Loss & Failure Make Better Heroes
Throughout my years running Dungeons & Dragons I have sensed a trend of players being precious with their characters. Their iconic heroes are their brainchildren, practically perfect in every way, and immutable despite the harshest circumstances. They might be bastions of good that see the world in black and white, disregarding any shades of gray. They could be irredeemable scoundrels who would sell their own mothers for a handful of gold pieces. Sometimes they are capricious wanderers who float on the breeze to whatever suits their fancy, accepting of all but beholden to none.
These kinds of characters, the rigid archetypes, fascinate me... and not in a good way. Whatever sort of character the player sets out to play, they remain that sort of character throughout the entirety of the story. The rigidity of these characters is so severe that anything that threatens to alter their player's vision is unwelcome. These characters never have their beliefs challenged, never have their confidence shattered, never fail, and never experience loss. I mean, look at this guy! Does he look like he's got problems?
And why would they? This is a fantasy game we’re playing in our free time! Who wants to unwind at the end of a long week by losing something?
I take issue with this kind of mentality. I understand and sympathize that roleplaying heroic badasses who always win and is fun and cathartic after a long week (let's face it, long FEW YEARS) where things going well hasn't been on the menu. But while roleplaying a warrior who failed to save their town is not the most fun, but I would argue that it can be the most interesting and rewarding. Challenges, failure, and loss are key motivating factors in a classic hero’s journey, and necessary for the growth of a believable and memorable character.
Take Luke Skywalker as an example. He begins as a bumpkin on a backwater planet, dreaming of glory and a life of adventure. While he ends A New Hope having become a renown war hero, he lost his aunt and uncle, the only family he knew, to Imperial Stormtroopers. He lost his mentor, Ben Kenobi, at the hands of the vile Darth Vader. He even thought he’d lost his friend Han Solo, though he ended up returning to save the day. And his childhood friend Biggs was killed on the attack on the Death Star. Luke couldn’t protect his family, his mentor, or his friends… and each loss took a great toll on him. Every time Luke failed, he suffered, but ultimately pressed on, fueled by their sacrifices, and striving to prevail in their names. The Luke Skywalker at the end of the movie, though visually they look similar, is a very different character than the one that we met on Tatooine. I mean, seriously, does this guy look like he's capable of saving the galaxy? He can't even save his aunt and uncle!
His growth continues in The Empire Strikes Back, as he struggles to complete his Jedi Training. While he eventually succeeds, he nearly dies on Hoth, his friends are captured, Han is frozen in carbonite, and he even loses his hand! That’s right, his adventure physically deformed him! Worst of all, everything he thought he knew about his Jedi Masters, his father, Darth Vader, and his destiny is called into question. Luke is understandably devastated and is so discouraged he questions his own worthiness to continue his hero’s journey. But Luke knuckles down, finds a reason to continue his fight, and even chooses the difficult path of trying to redeem his father rather than killing him... he's lost too many people important to him in this war already. Now he has become the galactic hero we know and love!
Luke is just one of many examples of characters whose adventure was fraught with failure and loss, and those experiences intrinsically altered who he was and how he behaved. Frodo is not the same character at the end of The Return of the King as he was when he left the Shire, nor was Bilbo the same hobbit after the Battle of Five Armies as he was when Gandalf interrupted his “good morning.” Harry Potter, Percy Jackson, Rand al’Thor, Will Turner, Katniss Everdeen, and all our favorite heroes develop over the course of their stories. Just as their stories go through several arcs, so too do their characters. So why don’t our D&D characters? Why must they be immutable when all our favorite fantasy characters are not?
Loss adds humanity to a character. It makes them more relatable, and we understand and empathize with them more. It also adds verisimilitude. It makes the story more believable and realistic when the struggle between good and evil is... well, a struggle! Furthermore, a few losses and failures can make a later victory all the sweeter!
I encourage you the next time that you sit down to play with your friends to allow the story to shape you. Don’t ignore those natural 1s! Don’t gloss over those death saving throws! Embrace the pain of a lost loved one! When an enemy wounds you, wonder how the experience affects their mind, not just their flesh. If they are killed and resurrected, how does that affect their view of death, and their own capabilities as an adventurer? When and if they lose someone important to them, does it make them reevaluate what they are leaving behind every time they step out that door to slay monsters? And when a fellow member of the party is always there for them in their time of need, how might that relationship bloom?
Make malleable characters, and allow the story and the other characters to shape them into something infinitely more interesting than anything you could create alone!