This guide assumes you've already read Exalted and understand the world of the Second Age and the types of stories you can tell in that era. While a Storyteller can still get a great deal of mileage out of the advice given there, mortal heroes do not operate on the same scale as the Chosen. This chapter therefore focuses on the issues and stories most relevant to mortal heroes. It seeks to illustrate the ways in which mortals are different from the Exalted and what these differences mean to those playing mortal heroes as characters or as NPCs. It describes something of the way they interact with and relate to both the supernatural and the mundane.
Before a Storyteller can plan stories around mortal heroes, it is first necessary to note the attributes of mortal heroes themselves. What motivates them? What distinguishes them from the Chosen?
From the perspective of roleplaying, mortal heroes are the easiest for players to identify with. It is not as difficult to empathize with a character who is subject to the same mortal and emotional vulnerabilities as you are as it is to get into the head and heart of a character who can clear the room with a bow in a few seconds.
One of the greatest differences between mortal heroes and the Exalted is the physical and magical weakness of mortals. In many ways, heroes are no less frail than their fellow mortals. They are just as vulnerable to poison, disease, and injury as other mortals. In toe-to-toe combat, a Circle of heroes is likely to lose one or more members even to a starting Dragon-Blooded. Against virtually any threat the world can pit a Circle of mortal heroes against, a direct and violent confrontation is not only a bad idea but tantamount to suicide.
This frailty, while a little daunting, at first, is loaded with story opportunities and chances for players to examine the meaning of heroism. Despite having few significant advantages over other mortals, heroes are regularly placed in situations where they are the only defense their fellow mortals have. They are not blessed by the gods on the level of the Exalted, and yet they shoulder many of the burdens normally reserved for the Chosen. There is a nobility in what they do but also a desperation. The Age of Sorrows is a grim world to live in, and these heroes are eking out an existence even as they struggle to make a lasting difference in the world. They are fully aware, not only that they might be snuffed out in their next battle, but that the next battle might be the least of their worries.
Survival is only the beginning. Death is inevitable and painfully near for any mortal. Staying alive to live a long life is a hollow victory for most heroes. Mortal heroes, moreso than any of the Exalted, often devote their lives to leaving a legacy. Whether that means protecting their children and making their corner of the world safe for their grandchildren, passing their knowledge to intellectual successors, preserving a tiny fief inherited from their parents in hopes of one day being able to pass it to their children, or creating a device that will ease the burdens of people born years after the hero's death, a mortal hero's only chance for immortality is in creating something of more lasting value than his mortal existance.
For some heroes, the simple knowledge that others have lived easier or longer lives because of them is rewarding enough. These are the defenders of others, the healers, and the pillars of society. They preserve their communities against outside invaders or eliminate threats to order that emerge from within. They preserve the lives of patients in the village or on the campaign trail. They serve as judges, advisors, and leaders for their people.
Others, however, are dedicated to furthering a cause or achieving a far-reaching objective. These are the inventors, explorers, scholars, and educators. Whether they leave behind heirs who share their blood or ones who share their ideas, heroes of this kind are consumed by their visions and dreams. They are the ones who unite their neighbors against the violence of the city that surrounds them. They are the ones who eliminate antiquated laws, traditions, and rulers in order to effect long-term changes to their part of the world.
A few heroes pursue their destinies as a means toward personal perfection. They are the seekers after wisdom, the treasure-hunters who intend to enjoy the fruits of their labor, the spiritual pilgrims, the aescetics, the hedonists, and those who wish to master an art or skill. Sometimes they are selfish, mercenary, or outright villainous, but they are no less reliant on others than any other mortal, and that forces them to occasionally seek assistance from outside of themselves.
For many, heroism is but an aspect of something greater than themselves, be it honor, loyalty to a ruler, or adherance to a religious practice. They are the soldiers and spies who act against enemies of the organization they serve. They are the diplomats and missionaries who represent their nation or religion to others in order to form alliances or win converts. They are the fearless bodyguards and defenders of the sacred relics.
