Epic! Yes. Fail? Maybe.

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  1. #1
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    Epic! Yes. Fail? Maybe.

    In the March 28th installment of the "Rule of Three" column, Mike Mearls--known also as Eminem when he's outside the WotC offices, busting mad rhymes--had the following to say:

    Epic tier support is tricky because we consistently see a preference for lower levels. Of course, thats no comfort if you want higher level material. I believe ... one of the biggest hurdles we have is figuring out precisely what material will be most useful for high level play. If we could maximize the utility of the epic content we produce, that will certainly make everyone happy.
    Well, Mike--he lets me call him "Mike," because we've worked together a lot, and because of those photos I still have from GenCon 2004--I'm going to take a minute to address that a little. Now, I obviously don't have access to WotC's feedback, sales numbers, or other market research. So everything I'm about to say could be entirely off-base where the bulk of the market is concerned. But I know it's accurate for me, as a gamer, and for the majority of the people I know and/or game with. (And yes, we all know that anecdotal evidence ain't worth the paper it's printed on--especially online. Again, I'm not offering this as "proof" of anything, just as the basic of where I'm coming from, and the core of my theorizing.)

    So, Mike, my theory is that the reason there's not a huge amount of interest in epic-tier play is that we haven't given the players a good reason to want epic-tier play.

    Here's what I mean. For some people, the idea of having greater powers, and of fighting tougher beasties, is enough. And that's fine; more power to 'em. But for a lot of people, epic offers additional complexity--more powers, higher numbers--without offering a sufficiently new experience. The monsters may be bigger and have more famous names; the "dungeons" may be really cool environments in the Elemental Chaos; plots may threaten worlds rather than villages. But the game (as written) is still focused on adventure--go into a funky environment and kill what's there.

    (This--just to head off any edition warring--is not a problem unique to 4E. It was more or less the same with 3E. I don't recall enough about the 2E epic play expansion to say with certainty whether that edition also fell into the same trap.)

    Some of you have seen this refrain from me before, in a prior column, but I'm going to do a quick revisit for those who haven't: My belief is that, however they're defined--the three tiers of 4E, the "standard" vs. "epic" play of 3E, the name levels of 1E, whatever--the different divisions of play in D&D should potentially provide different experiences. Yes, they can just offer more--higher numbers, additional powers--for the people who want that. But they should also offer something different, for those who feel that the different levels of play should also also different styles of play.

    "More" vs. "different." Advancing a tier (or the equivalent) should offer the option of either or both, but at the moment, it really only offers the former.

    And for some people--apparently a lot of people--there's just no point in dealing with the added complexity for an experience that's not going to feel substantially different.

    Oh, the game makes some nods to it. Epic destinies are a start. In 3E, there were some aspects of the Epic Level Handbook that tried new stuff (such as the custom spells). But in both cases, they're just nods; they're not sufficient.

    So what would be? Where has the game succeeded at this in the past?

    Well, to an extent, in 1E. At "name" level, most of the classes were assumed to acquire a castle/keep/tower/other headquarters, some land, and followers. It wasn't a major part of the game, but it was a core part of it, and it was enough to very clearly tell the players "Hey, the style of play changes at this point, if you want it to."

    So what about ruling domains in 4E? There have been a few articles on it here and there, but it's certainly not a major aspect of the game. (I should also point out that, to me, this feels more like a paragon change than an epic change, but that's just a matter of detail and degree.)

    But again, that was just a gesture, even in 1E. You really have to go to BECMI to see a truly solid example. I'm referring of course, to the "I" in BECMI, the Immortals Set. It involved, for all practical purposes, PCs becoming gods.

    Well, okay, 4E has that, right? More than one epic destiny involves the transition to godhood. But it does so at the end. It doesn't actually allow the PCs to portray gods, to face the sorts of world-managing challenges gods would have to face.

    It doesn't, in other words, allow for an alteration in the style of gaming.

    Nor do the bulk of the examples we've seen. There have been several epic adventures published, but while they make some really cool use of epic magics, and have some nifty environments, they're still more or less straight combat-based adventures and/or dungeon crawls. Which, again, is fine for some people, but doesn't scratch the itch of anyone who feels that the epic tier should feel truly different from what came before.

    But here's the thing. The tweaks/changes don't even have to be mechanical. Where's the advice? Where are the in-depth features on how to run politics? Games of nations, and--well, thrones? Actually serving as gods, or at least agents thereof, not just to smite evil but to ensure the continued smooth operation of that god's responsibilities and domains? The clash of armies? The rise of new Churches?

    Look at what the epic destinies imply in their flavor text and their powers. PCs standing at the head of barbarian hordes or sprawling armies. Rising to godhood. Casually strolling back from the realms of the dead. Stealing a villain's voice or dreams, for Kord's sake! These are some truly inspiring images, some great ideas--but the game has fallen woefully short on helping DMs actually do anything with them.

    It doesn't really do the game, or the DM, or the players any good to say "It's possible to do Nifty Thing X" in the epic tier, without also giving them a means to use that tool. How do you write an adventure around stealing the king's unique eye color? What do the PCs do to right the natural balance of the world once they've killed Tiamat and left a gaping hole in the pantheon? Other than DM fiat and hand-waving, what can the PCs do with those nations that they're now strong enough to conquer on whim?

