I’ve been asked whether I would allow an anti-hero in my game. I said no.
What is an anti-hero?
Anti-hero (noun): a protagonist or notable figure who is conspicuously lacking in heroic qualities.Merriam-Webster Dictionary
The strongest image of the anti-hero in fiction for me is The Man With No Name from the classic “Spaghetti Western” movies. He’s doing it for the gold and he’s serving his ego. He’s cool as feck but I don’t want him in my adventuring party. He’ll shoot me and take my share, leave me for dead, and move on when he has what he wants.
Wikipedia helpfully adds that:
Although antiheroes may sometimes perform actions that are morally correct, it is not always for the right reasons, often acting primarily out of self-interest or in ways that defy conventional ethical codes.Antihero, Wikipedia
Moral decisions are important elements to play and they allow us to explore character in deeper ways. While it’s not popular to talk about moral codes, I think they are more important to our gaming than we often realise. Most people seem to want to play “the good guys” or stand against some kind of perceived “wrong” in the World.
How does this idea of anti-hero fit into a roleplaying game? I think it can work fine in a one-on-one game or a solo game. For group play, I think it will suck. In a collaborative roleplaying group, I think the anti-hero’s moral ambiguity will disrupt the play because it encourages playing a non-likeable character.
This idea that a character needs to be likeable is another influence from Brian Jamison that I internalised about ten years ago:
There is only one thing you must insist on in every character—they have to be likable. Often players will envision a dark, gruff loner as their character, some psychotic wacko or sociopathic thief. Don’t let it happen.Jamison, “Gamemastering” (2011), p34.
There’s nothing wrong with characters having rough edges or prickly elements in their natures. But roleplaying is a shared experience; the other players have to like all the characters.
This usually means that each character cares about other people, in other words they are “good at heart.” They don’t have to care about everyone, but they at least need to be trusted by others on the team.
I have the view that a likeable anti-hero is hard to pull off. For starters, players will be either suppressing their own moral personality or accentuating their personal degree of selfishness… and that is begging for conflict with anyone in the group who wants to play a heroic character. My observation is that most people want to play heroic archetypes.
More to the point, I don’t want to GM an anti-hero in a group. Firstly, while I love the literary and film anti-heroes as characters, experience of allowing this in my groups has always been disruptive. Dealing with the fall-out of players getting annoyed with the player who then invokes the, “that’s how my character would behave” card is not fun.
Trying to be the edgy loner is a mistake I keep making when I a role-up for play even when I know I hate this kind of character when someone else does it. Why do I do it? Because I forget that roleplaying is about collaboration and that a path towards heroism is much more likely to lead to longevity in play.
Roleplaying games are not film and they are not novels. They are collaborative games from which narratives can emerge and they do better when the group of players (including the GM) can feel they all like every character.