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What Makes A Hero?

"A hero is someone who has given his or her life to something bigger than oneself. "
– Joseph Campbell

Today is Veterans Day [1] in the United States. In many other countries, it is known as Armistice Day and Remembrance Day. In commemoration, there will be parades, ceremonies, and even free meals [2] and drinks [3] (albeit non-alcoholic).

It hasn’t always been this way, but veterans and serving soldiers (including airmen, marines, sailors, coast guard, etc) are considered heroes.

Why is this? What makes a hero?

It has been said that nearly every soldier has written a blank check to their country, not knowing if or when that check will be cashed, and for how much.

Heroes aren’t people with supernatural abilities, or clever one-liners, or a spiffy set of tights. Heroes aren’t even defined by a uniform. Heroes risk everything for something bigger than themselves. A soldier [4] who fights for his buddies (more [5]). A lady [6] who refuses to sit at the back of the bus. A man [7] who literally embraces death rather than see it tear into his village.

Heroes take risks.

That makes sense, you say, but what does this have to do with RPGs and GMing? 

Glad you asked. Not to minimize the very real heroism on display every day around the world, but the relationship between risk and heroism is something to remember as we game. Without risk, our games are not truly heroic.

Pressure makes diamonds.

A reward not truly earned is not truly a reward.

So when the fight turns ugly, and the heroes begin to fall, do not let up. The small risks we take in gaming (imaginary cataclysms, rolling up new characters, etc) are nothing when compared with those taken by real heroes. Remove the risk, and you reduce the hero to little more than an actor in a sit-com.

Agree? Disagree? Got any other stories of heroes to share? Sound off in the comments and let us know!

8 Comments (Open | Close)

8 Comments To "What Makes A Hero?"

#1 Comment By knowman On November 11, 2010 @ 9:44 am

Thank you for the post, and the links.

#2 Comment By Patrick Benson On November 11, 2010 @ 3:06 pm

Well said, Kurt. Thanks to you, my little brother, and all of the other veterans that I know and the many that I do not.

Earlier today I tweeted that I was humbled by the sacrifices made by our veterans. Someone told me “Not all of them died.”

Okay, sure. That is correct. Not all of our veterans have died in combat.

Some have been maimed, injured, blinded, and worse. Some have lost their place in the civilian world because they went to serve and were treated poorly upon returning.

Hell, they don’t even have to have suffered a tragedy to have sacrificed. They all gave up some of their years to serve our nation. Think of how tough it must be to leave home at 18 to get screamed at by someone who has had training in how to kill you. That is a sacrifice in my book!

So to my fellow civilians let’s not forget that anyone who serves is sacrificing for us in some way. Show some appreciation for them.

#3 Comment By Patrick Benson On November 11, 2010 @ 3:08 pm

And just to clarify – I’m not suggesting that Gnome Stew readers don’t appreciate what veterans have done for others. I was just ticked by that one response made face-to-face to me.

#4 Comment By Alan De Smet On November 11, 2010 @ 5:44 pm

The problem in tabletop gaming with risk is that heroes fail. Much of our inspiration for role-playing comes from the fiction we enjoy: books, short stories, television, theater, movies, and more. We perceive risk, but in fiction is that the hero is under no real risk. He will succeed or fail entirely because the author decided it was necessary. By and large, the heroes succeed. I don’t read a dozen fantasy novels, and in half of them the hero bravely stands up to the villain, then is cut down, eliminating the last hope for the world.

Risk does add tension to the game. It makes the successes all the more satisfying. But it can derail a game and lead to unsatisfying stories. I don’t have good answers here. I think like most people, I muddle through, and it basically works.

#5 Comment By Roxysteve On November 11, 2010 @ 7:57 pm

[On Veteran Recognition]

I know some here will see this in the wrong light, but I routinely thank veterans and servicemen home on leave for their service *without* the excuse of a Day of Remembrance.

If someone is willing to lay down their life for your way of life (even if you feel they are being used in misguided actions), isn’t that worth a “thanks” whatever day of the week it is?

Next time you see an old guy sitting on your train, or next to you in a diner wearing a cap that advertises a service or a ship, try asking “Did you serve, sir?” If they say “yes”, a word of thanks will often get them to talk of where they’ve been, what they saw.

And the chance to tell someone, someone *new*, their old war stories will be a reward beyond price for some of these old soldiers and sailors.

Or you could just offer a squaddie home on leave a cup of coffee. Let him or her know they aren’t forgotten, or an embarrassment. A couple of bux well spent.

#6 Comment By Roxysteve On November 11, 2010 @ 8:05 pm

[On Heroes]

I think you are dead right, Telas.

Earlier in the spring I was round-robining with a bunch of GMs via the web (some in Oz, some in the UK, some on the west coast of the USA) on a similar subject; how to reproduce the epic quality in RPGs given that Real World “epic” tales always involve supplies running short for whatever reason.

The “epic” nature of the RW adventure usually comes from the dwindling food and water as the explorer tries to figure out where the hell they are/cross the desert/get out of the cave system/free their ship from the pack ice etc etc etc.

RPGs are singularly inapposite for modeling this sort of thing without tedious “ration bookkeeping”.

I’ve been told that the old Wilderness Survival game did this sort of thing well, but I’ve never played it and anyway, no RPGer is going to play that complex a game.

The problem is that “heroic” in RPGs has often translated to “more hit dice”.

#7 Comment By Padre On November 11, 2010 @ 9:13 pm

Thanks for the post. There is no separating the hero and his or her sacrifice. The sense of something greater than self serves as the springboard for heroic action. A hero of the highest calling faces potential death or suffering as a consequence of his or her choices. Too many think of death as defeat, when it’s how one lives that determines true victory. To all our veterans, living & dead, I offer my prayers and gratitude.

#8 Comment By Rafe On November 11, 2010 @ 9:44 pm

Not related to gaming, but in Ottawa, all the city buses stopped at one minute to 11am and pulled over. The drivers all changed their PA channels to the main dispatch channel, which then played Reveille at 11am. It was awesome and a great gesture. (The War Memorial was freakin’ packed on Parliament Hill, by the way, which was also great.)

A guy I trained with Gagetown 10 years ago died in 2006 to a roadside bomb. I guess that made it all real for me. To me, Remembrance Day isn’t about old veterans — it’s about all servicemen and -women, 88 or 18. Our generation might not have a “Great War,” but these shitty wars are being fought by great men and women.