“It means, if you want to be a hero, act like a hero.”
Somewhere in my 27 years of wandering on this planet some media property threw that (probably mangled) line at me. A professorial type was explaining to some ditzy co-ed that, “If you want to be a hero, act like a hero,” was the theme of Miguel Cervantes’ Don Quixote.
Brief aside: Don Quixote is one of the earliest works of fiction that follows Poe’s Law. Although it is fiction, Cervantes swore up and down that it was based on a number of oral traditions and sketchy sources. There’s a great RadioLab episode on it, here. It’s public radio, so it’s pretty twee and smug, but it’s worth a listen anyway.
That line, “If you want to be a hero, act like a hero,” has stuck with me. You wouldn’t think this is something that needs to be discussed with respect to role-playing games, but we live in a world given over to the Father of Lies and in a time when his forces are ascendant. The army of Mouths of Sauron who perch high atop the mountains of media production have embarked on a long journey full of slippery-slopes and incremental baby steps, all of which generate positive feedback loops and push our culture and individuals further and further from the healthy attitudes that built America and put a man on the moon. Today, thanks to their efforts the collective judgement of the masses is clouded to the point that they believe empty calories are healthy, empty media is fulfilling, and empty games are meaningful.
They’ll tell you that orcs and lizardmen and even devils aren’t really so monstrous. They’ll tell you that evil isn’t really real. They will try to convince you that role-playing games can have drama without really having good guys or bad guys – just different sides with different aims and goals that conflict. They’ll tell you the best solutions can be brought about by talking and compromise. They’ll tell you violence should only be used as a last resort. Most of all, they’ll tell you that no one is really bad, just ignorant or different from you.
The games run by these reality denying agents of evil feature all sorts of little nods and winks to the alternate reality where evil is just misunderstood. They’ll feature plot lines where defense of the indefensible is the order of the day. They’ll even run scenarios specifically designed to reinforce the notion that the universe is a dark and uncaring void and nothing you do in this life really matters.
It’s a poison apple, and while it is true that eating of it can provide you with a new perspective, that perspective is that of a cancer patient discovering the joys of their body rotting away one cell at a time.
Happens all the time. Many a time has your humble host pushed away from a table when it was revealed that the campaign world was nothing but darkness and evil with no hope of glory, or where the point of the adventure was a catch-22 with no viable third path between Scylla and Charybdis. We were supposed to choose from the lesser of two evils – the classic “accept that evil is necessary for the greater good” gambit designed to inure people to committing small acts of evil the better to weaken their resolve not to commit greater acts of evil.
You know these things happen. You’ve seen them, and that part of your conscience that hasn’t been worn to a dull edge feels it, deep in your gut. These are games that leave your soul drained and exhausted, that leave a bad taste in your mouth even when you do successfully follow the DM’s story to its ordained conclusion. Even when you beat the odds and win victory through might of arms and clever tricks. They don’t feed your soul in the same way that winning out over true evil in the game does.
We are shocked to learn that what’s in the box is Brad Pitt’s wife’s head. We accept it with a weary fatalism and shock – it’s a way of cutting our psyches just to feel something, so blunted has our sense of righteousness become. But we cheer for the death of Sauron because it is in our nature to loathe evil and ugliness and destruction.
If you want your games to really sing, make sure they follow the heroic model set down by the authors who inspired the game – not the degenerate model that wallows in immorality set down by far too many creators working in the RPG industry today. Be better than they are, it’s a really low bar to clear.
If you want to be a hero, be a hero. Even, and especially, at the game table.