In literature there’s a little-known plot device called the Heroic Trial. When done right it’s a useful way to test the resolve of the protagonist while simultaneously reminding the audience why he or she is truly the hero of legend. To be relateable a hero must doubt his own authenticity. To maintain our faith in the hero, the audience must be given assurances, often in the form of painful, emotionally traumatizing tests. Ideally the hero’s trial cements the protagonist as a figure to behold and worship. Done poorly, and you have every stock gunfight, fistfight, and pillowfight in the history of bland cinema.
And you, the responsible dungeon master, can utilize this tool. So as another hero once warned before releasing dinosaurs into the world, ruining the everything;
What a good Heroic Trial looks like
A good hero trial deprives the hero of his most remarkable attribute. It takes his strength away, and in this instance when I use the term “strength” I don’t mean his physical ability to move weight. By strength, we’re talking about the defining tool or skill that has gotten the hero this far already.
Lancelot is put on trial and must defend his lady’s honor through combat. Ah, but we’ve seen Lancelot shuck knights out of their armor like oysters. So to make this a true trial in the eyes of God (and the viewer) Lancelot is badly wounded by a malignant illusion, taking away his strength before the trial.
For Neo his trial was to rescue Morpheus, and the culmination comes when he’s trapped on the roof without bullets– the thing he’s relied upon up until this moment. Superman is exposed to Kryptonite, stripping him of his alien powers. Luke is told not to use his targeting computer. Ariel, the Little Mermaid, is robbed of her singing voice, and must emot her love to a human man through body language and subtlety. Because we all know how good men are at picking up signals. Amirght, ladies!? (Ah, Joe, you sly fox, you still got it.)
In the book Neverwhere the protagonist is subjected to the harshest trial I’ve ever seen. After a harrowing journey through the underworld, trying to save the damsel and recover a magic artifact, he is offered a trial by a group of monks. After accepting the trial he wakes up on a subway platform covered in vomit with a cup of spare change, as if the entire mystical adventure was the delusion of a demented mind.
The genre doesn’t matter. The hero’s trial is ubiquitous in storytelling, and yet it usually goes unnoticed.
What a bad Heroic Trial looks like
One of the worst sins of a failed trial, which we’ve seen thousands of times on TV, usually occurs when the hero hasn’t been robbed of his power. It’s made clear the hero must go through an ordeal that will test his merit, and yet he’s given a task he’s done thousands of times already.
In Road House Patrick Swayze out-Karate’s a man to death, but we already know this is just another Thursday for him. Judge Dredd (1995) was one long mishandled hero trial, stripping Dredd of his legal authority, after which he still solves every problem as if he was a Judge. This is also why Hulk movies (standalone, not the Avengers franchise) are all disasters– by Marvel Universe logic you physically can’t take Hulk’s strength away, which means every heroic trial boils down to whether Hulk will or won’t smash something. Spoiler: it/they always get smashed.
In Lady In The Water the main character mistakenly steps up for his heroic trial, only to realize the hero was another less important character all along. Hell, in any M. Night Shyamalan movie the trial gets tainted with a shitty plot twist. After all, how hard is it to believe the guy who swings a bat really hard might just use that bat against home invaders?
How to put your players through the trial
The heroic trial in your game should work like a carnival kissing booth or a prostate exam; one at a time. The trial should be tailored for one player. It’s a moment of special validation, and can work to bond the player to his/her character. Let them have their moment, and save the next trial for the next session.
The player must enter the trial voluntarily, otherwise they will resent it. Don’t be vague. Don’t spring it on them like a trap. Let the player decide, and try to fit the trial to the flavor of the player’s character. If they’re playing a Paladin make it a trial of righteousness before god, like Lancelot’s trial, to defend a fatal sin. If it’s an assassin, send them to kill someone they’re close to.
A good heroic trial usually clocks in at around Act III, so don’t drop it too early. A heroic trial during your first session will feel like an unfair test, especially if you follow the advice of stripping them of their strength. Give them as many hints as possible, several games in advance if you can. The trial is a dramatic pivot, a micro-climax in the story. In classic fantasy the character returns looking, acting, and feeling different. Gandalf comes back wearing white, and can’t remember his own damn name.
The two things you’re offering the character when you present the trial are affirmation and permanence. You, the dungeon master, are working with the player to affirm the legitimacy of his character as a central hero to the story. And you are exploring the permanence of the character in the plot. Done well, the heroic trial can raise a mediocre protagonist to the hero your game deserves. Use it wisely.
IE: Don’t tie them up every week.
Originally posted to Statbonus.com