Epic Level Encounter Design – Part 1: Cut the Fat

by Bauxtehude (Liam Gallagher) on May 2, 2012

Recently I’ve been charged with the task of running the first epic level campaign for the Dungeon’s Master crew. This series of articles will outline my process and some of my ideas for creating that high level campaign you’ve always wanted to run. This first article is about trimming down the game of D&D so that it runs well at the epic tier.

Picking the Right Tools for the Job

The game of D&D is like any other device in that it’s designed with a purpose in mind, and as per the demands of the design it meets some needs and not others. I think of these things along the lines of automobiles, where a station wagon and a race car can both be very effective though not at all compatible. Likewise 4e D&D is very different at level 2 and level 22. Heroic tier D&D is like your mother’s station wagon, if you put another dent in the bumper there’s a good chance that she won’t notice, where epic D&D is like a fine Italian F1 land rocket, which you can destroy in an instant by using the wrong fuel and oil.

Heroic tier D&D has a lot of features that make play interesting at that level that don’t really translate well to later play. We’ll review some of them now and you can decide if you want to cut them or not in favour of a more high performance and race worthy game.

Getting Away with More, More Often

At the epic level you as a DM won’t have the same level of accountability for a number of reasons. The game has lost any realism that it may have ever had. With monsters that can perform outlandish feats of magic or strength on par with the party there’s less room for reasonable complaints when monsters pull off tricks with the help of the DM fiat. Where the uncannily high stealth score of the level 1 Goblin who managed a surprise round can be disputed, it is harder for level 21 PCs to account for all the magic and trickery at play in their foes.

More so than in low level games, if you can dream it up it can happen. Just make sure that as you make alterations to the normal way that the game is played and let the rules flex a little to allow your epic level ideas flow more comfortably that the players are on board for all of this.

Wealth, loot and magic items

At low level play the DM can be the item police and do a good job of keeping the amount of material wealth that the party has in check because at the most characters are going to have two or three items. Keeping this in line serves an important purpose. In the low levels of play the DM is often trying to express the level of frailty of the party to make their eventual victory seem sweeter, or just to keep game balance in check. At the epic level it might be best just to let these things go as the players have access to an impossible level of wealth and likely have magic items in their bag of holding that you forgot that they had.

Instead of trying to reign in their access to magic items just make use of your DM powers to make item use a nonissue. You can separate the gear issue into two areas by creating your own supremely powered items or by making monsters that can only be killed by specific weapons or artifacts or methods. Now items are either PC tools or plot devices. The main concern to be had with player gaining too much gear is that they might abuse it to overcome challenges that you have placed in front of them too easily. If you can manage your larger and more important combat related challenges in such a way that they relate to plot device style items that you have personally planted in the game then your characters will be free to run around with as many magic swords as they please and all of that book work is eliminated.

Streamlining Combat

A lot has already been written on this topic, some of it by me, so it’s better that you just read what’s already been written. However I will make one caution about monster design at the epic level. While epic level monsters may have these really attractive looking long stat blocks with lots of powers, I’ve found that as stat blocks get larger the monsters get less fun to fight in equal proportions. If you’re building monsters or just picking them from the book remember that if you only need a wrench you should just leave the 17-in-1 multi-tool at home.

So what if you can’t find good simple monsters at level 24 that do what you want them to? Just find a monster with the right over all stats and make a reminder with a sticky note that their basic attack immobilizes. Who cares if it’s not in the book? You’re the DM, save yourself the grief. At this level I cannot recommend strongly enough the trick of cutting the monster’s maximum hit points in half and doubling their damage output. It will cut an easy half-hour off of any combat encounter. Finally, this might be the time to lose all those fancy three stage save ends effects. It’s epic level, just have them turn to stone the first time, some of your character have powers that read like “Whenever you die, you don’t die, and instead the person who killed you dies, and you get a pie and have really nice hair. Do you workout?” so they will be able to cope.

Encourage the Players to Make Simple and Familiar Characters

So at level 6 your cute little Warlord and Ranger combo impressed everyone but you’re not in the little leagues any more. Your whole party might be on board for it, but chances are at level 21 the tables isn’t going to want to wait while you try to remember your 15 power/feat/item combo that gives you an extra 2d6 against some guy with 500 hit points. Level 21 is a good time to invest in a character that has high defenses and a good attack score and then call it a day. You’ll save a lot of time that would be otherwise spent flipping through your 12 pages of power cards.

Level 21 is a poor time to try out a new class for the first time. Remember the race car analogy? When you say that you want to play an Invoker from scratch at level 21 I picture Woody Allen being forced into an F1 car while he tries to explain that he learned to drive on an automatic and that the helmet is making him feel claustrophobic. Stick with something you know so that the task of building a level 21 character isn’t so daunting and so that the learning curve isn’t so steep.

Even better, if you and your players can all agree to use a reduced rule set, say playing only from the PHBs, you can all better anticipate what each other’s characters will be capable of, and there is a lower chance of experiencing a plot foiling ritual or epic destiny feature.

