Epic-Tier Anything Sucks

There’s been a lot of talk around here lately about epic tier games in 4e (and how it isn’t very much fun, and how we’d all rather have our ever-regenerating livers torn out each morning by eagles than play characters over level 20). I haven’t had any experience with epic tier play in 4e yet, but from the sound of it I cannot wait. I have, however, dabbled in the cosmos-shaking power of epic level characters in previous editions. It sucked too. Let me tell you about it.

In The Beginning

I first started regularly playing D&D when I was 13. It was a time of great fun and overwhelming stupidity. Space hamsters were hilarious, mind flayers sucking peoples brains out were hilarious,and Grease spells were ULTRA hilarious. It was a time when my friend had 2nd Edition books and I had 1st Edition books, and we decided to use them all. For a time, it was enough to roam around with low-level characters, exploring dungeons, slaughtering demihumans, and hoarding treasure. One day, one of us discovered that we could multiclass our character. My friend chose to dual-class his Fighter/Illusionist. I decided to go for broke, and go for Fighter/Cleric/Magic-User. It quickly became apparent to me that gaining levels was going to take an extraordinarily long time, as my friend’s character was far outstripping mine. I do not actually know how they were both adventuring together, as there were only two of us and I’m assuming somebody had to DM. Perhaps we got my grandmother to do it, or one of the dogs. I’m not sure.

What I do know is that we got greedy. And it was the beginning of the end. Of the beginning.

It started with me getting a copy of the 1e Manual of the Planes. I don’t recall who, but one of us decided to ride the rule that 1GP = 1EXP to its utmost conclusion. So it was that we decided to mine the Plane of Quasi-Elemental Mineral for its endless riches. It seemed like a fine idea at the time. We decided on some arbitrary figure that each mine we dug would yield, and we started drawing maps of the portals to our mines. I was ecstatic when I finished. My character would be so powerful. But I hadn’t counted on one thing: my friend had drawn his mines much smaller than my mines, and many more fit on the page. Immediately upon gaining untold power, my friend immediately declared his character evil and proceeded to ravage the multiverse, leaving my 3000th level fighter / 2850th level Cleric / 2785th level Magic-User powerless to stop him.

This did not, however, stop us from using Wish spells to boost our stats up to all 25’s from 1e Legends and Lore’s epic stats rules. Then we  staged battles between our characters and every god in the Greek pantheon and every last one of the Princes of Elemental Evil. I was so proud of Cryonax. He even got a hit in.

When You Wish Upon A Stat

We’ve all had our variations on being young and stupid with flagrant disregard for TSR’s authority. The things I just described do not belong in any sane D&D campaign. There is something that surprises me about all this –namely, that (creatively idiotic number-buffing aside) those characters were behaving more like gods than any other epic-tier characters I’ve ever seen. They were omnipotent. They were petty. They were covetous of each other’s power. They blew things up because they could. And, perhaps most importantly, they didn’t have any rules to hold them down.

How many times in mythology has a god willed something into being, or something just randomly happened because gods were involved? It’s somehow more than the simple magic mortals can weave. Mages study their entire lives and sometimes even into unlife to even begin to touch the power the gods wield every day in search of divine breakfast. The will of the gods is frequently above even the laws of nature and the universe, infinitely powerful, infinitely flexible, and limited only by their imaginations (or the other gods who will try to kill them if they step out of line).

And yet, we all wonder why it’s hard to elevate a PC with a set of structured abilities up to the level of the gods.

Have you ever played one of those videogames where you fight the same enemies over and over again, but they change the colors and give them more hitpoints and maybe an extra ability or two? In a lot of these games, your character’s stats will scale along with the bad guys’. Sure, this method keeps the low-level PCs from messing with things stronger than they are, but there comes a point where you realize you’re playing the same game you played at level 1 but the numbers and special effects are bigger. The intense stupidity of my formative D&D years is an example of what happens when you try to make a god using this method. The results are, in a word, ungodly.

