This post is inspired by a recent session of City of Heroes I played over the weekend with a house mate. While the topic is inspired by the game, it is applicable to our table top games as well. See, in City of Heroes they've started doing things called "Signature Story Arcs" which are series of missions released every month that tell a longer story - kind of like buying comics at the store. It occurred to me and a friend today, after playing Who Will Die part 6 of 7 - that the story arcs make us feel more important and powerful int he game than the actual epic level content. Why? Well, let's look into that.
Epic mechanics are, well, just that. They are mechanics to give powers/abilities to what the game has deemed "epic" level players. The PCs who are supposed to be the movers and shakers of the world are the ones with access to this. In D&D this is generally considered to be level 20+. Other games have their own view of it as well. They do a good job of making someone feel powerful too, especially if used right. I mean, who doesn't like firing a 30D6 fireball when the max damage is supposed to be 10d6? Or the ability to arm wrestle a great wyrm and win? Maybe you want to be able to stare down a dracolich and never bat an eye? These are the abilities for you.
The problem with them is though, they're just mechanics when it comes down to it. But I'll explain that later.
An epic story on the other hand can completely disregard mechanics and still hold onto it's feel of epicness. For example, and this is kind of a cheat, but let's use someone else's world for this. Let's say that we're playing in a Star Wars game - post Return of the Jedi. The GM can make things feel more epic really quickly just by dropping in people you know from the universe. The mission your on? Yeah, that is at the personal request of Luke Skywalker. more to the point though, Luke is going on the mission with you. Sure, maybe he'll save you once or twice, but you save him once or twice too. Suddenly, you're - potentially low level - character is not only on a first name basis with the Luke Skywalker, but he freaking owes you one.
Other tricks can be used for this as well, but the quickest way to make a story feel epic is to put the players on the level - at least story wise - with the movers and shakers and still hold their own. To take another example, but on a lesser scale, in an L5R game that I'm in two of the PCs killed two Oni in a 2v2 fight. We later found out that 2 of the same kind of Oni (or so it appears) killed 20+ crab samurai when they emerged. That is freaking epic right there. Each PC took down an Oni in single combat, when just one of that exact same kind and type of Oni killed ten other samurai casually? It's awesome. Sure, the mechanics may have a hrd time explaining it, but the story makes it work.
Mechanics vs. Story
The real problem that mechanics has is that Story provides the context for everything. For instance, let's say that your warrior can kill a great wyrm dragon in a 1 on 1 fight. That is awesome. It is epic. However, it may not feel epic if a lot of other people can do it. It doesn't feel as epic when it becomes rote and normal (maybe there are a lot of epic wyrms in the world.) Maybe you do this awesome thing, but no one else in the universe cares or reacts to it?
These are all things that can happen, and they are problems that commonly rob "epic" games of that feel. The GM gets so caught up in challenging the PCs or telling certain aspects of a tale that they forget to provide the storied epicness of it all. This is what I meant when I said that, ultimately, mechanics are just mechanics. There are dozens of ways around mechanics - including just rolling well. There is very few ways to get around the presentation and feel of a story.
So, don't forget that if you want that epic feeling in your game.