Realistic Motivation vs Heroic Motivation

The Heroic Tradition, Realistic Motivation vs Heroic Motivation or What's my Motivation?

The motivational aspect of Role-playing, and the difference between Realistic Motivation vs Heroic Motivation and the effects of Suspension of Disbelief has been a hot topic over the years. Realistic Motivation, Heroic Motivation, and Suspension of Disbelief all play critical roles in characterization.

The whole point of being an adventurer is going on actual adventures…

Over the years, one of the quintessential questions in Fantasy RPGs (or any RPG) is “Why would my character do that?" and the classic or "What's my Motivation?" For example, in most Fantasy RPGs, players often play character called adventurers. In this example, an adventurer is defined as a person who engages in an unusual experience, a bold and risky undertaking with a dangerous series of events of with an uncertain outcome, often taking place in a fantastic setting." CLEARLY, that whole point of being an adventurer is going on actual adventures. These adventurers known and assume all the risk, known and unknown, for a wide variety of reasons. Some of these reasons or motivational factors are: Power, Fame, Fortune, Excitement, or just plain Ego. These Heroic Character types are not content with a normal lifestyle, they often feel that they were meant for something more, something great, a great destiny.

It's called “Dungeons” and Dragons for a reason…

In RPG games of genres of all kinds, from time to time, the Game Master will present the players with one very difficult or challenging quest/adventure/mission. Over the years as a player and Game Master myself, I would often hear the question “Why would my character do that?” Before I continue, as a side note: the “D&D” concept of Alignment, and the “Hero System” or “GURPS” system of Psychological Disadvantages as the Core Motivational factors has of course been removed from this particular argument. As a Game Master, my response would be “You're an adventurer, you go on adventures!” That is the point of entire game. It's called “Dungeons” and Dragons for a reason. I have always maintained that you can’t fully experience a Fantasy RPG like experience Dungeons and Dragons, without going into an actual dungeon at some point, or encountering an actual dungeon. Never the less, player will ask “Why would my character do that?” Another one of my classic responses is “Its game.” I’ve seen a tremendous amount of over-thinking on this subject from players. To be honest, I haven’t seen or even heard of video games players say “Oh on! That’s mission sounds dangerous! I’m going to hide under my bed! But, that $59.99 I paid for this game was well worth it for me to go run in the corner and hide because the mission is too dangerous.” To be fair, in the board games, I do it find it illogical for a “Top Hat” to own hotels on Boardwalk and Parkplace.

What if Bilbo never left the Shire?

Here’s a profound counter argument that I’ve present to players who ask why would my character go on that dangerous quest? “What if Bilbo never left the Shire? What if he never found the One Ring?” Then, I guess there wouldn’t be much of the epic stories of "The Hobbit" or "Lord of Rings.” The One Ring would still remain in Gollum’s cave. The entire epic chain of events that followed The Hobbit, namely the Lord of Rings trilogy would pretty pointless if Bilbo just simply hide under his behind bed, “Oh No! Too dangerous, I’ll be late for dinner!” Instead, reluctantly, Bilbo would find his own courage, rise to the occasion, and become a hero. Tolkien could of easily wrote about Bilbo’s adventures in his garden, drinking tea, or enjoying the “the Finest Weed in all the Shire.” To be fair, this type of story might interesting to some readers, but it’s definitely not an epic story, and not heroic. At the same time, Bilbo’s reaction to going on a dangerous quest with no guarantee of safety or reward would consider realistic, giving the circumstances. Bilbo’s reaction would consistent with concept of "Realistic Motivation.”

Stallone, Schwarzenegger, or Norris never hid under the bed…

A lesser known but common term in film, literature, comic books, video games, and television is Realistic Motivation. Stories that use Realistic Motivation focus on Grit and Realism as the “Motivational Core” of character's behavior. These type of stories are less “over the top” than the most of popular action TV show and movies, lacking the common "Heroic Themes.” Viewers will not see characters as the usual all powerful, nearly indestructible, typical action heroes like Sylvester Stallone, Arnold Schwarzenegger, or Chuck Norris; definitely not the action oriented James Bonds film franchise either. Instead, the main characters of stories with Realistic Motivation do not always save the day or get the girl. These types of stories might focus on the realistic consequences of their actions and choices. Realistic Motivation can be seen in police TV dramas such “The Wire,” “Hill Street Blues,” or “Law and Order.” Of Course William Shatner’s character Sergeant Hooker on the TV show TJ Hooker was clear example of Heroic Motivation. It’s arguable that Shatner’s performance lacked realism and was completely over the top. I’m sure that Mr. Shatner would disagree with me on this point.

