Most tabletop role-playing games feature heroic characters. In many, if not most of those games, the heroism is superficial.
In the best stories, (remember stories are not games) characters are revealed by their words and deeds as the storyteller unravels the story. At the climax of the story, the protagonist has to make a choice. Great storytellers make that choice a terrible dilemma. The choice the protagonist makes is the answer to a question.
Does the hero sacrifice herself for the good of the planet?
Does Peter Parker save the busload of kids or Mary Jane?
Does the ambitious Jake risk his career as a police officer or let Alonzo steal the drug money to pay off the Russian mob?
The choice the protagonist makes answers the surface level or external question that is the main action of the story.
What’s below that external question is a deeper, often philosophical, question.
Are those who have the capacity for heroic action morally obligated to use that capacity for the good of society?
How do I navigate “good” and “evil” in the often complicated and complex relationships of life?
Does the hero deserve a reward for their efforts?
In the greatest hero stories, the hero pays a price. They don’t have a normal life. They can’t have normal relationships, normal jobs, normal vacations.
These sacrifices are a recurrent theme of Spiderman. Peter is constantly trying to have normal relationships but his sense of duty prevents him from having normal relationships with his friends and family.
A really juicy dilemma for a protagonist involves a choice between doing something heroic or gaining something they desperately desire.
If a hero never has to say “No, thanks” to temptation then their heroism is skin deep. This is the theme of Amazon’s adaptation of the comic The Boys. One of the supers named Starlight finds out that The Seven, the preeminent team of superheroes, are in reality a band of narcissistic and selfish prima donnas who do horrible acts to maintain their public image. The Seven, and their corporate bosses, are mostly concerned with the opinion polling data. There are a number of terrible secrets about the origins of the heros and what they’ve done to keep those origins in the dark.
As she learns the ugly truths about The Seven, something she has wanted and worked toward her entire life, she has to decide, “Am I a hero? Am I willing to sacrifice everything I’ve worked for? Am I willing to sacrifice my life?”
If she chooses to be like them, she gets to be loved and adored by the public, massive wealth, luxury and her mother’s approval. If she doesn’t toe the line, the world’s most famous superhero will declare her an enemy and she will be killed.
You and your players might decide that you already know the answer to the question, “Is this party of adventurers heroic?” This may be an assumption you have about the player characters before you even sit down.
Providing a linear path that leads from monster to villain to “Big Bad” is a skin deep sort of heroism. This is particularly true when each combat encounter is a carefully calibrated fight designed so that the player characters have a slight mathematical probability of winning.
The assumption of heroism may be an assumption you have no desire to test. Sometimes, the answer to the question can be disturbing. Many of us, do not want to acknowledge or share with others that we have dark and ugly thoughts.
Players make choices before the game starts. They choose whether to play the game at all. They choose who they play the game with. They choose what character they are going to play.
During the game, they make choices about what abilities to use in a particular situation, what path to take and so forth. These choices mostly answer the question, “How does this character respond to this problem?”
The problem might be a combat problem. The problem might be a social problem. The problem might be an obstacle or a lack of information problem. These are the external questions that storytellers answer with action and dialogue. The game master is asking similar questions, “How will the player characters deal with this challenge?”
If you do not present the players with an opportunity to make a choice in which they gain something in an un-heroic fashion then you are not asking the question, “Are the characters heros?”
If you want emotional depth to your heroic games then you must put the player characters in a situation where they could become wealthy, powerful, or merely survive an encounter by choosing “evil.” If evil isn’t a choice then being good doesn’t have any meaning. Temptation is necessary for a truly heroic choice.
If the players, the game master, and game designer have decided that the game is about adventurers going around fighting evil without being tempted to do evil themselves, the heroism is superficial.