Epic Fantasyby RJ Grady
Epic Fantasyby RJ Grady
IN GENRE: Epic Fantasy
by RJ Grady
What Genre Are We In?
In this column, we treat the genre of modern Epic High Fantasy. The term "epic" comes to us, as so many do, from the Greeks. The original Epic was a poetic form that treated the lives of legendary Greek heroes. As an adjective, epic describes things of a grand scale, such as heroes, terrible monsters, and the miracles of the Gods. High Fantasy is a sub-set of modern fantasy that concerns an invented world, a world of magic. An alternate or secret history of Earth that includes magic counts under this definition. Modern Epic High Fantasy is a genre of literature concerned with heroic characters adventuring in a world of magic. Typically, epic fantasy focuses on a quest or a battle against a great supernatural evil. The stories are larger than life, filled with the enchantment and exalted human virtues of myth. An epic fantasy typically has a beginning, middle, and end, and are often published as trilogies or series.
In its current form, epic fantasy came into being with the publication of "The Lord of the Rings" in 1955 and 1956. Tolkien's passion was the myths that would become "The Silmarillion," a work of limited commercial appeal. He wrote "The Lord of the Rings" as a sort of sequel to his highly successful "The Hobbit." But "The Lord of the Rings" was no child's fairy tale; it was a heroic adventure set in an imagined world of magic, complete with its own peoples, languages, history, and magic. Tolkien, a scholar, drew heavily from the Anglo-Saxon tradition, particularly Norse tales of the Alfar. The broken sword, the cursed gold ring, and the lost High King all have their ancestors in medieval myth. Tolkien, a Christian, conceived the story as a struggle between good and evil. The story was intended to be the story of what happened in an imaginary land, not a theological treatment, as he had no appetite for allegory.
Relatives of epic fantasy include Arthurian Romance (the rise and fall of Camelot), historical romances (like the movie "Spartacus" or the stories of Robin Hood), mythological fantasy (Norse, Greek, and Hindu myth all commonly appear in modern stories), and apocalyptic horror (like Stephen King's "The Stand").
Building an Epic Game
Epic fantasy offers great freedom for the world-builder. Epic worlds are full of things grand and ancient, magical and mysterious, bright and joyful, dark and woeful. Often, an epic campaign can begin with a published game world. But it cannot end there. The player characters are a vital part of an epic world. Whether humble folk thrust into destiny or inheritors of a great legacy, the characters in an epic are all destined to play their parts.
Most epics, following Tolkien's example, take place in a sort of pseudo-Europe, although this need not be the case. The time is a mythic age, often long ago or with that appearance. The gods are often young, their divine acts a matter of dim history, not religion. Rather than the Dark Ages, an epic fantasy could take place in Hellenic Greece, an alternate Renaissance, or even the far future (as some of the Final Fantasy computer games do).
Magic in epic fantasy is capable of nearly anything, depending on the needs of the storyteller. In fact, in Tolkien its power and utility seem to relate directly to dramatic importance. However, in designing an epic game, it is important to decide ahead of time what role magic will play. Characters in epic fantasy rarely slay dragons with spells, but more often do with magic swords.
Morality in the Epic runs to the black and white. It is okay for supporting characters and lieutenants to complex and human, but all the heroes are clearly good and all the adversaries clearly evil. The heroes tend to be extremely ethical, often risking death or disaster rather than betray the principles, morals, causes, or codes of living that motivate them. Conversely, evil in epic fantasy draws its fury from a combination of selfishness and hatred. Heroes may have flaws, and often do, but ultimately place their allegiance in Good, whatever that means in the context of the setting. Villains and foes may have sympathetic traits, but ultimately serve clearly evil purposes, not morally complex ones. In chivalric tales, heroes will be chivalrous and villains treacherous. In spiritual tales, heroes will be honest, merciful, and empathic, and villains will be deceitful, ambitious, and twisted.
Characters in epic fantasy tend to the archetypal. In the classic tale, the story centers around a young hero, inexperienced but full of courage. In an epic fantasy game, one PC may take this role, or it can be shared. Other common character types include nobles in exile, wizards, magical companions, grizzled warriors, and shady hangers-on (who learn to embrace Good by the hero's example). Power level is less important than the sense that each character has a role. Epic parties often include characters of widely varying competence, but before the tale ends, each will have contributed in their own way to victory over evil.
