The Scaling Woes of 4th Edition Dungeons and Dragons

30 Second Summary

D&D 4e is a wonderful refined combat-focused RPG but it scales poorly as levels increase. While many of the elements of 4e scale along a linear path, many powers and effects scale at a much greater rate resulting in large imbalances between PCs and the threats they face at higher levels. This makes it hard for dungeon masters to challenge PCs. The best way to stay ahead of this curve? First, stick to heroic-tier campaigns and second, stick to post-Essentials D&D source material.

The Linear Power Curve of 4e

Most of the progression of 4e follows a nice straight linear progression. Skills, attributes, defenses, and attack bonuses generally follow linear increases as PCs level. Other effects like combat advantage and a mark’s –2 penalty for attacking the wrong target scale linearly as well. No matter what level you play, a +2 or –2 bonus equates to a 10% greater chance to hit or miss. Whether you have combat advantage at level 4 or at level 28, that +2 bonus will always equate to an additional 10% chance to hit your target.

The Exponential Power Curve of 4e

Some effects in 4e grow at a steeper curve or even increase the curve each level. While a marking power is just as useful at level 28 as it is at level 4 (always equating to a 10% greater chance to miss), most defenders gain abilities to increase the number of monsters they can mark, increase the range of those marks, and increase the potential effects of those marks. What used to be –2 to attack on a single target turns into –3 to attack on five targets across an entire map and, should they trip the mark, they take a much more significant penalty. A marking defender becomes much more effective at higher levels than at lower levels.

Bonuses to attack and defense work the same way. A power that gives a +4 bonus to attack scales linearly from level 1 to 30. No matter what level the PC is, that always equates to a 20% greater chance to hit. But when that bonus becomes 2 + a wisdom modifier, now the curve goes up. The benefit of this power grows every time that wisdom bonus increases. Instead of a flat 20% bonus, it grows from 20% to 25% to 30% and to 35%. Warlords at level 30 can give a +9 bonus to attack. Stacking that with combat advantage and a power that once gave a 20% bonus makes an attack impossible to miss.

These are just a few of many examples where the power curve steepens. Blasts become wider. The number of attacks per round increases. Critical hits happen twice as often on each hit. The number of actions a character can take stays the same, but the number of powers they can use during those actions increases greatly. All of these increases are in addition to the increase in attack scores, damage output, and other linear progression.

Healing also scales along a much steeper curve than the damage PCs might receive. Leaders will find, as they level beyond 11, that their healing powers not only increase in the amount they heal (as they should) but the number of people they can heal increases from two at lower levels to as many as six later on (three on their targets and three on themselves).

In short, 4th edition becomes an easier game for players as the game’s level increases.

What About Our Poor Monsters?

Monster power progresses linearly. They don’t get the same exponential boosts that PCs get. You might see new auras or some nastier effects on monsters, but these in no way keep up with the increase in PC power. Monsters find themselves at a greater disadvantage when compared to equal level PCs as levels increase. We probably don’t even want them to keep up. If they did, we’d have battles where both sides lock up and paralyze the other. Battles would take even longer than they do now.

I won’t dig into the problems of elites, solos, and minions here except to say that all of the problems we see with these monster types occur because of this steep increase in the power curve of PCs. As levels increase, solos become less effective and minions die much faster.

Paragon Paths and Epic Destinies

The design problems really begin the minute you start looking at paragon paths and epic destinies. Many of them work fine, with no major unbalancing power increase to a PC. Others, however, increase the rate of PC power progression much higher than the standard linear progression we see from level 1 to 10. Paragon paths such as the Paladin Hospitaler and the rogue’s Daggermaster paths give new always-on abilities that make these classes far more effective. Epic destines like Demi-God and Legendary General push that curve even further. In some combinations, entire parties of PCs become nearly invulnerable when played correctly.

They’re epic, you might say. They should be invulnerable. I disagree. 4e should not get easier for PCs the higher you go. It should get more dangerous, not less. A level 27 balor should not have a harder time fighting a PC than a level 4 orc. The creatures faced by a paragon and epic tier should increase the challenge, not decrease it.

The Problems Designing a 1 to 30 Game

It’s easy to understand how things got this way. With 30 levels to cover, Wizards of the Coast wanted each level to be interesting and exciting. Keeping a static linear power curve isn’t very exciting. It isn’t enough that characters become more powerful by increasing attack bonuses, damage bonuses, and defenses; characters need to feel more powerful as they level up. The way the designers chose to do that was by increasing the overall power curve every level all the way to 30 when their epic destinies make them almost unkillable machines of slaughter.

I’m not sure how they could have done it differently. A game with a flat power progression curve can get boring pretty fast. Perhaps adding smaller jumps in PC power at specific times and being mindful of how those increases will affect the whole game would have been a good start.

The Rule of Fun

Who cares as long as the game is fun? You’d be right to ask that question. Players don’t often mind watching their awesome PCs rip through a wall of huge monsters. They feel powerful. They get to enjoy every leap in that power curve to its fullest. That joy, however, won’t last if they never face a challenge.

And what of the joy of the DM? We don’t want to kill players but we also don’t want to feel like we have no way to even challenge them without dropping planets on their heads. We hate to see huge and powerful monsters; monsters that should scare the pants off of a player; stun-locked, jammed in a zone, and killed with three hits.

Given the amount of time we DMs put into our game we deserve a bit of fun too. Instead, we get the headaches of trying to make battles challenging as levels go up.

So Where Does This Leave Us?

I never like writing an article that doesn’t have a solution so I’ll offer you two. Both of these are severe but both of them will keep your game fun and interesting without forcing you to become a game designer to keep the game interesting.

  1. Keep your game at levels 1 to 10.
  2. Stick to post-Eseentials material.

Neither of these are ideal solutions but both of them should keep your 4e game running smooth and nice before the power curve spikes high. In the future, we can hope that Wizards, in the development of future products and future games, is mindful of the curves of PC power and its balance against the threats those PCs will face.

Comments

  1. Restricting the material allowed in your game is probably the easiest way to solve this problem, but I definitely don’t think it’s the best. Most people I know are already disgruntled with how their characters are less versatile and cool than their 3rd Edition counterparts, and restricting this even further would cemen a revolt, I think.

    Now, I’m not an experienced DM and thus this is all theorycraft, but would it be better to just scale your monsters exponentially along with your players. This means your players get to be stupidly awesome AND feel incredibly challenged. This is hard because you’ll have to make it all up yourself, but I think it will be more fun for everyone in the long run.

