Thursday, June 9, 2011

You're No Hero

"Tell me, Bronn. If I told you to kill a babe . . . an infant girl, say, still at her mother's breast . . . would you do it? Without question?"

"Without question? No." The sellsword rubbed thumb and forefinger together. "I'd ask how much."
--Bronn, A Game of Thrones

I just got done reading Tim's nut-kicking of LOTFP over at The Other Side blog, and the statement that he likes to play heroes got me thinking about the role of heroes in D&D.  In old school D&D, folks play heroes despite the system.

On said nut-kicking:  it's pretty entertaining, I don't agree with it, but it's a good read-through and the comments were interesting.

We're going to see a contrast between heroic vs non-heroic gaming come up more in old school discussions because of the hype generated by DCC RPG and their ad copy - "You're a reaver, a cutpurse, a heathen slayer, a tight-lipped warlock... you're no hero."  I would put forward this thesis;  games and gaming play styles ultimately emulate their inspirational sources, and the divide between old school and new school gaming has just as much to do with the difference between pre and post 1970's fantasy literature.

Pulp era fantasy featured rogues and ruffians and barbarians that smashed and tricked their way to temporary wealth, and this heavily influenced the original versions of D&D.  Since that time period, we've seen the massive popularity of Tolkien and a sea-change in fantasy that lead to one epic fantasy series after another, followed by the Grim-Dark antiheroes of the 1990's (looking at you, Lestat), and now the popularity of post-modern fantasists like George RR Martin, with their realpolitik grim and gritty approach to fantasy.

Gamers emulate their inspirational sources; D&D was birthed out of the pulp influences in Appendix N and rewards roguish looters, heroes need not apply.  Paladins and Rangers and good vs evil seem a little odd in AD&D 1E because the reward mechanism in the game didn't change, other than people just looted and pillaged "evil" humanoids and didn't worry about their consciences.

I mostly checked out during the Dragonlance and post-Dragonlance period of TSR, but looking back it seems that the heroic influences of mainstream fantasy infected the game, and the focus was on big quests and being heroes.  I'm not very knowledgeable about AD&D 2E, but I'm guessing it introduced alternative XP systems other than XP for gold to support heroic quest styles of play.  After all, Aragorn never stopped to loot Moria - though it would be funny to see the companions figuring out how to get wagon loads of mithril out of the mines.

We seem to be thankfully past the Grim-Dark anti-hero period of game play, but it raises some interesting questions for me about the OSR, the revival of old school dungeons & dragons, and the new emphasis Goodman is placing on the amoral pulp rogues of Appendix N.

Is it the zeitgeist of the time that's making the return to the roots more popular now?  Are there spiritual connections between the pulp "heroes" of old time fantasy that plays well to the violent post-modern fantasy influences we see nowadays?  Or is it because we grew up playing D&D in the 70's and 80's and when you're in your thirties and forties you get nostalgic?


  1. I think its cyclical.

    Everyone plays to get stuff and levels.
    They want it to be noble (and mean something, whatever). Then everybody plays it, so it isn't a new thing anymore.

    Then along comes an edgy dark-hero. A real badass. Everybody wants to play that character.
    Until everyone plays it, then it isn't so cool anymore.

    Then everyone wants to play a villain, the more tortured the better. Etc.

    It is a time for heroes to get in the spotlight again. Because so few can really do it right.

  2. Personally, I would categorize it in terms of ease and fun of play (especially for the Referee). Understanding the characters as heroes implies that I, as the Referee, have some kind of uber-plot to plug those heroes into. It also implies that I am not allowed to kill them (much). As a player, I prefer earning the title hero on my own merits. If I am the hero from the outset, it really doesn't matter what I do — I am still the hero; therefore I am not much motivated to be creative, which takes away the fun.

  3. Is it the zeitgeist of the time that's making the return to the roots more popular now? Are there spiritual connections between the pulp "heroes" of old time fantasy that plays well to the violent post-modern fantasy influences we see nowadays? Or is it because we grew up playing D&D in the 70's and 80's and when you're in your thirties and forties you get nostalgic?
    Yes to all of them!

  4. I'd say it all depends on how you define a hero. One man's heroic deed, is another man's evil, after all.

    I see no reason why, for example in LotFP, your character can't be a hero. Nothing stopping you. With treasure as an abstract means of accumulating XP, it doesn't necessarily mean you have to kill and maim and loot everything; all depends on how you want to dish it out.

    And we all know that a great many anti-heroes are, as the name implies, heroes to some degree. Even if they are sometimes nasty pieces of work.