Mortal heroes have the potential to make significant accomplishments, but they must always take care that their acheivements do not reap consequences they cannot endure. Quite often, the greatest defense a mortal hero has is her mortality. They have talents, good fortune, and knowledge that set them apart from other mortals, making them valuable allies. Rescue a few children, heal a couple soldiers, invent a better mousetrap, and a hero can quickly win the love and admiration of neighbors, leaders, and even supernatural entities. A position as a magistrate, captain of the watch, or advisor to the king cannot be far behind, given enough heroic deeds. With enough ambition and good fortune, a mortal hero might even go on to carve out a nation, establish a vast network of allies, or make available a device that will revolutionize the lives of people everywhere. There is a danger in doing so, though. With love and admiration come also jealousy and fear.
First, there are mortal authorities to consider. A band of vigilantes who brings a few villains to justice might receive a commendation from the local magistrate, but one that regularly dispenses justice without the authorization of the law behind them is usurping the reigning authority. The ruler who pays you the bounty for handing over a criminal today might well put a bounty on your head next month, if you make a nuissance of yourself. It is no accident that some heroic do-gooders are also wanderers.
Second, even the most well-meaning hero is bound to make enemies. This is yet another reason why violence is not the best means a mortal hero has of eliminating opposition. People tend to have friends, spouses, lovers, parents, children, and sworn allies who will seek revenge against a hero who slays a loved one. This can mean anything from a challenge to a duel to a knife in the dark to an elaborate framing. Authority figures are also prone to note the indirect consequences of a hero's action. If a hero heals an enemy soldier's injuries out of the goodness of her heart and he later escapes, she just provided an enemy with reconnaissance and a healthy soldier. Even an excess of compassion can have negative consequences.
Third, a hero must be careful not to become a pawn. A man who is known for his swordsmanship is going to attract the attention of military organizations that seek to recruit or conscript him. Subtler forms of manipulation can be no less dangerous. It is no fun to be blackmailed, tricked, or coerced into doing something you would never do voluntarily, either.
Moreover, all of the above dangers are even more troubling if the Exalted, Fair Folk, spirits, or other supernatural beings are involved. Generally, mortals, even mortal heroes, are beneath the notice of the Exalted. The Wyld Hunt does not keep careful watch for them. The Sidereals rarely attempt to use them as pawns. The Solars and Lunars do not consider them a significant threat. As such, they are unlikely to have cause to face one of the Chosen as an enemy unless they draw attention to themselves. The Dragons, the Unconquered Sun, and all the other gods help them if they do, though. Exalted are the movers and shakers of the world. They make irresistable rulers and lethal enemies. Worse, they often have allies and enemies who will think nothing of using or destroying mortals. Those who walk among giants must be careful of the feet.
The Age of Sorrows is a violent and dangerous time. Humans survive by banding together for mutual protection and cooperation. Those who cannot endure the presence of their fellow mortals are usually not long for this world. Mortal heroes are not giants among men the way the Chosen are. Becoming a hero does not render them invulnerable to the cares of the world, nor does it elevate them above or sever their ties to mortal friends and family. Mortal heroes are characterized as much by their relationships as by their aptitudes and resources. These connections can be both an asset and a liability. Apprentices and children are opportunities for the hero to leave a legacy, as well as providing her with additional pairs of hands. Relatives and friends have skills and resources of their own and are often willing to share them with the hero provided such favors are reciprocated. These mortal connections also provide the hero's enemies with targets and levers.
Themes are the underlying concepts that drive the heroes' actions in a story. They are often an important part of a hero's reason for being. This section describes several of the most important themes in a game whose protagonists are mortal heroes.
The world is an exciting place, and only heroes have the courage and freedom to experience it fully. Whether it means exploring forbidding ruins, establishing trade routes with distant lands, or stealing from the rich and keeping it for themselves, successful adventurers can strike it rich quick, unearth the secrets of the First Age, or discover artifacts that grant them supernatural power. Unlucky adventurers, however, lose everything in a wild gamble, have their possessions stolen in return, or end up adding to the collection of bones in the guardian Behemoth's lair.
Most people are only willing to sacrifice so much for their beliefs. Not so the heroes. Whether it is a religious order, a ruler, a loved one, or an ideal, the heroes refuse to back down from defending or furthering the goals of something greater than themselves. Such dedication to the cause often earns a hero a reputation for loyalty, tangible rewards, and favors done in return. It also makes him an easy dupe, a willing martyr, or a slave for the cause.
