Saturday, January 4, 2020

Courage is There For the Taking: Despair in The Hero's Journey 2e

In most fairy tales and high fantasy stories that inspired The Hero's Journey, all the protagonists had one thing in common: They were afraid. They had moments of doubt and terror. They stood against terrible, impossible foes and (at least at first), they felt helpless or outright ran away. In The Lord of the Rings we see it over and over again. It's a key plot point in what makes dragons dangerous in the Dragonlance novels. And fairy tales, well they're just full of fearful things. After all, many of them where written specifically to frighten children into behaving!

To that end, The Hero's Journey 2e has a mechanic called Despair and characters will sometimes be called upon to make a Despair Saving Throw. But Despair is more than just a "It's a big scary monster, run away" mechanic. Fear and weariness are often part of any great journey worthy of tale or song. Whether it's crossing a Blighted Land or suffering the terrible heartache that comes with the death of an dear friend and boon companion. All of these are part of Despair and all of them play a role in The Hero's Journey 2e.

In addition, every fantastic creature in The Hero's Journey 2e has a Despair Rating. Typically this ranges from 1 to as high as 15, though it can be higher. The more fantastic, more powerful, more overwhelmingly evil such a creature is, the higher its Despair Rating. So, a goblin might only have a Despair Rating of 1, while a horrific Death Knight has a 13. Some creatures have extraordinarily high Despair Ratings not because they inspire fear, but because they inspire awe. None more beautiful and terrible than they Fey Queen with her Despair Rating of 15.
Behold the majestic terror that is the Death Knight.

When the player characters encounter a creature with a Despair Rating five higher than their level, they must make a Despair Saving Throw. Certain Lineages or Heirlooms may grant bonuses or penalties to this Saving Throw. If the Saving Throw fails, the character suffers Disadvantage on all Saving Throws and attack rolls made while in the presence of the source generating the Despair. They are literally crippled by fear.
Tesh, Bandoras, and Willow cross a desolate realm bereft of hope.

But dangerous creatures aren't the only thing that causes Despair. If a character is travelling across a blasted landscape of unnatural evil, it can take its toll and may impose a Despair Saving Throw after an extended period of time. The sheer evil that infuses that Blighted Land seeps into their soul and begins to drain away hope and valor.

Finally, if a player character witnesses the death of a loved one or another player character, they must also make a Despair Saving Throw. Adventures sometimes have dire costs and witnesses the violent or tragic end of dear friend can weaken the resolve of even the most hardy warrior, after all.

Surrounded by death and carnage, Tucker tends to
his wounded friend Tesh.

The Despair rules are present for two reasons. They reinforce that fear is a part of any hero's journey and that, more importantly, it can be overcome. From a mechanical standpoint, a creature's Despair Rating can be used as a measure by Narrator's as to how dangerous a foe is against a group of player characters - though some dangerous beasties that specialize in fear may have surprisingly high Despair Ratings compared to their actual threat level.

Most importantly, fear and Despair never actually remove character agency. Players are at a literal Disadvantage when under the effects of Despair, but they are never unable to act -- no matter how impossible the odds may be. Completely removing player agency is something I as a game designer try to avoid whenever possible. The challenge faced by a player character may seem overwhelming and impossible to overcome, but they should always be given the chance to try...
Kara, with no more than courage of heart and a blade of steel
faces off against a Lord of Flame and Shadow.

The Hero's Journey, Second Edition
 goes live on Kickstarter on January 7th, 2020. All art in this blog post is by Nic Giacondino and appears in the game's core rule book. Art is owned by Barrel Rider Games, Copyright 2019.


  1. Interesting...

    I can't remember if you mentioned this elsewhere. Is there going to be setting material included in the book or is it going to be implied?

  2. I love this idea of using a Despair mechanic. Never seen it before. It seems visceral, human-like, realistic, but also fantastic as it goes beyond the gut-wrenching reaction of being afraid in the face of a monstrous enemy. I remember times that I was afraid (I was in the Army, so this was a thing) but could move past difficulties despite my fear because of my training. Despair seems to push beyond that to a sensation of losing all hope--training doesn't prevent that. It really captures the concept of these epic stories we find in literature and movies that shake our heroes to the bone and marrow of feeling that nothing will succeed in overcoming the enemy...though somehow heroes will overcome and win the day in face of those feeling of imminent defeat. Despair isn't a mere transient or temporary fright, but a deep-dwelling sense that settles into the bones of a potential hero. Such overcoming experience in the face of despair makes the victory all the more sweet. Thanks, James, I really love this idea.

  3. Handling Despair using a Saving Throw rather than using a tracker or points is a good move as it's less hassle and involves the player in the moment. I like that it handles Awe as well. The subtle effect of having the welfare of your companions affect your combat prowess is that players may tend to be a bit more mindful of their allies plight rather than just focused on their own survival. Works for me, good stuff :)


Please confirm that you are neither a robot, nor an undead creature, nor a spammer. Thanks!