"Heroes" as a Teaching Tool –How Not to Run an RPG Campaign

Rpgbloggers.com has a blog carnival running and the theme is superheroes in games. Rather than ramble on about integrating heroes into your campaign, I am taking a different approach. I will use the TV show “Heroes ” to illustrate some common mistakes that rookie DMs make in their campaigns.

For those living in a closet, “Heroes” follows the trials and tribulations of normal people as they develop superpowers. There are many characters, but for today’s lesson I will focus on just a few,  starting with the main protagonist, Peter Petrelli .

(This is a spoilerific article, so if you are behind on the plot, go read something else and come back after you catch up on your Tivo)

I have no issue with the character, but his superpower  is a classic campaign mistake. It is simply too powerful and too easy to advance.  Peter learns powers from other nearby heroes and PERMANENTLY retains them. By the end of the first season, he could:




Stop Time



Set off a nuclear explosion and destroy a city

By the current (third) season, he added even more powers and is nigh invincible. You may ask why this is a problem. The problem is story related. Once this character has this much power there is no threat to him. No threat makes for boring story or even worse, story contortions to keep him involved in the plot.

An example is the last episode from  Monday (I am Become Death .)  Someone threatens an innocent  child with a gun. According to the writers, this prevents heroic Peter from acting. I can think of at least 3 ways to solve the problem using his existing abilities, instead it degenerates to a fist-fight! When is the last time Professor X decided to forgo his mental abilities and start swinging? Or Neo from  “The Matix” decided not to go into “bullet-time?”

Keep the NPC and PC power levels on equal footing or you will have equally stupid encounters. Either you have to have some “widget” to cripple the immensely over-powered PC/NPC (kryptonite) or just “forget” about that encounter breaking power the NPC should use, but does not for some reason.

These situations are very black plot holes that bring your players “out of the game” because they are so obvious and glaring.

Which brings up another glaring point. I consider myself a “thinking” RPG player. I try to apply some critical thinking skills to my games and hate it when plots treat me like an idiot.  In “Heroes,” my personal sore spot is “The Haitian .”

This mysterious character has two reasons for existence; erasing memories that create plot problems and temporarily suppressing abilities.  I will give the writers a pass on the memory alteration power. It does make for some good story lines. The ability suppression power makes me crazy. It makes our mute friend the most dangerous (to other superheroes/villians) person in the world…and no one seems to really care.

The Haitian should be dead. If you were an immensely powerful being with no morality (ie Sylar ) and found out you could lose your abilities, what would you do? Hell, even some of the heroes might kill him. I suggest watching “X-Men 3 ” for a better idea of what would happen.

Speaking of current events, when writing your campaign please do not use the latest Hollywood epic or TV show for inspiration. By all means borrow ideas and inspiration  from other sources, but try doing a little research and come up with something fresh. Or at least something unfamiliar to the majority of your players.

“Heroes” did not learn this lesson very well. Over the past three seasons, I noticed bits and pieces of various “X-Men” comics (Henry Peter Gyrich vs Horn-Rimmed Glasses ), Cronenberg movies (The Fly ) and most egregiously, “The 4400 .”

The recent introduction of a formula to grant superpowers to anyone and this causing the end of the world was just too much for me. I now refer to it as the “promicin plot .”

An interlude: if you have not seen “4400,” you should take a look. It handles many of these issues much more elegantly than  “Heroes.”  It is, of course, cancelled. Fair warning, the end of the series was a cliffhanger that will probably never be resolved.

Both “4400” and “Heroes” use time-travel as a plot device. I will make this short. Don’t. Stay away like it was a smallpox-infected rabid wolverine! Time-travel plots get too complicated too fast and then there is the “kill grandpa do I cease to exist” problem. Time travel also gives lazy writers an “out” when killing a main character.

“Oh, Sledge Riprock died in an alternate time line. See, he is all good after sweeps is over.”

Sledge’s pseudo-death is a nice transition to my final point. Make death for NPCs permanent. Do not bring back the same character with the same powers/abilties with a new name and face.  “Heroes” killed off their future painting artist in season one. Season three introduces a new future painting artist. Same powers, but this time he is a “mystical African” instead of a drug-addicted American.

Hey, Tim Kring , we already saw the “plot foreshadowed by paintings” already. Move on to something new.  Only continue this plotline if you plan a portrait of Hayden Panettiere in a bikini.

For campaigns, also apply this rule to PCs. I hate it when a players loses “Bort the Fighter” in battle, only to have “Mort the Fighter” show up at the next session.

I am done rambling. The next time you watch “Heroes,” think of how you can make your campaign actually work, as opposed to slow deterioration under the weight of tired plots and weak writing.

Trask, The Last Tyromancer



Trask is a long-time gamer, world traveler and history buff. He hopes that his scribblings will both inform and advance gaming as a hobby.