Places to Go, People to Be [Next Article] [Previous Article] [This Issue] [Home]

If You Want to Be a Hero

By Sarah Hollings

In which the author explains that heroism and drama are the cornerstones of her ultimate role-playing experience


Most of you reading this will have been role-players for some time, and will have your own clear ideas of what you expect from the role-playing experience. We read books, write character backgrounds, build worlds and work toward that ultimate experience with our co-gamers.

You can see the progress Sarah has made towards her Utopia by following the link at the end of this article.

But that Fantasy Role-Playing nirvana is a very different place for each player. And like a lot of seekers, I have tried to go in my own directions, and work toward my own version of fantasy gaming Utopia. In this article I hope I can share with you what I want to achieve, and point some road-signs for other seekers.

One of the strongest feelings I have about fantasy role-playing is that it ought to be about Heroes. Articles aplenty have been written on the topic of what a hero is. More than just definitions, some of these are treatises - on a word that carries a great raft of meaning for many roleplayers and for any romantic. I do not have space to go into depth here, so allow me a little poetic prose and I'll try to hint at what I mean.

I am driven by a desire for adventure and derring-do. The quest is for heroism. Heroism arises in conflict and struggle. But I suggest nowhere is it more clearly seen than in conflict with a deadly enemy and the physical struggle that ensues.

What has been the best fight you've ever seen? Forget about boxing matches and schoolyard brawls - they're "real" fights. No real fight could ever be good, since they're driven by humdrum rules, or the tawdry meanness of people. I mean to shew out battles between great foes, of heroic proportions.

What combat, what conflict has made you take in breath, lean forward in your seat and hang on every struggle, every blow? Luke Skywalker fighting on the rim of the crater in Return of the Jedi? Peter and the Wolf? The Dread Pirate Roberts and Inigo Montoya on the top of the Cliffs of Insanity?

For those hardcore Star Wars fans, we are aware that the "crater" was actually The Great Pit of Carkoon, the resting place of the mighty Sarlacc

For me it'd have to be a live, brilliantly choreographed swordfight that I saw in a stage production of Macbeth. These guys had real steel swords. The ringing of metal on metal, and the beads of perspiration were more real than real, even in the theatrical lighting.

"Lay on MacDuff, and damned be he who cries 'Hold, enough'"

Remember that bit? Macbeth of course lost to MacDuff, but he'd been tricked by the witches and his famous final lines show in his ultimate despair a return to his true fighting spirit.

What I want to say is that battles like that capture us because of heroism stemming from true drama. There is action, but there must also be drama. Now I go further and say drama comes from, plot, background, and history.

We need to know why the protagonists are fighting, their motivations. We want blood oaths, sworn enemies, dark nemesis's or respected allies. They're fighting for good, against evil, fighting to right wrongs and rescue maidens. We want our hero to be tested, but the real reason we want him or her to win is the worthy cause that they fight for!

Role Playing Games - for me anyway - are there to put me in the action, for me to actually be Xena the Warrior Princess and to heroically fight the evil henchmen in the defence of causes and the pursuit of quests.

The Hercules/Xena game is still coming from TSR.

One of the most important parts of my gaming world, and its associated rules, graphics and so on, is a collection of heroic profiles I call the Legendary Figures. Each one of the legendary figures characters is brimming with plot, and background so full of drama that heroism is sure to spring forth. There is no need to be a follower, to march with an army or be enmeshed for ever in political manoeuvring, for in my ideal each one of the players can be as heroic as Xena.

As well as heroism for all comers, there's something else I want in my supreme game-playing environment. And that is combat with style. As I hinted when I mentioned the swordfight from the MacBeth production, combat is high-up in my must-have-list for great gaming. And as I said combat, like nothing else, gives the heroes a chance to demonstrate their valour and fulfil their promise. But for that to work for me, the combat absolutely must have style.

This is why I am currently labouring with huge rules for magical and martial combat that attempt to allow expression of those wonderfully choreographed fights that I saw in my favourite movies or imagined in my best reads.

One of the best examples of dramatic and highly choreographed combat systems is in the recent Hong Kong action RPG, Feng Shui

When (if ever) I complete my game, our hero will be able to leap up, grab a low branch, and land a swinging kick to their foe's face. The sorceress' magical force will leap visibly from her gesticulating hands. The knight's sword will cut and slash, and his enemies will bleed. I know its huge, but I'm not asking for much - I just want it all!

Of course the hard part is figuring out exactly what you want - to take all those "if-only's", and begin the creative process with a wish list. But before the wish list, there's the whinge-list - what we don't want. There are some things about traditional gaming that never fitted my idea of heroism.

Take monsters: we know the monsters are the bad guys because they're monsters after all! And hay, we're the Players! But when do I get to fight the real bad guys? And how will I know they're really bad? Fighting a golem is ho-hum - but fighting a golem created and sent against me by the evil Wizard Baddude is heroic, and fun!

For me a bona-fide bad guy is anything that can form the intent to do evil. If a dragon carries off my sister during my youth, but does it purely because its a dumb creature, desiring its next meal, well that is fate, or bad luck. But if the dragon wants a young virgin, and gloats over its prey, that is a story!! My life quest forms and I must track down that dragon and defeat him!!!

No offence to intelligent dragons is intended in the previous paragraph

So in my ideal game, quests and NPC's provide the battle fodder, and rather than hacking through endless cohorts of irrelevantly appearing wandering monsters, we will hang on every well defined blow of each battle, as it forms another chapter of this heroic tale.

