Epic Level Encounter Design – Part 2: Developing Challenges Appropriate for Epic Level Characters

by Bauxtehude (Liam Gallagher) on May 14, 2012

At the epic level the PCs are capable of acts that can change the path of history forever. The aim of this article is to help you embrace the capacity of the party and set a stage appropriately large for their abilities. This article is about spectacles that are just as big as PCs who can come back from the dead every day.

Enter: The Renascence Man, Woman or Child

In order to challenge the PC you need to respect their capability. By level 21 the party has a bag of tricks so deep that attempting to anticipate them is a fool’s errand. There are things that the PCs had to tackle at low levels that are, by now, tasks that are beneath them. The PCs at this point should not have to make Diplomacy checks to convince people that their task is important. Epic level characters shouldn’t have to make knowledge checks to recall simple details, their experience and access to information is so vast that such checks are just a waste of time and any attempt to withhold such information won’t add difficulty or strife, but will just annoy. The only time an epic level PC should be forced to make such checks is to demonstrate how far above such tasks they are.

In most cases skill challenges and encounters are put together in such a way to push the party. The skill challenge could be purpose driven, such as: “I know Josey the Rogue likes to steal,” so a challenge with Thievery developed, or it could be something simple like “I’ll teach that Fighter to mark everything,” but the party is in mind when the tests are made up. I’ve found that at epic level it can get really hard to think up high level examples of how each of those skills can be used and find a cohesive narrative for them.

Say you want to include Athletics and Acrobatics, so you have the PCs climb to the top of a 50-story tower, but then the Rogue needs to do something, so the item is in one of the world’s toughest safes (great idea!)… but then the Cleric needs to do something, so the safe is cursed by a devil that lives in it so that it can be expelled with Religion. By the time you find something for everyone in the party to do you often end up with a situation that denies all plausibility, even in a D&D game. Instead it is my suggestion that you work around this problem in the epic level from the other direction. Come up with your premise for the challenge and then work out the ways that the PCs can contribute. This way the difficulties they experience will feel like tie-ins, rather than add-ons.

They’ll Take a Beating

This is the time to remember that, while the party might be powerful, you as the DM have the ability to create anything. There is no arms race, you hold all the power. In the face of super capable characters the DM might be tempted to try to find ways to limit the PCs power but shouldn’t give in. At this level there is the greatest amount of forgiveness to a combat encounter as the party will have many ways to help them get back on their feet, from epic destiny features to leaders with massive amounts of healing. In combat encounters with epic level characters you will have the greatest amount of notice and leeway if you accidentally design a monster or an monster group that is too powerful.

In this way my advice is to create the biggest baddest thing you can think of and just fine tune it on the fly. Because of the massive amounts of damage and hit points it will be much harder for the party to track a monster’s hit points or the potency of healing effects it possesses so if the monster suddenly becomes bloodied or dies none need to be the wiser.

Bigger Numbers are Not More Fun

Letting the numbers escalate is poor game design. If my epic level game runs like my heroic level game, just with higher skill bonuses and defenses I’m inclined to consider my work as a designer a failure. To me the game design needs to scale with the ambitions of the PCs, not just their ability to deal damage. If you game gets to the point where your PCs are busting out calculators to figure out their total damage then you’ve added a game play aspect that is decidedly not fun. I can play “Use Calculator” any day of the week.

The Big Ideas

Alright, so you have in mind some basic guidelines that will help you towards good ideas, now where do we get them? Start with books, movies, videos games and the like and then practice a bit of one-upmanship. How far you’re willing to go will depend upon the tone of your game, but at this level I’m saying go big or go home.

Here is a notable example of famous action sequence and how the stakes could have been raised – Independence Day. Remember the scene where the alien mothership was beaming huge lasers to destroy the planet? Instead of simply killing people, the high beams could have coupled as mind control lasers, turning all life into thralls for the space invaders. This means that the important NPC that the characters could be trying to protect could be turned, so that they would have to negotiate their compromised NPC, fight off an army of innocent mind slaves and an army of aliens, as well as deal with the mothership. How does that sound? Pretty boring right?

Ok, so to up the ante, the NPC is the vessel of a god that the aliens are trying to prevent from reaching the sacred temple so that the god cannot ascend. In order to do this the aliens (who might was well be Orcs or Mind Flayers now) teleported the whole temple onto a collision course with a near by star. As a result the PCs have to manage this battle while it draws ever closer to a glowing orb of fiery death. To make matters worse there’s no breathable air in D&D space so the PCs have to leverage their magic items, special abilities and clever thinking to even hope to survive long enough to risk being burnt to death in the sun. How dull.

While their temple asteroid races through space towards becoming a spatial singularity, it passes through meteorite swarms, electrical storms and gets blasted by arcane radiation from the star. On given rounds random square are hit with these space missiles, struck with lightning, or burnt by solar flares. PCs with the right abilities, racial background or items can harness this power to deadly effect against their enemies or be killed horribly. Yawn, I think I’ll sit this fight out.

