Lessons from the Aether: AD&D and Transitioning Your Heroes from Outsiders to Insiders


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Heroes are often outsiders, people with little socioeconomic power or rebels against the status quo. But once they defeat the bad guy and are given a position of power, the story is over. Few writers can make the transition from loner hero to a person with responsibility. If a new threat emerges, the hero comes from behind the desk, drops the crown and gear up with the old armor. Either you are a badass, “on the field,” or a has been, “behind a desk.” I have yet to read a story where the plot transitions from an outsider perspective into an insider perspective, at least well enough to keep the reader’s interest.

However, I recall that the first and second edition rules of Advance Dungeons and Dragons (a pencil & paper roleplaying game) included rules for hiring henchmen, acquiring followers and building, “strongholds.” The strongholds could be anything from a castle to a wizard’s tower with a few churches and thieves’ guilds thrown in for good measure. The idea behind these rules is that as the heroes progressed in levels they gained fame and fortune. In turn they became important members of the community. Heroes are heroes because they get things done. They drive away bandits, slay goblins, destroy demonic cults. Who better to lead the local guard, protect the local lord, and police the countryside.  And heroes attract followers, people who want either to follow in their footsteps or share in their riches. That means a bigger set of responsibilities beyond simply swinging spells and swords. The game doesn’t set up this as an end to the adventures but as the natural evolution of them. The heroes become invested (often literally) in the life of not only the nearest village but of the kingdom.

The key to the situation is realizing that the stakes do not disappear or that the tension slackens after the hero has reached a level of success. In fact, such successes can bring on a new set of challenges. Now they have to administer their lands, wage war, arrange marriages, survive assassination attempts. It requires a certain managing of expectations of the audience by the author. The trick is to set it up as an evolution of the premise rather than an abandoning of it. Just like the rule set, if the audience knows that at some point the protagonist could move on from merely a soldier to a general they might not only expected but demand it.


4 comments on “Lessons from the Aether: AD&D and Transitioning Your Heroes from Outsiders to Insiders

  1. This is a really good point that fantasy authors should use to their advantage more often. I remember reading the first four of the Sword of Truth books and when the main character of that becomes pretty much an emperor, he’s admittedly pretty crappy at it. I mean, he’s great at gaining followers, but then he just wants to go lead his army to fight or go off on more adventures.

    It reminds me of when my friends and I played the Star Wars RPG, although we adapted it to be Mass Effect. After everything was done, most players got some great reward. A new ship, an army, whatever. My character, however, was a detective with C-Sec, so he just went back to work. The mission was just another job.

    Nice post. I really like the way you write.


  2. You make a good point, but I think one of the big challenges is that most readers find it easier to identify with the outsider who doesn’t have a lot of power. Most of us don’t relate to the problems you have as an emperor (unless you’re a CEO who reads a lot of fantasy – unlikely). I’m sure it can be done, and it would be interesting if done well, but a much harder task than getting people to root for the underdog.


    • True. But it feels like the old romance cliche of ending the story with a marriage, because somehow the, “magic is gone,” once they tie the knot. Hard just makes it that much more challenging and intriguing. 😉


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