Thursday, April 2, 2009

Heroes that Fail

dTonight while watching Star Wars V (The Empire Strikes Back) I thought about heroes that fail.

Death is not failure for a hero. In fact, death may be essential for (some) heroes. Jesus Christ, certainly a hero, would not have been a hero had he not died. Frodo appears to die from spider venom. Han Solo, before his rise as a minor hero in Star Wars VI, "dies" for all intents and purposes when he is frozen in carbonite. Death is but an inconvenience to heroes, who the audience may be led to believe are dead in order to create suspense, but who ultimately come back. Killing off the hero permanently is probably not good for the story, unless the hero's death in and of itself brings a boon to his fellows (as in JC's case, although even there, the death is not permanent).

Real failure for a hero is not returning with a boon to share. This could be for one of several reasons:
- The hero steadfastly refused the Call to Adventure (this character will likely not make a very good Hero for a heroic epic)
- The hero could not cross the threshold into the magical world
- The hero failed to best a challenge during the Initiation (was tempted by sins of the flesh like those of Castle Anthrax in Monty Python and the Holy Grail, was defeated by a meeting with a father-figure like Luke in Star Wars V, could not embrace duality like Anakin's refusal to accept life & death in Star Wars III, failed a test of courage like Robin in Holy Grail, etc)
- The hero defeats the challenge but does not gain the boon for some reason
- The hero gets the boon but does not return from the Magic World (either by choice or because they fail to escape pursuers)

For example, at the end of Star Wars V, Luke goes to the city in the clouds to confront Darth Vader. His goal is to defeat Vader which will deal a crippling blow to the Empire and bring the boon of fortune and life to his friends, whom he knows are in mortal danger. Instead, Luke is defeated by Vader and Han is carted off by Boba Fett. Luke, disarmed, badly wounded, and clinging to a railing far above a (lethal-looking) pit in the Cloud City is utterly demoralized as Vader tells him of his parentage.

Luke drops off of the railing, which should be fatal. He appears to fall thousands of feet. Instead, he survives. This is actually worse for him, though.

Had he died, he would have been a martyr who preferred death to joining forces with Evil. By living, however, he (A) bears a permanent scar (the loss of his hand) and (B) is shamed by his failure to bring the Boon back to his friends.

How does this relate to RPGs?

Well, in my gradually-getting-fleshed-out archetype system, it suggests some mechanics for Heroes.

In a situation where a Hero would normally be slain, the Hero should be allowed to choose to live, informing the DM of his choice secretly (in order to maintain maximum suspense for the other players). The hero's player might even give the DM a random chance (50/50, say) for survival, and the DM rolls for him (to provide suspense for the hero), or the DM might allow the player to roll randomly for survival (to provide suspense for the storyteller).

If the Hero survives, then they somehow cheat death. Luke survives the fall, Frodo's poisoning is only temporary, Jonah emerges from the belly of the whale, someone shows up with healing magic, or a miracle occurs. However, the hero is scarred by the experience. One could construct a table of permanent scars with mechanic effects and either select or roll randomly. For example:
1 = Hero develops Phobia of something (likely related to the incident); mechanical penalties when dealing with this fear in the future
2 = Physical trauma. The injury is not crippling (Luke's hand is replaced) but there is a constant reminder of the incident with some sort of mechanical penalty.
3 = Hero develops depression or some other mental disorder related to the incident.
4 = Hero must be rescued by others, with possible debt to be repaid.
5 = The Villain takes the opportunity to hurt the Hero's friends, allies, or loved ones
6 = Hero is no longer a Hero; becomes some other story role (mentor, trickster, companion, shapeshifter, etc). This may not be immediately obvious, especially if the Hero becomes a Shapeshifter.

If the hero does not survive, they still gain some benefits. From a plot point of view, one can argue that the costs to Death should be slightly higher than those of Life, because you want to discourage turnover in the campaign. However, if death is too painful, then players will ALWAYS choose to cheat death. This removes dramatic tension. You want the choices between death and life to be relatively equal and viable so that the participants in the story don't know if the hero is coming back or not from the belly of the whale.

The Hero should be allowed to influence the plot somehow in the future (martyrs have GREAT influence), or their new character should be allowed to be generated with relatively generous terms, or the possibility for delayed resurrection should always be there.

Old-school D&D mechanics fail to capture this.
- In AD&D, the Res Survive check provided dramatic tension to whether the character would come back or not. This is good. But, the costs for coming back were really low, and the cost for death was really high. So, you'd always try to Cheat Death (follow the checklist -- first, cast Death's Door. Next, cast Raise Dead. Next, cast Limited Wish + Raise Dead. Next, cast Reincarnate. Next, cast Wish. Etc.). Everything was basically in the hands of fate, so players tried to pervert Fate as much as possible so as to get dramatic control over when their character finally kicked the bucket for good. Many common house rules lowered the cost of death by increasing starting level, etc, which made choosing to let the character die a decent choice, instead of automatically trying Raise Dead and following up with Reincarnate the best option. Heroes that survived really carried no scars other than a loss of CON, which hit some very hard (fighter types, who became less able to do their primary jobs) and others not hard at all (everyone with 14 or lower CON).
- In 3.5, getting raised was painful (ouch, level loss) and staying dead was painful too. But, there's not much flavor here, and level loss is a temporary thing that doesn't stay with the Hero forever like a real scar does.
- In 4E, there is a better balance between the costs of death and life. Dying isn't too bad because bringing in a new character is pretty generous -- same level, decent magic items, not bad. Living is potentially expensive, but the -1 penalty goes away pretty quickly (although it does model Depression pretty well) and a simple resource expense (gold) isn't really scarring ("Oh no, you couldn't afford a new Lightsaber 2000, you'll have to settle for last year's model until you pay off the Cleric's Guild") and is often borne by the character's friends.


Delta said...

So, you'd always try to Cheat Death (follow the checklist -- first, cast Death's Door. Next, cast Raise Dead. Next, cast Limited Wish + Raise Dead. Next, cast Reincarnate. Next, cast Wish. Etc.).I must say that in 25 years of running AD&D, I've never seen any players follow a protocol like that. (In fact, I don't think I've ever seen a party that had more than a single one of those spells accessible -- certainly never Wish.)

Vedron said...

Obviously, lower level parties will have limited access to some of the options.

When we were in the D-Series, we did not go on a crawl into the tunnels unless we had, at a minimum, a Raise Dead (to fix anyone) and a Reincarnate (to fix the cleric), either memorized or on scrolls. In fact, usually we'd have a cleric with it memorized, an NPC henchman (lower level) with a scroll of Raise Dead, a PC thief with a MU scroll of Reincarnate, and perhaps a PC MU with a scroll of Reincarnate. Multiple redundancy.

Once you hit name level it should be SOP, just like its SOP to get scrolls of Slow/Neutralize Poison as soon as you can scribe 'em.

Limited Wish is ideal for adjusting odds on short term events (like Reincarnate checks or Raise Dead res survive checks) or for gathering information, perhaps in line with Commune. For example, "Are the odds for casting Reincarnate favorable today?" If the Gods say No, then you might need to consider other options.

Wish would be something to quest for, or occasionally find on a scroll or in an item. For example, in the G-D-Q series, its quite possible for a cautious party to accumulate a few Wishes here and there.