The Slow Death of Epic Tier

The Epic Tier is dying.  Which is a shame considering that Mike Shea from SlyFlourish.com just finished one of the first full level 1-30 campaigns.

When I first heard about the level range of D&D 4e going from 1 to 30, I was surprised.  Next I figured that what they were actually doing was taking the 20 levels that were in 3e and then expanding them, so that what you were doing at 20th level in 3e you’d be doing at 30th level in 4e.

To some degree, my hunch was correct .  High level monsters like storm giants, mariliths, great wyrms, balors and pit fiends went from CR 15-20 in 3e to Level 25-30 in 4e.

However, in other aspects, the true ‘epic levels’ in 3e were brought into ‘core’ D&D.  Although Epic Destinies were one of the most flavourful aspects of 4e, it was pretty apparent that they really amped up the power level of the characters.  Rightfully so, considering it was ‘epic’.

High level play definitely has a pedigree in D&D.  Though originally introduced and featured in the BECMI line of products (namely, the Companion, Master and Immortal levels), high level play was still fairly rare and I suspect that most players have never played at very high levels. In earlier editions of D&D there were two main reasons:  the length of playing time needed to get to high levels was very long, and the game wasn’t really balanced at high levels.  At high levels magic was king, and the clerics and wizards dominated the player’s side of the equation.  In addition, high level play involved a lot of ‘save or die’ elements.  At some point you just roll a ’1′ on your saving throw.  It got even worse in 3e when the ‘buff/scry/teleport’ scheme really started to become effective.

This was a bit of a shame though, since a lot of D&D elements are only seen at very high levels:  wishes, ancient dragons, powerful demons, holy avengers and vorpal weapons, etc.

So I had hopes that with the more balanced math and elimination of ‘save or die’ elements, that Epic tier play would become more popular and I would actually try my hand at it.

Unfortunately, the sweet spot in 4e still is still in the Heroic and Paragon tiers.

There are several reasons for this.

Crunchwise, while the ‘to-hit’ math for players and monsters certainly works, the damage that Epic monsters did was woefully inadequate.  In addition, the powerful Elite and Solo monsters in Epic Tier could be locked down easily, and as Mike Shea from Sly Flourish has written about, Epic Tier PCs were capable of monstrous amounts of damage.

Fluff-wise, a big problem with the Epic Tier is that it seems to diminish the world that the PCs have been adventuring in and focusing way too much on the planes.  In fact, it’s almost as if the Plane Above and the Plane Below/Abyss is the Epic Tier Campaign Setting.  Perhaps I’m not imaginative enough, and I prefer the more grounded nature of Heroic and Paragon adventures, but it seems difficult for an Epic Tier campaign to not be ‘generic’.  On the other hand, the PCs can pretty much wipe the table of anything that could be found on their homeworld, with the possible exception of Ancient dragons.

But the major problem with the Epic Tier is the lack of, and shrinking, support by WotC.  I was a bit surprised how many Epic Tier elements were included in 4e right from the start, though I acknowledge that they needed to have some elements.  However, unless people did one-shots or started at the Epic levels, it was going to be quite awhile before people’s campaigns made it to Level 21.   Admittedly, WotC overestimated how fast people would be able to get to the Epic Tier (the DMG states 18 months being the length of a 30 level campaign which was played weekly).

However, they did put out a few Epic Tier Dungeon adventures and they did publish the Epic Tier adventures involving Orcus.  However, because those Orcus adventures were so tied into the gods of the Points of Light setting, it made it difficult to adapt to a setting such as Eberron.  Or conversely, you could have run it in Eberron without really doing much, as it almost (if not entirely) is exclusively based in the Plane Above or Plane Below.

My last campaign ended at the high Paragon level, partly because the storyline had pretty much run it’s course, but also because I was looking at the Epic Tier and wasn’t really sure how to run it.  I really was hoping for some sort of guidance like the DMG did for the Heroic Tier and especially DMG2 for the Paragon Tier.  However, when asked about it at last year’s Gen Con, the designers stated that the reason there was no DMG3 was that very few campaigns were running an Epic Tier campaign.

I think this is putting the cart before the horse.  I know in my case, I was having a hard time wrapping my head around an Epic Tier campaign and really could have used a DMG3 focusing on the Epic Tier.  In addition, the Epic monsters from MM1 and to a lesser extent, MM2 really need revamping.  And then there is the lack of Dungeon adventure support…if you want to run an Epic Tier campaign, you pretty much have to come up with everything by yourself.

