Atonement, in this context, seems like an odd term, as it is traditionally understood as a reconciliation or bringing together of two or more people who have been torn asunder. Campbell, though, is more interested in the hero's acceptance and initiation by whatever holds the ultimate power in the hero's life - often represented by a father figure who holds the power of life and death in mythology. Perhaps it might be better phrased thusly: Nothing is as terrifying as the prospect of being rejected by those whose acceptance we most desire.
Campbell's synopsis of the Atonement also contains some interesting spiritual aspects to it:
"Atonement consists in no more that the abandonment of that self-generated double monster – the dragon thought to be God (superego) and the dragon thought to be Sin (repressed id). But this requires an abandonment of the attachment to ego itself, and that is what is difficult. One must have a faith that the father is merciful, and then a reliance on that mercy. Therewith, the center of belief is transferred outside of the bedeviling god's tight scaly ring, and the dreadful ogres dissolve. It is in this ordeal that the hero may derive hope and assurance from the helpful female figure, by whose magic (pollen charms or power of intercession) he is protected through all the frightening experiences of the father's ego-shattering initiation. For if it is impossible to trust the terrifying father-face, then one's faith must be centered elsewhere (Spider Woman, Blessed Mother); and with that reliance for support, one endures the crisis – only to find, in the end, that the father and mother reflect each other, and are in essence the same. The problem of the hero going to meet the father is to open his soul beyond terror to such a degree that he will be ripe to understand how the sickening and insane tragedies of this vast and ruthless cosmos are completely validated in the majesty of Being. The hero transcends life with its peculiar blind spot and for a moment rises to a glimpse of the source. He beholds the face of the father, understands – and the two are atoned."
Examples of Atonement with the Father
Up until the end of Empire Strikes Back, Darth Vader had been a symbol of death and destruction in Luke Skywalker's journey among Rebellion fighters and Jedi knights. Suddenly, it is revealed that not only is his father alive, but is that very same figure responsible for so much suffering. In the final act of the original trilogy, Anakin finally breaks free of the grip Emperor Palpatine/Darth Sidious has over him and reconciles with his son. Luke is able to gain closure and learns that he is not alone in the universe, but has a sister.
In the parable of the prodigal son, the wayward younger son returns home after blowing his inheritance and living - quite literally- among pigs. He expects to grovel before the father he has embarrassed and spurned and hopes to earn his way back into the household as a hired man. The love of the father for his son is such that he runs out to him (something a patriarch would never do) and embraces him whole-heartedly, immediately reinstating him as a full member of the family, much to the consternation of his older brother.
In Gaiman's Stardust, Tristran Thorne grows up knowing nothing of his biological mother. By the end of the novel, her identity - along with Tristran's heritage and destiny - are revealed in classic Shakespearean form.
Another Gaiman novel, American Gods, centers the plot in a more direct fashion around his protagonist, Shadow and his father - or rather, his lack of a father up to that point. To say more would dip into spoiler territory, I fear.
Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix has a scene at the end where Harry is venting his frustrations to Dumbledore - the closest thing to a father figure he's had (yes, even more so than Sirius). Finally, Dumbledore admits his mistakes in trying to protect Harry by putting distance between them and lets him in (for the most part) on what been going on in the escalating hidden war against Voldemort.
Atonement as a DM Tool
There seem to be two main approaches for implementing Atonement in a campaign. First, individual implementation for each PC, while requiring more history/backstory from each player and more effort from the DM to weave each player's details into the narrative tapestry, holds the potential for a meaningful personal experience for both the character and their player. Unfortunately, the other members of the group are at risk for becoming bored, alienated, or jealous when a player gets singled out for her time in the spotlight.
The other primary approach would be to provide an atonement-experience for the entire party. While certainly easier to execute by involving everyone at once, it will likely be more difficult to set up a meaningful relationship involving every in the party that can be resolved in a single fell-swoop. A possible solution might lie in the group's motivation and/or reasons for adventuring together. Figuring out what brought them together and, more importantly, what has kept them together despite overwhelming resistance from an existence which, for all intents and purposes, seems out to get them at every opportunity.
Regardless of implementation strategy, the first thing a DM will need to know is what/who it is that holds ultimate power in a PC's - or possibly a group's - life. Find out what or who they desire to be accepted and respected by above all others, and you have the key to building a meaningful Atonement climax.
For those who enjoy an immersive experience with a rich supporting cast of NPC's, consider using the PC's to facilitate or enable an NPC in achieving an Atonement experience. Hack-n-Slash players - those generally less interested in plot than combat - are less likely to enjoy the experience, however. As always, a little insight into the personalities of your PC's will go a long way in crafting a meaningful experience for them.
- What is it that holds ultimate power in your PC's lives - Individually? As a group?
- How might a PC's actions change when: They desperately want to be accepted? They've been devastated by rejection?
- How might fellow PC's become an obstacle to achieving one's Atonement? What about NPC's?
- What might happen if knowledge of these motivations were discovered by a villain?
- Consider the opposite: What could your PC's do with knowledge of a villain's driving motivation?
Stage I: Departure
- Part 1: The Call
- Part 2: Refusing the Call
- Part 3: Supernatural Aid
- Part 4: Crossing the Threshold
- Part 5: Belly of the Whale