On Heroism

You are not rewarded for heroism in Dungeons & Dragons.

That is, unfortunately, what makes the act heroic.

How many stories have ever been told, about the hero who forced his hypnotized orc henchmen to open all doors and cautiously shoved helpless farm animals down hallways in front of him to discover any deadly traps.


This presents a fascinating design quandary. People like to feel heroic. So if you design rules that support their heroism, you are by default making the act not heroic.

To be pedantic and exceptionally clear, if the odds are heavily in your favor, if the rules themselves support taking a 'risk', then it's not very risky. People doing a sure, safe, smart thing aren't heroic. They are just being rational.

Real heroism requires courage, which requires risk. It is a thing you do in spite of the fact that you know it won't turn out well. If you do know it will turn out well, where's the risk? Where's the bravery? Where's the heroism? </pedantry end!>

But if you like heroic behavior and you would like to encourage that in play, how would you go about it without devaluing it?

Making the character highly resistant to risk

This is the modern way of handling the situation. Make it easy to survive, reduce the risk associated with any individual threat, don't throw more at the players then they can handle at once. It can be fun, but it's low risk and certainly isn't heroic.

Character boon during heroic activity

Subjectively deciding to reward players mechanically for heroic acts is an objectively terrible solution. Now, not only do they not know what their advantage is, they have to hoop-jump trying to guess what an individual will subjectively consider heroic. At this point, the value of their choices is minimized.

Rewarding heroism mechanically

Granting players who engage in heroic type activities (volunteering to open doors, standing and holding off monsters while everyone else retreats) rewards, such as an increase in experience, bonuses or other mechanical advantages is a better solution, but still undermines heroism. One of the essential traits of heroic activity, is that it is engaged in without thought of reward. If you give out a 20% experience point bonus for opening doors and walking point, then you have a group of players all fighting for the honor. It does encourage more heroic behavior, but at the cost of reducing the value of heroism.

Reducing the penalties associated with heroic acts

Obviously the most common penalty is character death. This is probably the best solution - normally characters re-enter play at level one. Passing on a percentage of experience, or even a permanent boost or boon to a new character still has the pain of defeat (losing the character) but rewards the player by encouraging heroic play. Sadly this only has a great effect if the character actually dies.

Hack & Slash


  1. "...still has the pain of defeat (losing the player) but rewards the character by encouraging heroic play. Sadly this only has a great effect if the player actually dies."

    You do run a hard game killing players, do you? I hope you meant "losing the character" and "rewarding the player".

  2. Rewarding them in the next life isn't bad, but I think it can be helpful to change the stakes. If the PCs are acting from venal motives, just trying to amass loot, then even if they can pull off action-movie hero moments (making an improbable leap, holding the door while their companions run) it takes really high risk to make it at all heroic. If the PCs are acting on altruistic motives (trying to go defeat the monster preying on the townspeople even though they know there's little chance of treasure and they can just keep on travelling and be out of the area by nightfall) then it feels more heroic even if they're reasonably tough and think they have a good chance of beating it. Basically lowering the reward side of the risk/reward. Hm... I suppose that means that if you can arrange it so the PCs will be punished if they succeed in helping...

  3. Man, this whole post resonates with me. I've been battling with this sort of "risk averse player" issue since I first got back into gaming with D&D 4E. I have regularly chafed at the "Rule of Cool/Awesome" school of gaming that says you give bonuses to characters for doing things that are outrageous, when being outrageous is the whole point of the game.

    I'm a bit of an odd duck in that, in a system that has an overt progression mechanic, I tend to prefer to start at "level 1" and work my way up. Otherwise, it loses the organic nature that it should have, and introduces too many oddly constructed characters. Maybe an heirloom item from the other character could be passed on instead?

    I definitely think that the primary reward for heroism should be "in the fiction" as it were - have the king learn of the heroic act and laud the character in public. Have all the girls (or guys) go gaga over the character. Free drinks for the heroes! That sort of reward tends to fire off the endorphins in even the most jaded min-maxer, I've found.