The simple fact that RPGs have a structure that characters are built upon makes them somewhat suboptimal for creating gods (at least, ones that fit inside that structure). While it’s true that many gods have been statted up for epic PCs to face, much of what makes them more than just super-buffed warriors is difficult to express in game mechanics. What does a war god actually do, and how does he do it? How does a love god find people to shoot with little heart-arrows? How do you listen to and grant the prayers of so many clerics who want to use you as a fueling station?

You make stuff up, of course. I realize that’s “part of” every edition of D&D and most roleplaying systems that have ever been made, but that’s not really the point. It’s an acknowledgement that structure needs to be abandoned when things start happening that the rules can no longer contain, and at that point I submit that you’re not really playing D&D or Pathfinder or anything else.

You’re just storytelling.

I’m certainly not going to complain about storytelling. As a matter of fact, some of the best experiences I’ve had with epic-level characters has been when I stopped playing them and simply told stories of their future exploits. An end-of-campaign synopsis may well do your best-loved character more justice than simply continuing their mortal existence. Storytelling is where the deeds of the gods live.

On the other hand, if anyone wants to stat up why the Greek Titan Kronos could cut off his father’s genitals and toss them into the sea resulting in foam that spawned the most beautiful being the Earth or the heavens had ever seen, please be my guest.

 

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Comments

  1. Oh, that’s simple. The ocean was just at the right point in its cycle. Doesn’t matter, had deity sex.

    Seriously though, great point. It is easy for those of us that played previous editions to forget how often epic play and even mid-level play could become what you described.

  2. Great article. This reminded me of something David “Zeb” Cook said about the Lady of Pain during an interview I did long ago (2001). I had asked about any background information or even statistical information for her – whether that kind of information may ever come to light. He responded with…

    “…..While I can’t predict what WotC might do, I’ll hazard a guess — nothing. Certainly if it were my choice that’s the way it would be. The point about the Lady of Pain is that she isn’t really anything (except maybe an convenient embodiment of DM law) which lets her be anything. The minute something gets quantified, it loses it’s “reality” and becomes nothing but a game mechanic. (Think about it — you treat a character in a novel as real in part because of what you don’t know about it, but a character in a game is often nothing more than a collection of numbers and powers that highlights it’s artificiality and assumes more importance than the characterization in the setting.) This is a case where less IS more…..”

  3. Lessee… huh. Apparently, it was actually Cronus, Zeus’s dad, who cut off his father’s genitals to make Aphrodite, not Zeus. Fucking greek mythology. So messed up.

    No matter, though:

    Uranus’s Junk
    Artifact (Consumable)
    Effect: 1) Cut off of Uranus.
    2) Throw into ocean.
    3) ?????
    4) Sex goddess.

    Simple enough, I guess.

    What? Rhetorical? Pfft!

  4. @Graham: EGAD! I’ve had the myth of Aphrodite’s birth and lineage wrong in my head this whole time! I have edited appropriately. We can’t have factual mythological inaccuracies. NOT ON MY WATCH.

    Poor Zeus’s grandpa.

  5. It almost hurts to see a post as funny as Graham’s and not be able to upvote it.

  6. I, personally, have never really understood the appeal of Epic play (or perhaps even Paragon). I guess my interest in sword and sorcery rpgs has always been in characters/stories that are heroic, but mortal. I think D&D is really best (mechanically) at dealing with that level of play.

  7. @Vanir – Ha! I only discovered that after looking up how to spell Zeus’s dad’s name. Which is apparently variable anyways.

    @Noumenon – I think you just did. Hooray!

  8. Awesome article! Epic tier is always hard to pull off correctly in anything. You want to be able to take on the gods, but as a GM you have a hard time saying “Sure, you can just destroy that town cause you’re that awesome.”. Rules for Epic tier are also hard to create and to use. They either feel too complex or too unworthy of the epic nature of the game at that point.

  9. @Graham: The use of “consumable” disturbs me. I can only imagine how Poseidon felt about all this. “HEY! DON’T THROW THAT IN— aw man look what you did”

  10. @Vanir – Or Uranus.

