I don't know about you, but when I hear the word 'Adventure' I inevitably start to think of the term 'Epic'. An Epic Adventure. The term by definition means heroic, majestic or impressively great, which in my mind encompasses the very nature of a tabletop campaign. By the end of this thing, we should on some level have an epic poem, assuming someone took the time to write it all down. Not that I'm suggesting that any D&D game is some literary masterpiece, but it's the idea that what you've done in-game is something worthy of note in-game.
To this extent, how do we define 'Epic' in game terms, and how do we achieve that from a gameplay perspective? This is something that I've set as one of my goals from the DM side of the table: make the thing feel Epic. After all it's easy to say what the PCs do is epic, but how does one get the feeling of Epicness? Feel free to follow along as I try to tackle this idea.
Since 'heroic' isn't always an option when dealing with players, let's go with the more common use of the word, impressively great. This would suggest 'scale' as the main factor, but also 'impact'. If you keep these two factors in mind, then the rest should follow suit from there
When dealing with scale, the idea is that whatever the conflict is, the stakes need to be high. This is of course a matter of perspective. The standard cliche is the fate of the world at-large. (of course!) I mean blowing up a planet is pretty big right? It's huge! The whole planet has to be big, right? Not necessarily. If your campaign is dealing with a single nation or continent, then yeah, the planet is pretty big by comparison. For a Galactic Empire though, destroying a planet is the equivalent of orcs raiding a small town. On the inverse, if you're only looking at a single battle, like in the movie 300, the fate of an entire nation might be big enough.
Not only does this imply the stakes at hand, but also the size of the threat involved. For a bunch of Spartans in 300, an army of 300,000 Persians is an Epic sized threat. For disaster movies, like 2012 or Armageddon, the expected level of devastation is often total. Armies without number and devourers of worlds are the kinds of threats you'd see in comic books and movies and they do manage the Epic level in terms of scale. I mean, that's freaking huge! Yet despite this, it may still end up feeling like Tuesday for the heroes. Which brings us to the second part of the equation...
In Star Wars: A New Hope, they actually did blow up a planet: Alderaan. The tragedy is not in the act, but the effect: Who cares? Princess Leia was devastated, but I as a viewer was not impressed. Alderaan is never brought up again. Ever. They might as well have shot some nameless red shirt for all the impact that had. The idea of the weapon being used to destroy something else is a major plot point, however. The event was not nearly as important as the threat of it happening again. If we want to make something truly Epic, it has to have weight. An actions' consequences need to be widespread and alter things on a grand scale. Let's take another look at this example. To the viewers, the fate of this planet was equal to someone kicking a puppy. It's mean and nasty, but not exactly grand. To the Rebel Alliance, it signals a weapon of destructive force so grand that it must be stopped. To Princess Leia, she lost her home planet.
Impact is basically a measure of the effect of a given cause. When something happens, who is affected, what is changed, and how far does this effect go? Sometimes this is a personal or Internal Impact. The character is the one affected because some place/person they know on an intimate level has been affected. Maybe an old friend is killed, or their home town got razed. Sometimes this is an External Impact. Some part of the world/setting is altered. Wars get started, organizations restructure, governments crumble, etc..
Internal Impacts help to tie the character to what is going on, while External ones should have farther reaching implications, and ripple effects that may come back to provide plot elements at a later time.
For this to be of use on the creative side, any given act by either the Protagonists or the Antagonists should have some measure of scale and impact. This is especially true of the protagonists if you want to evoke a feeling of importance in the game. The more influence they have on the setting, the closer we approach that feeling of Epic. Of course not every game needs to feel Epic, nor do I think you should start your campaign at Epic. If that is indeed what you are going for, a gradual build is a good thing. That gives time for characters to get attached to things, like various locales or NPCs, which builds on personal Internal Impact.
In storytelling, it's better to show than to tell, so how do you show your PCs that they are in-fact Epic? Contrast of ripple effects. Let's say, for example, your level nobody PC beats your combat encounter and kills a bandit. In most cases, for someone to Win someone else must Lose, and they usually don't like it. Of course you give some positive reinforcement, maybe the gratitude of a couple of locals, but there are other factors. Maybe that dude has a few friends who come back to make trouble later on. Since your PC is still a schmuck probably just a couple of thugs. Now let's make this Epic. An Epic level PC kills and Epic level baddy, say the Bandit King of Insert-Country-Here. On the positive, you've disbanded a crime organization and maybe crime drops in the kingdom for a while, until someone new rises up. Maybe to prove himself, that guy decides he's going to topple the Heroes that killed his predecessor. Maybe there are a number of thugs vying for that particular throne. Let's not forget the dead king's supporters or family who now have cause for revenge. By increasing the scale, the impact needs to escalate accordingly.
The idea basically is that actions have consequences, both positive and negative, and the larger and further reaching these are the more power is associated. The more power that is thrown around with every simple action, the more larger-than-life the character/thing appears. Larger-than-life characters doing larger-than-life things tends to lean more towards the feeling of Epicness we're going for. I'm sure that there is more to the equation, but this is what my meat-brain has come up with. If anyone with more experience knows other factors or ideas, I'd love to hear them!
Time to wrap this up before I get hauled off for word abuse. So what about you all out there? How did you make your PCs/NPCs/Villainous Super Weapons all the more Epic? When was the last time some other DM made you feel Epic?
SPARTANS! TONIGHT WE STAY CLASSY!