I’m changing some things up with the blog and looking at a variety of new and old ideas in gaming. I’d like to spend part of today talking about some recurring tropes and ideas that crop up in fantasy storytelling and how they can be used (and abused) in an RPG to some sort of effect. Today’s volume is going to feature The Hero’s Journey phenomenon. There are a variety of ways this idea can be used to great effect in a fantasy rpg. Let’s take a look at how that can work.
Plot Point 4 The Hero’s Journey
This iteration of the plot trap involves a journey that takes the characters far and wide outside the boundaries of their homes. This can spring up from a number of ideas, from a rite of passage into adulthood, a quest handed down by an authority figure, or a daring escape from danger into a safer realm. In many ways this iteration of a plot trap can be the foundation of an entire campaign as you can wrap the various destination points into your campaign structure as key areas and encounters for them to experience along the campaign. Let’s take a look at the premise behind the journey because that shapes a lot of the other components of this plot trap.
Rite of Passage
In this iteration of the plot, The Hero’s Journey is a cultural touchstone that all members of a given race, civilization or culture has to partake of in order to be considered adults. Prior to the completion of this journey, members are considered children and are incapable of making decisions and are not taken seriously. This journey can be defined by a length of time (“Wander the world and return here by the first day of winter) a specific task (“Bring me the talon of a Falkir Raven”) or a specific route (“Follow the route of the ancients and visit the temples along the way”). Successfully completing the Rite of Passage grants greater privileges to members and offers them greater freedoms to pursue other objectives.
In this iteration of the plot, The Hero’s Journey is a task handed down by an authority figure to accomplish a specific goal. Whether this is a goal to secure the land (“Slay the Dragon and bring me it’s head.”) explore the world, (“Map the great wild mountains to the North.)” or accomplish a specific project (“Open trade with our neighbors to the east”), each of these quests has three key components. First, there is the Authority Figure who is offering the quest, second is the task itself, and third is the reward offered for completing the quest.
The Great Escape
In this iteration of the plot, The Hero’s Journey is a hurried journey of the characters to escape either a looming calamity or an encroaching army. Devastation has been wrought upon the characters homeland and they must move/act quickly to outpace the trouble as it spreads outward. This journey has the most rushed pace of all of The Hero’s Journeys, but the tension of the journey is the search for a safe space. It can also feature something quite atypical because the Escape doesn’t just focus on the characters but can feature an entire town, region or country.
Why is this a Plot Trap?
Like the Sacred Maguffin of Power, the Hero’s Journey can be a campaign defining event. Like the journey to take the Ring of Power to Mount Doom, The search for Earth from Battlestar Galactica, or the Quantum Leap, The journey that moves the characters across the world can make a wonderful story to tell over the course of an entire campaign. This becomes a plot trap when the Journey doesn’t have a necessarily defined end, and the journey starts to eat session after session and the characters (and their players) are completely done with idea behind the journey.
Key Elements of this plot device
- The Impetus: Every single one of these journeys has a specific reason for their existence, and getting a firm idea of why the characters are undertaking the journey is essential for putting together this kind of a plot element.
- The Journey: As essential as the reason behind it, the journey itself is an essential component of this plot. Figure out where the characters have to go and what they have to do along the way allows you to build specific encounters and npcs for them to encounter.
- The End: Figuring out the aftermath of the journey beforehand and defining the “End” is important because it lets you figure out if the journey is the entirety of your campaign or just a part of it. Knowing what happens when the characters have ended their journey and become adults, or completed the quest, or found safety is critical for you to figure out what happens next.
There are a couple of variations on this theme that all work roughly the same way. Let’s take a closer look.
The Incomplete Map
In this instance, the Journey is started without a complete picture of the route or direction to take. What this means in most instances is that there are false starts, dead ends, and the characters are going to have to work extremely hard to find the right path and follow it to the Journey’s End.
The Price of Failure
The journey is intended to fail from the start for a variety of reasons and the characters have to deal with the aftermath of failure and the consequences that occur as a result. Perhaps they fail to become adults on their journey and there are no chances to take the journey a second time? What happens if their efforts to slay the dragon simply awaken it and it goes on a terrible rampage? What happens when the devastation or calamity catches up to them? Be careful with this one, because the players may not be amused at having been put into a no win situation that they had no way of successfully completing.
The Long Road
In this variation, the Journey never ends. The characters spend their entire lives on the road, exploring new places and meeting strange new peoples. At a certain level, the characters can walk to other worlds to continue their journeys and may never set foot in their homes again.
