Redesigning the Epic Tier

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.

Levels 1-20

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.

Levels 21-25

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.

Levels 26-30

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.

About Dave

Dave "The Game" Chalker is the Editor-in-Chief and Co-Founder of Critical Hits. Since 2005, he has been bringing readers game news and advice, as well as editing nearly everything published here. He is the designer of the Origins Award-winning Get Bit!, a freelance designer and developer, son of a science fiction author, and a Master of Arts. He lives in MD with e, their three dogs, and two cats.

Comments

  1. Makes sense. Ideally perhaps EDs would be structured a bit differently, but then again I’d probably fiddle around a good bit with the whole level progression if I were redesigning things…

  2. I agree with you on those as well, though the places where you acquire epic powers aren’t too bad in play.

  3. good stuff! I think the thought of that wrap up phase. I wonder if you could use the structure of something like Microscope to capture the high level impact and low level “in the scene” RP? Maybe that could capture the sweep of the character as they become legend.

    I think the structure of epic destinies needs to be expanded to smooth that epic transition. Also, I sometimes wonder if the time-scale needs to be expanded during epic as well. I can’t imagine that characters would be fighting demons and gods every week. Maybe they characters are called out at different times over the space of months, years and decades.

    Just some random ramblings 🙂

  4. That’d be a pretty cool way to do an epilogue/legacy determination within a single session by using something like Microscope. That would be a cool transition between campaigns too- the big finale session, then (after some time off!) playing out something about what happened in the hundreds of years in between campaigns. It would also let the players develop threats for the next campaign.

    What I liked in those 2e campaigns about playing epilogue sessions was how much they focused on my character though. Even failing to achieve your epic destiny can be really interesting then and spin off an interesting epilogue.

  5. I’m modelling our own ongoing 4e D&D campaign around the original Classic D&D boxed set “tiers”:

    1st-3rd Basic
    The heroes are local folk with local problems. Nearby dungeons and locales are their playground and the source of their challenges and foes.

    4th-14th Expert
    As the heroes rise in level their renown grows. Requests for their assistance come from further afield (the next county, over the border, etc). At 11th level they gain a small permanent stronghold to call home, expand and defend.

    15th-25th Companion
    The heroes’ adventures are of national importance, and the heroes can lead mighty armies into battle. At higher (21st and above) levels these adventures may even take them to other planes where they attempt to defeat evil on its home turf.

    26th-30th Master
    The heroes fade from worldly fame (perhaps faking their own deaths in the process) and commence the quests for their own immortality and place among the constellations. Their strongholds and empires are bequeathed to their heirs as the heroes follow paths of their own making.

    30th+ Immortal
    At 30th level, the heroes have achieved immortality. Perhaps they wrested it from a Demon Lord, defeated a Goddess or created their own undying source of Power. They are now far above the petty concerns of the mortal races and become Aspects of a virtue, vice, concept, profession, etc.

    This boilerplate keeps the importance of the Paragon/Epic level break at 11th and 21st levels, but allows the levels to reflect the increasing regional importance of the heroes’ actions.

    So far, it’s working quite well – they’re at 12th level and still fine-tuning their Strongholds.

  6. I think you’re onto something here. I think Epic currently muddies the Masters & Immortals set stuff, you’re separating them out again. 5 levels of Masters, then maybe 5 of Immortals, feels about right.

  7. In *actual play,* it definitely feels similar to your and Greywulf’s level-based breakdown. I owned all those Basic+ sets too, and Immortals was a clear, massive departure of both rules and campaign scope from all the previous levels.

    Late Epic tier has flashes like you talk about and Level 30 in 4e is clearly a microcosm of Immortals.

    Still, to be fair, the Immortals set was still significantly different than 4e level 30. The concepts, rules and scope really jumped – it was mind-blowing and impressive. Almost felt like a different game entirely, didn’t it?

  8. This is why bands break up. It’s just “so they can do some solo work” and then BAM it’s 20 years later.

    Does this mean the Black Eyed Peas are epic level now?

  9. David Lundy says:

    Re: epic monsters…keep in mind that a horde of lower-level critters could also be quite a challenge to epic characters. A handful of Stone/Earth Titans mixed in with some Rocktempest Gargoyles could make for an interesting encounter. Especially if paired up with some hindering terrain (which the creatures are unaffected by of course) and a nasty trap.