    “Man, I was using that! I was going to go make a demigod, by banging a horse or something. Maybe peeing on a virgin.”

    Greek myths are weird.

  11. Doktor Avalanche says:

    I just completed epic tier three weeks ago. After the party killed Tiamat one of the players commented: “I expected that to last longer, … and be more difficult”. I had statted Tiamat as five heads represented by five level 33 solos and a level 36 solo as the body. The heads were based on the sorcerer kings from Dark Sun, Lolth and a couple of level 30+ post MM3 creatures. After a two year campaign I felt like: is that it ? I was very disappointed and sorry for the players.

    This got me thinking maybe we are going about the problem wrong. I do not want D&D to be the equivalent of a PC game where the purple orcs simply have double the red orcs’ stats. This makes for a boring (to me) game where after two years the only difference is that you are shouting “yay I hit the purple orc for 100 HP damage” in place of “yay I hit the red orc for 5 HP damage “.

    I wonder if Wotc have fallen between two camps and this version of D&D will have to be notched up as the transition version. Wotc seem to be trying to move away from a combat only rpg. But they have still only provided a combat system.

    Wotc have tried to give us the answer by saying that Heroic tier is about the local, paragon is about the global and epic is the universal. But we as DMs continue to make the game about the killing of individual foes. The problem in my mind is Wotc have not given PCs the support they need to carry out epic activities, and we DMs have only the combat system to fall back on. At epic the combat powers characters have are perfect for the feel of running an epic character – PCs gradually become omnipotent and able to kill anything they come across without a second thought (this does not just happen when they hit level 30 but gradually through the higher levels). The problem in my mind is that the characters do not have the powers / skills / mechanics to do the other epic (or paragon) stuff implied by Wotc.

    Any tweaking of the combat system therefore simply misses the point and will turn D&D into a continual treadmill of combat, scaling linearly into the stratosphere and a level 30 limit becomes arbitrary. To make epic feel different the focus of the game needs to shift away from combat to include something else. Wotc therefore needs to support the something else with mechanics. The skill challenge mechanic goes some way to recognise and try to move away from the current focus in D&D. But strategic negotiations with a god cannot be represented by increasing numbers of Bluff and Arcana rolls.

    I would not want to make combat at higher levels the same as lower levels but with higher numbers. I want to change the game and really focus my players on truly epic challenges. I would say to Wotc they should focus their R&D into making the rest of D&D as tight as the combat system rather than continue to tweak combat to make level 30 combat the same length, challenge and etc. as at level 3. And we DMs should focus on storytelling and creating truly epic (non-combat) situations for our PCs.

    To return to epic combat, if I were to stat out Tiamat again I would not look to the Monster Manual. The stats of normal creatures are represented there which do not and should not represent an extreme challenge to PCs. For a god I would look to the character builder and pick attack powers from it and use the solo adjustments as per the DMG. I would not look to change the combat rules of 4E which are robust as they stand.

    I am fairly locked into 4E. My new campaign started last week after a one shot game of 4E Amethyst, so I have a lot of time to get Tiamat version two right. I hope you guys have the answer for me when I get there in another two years !

    (Alternatively DMs can continue to ramp up monster hit points, defences and damage to create bigger and bigger combat challenges for their parties so long as their Players continue to enjoy that.)

  12. I had a try with an epic campaign. Well, actually, we just ended our paragon campaign and is about to enter epic, but i did not push through with it because I can’t think of a nice story that is ten levels worth of gaming.

    My idea with epic is just it’s only a one last epic fight towards the last master, maybe around 20 encounters. For example, fighting your way throughout the Abyss until you reach Lolth, or Tharizdun’s (which is our case) demesne. That’s the reason I instantly let them level up from 20 to 29 because I can’t let them linger long enough for that epic moment. it needs to be a ‘moment’, not another numbers of sessions.

  13. Raven:
    “I had a try with an epic campaign. Well, actually, we just ended our paragon campaign and is about to enter epic, but i did not push through with it because I can’t think of a nice story that is ten levels worth of gaming.”

