The Wise Elder is often a mystic of some kind, which fits into his role as the provider of wisdom and insight. He can also be a fading master of a discipline that a younger hero seeks to master, an elder swordsman passing on his techniques to one last apprentice, for instance.

The Wise Elder can be a little tricky to bring off in an RPG. First of all, in general it's hard to start off with a character who is significantly more skillful than his companions. There are a few solutions to this hurdle. I believe there was a "grizzled veteran" option, or something along those lines, in one of the Silhouette games (Jovian Chronicles?). The Unisystem games have the Age and Past Life Qualities, both of which allow for a character with a lot of skills, but maybe not so much raw power. I'm also fond of the GM Cooperation method, wherein the GM just lets you break the rules to make a better character. Obviously that needs to be kept in check, though.

A second hurdle is that it's often hard to have one player with a lot of otherwise secret knowledge. It requires the GM to present all that knowledge to the player in question, and to make sure he knows what he can reveal and what he can't. The player then has to work at proper pacing and timing, and probably to cede a certain amount of control over his character to the GM. And there are grounds for charges of favoritism from the other players. (And, of course, if the GM is like me, he may not have a lot of secret knowledge to share anyway since he makes most of it up as he goes along).

These are all hurdles that can be overcome through a number of means. A mature group isn't going to complain about one player getting extra resources that are designed to be shared. A good player should be able to play his role well. The most difficult problem might be that the younger characters are too willing to take the Elder's advice. In literature, the brash young Hero often ignores his mentor's warnings, but in a game the players will have to be careful about separating their characters' perceptions from their own. Remember, the characters just see some old coot who talks a lot. They don't see that the old coot's player gets to read through the GM's notes before each session.

The Reluctant Hero

Bilbo Baggins, Philipe the Mouse, Roger Murtaugh; the Reluctant Heroes of literature are a relatively recent phenomenon. I could probably think up a few older examples if I really wanted to. The Reluctant Hero, in general, doesn't want to be a hero. He'd much rather be at home, where it's safe and comfortable, but something forces him into action, and as long as he's in action, he'll do the best he can. He's just likely to complain the whole way.

He's often not motivated by the same things as the rest of the group. Instead of going on the noble quest to save the world from the clutches of evil, he might be there in hopes of looting the evil overlord's treasury to pay off his gambling debts. Or instead, maybe he's got a perverse sense of loyalty to one of the other characters in the group, and is determined to follow his friend on whatever "damn fool quest" he's undertaking.

The Reluctant Hero can fill a lot of roles, but some of the more charming ones tend to be roguish types. Part of their reluctance comes from a lack of heroic traits like big muscles and magic swords and ancient destines. The Reluctant Hero usually approaches the whole business of heroics from something of a right angle. He's not here to save the world. Saving the world just happens to be the only way to save his own life (or whatever) so he'll do it. But he'll do it in the easiest, safest way he can find. Why fight the guards when you can trick them? Why fight the Guardian of the Magic Dingus when you can sneak past him? Why fight the bounty hunters when you can run from them?

But once the chips are down, if he can't figure out a way to scoop them into his pockets and hide, he'll usually come through. In fact, one common course is to take an unlikely Reluctant Hero type and have him gradually mature into a more gallant, noble hero. Some never do, of course, and even those that do often retain a sort of charming recalcitrance.

The Reluctant Hero can be a little difficult to play without some cooperation from the other players. If you're going to try it, be sure to clue the GM in. He'll need to know that when your character keeps trying to weasel out of adventure hooks that you're really planning to play along. It'll help if the other players are in on it, too. And you should probably keep an eye on their reactions. Like any character played for comic effect, it's easy to cross the line from "funny" to "bloody annoying."

The Love Interest

Gwenivere, Dale Arden, Ilsa Laszlo, the love interest can be every bit as noble and heroic as the next person, but her role in the story is usually defined by her relationship to another character. Most of them are women, but the type works for men, too, with a sufficiently active female lead. And hey, I don't want to offend the homosexuals, either. But pronoun use is going to get really confusing here if I don't limit some options, so for the most part we'll be talking about ladies here.

The classic Love Interest goes along on the hero's quest or gets involved in his continuing struggle more out of interest in the hero than out of dedication to the quest. The two aren't necessarily in conflict, of course, but the dynamic lends an interesting cast to the hero's actions. When the hero goes off to sacrifice himself, she's the one who wishes he wouldn't go. When the rest of the world's against him, she's the one who he can turn to. When he can't see any reason to go on, she provides his inspiration. While his presence motivates her, her presence also motivates him.

Beyond that, the Love Interest can take a lot of roles in the story. In classic pulp and many a comic book, she was mainly there to get captured and rescued from time to time. But incompetence isn't really a necessity. Princess Leia was a Love Interest, more or less, and she was as good at shooting stormtroopers as any of the boys, and she only ever got captured and had to be rescued that one time. A Love Interest can even have a somewhat adversarial relationship to the hero and the rest of the group. A Catwoman/Batman cycle of attraction and betrayal has been part of the Batman mythos for years.

There's nothing too hard about building stats for a Love Interest. Since the only necessity for the job is a romantic relationship with another PC, I can't think of any game system that would make that difficult. (Well, technically a too-strict interpretation of the Cyberpunk 20.xx rules could, since your character's romantic life is determined randomly) What can be difficult is establishing the social dynamic of the role. If you're going to play a romance with another PC, it's very important that the player of that PC be onboard with it. And if you're making that a major focus for your character, then it's really important. The rest of the group might have something to say about it, too. Something like "ick" or "get a room" if you get out of hand.

You're making your character very dependent on another PC, so you need to consider the other PC's background and personality. Your character needs to fall in love with the other character at some point (maybe during backstory). And her personality (once again, I'm just using pronouns for convenience here, ok) needs to mesh with his in such a way as to get the relationship dynamic you want.

That dynamic doesn't have to be a happy love. In fact, that's kind of boring. An unrequited love could be fun, either played for humor, or for eventual tragedy. (or hey, maybe you'll finally win him over) An adversarial relationship can be very interesting, but kind of hard to arrange in a typical RPG group. A mostly-friendly rivalry might be a better choice.

Playing the Love Interest isn't too hard, assuming you can do the romantic side well enough. Her development path will depend on a lot of outside factors, and there are several ways you can go. Do you want to play the faithful lover who's always there for her man, right or wrong? Or how about the initially somewhat misguided child who gets in over her head and learns that there are more important things at stake? A "Benidict and Beatrice" type relationship where two characters seem to hate each other, but fall in love, is lots of fun if you can make it work. And, of course, your character's romantic plot doesn't have to be the core of her existence. I've used them much more often as just one hook for a more well-rounded character.


Well, we're not done quite yet. I have three more "Supporting Heroes" to discuss next time: The Protector, The Jester, and The Quisling. See you then. (I hope I can come up with yet another good title with "Hero" in it by then.)

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What do you think?

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