In my time as a GM, I often use classic storytelling tropes. The 3 act structure is heavily referenced in many tips on running a good game. So can similar guides help create a good character? So I wanted to look at the first several key points of the hero’s journey in order to see what points should be included in our characters. I’ll be asking and answering whether the first steps should be included and if so what they add to a character. For reference, there are a couple of different versions of the Monomyth/Hero’s Journey; I’ll be using the one from The Hero with a Thousand Faces by Joseph Campbell.
1) The Call To Adventure
The call to an adventurer's life is a pretty basic tenant of character creation. What called a character to the life they currently live? GMs talk about a call to adventure in their game that will cause the characters to come together, but most Lv 0 characters in RPG’s don’t resemble the very beginnings of that character’s arc. All of our characters come with the beginnings of their skills or the inclination towards them. So what caused our characters to become the adventurers they are today? In character creation, it is important to create a major goal for the character - a lifelong quest that the GM can interact with. However, it’s important that the goal pervades the overall arc but is still involved in smaller complete adventures. Thus the call to adventure implemented into character creation can have powerful story impact, perhaps even too powerful if not thought through.
2) Refusal Of The Call
Should our characters refuse the call to adventure?
Refusing the call to adventure is where the danger of accepting their new task comes into focus. For some of our characters that risk is death by unknown monsters and for some it’s public shame; there are prices to our characters failings. A character also in this case usually establishes what fears and weaknesses might hold them back on the upcoming journey of the campaign. So this very well could be a good time in your backstory to establish important disadvantages your character starts the campaign with and maybe mention why they have them. Ultimately, refusing the call to adventure humanizes the character. So, if you constantly find yourself in the murder hobo camp and want to get out, including the refusal into your backstory could be an effective way to fight that. Give your character weakness and let it make them weak. So should your character refuse the call? Not necessarily. But, I think it is important that you give them a reason to and include that into the game.
3) Meeting The Mentor
Each of our characters has an extraordinary set of skills and the way they acquire those skills is a big point of how they form as adventurers. The hero’s journey assumes that it is some kind of wise old man teaching the hero the way. Campbell claims that the mentor, in addition to acting as instructor, represents “the benign, protecting power of destiny.” The meeting of the mentor represents the assurance of the validity of a character’s personal quest and the ultimate success of it. This mentor can be a very powerful tool when your GM is crafting a story with your characters. So I would suggest taking time to consider how a mentor’s specific influence makes your character’s skill set and quest different from others with the same training.
4) Crossing The Threshold
Here the hero leaves the world he is comfortable with. This crossing allows the character to leave their life and become part of the campaign. Whether a physical or metaphorical barrier there does need to be a finality to the change in our character’s life. At this point, it is important that the character has both the reason to leave their comfort zones and something forcing them to do so. This is the point where the character’s backstory becomes just that: a backstory, motivations derived from the past. This should be a defining moment for the character that frees them of the immediacy of past obligations and allows them to take up the life they lead in our campaigns. Think of Frodo or Luke Skywalker. Frodo leaves with ties to the shire but no true obligations. He carries friends with him and a mission with him but none of his life from the shire is key to any of it. In the case of Skywalker the person literally asking him to stay for his home responsibilities, his uncle, literally passes away.
Making our own characters in a wider story is always a challenge for tabletop roleplaying games. It’s important to make sure that our character gives more opportunities for unique character moments. For this, I think models like the Hero’s Journey give a good way to ensure our character’s story is rich enough to be worth interacting with however integrating it into a larger story with other characters and NPC’s is the challenge of the players over an author. My best advice is to make sure that your character has a rich past that is in the past. Adventurers should be ready to start their life over and experience change. Of course, this varies by system, player, and playgroup. As a GM I typically use the 3 act structure but realize that I may need to abandon some planned things to give the players the best experience. So as a player I think we should follow a structure like the Hero’s Journey but realize rarely does that kind of planning actually fully make it to the table.
Bo Quel is a Legend of the Five Rings Fanatic From Virginia. He plays and GMs several systems where he focuses on telling enriching stories and making characters that are memorable. He also is the GM/Host of Secondhand Strife, an L5R RPG actual Play Podcast.
Image Credit: What makes a hero? - Matthew Winkler Ted talk
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