  2. @Adam That was definitely the case when there were just the two Essential “Heroes” books but with “Heroes of Shadow” and “Heroes of the Feywild” my group feels like they have a lot of options available. Things like character themes and the items from Mordenkainen’s help even further. My group now sees the advantages in the design of newer products.

  3. The players I know would just start wondering aloud why we’re playing 4E at all and not Pathfinder or 3E. 😛

  4. Because, IME, epic levels are EXTRA broken in 3e 🙂 I don’t know what epic support is like in PF.

  5. Oh yes. Extra super ULTRA broken. But 3E DMs already have to put in all this extra design work so I guess it’s not as jarring that the stuff straight out of the book doesn’t work anymore (because it never did.)

    What I meant is that the players I know feel their characters are weak and constrained enough with all of the 4E material that they would never agree to play a subset of it. Of course, this doesn’t apply to groups that don’t have such a high opinion of the 3E era of D&D!

  6. Tom Cadorette says:

    Dave’s got an excellent point — in fact, *my* experience of 3e was that enjoyment of it began to diminish (both as GM and player) once you got past the 7th-9th level sweet spot (YMMV, some restrictions may apply, no purchase necessary, void where prohibited…)

  7. My experience has been a little different so far. My party is at 16th level now and still having a good time. I tweak every monster a little bit as I set it up in MapTool (upgrading to post-MM3 damage, adding status-sheddding abilities and extra actions to solos, mixing up repetitive powers) and even though the characters are quite powerful, we’ve had some exciting battles (including a dead PC and a TPK threat two sessions ago). They do take a while, but that’s okay; we usually only run a combat if it’s an important one.

    I’ll second the suggestion that limiting players to post-autumn 2010 material could be unfun for the players. I know that my players like having more options. If they choose something that is overpowered relative to the rest of the party, I’ll ask them to choose something else instead (a little DM veto power). I’ve only had to do that a couple of times in 16 levels of play, and we’re having a good time.

    I haven’t gotten to epic yet, and maybe I’ll be changing my tune at that point. But for now, things are going well.

  8. Oh, *I* would definitely rather run 4E epic than high-level 3E *any* day of the week, especially if the players’ options are restricted. Problem is, I don’t think I’d be able to convince anyone to play with me and get to epic tier… 😛

  9. For my table, the problem is actually one suffering of two well optimized characters, mixed in with 3 non-optimized and the 2 optimized are the strikers. I have 1 striker who’s AC is higher, damage is 4x greater and can’t miss on an even level mob. The insane accuracy and deadly damage just make it impossible for me to balance out a combat against him and the rest of the party. How do you tackle a striker who’s AC is higher then the defenders and can only miss on a 1?

    I really need to know because I’ve fallen into the trap of making the encounters harder to deal with the 2 really good strikers, but everyone else has to roll a 12-14 or higher to hit. That doesn’t seem right.

  10. That’s the real problem, IMO: when players overshadow each other in the game. When everyone is of similar power level or get a similar amount of spotlight time, all is well, but it gets tough when that’s not happening. I don’t have a good solution for that though. 🙁

  11. Don’t get me wrong, there are LOTS of things you can do to better balance a 4e epic-tier game (I wrote a book about it) but it bothers me how MUCH work we have to do to keep up the same pace and same sense of danger we can easily get at the heroic tier with no extra work.

    This really isn’t a conversation about how other systems do it but my experience in 3.5 was that anything over level 12 got ridiculous very quickly. Mind fogged bosses that can’t move at all. Players getting killed by high DC finger of deaths. It was nuts. 4e is definitely better than that, in my opinion.

  12. I definitely agree with everything you just said, Mike. All 100% true. All I’m saying is that restricting the content available to my players for non-story reasons (like playing on Athas) isn’t something I would do, personally, as I would be out of a DMing job real quickly. 🙂

    Obviously it works for some groups (like yours!)

  13. Story and situation. As you say Mike, it would be pretty dull and pointless to simply have 30 levels of the same old thing. Thus there is going to necessarily be a variety of different advancement rates as well as entirely new capabilities that have arrive as the game goes on in order for it to evolve from a heroic tier game to an epic tier game.

    Clearly WotC had this in mind in terms of developing epic tier. The sorts of threats you face and the implications of the PCs actions change quite a bit. OTOH there are a lot of things they can’t just spoon feed you from a book. They are slowly figuring out ways to present options, but it isn’t easy to do it in a way that is useful to a wide swath of games. I think if you’re going to run epic tier you really have to think it out carefully, come up with a really good story, and present situations that aren’t solved by simple hack-n-slash. You can also create encounters or adventures that WILL in the aggregate challenge the PCs. Even epic characters can only last so long before they start to run out of powers, surges, etc. Especially if you throw some gauntlet type scenarios at them. 3 tough encounters without even a short rest will start to test anyone if the monsters have decent synergy and some interesting (and hopefully story related) advantages/synergies, etc.

    Is it SIMPLE? No. Is it possible? Yes.

  14. This is the first time I’ve seen an explanation of WHY epic tier is exponentially more powerful. Thank you.

    Does post-Essentials work because the epic-tier powers in the newer sources are less overpowered? What about the Essentiallized updates for PH1 classes?

    One way to match power would be to add monsters tonthe encounter. But that makes the long-combat problem worse. What about having more weaker monsters — an elite instead of a solo, and then a bunch of standards? (This is all theory from a low-paragon DM.)

  15. I’ve played a lot of high level in previous editions. AD&D worked fairly well in that the PCs gained very little real power, but that was also true of the monsters. PCs just didn’t get much stronger with each level we played in the Throne of Bloodstone (for levels 18-100… we reached levels 35!). Yes, the party archer did with a single shot cause a series of exploding balor chain reactions. And yes, 3/4 of the party died to wraiths with vorpal swords in a random encounter. But it was in 3E where shenanigans really took off, often in fundamentally flawed ways. PunPun is just one of the many atrocious builds out there, but even much closer to “reasonable” we saw encounters finish when the PCs one initiative, dropped their ridiculous spells, and everything evil died. The lengths to which Living Greyhawk battle interactive authors/organizers went to challenge PCs was absolutely insane. It took months of preparation to properly challenge PCs. Flaws like multiclassing, spell level boosting, SR, etc. all created fundamental problems for the game.