Players forget it’s just game…

Now that we have establish some of differences between Realistic Motivation and Heroic Motivation, let’s apply examples to player behavior in table top RPGs. Despite thoroughly explaining the difference between a Heroic and Realistic style of campaign to my player over the years, these still proceed from false set of assumptions. Players in RPG, especially in Fantasy setting, tend to over intellectualize their character's motivation and behavior. Once again I must point out the before mentioned concepts of : Alignment and the system of Psychological Disadvantages as the Core Motivational factors has of course been removed from this particular argument, as well. Players keep attempting to apply Realistic Motivation as an approach to role playing their characters. They forget they are PLAYING A GAME, not a realistic simulation of human behavior, and clearly not with concepts taken from the study sociology, anthropology, and psychology.

Top Hat has got hotels on Board Walk and Park Place

As I have already established in this example, and through out this article, the players are playing characters called Adventurers who go on adventures; remember Heroic Motivational factors such as Power, Fame, Fortune, Excitement, or just plain Ego. I can’t stress this point enough, it’s just a game; but players keep applying concepts of Realistic Motivation to their character’s behavior. Once again the $59.99 video game example comes to mind. “Oh no! This mission is too dangerous. Realistically, why would my character go this extremely dangerous mission with no guarantee of success, reward or safety? I’m not going on the dangerous mission, instead I’m going to go hide in corner, where it’s safe. BEST $59.99 I ever spent!” If you’re playing the board game Monopoly, do you over think why you are playing a Top Hat acquiring real estate and wealth? Of course not, it’s just a GAME, you just go with it and have fun.

Heroes transcend ordinary mortals…

In contrast to stories that use Realistic Motivation, in most High Fantasy and Super Hero stories and RPGs, characters can possess super powers, superhuman abilities like Strength, Speed, Agility. The use of magic and magic items in common place. The idea of super power and/or magic being introduced into the “real world” is common idea and profound effects it has on character’s motivational core. The character is now at the beginning of his, journey in the oldest traditions in literature, the Hero. The Hero, the main character in a literary work, is celebrated in the ancient legends. They transcend ordinary mortals in skill, strength, and courage (not known for hiding under their beds.) Heroic Epics of as Beowulf, Gilgamesh, the Iliad, and Achilles are some of the earliest examples.

The Power of Myth…

Dr. Joseph Campbell, wrote a series of books called "The Power of Myth.” Dr. Campbell is mythologist and celebrated author. Campbell goes into great depth and detail about Heroic Motivation. His series of book also became a documentary on PBS. Star Wars and Indiana Jones creator, George Lucas, also appears in the documentary. Lucas explains why the Heroic Tradition is at the very core of all his films. Heroic Motivation is the quintessential force that drives and defines George Lucas timeless character such as Indiana Jones, Willow, and Luke Skywalker.

Suspension of Disbelief is required…

As a Game Master myself, I often have to make a very clear distinction between High-Fantasy and a Realistic style of campaign, when describing my game to new players (sometimes existing players.) On the other hand, if a Game Master is presenting a Historical Reenactment style of campaign, obviously a higher level realism and historical accuracy would be required to have successful game. Example of Historical RPGs could include Ancient Greece, Roman, Egypt, Mayans, and so on. Elements of Realistic Motivation would present, rather than elements of Heroic Motivation. High Fantasy campaigns would more elements of Heroic Motivation, where the extended use Suspension of Disbelief is required, and the usual Assumptions of Realism dismissed. Logically, the Game Master must maintain a minimum level of realism, or the campaign loses all cohesion entirely.

