There was an interesting thread on RPGnet a few months ago about the notion of “zero to hero” as an RPG story arc. The thread was about not liking it, but in my opinion that comes from the fact that “zero to hero” was a trope of fantasy that strongly influenced Dungeons and Dragons. Between D&D’s market dominance and the idiosyncrasies of a level-based game system, you have a wide swath of the market feeling like they’ve spent an unfairly large part of their time as level 1 newbies without any neat powers. It’s a fair criticism, but one almost entirely based on a mechanistic approach to roleplaying games.
When it comes to making interesting and deep characters, there are two approaches: write a backstory or build out a history in-game. “Write a backstory” doesn’t literally mean just write a backstory either; I’ve always had players who could churn out tomes of history but it would rarely develop into a product that aligns with the character in-game or even gets read. Mechanical backstory systems work better, but still depend on the vagaries of player interests and GM exploitation. In general, when a pre-game backstory has worked really well for me, it involved the entire group sitting down and figuring out why/how their characters are working together. It also happened to work best in Apocalypse World, where the players also had latitude to announce world details which helped hook the characters together.
Building out a history in-game, through play, takes a lot of time. My online group typically runs 15-20 session games, which would get you to around level 5 in a D&D game run at a standard pace. By that point you’ve already built up a lot of history, but in theory 75% of the content lies ahead of you. Similarly, as mentioned before Burning Wheel is built around an expectation of characters and campaigns truly gelling after 12 sessions…and Burning Wheel has strong mechanical backstory generation, to boot.
And this is exactly the reason that Zero to Hero is appealing to many and has such a strong place in typical RPG story arcs. When characters start out with modest abilities and little fantastic background, every challenge they face and every gain they make is significant. When characters gain their abilities and possessions from play, every choice has a strong narrative reason, which makes the story of the character that much richer. When the character arrives at a higher power level, they know where they came from, which provides a backdrop significantly more consistent and more “real” than what most players are going to write (especially if the game has clearly mechanically optimal choices that vary from level to level). In the end, organic character growth is going to increase player engagement with both the character and the story.
This doesn’t mean every game I want to run follows the “Zero to Hero” archetype. Hell, other than a couple D&D games which never got off the ground, I haven’t really used it at all. Still, my dream to run a long campaign is intertwined with my dream to see a group of characters develop before my very eyes. Powers and abilities are literally things you copy out of a core book, but a story you have to earn. As a GM, that’s what I want to help players do more than anything else: earn their characters’ stories.