Playing a Reluctant Hero in a Role-Playing Game
There are many character tropes that I feel are overdone and/or very annoying in RPGs. Two examples of this are the “very smart” orc “wizard” that’s actually a barbarian and the brooding lone wolf. They’re tropes for a reason in that there are a large number of people who find them funny or interesting. However, one trope that I’d always wanted to try out is the reluctant hero. Someone who was thrust into greatness, and despite their best efforts to avoid their destiny, they save the world or complete their mission.
This trope is pretty common in action films and TV. John McClane from Die Hard is my favorite example of this type of hero. He has business being at the Nakatomi Plaza and he goes through with saving the hostages in the building despite his constantly voiced reluctance to do so.
Dicegeeks wrote a post that does a great job explaining the issues that come with playing a reluctant hero in an RPG. I used their advice of twisting the common trope of the reluctant hero with a dead family or love interest and making it a bit more interesting when I played my arcane archer in a recent D&D campaign.
The campaign recently ended and my character worked out pretty well in my opinion. Therefore, I’m going to focus the rest of this post on showing you how to play a reluctant hero in an RPG in a way that you and the rest of your group will enjoy.
What is a Reluctant Hero?
A reluctant hero is someone who doesn’t want to be the hero of the story. They don’t want to save the world, they just want to be happy. Despite this, fate is cruel and decides that they must be the hero; they have to save the day.
The reluctant hero will then try as hard as they possibly can to avoid their fate. They will either run away from their responsibilities or simply ignore them.
However, eventually, something or someone they care about is affected by whatever evil or responsibility they had tried to avoid. This is where many reluctant heroes get a redemption arc and finally accept their fate and save the day.
Before You Play: Read the Audience
As with any difficult trope, it’s important that you know the group you’ll be playing it with. Tropes can be very hit or miss, and with a reluctant hero, you want a group that can play into your character’s hesitations. The group has to want to deal with your character as well.
I’ve mentioned that running a session 0 is always a great idea in many of my posts. They are an excellent way to know what type of game you’ll be playing and the expectations of the people you’ll be playing with. Use this to gauge if this game would be an appropriate time to play a reluctant hero before you commit to it.
If you are in a group with a set goal right from the get-go, it will be annoying or nonsensical to have a character that does not want to complete the goal be adventuring with the rest of the group. On the other hand, a reluctant hero could fit in well with a group playing through a “coming of age” story.
Have a Reason for Being Reluctant
In order to make a great reluctant hero, your character will need to have an underlying reason for being reluctant. Being reluctant to accept quests or do anything the party wants to does not make them a reluctant hero, it just makes them reluctant. Their lack of desire to do anything makes them a contrarian and a nuisance. This will not garner you much sympathy from the rest of the players and GM and you will be on the fast-track to being ignored or uninvited.
On the other hand, if your character has a reason for their reluctance they become much more interesting. They also become someone who the party can sympathize with and interact with. Your reluctance spurs from some character trait or a past experience and it no longer is a hindrance to the game, it’s a tool everyone can use for role-playing.
Here are some examples that I’ve come up with for giving a reluctant hero a reason to be reluctant.
One way to showcase this is by the character having a mental obstacle that blocks their path to heroism. This is something they must overcome to ultimately accept their heroic fate.
An example of a mental obstacle is impostor syndrome. Your character doesn’t believe in their ability to defeat the big bad and save the day. Deep down they don’t believe in themselves and feel as if someone else should handle this responsibility despite it being forced upon them.
Another potential reason that the character is reluctant is due to their lack of maturity. They don’t want to save the world or complete the quest, and they try their best to avoid difficult decisions. Instead, they would rather dodge responsibilities and help that someone else completes the task for them. It’s hard to face your problems head-on, but that is part of growing up and you have plenty of growing up to do.
Background or Past
Something happened in your past that caused you to become reluctant to be a hero. Maybe you were cheated or hurt for your willingness to help others. Whatever it was, it made its mark and has stopped you from helping others ever since.
In many ways, this could go hand-in-hand with a mental obstacle. For example, an event from your past caused you to avoid taking risks or forming meaningful relationships. Your party and your adventures have helped you slowly gain confidence and eventually, you will rise to the challenge when you’re needed.
You Become Increasingly Bitter
You started out as a wide-eyed and bushy-tailed hero, but as you traveled the world you became increasingly bitter. People didn’t appreciate the work that you did, or you were never rewarded for your efforts. Over time you became more and more reluctant to avoid helping and just wanted to make a quick buck.
When the time came that people were counting on you to save the day again, you didn’t care. It’s their problem now.
Overcoming Your Reluctance
As the campaign goes on your character arc should involve your character overcoming their reluctance to be a hero. Whatever mental or physical obstacle that was holding them back will have to be overcome.
The great part about TTRPGs is that your character is never alone. You can lean on your friends and companions to help influence and guide your character in a way that helps them overcome their obstacles. The whole point of the trope is that something forces the hero’s hand and makes them accept their fate. This could be an adventure, it could be their friends, or it could be anything in-between.
This is not a trope for a static character that does not change their personality or world views throughout the campaign. In order to succeed in playing a reluctant hero, your character will eventually have to become a hero in the end.
The reluctant hero is a trope that is pretty difficult to pull off. This is because it relies on not only your role-playing ability but your entire party’s. Your group all wants to save the day, and their job is to help you get to that conclusion as well. In the end, this makes the journey that much more rewarding once your character becomes a full-fledged hero.
In my game, my character’s background was that he ran away when things got tough or uncomfortable. His family? He ran away from home rather than help his parents with their livelihood. His friends he met while running away? He ran away from them when things got dangerous and never looked back. However, with his adventuring party, they didn’t give him that option. Every time he fell they were there for him and in the end, he realized that he had to be there for them too.
Maybe I was a bit tough on the orc “wizard” trope. If your group is new to RPGs you could totally get away with it for a campaign and everyone would find it hysterical.
I think that most of this advice applies generally to PCs with potentially problematic flaws. If the game is a long runner, you should build the character with avenues for them to grow and improve on those flaws. It ensures that there’s an out when the challenges created by their behavior go from fun to annoying (for the other players, that is. Players can have a wonderful time watching their characters suffer and that’s great), and the difficulties they create make the character development feel more real and thus easier for other players to get on board with.