    4E is by far the most DM-friendly epic play a DM has seen. While PCs do gain tremendous power, encounter design complexity does not become that much more difficult and the tools involved are very standard. Adding three powers to a solo is far easier than tweaking a boss in 3E. Terrain, minions, and other aspects provide tweaks to challenge that we never had before.

    Now, of course, it is a challenge. Epic play will be very difficult and probably frustrating for a casual DM. And it will be frustrating for everyone when the players optimize significantly. If your players optimize for crits, take a series of “solo nerfing” powers, and maximize their healing… well, that’s the beginning of a classic escalation problem: if you raise the challenge they can certainly feel that their optimization was logical and will continue to do so. We saw this in Living Greyhawk organized play – authors made adventures harder and players became increasingly optimized.

    For me, the solution to challenge problems is always at the party level. Either the players want more challenge or they don’t. Either they all agree that the super-ridiculous PC Sentack describes above is awesome, or they don’t. This dialogue needs to happen. Ideally you create a contract around a mutually agreed challenge level. In theory, it would be that they get some encounters they can dominate, some that provide some challenge, and a few that are very challenging with a risk of failure but a chance of success. The ratio can be agreed upon. The next step is the mechanical realty. Maybe that broken build needs to change for the ratio to work. Maybe the party needs to drop some interrupts so play works better, shed a zone power or two, and lose a few healing feats. Maybe an item or two or ten needs to be donated to the local lord. Once those things happen, the table is now working within that contract.

    I also suggest that any Epic DM check out the excellent Living Forgotten Realms epic adventures. These 12-hour long adventures span epic play (only the first couple are out so far) and can show you how to create high-story and high-flavor adventures that challenge 90% of the fairly optimal parties out there.

    My last tip is this, and it applies at all tiers: Always plan ways to tone a combat down or up. An easy one is for a monster, when bloodied, to have the die size or static damage modifier go up or down as needed. You can also give monsters more or fewer attacks. You can even stack stuff. Fight too easy? Then that monster now does d10 instead of d8, gains +2 to damage, and gets a minor action basic attack. Fight too hard? The monster’s double attack shuts down when bloodied, his defenses drop by 2, and he does d6 instead of d8 on damage rolls.

  16. And so it came to pass, that a year after I wrote this blog post:

    http://www.myrpgame.com/2010/11/23/the-slow-death-of-epic-tier/

    Mike Shea jabbed the final blow…

    Epic Tier 2008-2011

    🙂

  17. Great article, and it ties in very well with the data I’m putting together now. The type of powers players get as they advance increase in unbalancing encounters. While a power like Stun is uncommon in Heroic, probably every player has at least one or two Stun powers in Epic. It’s not just one player’s progression but how the entire party evolves. I’m already running into the issue and I’m in low Paragon.

  18. I could never limit my games to post-essential material. As a DM I would feel like a colossal tool. My favorite classes are pre-Essential. And to say “Sorry guys, all that money you invested in your books, all the cool stuff that came out? Nope. Can’t touch it. Instead you’re limited to these few classes.” Essentials classes Aren’t For Everyone.

    I’m willing to swallow some imbalance for that.

  19. I’m of two minds here. On the one hand, heroic-level play is like a finely tuned watch. It’s fun, easily run and prepared, and balanced right out of the box.

    At Paragon, the game pivots and the underlying mechanics start to change. Heroic is about lethality: damage, resistances, special attacks. Paragon is where the Action Economy starts being more important than how many dice you throw. A DM has to tune powers on older monsters.

    What I find myself doing in my own game is to run more monsters of L-1 or L-2 with bosses of L+X, where L is the party level and X is how evil I feel that day.

    Also, the DMG proposes 9 encounters per level, with a quest reward, and a distribution of encounter levels ranging from -1 to +3. I think it’s very “thematic” at Paragon and higher to bring in larger threats, with lots of RP involved, to where you have fewer fights but they’re, well, Epic.

    Higher level PCs are ridiculously resourceful. They can take glorious amounts of punishment.

  20. I disagree with this counsel of despair. I had no trouble challenging 117th level god PCs in 1e AD&D, I can certainly challenge 25th level PCs in 4e!

    Use more monsters. Use twice as many. Use waves. Don’t let PCs rest.
    Use higher level monsters. A Balor may not challenge 27th level PCs. That’s fine. Use him on 20th level PCs.

    I find 4e monster hp are too high, so I halve all hp, then I can use more & higher level monsters without fear of grind. PCs level up faster too, which is good – using RAW it takes about 15-20 hours of play to level; with 1/2 hp monsters it’s 8-10, which I prefer since I only have 3 hour game sessions.

  21. Yeah, S’mon! Show em who’s boss!

  22. “What I find myself doing in my own game is to run more monsters of L-1 or L-2 with bosses of L+X, where L is the party level and X is how evil I feel that day.

    Also, the DMG proposes 9 encounters per level, with a quest reward, and a distribution of encounter levels ranging from -1 to +3. I think it’s very “thematic” at Paragon and higher to bring in larger threats, with lots of RP involved, to where you have fewer fights but they’re, well, Epic.”

    This is my preferred play style even at Heroic. Players love ripping through hordes of L-2 standard monsters.

  23. I think I said it already but I’ll say it again. There are LOTS of things you can do to keep PCs challenged at level 21+ but it gets harder and harder to do so once the characters step into the paragon tier. You’ll have to begin really understanding the synergies between PCs that can turn a challenging encounter into a cake walk.

    Is the Epic Tier dead? No. But it’s going to require a lot more from a DM than running a heroic-tier campaign. The more I try to look for simple solutions to fix it, the more I realize how deeply rooted the problem is. This article was intended to show those deeply rooted problems so we can all understand why it occurs.

    Understand, I have a direct financial interest in the Epic tier being popular. A lot of of my time and attention gets spent on epic-tier threats. My hope was to find a way to make epic battles run as smoothly and easily and with as much of a challenge as heroic tier battles. After studying the problem, I just don’t think that’s possible.

  24. Have any of you bloggers had an opportunity to discuss this issue with the WotC folks? I’m curious to hear their thoughts on the matter.

