Both Sly Flourish and I have talked a lot lately about the issues we’ve run into at epic levels in D&D. While there are certainly rules issues, I believe fixing them all would take up a lot more than single column. However, I do have some ideas on alternate ways to restructure how the campaign plays out to put the focus on epic in a way I find satisfying.
As I experienced in my campaign, I never felt like there was enough actual epic storylines to justify a full 10 levels. When every combatant was supposed to be earth-shattering, it drained much of the impact away from each individual one. Plus, unless you’re just going on a tour of gods to kill, the variety of monsters ends up being a bit tough to manage- one or two times fighting a balor and his epic demon minions is cool, but the third or fourth? It loses a bit of its cool factor.
So what I propose is an alternate campaign plan that doesn’t focus on trying to make all 30 levels of a game operate similarly. It breaks out the epic tier into several segments with different focuses, and even changes a bit how many D&D campaigns are run. A good part of the inspiration for this was a 2nd edition D&D campaign I played in that borrowed heavily from the D&D Immortals Boxed set.
The first 20 levels are the meat of your campaign. The PCs start as nobodies but with the spark of heroes that they will ultimately embrace for their destiny. By the time they hit level 20, they have risen to become important people in the universe, and ended around level 20 with a major accomplishment that much of the previous campaign has been leading up to. Maybe you’ve even used the 5×5 Method once or twice to get there.
Additionally, by mid=paragon, the players should declare what epic destiny they will be taking at 21 so that the DM can work in ways in the story that head them towards opening up that epic destiny. For example, the future demigods in the party can get hints as to their divine spark, whereas the eternal defender becomes recognized worldwide for his achievements.
Level 21 is where the PC have just accomplished a major victory in the campaign, which has made major impact, but it’s not the end yet. Some epic level threat is behind it all, and the PCs have to stop it before (the universe explodes/time is torn apart/gnomes commit mass suicide/whatever). Maybe you finally get revenge upon Orcus himself for sending his demons and undead after you for so long, finally get to steal Tiamat’s horde, or punch Pelor in the jaw (he knows what he did). Levels 21 to 25 tell the story of how your characters get ready for the final battle, and put a stop to the major threat that they have discovered once and for all.
Level 25 is effectively the end of the campaign. The final boss can be something 5-8 levels above the party, with all manner of higher level nasties in the way. Level 25 the epic finale, where plot threads are finally tied off in meaningful ways. The death of a major force in a game should also have a lasting impact; the Scales of War finale did a really interesting job of this and is worth checking out.
This is where things really diverge. At this point, your campaign is effectively over, but the stories of the characters aren’t. These levels answer the question of “what’s next?” for the PCs as they move along to the “Immortality” section of their epic destiny. Instead of simply leveling up into their legacy, they must go on quests to truly earn their epic destiny. I call these “epilogue levels” or “legacy levels.”
Strongly consider not running these adventures in the same group as before. Each session you run should focus on one, or maybe two, player characters who are undergoing an important quest to achieve the next step in their journey to immortality. You can also play around with putting the spotlight on one character and having other players play supporting characters (NPCs that came up during the game who are still around, mysterious guides into the next stage of their journey, even experienced lieutenants and henchmen). You can play quite a bit with time here too, since the pressure of the main story should be over by this point. Characters that have gone on to be legendary sovereigns can jump to different periods in their kingdom’s reign as more pieces of what will end up being how they’re remembered as a ruler show up. Quests to research ultimate knowledge can jump between planes and time itself to collect the most of obscure arcane knowledge. The psionic character that prepares to join in the universal consciousness must first experience the history of the greatest minds to ever live and thus must jump into different bodies and learn a lesson first.
One important thing about these adventures are that they’re designed to show off what a character has learned from all the previous levels, Additionally, since you’re ideally running these in either solo or smaller group situations, the full might of an epic party against your monsters isn’t as much of a concern, and characters used to facing the biggest threats in numbers now have to put their own skills to the test. That balor fight might have been a cakewalk when there were five of you, but maybe not anymore when the balor’s brother comes to face you alone.
These adventures should only go on as the players are interested. The natural inclination is to jump into a new campaign, which if that’s what everyone is ready for is fine. But playing out these levels and seeing what happens- and in some cases seeing who is successful in their ultimate quest for immortality- can help shape the next campaign you play. Old PCs become the new pantheon, ancient kings, greatest wizards, subjects of myth and cautionary tales. These legacy levels help give another campaign set in the same world a real history, as well as making those epic levels feel like the PCs accomplished something big that lasts.
Why These Changes?
Simply put, I find 10 levels of full epic play, in the same paradigm as the previous 20 levels, to be too much. Compressing the bulk of play into 5 levels helps that. Additionally, when running my campaign, I found having to tie everyone’s completion of epic destinies together into my finale to be a bit too much going on, and not enough attention is paid. By giving epic destinies their own set of levels to play with, they get the focus they deserve, as well as potentially being easier to challenge by not having a full party. As I mentioned up top, this may not fix the rules issues that many have with epic tier play, but it sounds like a good way to run an epic game to me.