Mythology of the Roleplaying Hero
When people think about heroes for their role-playing games they picture Conan, Joan of Arc, Gandalf, Hua Mulan, Jack Sparrow, Calamity Jane, Han solo, Artemis, Heracles, Red Sonja and countless other heroes of fiction and history. Their stories and legends are as famous as their media forms are diverse. But do they tell the tale of the Pathfinder hero? Or instead have we our very own growing mythology?
The role-playing hero is a very different breed from most of our legendary heroes, and the way their stories are told likewise are very different. To start, many of the heroes above are known for a few great adventures. They have a long quest with many encounters along the way and then their tale is done. Whether that adventure is an incredibly long or unexpected journey, a series of twelve labours, or a long war to win their tales are most often self contained. They complete their quest and then more often then not they are done. A role-playing game hero looks at twelve great labours and by the time they're finished they've gained one or maybe two levels, and then they're ready to go off again on another quest. They might save the world two, three or maybe ten times over. The sheer volume of battles they fight becomes so massive that instead of each one being highlighted and touted as a grand achievement, many don't even warrant listing.
Next, the scope of characters involved in other myths and legends is dwarfed by what an rpg hero deals with. Five or six or maybe even a dozen new faces with every town they venture to, party members joining and falling, foes defeated, the sheer number of characters that they encounter is vast indeed. A hero is likely to make so many friends that they can't keep track of them all until they resurface months or years later with a new problem for them to solve.
And then there's of course, items. While it's true that many of the above heroes can be noted as having some sort of special item. A staff, an Atlantean sword, a particular style of gun or golden fleece they are very decidedly not reliant on these items. A RPG hero is almost always laden down with a dozen powerful tools bolstering every conceivable aspect of themselves and ready to circumvent any situation. This is simply the way things are and there's definitely nothing wrong with it, but it certainly casts a very different light on the way these tales are told and remembered.
And obviously one can't forget the dynamic that is the party. Our heroes are not solo warriors on a rampage, they aren't individual legends who go it alone against impossible odds, they are a party. A team that works together, each one adding something different and unique to their efforts. The glory of victory is shared, the legend is told of many and not just one, and ideally everyone should be given even spotlight over the length of the epic tale.
And lastly our stories are not just about powerful heroes, but about the growth of heroes. One of the most key elements of an RPG is the feeling of progression, of growth and strength. Of going from bandits to monsters to dragons to demons to gods. To look back on the past and marvel at how far you have come, and this is fundamentally tied to the items we gain, the number of battles we fight, and the contribution we make to our team. All of these ideas mix together forming a mythology very different from the heroes we idolize and look at as our inspiration.
So if our adventurers aren't like these legends then where do we look for inspiration and ideas that match our medium? Let us summarize what we have? Heroes, a team of them, with phenomenal powers, skills and collections of items and gadgets, who run through endless series of adventurers with changing and growing rosters stretching back for years and years while they grow stronger together. It sounds to me, an awful lot like superheroes. Teams like the Xmen, Justice league, Young Blood, Teen Titans and the Avengers could easily be filled out with the assortment of classes and prestige classes available in most fantasy RPG's. Items like the green lanterns ring, Batman's countless gadgets, even iron man's suit and the divine equipment worn and wielded by Thor are easily swapped out for magic items. Even the concept of death, so very final in nearly all other mythologies, can fall by the wayside in both Pathfinder and Superheroes. So when you're looking for inspiration for your next character, or campaign, consider looking at a more modern, but no less fitting source. Examine how the super hero mythology is built, how their adventures and teams are formed and fit together, and the stories and threats they face. You may find that we share a lot more with them than you think.