Why I’m Starting to Love Epic 4e D&D

I started playing and running 4th Edition Dungeons & Dragons right when it was released. My current ongoing campaign began back then with a party of 1st level characters and now three years later I’ve run over 50 adventures and the party is up to 24th level characters. The campaign has had its share of rough spots and tough times, but overall I’d say it has been an incredibly fun experience and something that I look forward to every other weekend. Dave was also running a campaign that was on the same track as mine only slightly ahead (and in the same game world), but due to a myriad of reasons a few weeks ago we ran a day long, co-DMed finale that closed his game out in style with unrestrained awesomeness.

Since then I’ve been thinking about how I’m going to close my campaign out and thinking about exactly how much longer I want to run this game. What I’m discovering more and more as I think about it is that running epic level 4th Edition is some of the most fun I’ve ever had running or playing in any D&D game.

Some Disclaimers

As I’ve discussed a few times before, when I started running this campaign I was without a doubt a “newbie DM” and my attempts at writing, planning, and running my campaign definitely showed it. This is a disclaimer because now that I have 50 adventures under my belt and a lot of hours of DMing experience it should be expected that I’ve gotten better and that the games I’m running have improved as a result. In addition, I realize that many of these points may not be specific to 4th Edition D&D, they may also apply to any edition of D&D when it gets into the epic style of game play (or any RPG for that matter), but my experiences of running epic games are only in 4e so that’s what I’ll be focusing on.

Another part of this disclaimer is that player investment builds over time in a campaign and that adds to the overall enjoyment at the table as well. Last but not least there’s the simple fact that the epic tier is meant to be epic, and therefore awesome in its own right as the players become super powerful and go up against greater and greater threats. I believe all of these are fairly understandable reasons for why I am enjoying running epic level D&D so much, but I’d like to explore some of the other reasons and the finer points of the matter.

Everything AND the +5 Vorpal Kitchen Sink

The aspect that I’m probably enjoying the most about running epic level 4e is that I feel like I can throw practically anything I want at the party. Monsters that are 4 or 5 levels higher than the party will most likely be challenging but unless there’s a solo they stand very little chance of it getting anywhere close to killing the whole party. Even before level 24 when most Epic Destinies grant death defying abilities, many of my players have abilities that allow them to skirt the edge of death. My wife has been playing a cleric for the entire game and even despite her lack of focus on healing her Healing Word ability still gives characters an insanely high number of hit points.

I’ll freely admit that in the heroic and paragon tiers of play I was deeply concerned about the level of difficulty I was throwing at my players and how their characters could handle it mechanically. Being almost entirely free of those concerns is extremely satisfying as a DM and I’m sure it is contributing to the ease of my running the latest adventures of my game and the amount of fun I’m having doing it. There is a certain glee that can be found in the DM’s attempts at creating an all-out massacre and the players/characters abilities to disrupt those efforts. I know that some DMs run with the mindset of “unrestrained opposition” to the characters, and I know that there are some players who really don’t like that style of game, but my feeling is that in the epic tier the players don’t mind it as much and it has been incredibly fun for me as the DM. At least for me, I can’t speak for my players that much, my campaign has recently taken on an enhanced feeling of the DM vs. Players style of game but with an incredibly friendly vibe.

Finally Solving Problems at the Source

Think about your typical heroic and paragon plot lines. In heroic games you’re killing priests of Orcus, and in paragon maybe you’re getting to the point of fighting Aspects of Orcus, but in the epic tier you get to close out the quests by fighting Orcus himself and potentially solving the problems of priests and aspects at the same time. Not only are the players/characters finally getting a chance to actually solve the major problems in the universe around them, but their actions are also on a much bigger scale and with that comes outcomes on a larger scale as well. During the paragon adventures of my game if the party had failed I would have had cities or maybe even large parts of nations destroyed or otherwise hindered due to their failure. Now that we’re in the epic tier, if they fail at their quests entire worlds and planes of existence are at risk!

