Monday, June 16, 2014

The Hero's Journey: Storytelling and the Monomyth

So, you've heard us talk a big game about Hero's Journey, but we haven't explained what exactly that "hero's journey" really is. Today, we'd like to talk a little bit about that, and how it forms one of the major inspirations for the game in both flavor and mechanics.

The Hero's Journey - the original one - is a phrase coined to describe the mythological theories of famous sociologist and mythologist Joseph Campbell, who spent a great deal of his professional career describing something called the monomyth. In essence, the theory of the monomyth is that all mythology can basically be boiled down to the same basic ideas and characters; because it is all invented by human beings, it all performs the same root functions for those human beings, who create those stories out of a common psychological need for certain kinds of narratives or types of stories to inspire them and describe their lives. According to monomyth theory, the same mythological motifs - the storm god who fights the dragon, the flood that wipes all but a tiny portion of life off the earth, or the hero who braves the underworld to find a family member, to name a few popular ones - occur all over the world not necessarily just because nearby cultures shared them with one another, but because even when they didn't have any contact, they automatically thought of those same ideas on their own. The idea of the monomyth begins with mythology, which were the first stories told by humanity to one another, but can be equally applied to any other kind of modern storytelling (and in fact you can hunt up some transcriptions of Campbell talking about applying it to, among other things, the Star Wars franchise).

So the monomyth is a mythological theory that basically states that all mythology around the world is the same mythology, because human beings have the same universal psychological needs and therefore may vary the details of their stories but not the essential social function of them.

Now, the monomyth has plenty of detractors, and they have good points; although Campbell did study all kinds of religions worldwide, his theories are very Indo-European-centric and don't always mesh well with the myths of cultures far removed from those, and the universality of the monomyth makes it very easy (in fact tempting) for students of mythology to unfairly remove or ignore cultural uniqueness from certain myths (most often those of indigenous people invaded by others of Indo-European extraction) in order to make them fit its mold. Scholars of African and Native American mythologies have been particularly vocal in their dislike of the monomyth and hesitance to apply it to all myths universally, thus ignoring the possibility of the uniqueness of a given culture affecting its members' psychological needs and values. We're not here to take a stance on the monomyth one way or the other - whether you like it or not, you can play HJ just fine. It's just here to explain the context behind the idea of the Hero's Journey.

The Hero's Journey is a particular facet of the monomyth that discusses an idea of a universal hero story that is repeated across all kinds of different cultures. All cultures have hero stories, whether they feature gods who enter cosmic struggles, supernatural figures who perform great deeds or mere mortals who do something extraordinary with their lives, and the Hero's Journey seeks to provide a model that follows the rough outline of all those hero tales and explains the function of each section of their makeup. We won't do an in-depth discussion of the entire Hero's Journey here today, since it's nineteen parts long and involves a lot of exampling and explainifying, but in a massively simplified form, it basically looks like this:

1) Hero is called from their normal life to do something extraordinary.
2) Hero tries to resist that call but ends up realizing they need to go do it anyway.
3) Hero embarks on a quest to do that extraordinary thing and is fundamentally changed by the experience.
4) Hero either achieves or conclusively fails the object of the quest.
5) Hero tries to refuse to return to the world they once knew now that they have been changed by the journey.
6) Hero is forced to return to the world in order to share knowledge or the fruits of the quest.

There are a lot of other steps and specifics, but that's the general gist of it. For some heroes, there is only one Hero's Journey, which might take their entire lives to achieve or after which they might retire from myth for good. For others, the journey is repeated over and over again, re-embarked upon every time they have a new story, and this is what we see most often in popular hero myths - Heracles, Maui or Susanoo himself are all constantly on the Hero's Journey and discovering new changes in themselves and their worlds as a result.

Now, the Hero's Journey isn't perfect - like the overarching monomyth idea that it springs from, scholars contend that it can't accurately model every hero tale ever conceived of or avoid watering down cultural specifics, and it isn't the be-all and end-all of mythological theory. However, what is perfect about it is the springboard it provides for players who are creating their own mythic stories at the table; it guides them through satisfying and recognizable tales while giving them the freedom to put their own spin on them, and gives them (and the long-suffering souls running the game for them) the ability to tell and retell stories without requiring anyone to have a degree in any kind of story construction. One of the major goals of HJ is to give players the tools to run the Hero's Journey in any way they want, and to make it easy to build interesting mythological stories and tailor them to your group's interests and the ideas behind their characters.

Of course, the Hero's Journey already has variations across cultures, time and different stories, and yours will be no different - maybe you'll decide to skip some steps here or reorder a few over there, or let the players run with their story until it takes shape on its own. There's no strictly wrong way to do it, and first and foremost each game should be having fun, staying interested and being as heroic as they can be. But the Hero's Journey can be an awesome tool to help players and their games be able to do that, so HJ will be giving you as much support for using it as we can and then watching where you run with it from there.

After all, the Hero's Journey technically applies to everyone, not just mythic heroes - we also perform our own heroic journeys in our lifetimes, although they're on smaller scales than those of a Gilgamesh or a Medea. The game is a perfect place to play out those small dramas on a larger scale or to invent the ones we have only dreamed of - there is no limit to what your game can do!