All too often, when characters get generated for a game, we end up with a group of relatively valiant but paranoid murderers, ready to go for their weapons at the first sign that their suspicions about pretty much everyone might be accurate. We have a derogatory term for the worst of these, the people whose first, last, and only method of resolution is killing anyone that might be a foe, but less so for the less extreme versions. And yet these are the heroes of the game, most often.
This ties as much into the atmosphere of toxic masculinity as anything else – and our hobby is soaked in pretty much every flavor of toxic patriarchal crap that’s out there (I mean c’mon, Gary Gygax gave women a nonsense Strength penalty in his initial version of the game.). It also ties into the hobby’s roots as an evolution of wargaming, which are all about conflict and winning, and the early editions being more about tomb raiders and grave robbers than actual heroes.
This can explain a fair bit of why we tend to hear stories about the aggressive, violent, and paranoid heroes rather than the genuinely heroic ones. For every moment where someone acts the part of a hero via some noble means, we get a dozen who decide that preemptively stabbing their problems to death is the best way to go. For every party that tries tactics like negotiation and diplomacy, we have a dozen who throw a fireball first and ask questions using speak with dead.
We all know stories about the people who play a paladin who either treat it as an Arthurian knight complete with horribly stilted speech to try to sound refined, or who latch onto the Law part of Lawful Good and produce the alignment behavior we all know as Lawful Stupid. We also know all the stories of Chaotic Good (or Chaotic Neutral for the slightly more honest) characters who have no qualms about exterminating their enemies, with enemy defined as ‘anyone who might stop me from getting treasure’ as a matter of course.
This doesn’t need to be this way, of course. There are plenty of games which have well-defined methods to interact with NPCs via diplomacy, intrigue, and subterfuge without ever rolling for initiative. There are plenty of ways to play characters who take the approach that being Good is integral to being a hero, and that everyone deserves the opportunity to prove themselves, with killing them as the actual last resort, after they’ve proven themselves actively hostile to the players.
A paladin who focuses on good over law won’t be rooting through the ranks of everyone they meet, looking for people who glow Evil to try to kill; they’ll be trying to inspire potential enemies to change their ways. A priest of a genuinely good god won’t resort to holy smiting and divine retribution when negotiation and diplomacy can secure the relic they’re after instead. A would-be king can secure a treaty with the kobolds lairing in his future domain, offering them a hand up out of their warrens in a way that also gives him access to their quick wits and clever hands.
We don’t hear about heroes as much because they’re not seen as being as entertaining as the violent groups; the fact that truly heroic groups are fun to play, and rewarding in ways that simply murdering through the enemy for their loot never will be, tends to get lost behind stories about players slaughtering their way through opponents who might have been convinced to be allies instead.
This is how I’m going to be playing the paladin I’ve settled on for when I get to play in Wrath of the Righteous – a paladin of the goddess Sarenrae, whose twin declarations are that everyone should be given the chance to be redeemed, but that those who refuse redemption be put to an end before they can harm others again. As a paladin of such a goddess, she’ll always strive to extend a hand first, before reaching for her scimitar, but when the sword comes out she’ll be fighting to deliver mercy to the world, not the target of her wrath.
Hopefully sometime not long after Gencon she’ll get the chance to show the Fifth Crusade what it means to be a hero.