Odds are at least some of your players would love to get a hero moment, or two, over the course of your campaign. What that looks like is different for every character, but there are some common ones set up by years and decades of novels, comics, movies, and tv shows. Today I want to talk about them, some pitfalls to watch out for, and what I feel is the most important thing to keep in mind when trying to set them up.
What Is A Hero Moment?
What do I mean when I say a 'Hero Moment'? I mean a time - scene, dice roll, or otherwise, when a character gets to save the day or otherwise do something truly heroic. Sometimes this can be saving the party despite all odds - a pilot somehow managing to land a ship that is doing everything in its power and lack thereof to crash for instance - and sometimes it is as simple as holding a door or bridge against all comers while the rest of the party continues forward to the task at hand.
Most 'Hero Moments' come in two flavors - Sacrificial (or Tragic) and Non-Sacrificial. Sacrificial is exactly what it sounds like and involves the hero sacrificing their life. The person holding the door buys the time, but ultimately dies. A character tackles the big bad into the Sphere of Annihilation, but at the cost of having to jump in themselves. A character takes a fatal blow meant for someone else, and despite the change of target the blow is no less fatal. Those are all examples of sacrificial hero moments, and if you can get one pulled off in a game it can be the kind of thing spoken about for years to come. The other kind? Well, it's basically the same thing, except the hero survives.
Play It Up
The key to executing on a hero moment is to give it focus and play it up. Make it a meaningful gesture. If Tyber the Grey sacrificed his life pushing the Ifrit back into a portal, then make that mean something in the world and to the characters. Give Tyber something of a going away. Let him be mourned. Have other NPCs who knew Tyber but don't know his fate show up on occasion and ask about him.
During the scene be on board with the player. Help them make it epic. Add narration and description that adds to the scene. Even if it's not a combat encounter, tension can be added. You can mention the passing of time, things getting done in time. The character barely reaching for the lever needed to re-engage the emergency repulsors.
The more energy and effort you put into these scenes, the more they will mean for your players and for the game as a whole. Go nuts. Go all out. Let them feel epic in that moment.
Planned or Unplanned
This is where you get into GM theory. Should you plan, prepare, and introduce the hero moment for the party? For example, should you put in a scene where the pilot has to save everyone and plan for it and run towards that? Or should you let that scenario develop naturally?
My opinion is to go somewhere in the middle. Be aware of the possibility, plan for moments for characters to step up and be heroes, but don't require someone stepping up to be the only way the "good guys" win the day. If you plan for "and this will be the big hero moment where Sasha somehow manages to get the engines back on just in time for the group to get to hyperspace before the Imperials kill them" and Sasha doesn't even go for the engines in game...bad times. So don't force the situations, but don't run away from them either.
The Dice Have Their Own Agenda
The other thing to keep in mind is that the dice have their own agenda, and this is another reason you shouldn't create "impossible except for that moment of heroism" moments in your game. In a story the character can be guaranteed to get that nat 20 and save everyone at the last second because that is what the story needs. In an RPG that nat 20 comes up 1/20 times, which means 19/20 times the group goes splat and everyone dies. Just something to be aware of...
No Plan Survives First Contact
The other thing to be aware of is the fact that no plan survives contact with the enemy. Now, the players aren't the enemy, but they are going to throw all your plans out. Maybe you put a bridge down intending the fighter to have a bad ass moment where he/she holds it against insurmountable odds. Maybe the party engineer decides it would be better just to blow the bridge up and deal with escaping later. You can't punish the party for that type of creative thinking.
In another example, you can have an NPC be a foil for a certain PC. You plan them to end the story in an epic duel. Only, the player has other things in mind. Instead of dueling the villain, he just has the whole party beat the crap out of him. Whoops!
This is of course the other problem with planning and prepping hero moments. Your party may see much more rational ways of dealing with things. So if you are setting something up it might be worth making sure it is what the players want. After all, if someone gripes they'd love a "Hold the bridge scene" after the party blows up the last two you tried to give them, you can always point out that you have been placing them but the party keeps destroying the bridge.
It takes two to tango, after all.