Love and Hate of Epic Tier

 Posted by on February 20, 2012  Filed as: Editorial  Add comments
Feb 202012

Monte Cook’s latest Legends & Lore article hit with some thoughts on Epic Tier Play. It was short, had some polls, and seemed almost like he was just checking in with people or thinking out loud. Pretty common for one of those articles. The Internet loves to pick these articles apart then roll around in a boil of hatred. I usually don’t have the same reaction. Today, one part in particular got a strong reaction from me.

“As a fan of high-level play across the editions, I’ve never agreed fully with the idea that the game breaks down. I think, however, there’s some validity to it, but only if you look at it a certain way. What people are recognizing is that, at a certain level, play changes. As I see it, there are three such break points in the game—low level, mid level, and high level. Fourth Edition does a nice job of recognizing these changes, I think, and the changes don’t focus on how the characters become more powerful and how the challenges they face grow more difficult. Instead, the very game changes.“

To get the entire context you can read the whole article in just a couple of minutes. I don’t think I’m misjudging things when I say that this makes it look like Monte Cook doesn’t understand the problem with Epic Tier play in 4e. It’s not that the game changes, and we fail to either like or understand that. It’s that the balance of the game changes so significantly that the DM needs to change the way they run the game and the core books don’t properly address that.

Now I am assuming that Monte Cook was either talking about a specific portion of people, or just didn’t phrase himself in a way that I interpreted properly. I have reason to believe Monte Cook is a very intelligent individual who really understands the game, likely more than I do. However, I want to address some of what I see as the real problems with Epic Tier play so its absolutely clear that people who don’t like Epic Tier play, don’t just hate change.

Most of the Material Planes Threats are Laughable

The Tarrasque is a level 20 Solo. A level 15 party has a decent chance of taking it down. After that the question becomes ‘where is the next threat?’ and ‘how come it wasn’t here before?’ The books do offer some advice on this, but it wasn’t presented in a way that made it very clear to people. People still question why all those Epic Level minions aren’t just marching through the Material Plane all the time.

There are plenty of ways around this. The ancient dragon was sleeping in a hidden chamber. The threat is coming from another plane and was otherwise occupied in a great war. Immortals of high levels of power plan in the very long-term, and the Material Plane just wasn’t on their list until now. These may seem like convenient answers, but it pays to be able plan them ahead of time.


If you take a look at the DMG, starting on page 16, it talks about how to prep for and run your game. It talks about encounters, style and how to handle down-time. It doesn’t mention the tiers. In a sense, this isn’t a big deal. A lot of the advise was general and applied to all the tiers. However, by treating all the same way in this text, it made it seem like you could treat it all the same way as the DM.

Epic Tier heroes often are rulers of religions or kingdoms. They may be the guardians of a plane or even a god. They have a lot of long-term things to do that aren’t measured in rounds, but in weeks and years. Threats that are powerful enough to threaten them probably don’t come around every other day unless its part of your storyline (see previous point), so this down-time is needed so that the way the universe works isn’t suddenly turned on its head.

Encounters Need to Be Built Differently

By Epic Tier, every player (no matter their role) has a host of status effects at their disposal. A solo several levels above the party will get locked down, and have the snot beat out of it. This happens even to newer solo monsters that specifically have powers to help end status effects. You cannot run solos alone. They are no longer individual encounters, but just really powerful foes.

That’s the most obvious example of how encounters have to be built differently in the Epic Tier, there are others. The DMG does address some concerns about use of Rituals and how PCs can be hard to kill, however it really seemed like a passing idea. It probably would have been better suited as a giant road sign with blinking lights and a siren.

To be fair, there is some pretty good advice about how to run your game into the Epic Tier in some of the books. It’s not where people are likely to look and it’s not in the books people will have read when starting their campaigns. Books like the Demonomicon offer great insight in how all tiers of play can be connected but different. The DMG2 probably has some of the best official advice, but it’s buried in the Campaign Arcs.

I just don’t think it’s enough. People need to be able to plan for Epic from Day 1, and they need to know just how to treat it differently once they get there. It’s not enough to know that the plot and locales change, but how you DM changes as well. There is a nice chart of how many encounters, of what level of difficulty, make up a decent level of challenges. Wouldn’t it be nice if we had something similar at Epic?

