The phrase “heroic destiny” refers to a player-character’s final disposition at the end of the game, and the narrative path which that character takes to get there. It is a concept that has always been integral to the D&D game and has recently been codified in the 4th Edition rules. The Game Master of this campaign is not a fan of 4th Edition rules, or of dumbing down a concept, though, so he treats heroic destiny more abstractly as an aspect of role play and a necessary motivator of the relative power of a high-level character.
It works like this: In a “massively multiplayer” role-playing game, player characters are inherently not special, because each is one of thousands roaming the game world. Many tabletop games, from “Shadowrun” to “Vampire” (the Masquerade or the Requiem, take your pick), present a similar view of the player’s character as less than unique in its potential for power. In Dungeons & Dragons, though, this is fundamentally not the case. In D&D, a player character is a member of a small party of heroes who are bound together by their otherwise unique potential to each achieve earth-shattering personal power within their particular fields of expertise. A Fighter can not only become a great fighter, but he can become a martial god among men, a living weapon capable of facing down a conscript army single-handed. An entire party of such heroes should be fully expected to change the world, forever, if it reaches the highest levels, eighteen to twenty.
This kind of power demands a suitably dramatic motivation. Note that the word is not justification or explanation. This is a world of fiction and fantasy. Like the heroes of old, player-characters do not become powerful do to some pseudo-scientific confluence of physical phenomena. (If such things are involved, they are merely window-dressing.) These characters become powerful because it is their destiny; there is a story to be told, and they are its heroes. Call it narrative imperative.
Therefore, the Game Master of this campaign requires of each player some vision of his or her character’s heroic destiny. The player must be able to envision the character as a being of such tremendous power, having achieved the fullness of its potential, and the player must be able to provide a sense of what drove the character to that point—or at least, what might have done so. Of the two, it is actually the former which is the more important. The Game Master can work with a player to develop a storyline which takes a character from zero to hero within the game world, and indeed he will inevitably take some ownership of all character stories, as he has final judicial authority on events within that world. Besides, for it to be a game, and not just a collection of novels, he has to be able to provide some surprises. His assistance is for naught, though, if the player can not envision some kind of hero for which such power is a narrative “Truth.”
As a result, the heroic destiny as it shall be presented to the Game Master shall generally come in one of two forms: either an ambition, or a snapshot of the character as it is envisioned in a “Crowning Moment of Awesome.”
An ambition is anything the character actively, consciously pursues. World domination, supreme combat prowess, or perfect mastery of the arcane laws of the universe are all properly heroic ambitions. Any character which actually achieves one of these is the sort of fellow one expects to be wielding tremendous personal power of some sort.
Ambitious characters may have Crowning Moments, but a Crowning Moment is also the alternative for characters which are not inherently ambitious but still have heroic potential. The shy, retiring girl who is gifted with explosive magical power and destined to some kind of fame or infamy despite herself is an example of such a character. Hers is a story of the “reluctant hero” type, and the Game Master is more than happy to facilitate such a tale, as long as the player can give him some clear point toward which to guide her. The player must simply be able to describe an example of a moment when all of her latent potential comes to fruition and the inherently heroic “awesomeness” of the character is put on display within the story.
Another example might be the melee warrior who is too disorganized to pursue an agenda or long-term goal of establishing himself as the greatest fighter in all the land, but his battle lust and continuous pursuit of martial challenges make this his inevitable destiny anyhow. This character simply seeks out greater and greater foes until one day he discovers that all of the world’s strongest warriors lie dead at his feet and, in Conan-esque fashion he has taken the title without realizing it. Once again, if the player can describe that Crowning, pinnacle moment, then he or she can work with the Game Master to find a way to get the character to that moment from his first humble character level—assuming, of course, that he survives (or is successfully resurrected if he does not).
By one or both of these methods, or by some other method of the player’s invention and the Game Master’s approval, the Game Master must be convinced of each player-character’s heroic destiny. It may be something to occur at middle levels rather than higher. The player may even come up with a multi-stage progression, describing a series of increasingly awesome Crowning Moments along the character’s path to its ultimate destiny. In some cases, the player may even have a couple of potential destinies in mind (perhaps allowing for a character who has a chance of achieving grace or falling from it) and presents the full set of them. Any of these and countless other variations are acceptable, as long as the ultimate power of the character is motivated to the Game Master’s satisfaction.