Some Intricacies of Epic Characters

One element of epic level 4e that I did not anticipate is that a lot of the little nitpicking details that can creep up in a game and even grind it to a halt can be easily hand waved or ignored due to the nature of how powerful the characters have become. Questions like “How did we get here?” or “Wait, how do you know that?” aren’t big concerns anymore because it can all be simply implied in your characters being complete badasses. Even if you do take the time to worry about the smaller issues, often the rules or players will have an easy way to handle it by this point anyway and it is resolved quickly without much concern.

Along the same lines, epic level characters have become so powerful that they are extremely hard to kill but when they are in danger of dying or being eliminated from the game it’s a much bigger threat because of how hard it is to replace an epic character in your universe. If the world loses an epic character then it is a significant amount of time and effort that is gone, sure the player can roll up another character but if the party keeps losing epic level heroes than surely their opponents will win in the long run. Outside of any specific mechanics, there is a a lot of potential power encapsulated in an epic level D&D character and that’s something that everyone playing the game can feel, which can lend to a very different style of play when it comes to actually running the game.

The Synergy Bonus & Some Issues with Epic

I have to mention the concept that Phil the Chatty DM first introduced me to which is the party synergy bonus that shows up after a decent amount of time with one group playing 4e D&D. As I said earlier, I’ve run 50 adventures now and four of my regular players have been playing the same characters for nearly all of the campaign. After even a small number of adventures, they started to figure out how to work together effectively and what each player (and character) was capable of and enjoyed doing in the game. It was first noticeable for me at the end of the heroic tier when they completely and totally nuked one of my final bosses in two turns without him getting any significant actions during the combat. Through the paragon tier I still struggled with it, but now with all of the elements I’ve mentioned in this post I feel more free to simply throw whatever I can at the party and marvel as they figure out insane ways to survive it and completely ruin all of my plans.

Of course I also have to mention some of the downsides that are very clear with running an epic level game in 4e D&D, and as I said earlier many of these are things that have existed in earlier editions of D&D and in other RPGs but still I have to bring them up. There is a lot of stuff to keep track of in the epic tier during combat. You have multiple zones being thrown down every combat, numerous bonuses/penalties heaped together on the PCs and Monsters alike, various movements to track, and a ton of reaction and interrupt actions that can make a single round of the game more and more confusing. Even with 4th Edition’s efforts to reduce these kinds of things, when you get to the higher levels all of the little things start to add up and it can become a huge pain in the ass.

That said, this post is titled “Why I’m Starting to Love Epic 4e D&D” because everything else I’ve talked about in this post vastly outweighs the pain in the ass elements and leads to me having more fun running and playing D&D then I’ve had in a long time! My biggest concern at the moment is that the epic level of play is the least supported tier in the newest D&D supplements. The first DMG focused on the heroic tier, the DMG2 focused on the paragon tier, and then the DMG3 was cancelled and I’m really afraid that this trend will continue. I understand why it has happened, everything I’ve heard points to the epic tier being the least played element of 4th Edition, but at least one thing I hope to accomplish with this article is to get people excited and trying this aspect of 4e D&D despite any issues or fears they may have heard about it.

Comments

  1. Good stuff

  2. Great post! I too am looking forward to bringing my players into epic tier (though we still have a ways to go as they only just hit 14th). I do agree with the concerns about the amount of content though.

    I understand that it is the least played tier in the game (probably by a wide margin) but I have to wonder if some of it isn’t a simple matter of Chicken or the Egg. Do people not play because there isn’t much support? Or is there not much support because people don’t play? In any event, I think its becoming a viscious cycle. While I’m really looking forward to running the epic tier (in time), I’m a bit concerned that I just might not have enough good material to run a good campaign through all ten levels. I’m fine with short cutting a bit, but there’s just a certain extra something about being able to say “We went all the way from 1st to 30th!”

    The good news is that it sounds as though WotC realizes the problem and that they are making a concerted effort to bring out some more epic material. I just hope there’s enough. At the very least though, Epic Tier will allow for some truly epic battles, even if I have to take short cuts through the tier!