Crossovers are nearly limitless. Almost any high fantasy setting can be turned into an epic by introducing a Great Evil or a Great Quest. High fantasy need not be restricted to Middle Earth; high fantasy can take place amid muskets and cannon, stone-tipped arrows, or soulless skyscrapers. The essential ingredients are magic and exalted deeds.
Plotting an Epic Game
Epic fantasy is a very difficult genre to tackle, for a simple reason. In epic fantasy, good will triumph over evil, often by the slimmest margin. In gaming, good dice rolls and superior firepower triumph over evil... or good. While the premise of an epic game is easy to frame, re-creating the story can be difficult.
Highly lethal combat systems are right out. They would make it impossible for characters to survive from one end to the other of these long, dangerous tales. Either the game needs to include some kind of player storytelling (Dramatic Editing, Force Points, or event cards), or the game needs some way to stack the deck in favor of the PC's, so that the characters are truly in danger only at the climax of each act (D&D's levels are a simple example).
The best campaigns offer several ways for the heroes to win, although this is rarely apparent at first. In contrast to epic stories, where success hinges on wisdom and threadbare luck, epic games should be forgiving of player mistakes. Unless you want to run one depressing anti-epic after another wherein bold but naive heroes are repeatedly battered down and destroyed. In general, unless the situation calls for a committed melee, enemies should always strive to capture or corrupt before choosing to kill. Even if the enemies intend to kill them later, PC's should first be allowed a chance to escape from questioning, or perhaps wonĪt be recognized until too late. Its okay, of course, for faceless minions and brave but doomed defenders of Good to perish by the dozens, but PC's and important NPC's should rarely face death. Paradoxically, because fighting evil is dangerous, the game must offer a measure of safety. Only heroism is dangerous; a mere blade is just a threat.
Dungeons & Dragons (WotC)
Hero System Fifth Edition (DOJ/Hero Games)
GURPS (Steve Jackson Games)
Big Eyes, Small Mouth (Guardians of Order)
Mage: The Sorcerer's Crusade (White Wolf)
Torg (West End Games)
Star Wars (WEG)
The Lord of the Rings Role-playing Game (Decipher)
Exalted (White Wolf)
Tolkien, JRR. The Lord of the Rings
Eddings, David. The Belgariad
Brooks, Terry. Sword of Shannara
Hickman, Tracy and Weis, Margaret. The Dragonlance Chronicles
Donaldson, Stephen R. Lord FoulĪs Bane
Moorcock, Michael. Elric of Melnibone
McKinley, Robin. The Hero and the Crown
Alexander, Lloyd. The Prydain Chronicles
Moon, Elizabeth. The Deed of Paksenarrion
Anderson, Poul. The Broken Sword
Duane, Diane. Young Wizards
King, Stephen. The Stand
Herbert, Dune. Dune
White, T.H. The Once and Future King
Heinrich, D.J. The Penhaligon Trilogy
Hamilton, Edith. Edith Hamilton's Mythology
Campbell, Joseph. The Hero with a Thousand Faces
Lacombe, P. Arms and Armour in Antiquity and the Middle Ages
"The Lord of the Rings"
"Record of Lodoss War" (1990)
"The Neverending Story" (1984)
"Clash of the Titans" (1981)
The Bits Box
Swords of kings, wizard staves, little people, dragons, unplanned detours, vast caverns, bad guys in armor, magical rings, princes and princesses, friendly or unfriendly barbarians, evil empires, seers and oracles, elves, goblins, giants, trolls, magical places, forests, keeps, castles, ancient battlegrounds, unlikely heroes, squires, knights, wizard's apprentices, master smiths, enchanters, bards, rogue-ish sidekicks, queen of the woods, mysterious travelers, royalty in exile, curses, disfigured villains, tombs, books, the fate of the kingdom, the fate of the world, light and darkness, ancient runes, sleeping or dead gods, people who are more than they seem, mentors who die, desperate flights from dangerous circumstances, impregnable fortresses, "It's more dangerous, but it will save us time," orphans, young wards, magical ancestry, the temptation to do evil, restoring what is un-made, peerless riders, incurious villagers, sloppy disguises, betrayal, trusting the heart, small creatures with great hearts, things that are big, things that are ancient, things that are sacred, things that are evil, things that were once men but are now reflections of evil and shadow, a perfect Creation marred by a primeval act of wickedness, enduring retainers, stubborn teenagers, hardened warriors, unexpected succor, prophecies, armies of monsters, evil is its own undoing, "All that is necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing," the heroes being left penniless and in rags (yet again), being captured, bribery, and villains of vast skill and power who nonetheless fall to courage and good will.