I have a pretty first-hand viewpoint of heroism for a gamer, considering the fact that I’m an ex-Army combat veteran with two tours in Iraq under my belt. For those of you just joining me, I’m currently stationed in Afghanistan working as a trainer and maintenance consultant for deployed Soldiers, Marines, Airmen, and Sailors. Yes, that’s right—I got out of the Army and came right back over into the warzone. Guess I’m just stubborn that way. I run two separate 4E D&D games here on the weekends (when time and mission tempo allow), and all of my players are still in uniform.
My PLAYERS are heroes, regardless of the mentality of the characters they play, and I am proud to be able to chuck dice with them and let them burn off stress by killing monsters in their remarkably limited spare time. I really debated writing this post, but what it comes down to is that I feel I have a unique perspective on heroism and what it means in a real-life, in-your-face kinda way. Every single person at my table is a hero—the player, and often the character. The inspiration for this post came when I realized that I take the heroism of the characters in my games for granted; I take that heroism for granted because it’s reflected from the players behind the dice.
Every single person at my table volunteered to be put in harm’s way. Not a single person in the US military today has been conscripted, drafted or forced to serve. Likewise, pretty much anyone in the US military—and by extension the multi-national Coalition Forces here in Afghanistan—knows that when they raised their hand and signed up, they were going to war. Our country has been at war for over a decade now, and the vast majority of those forces joined during a time of war, knowing they were going to be put in harm’s way, no matter what their job. There is no front line in this war—Bagram Airfield where I am stationed has been pounded by rocket fire and insurgent attacks for the last four days straight, and it is filled with support staff—cooks, supply, maintenance and intel personnel. Pilots, mechanics, computer techs and combat meteorologists (Yes, they exist. I was surprised too. Don’t feel bad.); all share the risk of injury, maiming and death along with the trigger-pullers and Special Ops troops.
Everyone shares in the risk in this war; everyone knew that risk when they signed up. That, to me, is the essence of what a hero is—doing the right thing despite the knowledge of personal risk and potential harm. Anyone can stumble into a bad situation and manage to pull off a miracle. That’s just dumb luck. But knowing the risk—or even certainty—of harm or death awaits and STILL making the choice to do the right thing… that’s what makes a hero. The difference is the knowledge beforehand, and the moment of decision, even if instantaneous, when a person chooses to move toward the sound of gunfire instead of running away to potential safety. In the military, the knowledge of that danger is imminent in just about anything you do; that’s why the majority of a Soldier’s time is spent training. Knowing that you have volunteered to be put in harm’s way makes you rather keen on making sure you do anything possible to come home in one piece. The knowledge that you are or will be in the realm where very bad things can happen to you makes for some serious motivation.
Bringing this home to the gaming community, I think it’s important for the GM to make sure of three things when it comes to real, true-to-life heroism:
1) Make sure both the characters and the players know the stakes. I’m not talking about the mayor of a town begging the PCs for help because the orcs have stolen the princess. Let me be clear—in order for heroism to exist, the hero must have certain knowledge that he is walking into (or is already in) deep doo-doo. The NPCs, environment, or situation must communicate this to the characters in no uncertain terms. If the characters think they’re walking into a cakewalk, there’s no heroism. I’d argue that 20th level characters walking through an encounter that has no real chance of harming them aren’t being heroes. They’re being exterminators. That’s why I am mostly okay with the Sorting Algorithm of Evil at least as it applies to Big Bad Evil. If there is no real risk of harm, there is no heroism. My players are heroes—every single one of them knows they risk harm or death when they put on the uniform to serve their country.
2) Give them the chance to walk away. For those in the military, this happens for every single person in the moment they pick up the pen to sign on the dotted line and swear to defend the Constitution (or whatever their country says, in the case of multi-national forces). There is that moment, when the pen is in your hand and the paper is in front of you, when the rational part of your brain says, “Um… hey. Is this really the best idea? We could go to Aruba, get a pina colada…” I guarantee that every single person who joins the military has that moment, even if it’s for a fraction of a second. For just the flickering of a candleflame, the idea of walking away is entertained. At that point, no contracts are signed, no obligations are incurred. You really could just put the pen down, walk away and nothing overtly negative would ever happen between you and the government. Likewise, the adventurers MUST have the chance to just walk away in order for the heroism to be real and true. The GM must set up the moment where the characters have the chance to just…walk…away. Especially a situation in which there is no village begging them to help, nor patron watching them. Put them in the middle of nowhere, with nobody watching but themselves, and give them the chance to just walk away from the danger they are facing. Setting your shoulders and continuing the mission—THAT is heroic. My players signed on the dotted line and are serving honorably when less than 1% of Americans have the courage to do the same; they are heroes.
3) Give them a real chance at failure. In the military, this can happen any time a person is performing their assigned function. For me, it was possible every time I turned a wrench on a truck or went outside the wire to rescue a downed vehicle. For some, it’s going on a foot patrol in a hostile area. For others, it’s making sure that intelligence gets analyzed right. Others make sure that communications equipment gets maintained and cyberwarfare standards are upheld. For adventurers, it can come in a myriad of ways and it’s up to us as Game Masters to really stick it to them. Don’t let up, don’t go easy on them. If they’re going to fail, I say let them. I guarantee they’ll be more focused on success the next time. This ties into the first point—if you TELL the characters there is a chance of failure, death and harm, don’t then hand them a cakewalk. That’s not heroism either. Hit ‘em hard. Make ‘em feel it, and let themselves get out of the scrapes you put them in with brains, cleverness and skill. If you tell them there is danger, but then no danger presents itself, that’s not a hero. That’s a dude who got lucky and faced an exaggerated challenge. For a hero to BE a hero, the threat he was faced with must be just as real as he was told. The casualty statistics speak for themselves—the chance and consequence of failure is very, VERY real here. 31 of my fellow Chargers from 1-12 Cavalry, 3rd Brigade, 1st Cavalry Division went home in bodybags on my first tour to Iraq. Every one of them and every one of the players at my table now are heroes.
It takes several things to be a hero—all of them are listed above. If you provide the things I have mentioned, I think your players—and their characters—will justifiably feel like heroes when they make it out of the dragon’s lair or whatever wringer you decide to put them through. But as a GM you have to build the experience with each step or it will be a hollow thing for the PCs when they emerge from their ordeal.
Also—if your country currently has people in harm’s way, take a moment this holiday season and thank them for their sacrifice and service. Please. They deserve your thanks and praise.