Finally, Essentials started coming out.  Yet only a handful of monsters in the new Monster Vault are Epic level.

I’m definitely getting the feeling that the Epic Tier, although ‘officially’ part of the core D&D experience, really is starting to feel more like it did in 3e…something that very few people ran, and something that WotC really didn’t support.

However, this just gives Mike Shea an opportunity to sell some books. :-)

So what do you think?  Am I barking up the wrong treant?


Part idiot. Part old man. All geek. I'm a 37-year old meteorologist. No, not one of those guys you see on TV, but someone who actually forecasts the weather. In my spare time (what I have with a toddler), I game. Mostly I run a D&D 4e game every two weeks, but also play Warhammer 40,000 and Warmachine. I'm a skeptic (not a cynic) and am interested in political topics. I can be followed on twitter @ArcaneSpringbrd


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About Arcane Springboard

I'm a 37-year old meteorologist. No, not one of those guys you see on TV, but someone who actually forecasts the weather. In my spare time (what I have with a toddler), I game. Mostly I run a D&D 4e game every two weeks, but also play Warhammer 40,000 and Warmachine. I'm a skeptic (not a cynic) and am interested in political topics. I can be followed on twitter @ArcaneSpringbrd
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16 Responses

  1. One thing I’ve done with my game from the get go is to completely ignore monster levels. The Monster Builder lets me adjust levels easily, so my Heroic tier PCs have already come across paragon tier threats like drow, githyanki, and ilithids. They’re already poking about in the Astral Sea, though I’ve made it clear that doing so is dangerous, and have upped the difficulty of the encounters I’ve run while they’ve been there.

    I don’t intend to only use this tool in one direction, either. Should they reach Paragon levels, they’ll find appropriately scaled goblins, skeletons, and the like that are Heroic tier creatures in the books. I see no reason why you couldn’t run an Epic campaign that is set in the, to borrow a term from an older edition, Prime Material plane. The home world. Just up-scale the monsters, using Epic creatures from the books as a guideline. Copy World of Warcraft. Have an epic dragon (or some other beast) lay waste to the countryside and have the PCs set out to stop it.

    • That said, with regards to Epic tier, I agree that it seems like Wizards is cutting off a limb without making any serious efforts to save it first.

    • I see what you’re saying, but there are differences between the higher level and lower level monsters beyond just defenses, to-hit numbers and damage. Epic level characters are capable of inflicting significant status effects and also are able to remove status effects easily.

      But the main problem with non-planar Epic creatures, especially for non-Solos or elites is that, as was stated by a designer early on in 4e, if these powerful organizations are out there, why haven’t they taken over the world already?

      Eberron does address this for the most part (Daelkyr are trapped in Khyber, as are the Rakshasa Rajahs. The Dragons have their own continent).

      • You explain the silence of epic tier threats during the first two tiers by doing exactly that. They didn’t exist previously. Or they were elsewhere.

        The demon was summoned. The dragon was sleeping. The giants were not yet angered. The battle at Isengard hasn’t been staged yet.

        The extra status effects and such are why I said to use epic level creatures as examples when you upscale lower tier monsters.

  2. I agree a lot with some points and disagree a lot with others.

    First off, I don’t think it’s dying. I think Essentials didn’t support it very much at all but the Monster Manual 3, Demonomicon, and Dark Sun Creature Catalogue all have a fair bit of epic-tier monsters that are well-balanced.

    I also think that the Essentials epic-level characters ARE well supported (even if they’re a little simple) and the most balanced versions of epic-level PCs you’ll find. This means players might not like them as much because a lot of their broken things would be eliminated in an Essentials Only campaign.

    Personally, I can very easily come up with a bunch of potential Epic-tier campaign settings. It’s an area I enjoy coming up with and an area I like to run. I do, however, agree that it doesn’t fit very well in one of the other published campaign worlds because epic-tier Eberron and epic-tier Forgotten Realms are hard to differentiate when you’re running around the Abyss. I actually like the epic-tier for the same reason you don’t. It pulls characters outside of their world and makes them start caring for the universe.

    I also just love big giant monsters.

    It won’t shock me at all if Wizards tries to reboot the epic-tier with a future product. That might be the reason we saw so few epic-tier monsters in the first Monster Vault. I think there’s still room for a lot of epic-tier material.