The evil henchmen boss jumps down from the Mind Flayer sky city (complete with mind controlling anti-momentum beams) and joins in the fray, successfully stealing the soul from the important NPC, and thus becoming a super boss, the powerful deified forces cause the creature to grow to enormous perorations, becoming an 10×10 creature, tentacles a flare, commanding the hordes of low level thralls to swarm the party. Their numbers are so great that the hordes are best treated as a terrain type, being too numerous to actually be slain. The PCs are flanked everywhere they go, grasping limbs acting as difficult terrain, but offering up hearty bonuses to any attack. I might roll up a character, come to think of it.

The PC’s finally manage to best the massive Mind Flayer, it’s body being cast into the dark void of space. Seemingly victorious, the PCs catch their breath as the thralls recover from their trance. Off in the distance there’s a noise of a crackle and a crunch (there can be sound in D&D space). To the horror of the party, the body of the slain Mind Flayer has collided with a near by moon, the darkness of it’s soul is transforming the galactic body into a plane of pure hate. The moon begins to rotate more quickly, moving towards the party and their temple asteroid at a frightening pace. This could either be a skill challenge if you need a break from the initiative order, or it could be time for the party to finally kill a planet.

Reeling It In and Fine Tuning

I could go on, but I’m sure the premise is already too ridiculous for most. The key will be to find the point at which you say to yourself “That’s too much, even for me!” and then stop there. Say you felt like you had enough to deal with when the temple was being launched into the sun. Now you do what you do with any old D&D encounter, polish up the various elements so that they all flow well. Pick the monsters that will get the job done with the least hassle (smaller stat blocks are always better), and straight forward mechanics for any environmental effects you may have, bearing in mind that few die rolls means a faster running game.

If in the end you’ve got something on your hands that you like but you don’t know if your party will be on board for 100%, then remember that in narrative terms it’s always easier to escalate a situation than it is to take things back. Say you really want to have the PCs deal with the lack of air, but you can tell from the looks on their faces that they’re not all for there new space-faring ways, you can hold back until a few rounds have passed and you’ve demonstrated to them that this is actually cool. Remember all the tools that you’ve built up as a DM until this point. Be descriptive, keep the pace up and encourage your players to participate in a meaningful way.

Take Chances, Make Mistakes, Get Messy; or, How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb

So at this level of play, provided that you don’t want to just send the party through another dungeon where the monsters have more hit points, you likely get into situations that the base rules of D&D don’t really cover. This is good! You’ve been playing for 20 level and by this point everyone should know how the game works and you should be able to experiment with rules alterations that allow for things like combat in space. In a later article I’ll address some of the technical issues of taking the fight to the skies, but until then I suggest handing over some of your DM responsibilities to the players who, lets face it, are likely DMs themselves.

By giving jobs like tracking initiative and monster hit points to some of your players, you will be freed up to worry with higher level problems, like tracking how many more rounds of oxygen the players have left. Do you have a player who plays on their iPad when it’s not their turn? Well this is something productive that they can do with their iOS device, and it will give them an excuse to download another application, “ohhhh spread sheets!”

Don’t worry if things don’t work out so well. You have a table full of D&D experts, and they’ll be able to help you anticipate problems, fix things on the fly and let you know when to just can the idea for the sake of fun. The worst thing that can happen if you’re open to ideas and working with your players is that the first half of an encounter is a little wacky.

A Campaign World Turned Blasted Hellscape

In normal situations a PC is an entity of destruction. Practical experience tells us that D&D characters are seldom heroic or noble, but actually just a wrecking crew, and I’m sure plenty of stories come to mind, but for me the story that stands out is one of a PC throwing a bag of holding into a lake a draining the world of all it’s water. At epic level these problems are greatly amplified as the PCs will have the capacity to accidentally kill millions.

While most games are set and run in such a way that the players aren’t really interested in their actions being played out in such detail the risk of having your PCs literally RUIN EVERYTHING is real. So what’s to be done? Resist the urge to control everything. They will want to destroy the beautiful things you have created and you should let them.

The fact of the matter is that your world is an imagined one, and so there’s no real amount of damage that the players can do that can’t be undone. If they kill the god of the harvest and the crops don’t go and the millions starve, well then that’s their story. At the epic level it becomes far to hard to reasonably constrain PCs with magic canoes and the like. The silver cities of the great nations you have created will shine just as brightly after they are reduced to rubble. Whatever the damage the party has managed to do can eventually be set right and needn’t be worried about now, after all, that’s another story for another time.

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{ 3 comments… read them below or add one }

1 donalbain May 14, 2012 at 4:06 pm

i remember the time we accidentally brought a ancient lich back from the bottom line we had to fight hordes and hordes of special like undead like werewolves with blackfire skulls and vampires that can endure sunlight for every round for there constitution number while fighting hordes and hordes of minions/zombies i mean we barely held out in the dwarven city when the lich made it night for 30 days.

2 DM Starfire October 9, 2012 at 3:37 pm

Was there going to be a third part to Epic Level Encounter Design? I love the site and these articles especially hit home as my campaign is currently flying through the epic tier.

3 Ameron (Derek Myers) October 9, 2012 at 7:54 pm

@DM Starfire
Regrettably Bauxtehude wasn’t able to complete part 3. However, he swears he has notes and will get to it eventually. I’ll reach out to him (again) and see if he can get on it when he’s done his exams.

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