  25. I think it is just all in the nature of ‘epic’ play Mike. I’ve been DMing since the earliest days of the game, and in every edition of D&D (and really in general in every RPG that has any appreciable power curve) you have the same sorts of issues. Playing epic games will always involve PCs with a vast array of options, high levels of synergy, etc. Since WotC has eschewed publishing a DMG3, which might have focused on epic tier, it seems to me the closest thing to a solution is for someone to publish a solid book on epic play based on actual experience. It will never be a cake-walk but good advice goes a long ways. I don’t know that much in the way of tinkering with the system in general will really ‘fix’ it. Certainly the better designed monsters in recent books helps a lot. The question for a DM is still how to employ them properly. You sure can’t do it by just dropping them on the battlemat.

  26. While I just started to play 4e, I have a hard time believing this article. As others have said, its not too hard to scale updown the monsters or have more of them. That’s what I did in 1e.

    From the little I’ve seen of 3.Xe, I would think 4e is easier to scale up as needed.

    D&D has had some sort of rule or scale problem since the beginning and the DM had to work around it. Welcome to DMing.

  27. Epic should be just what it says it is, EPIC! Its not for the meek casual adventurer. Want to go in a cave, and kill some goblins? Have a great time. Want to repel hosts of archons crashing against your spelljammer in the astral sea, step up to epic. Will the battle take four hours? Maybe. Will it be awesome? Thats mostly up to the DM. If you want to play at the epic level, I think both the DM and players should have some epic gaming skills. Not up to the challenge? Levels one thru ten are really fun, and not too hard to keep track of.

  28. DM_NEL, I have no factual insight into what WotC thinks, but my guess is that they don’t worry about this too much. Very few D&D groups are playing Epic. It is almost a non-issue from the start to the end of any edition. Sure, for a tiny group it matters greatly… but again, 4E is the best high-level play we’ve seen ever. So, relatively, it just doesn’t demand that much attention. If you want to please D&D players focusing on Epic has a very tiny effect – time is better spent on other aspects. Profit-wise, it isn’t even close to worth tweaking, I would guess.

    Mike, I don’t really agree with “The more I try to look for simple solutions to fix it, the more I realize how deeply rooted the problem is.” The problem is basically one of strong PCs, and I see that of all tiers of play. A game system has to choose between allowing players a wide range of choices (which inevitably will create overly powerful combinations) or reducing the number of choices, or making the choices very similar/bland. I’m a big fan of broken choices, but then the campaign stimulating the players to show restraint. Escalation, as Living Greyhawk chose, was not a solution. Players dug deeper and optimized more and the game became ludicrous and anti-new player. Over-control, such as preventing the interaction between Essentials and pre-Essentials, limits player choice. I think the solution is always a social contract between players and DM. Do they want cakewalks? If not, then there needs to be some restraint on their end or compensation by the DM. The later is potentially a lot of work, so it is generally better to have some player-side control that is agreed to by all. Typical examples are restraint over selection of nerf powers. If the swordmage can stun with an encounter power and takes a magic item that lets them stun again in the same encounter… (this works in paragon), well, that won’t likely be fun for anyone in the long run and the compensation by the DM will feel wrong.

    While those situations certainly exist, I still overall think Epic works well. It has been a success in Living Forgotten Realms, and that campaign sees a wide variety of players (including wide optimization including with choices of magic items). I would be curious whether Mike’s group or others having Epic issues would blow away those encounters, which are all done within the encounter-building rules of 4E.

  29. I’m pretty concerned about this issue, as it has been my goal to get my party to Epic to complete the storyline I started when 4E came out. Finishing at 20th isn’t going to cut it.

    I just wonder how the “pros” are handling Epic. According to the Dungeon Master’s Experience column, Chris Perkins’ campaign in in the Epic tier AND he has 8 players in it. I found it hard to challenge my group with 8 players in the Heroic tier without making combats last 4 hours. I can’t imagine Epic with 8 players.

    I personally think that the rules for Solo and perhaps even Elites should be different than standard monsters. For example, maybe Elites auto save debilitating conditions after the end of each turn and Solos are immune to certain conditions like Stunned and Weakened. Also, perhaps they should have more actions to play with than the usual Standard/Move/Minor. Or, maybe they don’t have S/M/M actions at all, rather they have an attack array of one melee, one ranged, one blast and a move. Also, maybe they have automatic reactions when they are affected by debilitating conditions. Stunning a Solo results in an automatic aura 1 kicking in that does x damage. Maybe each Solo is created differently and there are no hard fast rules for how they work. I dunno.

  30. DM_Nel, I can offer two ways of finding out. First, download one of the two free LFR Epic adventures from http://www.livingforgottenrealms.com/ and check them against what you are creating. Are the ones for LFR significantly more challenging? Try to pin down the differences as to whether it is encounter design or your players. LFR allows pretty close to by-the-book levels of magic items, allows all content, and allows players to choose what magic items they get, so it should be a good comparison.

    Second, you could create a blog post, even on the D&D Community or on those forums (the “What is a DM supposed to do” is a good one), where you share one of your encounters and a summary of your party’s composition. That would allow other DMs to weigh in on your encounter design.

    I have never had issues with Solo monsters, mostly because I make sure solos will be threatening even if they are nerfed for a few rounds, but also because I’m glad to improvise as needed for the players’ fun benefit. This is a sense I develop based on conversations with the players to establish a challenge level they will enjoy. I know they won’t want a perma-nerfed solo at all, so if needed the solo gets away and comes back later. In organized play I don’t do such improvisation, but I find that the authors know how to write so that won’t happen anyway. One thing is to be wary of old solos, such as in MM1. Those were often designed poorly, especially at high levels. You want to make sure solos can consistently gain the equivalent of 5 at-level attacks with standard damage. A good rule of thumb is to look at solos you find do work well and compare to those. For example, the silk worm, id fiend, and tembo from Dark Sun are all great solos. You can scale those up pretty easily (for example, check out the Five Deadly Shadows adventure in DDI where I turned a tembo into an upper heroic ninja). These things remain true in paragon in Epic, but the flexibility of the monsters must also scale. Do things like have an escape clause free action teleport power that you only use if needed. Have a 1/encounter reaction power like “trigger: this creature is targeted by a power that stuns or dominates. Immediate Interrupt, attacks the creature’s will and if hits the triggering creature is attacked by the power instead.” You can have tons of these “if needed” powers and use them only when needed and for the fun of the players.