    People often seem to forget about weaker creatures once their level has passed. There’s strength in numbers…especially for weaker critters. I’d venture to think that a horde of 2500 peasants could eventually kill a red dragon; if only by choking it as they slide down its gullet…

  10. David Lundy says:

    Another thought I’d love to explore is “super minions.” That is, any critter that takes TWO hits to take down. Just figure out what your lowest PC’s damage potential is (minimum) and find interesting critters that can take between 125% and 200% of that much damage before dying. Jack up their attack bonuses so that they have a respectable chance to hit (35-40%), calculate average damage values for their attack(s), wind ’em up and let ’em go. No need to adjust their defenses; they’re designed to be killed, so let ’em.

    This way, you can reuse those trolls, mind flayers and behirs from paragon level, but now they’re supporting characters rather than stars. Imagine the consternation on your players’ faces when they have to decide between facing off against the mighty balor or wasting striker attacks on annoying mind flayers that manage to dominate the PCs at the most inopportune moments. Or that demonic-looking troll that has regen 20? Sure, he’s not much of a threat, but he can flank with the big baddie, maybe soak up some damage intended for the baddie, and just…won’t…go…DOWN!

  11. The issue with using lower level monsters is that they often pose no threat to PCs at the higher levels, because their defenses and abilities scale at an exponential instead of linear curve. It would be great to include them- especially if there was some easy to use mechanism by which lower level baddies keep up in attack bonuses and defenses but become minions- it doesn’t work well with the rules right now.

  12. Well, there’s always aid other. But the real issue isn’t a mathematical one, it’s a technique issue. An epic game is different because of what the characters are doing and where they are going, not just what they are fighting or what their attack bonuses are. By the time you reach the epic tier, you’re the Justice League, and the Justice League doesn’t exactly have to fight fight 1d6 Darkseids in every panel. There should be a lot more emphasis on quests (and the quests are about plot points and development ) by then, vice encounters with monsters.
    Also, (crazy opinion I guess) but I think it’s totally ok to have the party fight monsters that present no threat whatsoever. (Seriously). Sometimes Superman has to stop a bank robber, and that’s ok. It’s usually the setup for something bigger though. This is how the players can keep an eye on exactly how tough they are, were, and will be.

  13. My impression has always that WotC’s intention for Epic tier was for it to play very differently from the earlier tiers and be less about fighting bigger and better monsters and more about solving huge, world shattering problems where it’s other people/worlds/planes that are being threatened rather than a direct threat to the characters.

    These are situations like we see Gandalf in it LotR. Towards the end of the trilogy direct threats to him are meaningless. He offed a balrog, he would laugh at your army if it wasn’t attacking the rest of the free world. However he can’t win the war by direct force, he needs to be clever and rely on his hobbit scheme. Its all about doing all he can do to help them without being able to directly. That’s epic.

    However while I believe that this was the intention with epic tier play in 4e (and I don’t know that for sure) I believe it was a mistake on the part of WotC. A lot of people play D&D to kill monsters and take their treasure, with a great story and setting being a bonus. If they have played through 20 levels of kicking ass and gaining power to try to force on them a change in game style is like forcing on them a change in game. So they put a few epic monsters and magical items in the source books for people so they can continue to indulge in 6-8 fights per level that test their tactical chops and let them use the power that they’ve been building for so long.

    Except it doesn’t quite work that way, and it seems a bit tacked on. Players are getting mixed messages about epic play where they are supposed to mix with gods and use politics and guile to alter the course of history while being given cool powers that are suited to personal combat.

    While in one way this is good because it puts the ball in the playing group’s court over what they want with their game and gives them the choice of what they want to play it’s also forgetting the place in the market of D&D. It’s a pretty rules heavy system that attracts people who want to be told how to play their game. While it’s a good game in it’s own right I see it as a gateway game which (should) be bringing people into the hobby where they can find other games to complement D&D or fulfil the experiences they are looking for.

    So what I’m saying is that playing epic tier as a continuation of how your played earlier tiers is going to be ultimately disappointing and you’re probably better off going back to heroic tier for that (as Mike Shea suggested in an earlier article). If you are happy to change the way you’re playing then I think that there is a lot to be said for some of Dave’s advice above before starting play.

  14. Sorry, that wasn’t meant to be such a long comment. The tl;dr for that is +1 for this article.

  15. EnsignExpendable: I’m not sure WotC exactly thought it all the way through. I think if you travel in mind back to 2007 when they were laying this stuff out they were really just trying to make a 3.5 with better mechanics in essence. Nobody was really thinking a lot about what ‘epic’ would mean. They created an engine that would handle the math, sketched out mechanics for the last 10 levels of play, did some very basic testing, and spent their time and energy on things they considered more critical. 3.5 sort of just drifted off into more and more radical options at higher levels without any really distinct mode of play and 4e followed in its path. In all fairness Basic’s Immortals was the only other model for epic play out there in the D&D realm, and chances are few people in 2006 had a lot of experience running it since it went out of print in what, 1991?

