(Throughout this, I’ll be speaking as if all the ideas were mine. This isn’t true, but the ideas have changed a bit since I and my two friends first came up with them, and a lot of work has taken place since then. Rather than parse out who came up with what, I basically look at this as my idea at this point – not in where it came from, but in where it is now.)
Epic has three main settings, and perhaps four, though the forth one is the least-defined. The one on which I’ve done the most work, by far, is the fantasy setting called Epic Dawn. The concept for the setting is for an entire world with multiple centers of civilization, each with their own feel. The setting is in the mythical past, but rather than the usual medieval setting, we chose something closer to the Bronze and Iron Ages. Except for a few games like Agon, I don’t think there are many Bronze Age roleplaying games. Its an interesting setting, for me, because there is even more legendary material than a normal medieval-era setting. It is a time that is associated with the burgeoning of new ideas like geometry and democracy, side by side with intense mysticism and stories of monsters and heroes. It is also, in some ways, less defined, giving more leeway in presenting the time period than something set closer to the present day.
The overall world for Epic Dawn is in many ways similar to Earth. In the standard setting, the world is just coming out of a long Ice Age which followed some cataclysm that is barely remembered. There are strange ruins scattered around the world which hint at a strange civilization that preceded the current inhabitants, but all meaningful traces of them appear to be gone. Any useful materials in these ruins have long since been scavenged and put to other uses, and whatever symbols are found cannot be interpreted. Of course, every civilization has its own version of this past apocalypse explaining why and how it came about, but the few students of that ancient civilization know that it is mostly conjecture.
For all of my main civilizations, I took cues from historical civilizations on Earth and then did whatever I wanted with them. First, though, a few assumptions that they all basically share.
For this system and setting, I wanted a more interesting system of magic than I had encountered in other games up to this point. Magic is almost always arbitrary in how it is constructed – basically, you say some weird words and make some odd gestures and a fireball results. The other option is that magic is very loosely defined, categorized into general forces in the world or categories of influence, leading to a free-form system that loses a lot of its mystery and interest because it doesn’t come from somewhere.
This is very distinct from magical and occult systems from our own history and even the modern day. Usually, magic had two general sources – the first is essentially the established religion. That might be a cult dedicated to a particular deity, or a larger pantheon, etc. The second is the spirits of nature, often outside of the influence of the established faith and therefore contrary to it. These may be lesser, local spirits, or simply symbols of the forces of nature. The first assumption comes out of this:
1. Magic comes from the interaction of the material world and the spirit world.
Since I wanted a game that had an epic feel, I had to figure out where these heroes, who will presumably have special powers, come from. I started thinking about legendary stories and fantasy fiction, especially things like the Lord of the Rings. In these stories, lineage plays a large part in who you are and what makes you a hero (or villain). Sometimes this lineage is mundane – you are simply the child of an exceptional family (for example: Harry Potter, Frodo Baggins). Other times, this lineage is supernatural. Somewhere in the past, there was a union between a spiritual being and one of your ancestors (for example: Heracles, Elrond). In this case, the term I use for the spiritual being in your lineage is Immortal, because it may be a deity or a spirit, an angel or a demon, etc.
This also fit into the Bronze Age idea of rulers being children of the gods, or children of heaven, in a literal sense. It was a short step to decide that these Halflings, half-immortals, would be the rulers of many of the major civilizations in the setting. The ruling class would be, in essence, part-divine. Hence, two more assumptions:
2. Your identity comes in large part from your lineage, and the great (or evil) deeds of your ancestors can alter the course of your own life.
3. The greatest rulers and heroes are those who have an Immortal in their bloodline, called Halflings (among other things). They are always more powerful than human beings and live a very long time, if not indefinitely.
For a game to be epic, and often for it to be fantasy, there has to be something significant at stake, both for the wider world and for the character in particular. I wanted a moral aspect built into the game, but one that was more interesting than the usual sense that Good and Evil (or perhaps Law and Chaos) were opposed to each other, evenly balanced in a sort of Zoroastrian dichotomy, and that you adhered to one or the other in the cosmic battle.
The image I had in mind was from the Star Wars original trilogy, when Luke and Vader meet and though Vader is undoubtedly evil, Luke can sense the good that was in him that is still there, buried. This is more than Luke being Good and Vader being Evil. Luke also had to undergo a struggle to resist the lure of the Dark Side for himself. I liked that sense that “evil” was a universal lure that many fell to some of the time, but that redemption was always theoretically possible. I also liked the idea that evil, while selfish and harmful, was also advantageous.
The idea I came up with was to have every character have an Ideal that they follow, but to also have a Shadow. Every villain thinks they are doing the right thing – they are following their Ideal – but the means are important. How you follow your idea is what makes you and what you do good or evil (in my view at least). If you pursue your Ideal by any means, you fall to your Shadow, which makes you powerful but also corrupts you and what you accomplish. If you pursue your Idea while resisting your Shadow, it is much more difficult and slow going, but the fruits of your labors are more…well, idea. This results in a final assumption of the setting:
4. Heroes follow their Ideal while also resisting their Shadow, whereas villains follow their Ideal but fall to their Shadow and become corrupted.
A fifth assumption centers around a source of conflict that shows itself in all of the Epic settings – in Epic Dawn it is shifted in one direction; in Epic Dusk it is at a crucial turning-point and the consequences play out; and in Epic Night it has turned entirely in the other direction. The assumption has to do with the interaction of the material and the spiritual world:
5. Spirit arises from the natural world, and is impinged by the encroachment of development and technology.
The relationship is more complex than this, really, but the fundamental assumption is there. Another way to say this might be that spirit is an emergent order in the world, and the order that mortals impose on the world is in conflict with it.