Wednesday, 15 July 2009

staging epic conflict

This post over at Campaign Mastery deals with the question of the showdown with a powerful wizard; there's some sage advice yet it got me thinking about epic and how to do larger than life without cheese. So what makes epic, well, epic?
  1. Bigger - Scale makes a difference. Road trip to Mordor is. Going shopping (usually) isn't. Crossing a mountain range with elephants is. Crossing town (usually) isn't. Some common sense is best applied but yes, bigger is usually better. This is one lesson that Hollywood teaches with every blockbuster; from Transformers to Saving Private Ryan.
  2. Battle - Conflict is a driving force and battle is conflict on a large scale; consider the sea battles of Hornblower, the 300 Spartans of Thermopylae, the sack of Rome or Custer's Last Stand. In large battles, ordinary people are made small and extraordinary deeds are writ large by those who survive and remember.
  3. Enchantment - Magic is a common theme. Whether it's flames surrounding Brunnhilde, the sword of a hero that can cleave stone, a lamp that contains a jinn or a blue rose; the presence of magic and magical things provide extraordinary boons or challenges for the heroes to face and the villains to reveal.
  4. Heroic heroes - Going back to Homer, heroes are given desirable attributes and rightly so; for these people represent virtues. Fleet-footed Achilles, cunning Odysseus, strong Hercules - to give Joe Average epic scope, give them a chance to show heroic endurance in the face of adversity.
  5. Magical & mythic things - The presence of the fantastic gives a sense of the epic; it is hard not to do epic in the presence of a dragon. Equally the presence of myth (passing down explanations for traditions) and ritual embeds the epic in the memorable and helps to transmit those traditions in a virtuous cycle.
  6. Romance - Not just hearts & flowers; also exploring emotional extremes as well as the inherent beauty of nature and the world. The emotional component can drive characters in the story to extremes; the revenge of the forty-seven ronin and the love that Lancelot and Guinevere have are but two examples.
  7. Supernatural - Whether it's the Underworld of Gilgamesh, the Grail kingdom of Sarras in the Morte D'Arthur or the fabled lands of Sindbad's voyages. Space opera replaces this with alien worlds; in the Star Wars cycle Bespin, Hoth and Endor provide different environments and experiences.
  8. Justice - The ending need not be a happy one but it needs to be just. Ulysses after his ten-year voyage is happily reunited with his loyal wife after a reckoning with her suitors. Beowulf dies a hero when taking on a dragon almost single-handedly. The tale need not have a moral but must itself be moral.
Removing cheese from this menu means the following:
  1. Avoiding repeated use of obvious cliches. Having villains in black is a convenient short-hand but it's also obvious. Think about the Stormtroopers in Star Wars and how this was specifically inverted. It made them memorable. Look at TV Tropes for examples of how this is executed well (and badly) by various media.
  2. Being internally consistent. The epic must also be believable; the presence of a deus ex machina may have appropriate use (the eagles in Lord of The Rings who save Frodo and Sam are foreshadowed by Gandalf's rescue (and Bilbo's in The Hobbit) even if they could have circumvented a lot of the journey through Mordor...

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