Be Prepared to Enlist Help

The role of a DM is normally taxing. Working out the plot threads and encounters is hard even when the players are in a well defined area. At the epic level players are going to gain access to teleportation over vast distances, exotic mounts and forms of transportation and depending on the campaign setting even airships. In many RPG video games restrictions on transportation form one of the main devices to enforce the game’s pacing, a great example is the magic canoe from FF1 which is never brought up before you need to go paddling to the previously roped off volcano.

The temptation might be to try to come up with reasonable explanations as to why the PCs are stuck in one area, but resist this. With the six minds in the party they’re going to think of something that you didn’t and you’ll look like a jerk when you have their path blocked because they lack a magical canoe or some other McGuffin. Instead enlist their help when creating the adventure. Ask the player what things they think they’ll want their characters to do that way you can better anticipate where the action should be focused. If you have a party member who is good at separating player knowledge from character knowledge you can have that person help anticipate plot holes and brain storm workarounds, or even help to guide the party covertly in game.

We’ll continue this look into epic play throughout May. Here’s a taste of what’s coming up.

  • Part 2: Developing Challenges Appropriate for Epic Level Characters.
    Making new dungeons with higher level monsters is boring! Why not kill gods, race enemies atop bus sized magic missiles roaring through the earth’s crust, or use the party’s collective power to blow up a moon? This one is all in the title.
  • Part 3: Taking the Battle to the Skies
    Tired of fighting in a 10 x 10 room or in another clearing in the woods? Why not bait your characters into throwing themselves off an airship and fighting the monsters in a 3,000 foot free fall through a thunder storm? This article will help you deal with the increased ease with which PCs take to the skies in Epic level encounters.

What are some of the experiences you have had with epic level D&D? Are there any game play elements that you have found cumbersome at high levels that worked fine in the heroic tier?

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1 ExtendedRest May 2, 2012 at 10:45 am

I just finished up my first 1-30 campaign in 4e and I completely agree with what you are saying about Epic Tier. It really is like a fine automobile with so many moving parts that can trip the entire thing up with a single misstep. It’s unfortunate that it is so complicated to get right, but when done well is really sweet!

I found that keeping not only the mathematics of the Tier geared well (half health and double damage is really the minimum you have to do to make it shine), but the scope of story gets hard for players to keep up with. What kind of threat is worth the players’ attention at this point? Do the Hells themselves have to break loose for the party to even lift a finger?

It really is the time in a campaign to break the game. It is more important to have a good picture in your head of how EPIC you want the game to feel (movie references always help) and then make up the mechanics to make that picture work. Having nigh-invulnerable enemies with achilles heels that only the party can negotiate, battling inside a tremendous creature after scaling it’s rocky skin, opening portals to dark places and banishing your opponents there, and using magic that makes some paragon type threats just melt (literally). It’s a wonderful Tier to play through, I’m glad you all are exploring it. Epic Tier has gotten some good loving in the last year and with 4e in transition, it’s good to finally have some support for what should be the final culmination of a DND4e game. Cheers!

2 BeanBag May 2, 2012 at 2:01 pm

Very Good!
I could not agree more about the monster design in Paragon/Epic tiers.
Those half-page stat blocks drag the game to a crawl.
Cut out half the fluff, “Monster Vault” the damage and add in one “Coolness” effect.

For example: Skirmishers get one movement ability to use at will. Soldiers can mark on an attack, Brutes get big damage. Look at Artillery/Controller/Lurker: do they have the right tools? If they don’t, do they really fit their roles?

Also try limiting magic items to PC level (stolen from LFR). Flipping pages of powers to try to find the right set of goggles to give you a +2 to save vs ongoing 5 poison damage is not fun at 21st level.

Looking forward to more Epic knowledge!

3 Gargs454 May 2, 2012 at 3:25 pm

“Whenever you die, you don’t die, and instead the person who killed you dies, and you get a pie and have really nice hair. Do you workout?”

Quite possibly the best damn thing I’ve read in over 6 months. My coworkers are now giving me suspicious looks due to my laughter. That being said, I enjoyed this article and am eagerly anticipating the rest of the series. All the more so now that my party is about to hit 18th level and epic hopefully on the near horizon.


4 donalbain May 2, 2012 at 3:52 pm

the magicmissiles the size of buses remind me of my magic missile artilerry strike that i made for 2nd edition good times but it could only be effectively 100 plus yards away.

5 Liam Gallagher May 2, 2012 at 6:59 pm

Thanks for the comments. I look forward to hearing your experinces with the final tier of the game!

@BeanBag – for this campaign of 6 sessions or so I picked a lot of people’s brains about what they would have happen in the most over the top portion of an already over the top game. I’m pleased to say that there’s some pretty great ideas waiting in the wings for the upcomming articles. One of the things that is coming up are some mechanics I’ve dreampt up that make fights between airships/boats/trains very simple yet exciting, as well letting characters command armies in a way that doesn’t suck like it always does.

@Gargs454 – Some of the epic level features are more than a little silly now aren’t they. The one my character has is that when ever he dies, 24 hours after he appears anywhere in the universe as though he had just walked there. Though awesome in that, a dead man pushes through the saloon doors with a scowel on his face kind of way, it’s funny because it makes suicide both a timely and economical way to travel long distances.

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