  31. It’s easy to evaluate, criticize, and point out obvious flaws in a system — but you haven’t done a thing here offering possible ways to remedy the solution. You’ve gone so far as to ADMIT that you don’t know how to fix it. Your two “solutions” are absolutely unfeasible and don’t address the problem at all. This article is basically pointless complaining about something you don’t like. If you’re going to post drivel like this, follow it up with real advice or an example of how you’d design it better. Looking forward to seeing YOUR game system on the shelves of every major book store in America.

  32. Sharwyn- here is the book Mike wrote on DM’ing epic tier to help address some of these issues

    http://slyflourish.com/epic/

  33. I’m of a couple of minds on this one.

    First, I agree that it does get progressively more difficult to create challenging encounters the higher up the ladder we go. From personal experience, my campaign has not reached epic tier yet, but we are in mid-paragon tier now (level 15). I’ve seen a clear increase in PC power based both on the nature of the powers and on the synergy of the party. The party synergy is what really drives it out of whack at times. Its the combination of powers and abilities and action point effects, etc. that can turn a challenging encounter into a cake walk. This, I believe, is why Mike is suggesting limiting material to your players. The fewer sources they have to draw from, the fewer possible synergy problems that can arise.

    On the other hand though, even accounting for the extra time I put into building encounters now, its still nothing compared to the old 3.5 days for me. Back when I was running 3.5, I was often glad that my group could rarely get together more than about once a month (and that was with a pretty small group). Frankly, as they rose in level, I found that I needed the extra time in order to prepare good encounters for them. As such, I still don’t find the prep time now to be all that big a deal (though I reckon it will be more noticeable when we hit Epic tier). I also would much rather have the prep time issue be placed at the higher end of the level scale than throughout. I think 4ed is a great system for beginners (both players and DMs alike). By the time a new DM gets his party up to epic tier, she should be pretty experienced (assuming relatively standard progression and starting at level 1 of course).

    This of course though, is not exactly Mike’s point. Obviously a DM can tweak pretty much any system so as to be able to create very challenging encounters for his party. Rather, I think Mike is looking for a way to implement changes on a system level that brings encounter/adventure prep back to the level of the heroic tier (which can be almost plug and play). I agree that I am not convinced that there is an easy solution to this problem. Sure, we can up damage for Epic monsters (say level + 16 on average) but that still doesn’t get around the assorted status effects. Solos are certainly starting to get the ability to handle status effects better, but that doesn’t help in those encounters featuring non-solos. Adding more monsters (even if lower level) just makes combat that much longer. So it certainly seems that for now at any rate, the task is going to fall on the individual DMs to put in the effort to make their encounters challenging.

    There is; however, hope for the future. First off, solo design has definitely improved, and this is a big first step in creating challenging, climactic encounters. Realizing of course that I am still in paragon tier, solos have been responsible for most definitely putting the PCs in their place. Calaystrx for example, absolutely obliterated the party (which admittedly was a player short). Then a purple worm was able to take out two more party members — though they somewhat helped in their own demise. So, it is certainly possible to challenge the party without really breaking the rules to do so.

    Additionally, I am also cautiously optimistic about the future of published adventures. Since essentials was released we have seen a pretty steady stream of good to great published adventures (admittedly being published for the heroic tier). DDi has also released a couple of good paragon adventures, with another coming out next week, plus a planned Epic Tier adventure arc. Finally, as Alphastream mentions, there are a couple of really good LFR mods out there which can easily get your party through the first couple of levels of epic. So, I’m hopeful that we’ll continue to see more quality adventures being published and that they’ll continue the trend of slowly working their way up in level. It won’t necessarily help those of us who are rapidly approaching epic now, but it will help long term — particularly if 5ed isn’t right around the corner (and I’m not convinced it is).

  34. Popesixtus says:

    Put me on the list of people who think all-heroic, all-the-time is not the answer. Fighting Tiamat is much cooler than fighting his kobold sub-lieutenants. DMs have to bend their minds towards game design in order to have fun at higher levels, that’s true. But D&D is still a social contract game. The DM should negotiate with players as to how much of the real game breaking stuff they will allow.

    I actually think the worst part of the 4e power curve is the action point attack. Going “nova” is how most of my groups get things done. I’ve gotten rid of the action point attack as much as possible, and it’s been great in my games. I have a whole list of stuff that players can do with APs (get extra move actions, make heroic saves, add 1d6 to regular attack rolls and skills, etc.), basically everything but attack. Smoothed things out a lot, turns take less time (especially those interminable first rounds), players still feel heroic, etc. Just one simple suggestion I’ve tried.

  35. “I have 1 striker who’s AC is higher, damage is 4x greater and can’t miss on an even level mob. The insane accuracy and deadly damage just make it impossible for me to balance out a combat against him and the rest of the party. How do you tackle a striker who’s AC is higher then the defenders and can only miss on a 1?”

    @Sentack, wow, can you tell me what this striker’s build is please?

    “A marking defender becomes much more effective at higher levels than at lower levels.”

    @Mike, wouldn’t any player assume that their character would become much more effective at what they did at level 20 than at level 1? Isn’t that part of the point of levelling up? Otherwise, we’d remove levelling and just increase the threat of monsters over the course of the campaign.

    I appreciate that as a DM, your primary focus is keeping your created world intact and not letting players mess it up (not all DMs are like this but you seem to be a particularly strong advocate of the DM’s position vis a vis enjoyment of the players, whereas I would argue it’s the DM’s job to facilitate the enjoyment of the players – that’s why they are the players) but look at it from the point of view of players who have created and taken their characters all the way from level 1 to level 30: do you really think they want to die from some random save-or-death effect that you’ve put in there to “challenge” them? Do you really think they want their epic character falling to some goblins at level 25 who you’ve scaled up to become more “challenging”?

    In the end, you answer your own question, over whether it’s fun or not. D&D is not an accountant’s wet dream. It’s not supposed to be. It’s a game, whereby the DM facilitates the fun of a number of players. It is not a game of “Nyah, I’m the DM and I’m going to kill you all!” Your “solution”, to remove 20 levels of play and 3 years worth of player options, powers, paths, etc shows that you’re not focused on what makes the game fun, but what makes the numbers add up.

