Tuesday, January 26, 2010

The Reluctant Hero

The idea of the Adventurer is a slightly silly one. That's not necessarily a bad thing - silly can be a lot of fun - but the idea of a bunch of heavily armed ass-kickers wandering around and leaping into life-threatening situations for fun is a bit odd. It's hard to fit that in the context of any kind of logical world.[1] Most justifications (such as the idle rich, one of the few careers that lets you run around swinging a sword like a fool) end up flying in the face of other adventuring traditions (the idle rich don't need much loot, after all).

Because of this, most games (like most fiction) has at least some motive that necessitates the heroes take action. This is most often in the form of a threat which the heroes must face, but it can take other forms, like a quest. Curiously, the thinner the character is (say, an orphaned loner), the less work needs to go into this motive, because in a vacuum, all you need is a small push.

Players usually recognize the necessity of this motivation, and are often willing to put a little work at the outset establishing a pretense, and then just rolling with it from then on. The priority, after all,is to get onto the adventuring, and a thin veneer of justification is enough to speed that process.

Now, here's where you hit something that interests me. Most such heroes are reactive (or if they're proactive, it's in a very straight line). The threat rises, and they face it. If there's no threat, there's not a lot for them to do. Now, villains are proactive, and that's a good reason to play not-quite-heroes, but that solution doesn't always work. So I end up looking for another alternative for an easy way to construct a proactive hero.

Paradoxically, one of the best solutions I've thought of is the reluctant hero, a staple of fiction. This is the guy who, if he had a choice in the matter, wouldn't be adventuring, he'd be off doing something else; probably something normal.

Traditionally, this guy is a pain in the ass. A GM sees this sheet or hears this background, and red flags go up. If the character doesn't have a good reason to adventure, then odds are good that play will be unsatisfactory for everyone. If you have to spend your time fighting the player in order to get him to play, then something is deeply wrong.

This is one of the clearest possible examples of why the relationship between the GM and player is not truly an adversarial one. The GM is responsible for providing opposition, yes, but he does this as a partner to the player, not an enemy. If it were a truly adversarial relationship, it would end in mutually assured destruction as the GM drops infinite elephants on the character's head and the player decides he'd rather be doing something else.

But once the player realizes that this only works when he *wants* the GM to throw hard things at him, the dynamic shifts drastically, and a lot of things that had been roadblocks can make the game better.

Taking the specific example of reluctance - from a player who understands that what he really wants to do is play, not find excuses not to play, reluctance is an invitation. It says to the GM "Let's make sure my reasons to engage have some teeth. I'm not looking for an excuse to adventure, I'm looking for a reason". Now, this is absolutely a challenge, demanding that the GM step up as well, but GMs need that to keep themselves from getting flabby.[2]

So if you can end up with a character like this, consider what you now have: a strongly motivated, well fleshed out character with reason's to act beyond the immediate plot. Whatever is motivating the character to act is an obvious character hook for other events and conflicts. You have a character who has an understanding of what he wants, understands why he's doing what he's doing, and who will - if left alone - step up and start getting proactive in pursuit of his larger goal. All without needing to be a lovable rogue or dashing scoundrel.[3]

Anyway, this isn't a step I would suggest for every game or for every player, but next time you sit down to do character creation, consider arguing for why a character shouldn't be adventuring. Putting the player is the position of arguing his case helps him think about it in ways he might not have, and gets him more invested in the arguments he puts forward. This could be as informal as a conversation or as formal as a phase in FATE committed to "Reasons to Stay Home" but simply having the conversation can tell you a lot about the player, and can really lay a solid foundation for your game.

1 - Not that a logical world is a necessity.

2 - The player also, implicitly, needs to step up. it's a partnership.

3 - And, seriously, I love me some Han Solo action, but other archetypes deserve the chance to be cool.


  1. Hmmm. Dante from CLERKS as reluctant hero (or, at least, protagonist)?

  2. I admit I'm mostly thinking adventure fiction. which is not so much CLERKS.

    That said, Dante's an interesting example of the power of this idea. His reason for answering the call of adventure (that is to say, working here today) really sucks, and on some level he's aware of that, but he's unable to man up and address it, so he makes himself the victim rather than the hero (something more strongly punctuated by the original ending).

    -Rob D.

  3. I like to think of most "adventurers" as being reluctant. A major part of this is that I usually use Campbell's "Hero's Journey" as a passing template. And so there is often a "Call to Adventure" (something is wrong, or something impacts on the character's life to throw them out of their humdrum daily existence). Of course, a character can bump other characters creating a cascade of adventurers.

    But the thing that most gamers who use this template (and many do) is that they forget about the last stage of the Hero's Journey: "The Return." This is where the Hero returns from his or her journey with the Treasure stolen from the Dragon at the Heart Of The Dungeon.

    Most games have the precept that once the Dragon is defeated and the Treasure gained, then the character should go look (or be provided with) another Dragon to defeat and Treasure to gain, ad infinitum.

    What I find more interesting, and this is where it ties heavily into the idea of the Reluctant Hero is what the character considers to be his or her ultimate goal. What does it require for a character to retire and say that they have finally achieved what they sought, or are they trapped on an eternal treadmill.

    Of course, they may not have any idea of what this will be as they set out. Especially since the first stages of the Hero's Journey generally represents a metaphysical childhood. In many cases their actions will be reactive. But as the journey continues, they gain in maturity until they reach adulthood, where they become active participants in the adventure. The Return then means they resume their place in society, but as adults. But without this element many campaigns seem rather hollow and unfinished.

    At least, that's my opinion. <grin>

    This will of course vary by genre and game system. In a Superhero™ game, for example, there is always another villain (and most game systems offer very little in the way of actual development of superhero characters anyway). But the mere fact that you are a superhero is generally enough to break you from your humdrum world.

  4. @rev I am absolutely enamored of the power of endings, whether they b the end of a character's arc or the conclusion of a campaign. Things which are left to dangle or which stay perpetually open ended feel frightened and watered down to me.

    And with that in mind, you're totally right to call out that reluctance also provides and end point, and that's one more reason I'm very much on board with the idea.

  5. I really enjoy the reluctant hero archetype and think it doesn't have to frustrate the GM if both sides are willing to work with it. Right now Brad and I are running a team of circus performers through Scales of War in D&D 4e. They all have different reasons for joining the circus initially, and different reasons for getting involved in the adventures, and it's really interesting to see them gel as a team and how their take is different from the more action-oriented adventurers. I think they'll start wanting to be more proactive as they build up enemies and unravel more of the plot, but right now each adventure ends with "yay, we get to go home to our nice life." Showing some of the circus life has also been a nice contrast: it really IS a lot more fun to be a circus performer than an adventurer! But there are pressing reasons to go after monsters, so. (Brad has been modifying the modules nicely to give us plenty of hooks: attacking the circus rather than a tavern, say, and having kidnap victims include some circus people.)

  6. Not really about the "reluctant hero"

    But in order to make the 'adventurer' idea make more sence, A DM friend of mine likened 'adventures at the tavern' to 'day-laborers at the gas-station' (at least thats where we get them here in Texas)

    So when you need some monster's killed, you roll up to the tavern and yell out, " I need four! You speak Elven? Can you disarm traps?!"


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