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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