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Brian Liberge

Brian Liberge is a father of one, living in Boston, MA. Introduced to AD&D at an early age, he’s continued to update with the editions, and new games. He loves home-brewed ideas, is honest to a fault, and thinks that ideas and mechanics should absolutely be shared between systems. With a B.S. Degree in Theatre Arts, a job in Information Technology, and a love of strategy gaming, he tries to bring the best of each into his new creations for StufferShack. Check out his latest book the Midgard Bestiary for 4e, available now. Profile Page / Article Portfolio

  6 Responses to “Love and Hate of Epic Tier”

  1. I wholly agree with you. Epic tier does present a lot of challenges to the DM. Players have it easy; their characters have adapted to maximize their potential to face the challenges of Epic monsters. As you said, presenting a solo monster at epic tier would just get the snot beat out of them.

    The conditions applied to the various creatures hamper the potential of the monster to be a challenge to the party. I have found that the original modules are outdated with all the feats available to the PCs.

    I think you hit the nail on the head. More monsters are needed (even with the solos present) to be able to offer a challenge to the party.

    Pacing at the epic tier is staggeringly slow. With all the conditional powers that all monsters and PCs have, combat literally crawls by. I love the idea of epic tier, but I have been hard pressed to find any enjoyment in it.

    I enjoyed the article. Thanks.

  2. I think to be fair to WotC they were planning to devote a lot of time and effort in the DMG3 to the Epic Tier. It was supposed to be published last year I believe but they found people were still mostly in Heroic or Paragon campaigns and pushed it back. I think the change of focus onto Essentials also may have impacted. Given DnD Next is in development now I fear it may never be published which would be a great shame. I think a book consolidating advice on this tier would be awesome – and wouldn’t necessarily even be edition specific.

  3. Well, in a weird twist, reading this article made me really want to play D&D Next, regardless of what it ends up being.

    My group has never played into epic tier, as Paragon seemed to be all that we could take.

    I think on some level the developers knew what kind of troubles they were facing with Epic Tier, and thus had their work cut out for them.

  4. Great article. Not played any epic 4e yet but a lot of your comments apply to 3.x too. Shame we didn’t get that DMG3 covering epic, although I would much prefer seeing the City of Brass as the key epic city rather than Union (yawn)

  5. That’s the kind of advice I’d like to see. Reading between the lines, I wouldn’t be surprised if D&D next comes in different books for different tiers. While this means we’ll likely get more info on epic tier, it won’t be integrated from the beginning. Of course a lot of people don’t ever play there, so taking up more space in the heroic books will only help some people.
    Here are some of the ways I’ve dealt with it. Two of them don’t require much prep in lower tiers.

    1) Let the characters know that there are other heroes out there dealing with other threats. This especially works if they are part of an organization/nation/guild or they have a home base. Have them see another hero group and possibly interact. (but it’s probably not good to fight with them. (unless you give the players a copy of the higher level characters to run)) This works in the kind of world where there are too many fires happening for anybody to get much rest. Then at one point, you have the higher level heroes go down and the PC’s become the number 1 team.

    2) The epic level adventures are somewhere else. Another continent, another plane, another world. This doesn’t require much integration. Perhaps a few legends about heroes moving on, or about the other planes.

    3) Something changes to introduce higher tier threats. A big bad guy does a ritual. Things from outside rip open the sky. A huge tomb opens up, flooding the world in darkness.

    @Alton. A lot of the slowness is information management, both on the DM and player side. For the DM side, I recommend looking into some of the combat tracker tools that help keep track of who has what condition and under what circumstances. For the player side, I suggest rebuilding their character sheet. Five or more pages of power cards is a problem. Most people can cut that to 1-2 pages showing the powers they have and the details. I use a landscape table that has power type, to hit, defense, and hit, miss, effect lines. I abbreviate so I usually don’t need to look at the actual power. It really helps me keep track of everything.

  6. @ philo

    Any examples of what I can use? I do find it is slower overall. The monster just have that many HP to take down, but I do agree that most of it probably stems from information management.

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