Disclaimers: No epic characters were killed or hurt in the writing of this blog post. I’m not running an epic tier game currently, and have not run an epic game in 4e. But nevertheless, it’s something I want to talk about and multiple people have said they wanted me to tackle.
I’m not going to talk about practical elements of running a campaign at epic tier — I hear that there’s a person who can offer you that if you need. What I want to talk about is the epic game I want to run, what it would involve and how I think epic fantasy games generally should be approached.
Epic tier = Superhero.
You don’t have to wear a cape to be a superhero. Characters in the epic tier have stepped into the realm of the superhuman in their capabilities, and accomplish legendary deeds with the power they wield in sword or spell. I think that the best superhero stories contain instructive material for an epic fantasy game. I’m a big fan of Grant Morrison’s JLA run, and All-Star Superman, but I also have to recommend Watchmen and the Authority as well. Each of these titles is a fun read, but each also brings with it things we can apply in building a suitably epic epic tier game.
Every GM has felt the sting of PCs working in concert to devastate his plans. In 4e in particular, strong characters with strong teamwork can truly crush the obstacles set before them. It can leave GMs feeling powerless. What is it you have to do to bring these players back to earth? How do you prevent these characters from walking around as if they own the place?
What if you let them own the place?
Your characters are powerful. Don’t waste time trying to bring them low. Let them own the powers and abilities they possess. Honestly, the characters might not ever be challenged by a monster by itself.
But consider: if you own the “place”, you own all of it’s problems. That’s where the fun starts.
More Money, More Problems
Heavy is the head that wears the crown! 4e doesn’t yet have rules for running kingdoms or controlling domains, but I suggest you give the PCs ownership of something significant. Even if they don’t rule anything, think of how the world depends on them. Does the world (or the parts they care about) depend on them? Why not? After all, this is the party that stopped the heroslayer hydra from devouring half a city; these are the same adventurers who stopped the Mad God from bringing eternal midnight to the world.
Epic tier also creates epic concerns.
Now the adventurers must deal with more than just what they themselves want. Hundreds or thousands or more actively depend on them for their own survival. Everything a character does or does not do influences the world around them. PCs cannot get away with being in an epic -level game and not being tied and concerned about the world.
Saving the World
When the characters were at heroic tier, they chased down most of their enemies for loot and glory. If the players do not act, they don’t money or experience.
At paragon tier, the characters faced challenging enemies and rivals that push the adventurers to their limits. If the players fail or fail to act, some part of the world suffers, and these enemies get vengeance.
At epic tier, enemies go after the world directly. It is up to the PCs to stop them. If the characters do not act, large portions of the world suffer. The world may end.
I want to emphasize this: Epic enemies make a beeline past the hero to what the heroes care about. Epic monsters go right for the civvies. Why? First, because epic-level heroes are powerful! Take the path of least resistance. Very rarely is a BBEG or epic monster going to throw itself at a group of powerful heroes, because that is a recipe for its own death. More importantly, the heroes aren’t the villains motivation. The world belongs to the heroes, but the villains want what the world offers for themselves. The characters are powerful but they aren’t omniscient. If the players go traipsing through dimensions on one quest, they can come back to find their kingdom ruled by their most hated enemy. They stop the zombie hordes roaming the land, but discover during the battle that a sorceror has created a massive fire in the Feywild.
Here is how I think you really challenge epic heroes. Because of the power of rituals they access and what powers they get, these heroes have incredible awareness, mobility and power. But they can’t be everywhere at once. Rather than setting the PCs on quests, it’s better to create multiple threats to the world the players care about. Ideally, these seemingly disparate threads weave together into the master arc of the tier, but I think for the first few levels epic tier should be absolute chaos. The players can save anyone at any time, but saving everyone at the same time? It’s not impossible, just unreasonable.
Unreasonable threats are perfect for epic. They encourage players to look at their capabilities critically and creatively. It forces players to sacrifice, to choose danger or vulnerability where it would not otherwise exist. Our dastardly villain attacks the a hero with mind-controlled hordes of innocent people. The hero could kill them all easily, but does he want to harm innocents? Doing the right thing is a choice the PC makes the challenge harder than it should be.
At the heart of it, I think epic tier is all about getting players to to defend the world, and making sure they know what truly difficult challenge that is.
Do you run an epic tier game or are you just thinking about it like me? Let me know if you want to see more discussion of this, and also share your thoughts.
- Make the Most of Your Time
- Advanced Dungeons & Flagons: The Drunkard Theme
- Fluency: maybe you never thought about it either