Ancient tricks to polish your martial heroes
Hercules, King Arthur, Achilles, Aladdin, Sinbad, Beowulf, Robin Hood. I’d be willing to bet that most of you recognize the deeds of most of that list. That might not sound very impressive but think hard about it, some of these stories are thousands of years old and from all over the globe but we still talk about robbing from the rich to give to the poor and the Achilles heel. There is a commonality to all these heroes beyond their enduring legend, they all survive by strength, skill with a weapon or wits. In other words, they are all martial heroes.
I am no expert on the subject, so take my proclamations with a grain of salt, but as a mythology enthusiast it seems to me like up until modern fiction the martial hero was the focus of most stories. Granted, the mystically imbued characters were still present but they were relegated to supporting roles as advisors and oracles to aid the hero. Often their magic was unnatural or suspect, sometimes they even served as the villains of the story. I’d love to spend paragraphs discussing the deep meaning behind why we historically enjoy brute strength defeating magic or why the flash of magic is now more popular, but this article has a more important purpose. I want to take all the tricks of ancient storytellers to polish up your martial characters.
Dressed for Success
I am going to commit some DM blasphemy here and tell you flat out, give your martial characters the coolest magic items. Note that I said the coolest, not the most powerful. Classic mythology is loaded with figures defined by their gear, from Arthur’s Excalibur to Aladdin’s ring and lamp. You can bring this same concept to your game with a few simple tricks. There’s plenty of cool items to be found in the Adventurer’s Vault, the battle standards are particularly nice flavor items for warlords and of course powerful arms and armor is always appreciated by any martial hero. You can ramp up the coolness factor of an item by making it more personal to the character. An item attuned to the character, by inheritance, circumstance or some accident grows in power alongside the character rather than continually replacing that piece with new items. There is also a classical precedent for the martial hero to make his own items out of his kills, as Hercules did to the Nemean lion and Perseus did to Medusa. A rogue could have a dagger carved from a dragon’s tooth, a ranger might enchant his arrows by feathering them with the remains of a Roc and a warlord may have a cloak made from the standard he carried at a bloody victory. For those not afraid to tinker you can always make your own unique items to provide some extra flash to the fighters. There’s one more trick to add a wow factor to a magic item, make it intelligent. All you have to do is add a voice, a quirky personality and some little touches for flavor and your martial hero has an item that’s the envy of the group and the whole group has a fun opportunity for roleplaying. This trick loses some potency every time, so use it sparingly.
A Grim Assessment
They tend to get watered down by time and retelling but in many of the classics you can find a very brutal streak. Greeks and Romans were fond of gruesome blindings and Germanic stories are full of lost limbs. The impressiveness of your martial fighters can be amplified by you embracing your dark side in your descriptions. With a caster everyone has an idea what “Ray of Cold” looks like how it is different from “Acid Arrow”, they can form that picture easily in their head. The difference between a “Twin Strike” and a “Two-Fanged Strike” takes more imagination from your players. You can really help the visualization along with powerful descriptions. Switching from “your twin strike drops him to 0” to “with a thrust and a twist you jam your first blade into his kidney, his mouth opens to let out a tortured scream but it is immediately silenced by your second blade driving into his exposed throat” will likely get a reaction from your players. As a rule of thumb I try to give a detailed description when the creature is brought to bloodied and again when it is killed. Of course, some players revel in describing their own victory so if they prefer you might just say “You bloodied the orc, tell us all how you did it”. Either way descriptions make a difference, martial heroes are breaking bones and flesh with a piece of steel, that should be appreciated!
Victorious figures in classic mythology are often showered with honors. The same way a wizard accumulates knowledge from his time adventuring the martial hero gathers titles and awards. Some heroes are given lands, sometimes entire kingdoms to rule over. They often gain titles of nobility such as lord or duke or a title of renown like “Protector of the Realm” or “Champion of Scarlet Wood”. A very successful martial character may find an adoring crowd around him when he enters the city, might have a festival devoted to his name or might find himself in a humble tavern overhearing a, perhaps slightly exaggerated, tale of his deeds.
As always, I want to hear from you. How do you martial characters stack up to their magic counterparts? Do you have your own ideas on how to polish up martial combatants? I want to hear them all!