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Thread: Epic! Yes. Fail? Maybe.
Thursday, 31st March, 2011, 10:36 PM #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, that’s 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.
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.
Ari Marmell, aka Mouseferatu--Rodent of the Dark
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