The line between Realistic Motivation and Heroic Motivation becomes a bit skewed…

In keep in mind real word Heroes exist in everyday life such as fire fighters, police officers, and Search and Rescue team members. These real world adventurers are driven by Realistic Motivation even though their occupations are inherently dangerous. Professional athletes exposed to potentially career ending and life treating on a regular basis, such as American Football, Mixed Martial Arts, and Boxing. Johnny Knoxville, the star and creator of the show "Jackass" was hospitalized several times. Knoxville who narrowly avoided permanent paralysis from spinal cord injury his sustained while filming his show. Martial Arts star, Jackie Chan, who also performed the majority of his own stunts in his film, reportedly broken almost every bone in his body at one time or the other. With these examples, the line between Realistic Motivation and Heroic Motivation becomes a bit skewed. Maybe the idea of Heroic Motivation isn't inherently unrealistic after all. In the Heroic Tradition, Heroes are risk-takers and are often addicted to the Action. Some Heroes are fearless some insane; sound familiar?

Not meant for an ordinary life, meant for something special

One of my favorite examples of Heroic Motivation and beginning journey of the Heroic Tradition appeared in the 2009 version of "Star Trek,” directed by JJ Abram's. A profound conversation took place between Captain Pike and a young James T. Kirk: : "...you can't be content with an ordinary life, you feel like you were born for something better, something special..."

The ethical axis of Law and Chaos, and the Moral axis of good and evil…

In RPG systems such Palladium and as Dungeons and Dragons, the concept of Alignment is used to define character motivation. This provides a foundation and categorization of the ethical and moral dimension of people and societies; the ethical axis of Law and Chaos, and the Moral axis of good and evil. Several classes and sub-classes exist with their own Codes of Conduct. Race and selection of Deity add additional layers to character design. Myself (playing since 1981) and other players have noted that the Alignment System, is no where near from perfect; providing a very bare bone Motivational Framework for a given character created with that system.

Blind, quadriplegic, schizophrenic, homicidal, lecherous mutant alien, eunuch character with incurable terminal illnesses who simply was misunderstood by society…

In contrast to Dungeons and Dragons and the Palladium System, The HERO System and GURPS system take a different approach. GUPRS and HERO System use an extensive set of psychological and social disadvantages, as well as personality quirks, instead of Dungeons and Dragon’s outdated cookie-cutter Alignment System. Of course after playing GURPS and HERO System for years, I discovered all the numerous flaws. I thought that Dungeons and Dragons and the Palladium System had serious problems with Min-Maxing, but in reality, Min-Maxing in GURPS and HERO System are even worst. As a Game Master, I’ve seen some seriously unbalanced and extremely unrealistic character presented by players. These characters often possessed no real sense of purpose or party cohesion, and didn’t effectively contribute to game or story cohesion. One player, who will only be referred to as “Father John,” created a Super Hero character for a HERO System campaign I was running. Father John was quick study and had an encyclopedic understand of the system. He created a hero who was blind, quadriplegic, schizophrenic, homicidal, lecherous mutant alien, eunuch with incurable terminal illnesses who simply was misunderstood by society. Father John was the type of player who demanded compelling content from his Game Masters in every session. I found it extremely difficult to create compelling adventure content for Father John’s “blind, quadriplegic, schizophrenic, homicidal, lecherous mutant alien, eunuch with incurable terminal illnesses who simply was misunderstood by society” character. As game master, I requested that Father John make reasonable concessions regarding his character and my campaign. Father John accused me of limited his creativity and trying railroad the player in the campaign. This would be a great example of how “a minimum level of realism must maintain, or the campaign loses all cohesion entirely.”

Finding good players, who want to play, know how to play, and actually get involved the game are hard to find…

In conclusion, the point of playing an adventurer in Fantasy Role Playing Game is to go on adventures, not hide under your bed because it’s too dangerous. Core Books for most RPGs these days $49.99 and up. It could take several hours to create a character. The Game Master could spend days, weeks, or months to plan an adventure. Not to mention the time and effort it takes to organize and plan a game day, securing a location, getting the players to the game, having the Game Master set up the game, having the host of the game preparing the gaming environment for the guests. After all the discussion about Realistic Motivation and Heroic Motivation, once again the concept of Alignment removed from the augment, the time, expense, and effort it took to put into the game; and you still get that one player who will say “No, why would my character do that? The adventure is too dangerous. My character is just going to hide in the corner where it’s safe.” Then that player will go sit off the side, put his or her headphone or stare at their phone for the duration of the game; then they have the nerve to ask “what time is the game over?” or find some lame excuse bail from the game early. This can have a very demoralizing effect on the other players, who have invested their time, money, effort, and energy in the game. Good players, who want to play, know how to play, and actually get involved the game, as well as gaming venues can be hard to find. Game Masters know these struggles all too well.

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