    What makes epic play different than earlier tiers, not just bigger? Those are the questions that need to be answered, the tools that need to be provided, if people are to be interested in and excited by the epic tier. And not just in the abstract, but in specific, concrete terms. It's okay for epic play to be a little harder on the DM; but it's not okay to give them just a few sentences of "This is what you can do" and leave them floundering. They need guidance, and they need examples. That means epic adventures that are light (or at least medium) on combat, and that address some of these epic-specific challenges. It means showing a different way to play D&D, and then providing the tools to support that way.

    And yes, that means there'll be a few products that are aimed at a playstyle that doesn't match the central core of what D&D is, and has (more or less) always been. But that's okay. (Or at least, it certainly is on a creative level; I can't speak to sales, of course.) The presence of the Immortals set didn't make the Basic and Expert sets any less pure, old-school D&D fantasy. The option of running a domain at name level in 1E didn't alter the core experience of the game; it just allowed a different way to go for people who wanted it.

    So why can't the epic tier of 4E do the same? Why does the game's "core experience" have to remain the same throughout all three tiers, from 1st to 30th level? Honestly, if it does, what's the point of having an epic tier at all?

    That, Mike (and everyone else, because I know for a fact that everyone at WotC is just sitting around with baited breath, waiting to hear what "that freelancer who can't shut up" has to say about design theory) is why, I believe, there's been minimal interest in epic play. Give people a reason--not just higher numbers, not just bigger bad guys, but a truly epic experience that goes not just above but beyond what they've seen in prior tiers--and I can almost guarantee you that we'll see interest in epic play expand.

    At least for me and my group, if no one else.
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    Ignore ArcaneSpringboard
    To often this word is over used, but in this case, this is completely appropriate.


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    Possible answer that no one from WotC is willing to say in public: the reason for detailing classes for 30 levels in core is so that people will play the first 20.
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    Interesting article Mouseferatu.

    Of course I already solved your "epic needs a new style of gaming" question back during 3rd Edition with the Worship Points System in the Immortals Handbook: Ascension (wherein Events lead to fame and enough fame becomes worship and through that, divinity).

    ...I'll try and get around to a 4th Edition update later this year.

    I do think WotC have somewhat dropped the ball with regards the Epic Tier. For the most part its just the Paragon Tier with bigger numbers. What would make the epic tier encounters feel more unique would be:

    1. The ability to face off against whole armies of foes, either as a single PC or through controlling your own army. This is easily handled by making Units act like swarms. So for instance a horde of 1000 Orcs might be treated as a Level 20 Brute.

    2. The ability to battle ginormous monsters far bigger than gargantuan, like castle-sized Godzilla, mountain sized Typhon, planet sized Alklha, star sized Azathoth and even bigger monsters like Infinitaurs and so forth. I already have rules for these, I was saving them for a later book, but I might post them on my website soon.

    3. The collateral damage inflicted to areas. Epic adventures are about potential Doomsday's around every corner, but it never 'feels' like anything bad is happening outside of the room. When Orcus tries to kill the Raven Queen maybe every corpse in the world animates and the PCs experience this by being put in the position of their henchmen or known NPCs who are battling back home against overwhelming undead odds while the (main) PCs try to stop Orcus. Like when Luke Skywalker battled Vader in RotJ while down on Endor the Rebels were trying to destroy the Shield Generator. Maybe when the PCs 'Bloodied' Orcus we could cut to the other scene to take in the momentous nature of events unfolding.

    The potential for the Epic Tier is just waiting to be tapped. If WotC won't do anything about it, I will...I just need to find the time.

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    What's that anime where people throw galaxies at each other as improvised weapons?
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    Quote Originally Posted by RangerWickett View Post
    What's that anime where people throw galaxies at each other as improvised weapons?
    Tengen Toppa Gurren Lagann.

    And while I usually don't find myself in agreement with Mouseferatu these days, in this case I concur wholeheartedly. This is an excellent example of what needs to happen at the epic levels to make them feel, well, epic.

    Of course, as Upper_Krust said, if they won't do it, he will.
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    But back to the topic at hand. I agree with everything written in this article. I found that when I ran a few epic combats (my players took on three epic villains; Ogremoch, Lolth, and Vecna, going through one an evening), I really had to take a step back from the rules and bend them to the point of breaking to make things feel appropriately epic. It would certainly be interesting to see ideas put forward by Wizards on expanding the scope of epic tier play.
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    I think that part of my problem is that 4e combat is finicky; lots of small annoying details to remember and communicate. This makes it less cinematic, and epic style encounters just scream out for a highly cinematic approach. I'm not sure what the best way to handle this is going to be.

    Great post.
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  • #9
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    Yep, I agree with this 100%.
    Last edited by delericho; Monday, 4th April, 2011 at 10:15 AM.

  • #10
    We often hear about amazing DMs at WoTC and their brilliant campaigns. I'd assume THEIR epic-tier games may have some of those elements you're talking about. So why isn't any of that gameplay being translated into official supplements? Is it an art that cannot be taught? Or is it less cost-effective than publishing rulesets and dungeon delves?

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