Treasure is another pet annoyance. We love to get treasure - hay, we defeated the monster, didn't we? Where's our treasure then? Trouble with treasure is that it tends to be lying around in the dungeon. It's as though a dozen extremely wealthy people who used to live there, mysteriously up and died, and left bejewelled swords of magical power, bags of gold and so on just lying there, like the wreck of the Marie Celeste. Saying it belonged to the monsters or they were guarding it, doesn't usually make much more sense.

Unless the Orcs are actually guarding their loathsome leader's trove (in which case there'd iron-bound doors, locks and other trove trappings) the only things you'd find after killing them would be some pig-bones, some ill-maintained fighting axes, and maybe a few gold coins.

Magical rings are found in the possession of ghastly sightless creatures living in subterranean grottos or gnarled witches on surreal islands surrounded by snake infested waters. Magical swords must be wrested from rock by the pure of heart, or won from dragons living atop lofty spires. Gold is taken from robbers and black-hearted nobles, or earned for heroic deeds.

Now, the poor old GM has enough hard work creating scenarios - dungeons or whatever. But now I want to say the treasure also needs to be written into those quests. In my ideal game it will be.

There's something else about heroism. An almost indefinable essence. Sometimes this something is no more than a matter of style, savoir faire. But it can go as deep as a code of honour and pride, and it can be a sense of destiny that leads to choosing the right way over the easy way.

We are role-playing Fantasy here - we don't have to floss, no-one goes to the toilet, and we never have to do something an ordinary way when we can do it with dash and panache, derring-do and drama. This is something that can't be written in a set of rules. It needs to come from players having full backgrounds for their characters and really role-playing them.

If you need convincing about the supremely romantic nature of the sword, check this site

One area that a game can help role-playing rise above the ordinary is the combat and weapons system. Now for me there is no weapon with as much dash as the sword. Our hero - he or she - fights with cunning, panache and consummate skill - but always with honour. The sword is the embodiment of this honour.

There's a plethora of different weapon types which I don't mean to write off: axes, morning-stars, all the polearms, and thrown or ranged weapons. These have there place.

Each to her own I guess, but my feelings are that axes are there so dwarves and orcs have something to fight with, no hero is ever going to hide at the end of a polearm, and a staff is great if you're Gabrielle - but Xena fights with a sword!

Another example of a game with promotes this kind of dramatic combat (although at a much slower pace than Feng Shui) is the inspired Ars Magica

So I can play to experience this, the gaming world/rule-system must allow me to jump over a sword slash. I must hear the ringing of steel, as, on my right, I block a downward cut with my sword and cunningly punch the deserving foe with a left to their hairy jaw!

So my ideal gaming world and rule-set allows these things to happen. I need a combat system which allows heroic and stylish fighting. However, also I need to know not only who I'm fighting but more importantly why we are engaged in mortal combat. The character backgrounds should be designed to let us know who and what we're fighting, but most importantly why.

There are many gaming systems out there, and worlds people have built, but for me the reason for being lies not in the world itself, but the struggles between its denizens. In the work I have put in so far to my project I have had this aim: to seek out the drama and therefore the heroism in these struggles. The struggle between the ideals and creeds, lusts, murderous urges and many other motivations. There is another thing however.

As a hero follows his noble destiny, or denies it and seeks out the favours of the darker spirit orb, he carves out his own legend. His character gains fame or notoriety, as of course it is only the stylish thing to do to keep ones fans happy with more.

Sure, a great character may have a dark side, for we know the evil in Frodo's invisibility ring begins to overtake him, and Han Solo starts out looking out for number one. But still they're the good guys and we know they're going to do the right thing.

How long till Star Wars 1? Click here to find out!

So given all the above, I find the idea of being aligned to good or evil a bit quaint. Characters just are good. Or they are evil. Or right, or true or just. But most importantly we fulfil a characters destiny by tracing out his or her actions in accordance with that nature, good or evil or whichever.

Again, there is a place in a gaming system to reward the true roleplaying of the nature of a character. Sticking to what a character is, rather than flicking idly from once fancy to the next, brings a character strongly into line with his or her Destiny. And though the payoffs are small for this, they extend like a lucky blessing through many aspects of the rules and character attributes.

In the hope of working toward that concept of Destiny, I have created Morphyry - the beginnings of a world, with rules, backgrounds and more.

The full low-down on Morphyry can be found here.

The Destiny of Morphyry is more than just luck. It has a pathos to it. The legendary figures, the heroes, have a role, a calling. It is their skills, their selfless and sometimes lonely dedication which allows ordinary folk to live out their lives at their farms and stalls and taverns in peace. Should the heroes fail in their calling, and abandon the way of honour and heroism, they abandon also their soul.

A hero may die, and probably will, but he or she lives on in legend, the songs of bards, and the rhymes told to babes for many a century hence. One day I may finish my world, and finally get to visit Morphyry, and to experience my gaming transcendence. I will put on the boots of a hero, live the drama, and experience the currents of destiny running through my heroes every action. I will be a legend in my own mind.


Sarah has been gaming for ten years, is a radio operator for the Queensland Police, and also studies psychology at the University of Queensland. In between all that, she has turned her dream game into somewhat of a reality, and displayed it on the net for all to see. She invites everyone to check out Morphyry and tell her what they think.

[Next Article] [Previous Article] [This Issue] [Home]

Copyright 1998 Places to Go, People to Be, all rights reserved. May be reproduced for non-commercial use. Refer to the copyright page for full details. Email the editor: