• Edward Schmalz

A Party's Journey

What do Luke Skywalker, Frodo Baggins and Harry Potter all have in common?

They each exist in their ordinary world, receive a call to adventure, at first refuse it, and than, enter on a journey into a special world, where they follow the advice of a sage mentor and endure trials, leading up to an ordeal from which they emerge forever changed and than begin the journey back to the ordinary world, where, along the way, they experience of rebirth of some form, before settling back into their old life for the time being, forever changed.


This storytelling phenomena, known as the Monomyth, or Hero's Journey was first discovered by comparative mythologist, Joseph Campbell, who details it in his work, A Hero With A Thousand Faces. Campbell found that, across hundreds of different cultures that had never interacted, there existed prominent similarities and archetypes in their mythologies, legends and stories. The most prominent of these was the framework of what Campbell describes as the Hero's Journey, a tale in which:


" A hero ventures forth from the world of common day into a region of supernatural wonder: fabulous forces are there encountered and a decisive victory is won: the hero comes back from this mysterious adventure with the power to bestow boons on his fellow man. "


Campbell theorized that the reason that this story resonated so deeply with so many different people and cultures was that is represented a deep truth about the human condition and personal growth. By witnessing, reading or listening to a story of a hero's journey, the audience would be able to frame their actions and experiences in their own life and be inspired to take actions which would better their lives and the lives of those around them. Therefore, stories which featured prominent hero's journeys naturally resonate the people and offer genuine fulfillment to the reader, who takes on a participatory role.


After Campbell's exploration of this theme, screen writer Christopher Vogler adapted the rather extensive tome of A Hero With a Thousand Faces into his far shorter and concise work The Writers Journey: Mythic Structure for Writers. This work included simpler parts of the journey, but continued with the theme of Campbell's Monomyth. For sake of understanding, we will be using this work as the guideline for the Hero's Journey we explore in this post.

Note : As this article deals with storytelling archetype sit does include some minor spoilers.


Now - what does this have to do with Role Playing Games?


It is no accident that the characters in most role playing games are referred to has heroes. The Heroes journey is one which we are compelled to experience and feel genuine joy and fulfillment when we are a part of it in any way. However - a large part of the enjoyment of RPGs comes from the free form experience that the characters and heroes are able to take. So - in the following article, I will detail how one might utilize the Heroes Journey as a Dungeon Master to empower players to experience a meaningful game!


In this article, we explore how to structure your campaign, build NPCs and conflicts so that the players all can experience a genuine Hero's Journey in the game.


The following elements are key parts of a heroes journey - however, it is not necessary that all of them be included to form a compelling chronicle - but - time has proven that this indeed an effective template for a satisfying story.


ORDINARY WORLD


The adventure begins in the ORDINARY WORLD, where the hero resides. In most works of fiction, this is depicted via scenes of the character's life, prior to the grand adventure. It can server as an opportunity to reveal the characters personality and can also be used to frame the entire world of the story.


Examples from Fiction:

The Moisture Farm in which Luke Skywalker lives and works on Tattooine is an example of the 'ordinary world' in a wondrous situation. We the audience may not be able to understand the complexities of the science fiction methods of gathering water on a desert planet, but we can relate to the idea of living on a non descript farm.


How to Utilize in a RPG:

Try starting the adventure in a place where the characters can be described as being in their ordinary world. Ask the players to expand upon their day and describe what there characters are doing, and have been doing. In many D&D games, this takes the form of players describing what they are doing in a tavern - which is synonymous with 'normalcy' in many fantasy worlds. Try subverting this by having players talk, uninterrupted for a bit to describe where there characters came from and how they got there. This will connect them to the world and there characters more - and provide you, the DM, with plenty of details to utilize for future plot hooks.


CALL TO ADVENTURE


In order to be compelled on an adventure, a hero must be called to the adventure. This can take the form of someone coming to literally ask them to come on an adventure, or vampires appearing and threatening his community. Whatever the case, the Call to Adventure becomes more and more visible.


Examples from Fiction:

When 12 dwarves and a grumpy wizard appear on Bilbo Baggins front porch, they literally come asking him to join on an adventure.


How to Utilize in a RPG:


Any sort of adventure hook can serve as the call to adventure. This can be a quest giver walking in to the tavern and stating there is a need, or it can be a variety of posters posted around the town, giving hints about ferocious bandit attacks in the area. One of the key elements to the hook is to make sure it disrupts the characters lives in some way which will require them to take action in some manner.


The Refusal of the Call / reluctance


In terms of setting the mood for the adventure, the hook is only half the battle. In order to emphasize the stakes and the dangers that await the hero, it is important that there is a pause of some sort. This can manifest itself in the hero expressing their personal doubts, or in people around them and in their life warning them of the dangers. However, at some point, it is essential that the stakes be revealed to be so much that the hero has no choice but to answer the call.


Examples in Fiction:

When Spiderman first discovers his powers, he decides to use them purely for personal gain, getting involved in wrestling. However, when he does nothing to prevent a mugger from escaping who goes on to kill his beloved Uncle Ben, he realizes that he must answer the call to fulfill his potential and become a super hero.


MEETING WITH THE MENTOR


The meeting of a mentor and interactions with them provide an important part of the heroes tale. A large part of the adventure is entering into the unknown, a terrifying prospect - and the mentor provides a bit of a road map to helping the hero on their quest, typically being someone who has been their before or somewhere similar. It is also possible for the mentor to be embodied by some thing like a book or a recording that plays a similar role in the story.


Examples in Fiction:

In the Fellowship of the Ring, Gandalf acts as a mentor to the Hobbits transporting the ring to Rivendell.


How to Utilize in a RPG:

The mentor can be one of the most fun NPCs to play and are an excellent tool for the Dungeon Master to have in his or her tool kit. In order to make your mentor compelling, we recommend looking to characters in fiction such as:

The mentor can offer great opportunities to test the players, providing them with mind puzzles, or combat challenges which they have a real chance of failing, since the 'penalty' for failing will not be death. If done right, an interesting mentor will connect the players to plot deeply.


A Note On Mentor Deaths: You may notice from the aforementioned list of fictional mentors that more than half of those characters die. It is not necessary always to kill off a mentor, but, removing them from the picture will be necessary at some point without the players choice will be necessary so that the hero may grow.


CROSS THE FIRST THRESHOLD


In order to be an adventure, the hero must cross into a special world, different than their own. This world can be a fantastical place, a far off land or simply uncharted emotional territory. At the threshold, the hero may encounter some sort of guardian or simply an indicator, but, in order to be effective, it is often best that it be very clearly communicated that the character(s) are passing into a world different than there own.


Examples in Fiction:

One of the best examples of this is embodied in Fellowship of the Ring, when Samwise Gamgee says " If I take one more step, I'll be the farthest away from home I've ever been. "


Cerebrus, the three headed dog which guards the gates of hell in Dante's Inferno provides a great example of a threshold guardian meant to make the hero second guess is decision.

How to Utilize in a RPG:

The first dungeon, the first monster fight, the first time the players get to play their characters represents this. For sake of satisfaction with most RPG mechanics, we recommend some sort of threshold guardian, who matches the ambiance of the world and can signify what is to come. The scarier you can make this character, the more significance the plot will have. The goal of the threshold guardian is to challenge the heroes to 'go home and forget their quest' - and, if you can make it so that the players contemplate this for even a second, you will have succeeded.


Some ways you could represent this threshold are:

  • A Sphinx which asks riddles and threatens to devour the characters.

  • A river full of fierce monsters which the group must ford.

  • A portal to another dimension.


TESTS, ALLIES, AND ENEMIES


As the hero continues on their way, into the special world, different from their own, they begin to encounter challenges, make friends and discover enemies. The most important thing is that - in some way or another - these tests, allies and enemies are preparing him for the biggest challenge to come - the ordeal. When done right, witnessing characters grow in this manner and eventually utilize the the skills that they learn to deal with an ordeal provides a sense of significance to the audiences life, as they deal with the on going challenges of their own experience. It is far more palpable to deal with a difficult situation in their lives if they believe that the skills they learn will be beneficial down the line.


Examples in Fiction

In Disney's rendition of Hercules, Hercules deals with a variety of tests to prove that he is a true hero. Along the way, he befriends Pegasus, Philoctetes "Phil" the Satyr and Megara and deals with countless enemies.


How to Utilize in a RPG:


The 'quest' is the inherent plotline of most RPGs. On one hand, interesting NPCs, cool puzzles and terrifying monsters are a staple of roleplaying games and chances are, you are already including them in your game. The most important takeaway about utilizing this part of the Hero's Journey comes in the form of making sure the trials, allies and encounters with enemies are preparing the hero for the final 'Ordeal'. Experience points, by there very nature do provide this to a certain point, but if you can effectively incorporate challenges which specifically teach players how to handle certain challenges and prepare their characters organically for the upcoming ordeal, than the game will be more satisfying.


APPROACH THE INMOST CAVE


Eventually, the hero must approach the cave, where the dragon sleeps, the dark part of Dagobah were their own dark side lives. But, before they go in - they take a break from the constant struggles and prepare for the ultimate ordeal. This part of the story, reminds the audience and the hero of the magnitude of the ordeal ahead of them and everything that they have to lose. During this time, the hero may wrestle with their personal doubts and fears and deal with the anxiety of the upcoming ordeal. On the other side of the coin, if they have a love interest and there romance is not the central part of the story, they will profess their feelings during this stage.


Examples in Fiction

The episode "A Knight of the Seven Kingdoms" in Game of Thrones, in which the characters prepare for the ultimate battle against the Night King is a perfect example of this.


How to Utilize in a RPG:


As counter intuitive as it may seem - taking a moment to pause before the group encounters the Big Bad Guy actually will increase poignancy of the adventure. Sometimes this can be accomplished by simply giving the party a chance to rest before the big battle or, if the party is insistent on rushing off to the big fight it can be accomplished by pausing the action with a storm or the arrival of NPCs from prior in the story to interact with them. Just as when you are building tension delaying the pay off makes it all the better, delaying the ordeal just a little bit will really increase the experience.


ORDEAL


The ordeal is the big moment. The climatic battle. It is the time when things look bleakest for the hero - and the crucible from which, IF they emerge, they will be changed forever. Prior to this moment, they have been preparing - but - it seems unlikely that they will succeed this pivotal moment. When done right, this is the tensest moment of the story. It is likely that, even though the hero will rarely die in stories at this point, they will lose something or some one.


Examples in Fiction:

In the Empire Strikes Back, when Luke enters the cave on Dagobah and does battle with the image of Darth Vader, only to knock off his helmet and realize that the face underneath is his own, he experiences the Ordeal.


How to Utilize in a RPG:


The ordeal may be the climax of hero's journey, but it does not have to be, an in fact is typically not the fight with the Big Bad Guy. The trick is that, whatever the battle is in this case, it should be representative of the development of the heroes and their journey. It could very well be a climatic battle in which they face against a dragon of some sort of monstrous strength - but in such an instance, that monster represents more to the character than the world - as the climatic battle for saving the world will occur later, in the part of the journey called the resurrection.


If you do choose to have the hero encounter the primary Big Bad Guy at this point, it is advisable to structure such encounter in a way in which the characters survive the ordeal but do not necessarily kill or defeat the villain. One of the best examples of this being done well exists in the "Hobbit" in which the ordeal manifests itself in the discussion and burglary of Smaug the dragon, rather than the catastrophic battle which follows. Although Bilbo does not kill Smaug, he does defeat him in a sense and we witness how he has grown up from a nervous fellow, afraid to exit his own front door, to an adventurer, capable of matching wits with a deadly dragon.


Be open to the players taking non traditional methods of encountering the ordeal as well. The ordeal doesn't necessarily need to take form of them enterring into an all out slugfest with an enemy. For example a better ordeal for a stealth based party might involve attempting to avoid secret police as they infiltrate a research facility, or a for a charisma based group participating in tense negotiations between diplomats. Whatever the ordeal is - the trick is that is should be a genuine trial for the characters.


REWARD / Seizing the Sword



After surviving the ordeal, the hero should receive some sort of weapon, item or understanding of great importance which they will be able to use on their return to the ordinary world, where they are needed. This does not need to take a long time in a. story, but the action of doing so is a pivotal moment which defines the value of their journey.


Examples in Fiction

In the Legend of Zelda games, Link eventually uncovers the Master Sword, a legendary weapon. The significance is underlined but the adorable animation in which he spins around and. than thrusts it up. into the. air.


How to Utilize in a RPG:


We're not saying that you need a. magic sword - but MAYBE - it might be a good idea to have one in your game. Or a similar weapon or item. As cliche as legendary magic items may seem, there is a reason they exist as such a powerful symbol in so many works of fiction and games. Players tend to really like shiny swords.


THE ROAD BACK


Just as in order for there to be an adventure, there must be a call to adventure, in order to have a complete journey, there must be. a return home. Now that the hero has dealt with the ordeal in the cave, they move with a new energy, confident in their abilities and armed with the reward. There will be another struggle on the way back, but they are now prepared to deal with it.


Typically, in order to keep the tension on going and real in a story, the hero is pursued or confronted by an enemy in this stage. However, at this point, intuitively, the audience is confident in the heroes ability to deal with whatever obstacle his thrown at them.


