Confession of a Newb GM: Heroism at the Table

When we sit down at the table we tell tales of daring do larger than we think we could normally accomplish. I saw a tweet the other day that makes me wonder how we can encourage heroics at our tables. This brings me to musing about what makes a hero. Why are characters that would normally be the epitome of heroics be so hard to play in practice?

Many of the things that attract me to GMing and playing are the moral quandaries that are put in front of players. The ethical dilemmas and fighting with one’s own nature that either end in triumph or despair for the campaign. We don’t see that control of self like the examples from the Star Wars movies in very many things, let alone at the table.

This is a type of campaign I don’t see normally talked about, but it is certainly there in an undercurrent within the movies and books that most of our settings are based on. From Samwise Gamgee refusing The One Ring and continuing on with Frodo, to Luke Skywalker being willing to sacrifice himself to start the redemption of Darth Vader, we see the renouncing of offered power become a test of character.

There are many tales to be had about using power to overcome obstacles, but very few about using guilelessness and wisdom to become something more able to deal with the brashness and the arrogance that the antagonists show. Some of this is achievable by forcing players to deal with an NPC so overpowering that direct confrontation is ludicrous.

Some adventuring parties rove about cities leaving changed power dynamics and holes in families. This is usually a result of the party being attacked while perpetrating a ‘minor crime’ (trespassing/ breaking and entering/ looting/ defiling a corpse) and not following the guards’ instructions. After an inciting incident like this the players then lose all sense of propriety and kill everyone that gets in their way until the final antagonist fight.

The Star Wars series, at its best, shows how using power without thought is too easy and leads to consequences far removed from the initial action. The use of power through back channels starts a war that leads to massive combat and upheaval on a galactic scale ending with singular control of most major economic forces. Using power in ways that are obvious and menacing loses Darth Vader all of his limbs, creating the imposing cyborg of the original trilogy. When force is applied in ways that the opponents aren’t expecting it allows for much better story to be created. Examples of this are Samwise carrying Frodo instead of the ring, Obi-wan raising his lightsaber in salute to Darth Vader drawing all attention to him, or even Yoda’s realization, after 20 years, that sometimes wars just aren’t worth it.

This style of thinking and action is looking for the third route to solve a problem. The first course of action, being the most obvious,should always be planned for and countered. If it isn’t, your players will be disappointed. It isn’t fun to deal with the obvious. The second course of action is the one you ‘expect’ the players to take and the one you are suggesting by your plans and obvious curtailing of the first course of action. The third course of action is generally one you’re not expecting. It takes the first two options presented and throws them out, creating a weakness that can be played to subtly by the players. The last thing you want to do is have the main villain of your campaign walking around with a “Kick Me” sign on their back, but you do want to try and have conceptual gaps in how they execute plans. This isn’t just having the first two courses of encounters plotted out, it’s knowing why the villain is doing the things they’re doing.

Finding reasons for the villain to do the large plans leads to seeds for how they’ll try to accomplish the little steps. Laying this out and letting the players discover the plan, through working and then getting the idea that something is just a little bit ‘off’, allows for deeper playing and the creation of  a little bit of paranoia in the player as well as their character. The villains can have a different goal from just stopping the players, for instance, merely delaying them until a particular action is done.

Making the goals of the antagonists bigger than the players seem capable of handling allows for the players to make larger leaps of action. This generates the environment where heroic sacrifices and moral failings can be shown and explored.

Talking with the players about where they want to take their characters is a big part of this. While you can suggest and lead the players to want to do more roleplaying at the table, the group may not want to. I would still recommend putting the layered plot and opportunities in the game as they add to it even if their full potential isn’t realized in the way you imagine. A better session is still a better session.

How do you work acts of knowing sacrifice into your game?

One thought on “Confession of a Newb GM: Heroism at the Table”

  1. A recent example would be, in a war torn city that’s falling to pieces as Alliance and Empire forces clash in the streets, players make their way through crumbling buildings to an Emperial camp to breakout some prisoners. I gave them choices where to rush out into the open to save a girl trapped under some rubble and get shot at by a sniper or pass her by and stay safe. Mission vs Morality.

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