What is a hero?

So we began our game of BASH this past weekend, and I think that it went pretty well, overall.

What I really wanted to do was create a fairly open world superhero game which was based on my own, personal, academic and political interests (social movements, corporate malfeasance, journalism, partisanship, post 9/11 paranoia, etc). BASH seemed like an idea system because it’s very rules light when compared to most superhero games, which read like airplane instructions. What I wanted was a simple mechanic which could almost disappear as the characters explored the world and the characters.

I told my players that I wanted them to play a grittier sort of superhero. Some of my inspirations for the game are Brian K. Vaughn’s brilliant Ex Machina, the great videogame Infamous, various Batman stories, and various Alan Moore projects. This, to me, meant that they didn’t necessarily have to call themselves “(insert something here) man” and wear capes. I would have been perfectly happy if they just had regular names and no costumes. They rose to the challenge. They created a group of super heroes with names which are more like nicknames than superhero names (“Pockets” because he wears a big coat, “Doctor” because he’s a scientist, etc.), none of whom wear costumes, all of whom have complicated backstories.

Oh yeah. And Scott’s playing a dog. A literal dog. Who can’t talk.

This all got me thinking: what makes for a good hero to play, or just a good hero in general? Certainly, comic books have moved from 2-dimensional do-gooder type characters to more nuanced characters. Does this make them more interesting?

BASH suggests that all characters must have a “mental malfunction” which is the reason they fight crime (i.e. Batman’s parents were killed. HIS PARENTS WERE KILLED!!!!!!). So is it true that heroes are more interesting, or realistic, or whatever, when they have some kind of quirk which demonstrates that they’re as flawed as the rest of us?

Personally, I tend to think that, yes, heroes are more interesting when there’s something wrong with them. People are more interesting when there’s something wrong with them, so it stands to reason that the same would go for heroic type folks, right? Having said that, what makes a good “mental malfunction,” in BASH’s terms? I’d imagine that a very small percentage of the population has had someone close to them die under mysterious circumstances, but I’d put money on the table that over 50% of RPG characters are currently dealing with some kind of ridiculously tragic death (Batman’s parents were killed. HIS… PARENTS… WERE…. KILLED!!!!!).

What are some other possibilities? It occurred to me that I like to play people driven by some kind of intense zealotry. That’s a nice little thing to drive someone. Next time I make a player character, though, I might flip it around. How about a heroic character who is recovering from some kind of unsavory ideology? I think I might enjoy playing someone who just got out of a cult, who just gave up on being a white supremacist, or who is attempting to deal with their own tendency towards misogyny, because they realized that these ideologies or groups were somehow intellectually and morally bankrupt. Rather than being driven by revenge, hatred, power, etc., they could be driven by penance.

I think as our world has changed, our understanding of heroes have changed. When we were fighting Nazis in WWII, Captain America made sense. He was the ultimate good to fight the ultimate evil. Evil, however, has become more complex. Most criminals are not Adolph Hitler, they’re people who are victims of an unequal society or paper pushers who go to work everyday in a culture of greed and corruption and are just trying to keep up.
The Nazi war crimes trials showed the world, to borrow Hannah Arendt’s phrase, “the banality of evil.” When we live in a world where evil is understood to be everyday, doesn’t it stand to reason that flawed heroes would be the most interesting to play?

3 thoughts on “What is a hero?

  1. You should totally check out Greg Stolze’s E-Collapse. It combines gritty cybernetic upgrade based powers with gritty, ideology based heroics, and can be played using a couple different engines. I even briefly helped playtest it. Also, I know the store has a copy on the indie shelf.

  2. I think what comes up from this is relative heroism and absolute heroism. Some people are heroes because of the things they are capable of. Some are heroes because of the things they are capable of despite themselves. Superman is heroic because he does what needs to be done to help others. He is ready, willing, and eager to do what needs to be done.

    On the other hand, Malcolm Reynolds is a hero because he does what he doesn’t want to do, and is afraid of. He only takes action reluctantly, and when everything shows him that he can’t just walk away. Or any of the tales in Reave the Just, really, but especially Penance.

    I’m not saying that Superman isn’t a hero. He is, but as Todd said he and Captain America are hero’s of another time, when our culture viewed good and evil as much more universal, explicit things. These days being a hero is a deeply personal thing, and we are much more interested in individuals and why they do what they do.

    Well, by we I mean me.

  3. My own personal definition of ‘hero’ is someone that is willing to risk or sacrifice something big in order to help others in need. That’s why I never thought of Superman as much of a hero; Yes, he’s more than willing to give up his time to fight for truth, justice and the American way, but he never really has to risk any injury to himself unless there happens to be a bald man with a green rock nearby.

    I once had a character in a game where the GM, who was using a superhero system, let me create an “immortal”, as in the alive-until-your-head-comes-away-from-your-neck, “there can be only one” immortals of Highlander fame. Since he only had one “power” (regeneration), I got to load him up with skills. It was the closest I ever came to the “8 pages of back story” for a character that you guys were talking about in one of your recent casts.

    This guy was born in the 17th century and had done everything: Infamous pirate in the days of Blackbeard, world-class musician in the Classical age of Mozart, and so on. He also had a dark side: He had been a slave-owner that fought on the side of the South in the civil war, and later a sniper/assassin. Towards the end of his history I wrote that he was trying to atone for his earlier crimes somewhat by dedicating himself to being one of the best physicians in the world (all the while keeping an eye out for anyone that might be trying to take his head, of course). He couldn’t become a “hero” in the sense that he was risking life and limb (being immortal and all), but he could devote his life to saving others.

    Unfortunately, the campaign didn’t last very long, but what made that character interesting to me was that despite his great gifts, this character was flawed in many ways and quite scarred from his long and complex past. Flaws make heroic characters not only more interesting, but at times more believable that they would be doing what they’re doing in the first place. Without his guilt over Uncle Ben, wouldn’t Peter Parker still be out there just trying to use his powers to make money and get laid?

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