Thursday, December 22, 2011

I need a hero

It’s rare to find big damn heroes in classic Dungeons and Dragons. The entire game is designed around tomb robbers. Occasionally players will take on “altruistic” causes, but this usually involves their being able to keep a percentage of treasure that they find (aka loot). In my limited experience playing classic D+D, my players tended toward chaotic good. More than happy to do good deeds, but generally wanting something for it. When I got to play, I usually played in that same moral vein. Good people, but not generally heroes.

During my 2e days I know that no matter what their character sheets said, my players tended toward neutral evil. On the rare chances I got to play I usually ran either an elven bladesinger or a paladin. I was usually the only good character in the party, and while I was trying to emulate the high fantasy hero that was so often depicted in the art of 2e, both my party and my DM usually failed to support me in this. My fellow players by being NE jerks, and my DMs by not providing any sort of situation in which to be actually heroic. They tended to be subscribers to the school of thought that believed Lawful Good = Lawful Stupid. This is not a great situation for the player of a paladin to find himself.

With the introduction of 3e and d20 Star Wars I began to see more heroic acts, though not too often. Like back in my classic D+D days the general alignment had shifted back toward good, if not lawful. Being able to play Jedi in Star Wars certainly helped with that. There’s just something about the lure of lightsabers that proved impossible to resist.

4e, and it’s lack of emphasis on collecting treasure, seems a much more heroic game, which does cheapen the whole point of heroism in a fantasy rpg. It’s one thing when you’re playing a superhero game, but another when playing D+D.

Is looking for a hero in Dungeons and Dragons a fool's quest? Maybe, but then where else do you find a hero, but on a fool's quest?

This post brought to you by the RPG Blog Carnival, hosted this month by Runeslinger of Casting Shadows. The topic is Heroes.


  1. I think that getting players to play heros necessitates a campaign where heroism is rewarded.

    Does the population of the world TREAT heroes as heroes? Do ladies swoon at the feet of heroes? Do stable boys give their horses extra attention? Do craftsman do work for them at no charge? Do they get more "insider" information on adventures than other characters?

    Does the DM give them experience for being heroic? Are adventures designed for heroic behavior? Do the MONSTERS and NPCs call out heroes for single combat?

    Most published adventures I've seen are not designed to reward heroic behavior, any more than they are designed for thieves. Making gameplay fun requires a world that accommodates a complementary type of play.

  2. In my analysis, one of the key features of D&D is dungeon crawling (in its various incarnations)...and dungeon crawling almost always consists of taking something that does not belong to you from someone else, which is a basic evil act. Invading an orc cave involves taking things from the evil orcs and from the orcs that have not done anything wrong yet, such as the baby orcs. Invading a tomb involves taking the possessions from the family that interned the dead therein. Doing "evil" is baked into the genre.

  3. "Does the population of the world TREAT heroes as heroes? Do ladies swoon at the feet of heroes? Do stable boys give their horses extra attention? Do craftsman do work for them at no charge? Do they get more "insider" information on adventures than other characters?"

    Judging from our current society of celebrity worship, this sort of thing will not necessarily promote heroism. After all, people who are far more morally bankrupt than you average tomb robber get this treatment and more nowadays.

    In terms of statements like stealing from "innocent" orcs, that's just muddying the waters. The intent is that there are no shades of gray in the world of classic D&D. Good is good, evil is evil. Those innocent orcs are born evil. And not take-your-stuff evil, but burn-your-villages-pillage-your-womenfolk-rape-your-livestock evil. Is it evil to steal from something like that? Is such a question even pertinent in this discussion? See: muddied waters.

    I agree that the rules, as written, do not promote heroism. That doesn't mean that the DM can't do so. That's the nice thing about any set of game rules - especially those that are simple and meant to be guidelines, like classic D&D - you can/should use them as a starting point for the game you and your group wants to play. You want tomb robbers? Make it so. You want big damn heroes*? Well, what are you waiting for? Make it so.

    (A reminder here that this phrase is used to describe a group that are considered criminals by many. Yet they manage to be heroes while stealing, smuggling, etc. I don't think this would go too well with Callin's analysis...)


  4. Your children are playing in the backyard when you discover a nest of rattle snakes. What? You don't kill the "baby" rattle snakes because they haven't bitten anyone yet?

    Orcs are orcs, goblins are goblins, et al. Enough said.

    But it's attitude. Back in the "good old days," knights could be heroes and got all the perks that went with it.