    So I disagree with your main premise. It isn’t dead or dying or fading away unless you let it. I ran an epic-tier game for over a year with existing material before I had the Monster Vault, the MM3, the Demonomicon, or the Dark sun Creature Catalogue and I enjoyed it to the very end. Yes, there’s a lot of tweaking to ensure things stay balanced, but you can still run a hell of a game.

    I’ll leave with one specific word of advice. Add a houserule to remove crits on anything other than a natural 20. This alone ended up creating all sorts of imbalances in PCs above level 11 and it just got worse and worse until we saw 45 free action attacks in a single round of combat due to optimizing around frequent crits.

    • I suppose what I’m doing is calling out WotC to prove me wrong. Obviously there won’t be anything substantial in print released regarding this until at least next September but we could see some stuff in DDI.

      I linked my blogpost on Enworld.org and a reply to that did make a pretty good point. I wonder if one of the problems is that the Epic tier is too long. It may be more appropriate if it was 5 levels instead of 10.

      BTW, I’m really looking forward to your Epic level book.

  3. I do remember that there was a post on the Wizard’s official boards from one of the staff members that acknowledged the dearth of content for Epic.

    Insiders have had some support with Scales of War path and various short adventures at Epic level, but it is true that there is a lot less than there should be. And with the slow pace of new content for The Chaos Scar, it’ll be years before anything Epic turns up there.

    Additionally, there’s always the possibility of third party content, such as a 4E conversion of The Drow War trilogy which went from 1 to 30 in three books. I think it’s out of print, but copies regularly appear on eBay, so I’m told.

    Epic does require more commitment from DMs though, and that can be issue in these days when time feels very constrained.

  4. It’s true that I’ve never played beyond heroic tier, but even so I would love to see a DMG3 based around epic creatures. Even if I never run an epic game, I love the theory of games, and also love big monsters! It would be a fun read even if I didn’t utilize it. I hope that’s enough for Wizards to change their mind. So while you might be right, I hope you’re wrong?

  5. I agree wholeheartedly with what you mentioned about the players being forced into the planes. I find that kind of game to be lacking in emotional attachment somehow, since the players aren’t really part of that world. Its kind of like the death of a single world is a tragedy, but the death of a multiverse is a statistic. Especially when the natural progress of the game makes planar travel seem inevitable rather than a rare, fantastic occurrence.

    One other problem I have with 4e epic tier is that it just kind of happens. This particularly struck me when considering Dark Sun (my personal favorite setting). In previous editions, Sorcerer-Kings and the Dragon were terrifying because they were so much more powerful than any player could easily become. The were somewhere in the range of 22nd – 30th level and the only way players could equal them in power was by becoming avangions or dragons themselves which required them to embark on a quest and complete a ritual that was sure to be opposed by the very powers they were so terrified of in the first place. In 4e, SKs are much less terrifying because players know that they will eventually outclass them simply by playing the game long enough. Epic destiny comes easily, its just a matter of reaching level 21, and then eventually a battle with the Sorcerer-King of Draj is an easy encounter barely worth an epic party’s time.

    I relize this kind of thing can be changed through taking liberties with the core rules as concerns level progression (which I plan to do in my campaign), but it still feels likes the rules diminish the epic feel of the epic tier by essentially just making it another set of rungs on the level ladder.

  6. I ran the complete H1 – E3 WOTC modules for my group also. The main problems for me as the DM have been mostly addressed with the limit to free action attacks , the scaling up of damage and ways to prevent stun locking.

    I am now running a home brew game for the same group. They are currently at level 5 and we plan on going all the way to 30 again.

  7. Honestly I don’t have a lot of interest in epic tier. I find that there are enough interesting stories to tell in the heroic and paragon tier that it won’t matter if I never get to play an epic tier game. Yes, being insanely powerful can be fun, but for me that wouldn’t last long and I would have to work harder to get the role playing aspects of the game in to the spotlight. I would miss the talks with inn keepers when the only people that are around to talk are gods and demon princes. The other thing is how complicated characters powers are in the epic tier. I’m not usually that interested in Essentials but I would be tempted to convert a character to essentials to play epic tier just so it’s not a burden.

    That being said it seems a shame to just leave a whole section of the game to rot instead of supporting it. Sure not bringing out new epic products doesn’t stop anyone from playing, I can quite happily play other RPGs with a single rule book, but a if you can bring out a list of feats and powers and ‘player options’ as long as Orcus’s arm then a bit of love for the people who have devoted most time to the game wouldn’t go amiss.

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