  3. Roger Alix-Gaudreau says:

    I’m glad to see some positive ink spilled about 4E at the epic tier! The kind of stuff you describe — setting up a tough scenario and watching your players defy death and logic to defeat it — is one of my favorite aspects of the game even at the heroic tier, so I’m looking forward to seeing it magnified in epic. I ran 3E and 3.5E campaigns into the mid-20’s, so I’ve seen the insanity (and reveled in it!), but I’m looking forward to it in this edition. My PCs just hit 10th level, so paragon is around the corner for me, but I’m already laying story plans for the final, most glorious tier of the game.

    With regard to the lack of official support, I presume that’s directly proportional to the amount of play happening at various levels. I’m not sure it’s quite chicken-and-egg, as it’s been the case with every edition of D&D that there’s more play at lower levels. With that in mind, WotC is just spending more of their limited resources supporting the portions of the game that most of their customers use. That said, I would not be sad to see more epic tier support in the near future. Before 5E hits the shelves, at least. 😉

  4. First of all I have to say this is the second time I’ve heard some disappointment with lack of 4e epic support. That is definitely a bummer to hear.

    With that out of the way I am seriously envious of your campaign!!! I can’t seem to find a 4e group myself locally. Worse yet my usual group usually stick with old school editions and systems with death around every corner. I’ve been playing with them for over two years and I have never been past level 5. I don’t think anyone has been past level 8 maximum.

    I am really hoping I can get involved with such an “epic” campaign that you have been lucky enough to take part in.

  5. You’ve been enjoying epic, despite the longer combats? I have not run an epic campaign, but across the blogosphere that is one of the biggest complaints I see… or do you have some way of dealing with that?

  6. Princeearwig says:

    The lack of epic level support goes back all th way in all the incarnations of D&D. 0D&D had the Masters set and then Immortals but between them they had less published adventures than the Companion tier.
    The Epic Level handbook came out for 3.5 but that was about it, some fotonotes in other books but nothing really treating the capmaign level with the attention it deserved.
    The reason for this is, I think, that the characters become so potentiall varied at the upper echelons and the campaign so deeply ingrained with “their” deeds that any published content will marvelously fail to encompass even a fraction of what is potentially possible with a GM who knows his players and is closely tied into the campaign.

    So unless your playing a published adventure Path that was designed to go from 1-30 it’s unlikely any published stuff will cut the mustard.

  7. This post is extremely relevant to my game, as my players are all 20th level and most are one fight away from 21. While I typically write my own adventures, I am slightly dismayed by the underwhelming amount of monsters available in epic tier. While in previous editions, I used to spend hours building custom monsters and NPC’s to create the most insanely hideous challenges possible (ran for 3.5 characters up to level 39), I’ve never felt comfortable enough with the out-and-out monster building rules in 4e to do the same thing. So my DM skills have gotten kind of complacent, as with 4e I feel I’m able to just grab monsters out of the book and weave a story of the same quality, with the same suspense, allowing me to focus on what’s happening in the game world.

    I do look forward to running epic 4e, though. I think the system is much better designed to support epic play, at least from a player standpoint. I’m totally willing to write adventures and plots for my epic game (which I feel is best), but I’d like to have more crunch available to bring to the table.

  8. Gargs: I’m sure it’s almost entirely that there is less content because it is less played, people who want to play Epic are most likely going to do it no matter how many monsters there are for it. I’m actually starting to think that I might try to be the “Epic ambassador” and try to push some more epic content on WotC sometime soon. I am a huge fan of the “we went all the way from 1st to 30th” and I’m glad my current campaign is looking like that will happen. My plan AFTER that is to build on that feeling by running mini-campaigns, episodic in nature, and fill in different areas across all the levels and the different regions of my campaign world.

    Roger: Glad you’re looking forward to it, and I hope your game makes it into epic so you do get a chance to fully enjoy everything I’ve talked about here!

    cfallsgamer: Good luck finding a group nearby, it’s definitely worth it in my opinion to try a longer running 4e game. While I also enjoy the “death around the corner” style of D&D it’s definitely a different way to play, and vastly different from the epic stuff I’m talking about here!

