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Good evening, afternoon, or whatever time it happens to be there, ladies and gents! I happen to be Andy, who happens to be a freelance web designer, musician, writer, and whatnot.

Roman Catholic, student of tabletop gaming, and someday soon I'll have my own designs in the field!

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Friday, January 8, 2010

An Examination of Epic, Part I

Something that will pop up now and again, and probably very often in fantasy games, is a little concept called "epic". Everyone wants it, but not everyone knows just how to get it. They know that it's that ounce of awesome-beyond-awesome that makes roleplaying oh-so-much better, but the quest for epic can easily get, um...quite silly. So, what exactly is the measure of "good epic" and "bad epic"?

Defining Our Terms Here...
I'm going to take the easy Internet way, and use Wikipedia for a starter definition: "An epic (from Greek: ἔπος "word, story, poem") is a lengthy narrative poem, ordinarily concerning a serious subject containing details of heroic deeds and events significant to a culture or nation." There's a lot of important information here, even though the usage of "epic" nowadays isn't the same as it was back when the word was coined. Nowadays, it means something more along the lines of "awesome", but we can learn a lot from the original epics.

Some cool things to note here are that epics are defined as having three elements: a serious subject, heroic deeds, and culturally significant events. I think that all three of these can serve as excellent starting points for cultivating "epic" in games and character play. The first element (a serious subject) is more linked with the GM, because the GM is the one who determines the overall tone and seriousness of the game. The latter two are far more closely connected to a player's actions, and they represent two facets of a balanced approach to epicness.

Facet One: What's His Power Level?
The "heroic deeds" refers to the morality of the protagonist, yes, but it also refers to the power of the action. Yes, you could kill someone with a sword, but smiting down a demon with a holy blade is far cooler and heroic. This idea of coolness is something embraced by all sorts of media, leading to a veritable explosion of "bigger and better" in the land of Epic. I'm talking about things like flaming weapons, building-shattering punches, bolts of lightning, and the slicker sorts of epic, such as walking slo-mo through a hail of bullets, or teleporting back and forth through a crowd, calmly slicing with a razor-sharp katana.

For some people, that cuts it. Others...well, they find it all a little over-the-top and silly. There's also the issue of escalation: once you've reached one level, power-wise, you have to top it the next time around, or else risk diluting the feel of the epic. After all, a giant fireball is epic the first time around, but it starts to get routine by the time you're fireballing every evil monster out there. The issue here is that power is just a bit shallow, when it comes to something that's supposed to impress. It's flashy, akin to a fireworks display focused around pumping as many shiny things up in the sky as possible. You have one tool, and one tool only to add epic: make it cool. That can get old really fast.

Facet Two: Can't Get No Introspection...
The whole "culturally significant" part can be broadened out to refer to general character significance, which can serve as a very satisfying base for epicness. In my opinion, some of the best epicness out there is rooted firmly in character development. To be truly epic, an act should mean something. Does it symbolize a character's release from an ancient curse? Their defiance of tyranny? Is it an act which enshrines the one greatest virtue in their heart? Are they staking their entire self in the process?

All of these things can combine to form an epic action. In many stories, this may be enough to constitute epicness, but when you're dealing with fantasy and so forth...why stop there? It can tend to the side of passionate talk, instead of epic, when an unimpressive act is tied with the epic meaning. So, significance alone is not necessarily the best way to go either...

You Got Character In My Coolness!
This is what I think is the best form of epic: a hybrid between cool and character. The way this works is the following: the character not only provides an actor for the epic thing, but also serves as the emotional source and anchor. The character provides the meaning to the action. Then, the coolness jumps in to enhance the epicness and provide a vehicle for its expression. With the two of them working together, the blend is sweet indeed.

One of my favorite depictions of this blend is from an episode of an animated show called FullMetal Alchemist: Brotherhood (Episode 19, "Death of the Undying", the new series, not the original one). Note, the clip gets a little graphic, albeit in animated form. If you haven't seen the show, and don't want it to be spoiled...well, the example somewhat depends on it, so I'll give you a spoiler warning here...


In this sequence, the character Roy Mustang (an "alchemist" who is able to make air into a flammable gas, who then ignites it with special gloves) has been soundly beaten by the character Lust (a "homunculus", an immortal unhuman creature with incredible regenerative powers; she has the ability to extend her nails into spear-claws): the glove bearing his "transmutation circle" (which he uses to change air into a flammable gas) has been destroyed, and he has been severely wounded in the side, rendering him utterly useless, left for dead. As another little bit of backstory, Lust is the character who killed Roy's best friend, Maes Hughes, earlier in the series.

Just as Lust is about to utterly destroy two other characters, Roy shows up, against all odds. Character-wise, it's the hero overcoming incredible obstacles in order to face his nemesis and exact vengeance. He cut a transmutation circle into his hand, and then used his ability to manually cauterize his wound. This showcases his determination and willingness to endure pain for the sake of accomplishing his task. In a massive display of fiery glory, he continues to engulf Lust in flames, until her regeneration can't handle any more of it. The fire (coolness) manifests his rage (character), and destroys the enemy.


So, that's essentially my closing note on epicness...for the moment. There's another little bit that I'd like to talk about, and that's the issues of time and participation. After all, if everyone had epic moments all the time, the epicness can start to fail. Everyone needs a breather, even heroes.

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