    You might like the simplicity of the post-Essentials classes, but just imagine how boring they’d be to play for a number of levels. The whole reason the original PHB classes had the AEDU structure was because if you focused on melee basic attacks for the martial classes (a la previous editions and Essentials), those players would become incredibly bored sitting around and waiting for the wizards etc to do all their cool stuff. Even in 4e this happens. Typically a defender gets to make an attack against one target, maybe mark a few, maybe move. The mage or sorcerer then whips out a plethora of attack powers in one turn, standards, minors, moves, immediates, teleports, and so on. The Essentials Thief does more DPR than the PHB Rogue. But the former is very boring compared to the latter. You’ve also heavily criticised one of the community’s favourite classes, the Swordmage, for being a “mess” – because it doesn’t fit neatly into a box you’ve drawn around the game. Since when was player fun such an undesired objective?

    Ultimately you are missing the point of all this: D&D isn’t just about the combat, it isn’t just about the numbers, and it isn’t just about the scaling. If you want to challenge or threaten high level characters, don’t just restrict yourself to thinking in combat terms: give them a war between two nations to defuse. Tell them to solve a crisis in the Astral Sea. Challenge them to uncover the truth about the Spellplague. In short, don’t think the game is just about monsters. Have a look at the Epic level LFR adventures Alphastream recommended. D&D is combat focused: it always has been. But there’s more to it than that. This is Dungeons and Dragons, not Maths and Mechanics.

    Word.

  36. As a side note, I should mention the massive amounts of fun my group had recently when we played through the first module of Lair Assault. Yes, it was refreshing to face an extended combat encounter where the threat of dying was very real. Yes, it was exciting that we were up against the odds. Yes, it was more rewarding than usual when we completed the dungeon precisely because three of our five players had almost died. But would we want combats like this all the time? Hell no. Was there any proper roleplaying involved in the session? None whatsoever. The irony of those criticising the lack of roleplaying in Lair Assault is that the feeling of threat it generated was closer to the previous editions than what most of 4e has produced. So my suggestion is to focus on challenging players through the story, and when the story demands, drop a super-dungeon, one-session meatgrinder like Lair Assault on them. Mike, players want to feel invulnerable at epic levels. They want to feel unkillable. You just have to remind them, from time to time, that they are not. If your goal is to constantly undermine their confidence and remind them of their mortality, I’m not sure it’s a worthy goal. And I don’t know a single player who would actually want to play a game with your proffered “solutions”. What would happen if they got to level 10? Mike: “Sorry, the math at this point messes up my accountant’s mind, the game ends here”.

  37. DungeonFu, I think some of the criticism of Mike’s post is a little unfair – he wrote an (excellent) book on Epic play, and he speaks the truth in that Epic play is not as fundamentally sound as heroic and paragon. Wizards has not provided as much material for that and there is a lot of work required by DM’s to make combat encounters click. So he gets it.

    The problem i see w/ essentializing your game is that you can’t “unring a bell”. Players entering high level play have all started in the PHB era. They have already learned what dnd is, or have formed their own opinion based on “AEDU” actions and strict class equivalencies. And lots of options.

    Groups starting now are unlikely to reach high level until 5e comes out, barring serious xp gifts or grueling xp handouts.

    Epic level is like a vacation resort, it’s great to visit, the people are nice and problems easy to overlook. But you wouldn’t want to live there.

  38. @DungeonFu I agree with you to an extent but also disagree to an extent. Players should feel as though their characters are getting stronger (i.e. not just “more of the same”). Mike realizes and acknowledges this. However, the DM is also a player and the DM is also entitled to have fun.

    Now I agree that a good D&D game (Lair Assault excepted) should not simply be “DM vs. the PCs”. After all, the DM should always win that fight. However, in order for combats to be enjoyed (even by the PCs) there needs to be some challenge to them. There should be some cake walk encounters no doubt, but Mike’s point is that if you run the epic tier per RAW, then pretty much every encounter will be a cake walk. While I don’t know many players (though there are a few) who would want to be limited to Essentials and later, I also don’t know any players who would find nothing but cake walk encounters fun either.

    So in sum, I think the thrust of Mike’s article is that if you want to keep 4ed easy and balanced to run as a DM, without having to invest a lot of time between sessions, then here’s what you can do. However, he is right in that if you don’t limit options and you don’t stop at level 10, then you (as the DM) will find yourself having to spend progressively more time in coming up with challenging, and thus entertaining, encounters. Its the tooth and nail encounters that the players remember for years afterward, not the group of mooks that were wiped out in the first round. Getting that really challenging encounter at higher levels really does require the DM to toss the books out the window so to speak, and that is simply what Mike’s point is.

  39. Maybe I’m doing it wrong, but I’ve felt that even from level 1 it’s challenging to challenge PCs. Encounters that are L+1 or L+2 can easily turn into cake walks. Characters are either on the ground dieing or they are tearing it up. And yes, you can just drop a grindy bag of HPs but in general it’s Tough to Challenge them – even when they don’t have all those options and all those immediates and such.

  40. Thank you, DiscerningDM. You understand my predicament. I want nothing more than a clean solution to this problem. The reason I wrote this article wasn’t to whine but to help shine a light on what really happens and why. If others are running ten levels of epic tier D&D and not having any trouble, more power to you! I’ve played enough and talked to others who have faced these problems.

    I know Alphastream has a good deal of experience seeing epic-tier groups of varied classes in organized play. I trust his criticism.

    I’ll keep trying, though. I haven’t given up trying to make epic-tier D&D as fun as it can be for DMs and players alike.

  41. Well, I’m not the first one by far to say this, but 10 levels of epic play is a lot. Just how much of any narratively satisfying campaign world is really made up of epic tier threats? TEN levels is 100 encounters (maybe 70 really, but still). Sure, some of them can be against the same opponent(s) perhaps, but in general I kind of feel like epic tier is just too long. The whole tier feels almost more like it should be capped off at 2-3 levels and maybe from then on you just go off into the sunset and if people want to draw it out they can play some sort of ‘mythic’ mode or something where you can stop worrying about things making any kind of sense or being challenging in any mechanical way at all.

    Frankly I don’t know WHY WotC chose 30 levels to start with. It seems like a sort of ‘arithmetically satisfying’ number more than a really closely considered decision. That doesn’t matter much in heroic where there the DM can pretty well tread water and present different plots and whatnot virtually forever (I once ran a 2e campaign that ran for years and never broke 10th level, its no problem). Paragon can pretty much do the same. When you hit epic though the whole ‘how do we fill up our time with this story?’ things weighs heavily.

    I think issues with 4e epic really started right there with the huge swath of story we’re expected to fill with the capstone of the campaign. Most of the build up would be better done in paragon really. EDs tend to wear kind of thin too.

