Inspire Confidence – When bad things happen to good characters

As gamers we experience terrible events that occur to our PCs – loss of equipment, allies, animal companions, familiars, and the PCs themselves. As nerds and geeks living in the present, chances are you’ve watched at least one franchise of entertainment in the past 5 years that left you wondering “what happens next!?” I will be discussing some of those moments for the purposes of this blog. I may will discuss Harry Potter, Star Wars through TLJ, and the MCU but I will NOT be discussing Civil War, so please do not put any comments up that might spoil the latest Marvel film for others.

We all know that there are a lot a horrible things that can happen to characters, but when boiled down, those bad things happen for one reason – to provide a catalyst to allow the characters to grow and evolve. I will use male pronouns and “hero” in this blog as they relate to my examples, rather than to imply that only male identifying individuals can be heroes. Everyone can be a hero.

Start at the beginning

Star Wars: New Hope heroes. Lucasfilm, 1977

Most games begin with players with 1st level characters. Books, movies, and television shows often begin with origin stories of some kind – the time before the “hero” becomes heroic. Luke Skywalker lived on a moisture farm, Tony Stark was a rich but generally unreliable playboy riding the wave of his father’s success, and Thor could easily be described in similar terms as Stark – a god who loved brawling, drinking, and hooking up. These hero stories would be very predictable and boring if not for the death of Uncle Owen and Aunt Beru, kidnapping by the Ten Rings, or banishment after defying the order of Odin.

Each bad event placed the hero in a position to take charge of their own destiny, putting them on the hero’s journey – which is best explored by starting on your own journey through Joseph Campbell’s catalog – by issuing the call to adventure through the hint of adversity.

The Hero matures

Neville faces He Who Must Not Be Named, Warner Bros. 2011

Of course, bad things happen all the time in stories, but it isn’t just a matter of bad things happening it’s what the character does as a result of those bad things. For example, in the Harry Potter series we eventually discover that both Harry and Neville Longbottom fit the parameters of the Lost Prophecy – born at the end of July to parents who defied Voldemort three times. Presumably the Longbottoms defied Voldemort, but ultimately Voldemort chooses the “Chosen One” because Voldemort marks Harry in his attempt to kill Harry. Terrible things still happen to Neville, his parents are tortured and end up at St. Mungo’s Hospital for Magical Maladies and Injuries and he is raised by his overly protective grandmother, he is frequently dismissed by his friends despite his unending loyalty to them, Neville is a sweet and kind boy who grows and matures in to co-lead Dumbledore’s Army in the absence of Harry, Hermione, and Ron in the final book.

Luke seeks training in the Force and goes on to defeat Vader and the Emperor in the original trilogy. Stark becomes Iron Man, although he does also suffer a great deal of PTSD like symptoms and over compensates by building many suits to protect those he loves the most, especially Pepper, his story is still evolving. Thor is the hero that has changed the most and the least simultaneously – Thor is the happiest seeming hero that adversity just rolls off of, he faces his enemies with a smile on his face and trades pleasantries with his allies in combat, despite losing everything he’s a pretty cheerful deadly ray of sunshine and lightning.

Hero’s Journey in games

The real impetus for this particular blog are my own PCs at this time. I have 2 characters that are facing incredible adversities. I make no secret that I’m a planner and over thinker, when I find myself waiting for things, my mind wanders to what my characters might be thinking or feeling, I’m a method gamer who has to occupy my character’s head space. It isn’t unusual for me to explore the journeys of other heroes in order to inform my own hero’s journey.

As characters mature their stories can become more epic depending on choices that players make. As a GM I try to make sure that each player gets the most epic payoff for their bold decisions. It is how I view the relationship between GM and players as a partnership to tell the best story hero stories.


Monica Marlowe

Monica Marlowe is the 2015 Paizo RPG Superstar. Winning the contest launched her freelance game designing career. Her winning adventure, "Down the Blighted Path" and PFS scenario "Captive in Crystal" are available through Paizo. She’s publishing additional gaming materials under Marlowe House and through 3rd party publishers. Monica is also active in the ongoing education in gender, sexual, and racial equality in the gaming community. Driven by a desire to see a more diverse gaming community, Monica has joined the Know Direction network to help and encourage all gamers, veteran and new, to find their voices. Monica lives in southwest Ohio with her husband, Andrew, and 2 children, Kate and Thomas.