I responded to the I need a Hero post over at Tower of the Archmage, and it got me thinking about heroism in RPGs. The Archmage laments "It’s rare to find big damn heroes in classic Dungeons and Dragons. The entire game is designed around tomb robbers. Occasionally players will take on “altruistic” causes, but this usually involves their being able to keep a percentage of treasure that they find (aka loot)."
While it is common enough to have a world that needs heroes, my thought is that the real problem is that heroes need a world. That is, if participants want more heroism in their games, the game world should reward heroism. But before rewarding heroism, the game world should provide opportunity for heroism.
I think part of the problem with heroism in fantasy RPGs is that the worlds themselves tend to be anti-heroic. Compare lets say, Medieval France, in which the Arthurian tales of chivalry captivated the imagination of the people, with something like Mad Max. When adventuring becomes more about sheer survival than it does about being a champion of the people, opportunity for heroism can be limited. A world in which warbands of orcs control the wastelands is one that suggests survivalism more than heroism. However, a world that is densely populated with lots of farmland, small villages, and quaint hamlets offers opportunity for characters to right small wrongs; to be involved with the day to day affairs of the people who could really use a hero.
I think one of the reasons Pendragon plays as more heroic isn't so much the system, but the trend for most of the challenges to be about other humans, rather than monsters. Arthurian England is fairly heavily populated compared to the average fantasy game world. It contrasts to the "points of light" style of setting, with small pockets of civilization in a vast wilderness. You sort of have to go off the beaten path in order to find yourself in a wilderness.
When the adventurers are more likely to run into people than they are monsters, opportunity for heroism increase. After all, heroism is about aiding people who are in need. When their opponents are more often people, rather than monsters, opportunities for honor and courtesy increase. Adventures can become about things other than killing and looting and tomb robbing.
Once the opportunity for heroism is presented, then one can ask "What is the reward for heroism?". Aside from a warm and fuzzy feeling, the game world should react to heroes in a positive way. Fame should precede the heroes in all but the most isolated places. Small rewards should be presented in nearly every village and town. The world should be a more friendly place to heroes.
From a mechanic standpoint, experience should be rewarded for acts of heroism. Ignore body counts, gold pieces, and similar means of figuring experience. Award experience for acts of honor, selflessness, courage, courtesy, and diplomacy. You don't need a specific system to do this. You just need to decide to do it.
Of course, if you are looking for more of a Road Warrior type of feel to your game, ignore everything I just wrote.