The journey ahead

I don’t want to talk about Luke Skywalker anymore. Great guy. Loved him for years. But folks, it’s time to move on. His hero’s journey has been the go-to framework for our Big Epic Quests™ for far too long. In fact, the Hero’s Journey itself is far too flimsy a structure to build a TTRPG campaign upon.

Think about it: we’ve got a singular protagonist standing alone against the Big Bad at the end of the world. Sure, sometimes he has a Han Solo or an R2D2 along for the ride, but in the end, Luke is facing off against Vader alone.

And that’s the problem, right? TTRPGs aren’t about a single hero going it alone. (Okay, pedantic internet caveat: most TTRPGs aren’t about a lone wolf standing on his own.) They’re about a team. A squad. A group of plucky adventurers.

That’s why I suggest you run your campaign like a romance novel.

Why Romance Novels?

 In a romance, good sex scenes and good fight scenes are practically the same things. Lots of thrusting and attention to positioning…

“A kissing book?” Some of you may say, and in response, I say, “Hell yeah, a kissing book!”

If you believe romance novels can’t reach the same epic highs and dark, horrifying lows as your favorite Hero’s Journey example, my friend, you don’t know what you’ve been missing.

After all, in a romance, good sex scenes and good fight scenes are practically the same things. Lots of thrusting and attention to positioning…

All kidding aside, though, whether you’re battling the antagonist on a crashing airship or making out with your rival under the harvest moon in a romance, the point of an action encounter isn’t the actions themselves but how the interaction between the characters reveals the depths of emotion, motivation, and history shared between them.  In other words: relationships.

And that’s the most important answer to “why romance novels” – because you might cheer for that critical hit that takes down the dragon or laugh over the nat 1 you rolled when trying to deceive the king, but the heartbreak you’ll feel and the joy that erupts when you focus on relationships, those things will be stories you’ll tell forever.

Even better, romance novels spread the focus around. Sure, a romance novel usually focuses on two specific leads, but those leads are supported by found families and unique oddballs, and if that doesn’t sound like a TTRPG campaign, I don’t know what does.

If you really want to see how to pass around the spotlight, and make all of the characters feel equally important, pick up a romance series. Often, the author brings side characters from the first book into the foreground of the sequels.

How do we actually do the thing, though? Well, just like plenty of action movies are built on The Hero’s Journey, a good number of romance stories are built on their own framework – The Heroine’s Journey (or, for our purposes, Heroines’ Journey).

An open book on a black background.

Photo by Arun Prakash on Unsplash.

Say Hello to The Heroines’ Journey.

 Unlike a hero, who finds his strength when isolated, heroines find their power among groups.

For those of you who like extra credit, Gail Carriger has written an excellent deep dive into the history and use of this particular plot structure, aptly titled The Heroine’s Journey. It was invaluable during the research for this article, and if you find yourself craving more info than can fit into one blog post, I highly recommend checking out Carriger’s book.

Source citing out of the way, let me state this clearly and with emphasis: anyone can be a heroine. It has nothing to do with gender or any sort of masculine vs. feminine vibes; it has everything to do with how characters approach problems and how the GM structures their narrative.

Heroes and heroines are both separated from society by some outside force. A hero isolates themself to train up their skills beyond mortal ken (usually with the help of a mentor, often during a montage set to an ‘80s power ballad). Then they return changed, usually pissed, and definitely all out of bubblegum. The changes are enough for them to topple the big bad, but then they find out they’ve shed too much of their everyday life to reintegrate into society comfortably. So they ride off into the sunset. Alone.

Heroines handle their problems differently. Heroes go it alone, but heroines tackle obstacles through connections. They network. They make friends and call them to their sides. They create new networks of support, usually by pulling together a found family full of misfits, outcasts, and other marginalized folks.

You know, adventurers.

Unlike a hero, who finds his strength when isolated, heroines find their power among groups. Working together, they solve problems they never could have on their own.

Illustrating By Example

 Team of outcasts? Check. Coming together to take down a big institution? Affirmative. Do it by working together? Hell yeah! Confirmed: Heist story = Heroines’ Journey.

If you’re already a fan of romance novels, you’ve probably already got a favorite series you can reference. If you’re not, here are some genre examples to get the gears spinning.

The Hero’s Journey has Star Wars, so what does the Heroines’ Journey have? Not to rile up old rivalries, but when it’s done right, Star Trek is a total heroines’ journey, and Discovery is the perfect example.

Early on in season one, the show focuses on Burnham. She’s the POV character. The go-it-alone hero. Later, though, when the focus gets spread around to the rest of the crew – that’s when Discovery starts to feel like a proper Star Trek series, and that’s when it switches from a hero’s journey to a heroines’.

Heist stories are another good example. I’m talking about your Italian Jobs, Ocean’s Eights, Leverage: Redemptions, and my favorite, Hackers.

Team of outcasts? Check. Coming together to take down a big institution? Affirmative. Do it by working together? Hell yeah! Confirmed: Heist story = Heroines’ Journey.

The Journey

A framework wouldn’t be very helpful without the actual frame, so here’s what the Heroines’ Journey could look like for a TTRPG.

NOTE: There’s plenty of room to rearrange the order of these milestones to fit your particular game. Use each point as its own singular arc for a session, or mash them up to create new and complicated problems for your players.

  • The Descent: this is your story hook, the crux of your session or campaign – make sure this inciting incident severs your party’s connection to society and sets them apart. Maybe they’re accused of crimes, disavowed by their agency, or cut off from their families’ fortunes. This will give them room to make new networks later.
  • Isolation & Danger: we all know the adage – never split the party, and we want them to work together, but here’s the thing: their teamwork will be much more impactful if they fail a few times on their own. The trick is creating situations where they’ll want to split up. What is the easiest way to do that? Give them multiple tasks to handle in a limited amount of time.
  • Disguise & Subversion: heroines often disguise their identities to overcome a problem. Give your players a chance to sneak into that enemy base or an excuse to hide inside a fancy costume. Masquerade ball, anyone? Combine this milestone with Isolation & Danger, or Visit the Underworld for maximum tension.
  • Visit the Underworld: this is when the heroines travel into the belly of the beast. Maybe they’re caught by the authorities or captured by the big bad’s minions. Perhaps they go to the actual underworld! Whatever the situation, make sure it’s huge and a drastic reversal from where they’ve been hanging out throughout most of the story so far.
  • Friends & Family Render Aide: Bring back the NPCs your characters have helped along their journey. Show their network of friends operating at peak efficiency. Do a freakin’ Carebear Stare because this is the part when the cavalry arrives. When the team comes together. The Avengers Assemble. The ultimate “F’ Yeah!” moment.

And, of course, as with any good romance story, there’s got to be a Happily Ever After. In a traditional romance, that would be a kind of marriage — all hearts and angels singing as the protagonists kiss. But happily ever after for your group might be establishing a new town, taking back the family company from the evil billionaire, or something even more unique.

The point is, in the end, the characters should end up on top. Problems resolved in their favor. Future outlook, if not rosy, at least hopeful. After all, we all deserve a good win every now and again.