Storytelling Lessons from "Heroes"

I just got the Heroes Season One boxed set as a gift, and in re-watching the series with my wife, I go to thinking about how I as a gamer can derive some advice from Heroes. The series itself is absurdly good, and in watching it a second time, it is easier to see how tightly everything fits together and how much craft went into developing such a complicated story with multiple principal characters and multiple interlocking storylines that draw together and also change as the series progresses.

Anyway, here are some things that I can take to heart from Heroes that I can apply to games that I run in the future.

1. There are many leads but no read herrings

I’m pretty sure this is a true statement. I don’t recall any false leads. There are plenty of things that don’t turn out the way you’d expect, but nothing that is presented as important is later revealed to be worthless. Tabletop roleplaying games take place in a collective imaginative space, but that space is imperfect. Its really easy to misunderstand, to miss something important, and so on, especially in a ‘traditional’ game where the GM or DM is in charge of the storyline. False leads are just frustrating. Leads that change and surprise you over the course of the game are exciting and cool.

In my own game-running style, I tend more toward not having specific leads a lot of the time. This has worked well in the past and has also been frustrating in the past, depending on the group. In the future, I’ll have a lot more tools to bring to bear in running games, one of which will be to discuss this ahead of time. Do the players like going around and figuring out what the ‘plot’ is, or do they want the plot to be, for the most part, a given, or do they want to collectively put together a plot?

2. The principal characters are densely interconnected

This is especially important in a game where the main characters don’t begin as part of a single organization or with other kinds of close ties from family or back-story. For example, in a game like Vampire (the Masquerade especially, or the Requiem), you might start out as Vampires from different clans who have never met before the first session, when you’re presented to the Prince of the city, for example, or when your Sabbat indoctrination begins. Having other connections worked out, which reveal themselves early and continuously, helps all of the players justify working together.

On the other hand, I’ve often said that you can “justify” your character doing anything, so you might as well justify your character doing things that are interesting, cool, and move the story forward. It doesn’t hurt to have a push in that direction, though, where appropriate.

3. Scenes are all there to tell you something new and important

I haven’t played games with powerful scene-framing mechanics for the most part, so I can’t say as much here as I’d like to. But scene should always serve a purpose, and something should be revealed, or be at stake, in a given scene. This is also a weakness with some of my games – I like scenes that are just RP between characters and NPCs, and I sometimes forget to include something important about the scene itself outside of the interaction. This can devolve as often as it is fruitful for the game. Putting something at stake in the scene could be a way to help drive things forward in interesting ways.

On the other hand, as a player I enjoy a situation where every scene isn’t another intense conflict. So sometimes what is revealed can be something about another player-character, or my own character. I have yet to play it, but Luke Crane describes a mechanic in Burning Empires for just this purpose – defining different kinds of scenes when they are framed so that the group knows what is going on and can define what kind of scene they want.

4. The main storyline is introduced in Episode 1

This only occurred to me when I watched it again, but it struck me that most of the major themes and storylines of the show are introduced from the first episode. This is really cool. It isn’t clear at first – you’re busy wondering what’s going on, who these people are, how are they connected, and so on. But there in the background, even in the foreground, are the main thematic elements, most of the major characters, and the looming threat from the get-go. When these things emerge later on in more detail, they are already unconsciously familiar.

This would be an awesome way to kick off games – include the big things that will come later without making it obvious.

This could also reflect a collective storytelling system, where the first session or the first few sessions are where the group defines what the game will be about, establishing theme and facts and so on. It would have a very different ‘feel’ from watching Heroes, but would perhaps be similar to the experience of writing Heroes, which is at least as cool for many of us.

3 thoughts on “Storytelling Lessons from "Heroes"

  1. When I first saw the title of the post, I thought it was going to be about our “Heroes of Karia Vitalus” game. I guess I'll have to watch this TV show if it's so good.

    These all sound like really good storytelling tips to me. Personally, though a group story “writing” experience would be cool. The ideal for me is to experience being characters IN the story, which requires a more centralized authority in the GM. It still certainly requires high buy-in and agency from the players, but it has to be cooperative agency. Players that are anxious to be in a story rather than to control the story.

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  2. Yeah, Heroes is fantastic. Put it on Netflix or something (you can watch them via IExplorer thru Netflix too). Its just fantastic TV all around, even the second time.

    I haven't seen as much of season two – I could see how the series might end up falling behind after the first season, because they set up all of the conflicts, resolved a lot of them, and defeated the Big Bad Thing. Sort of like 24, though endless villains for a superheroes show is more plausible than annual terrorist apocalypses narrowly thwarted 🙂

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  3. Heroes is still very good in season 2, mind you. It's just focused differently. The scenes I find most compelling are the ones that involve Hiro Nakamura, of course. His story remains the most compelling. Surprisingly, Matt Parkman is also very, very compelling in the second season.

    I've never really liked Peter Petrelli, though.

    The amusing thing, though, is that all the elements for the big conflict in season 2 are laid in season 1. You just don't realize that they're elements for another conflict at the time.

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