Saturday, February 4, 2012

Heroism in D&D

In my opinion, some of the most memorable and defining moments in D&D come as a result of those split-second decisions that players must make about how far to risk their characters' life and limbs.  You know what I'm talking about.  Your party is being decimated by a pack of ghouls.  Grumple the dwarf has been cut off from the rest of the party, trapped in a room with four ghouls closing in for the kill.  He's wounded and will surely die if left to his own devices.  Meanwhile, the other three grieviously wounded party members have an escape route - 50' of open hall in front of them - beckoning...

What would you do as a player?  Would you bolt for safety, sparing the lives of the majority of the party?  Or would you take a deep breath and charge back into the fray, risking a TPK in the hope that you will persevere and defeat the ravenous beasts - rescuing Grumple in the process?

What sort of thought cross your mind in a situation like this?  One factor in this split-second decision is "how much do I value that trapped PC?"  I don't think heroism is applied on an equal-opportunity basis.  This is where a mercenary mentality comes into play.  D&D players are generally smart if nothing else, and I assure you it makes a difference whether it's the new 1st level recruit trapped in the corner or the proven and battle-worthy 4th level dwarf!  I'm sure many of us would quickly assess the value of the trapped individual - is he worth saving?

Alignment may be another variable.  A player with a lawful paladin may rightfully say "I will not leave my friend at the hands of evil underworld denizens!  With God at my side - I will fight!"  A player with a chaotic thief may say "Hey man - I love you dude - but I gotta go!"  And the entire time, that thief may be thinking "I'll come back later and rob the corpse of his gems and magic sword."  Alignment can be a very appropriate input into the decision.

Perhaps most importantly, some players simply have a "Heroism Value" which dictates their character choices.  They have the attitude that they're going to play their PCs in a heroic way, like Marvel superheroes or Conan the Barbarian!  After all, would Captain American flee a losing battle and leave his peers to die?  No way!  Would Conan run away and leave a maiden at the hands of evil cultists?  No way!  (Well, he might consider it, but he wouldn't actually do it).  By the way, I'm not implying that this heroism value equates to sure and certain suicide.  But it certainly means that life and limb will be risked in fairly dire situations - because that's what brave fantasy adventurers do!

Opposed to the "heroism value" is the "Risk-Reward Value."  Many players quickly do a risk-reward calculation, assessing the entire situation and the likely outcomes.  They then decide what decision to make.  They consider how much time is invested into their PCs, how valuable the cut-off party member is, how much gold and bling they have earned and stand to lose if slain.  Hell, they may even quickly assess whether they have access to a Raise Dead spell back in town.  And most important - what % chance does their PC have of dying if he races back to help his comrade?  Based on all known variables, they act accordingly.

Of course, heroism value vs. risk-reward value also manifests itself in the little decisions that come about during dungeon delving.  Is it always the same player who says "I'll open the chest"?  Is there always a certain player who is never willing to explore that little 2' wide wormhole twisting off into the ground?  Are there certain players who let their PCs hang back from combat if they're wounded and let other characters take the brunt of the fight? 

I'm not implying that either style of play is preferable.  In all honesty, everyone should have a little bit of both styles of play.  If I have a player who is seriously wounded, I should hang back - as long as everyone else is fully healthy.  But I shouldn't hang back if we're ALL badly wounded, just to let others take the blows. 

As a player, I tend toward trying to play my character as heroic, willing to risk life and limb.  To me, it's simply more fun that way.

What about you?


  1. I started the current campaign around two years ago as a pure sandbox, and early on, the players made a lot of choices based on the economic factors (I referred to them affectionately as "amoral looters"). But as the campaign world took on depth and interest, a funny thing happened - they started making more and more choices based on good vs evil fault lines... opposing evil vampires because they were evil and oppressive, and not because they were expecting a big haul. Even on the tactical level, there have been frequent micro-choices with elements of personal sacrifice and heroism. It's a funny thing - given free choice, they've gravitated towards "heroic play" in the sandbox - and it's true that many of the player's exploits have been more favorable because of it.

  2. "Well, hey, I didn't spend all those years playing Dungeons and Dragons and not learn a little something about courage."
    --Blaine, The X-Files #3.20, "Jose Chung's 'From Outer Space'"


  3. Beedo - that's a great summary of how the PC's got more involved in the campaign. It sounds like they started caring more about the world around them and how they might influence it. Cool stuff! I find that more often than not, players err on the heroic side of things.

    Anthony - that's funny! I never watched too much X-Files, but I've always wanted to. Just never got around to it.

  4. "Jose Chung's 'From Outer Space'" is an excellent episode; it's shown from different individual points of view rather than "omniscient observer." Plus, Jesse "the Body" Ventura and alex Trebek play Men-in-Black. :)

    Also on the good list are the episodes (one each) written by William Gibson and Stephen King.

  5. "NEVER leave a fellow PC behind!"

    Amen, brother!

  6. As a GM, when players would charge into certain doom to save the day I would often reward that, seeing the heroic sacrifice as an honorable action to take. I bet more often than not I let the heroes miraculously survive and be the heroes they were hoping they were.

    It used to drive me nuts when my grandmother would talk about the 'satanic' game I played. I would try time and time again to inform her that all my players were heroes who saved the world FROM the devils. Never really got through though.

  7. Matt - As a DM, I also try to reward players for taking the right course of action.

    I never had to worry about a paranoid grandma! My dad used to hook me up with D&D books for Christmas & birthdays. :)

  8. It's always fun to see the reflection of real world philosophy writ small in D&D. In this case, deontological versus consequentialist ethics.

    I personally don't like to reward heroic behavior. It seems a bit like paying someone to do charity work, no? I do make an exception for goal-based XP though. Maybe some extra XP to the paladin for saving an extra princess or to the assassin for a well executed hit. I guess that would be considered roleplaying XP?

    In any case, I try to stay as far away as possible from dictating what is right or wrong to my players, but that is just a style thing. If they all want to play amoral freeloaders like Cudgel, I'm fine with that, though the rest of the world will react to them appropriately. My only real sticking point is they have to be able to work together enough to function as a party.

  9. Brendan - you have me at a disadvantage! I haven't taken a philosophy class since probably 1995. :)

    Interesting thoughts on XP and PC behavior. I believe you to be a purist in your D&D sensibilities. And that is a compliment.