Worlds of Design: Heroes … Made or Born?

Where do heroes come? Some are destined from birth to be heroes, while others rise to the occasion. Your RPG system of choice likely determines which you get to play.


Picture courtesy of Pixabay.

Fantasy stories range from nearly-idealistic high fantasy to gritty realism (such as Glenn Cook’s early Black Company stories). The level of grit can determine a hero’s arc. High fantasy tends to feature royalty born into their destiny, while grittier fantasy entails characters achieving their greatness through a lot of hard work. Not surprisingly, the tabletop role-playing game’s rules tend to bias characters toward one of these extremes.

Heroes are Born, Not Made​

I recently re-watched the first Wonder Woman movie. Despite some historical inaccuracies regarding WW I, I thought it was otherwise a fine movie. Wonder Woman has been around for some time, and has parallels in an earlier fictional character, Dejah Thoris (DJ) from the John Carter movie (not from the books).

DJ from the book is very beautiful and proud, with a long history, and for the time of writing (1912) she is quite independent and not just a princess/damsel in distress. But from our contemporary point of view a century later she is just a damsel in distress. In the later John Carter movie, she’s portrayed as a trained fighter who quite willingly and efficiently kills her enemies, and one of the great scientists on her entire planet. She isn’t expected to be a hero, but is expected to do whatever is needed for her country, including “lay[ing] down my life.” Like Wonder Woman (Diana Prince), Dejah Thoris is impossible—no human, male or female, could possibly have all of her desirable attributes. (And when you think of it, DJ is a Martian and Diana Prince is a goddess, so neither of them are human.)

Both of these characters have known from birth what they needed to do, and in Wonder Woman’s case she has been trained, and in effect trained herself from birth, to think of herself as a hero in the sense of someone who helps other people and does what needs to be done. Some comic book superheroes (Superman?, Black Panther) resemble WW and DJ in their original dedication to be heroes.

In tabletop games, these sorts of characters tend to be found in point-buy and more story-oriented systems. Not surprisingly, you can find these sorts of systems in superhero games.

Heroes are Made, Not Born​

This is in contrast to heroes such as Frodo and Samwise in the Lord of the Rings. The book is actually Sam’s story, and though the movie became Aragorn’s story, the heroism of the hobbits shines through: that sometimes something “heroic” needs to be done, and otherwise-ordinary people do it, as often occurs in wartime. Aragorn in the book is similar to Wonder Woman insofar as he knows what needs to be done and is prepared to do it, though he’s not sure he will succeed. Well, Diana, young and naive, was sure she would succeed. Aragorn in the movies was far more uncertain, a more modern hero.

Sam was a hero because he had to be, not because he wanted to be. In contrast, some people are naturally “goddam heroes” (or want to be). But most of them just get killed. "A foolhardy act is a brave act which fails."

What we read in an adventure novel is almost always someone getting really lucky. Yes, people in the real world do get lucky (such as the soldier who received TWO Victoria Crosses in WW II and lived into his 80s). But most would-be heroes in a novel-like situation in the real world “get put in the dead book.”

The Heroes of Your Game​

As GMs of RPGs, are we trying to replicate the extremely lucky hero, or someone born (and equipped by heredity) to be a hero, or someone answering an unexpected need for heroism, or something else? Any game system can accommodate the full spectrum of hero journeys, but some are biased towards one or the other.

Leveling systems where death is a constant possibility and characters are more likely to die at lower levels favors characters in the Tolkien mold: they may have some built-in advantages over other generic folk, but they are by no means guaranteed to succeed. Dungeons & Dragons is the original system for this, but there have been many others since. In these sorts of systems, unlucky die rolls can end a character’s career.

Games in which heroes are achieving their destiny tend to be more story-oriented and less level-based. It’s more important the heroes fulfill their potential than earn their way to it, and thus there’s less worrying about survival and more about broader concerns (saving the world, being true to themselves, etc.).

In the end, much of this comes down to luck: where RPGs most clearly deviate from the real, just as novels do, is in the exceptional good fortune and success enjoyed by the characters. That, or you have a stream of dead player characters. But do the dice determine that luck or are the heroes “born lucky”?

Your turn: Do you have a particular kind of hero that you want your characters to emulate?
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Lewis Pulsipher

Lewis Pulsipher

Dragon, White Dwarf, Fiend Folio

Some of both. My father was a soldier, a hero by the medals he was awarding, so grievously wounded he looked worse than Frankenstein's monster when he took his shirt off. He was also someone you didn't want to mess with, as a 300 pound Tatar or Cossack looking guy, who often dealt with things violently, thinking nothing of taking someone by the throat, and slamming them against a wall. He would stay up all night, drinking liquor at the kitchen table, I definitely learned to walk softly, I think he knew I was there, just didn't bother to respond. This basically runs true, that anyone who has killed someone has issues, such as when I was a firefighter, and the cops that had killed people were different sort of person. Like I had a friend who was warrant enforcement in a very tough city, and you would see him raise a glass at a bar at six AM, and his gun and badge would peek out from under his jacket, but you had to be crazy to charge drug houses even armed with an SMG and in armor. Definitely its a burden, true heroism is someplace you never want to be, only a fool would think that is cool.

You smug-faced crowds with kindling eye
Who cheer when soldier lads march by,
Sneak home and pray you'll never know
The hell where youth and laughter go.
-Siegfried Sassoon

I want to tell you something about being a hero in the real life, with my own experencie. It is not fun, at all. Have you felt any time too nervious, with a bet, or a test at school? Now let's imagine when the duty calls, and you know if you fail, something horrible will happen. When the menace ends you feel a great relief because nobody has suffered any damage, but you would rather other boring day than to be in a plight where somebody is going to suffer a horrible fate. Not, it is not a game in your videoconsole, here if you fail you can't start again as if nothing had happened.


I like to play a variety of genres and character types, so no real preference.

I don't believe levelling or point buy lean into any particular style of hero, however. There are many point buy games that have "made heroes," such as Cthulhu games, The One Ring, The Expanse, to name just a few. Fate and Cortex let the group decide how gritty or super heroic the game will be. And D&D may start low key, but it sure doesn't stay that way. More narrative or story games totally depend on the genre as to how many PCs typically die from pretty much all to no death on the table.

Do you have a particular kind of hero that you want your characters to emulate?

it varies pretty wildly based on the type/flavor/genre of the game. Old version of D&D and similar games have your characters start as little more than a naked snotling with a pointy stick, which tends to lean into the ‘heroes are made, not born’ philosophy.

I tend to play a lot of superhero games - particularly Champions - where characters are heroically powerful right from the start. While conceptually you can certainly imagine a history for your character as having climbed up to that level of competency, the mechanical reality is that - so far as the game is concerned - you were ‘born a hero’.

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