Examples in Fiction:

When Frodo finally resists the allure of the ring and instead Gollum bites his finger and falls to his death is an example of the heroes journey at its core.


How to Utilize in a RPG:


The falling action and journey back is essential to showcase what your characters have learned and developed throughout their adventure. This is a great opportunity to have your characters encounter creatures which formerly gave them a lot of trouble but now that they are experienced adventurers with 'the magic sword' they can handle them with ease. Although having characters easily defeat enemies is not recommended at the beginning of the game, it can be a very effective tool for illustrating that the characters have developed considerably throughout the adventure.


Resurrection


Before the hero returns to their home, they must deal with one, final, epic battle. The stakes for this battle are typically more about the fate of the world, community, or society at large than the heroes individual development. The tension in this part of the story comes from wondering if what the hero has learned is enough.


In his The Writer's Journey: Mythic Structure for Writers Vogler describes the resurrection as a rebirth - as the audience and the hero emerge from the trials and tribulations of the journey in time for an epic battle of crucial importance. This is the life or death struggle - and - it plausible that the character might die in their attempt to perform their noble task.


Examples in Fiction:

In American Gods, when Shadow Moon interrupts the battle of the New Gods and the Old and faces down "Mr. World" and prepares to sacrifice himself to end the needless war, the audience witnesses his resurrection.


How to Utilize in a RPG:


This is the time for that big battle which you have been prepping for. This is the time for the players to see that the world is at stake and to fight it out with the enemy. If your players have been preparing and developing into a lethal military unit, this is going to be the epic battle in which they stand up and take on the enemy.


Although there are a variety of ways in which works of fiction subvert or take alternative paths for this, we suggest that, as much as possible, stick to the archetypical ideal here and, as such make sure to include the following elements:

  • The world is genuinely at stake.

  • The heroes are prepared to deal with this challenge, but it is going to be rough.

  • The heroes must be taken genuinely to the point of death. The danger must feel as real as possible at this point - but - ideally - the characters will be fighting for something greater than themselves, and the players will be more focused on the achievement of an end goal than their individual survival.

  • The players get to be the ones to deliver the final blow (This is particularly important - players will remember the conclusion of the campaign better than any other aspect of it, save potentially the beginning)

Why stick to the cliche?

Most players will only complete or two campaigns in their entire lives as players. These games will take upwards of multiple years occasionally. Unlike in other mediums, such as movies, where the commitment is really only a few hours, and most people will see many endings, most people will only see a few ends of campaigns, and hopefully be more invested in them than almost any other medium. As such - do your best to give them that pay off. Make it clear that their characters actions mattered and, at the end of it all, let them be the ones who save the world. Whatever you do... don't pull a Mass Effect 3.



RETURN WITH THE ELIXiR



In order for the story to feel completed, it must have an end. The hero must return back to their ordinary world, changed in some way. Just as understanding the world which they came from allows us to embark on the journey with them as an audience, seeing them return gives the story significance.


The elixir which they return with need not be a magic sword, or a cure for disease and in fact, it is often most satisfying when the elixir is something which the heroes have learned from their journey.


Examples in Fiction:

In Harold and Kumar, Escape from White Castle, the return with the Elixir occurs when Kumar realizes that he wants to be a doctor and kisses Maria, the girl who he likes. He has gained this understanding and confidence through his adventures with his best friend Harold and in entering the Special World represented by their drug fueled quest to get to White Castle burgers.


How to Utilize in a RPG:


Give the players a send off at the end of the campaign. Let them return to their hometown and make decision and interact with characters. Have characters treat them differently, and recognize that they are the heroes. Even if you plan on continuing into another game with these characters, give them a fair amount of breathing room here. This shouldn't take more than an hour of actual game time, but will provide a satisfying bookend to the story.


If you are planning on ending the campaign fully, we recommend having each of the players describe what there character plans to do, know that the world has been saved. This self authorship of their characters destiny will live a lasting impression and provide a satisfying conclusion.


In Conclusion


The Heroes Journey is a valuable template in creating a story. There are some that theorize that if a story does not fulfill at least a few components of this pattern it can not be truly satisfying, but not every work of fiction needs to be 'satisfying' in the same way. However - if your players have expressed desire to embark on an adventure consider utilizing this handy template to help build an experience which they will find rewarding and interesting!


Enjoyed this article? Like us on Facebook, Follow us on Instagram and Twitter and check out some of our other guides - including How To Terrify Your Players (And Make Them Love It) and How to Play An Evil Character Without Destroying the Party.



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