In this week's guest blog, Ismael Alvarez discusses epic level adventuring.
Readers, please discuss your experiences with epic / mythic rules in the comments section!
There are many games that deal with ideas that seek to surpass typical fantasy-based adventuring. It comes with many labels like epic, mythic, and heroic, but ultimately it is all shorthand for a larger-than-life adventure that makes you (the player) feel like a protagonist out of an ancient myth. For the sake of simplicity, I will refer to this ideal as "epic", as it seems to be the most prevalent phrase currently in use.
When we think "epic", we think of those primal stories of beings at the edge of comprehension. Gods themselves were very rarely the subject of stories that exhibited their impressive talents, but rather they were very frequently shown misusing their powers to cause mischief on the level of a Wall Street banker (if you can call either mischief). Quite often it was the half-human offspring of these gods that took the center stage, possessing the human capacity for curiosity and adventure that their parents either ignored or lacked. These stories, so termed ‘epic’, are connected inexorably to our modern sensibility of impressive adventure.
I mention this because it is in this tradition that the epic tale is steeped, and part of the foundation on which the rules for such role-playing characters are set. This is important for a few reasons, but primarily in that epic storytelling both modern and ancient, hangs upon a few assumptions.
First, the actions of the person or persons involved are continually impressive and grandiose. If they aren’t engaging legendary beasts and monsters in open combat, they are suffering through Greek tragedies that define drama and suffering at the hands of fate or hubris. Nothing that happens to these heroes is ever easy or simple.
Second, the narrative of these stories present challenges as exciting, but not ultimately dangerous. Think of Odysseus or Hercules and their tribulations, and consider that neither was ever particularly worried about the outcome. This was either a matter of bravado, or simply the extent of their ability.
In any case, it is this change in narrative that affects role-playing most deeply. The focus of an epic tale is to highlight the heroic stature of the heroes involved, perhaps showing them being deceived as Samson is by Delilah, but not often bested in their field of expertise; given the opportunity to try, these heroes cannot be easily defeated in what they do best, as they are the best at what they do.
Epic systems run into problems because of how they function as a rules template. Add in human nature, and it is easy to see how difficult it is to structure these systems. The central element of role-playing games as we know it is hinged on the uncertainty of combat and the thrill of potential defeat, but the rules for epic role-playing are often a mere numerical stacking of the non-epic rules, making the game more interesting simply in the scope of the scenery and antagonists. Other systems provide such a powerful advantage as to make game masters work harder to challenge the players, or to render the players the default victors of every combat.
Both of these approaches reflect the nature of an epic narrative, either putting a dramatic spin on otherwise mundane combat (fighting dragons instead of rats, for instance), or creating in the players a group of superheroes that affect the world as active forces of nature. What these systems don’t often do is account for balance, or understand the deeper meaning of the epic narrative within the context of a role-playing game. In this we see the breakdown of the epic system as it pertains to fun, and compelling gameplay. Let me explain.
Pivotal to the experience of D20 fantasy games* is a carefully crafted system that has its roots in a 40-year-old game system that has been carefully pruned and tended into some semblance of balance. This balance exists for a number of reasons, but in brief it is to ensure that no player outshines any other, and that the game master may adequately predict and design encounters to reach a proper outcome. If the players are balanced, people are having fun, the easy fights are exciting, and the hard fights are gripping.
But this begins to break down in the face of what epic means and how it is interpreted. In 3rd edition D&D’s epic level handbook, for instance, we are given more. More levels, more spells, more powers. It is an absolute addition, not unlike building an extension on a house. But what those extensions don’t account for are how carefully the foundation was laid out.
Pathfinder sought to change this by taking a more subtle approach. At heart, the mythic rules are a gradually applied demigod template, making characters harder to kill, giving them access to formidable powers, and creating an entirely separate axis of growth that changes the very essence of the characters themselves, rather than just adding what was already there. It is successful in the sense that it actually feels like something different and powerful outside of the 20 or 30 level scope.
The reasons for epic rules failing are hard to specify, but let us say that game designers sometimes stop thinking like players. Pathfinder’s mythic rules, for instance, are rife with the potential for abuse, and it is either hard or unattractive to ignore these potent combinations, but this is the case with any rules abuse. Even so, we are left with a system that may at least be balanceable.
It is hard to say whether such errata would fix the system and present an adequately epic system that functions, but only time will tell. So far, this demonstrates only two reasons that such games are difficult to model. There is often more success when a game is built from the ground up to be epic, but as with Exalted, this is no guarantee.
Most systems are either not built to challenge the players, or there is not enough differentiation from non-epic play to satisfy expectations. This is where a new approach is needed. Epic should not be about classically determined challenges and combats, but about using the epic themes of these stories tied to myth to tell a story that moves with and not against the traits of a mythological theme.
Here is where human nature comes into play, and people begin to express what they feel is epic, and the need to satisfy these disparate definitions breaks most games into too many directions, as has been my experience. Rifts would be a good example of this, as the loose guidelines for players of different power levels being in the same party is problematic at best.
Players and game masters are often at odds with just how amazing the party’s exploits should be, and the stakes are much higher so that any misstep from either side of the game screen could cause friction. Furthermore, most players look for every mechanical advantage that they can leverage, and a majority of epic rulesets are going to allow for this so-called optimization to be exponentially greater than in typical systems.
Hard as it might be to understand, it would be better to make conflict less frequent, and more impactful. Combat in epic storytelling exists in two flavors; show off combat and dramatic combats. Show off mode obviously showcases the strength of the players, while dramatic combat will test the limits of the group. This unfortunately takes away from the usual D20 fantasy element of having many combats per session, but is not fun when done through epic rules.
Further difficulty is found in making show off combats fun and not repetitive, while dramatic combats require an intense amount of planning, accounting for disparate and profound powers, and other factors that may end an otherwise great battle with one roll. These difficulties are at the root of the malaise that regularly affects players attempting to play in epic games; with each boring or botched combat, players lose interest no matter how fun the story may be.
This of course translates across all levels of play, and a good GM must make all aspects of their story and encounters interesting enough to maintain the players' attention, but epic rules place a magnifying lens on the aspects of action that are hardest to maintain (show off and dramatic combat), while removing entirely the middle ground of combat encounters due to the nature of epic storytelling; that is, incidental yet difficult combat that characterizes D20 fantasy.
Ultimately, we must recognize that epic rules are intrinsically meant more for a dramatic approach, meaning that the story should take precedence over the tactical aspect of the game to avoid the pitfalls that normally plague epic role playing. We see this approach in the games of Nobilis and Amber Diceless.
And yet, there does exists a need to create a game system that conforms somehow to the unique requirements of an epic game without disrupting the narrative nature of an epic story, while also satisfying player and game master expectations of system mechanics. Though such an undertaking may be epic in scope, it is not, as such, impossible.
*D20 fantasy used here to be succinct.