The Average Hero Paradox

I would be remiss if I didn’t follow up my previous post with a new rule. I apologize to whomever if I am stealing this rule from someplace, but I haven’t been able to figure out reference to it. I very well may have found it somewhere previously and just forgotten where, or I came up with it such a very long time ago that I forgot whether I came up with it or not. Either way, it doesn’t matter, I think it is good enough that it deserves a spot in the MMO game design pantheon.

The rule is as follows:

Average Hero Paradox
Everyone plays online to be able to be a hero, but if everyone is a hero, no one is.

The essence of this particular rule is that of the definition of what it means to be a hero. defines a hero as “a man of distinguished courage or ability, admired for his brave deeds and noble qualities.” This does partially describe a hero, but my definition of a hero would be “someone who goes above and beyond the average person to help others.”

The problem is average. I don’t think that you can have a world of heroes, I just don’t even think it is plausible. I think part of being a hero means you aren’t like everyone else and here lies the paradox that we find in MMORPGs. Part of the reason people are drawn to them is to escape reality and become something more than what they are. With fantasy RPGs in particular, people are looking to become sword-wielding heroes going off to save the princess from the clutches of the dragon. This is what we imagine about this genre.

Yet we enter the game and find that yes we are doing this, but so is everyone else. What ends up happening is that everyone is doing the same things at the same time in order to win the same prizes and the whole experience feels rather unheroic in general.

SWG actually did something right?UO & SWG actually did a very good job of duplicating a heroic experience. They did this by actually providing players more than one path in order to advance. Therefor, many players chose not the path of the sword-wielding stereotypical hero, many chose to stay in town with a hammer pounding out the swords. In this way, the player who played the “hero” had a chance to actually feel heroic because there in town were all those people who weren’t actually heroes. In an odd way, the player who chose to stay in the town to do the “unheroic” stuff also felt very heroic because he got to do stuff no one else could, and was actually relied upon by those “heroes.”

What is funny about this is that as the genre has advanced, it has moved further and further away from this multi-path model. Instead, players are encouraged to play BOTH roles and thus make both less special.

Another thing that I don’t think helps the heroic syndrome is the similarity of quests. With the MMO developers abandoning the idea of dynamic content almost completely they have made very mundane and unworthy quests. People have gotten to the point of not even reading quests anymore except for the important bits like “Kill X rats.” How can one have a heroic journey without a context for that journey? And how can one have a heroic journey when all they are doing is the same quests over and over again? And even worse, how can one have a heroic journey when everyone undergoes the same heroic journey? Until someone actually decides that dynamic content is worth doing, I don’t think that anyone in this genre will be a hero any day soon.

3 Replies to “The Average Hero Paradox”

  1. One of the things I’ve learned over years of playing, gm’ing, staffing and designing is that people have different definitions of “hero”. Games that give the player paths other than “get a sword, find the dragon, slay the dragon, save the princess” are appealing to a wide range of us who believe in the heroism of the everyday. What would the hero be if his sword breaks in his hand when he swings at the dragon? Oops!

    Just as in real life, there are those who want to be able to say “The hero killed the dragon with the sword that I made” or “The Queen got married wearing a gown that I designed” or even “It was the information that I overheard that really saved the day.” The games I most enjoy are those that allow the player to play not the Average Hero, but the Everyday Hero, and as a GM, the quests I most enjoy designing (though it’s been a long time since I have :() are those that value the contributions of players whose skills lie in other areas than the sword (or the spellbook).

  2. @Deb, about the “everyday hero principle” principle… how true! Now imagine the following.

    My friend “Sam” walks into the wood. He’s a great and famous warrior in this world. He stumbles upon a monster, a troll to be precise.

    Now this troll is nothing but ordinary. His skin is rock-hard, and his arms, bigger than young oaks. After a fierce combat, Sam finally kills the troll. He suffered many wounds, but he is victorious, thanks to… the mighty shield I made, which permitted him to survive the powerful blows he received.

    In this game, Sam would receive XP points for killing the troll. But I, in turn, would also receive a not-so-bad number of XP points (heroic points?) because of the shield I made. So even tough I wasn’t even present at the time, there you go, now I’m a famous blacksmith.

    Watcha think? Possibilities are endless.

  3. I agree with this sentiment fully. I think a hero isn’t necessarily having to do with one subject. However, I think the be all end all of what I’m saying is that for a hero to exist, we must have something different and in the current crop in particular we do not have that. We have systems that are trying to combine these two types of heroes into a single one, making neither particularly heroic unfortunately.

    Thanks for the posts guys, they are both really well thought out and I appreciate them=)

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