    Today? Policemen, Firemen, Astronauts, Doctors, etc. . . . they do heroic things everyday. No one cares and no one gives them their "due," much less do they treat them as heroes.

    These are the people playing in your games. A game set in "ancient" times, or at least "medieval" times, but with 21st century attitudes sitting at your table.

    Ever watch modern movies about "ancient" times? Any history professor can tell you that those expletives that they're using in the movie are "recent" inventions. The Romans, Celts, et al, didn't use such words, or such language. They "cursed" in an entirely different way.

    But those movies are made by people from the 21st century, using 21st century language and attitudes. They think that people have always "talked like that." No. They haven't.

    Those same people are sitting at your gaming table and playing in your game. They don't believe in heroes and have no room for them in their lives.

    A tragedy, really.

  5. "Judging from our current society of celebrity worship, this sort of thing will not necessarily promote heroism. After all, people who are far more morally bankrupt than you average tomb robber get this treatment and more nowadays."

    It isn't what about what people get "nowadays". It it is about what players in a game world get. If heroism isn't rewarded, there won't be heroes.

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  7. I put up a more thorough response to this on my blog

  8. I commented there, but don't see the comment. So:

    Back in October or 2008, we had a similar discussion in the Canonfire! Forums. The subject was; “How Populated are the Realms?”

    In my comments on the subject, I quoted from the book: "1066 The Year of the Conquest," pages 12-19. This is the year that William the Conqueror invaded England. It refers to the village of Horstede, which existed at that time and was only a few miles from where Willam landed. Reprinted here:

    "A village was surrounded by a fence, and its land by another outer fence. Beyond that were miles and miles of primeval forest and heath, empty and wild . . . For ordinary people, to see the nearest town might be the event of a year or even a lifetime, and to meet a stranger was a nine days wonder. If a traveler approached the village, he blew a horn before he crossed the outer fence to show he was coming openly. . . .

    "Within his own village, an Englishman knew everybody and almost every tree and animal. . . . But he had no conception of a map, no mental image of the shape of the country as it might be seen from hundreds of miles above, or of the relative positions of places in it. . . . He lived in a world that had his own village as its center. . . .

    "Conversely, the news of the outside world that came into the village was vague, brought by pedlars, or filtering down from mouth to mouth from the house of the Lord, or rumored at the occasional district meetings. . . .

    "the Thane, whose name was Ulfer . . . was the only man in the village likely to travel far . . . he had to appear and share judgment of crimes and disputes in the hundred court, which met once a month, and perhaps in the shire court which heard more serious cases twice a year. . . .

    "Horstede was less isolated than many of the villages of England . . . Horstede people could reach the outside world without much trouble if they wanted to. But isolation, imposed on most villages by distance, was also an attitude of mind. There was no reason for them to go to Lewes (12 miles away), except on an annual expedition to sell the produce they could spare; no reason ever for them to cross the river to the Roman road (2 miles distant). No doubt when they did go to town they felt out of place and a little apprehensive, like any country people, and were glad to get home again. . . .

    "There was one link that joined Horstede to the social system of England, but it was not the town, it was 'the hundred.' Though rule at the top was autocratic, the English of that age were great committee men. Horstede, and any other village, organized its own affairs at a village meeting, a moot, and if they had a problem they could not solve they took it to the hundred moot. Above that was the shire moot, and above all the witena gemot, the embryo parliment which advised the King. . . .

    "One senior citizen of Horstede would therefore ride out once a month, . . . to attend the hundred moot."

    It must be remembered that all of this was taking place approximately 500 years after the supposed King Arthur – who historians now believe was based upon a real Saxon (minor) king.

    In our own history, people did not travel very far from their place of birth their entire lives. And the village did not receive all the "latest" news; usually distorted, somewhat. In short, the population was rather “thin.”

    In my game world, the population is just as “thin” as it was during the time of William the Conqueror. That's the type of setting I like. Makes for better “hero” settings. After all, the people in these remote places spend much of their time wondering just “who” is going to rescue them from the Orcs? After all, they're not “fighter,” they're just . . . farmers!

    And so . . . along comes a hero. The proverbial “knight in shining armor.”

    Who receives the “hero's welcome” he so richly deserves.

  9. @Mystic Scholar,

    Interesting. But even your examples of "remote" villages are far closer than your typical fantasy game world, where it is often hundreds of miles to the nearest village. Fantasy worlds tend to more closely resemble early forays into "The New World" rather than anything remotely resembling Europe. My contention is that in a wild west setting it is much difficult to design adventures for true "heroes".