  4. Nothing wrong with a few extra exp for heroic actions... but 20% seems extreme to me. If folks are jostling to be first to the door or stab the big baddie that can cause the action to stop being heroic but it can also be self correcting as careless mistakes are made.

    Consistent heroic action should improve how well NPCs who respect such action will react to the PC.

  5. If you want to define heroism as "doing dangerous things without mitigating the danger," you have built a self-defeating condition. Heroic players will die at very high rates. If you want your characters to accomplish the sort of theatrically heroic things that you see in movies, you need to build it into the narrative, not into the numbers.
    Fate actually has a really nice solution to this: compels. The GM can pay you a fate point to subject you to an inconvenient and dramatically appropriate turn of circumstance. You show your heroism by overcoming the difficulty.

    1. Depending on the system and the game, they certainly might. S&W first level characters are pretty fragile. GURPS characters can die with a single hit, but that hit has to land first. If you play at a higher level, with more heroically built characters, it's less of an issue.

      And I would assert that Fate is just a different sort of game - and have for some time thought that lumping it under RPGs is doing both RPGs and Fate a disservice. The goals are not necessarily on contention with one another, but traditional RPGs place value in playing roles, where story games like Fate value telling a good story.

    2. Well, I think that people who do dangerous things without mitigating danger would die a lot. What I'm saying, is that the choice to do them in spite of the danger is what makes it heroic.

      I'm not clear how 'overcoming a drawback in a scene' is heroic. Isn't that the point of the game, to overcome challenges?

  6. I agree with this post 100%. I also agree with Jason Packer's response. Since I usually make NPCs who know of the PCs averse to deals with them if they have a reputation as deceitful, treacherous assholes, it only stands to reason that heroism, courage, and engaging in risky behavior, especially out of altruistic motives, should be recognized.

    What you realize as a player though, is that making courageous moves with your character is enough fun that it's worth doing occasionally. My most recent game (a while ago unfortunately) my MAGIC USER ran up, stabbed a troglodyte in the gut, and ran off to hide for the rest of the encounter. The satisfaction of the absurd courage I showed was totally worth the risk.

    1. Yes, reputation is the (potential) in-game currency of heroism.

  7. If "[s]ubjectively deciding to reward players mechanically for heroic acts" is a bad idea for Option 2, why is it better for Option 3 and 4 (especially because they are really examples of Option 2)?

    Also, heroism is normally incentivised either by recognition or feeling better about oneself, neither of which is a factor in D&D-esque games. Only by introducing a mechanical reason for choosing to act heroically can we incentivise characters to do so; obviously, it doesn't mean we make it the only reasonable option, but we make it one of them (that is, keeping its riskiness at the same level but also introducing some reward element).

  8. I think you've created a false dilemma by demanding that heroism be unrewarded. The notion that heroism is unrequited valor is a late modern notion. The Iliad begins with Achilles angry that his heroism isn't being rewarded. Beowulf and the northern sagas make it clear that the wages of heroism are gold, glory, wine, and women. Viking myth offers a glorious afterlife to men who die heroically and a gloomy hell to cowards. And on and on.

    1. @AM

      That is an interesting point, but are we not all moderns? It is the conception held by the player that is important here, not the fictional character, as the player is the person who interprets the choices made.

  9. I have to agree with Jason Packer as well. Heroes who do heroic things are rewarded in reputation. Certainly the players won't actually do something heroic because "we might get free drinks!" because the players can't actually drink those drinks. They offer no mechanical benefit. It's still a cool reward though.

    And there are people who do "heroic" things for the reward. There are glory hounds who will weigh the risks of heroism, find them equitable, and perform an action for the adoration that will be showered upon them. I don't think this is a bad character motivation. If the rewards aren't immediately tangible it is more likely that this will be a character motivation, and not a player motivation.

    More importantly, a person who brainwashes orcs and uses them to plunder lost treasures certainly isn't heroic. That's actually a text-book description of just about any generic early-level villain ever. A PC who commands a band of orcs and demands livestock for his dark rituals is that evil wizard that the townspeople will task would-be heroes with destroying.

    Reputation works both ways.


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