  42. Thanks, Mike. And to be clear to those that don’t know, I really dig learning from you on this site. Even when my commentary may seem contradictory/critical, there is a lot that I agree with. In this case, my “disagreement” is really just about extent, which may be just my biased based on experiences in previous editions that I consider to have been worse. It will be interesting how EPIC4-1 will play at DDXP in January. Some of the authors will be running it in day-long slots for those interested.

    Rechan, my advice is to look at LFR as a benchmark. Compare those encounters in the adventures to yours (yours should be similar threat-wise). Then look at your players and how optimal their PCs are compared to ones on WotC forums (you don’t want them being at all as strong as what you see on most OP boards). That might help you assess where the issue lies.

    Challenging PCs isn’t theoretically hard. Take a look at the ridiculously difficult first session of the Dark Sun Encounters season for level 1 pregens: 1 silt runner inciter, 2 silt runner ragers, 2 silt runner darters, and an obsidian rain that does 2 damage to all creatures at the start of their turn. To that, add the tactic that they all attack the arcanist. This is in theory a level 1 encounter. In reality you can do the following to one PC:
    – Silt runner rager power “Penetrating Spear” to do 4d6+4 (!!!!) damage and vulnerable 5 all until end of rager’s turn.
    – second silt runner rager uses brutal spear to do 4d6+4 plus vulnerable 5
    – because both are adjacent, PC takes 2 damage + 5 vuln at start of his or her turn
    – first silt runner darter does poison dart for 2d10+3 + 5 vuln and target is immobilized (half dmg and slow on miss).
    – second silt runner does 1d10+4 + 5 vuln with blowgun.
    – silt runner inciter uses incite fury and all of the above do a basic attack, at 2x(2d6+5+5) + 2x(1d10+4+5)
    – storm deals 2+5 damage.

    The point being that even level 1 creatures can be an incredible challenge. Sure, these guys are too strong for their level, but there are many ways to build for this threat level at any level of play. A simple custom-made “vulnerable x” power can be a ton of pain, but you can also look at each of these monsters for ideas well into Epic. Of course, that’s only fun if your table wants it. With this encounter, it really failed at gaming stores around the nation. TPKs aren’t fun for most players.

  43. I couldn’t agree more with the main post. I am currently running Pyramid of Shadows for a gaming group made up of expereinced D&D players over the age of 40. We are about three quarters of the way through and character levels average out to 8. Because I noticed an apparent growing discrepency between party strength and monster strength (which I hoped was due to the players appreciating the synergy of their abilities more) I decided to do an experiment with PoS. I doubled the damage output of every monster ability. Where the creature description said a 2D8 I made it 4D8 etc. I had initially planned to drop the doubling if a particular situation just looked too tough. We have been playing the adventure for nearly 9 months now and I have not abandoned the double damage mechanic once.

    What is more there have been a total of 3 death saves made by the entire party of 6 over the whole adventure. Nobody has really come dangerously close to death. I am an experienced GM, so I dont think I’m undercooking the monster’s abilities.

    I think the players have had fun and have been challenged, but I doubt that it would have been the case without that modification. Now I need to up the stakes for the final few levels of the pyramid. Triple damage anyone?

  44. Re ‘story’ – I agree that 10 levels is too long for a single Epic ‘story’. Personally I don’t run story-driven games where the campaign is a single story, so that has never been a concern for me. I run ‘open’ campaigns where the PCs largely set their own direction, and (when I ran 21st+ level games in AD&D) an Epic adventure such as an assault on an enemy god’s lair is more of a single-session, 3-encounter affair. AFAICS this mode should work just as well in 4e. It’s more like ‘episode of the week’ TV than the contemporary endless-plot approach.

  45. @Torqradio: I have not seen Pyramid of Shadows myself, but my guess is that it still uses MM1 math for the monsters, which would explain why doubling the damage hasn’t caused problems for your group. But yes, when the party starts getting synergized, things can get out of hand really quick. :p

    @Alhazred and @S’mon: I also agree that you probably need multiple story lines in the epic tier to make it through all 30 levels. In fact, I think WotC even recognized this, which is why they mention the epic quests with regard to the Epic Destinies. I think that combining the ED quests with multiple plot threads can certainly help to fill up some of that void. The bigger issue to me though is likely to simply be player and/or DM burn out. By the time you get through 30 levels, you have probably been playing for years. If the DM hasn’t been killing PCs often, this can make for even more burn out as the players want to try new characters. That though is something that can happen regardless of the number of “official” levels.

    Now of course, you just have to hope your players don’t all pick “Kill Orcus” for their epic quest. :p

  46. The real scaling problem I had with 4th edition stems from large groups from 6-11. While it isn’t all that difficult to scale the monsters and traps at lower levels it is nearly impossible to keep track of the status effects that the players alone lay on the monsters. This goblin is challenged by the paladin while this monster is marked by the ranger and this one is this and that one is that and if this one dies then he can teleport 5 squares and if that one steps 3 feet to the left we’re doin’ the hokey pokey. Its ridiculous and almost impossible for a human being to keep track of during play. The other nitpicky problem I have is that the materials all say miniatures are not required for play, but that’s not true. Every power is given in terms of squares this and squares that. You have to at least have a map and markers for every battle. Personally all I ever wanted was the marker set they use in every single example.

  47. CrowOfPyke says:

    Once again, I find myself disagreeing with nearly everything that comes out of Mike Shea’s mouth, or in this case the printed word.

    There is nothing preventing a DM from altering monster stats and powers to make things more challenging for the PC’s.

    That said, I agree with premise posted by another reply that 3.5 had better PC customization than 4th edition, although 3.5 was a nightmare for DM’s and keeping rules straight that often conflicted. But with Dark Sun and Heroes Of The Feywild, we see more and more use of PC Themes – a great addition to 4th ed.

    In the end though, simply lopping off whole chunks of 4th edition or playing only one tier seems extremely lazy and unproductive. The psionic classes are pre-essentials and are some of the best designed classes in 4th edition. Get rid of those arbitrarily? Again, seems lazy. Mike Shea seems to be advocating an Essentials Edition within 4th edition, which I think is silly, unnecessary and not particularly useful as an article about 4th edition DND.

  48. CrownOfPyke, I’m not sure you are following what Mike is saying. He isn’t arguing that you can’t change monsters or adjust encounters – his blog and books are all about that! What he is saying is that on a holistic level Epic play, in comparison to other tiers, fails to challenge.