The Hero’s Journey can be an interesting plot narrative to build a campaign around. You can have a lot of fun plotting out one of these expeditions and figuring out what events and critters are they going to encounter along the way. Remember that you want to sort out the key elements of this plot going in before you get underway running with it. You can combine this with the Sacred Maguffin of Power or the Destiny Plot Traps to have a lot of fun, and next week we’ll talk about the Destiny Plot Trap.
I hope this gives all of you some insights and ideas on incorporating this style of a Plot Element into your game without it becoming a burden to your fun. If you’d like to see more of these, or have a question about a specific plot element that you’d like to know more about, drop me a line on twitter, which you should be able to see over there on the right side of the screen. Game On, Game Fans.
Almost. Like i said above, i’m going to give you a campaign seed for using a version of this plot trap in a hopefully not crazy way.
Campaign Seed: The Mysteries of Mystra
So this seed revolves around the idea that Mystra has commanded her worshippers to visit 8 specific temples/holy sites/shrines to her across the face of Faerun, and has promised fabulous powers and magic to any of her worshippers that can complete this journey. (This campaign seed is keyed to the Forgotten Realms campaign setting, but you can modulate it to any god of magic for your setting).
Shrine 1: The Stone of Transmutation
Hidden somewhere near the city of Baldur’s Gate is an ancient stone that radiates powerful transmutation magic. Worshippers of Mystra (and transmuters in general) who spend a week basking in the stone’s radiance find that their spells are more powerful than they were before their time with the stone.
Holy Site 1: The Mirror of Illusion
In the terrible dungeon of Undermountain is a room that holds a magical mirror that leads to another world. Through the mirror is a powerful world governed by magic that dulls the senses and tricks the mind. A worshipper of Mystra (or an Illusionist) who can walk between worlds and discern the secrets of the Mirror world find their illusions to be a little more real than they were before the journey.
Temple 1: The Oracle’s Observatory
In the city of Silverymoon, there is an ancient observatory that is rumored to predate the founding of the city. Worshippers of Mystra (and diviners) who spend a full evening bathing in the collected energies of the stars find their divinations stronger and their vision clearer.
Holy Site 2: The Fields of the Dead
In distant Thay, there are fields of restless dead where necromantic energy runs wild and free. A Worshipper of Mystra (or a Necromancer) who spends three full nights basking in the necromantic power of the fields finds their minions to be more capable and smarter than they were before the trial.
Shrine 2: The Well of Worlds
In distant Calimshan is a sacred well that reaches deep into the heart of the world, and according to rumor, stretches into the planes themselves. A worshipper of Mystra (or a conjurer) who spends time in the depths of the well finds their conjurations to be empowered and capable of calling more powerful than normal creatures.
Temple 2: The High House of the Lady
In Aglarond there is an ancient temple to Mystra where it is rumored that spent time as mortal in a distant time. During this time in the world, she allegedly wore a mighty crown of silver and gold. Worshippers of Mystra (and Enchanters) who spend a week studying the crown find their enchantments far more powerful than previously encountered.
Holy Site 3: The Heart of the World
Somewhere in the Moonshaes is a grove of ancient trees that sheltered the first settlers of those distant isles. A Worshipper of Mystra (or an Abjurer) who spends a month contemplating the mysteries of magic among those trees finds their abjurations empowered.
Shrine 3: The Depths in the Darkness
Somewhere in the Underdark is an ancient cavern system that houses a lost Netherese outpost. If you can survive the ancient guardians and terrible magics that protect this place, you can find an ancient Netherese artifact called a Starflame. A worshipper of Mystra (or an Evoker) who basks in the energy of the Starflame for a week finds their Evocations empowered (and in some cases, uncontrollable).
Because the Goddess of Magic (allegedly the person who offered this quest) is offering the benefits to anyone who completes all 8 portions of the journey, this isn’t necessarily a race. The powers are offered to everyone, and there isn’t a special bonus for being the first one to complete all 8 trips (or is there?). This campaign seed can work for an arcane powered party, but there are dozens of places you can put each of these sites. I suspect you can find something to add in for the other characters in your party. As to what the actual benefits of this power is are up to you, (assuming of course this isn’t a trick by Mystra’s enemies to kill off swaths of her followers and powerful arcane spellcasters in a short period of time).
That’s our 20 minute writeup of a campaign that could feature these items and how to use them. Game on, Game Fans.