Mad Max 1979

Don’t Play the Reluctant Hero

My Family was Murdered. Oh, and I Hate Society

Mad Max 1979

Mad Max 1979

Most role-players have a preferred background.

One is used so often, it almost doesn’t need to be mentioned. Come on, you know it: the loner whose family was horribly murdered.

Now, he wanders the earth, an empty shell of a man brooding… brooding… brooding…

He distrusts the other members of the party and doesn’t want to be involved. He has to be forced to participate in any mission or activity the group is charged with because he’s seen the vile underbelly of the world.

There are no true heroes, man. I’ve had enough of your system.

Why do we play this character so often?

Movies. Movies, that’s why.

The reluctant hero has deep roots because it’s Mad Max and almost every lead character in every action movie starring Norris, Stallone, and Schwarzenegger.

Here's a short list (not all had family murdered, but the loner is clearly here):

Mad Max (1979)
Road Warrior (Mad Max 2, 1981)
Commando (1985) 
Firefox (1982) 
Star Wars (1977) (Luke is reluctant until his family is murdered, which turns the trope upside down in a good way. Han is the more typical loner who doesn't want to get involved. We are not given his backstory which actually increases the power of his choice to help Luke during the Death Star run.)
Die Hard (1988)
Lone Wolf McQuade (1983)
The Punisher (2004) 
Steel Dawn (1987) 
Nowhere to Run (1993)
Many, many, many more...

The reluctant hero works great in a movie. Well, let me clarify. It works well in some movies. In certain films, it’s about as exciting as watching paint dry.

It works well in some movies because the background builds in conflicts, and story is built on conflict. The hero does not want to accept the mission because he doesn't want to get hurt again. This can be used to increase tension throughout the film until the hero hits a breaking point.

The backstory of a murdered family is also a screenwriting trick. It is a shortcut to create sympathy for the character. As soon as the audience learns the hero's beautiful wife and children were murdered, our hearts are supposed to go out to him. 

Also, the murdered/estranged family allows the hero to hook up with a hot young widow. Usually, a widow with an eight year-old child who needs a father figure. The husband/father was murdered by the villain, of course. In many cases, the villain's a corrupt land developer set on demolishing the martial arts academy, the playground, the family farm...

Why do less artful films fail to pull this trope off? The main character has to accept the mission, fight the bad guy, etc. We all know it, so any forced situations and false dilemmas are easy to sniff out.  

Ill-Suited for RPGs

The truth is that the burnt-out, former hero who has to be persuaded to join an obviously needed endeavor doesn’t work well in an RPG.

For starters, the player who tries to play this type character to the fullest has just shafted himself (and his group).

If he allows his character to participate in any mission or to be recruited for any type of service, the player will feel that he has been railroaded. If he refuses, he will say the session was boring.

The game master is then left in a conundrum.

Also, the “accepting the mission” segment can become painful for the GM and other players who want to play.

If the GM playing the mayor (or general or whatever) has to argue with one character for 45 minutes just to get him to join the party, the session is going to be clunky at best.


Think of a different background. Try being from a large family. Be a social butterfly. Be the farm kid on his first adventure, not the burnt-out soldier on his last.

Or if you can’t go that far, just be willing to join the party or accept the mission. Not everyone is Chuck Norris for Pete’s sake. Keep the background in place, but give the character a reason to participate.

Revenge is the easiest, but a death wish could be incredibly fun. He’s willing to volunteer for anything as long as there is a good chance he will be killed. Perhaps, simply, he wants to break out of his funk by doing something again.

Being needed always raises the spirits.


Why have several of your friends set aside an evening out of a busy schedule? So they can play a game.

The mission, the task, or the assignment is why all the characters are there. Everyone needs to play.

I’m not telling anyone to not role-play. What I’m suggesting is to remember it is a game and games need certain buy-ins to work properly. Trying to play out your favorite movie character in an RPG is not the best way to launch a new campaign.

The point is this: be willing to play the game. Be creative. Turn a cliched background on its head. Always be ready to help the party and tackle any missions that come their way.

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