    Sunyaku: So far in my experience, as long as I put effort towards making sure combat doesn’t drag out (providing lots of non-combat outs if necessary) then I haven’t noticed Epic combat being any longer than paragon or even some heroic tier combat ASIDE from some of my less experienced players needing more time to decide what to do (due to having so many options). I think the complaint more so is that 4e combat IN GENERAL can take a long time though. I still keep my epic combat encounters to 1 or 1.5 hours on average.

    Princeearwig: You’re pretty much right about that, but with the epic tier being included in the core books I am happy to see as much support as we have gotten. My biggest concern is probably the DMG concern I mention in my post, I really want to see more writing put towards advice and discussion about the epic tier and not JUST more mechanics to be used.

    Aeryn: Good luck, that’s very exciting! I will say that once my players hit level 21 I stopped tracking XP and just have them level up after every 2 adventures (for a variety of reasons). The first Monster Vault book (NOT the Nentir Vale one) has some really good Epic level monsters in it (mostly demons and dragons) and the MM3 actually has a decent amount as well. Now that I’m getting into mid-to-late Epic I’m finding the Dark Sun monster book has some particularly vicious epic level villains in it!

  9. My favorite part of epic play when I DM is indeed the incredible stakes: entire worlds, planes, the whole multiverse… that gets everyone’s attention and really creates some amazing, truly epic tales. The scope of the story can and should jump to incredible heights in epic play.

  10. Hi,
    I think my group might be only group in the world that plays a epic-god like level 2nd edition…yes, AD&D. We started playing this campaign when 3ed had just been released and then we didn’t feel like changing into it for a variety of reasons. But actually we have changed and adapted so many of the rules that the system itself is not so much of a concern anymore.
    Anyways, the PCs in the game are around level 23, but were given extra powers by a demi-goddess who fights other demigods around the world of Faerûn, that had been given life by Lord AO using the essence of old/forgotten deities. Nine, exactly, one for each of the system’s allignments (from Lawfull Good to True Neutral to Chaotic Evil and all the combinations…).
    It is so fun now because that original demigoddess that once shared her powers with them have been sort of put away by those foes and they had to carry out her work, and her followers eventually shifted to the PCs as icons of her glory and faith. And so, imbued with the powers that these followers provide (we agreed that gods gain power according to the number, power and level of devotion/fear of their followers), now their next step is to find her divine essence that was lost when she was put away. This Divine Essence manifests itself according to the divine aspects she used to represent (like the normal gods in D&D do) and then, once they find these aspects, become gods themselves so they can end this conflict in the world. But now, they are sort of getting in touch with other planes of existence and getting involved in much much higher schemes that are difficult to find a source of inspiration or even examples of adventures in this point.
    Any suggestions? haha thanks =P
    Julio

  11. I mean, not only of monsters or the mechanics of the game itself, since it’s another system, but rather storylines & plots in this level of epicness =P
    BTW, I feel the same way when we play, it’s a rather friendly environment with us speeding up some parts of the process (like you said: ‘how do we get there/how do we get this information’), focusing on what is really important, rather then DM making the player’s lives difficult. It’s really much more envjoyable.

  12. Tim McGrath says:

    Great article but…my group is in heroic and when I DM I find it hard to make monsters that challenge the party. I usually use monsters of +1-3 levels above the party and they still wipe the floor with them My players are really smart …Any ideas?

  13. Julio: I can’t recommend enough picking up any of the Epic Level books from any previous edition of D&D, but also books like the Plane Above book for 4E provide a large number of very rich ideas for epic level campaign ideas including ones for parties that are ascending to godhood and large concept ideas like that.

    Tim: If you haven’t yet, you should check out the Sly Flourish blog and some of Mike’s pimped out monsters there to challenge your players. Definitely use mostly (if not ONLY) monsters from the MM3, Demonomicon, Dark Sun Creature Catalog, and the Monster Vault books that have been updated with the newest 4E monster math.

    If you’re comfortable improvising monster stats a bit and you’re finding that even tough monsters aren’t doing enough damage to the party then double all damage they deal or add healthy amounts to it at least.

  14. Danny,
    thank you for the info, I’m definetly going to look for this book. Hm, actually I’m looking forward to it!!! Cheers =D