    You could try asking your players:
    “What do YOU want to do?”

  14. Add me to the list of guilty offenders who, in their youth, used Deities and Demigods as a Monster Manual.

    Nowadays I’m torn about how to represent gods in the game world. On the one hand I like the idea that you can fight your way north, lay siege to Dorakaa, and if you’re powerful enough, put Iuz to the sword. On the other hand gods are supposed to control the fundamental aspects of the universe… which is kind of hard to represent by a stat (even the crazy stats in the 1e Deities and Demigods with all their no-save abilities and multiple actions per round).

  15. As a god, one has fewer limitations. With fewer restrictions on power, a ruleset as detailed as D&D becomes undesirable. Something more freeform is in order.

    Which is why, if you wish to play as gods, you go play Nobilis, where everyone is a god (or a crusading being from the Outside who destroys the world by subverting its ideas, or something equally badass), but so is anyone else that matters, so balance remains.

  16. @Viktor – Iuz is hardly a ‘fundamental aspect of the universe’, though – just a powerful cambion who’s younger than many Elf PCs!

  17. You’ve got a point 🙂

    Off topic, but I’ve always wondered why he’s called ‘the old one’… I mean in human terms he’s old, but you’re right, most elves that are kicking around can probably remember when Iuz was just some warlord’s adopted son. Maybe it’s because one of his forms is all shrivelled and wrinkly.

  18. I know I should never say never. But at least at this moment in time I will NEVER run epic levels again. While it leads to such wonderful things as a party of five or so players able to cut down the Tarasque in mere moments, control it, and have sex whilst riding on it’s back… It is also painful to run and attempt to challenge your players appropriately. Sure, you can just start making things up, but that just falls into the realm of “just telling stories” instead of playing a game as V said above. And if I wanted to have story time I’d just invite everyone over to sit around on the couch and tell stories. It’s almost as if there needs to be an entire scrapping of the rules system at an arbitrary level cap and a new game with new rules entirely for epic level.

  19. I’ve been running a weekly 4e campaign for just over 3 years. At this point, the characters are at level 25. I do very much miss lower level play, but I’ve never had a campaign last this long continuously before, and the story of the campaign is engaging enough to overwhelm the difficulties mechanically with the epic tier. That said, I really wish Wizards would support the epic tier, especially given their claims when they first published 4e that all 30 levels of play would be equivalently playable…

    One of the things I’ve been doing is upping the monster damage, sometimes as much as doubling, and giving certain monsters some interrupts & immunities to help deal with imposed status effects. Even still, it starts to strain credulity to suppose that every monster the PCs meet will be very threatening… by the start of level 25, they’ve already killed two exarchs and an archfey. They’ve got various different means of resurrecting the dead, but there haven’t been any unplanned party deaths since mid-paragon tier.

    Another thing that helps a lot, but takes a lot of prep work, is to come up with powerful terrain features, or other battle dynamics that change things.

    One other idea I’ve been playing with — certain situations in which the PCs power is inhibited… In earlier editions, many spells failed to function on certain outer planes, and magic items would lose some of their inherent strength. I’ve played around with a plane in which the PCs take a -5 to all attack rolls and lose double hp every time they are damaged. That allows lower level encounters to be interesting, but you can’t use this too much without irritating your players. And part of the problem, at least for me, is not that everyone in the party is overpowered, but that the people especially good at optimizing are functionally several levels more powerful than those who don’t optimize.

    In any event, I wouldn’t play 4e epic tier again after this campaign — especially not with characters who have been accumulating items and powers and such for the whole campaign since level 1 (rather than characters who start off as epic). But we are still enjoying our campaign. The players seem to be having fun, and everyone wants to see how the story will conclude. I think if you’ve got truly epic plotlines, it can be a lot of fun. But the way so many people play D&D these days — as a tactical boardgame or LFR style “organized” play, rather than long-standing plot-driven campaigns — the epic tier isn’t worth it for most.

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