Heroes, despite being a common theme in most rpgs, are actually pretty hard to find. When you do find them, they tend to get a lot of grief. Paladins are a good example of this, a class hardwired to be a hero, and yet probably the worst at it. “The heroes” is a term that’s basically synonymous with “The PCs”, but how many PCs are actually heroic? Over the next month, I’m going to spend some time on this topic, but first I need to establish what it means to be a hero.
You see, when it comes to heroics, I think that you have been mightily deceived. When we think of heroes we might think of Superman, King Arthur, or Luke Skywalker, people who do great deeds and triumph over evil. People of unbreakable resolve, who suffer trials and tribulations in order to do something mighty. All the people I’ve mentioned are heroes, but none of those qualities are essential to being heroic. There’s a much simpler definition of a hero.
A hero is someone who, when forced to choose between what’s practical and what’s right, chooses what’s right.
It doesn’t matter what the details of the choice are. It also doesn’t really matter too much how you define “Right” and “Practical.” All that matters is that the hero have some reasonable conception of each, and that the two are in tension. Being a good person only really matters when these situations arise. If doing the right thing is the practical thing to do, then anyone, good or not, would be willing to do it. Only when it’s inconvenient or more difficult does the good person stand out. But don’t take my word for it. Here’s a look at three different heroes for whom this holds true.
Near the end of Star Wars, Han Solo is home free. He rescued the princess, got Luke to the rebellion, and he got paid. He doesn’t hold with the rebel’s ideology. He’s a smuggler. It doesn’t matter to him who runs the galaxy, especially since he’s far more concerned with using his money to pay off Jabba the Hutt for that cargo he ditched. He flies away, so he’s not even in danger of being blown up if the Death Star actually hits Yavin IV. When he comes back and rescues Luke in the Death Star trench, it’s clear that he’s chosen to do the right thing over the easy thing, and that’s what makes it such a jubilant moment. Good triumphs over evil, and Han Solo helps win the day.
Spiderman doesn’t start a hero. He lets a robber escape, choosing the practical over the good, and he pays the price for it. From then on, he’s haunted by that decision, and forces himself to choose the right thing, sometimes to disastrous consequences. He’s a good person who had a single lapse, and desperately fears another one. He could go back into wrestling, or rob banks, or find some other way to capitalize on his skills, but instead he lives a modest life because he spends most of his time swinging around New York beating up criminals dressed like animals. The Vulture, Dr. Octopus, the Rhino, the Scorpion. Every time he hears about it, he doesn’t have to pitch in, but he does. His reason for choosing the good over the practical? “With great power comes great responsibility.”
Martin Luther King Jr.
I wanted to include one hero from real life, and I don’t think I’ll get a lot of argument about him. He inspired a whole generation to set aside the practical for the good, in a way that was so balls out courageous that no one thought it would work. But it did. For him, it wasn’t about fighting, or beating an enemy, but about embracing a group of people who’d made a mistake. It was about correcting an error in vision. In his Letter from Birmingham Jail he wrote, “One day the South will know that when these disinherited children of God sat down at lunch counters, they were in reality standing up for what is best in the American dream and for the most sacred values in our Judaeo-Christian heritage…” And he was right.
None of these heroes are really equivalent, neither in character nor actions. But what they have in common, what makes them heroes, is the fact that they turned away from the easy road to do the right thing. In rpgs, heroes create tension with the party because they want to do the right thing, and the right thing’s not always the practical thing. In the coming weeks, we’ll talk about that. I’ll discuss how to create an interesting hero character, some ideas of values that heroes might have, how to use those values as both a GM and a player to relieve stress in the party. I’m also going to talk about paladins. Oh yes.