  5. In any game Players and GMs can play anyway they want. You CAN take LotFP and turn it into "Happy Happy Rainbow Dungeon Time" if you like (and maybe I just might!) but what I am getting at here are the games' explicit design to promote this kind of play.

    I play games like WitchCraft, Kult, and my big game at Gen Con last year was about a serial killer rapist that preyed on young women. So yeah, I can do dark, I have no issues with it. But that is not a trend I want to see as the norm in a fantasy adventure game.

  6. Tim, your post called into relation both LOTFP and DCC because they each involve casting aside the "character as hero" assumption from the past 20+ years of D&D and goes back to how I imagine D&D was played in the 70's - a bit more amoral and picaresque.

    Old school D&D in general, by rewarding XP for gold, is explicitly about finding treasure. LOTFP may play up the gross-out art and DCC RPG may emphasize the 'rogues and reavers', but they're not changing anything that wasn't already mechanically rewarded by the game.

    I was just wondering if part of the OSR resurgence is related to a cultural change that might be going on with modern fantasy, film, etc, and that the popularity of Appendix N and old school games might not be a sign of something else - replacing the 'monster as hero' with 'mercenary as hero'. Our culture is fairly materialistic.

    To be fair, I run a sandbox oriented game that rewards looting, but my players choose the high road on their own pretty much all the time - but they do have that freedom to choose.

  7. I started playing in 1980, and I wanted to the be God Guy that killed Bad Things and took their stuff ;)

  8. I just read that passage in Clash of Kings an hour ago. Bronn is badass. I think as good DMs we have to just do our best to let the players choose how heroic or villainous they want to be.

  9. Totally agree - Bronn is a badass. Pretty much what I think of when I compare "fighter" to "cavalier" in my head - Bronn vs some unlucky knight Bronn kills.

    But I agree with your point, a game should be open enough to let players decide if they want to be Bronn (or the knight).

  10. The great moral dividing line in sword&sorcery stories lies not between altruism and egoism, law and lawlessness, or hero and antihero, but humanity and inhumanity. This may not be universal (CAS can walk a very fine line), but if you take a look at it, it applies to Ffahrd and the Grey Mouser, to Jirel of Joiry, to John Eric Stark, to Conan, to Northwest Smith, Corum, Elric or even Cugel. A roguish protagonist is not fundamentally different from one who respects law and order when we compare them to inhumane cultists and sanity-blasting horrors from beyond.

    The way the LOTFP RPG revels in blood and gore is, in my opinion, mainly a matter of bad taste, not an erroneous moral compass. In that respect, it is faithful to its sources of inspiration, which do not really come from "Appendix N", but metal album covers, giallo, and bottom-of-the-barrel 70s movies.

  11. I think there's some (inconsistent) conflating of "hero" with "good." That's the modern usage, true, but I don't think that's the classical origins of the term. As Melan says, all of the prominent S&S guys are "heroes."

    Also, Fafhrd and Gray Mouser are not each one of four hapless mooks, the majority of which get scragged by an earworm or some magical misfire.

    Gritty and heroic need not be in opposition. Ned Stark is heroic, Jaime Lannister is heroic, but they live in a gritty world.

    I think we're really talking about different axes: protagonist as special vs. not special, and gritty/moral ambiquity vs. low unpleasantness/ black and white morality.

  12. I can see that - folks that compare the 4E approach to the 'character funnel', for instance, would have a different definition of hero.

    I was thinking mainly of the amoral protagonist vs the "good" protagonist; D&D favors amoral characters in advancement (money = XP) but many folks choose to make good/selfless decisions despite the system.

    But the side question was whether there's anything going on culturally that's making the gritty protagonists and settings prominent (or will it all get wiped away when we see The Hobbit on the big screen?)

  13. Very interesting question. The SF&F my junior high students read tends to standard high heroic fantasy (LOTR, Eragon, Percy Jackson, etc.) with some paranormal romance thrown in. If they based their RPG characters on what they read I'd expect true heroes ... what I get is sociopathic mercenaries (G).

    On route to their first adventure my after school group murdered & mutilated the sergeant/guide they asked the local lord to send with them (basically to get his equipment, terrorized a small town (trying to convince them to convert to a demonic cult), and then tried killing each other in the entryway of the dungeon. Of course these are teenage boys (with a girl or two on occasion) but they're definitely not basing their playing style on the fiction they read.

    Film, TV & You-Tube could be a big influence (they're big fans of the truly evil "Happy Treefriends" show, and watch hours of "fail" videos), but I'm thinking that sandbox-style computer games are a factor too. Games like Fallout Three & Red Dead Revolver allow any style of play from heroic to villainous; and the GTA series positively rewards antisocial, mercenary behaviour.