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.