Dissecting Story: What Defines Epic?


Dissecting Story: What Defines Epic?

The world of the modern-day MMORPG is defined by standard, run-of-the-mill, repeatable and same/same questlines that are meant to be consumed at a rapid pace. They are grocery runs to the local market to pick up bread and milk; quickly completed, and easily forgotten. When we first approached storytelling and how we wanted the content in our game to play out, there was never any doubt in our minds that we wanted to avoid grocery runs, and instead focus on epic adventures. 

But what defines epic?

Is it length? Does the time it takes to complete a task (or series of tasks) make something epic?

Is it uniqueness? Does being original (let’s be honest, fetch quests are anything but) make something epic?

Is it effort? Does something being difficult (the direct opposite of a grocery run) make it arbitrarily epic?

Is it teamwork? Does something requiring multiple people (and all the myriad personalities beyond just your own) make it epic?

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While all of those things in and of themselves contribute to something being anything other than short, easy, bland, or soloable, they still aren’t enough on their own to contribute to something being defined as epic in scope. Just adding the requisite of more bodies doesn’t make something epic, just as much as making something more difficult isn’t as easy as turning a knob and making it take longer to complete. I could easily say that assembling a desk chair with a hand-held screwdriver is more difficult than assembling it with the use of a power drill, but neither of those tasks is inherently epic, regardless of how “challenging” they are.

When we started to look at what really defined epic adventures, we found that it came down to a combination of the elements above, along with some other bits and pieces that spice things up. This world originally started as a D&D campaign, which in and of itself was inspired by literature, ranging from The Lord of the Rings to The Dragonlance Chronicles to The Wheel of Time and The Dark Elf Trilogy, the Riftwar Saga, the Memory, Sorrow, and Thorn series, and many more beyond.

One of my personal favorite examples when looking at what defines an epic adventure is the entire Lord of the Rings setting. You can see elements of small group adventures: Merry and Pippin off on their own adventures in Rohan and Gondor with the various heroes that join them; the four hobbits making their way to Bree and dealing with the barrows; Aragorn, Gimli, and Legolas chasing after the orcs.  And there’s even some solo adventuring, such as Gandalf studying lore in Minis Tirith. But the core of the story is about taking the One Ring to Mordor, and that’s no short and simple task that can be done by a lone wolf or even a small group.

We’ve talked a lot about using the Ring and Shawl quests from the Velious expansion in EverQuest as a baseline for what we want all of our quests and storylines to look like, but an example I’ve used a lot over the past two years has been looking at the quest to destroy the One Ring in its entirety.

The Council of Elrond takes place on October 25th. The Fellowship doesn’t leave Rivendell until December 25th. What the hell were they doing for two months?

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This is where “epic” is put into proper scope. In a truly adventurous setting, the world is a dangerous place. Running willy-nilly out the front door without any plans is akin to suicide. You need to be fully prepared for what lies down that road, or at least as prepared as you can possibly be. And that means planning and preparation. In the case of The Fellowship, it was two months of preparing weapons, supplies, and finalizing the list of candidates…and even with all that planning, things went awry at various times and the Fellowship had to deal with random events (party members unable to log in for a few sessions; aka Gandalf disappearing for a time) along the way.

From there, it wasn’t until March 25th that the Ring was destroyed; basically three months and multiple adventures from the time they set out from the initial starting point. And while bits and pieces were completed by small groups and, yes, even a duo or trio here and there, the vast majority of what was going on revolved around the group as a whole, and each of the adventuring parties they joined up with along the way.

Which is just what you’ll be doing in our game. You’ll have your major quests that require you to form a static group or be in a guild to complete. The “destroy the One Ring” type of adventures and campaigns. And along the way you’ll branch off from time to time and work on side quests and adventures with other people who aren’t part of your main group. The “Pippin goes off to Gondor” parts, the “Merry joins the Riders of Rohan” parts, the “Frodo and Sam off with Smeagol” parts, and the “Aragorn, Gimli, and Legolas on the Paths of the Dead” parts. You’ll even have a few “Gandalf rummaging around the ancient library looking for lore” parts.

But at the end of the day, the campaigns and adventures that we want players to explore in our world are those which require time, effort, and teamwork to complete, and we want them to be unique enough that players remember them 10 years or 20 years later. We’re building a world here, one we want leaving a mark on players just as much as they leave their mark on the world as well.

If Frodo had been able to simply zip his way to Mordor with nary a stop along the way, completing the task in a matter of mere days or (even more horrific) hours, as is the current allowance of most modern-day MMORPGs and other games, what challenge would there be? What investment of time and self would there be? What relationships would be built up along the way? And at the end of the day, would he have really accomplished anything that epic, anything worth remembering in a few weeks’ time, let alone years later?

The answer is no. Because you can’t do anything truly epic by yourself, in a short amount of time, with little to no effort.

Adventuring Parties