Heroic or not, mortals require regular human contact in order to maintain psychological stability. Heroes have experienced more of the world than most mortals even realize exists. This alone often results in mortal heroes experiencing a disconnection from their fellow humans. Simply spending long periods of time at sea removes sailors from the experiences of a normal life, often resulting in depression and substance abuse. A soldier who has constant contact with violence and death gradually numbs her ability to form long-term relationships and has a harder time expressing emotions in an acceptable manner. Heroes who interact almost exclusively with that which is not human gradually forget how to behave toward their fellow mortals.
That which causes heroes to stand out in mortal society also causes them to stand apart from it. The consequences of this increasing isolation include addictions, depression, and even madness. Heroes who learn to cope with this separation by seeking solace in the company of those who are adventurers and wanderers themselves will find much in common with them, but they also run the risk of severing all ties to their past. They are in danger of forgetting why they became heroes and even that they are still mortal. For a mortal hero, hubris is not only a tragic flaw, but a particularly fatal one, as well. Over-confidence brings swift death to even the most successful mortal hero. Heroes who work tirelessly to maintain the relationships that define them as human beings are often more driven to act heroically. They cling to life when hope seems gone because they have a reason to continue fighting. They are also especially vulnerable to attacks on their loved ones by enemies, and these ties can turn into manacles, preventing the hero from moving on to a greater destiny.
Most mortals know their place and wish only to survive the cruelties of the world. Heroes, however, often wish to rise above their inherited station. Whether they seek military, political, financial, or magical power, the heroes either think they can do a better job than the ones in charge or believe they deserve to be treated with deference by their fellow mortals. Successful despots can vastly improve the lives of those around them or bend the knees of entire nations. Unsuccessful ones are either crushed by those whose power they covet or are toppled soon after their ascent.
Mortal heroes routinely face obstacles greater than themselves or are forced to survive despite a shortage of resources. Defeating an entrenched, superior opponent on his home turf requires nerve and resourcefulness. Heroes who beat the odds, cheat fate, and return from a mission thought to be impossible quickly become living legends, attracting admirers and striking terror into the hearts of their enemies. Heroes who bite off more than they can chew are never heard from again.
While themes provide motivation for the characters involved in the story, moods set the tone and style of those stories. Mood often shifts from story to story, blending together like carefully mixed paints, but in the best series, certain moods permeate the entire game. Storytellers should work together with their players to decide which moods will be most persistent, both for individual characters and the Circle as a whole.
The name of the game is anticipation and fulfillment. Excitement is executing the dangerous plan for breaking into the stronghold of an enemy and seeing to it that she has troubled the characters for the last time. It is the final, bloody showdown with the man who killed your father and spitting on his still-bleeding corpse. It is a desperate flight into a perilous wilderness and watching the pursuers fall prey to the very hazards you survived. It is the battle and the victory, the vow and its fulfillment, the thrill of the hunt and the final capture of the prey.
Most mortals never travel more than a few miles from their homes, but heroes are the exception. Experiences are more real the first time you have them. Exoticism is a conversation with a foreigner. It is the strange customs of other peoples. It is the thrill of the first sea voyage, the wonder at unfamiliar surroundings, the discomfort of that first night spent sleeping in the wilderness. It is the new, the strange, the unfamiliar, and the changed.
The Age of Sorrows is filled with inhuman monsters and other perils against which mortals cannot hope to stand. It is an army of Wyld barbarians descending upon the town. It is a Circle of Exalted with their anima banners blazing. It is a Fair Folk nobleman standing among his mortal slaves in mute testament to what befalls those who displease them. It is your face on a wanted poster with a bounty on your head. Fear reminds you that you are no more than a living thing that hasn't stopped breathing, yet. It is the anticipation of disaster and the moment of utter helplessness. It is the realization that you are not a mover and shaker, just another person to be moved and shaken by events and powers greater than yourself.
Mystery is the absence of knowledge coupled with curiosity. Mystery is a First Age device of unknown purpose clutched in the hands of a skeleton. It is a strange spirit guarding an unremarkable tree in the middle of a forest. It is the ancient library in the center of town that the citizens refuse to approach or even discuss. It is the bait and the plot hook, the door that promises adventure and greater understanding.
Mortality is the entire experience of humanity. It is that upon which the fate of the world does not rest. Mortality is falling in love. It is caring for your children. It is taking care of your aging parents. It is scraping up enough money to pay the rent. Mortality is that which happens when heroism is not enough for the hero.