Let’s talk about luck. Luck of the draw, luck of not getting run over by Santa’s reindeer (sorry, Grandma)…You know, luck.
In stories, we don’t really like it when some lucky happenstance comes around and makes things all better for the protagonist. I mean, buddy, if you’re a good protagonist, you gotta learn to do things yourself!
Yes. And no. But mostly yes. However, while we don’t want our characters getting by all thanks to Lady Luck, there is something about luck that is a natural part of life.
In the real world, luck is a very real thing. Obi-wan Kenobi doesn’t seem to believe in it (from his own experience, mind you), but for me – and according to my coworkers – I am one of the most lucky guys in the entire world.
I have a confession to make. I enter a lot of contests. And I mean a lot. But they’re all for board games. After all, one can never have too many of those beauties. In the past five months, I have won seven (if not more) board games – all great, all wonderful, and all having a lot of people enter the contest. And, as luck would have it, I have been selected the random winner all these times! The first time I was elated. The second time I was also overjoyed. The seventh time? Completely baffled that I keep winning but still beside myself with happiness. I love board games! And there is a very good chance I would never buy a game because it’s just not in our budget, so for me, this is the only way. Am I lucky? Very.
When I enter contests, it’s not like I go to the same source over and over, either. Each time has been from a different sponsor. So you see, in my life, there is a very large amount of luck.
Luck isn’t just used in winning contests, however.
Just last Wednesday I took part in my very first X-Wing Miniatures tournament. It was a 9-player free-for-all where everyone had one ship. Points were awarded for damaging an opponent, and even more points for destroying them. If your ship got destroyed, you lost two points, but redeployed your ship at the beginning of the next round.
I played with an A-Wing on the first game. Most everyone else had ships that could take at least six hits before blowing up (some ships as high as nine), but my little A-Wing could only take four hits before succumbing to the barrage that constantly came upon it.
And when I say constant, I mean I was under attack nearly the whole time.
But I made luck work for me. I chose a pilot that could give me an extra die to roll on defense. Then I upgraded my ship with what would give me yet another die to roll for defense. So in total, I could roll five dice. Now, there was no guarantee that my rolls would come through for me. But, I figured that if I gave myself more chances, I would succeed more often.
And I did.
At one point in the game I ended up with both my shields gone and one hit to my ship’s hull. I only had one hit left before I was floating debris in the dark depths of space. As I took damage, I lost the ability to roll one of my defense dice, leaving me with just four. Many of the ships were rolling four or five attack dice against me, so with only four dice, I knew my time was spent.
And yet, turn after turn, I kept coming out alive. I would fend off three different attacks each round, frustrating those rolling more attack dice than my defense dice. They would roll some blanks, then re-roll and come up with a lot of hits.
I would in turn roll my defense dice and, without fail, I would roll enough evades to get away from that encounter safely (all things considered). My opponents hated that. How was I so lucky?
Well, I’ll tell you. I stacked the odds in my favor. Sure, I was rolling four dice, and yes they kept coming up with good results, but just one hit would do me in. I knew I would be a target for having such little shields and hull protection, so I upgraded my ship with yet another perk – one that would let me perform two actions per turn.
This let me give my ship an evade token every turn (which is basically a free evade without having to roll for it). Then, for my second action, I would gain a focus token (this allows me to manipulate the dice in my favor, assuming the dice roll well enough to begin with). So, between the luck of my rolls and the extra perks I assigned my ship, I was able to avoid death even when it was staring me in the face.
But that luck can come and go as it pleases.
Many times I was unable to attack with many dice because of where my ship was in relation to my enemies. However, I did get a chance to roll five dice at a ship. It only had one or two hits left in it (just like my poor, limping A-Wing), and it didn’t have nearly as many defense rolls as I had been using.
An easy kill.
I rolled all five attack dice, and to my horror, not a single one came up with a hit. Not one! I could throw perfect rolls on defense, but when it came to offense, I was as useless as Jabba the Hut in a foot race. The next turn my ship was finally destroyed, just one turn away from the end of the game.
But what does this have to do with the protagonist of a story? Well, a lot of times, we expect the protagonist to succeed based on sheer skill. Everything he or she does needs to be learned, practiced, and perfected.
Or so we like to think.
While I agree that our heroes need to be competent, there will always be some instances in which they are straight up out matched, out gunned, and left to their own skills, dead in the water (or space, in my case).
Even a highly skilled soldier can fall by a stray arrow. Sometimes luck just isn’t on our side (like me rolling all blanks on my attack). There are times when our heroes may be placed in a situation in which they have no hope of escaping unharmed. And that’s exactly how it should be.
Depending on your story, the protagonist might indeed fail miserably in whatever situation he was in. This will undoubtably lead to other hard moments in his life, but through these moments he can learn, grow, and overcome.
But other times there is a need to win no matter what. If the hero loses here, all is lost. And yet he just isn’t ready. So what does he do?
He gives himself as many advantages as possible. He finds ways to roll more dice. He finds one surefire way to succeed in at least one area (like my evade token), and takes a gamble on another (my focus token). He uses what he has to survive. He doesn’t always have to defeat the enemy. Sometimes surviving is enough. If your hero hobbles out of a situation with only one point of damage left on him, that right there is a victory in its own right. The hero can learn, grow, and overcome.
Just like my game of X-Wing Miniatures, luck played a huge roll (pun intended) in my survival. But I knew I couldn’t last on luck alone. I needed something more, so I upgraded. I used what I had to give me even just a slight edge. And for the most part, it worked. It might not work every time, but this time it did.
It is my hope that our protagonists have the skills necessary to complete their tasks without using too much luck. When it comes down to it, skill will most always trump luck. But sometimes our hero needs that extra defense die to roll. Whether it’s using the terrain to his advantage or using his cunning intellect to trick his nemesis, that extra attempt at victory is a desperate, last-ditch attempt at survival, no matter what it looks like.
Sure, it won’t always work. Maybe the nemesis doesn’t fall for the hero’s rhetoric, or perhaps the boulder your hero was planning on unleashing on his enemies won’t budge after all.
Well, at least he tried. And who knows? Maybe (hopefully) some surprise benefit comes from that failure.