I started playing and running 4th Edition Dungeons & Dragons right when it was released. My current ongoing campaign began back then with a party of 1st level characters and now three years later I’ve run over 50 adventures and the party is up to 24th level characters. The campaign has had its share of rough spots and tough times, but overall I’d say it has been an incredibly fun experience and something that I look forward to every other weekend. Dave was also running a campaign that was on the same track as mine only slightly ahead (and in the same game world), but due to a myriad of reasons a few weeks ago we ran a day long, co-DMed finale that closed his game out in style with unrestrained awesomeness.
Since then I’ve been thinking about how I’m going to close my campaign out and thinking about exactly how much longer I want to run this game. What I’m discovering more and more as I think about it is that running epic level 4th Edition is some of the most fun I’ve ever had running or playing in any D&D game.
As I’ve discussed a few times before, when I started running this campaign I was without a doubt a “newbie DM” and my attempts at writing, planning, and running my campaign definitely showed it. This is a disclaimer because now that I have 50 adventures under my belt and a lot of hours of DMing experience it should be expected that I’ve gotten better and that the games I’m running have improved as a result. In addition, I realize that many of these points may not be specific to 4th Edition D&D, they may also apply to any edition of D&D when it gets into the epic style of game play (or any RPG for that matter), but my experiences of running epic games are only in 4e so that’s what I’ll be focusing on.
Another part of this disclaimer is that player investment builds over time in a campaign and that adds to the overall enjoyment at the table as well. Last but not least there’s the simple fact that the epic tier is meant to be epic, and therefore awesome in its own right as the players become super powerful and go up against greater and greater threats. I believe all of these are fairly understandable reasons for why I am enjoying running epic level D&D so much, but I’d like to explore some of the other reasons and the finer points of the matter.
Everything AND the +5 Vorpal Kitchen Sink
The aspect that I’m probably enjoying the most about running epic level 4e is that I feel like I can throw practically anything I want at the party. Monsters that are 4 or 5 levels higher than the party will most likely be challenging but unless there’s a solo they stand very little chance of it getting anywhere close to killing the whole party. Even before level 24 when most Epic Destinies grant death defying abilities, many of my players have abilities that allow them to skirt the edge of death. My wife has been playing a cleric for the entire game and even despite her lack of focus on healing her Healing Word ability still gives characters an insanely high number of hit points.
I’ll freely admit that in the heroic and paragon tiers of play I was deeply concerned about the level of difficulty I was throwing at my players and how their characters could handle it mechanically. Being almost entirely free of those concerns is extremely satisfying as a DM and I’m sure it is contributing to the ease of my running the latest adventures of my game and the amount of fun I’m having doing it. There is a certain glee that can be found in the DM’s attempts at creating an all-out massacre and the players/characters abilities to disrupt those efforts. I know that some DMs run with the mindset of “unrestrained opposition” to the characters, and I know that there are some players who really don’t like that style of game, but my feeling is that in the epic tier the players don’t mind it as much and it has been incredibly fun for me as the DM. At least for me, I can’t speak for my players that much, my campaign has recently taken on an enhanced feeling of the DM vs. Players style of game but with an incredibly friendly vibe.
Finally Solving Problems at the Source
Think about your typical heroic and paragon plot lines. In heroic games you’re killing priests of Orcus, and in paragon maybe you’re getting to the point of fighting Aspects of Orcus, but in the epic tier you get to close out the quests by fighting Orcus himself and potentially solving the problems of priests and aspects at the same time. Not only are the players/characters finally getting a chance to actually solve the major problems in the universe around them, but their actions are also on a much bigger scale and with that comes outcomes on a larger scale as well. During the paragon adventures of my game if the party had failed I would have had cities or maybe even large parts of nations destroyed or otherwise hindered due to their failure. Now that we’re in the epic tier, if they fail at their quests entire worlds and planes of existence are at risk!
Some Intricacies of Epic Characters
One element of epic level 4e that I did not anticipate is that a lot of the little nitpicking details that can creep up in a game and even grind it to a halt can be easily hand waved or ignored due to the nature of how powerful the characters have become. Questions like “How did we get here?” or “Wait, how do you know that?” aren’t big concerns anymore because it can all be simply implied in your characters being complete badasses. Even if you do take the time to worry about the smaller issues, often the rules or players will have an easy way to handle it by this point anyway and it is resolved quickly without much concern.
Along the same lines, epic level characters have become so powerful that they are extremely hard to kill but when they are in danger of dying or being eliminated from the game it’s a much bigger threat because of how hard it is to replace an epic character in your universe. If the world loses an epic character then it is a significant amount of time and effort that is gone, sure the player can roll up another character but if the party keeps losing epic level heroes than surely their opponents will win in the long run. Outside of any specific mechanics, there is a a lot of potential power encapsulated in an epic level D&D character and that’s something that everyone playing the game can feel, which can lend to a very different style of play when it comes to actually running the game.
The Synergy Bonus & Some Issues with Epic
I have to mention the concept that Phil the Chatty DM first introduced me to which is the party synergy bonus that shows up after a decent amount of time with one group playing 4e D&D. As I said earlier, I’ve run 50 adventures now and four of my regular players have been playing the same characters for nearly all of the campaign. After even a small number of adventures, they started to figure out how to work together effectively and what each player (and character) was capable of and enjoyed doing in the game. It was first noticeable for me at the end of the heroic tier when they completely and totally nuked one of my final bosses in two turns without him getting any significant actions during the combat. Through the paragon tier I still struggled with it, but now with all of the elements I’ve mentioned in this post I feel more free to simply throw whatever I can at the party and marvel as they figure out insane ways to survive it and completely ruin all of my plans.
Of course I also have to mention some of the downsides that are very clear with running an epic level game in 4e D&D, and as I said earlier many of these are things that have existed in earlier editions of D&D and in other RPGs but still I have to bring them up. There is a lot of stuff to keep track of in the epic tier during combat. You have multiple zones being thrown down every combat, numerous bonuses/penalties heaped together on the PCs and Monsters alike, various movements to track, and a ton of reaction and interrupt actions that can make a single round of the game more and more confusing. Even with 4th Edition’s efforts to reduce these kinds of things, when you get to the higher levels all of the little things start to add up and it can become a huge pain in the ass.
That said, this post is titled “Why I’m Starting to Love Epic 4e D&D” because everything else I’ve talked about in this post vastly outweighs the pain in the ass elements and leads to me having more fun running and playing D&D then I’ve had in a long time! My biggest concern at the moment is that the epic level of play is the least supported tier in the newest D&D supplements. The first DMG focused on the heroic tier, the DMG2 focused on the paragon tier, and then the DMG3 was cancelled and I’m really afraid that this trend will continue. I understand why it has happened, everything I’ve heard points to the epic tier being the least played element of 4th Edition, but at least one thing I hope to accomplish with this article is to get people excited and trying this aspect of 4e D&D despite any issues or fears they may have heard about it.