    Lopping of chunks of content is an often used strategy because it limits DM review. (It can also make the game easier for new or casual players). Most of the times a DM (and even the player) won’t know the problem until they see it. Eliminating an area of content is usually easier. My preferred method with players I don’t know very well is to cut off a wide block (such as Dragon content) and then have them ask for special permission. Then I have far less to review and we end up with a meaningful conversation about the power/feat/etc. Another way is to just up front have an agreement on the challenge and then after any session anyone can raise the “too strong” flag and it can be modified or exchanged for another.

  49. Shawn Merwin says:

    I am currently designing an epic-level adventure for Dungeon magazine, and even after a preliminary playtest I can already see the problems in the disparity between power levels from one group to the next. Some are going to get through the combats in 3 rounds without breaking a sweat, and others are going to be ground up into paste. Without good DMs who know how to recognize their groups power level and adjust for it on the fly, any game can be rough–but epic level is particularly challenging but most necessary for DMs to adjust.

  50. My apologies, CrowofPyke! It seemed you were stating things as new that Mike has previously covered.

  51. There are a LOT of problems with your math. While i agree that players have the potential to increase their power multiplicitively (due to to the availability of extra actions at higher levels). Not because they gained a few points of wisdom…

    To correct your math:
    DnD 4e is jokingly called “Roll a 9”. Why? because when everything is scaling as the designers intended, the players will hit their target with a roll of a 9 (except for saves, which is still a ten).

    A level 1 player with an 18 stat and most weapons will have a +6 bonus to attack rolls.
    A level 1 enemy has a 15 Ac, the player needs to um, roll a 9.

    A fully loaded level 30 player will now have a 28 stat (assuming they got a +2 bonus from their epic destiny), a +6 magic weapon, and +3 from their Expertise feat.
    All tolled they have a +36 bonus to hit (15 from levels, 9 from stat, 6 from magic, 2 from proficiency, 3 from expertise). A level 30 enemy? 45 AC.
    The player needs to um, roll a 9 to hit.
    This is the direct linear scaling you referred to, and this is a huge part of why some people refer to 4e as a pen and paper MMO – *most of the challenge never changes*.

    Essentials characters change nothing for players, as they can just as easily be built to capitalize on multiple attacks.
    And while Monster Vault and Threats to Nentir Vale did a lot to up the damage output and survivability of enemies, those books did focus on heroic and paragon tier.

  52. “Perhaps adding smaller jumps in PC power at specific times and being mindful of how those increases will affect the whole game would have been a good start.”

    Ah, yes; once, we had this. We called it “3rd Edition”

  53. @Wayne You forgot to add in the Warlord’s +7 bonus to attack that he grants. That takes “roll a 9” to “roll a 2”. That is the sort of scaling I’m talking about.

    @Dungeon Smash: 3rd edition had way more problems above level 13 than 4e has. I’ve played both a lot and the troubles with Charm Monster and Mind Fog alone were enough to wreck my game.

  54. So far I’ve played 2 campaigns up to 8th level, one of those is ongoing and I’m looking forward to taking it into Paragon. Maybe it’s my old style ‘killer DM’ approach, but I’ve seen no sign of overpowered PCs so far, in fact I’m looking forward to them being less fragile and better able to handle the ‘unbalanced’ encounters that are typical IMCs.

    I would like to be able to eg use a Balor or Pit Fiend as a major foe at high-Paragon level, it looks to me that the math should allow that ok – even if the PCs can’t beat him they should be able to survive long enough to retreat. I’m definitely in favour of PCs knowing when to fight, and when not to fight (Moria).

    Epic Tier should be the domain of battles with the gods and massive Far Realm aberrations. Going by my 1e AD&D deity-level campaign, it probably best suits small PC groups. We rarely had more than 2-3 PCs battling either a single enemy deity, a similar party of epic NPC villains, or hordes of demons/daemons/devils etc. I suspect the ideal is something like:

    Heroic: 5-6 PCs, for durability.
    Paragon: 4-5 PCs, they can handle themselves.
    Epic: 3-4 PCs, 2-3 PCs by 30th.

    Since player groups tend to attrite over time, this ought to work. It stops combat & advancement slowing down at high level, and stops PCs dominating the opposition – I recall a DM running a Bloodstone 1e adventure and a large party easily steamrollered it.

  55. @S’mon Yeah, you certainly won’t IME see any sorts of issues at all in levels 1-15 unless the DM is just not getting it. Worst case you have a really low effectiveness or really opped party and tweak encounter difficulty up or down a bit or adjust style some for more/less combat vs other stuff.

    Once you get into upper paragon the original core books material started to get a little more tweaky. The upper paragon elite/solo monsters were either horrors like the Dracolich (pure grindy stunfest) or just not up to snuff. There were some good ones and the DM could pretty easily work through it but it wasn’t quite ‘just build an EL +n encounter with a budget’ anymore. Newer monsters and whatnot pretty well fixed that.

    Epic is still rough though. You just can’t run it like paragon. I think basically Chris Perkins is right, you just crank the scope way up and pour on the juice until something fun happens and make it 99% about the story. Killing PCs isn’t a big deal, its pretty much all story at that point and their crazy abilities are there to create a good show and make stuff happen. The bad guys can be equally crazy and whatever comes ‘out of the box’ from WotC is just a starting point for what you want to do and a basic framework.

    I don’t think any game is going to give you much more than that for epic type play really. Any good epic game is just going to be pure imagination run wild with a few rules thrown in to give the people participating a jumping-off point for what they want to do and a way to define the characters. That seems to me to be how it is supposed to work, and pretty much how other ‘epic style’ RPGs seem to be intended to be used.

  56. @Alhazred “Epic is still rough though. You just can’t run it like paragon. I think basically Chris Perkins is right, you just crank the scope way up and pour on the juice until something fun happens and make it 99% about the story” – yup, that’s pretty much how I did it in 1e, I expect much the same in 4e.

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  1. […] problems with complexity become more prevalent as the players advance in level to the degree that DMs face problems creating combat encounter that can challenge the party. This week’s Legends & Lore column expanded on the issue of complexity by asking, […]

  2. […] fascinating discussion was started over at critical hits over the holiday weekend. Mike Shea, who literally wrote the book on epic play, laments that […]

  3. […] been a lot of talk around here lately about epic tier games in 4e (and how it isn’t very much fun, and how […]

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