A few sessions back Lambert, my PC in our D&D game, almost died in a fight.
The party is a fairly low-level one, and the giant spiders they were fighting could do a decent amount of damage. Lambert was rolling poorly, and the spiders were not – despite his high armor class, they were landing a lot of hits on him and the situation was starting to look a bit dire before the faerie dragon NPC we had with us intervened and gave me some breathing room. Lambert quickly drank a healing potion and he was back in the fight.
That time when things got dicey got me thinking about what kind of impact Lambert’s death would have on the colony, and what kind of impact his life had produced up until that point. Without going into too much detail and boring you all with a gaming story, the effects would have been pretty substantial. Lambert had both a leadership position and a useful set of skills he was neither shy nor reluctant to use on the colony’s behalf, and had he been eaten by a giant spider, there would have been a substantial hole there to fill.
Which leads me to a short, if critical point: if you’re aiming to play heroic characters, what kind of legacy are they creating? A lot of the time, the more heroic PCs in fantasy games especially are defined primarily by what they’re willing to stick the business end of some weapon into, and, it follows, how many of those things they’ve vanquished. Certainly, a lot of fantasy settings are dangerous, monster-infested places and the dragonslayer’s role is a critical one, but oftentimes the things that really make PCs important in the world are the ones that happen when they’re not fighting, or at least after they’re done fighting.
The PCs in the colony game cleared out, but also thoroughly scouted, an ancient, abandoned monastery that’s currently the seat of colonial government. While in that same monastery, they worked out a deal with a freshwater faerie to secure a supply of clean water for the colony. They made peaceful contact with the Kenku village, they made peaceful (if somewhat exasperated) contact with a faerie dragon. They’ve identified the territory of a dangerous predator (a wyvern). They’ve found fertile land, helped find mineral deposits, located a wrecked gnoll ship, and rescued a bunch of lost colonists from an interdimensional “pocket plane.” Lambert has also done a lot of work on finding out which plants on the island are edible and/or medicinal.
They’ve also become known as the bearers of stressful news to at least the governor, who has come to realize that they get things done, but also often bring news that complicates matters every time they come back from some errand.
In short, they’ve made a difference. The people in the colony are safer (much, much safer) better-fed, and better-sheltered than they’d be without the help of the PCs or some other characters like them. In addition to problem solvers and threat-eliminators, they’re scouts, pathfinders, and trailblazers, and that has made them heroic without there needing to be a constant stream of monsters or even a known “big bad.” And like most of these revelations, it’s been equal parts serendipity, improvisation, good GMing, and a complete surprise.
I guess the take-away here is that if you’re looking to make heroes, especially ones tied to a place, look specifically for opportunities to do things that benefit that place in ways that aren’t just taking threats out. Try and find a way for them to leave a legacy. You’ll probably find yourself having even more fun than normal.