What makes a hero in an RPG?
Classes and levels in some games, sure, special abilities and magical equipment in a lot of them, almost universally the getting caught up in more significant events of meaning and significance.
What really makes a hero, or perhaps should, is luck and experience. Adventurers put themselves in harm’s way all the time, and yet, consistently manage to escape in one piece. As they do, they learn things few other people manage to learn. They gain the kind of honed skills and situational awareness that only seasoned combat veterans typically get in the real world.
Of course, experience in the real world doesn’t count for shit when an IED goes off under your chemical toilet. Real, authentic life is horribly random and doesn’t grant plot immunity for people with good stories. Even ironic deaths are only ironic in hindsight.
Very few games really play into these ideas of luck and bitter experience though. ‘Luck’ sometimes appears as a smallish pool of money, experience usually manifests in the form of increased and expanded skills and special abilities, but not in a more ‘usable’ form. You do find it, occasionally (Over the Edge First Edition, some versions of Deadlands – after a fashion) but overall, not so much.
Various story games and roleplaying styles have tried to get around this in one form or another.
Possibly the earliest version is ‘fudging dice rolls’, either to prolong the life of an in-game villain or to spare groups of characters the indignity of a Total Party Kill (TPK). Old School gamers are often critical of this and believe you should let the dice fall where they may.
Some games add mechanics like inspiration, fate, chits, tokens and so on to shift the probabilities around to favour a more heroic narrative, but very
Even the most narrativey of narrative games doesn’t address this head-on, and perhaps some game should.
I made an attempt with my game ‘IRREPRESSIBLE!’, based (loosely) on the tales of Sun Wukong, the monkey god of Chinese myth. Well, more based on the English dub of the Japanese series about the Chinese legend of Journey to the West.
In that game, your party shares a pool of points which are represented b tokens in a bag, with one black token. As you do things, the things you’re more skilled at mean you draw fewer tokens, whereas the less skilled you are, the more tokens you draw. Draw a black token, and you fail (but all the spent tokens go back in the bag), draw one twice in a row, and something disastrous happens.
Simple, but effective, kind of like pushing your luck in Dread, which also – somewhat – addresses this.
What if, though, we had a game where your characters were relatively normal in their array of skills and abilities, compared to everyone else around them, but they had this ineffable luck. That along with a pool of experience spent, not to increase their capabilities, but as a resource, to boost rolls.
It’s a thought, but character progression is so integral to many people’s enjoyment of RPGs it’s hard to tell if it’s an idea they’d pick up on.