    I think since then they’re wrestled with the whole conceptual basis of epic play, but it still just isn’t that urgent a thing from a product standpoint. Personally I’ve reached conclusions similar to yours and to Mike’s. Epic should be shorter and more focused, and then followed by some very open ended “immortal” sort of framework that you can use for ‘mythic’ play if desired. It just requires some restructuring of EDs and epic content to do it. I doubt WotC will do it themselves and it isn’t clear to me a 3rd party can do it within the limitations of the GSL, but a 3PP epic/mythic/immortal handbook would be pretty cool.

  16. Hey I just finished off my 2 yr campaign in the middle of the Paragon tier. We sort of steamboated through the Revenge of Giants during levels 14-15 and it ended pretty epic. I was not looking forward to another 15 levels of ever expanding awesomeness. They could fly, teleport at will, do insane amounts of damage when called upon, heal each other, and remain standing against all odds, and were also pretty freakin’ tough and hard as nails to boot. We decided it was best to go out on top. 100 sessions of 4-ish hours every friday night was a good 400 hour run.

    Honestly, I don’t know about the players but I was getting pretty sick of their mad PCs by then. 😛

    Also, I cant wait to threaten them with as little as a kobold with stick. I have always been partial to lower level play. My 3e game ended at level 11, and prior to that my longest running ad&d game of 2+ years only went as high as level 8 before the were slain in a battle my friends will never forgive me for, in the slave pits of the undercity…

  17. I think you’re just doubling down on the worst problem with 4E, which is that it tries to be way, way too organized. WotC’s solution to the problem of D&D being excessively dependent on having a good DM was to effectively relegate the DM to the role of an accountant who just lined up encounters at the specified pace and complexity and then doled out rewards of the specified rate and quality. That works okay for repetitive goblin-squashing expeditions, but try to do it with players who are narratively supposed to be epic heroes involved in world-spanning plots and the ridiculousness is laid bare.

    Don’t try to work out how many sessions should add up to a level. Don’t try to work out how many encounters should add up to a session. Don’t try to work out the party’s mean loot rate. Find a good DM that creates storylines, characters, and challenges in a way that’s copacetic with how you want to play and go for it. He or she will toss you a level every few sessions and an artifact here or there (with requisite subplots) and that will be that. Enjoy.

  18. sidereal: I think you misunderstand. I do not follow those guidelines you cite myself, and had combat-less sessions (and some epic sessions with only a single fight) and leveled by DM fiat. It is still an issue trying to find appropriate encounters and drawing on the pool of epic monsters.

  19. Hey Dave. I may have overstated the case, but I get an itchy trigger finger when I read terms like ‘final boss’. I think that it’s way too easy for a campaign to descend into nonsense if the players and DM don’t acknowledge that combat has to become much less of the focus at higher levels. It’s almost impossible for epic level heroes to continue to act as if fighting stuff was their only reason for existence and still have plausibly epic adventures. In most of the long-running campaigns I’ve either run or played in, by the time the players could reasonably considered epic they’re mostly telling other people what to do: organizing and leading armies, researching the depths of arcane madness, preventing holy war, or whatever. Suiting up and strapping on a sword should be like Gandalf going to battle: enjoyable and epic, but rare.

    That’s doubly hard in 4E, where Wizards has made a near total commitment to combat being the point of roleplaying.

  20. You’ll note that those are the kind of things I suggest for the “epilogue levels.” It just changes the style of play so you’re not trying to manage 5 players at a table all managing armies and whatnot at the same time but focusing on their individual journeys.

    I’m not sure what’s wrong with having a final boss in a game either- I’m pretty sure most games features a BBEG of some kind. Of course, it could be something else, but a lot of epic fantasy does feature a final battle against the main foe.

  21. I think how I’d do it is reduce the epic tier to five levels (25-30) and have alternate rewards and advancement after for level 30 PCs who continue to adventure. The characters called out of retirement to save the universe “one last time”. Other bonuses beyond levels and new powers with no capped limit so they could be done over and over.

    I’d also add a five-level tier at the very beginning (L1-5) with an “Everyman Tier” more resembling low level play in earlier editions: low magic, higher chance of death, etc. But the rules should support starting at other tiers (Heroic at 5 and Paragon at 15).

  22. I’m confused. Why would anyone want to prevent gnome mass suicide?

Trackbacks

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