Article: The Ten Commandments of Epic

Posted on April 16, 2011

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This article seeks to explore the elements of what makes a campaign truly epic.

Chatting with people on the various forums I get the impression many are disillusioned with the whole concept of what epic really entails. This is further compounded by the official epic tier material from Wizards of the Coast which is, to date, underwhelming in both quality and quantity.

So how do you make an epic campaign feel EPIC!?

The Ten Commandments of Epic

The following is a list of ten things in my opinion a truly EPIC campaign should feature. Incidently the 4th Edition ‘E’ series of adventure modules rates a 0 out of 10 on this checklist.

1. Thou shalt feature Big Battles

In the Heroic tier you have skirmishes with perhaps a few dozen minions.

In the Paragon tier you should be waging civil wars with thousands on each side.

In the Epic tier you should be facing world wars with lone demigods battling armies numbering in the millions, planar invasions where hordes of demons and legions of devils take the field, great flying castles act like aircraft carriers while thousands of dragons dogfight around them threatening to blot out the sun.

Here’s the thing, Lord of the Rings is an epic saga, but NOT an example of the Epic Tier in action, more like mid-paragon tier. So whats an example of an epic TIER storyline…probably something along the lines of the Mahabarata where armies of millions clash with weapons of atomic power and superhero-esque demigods battle with massive cyborg beasts.

Problem

There are no official rules for staging big battles in 4th Edition. Okay so how can you run battles with hundreds let alone thousands or millions, you won’t have enough miniatures for that, and running hundreds of NPCs will take forever.

Solution

Before we had miniatures we used to play with this thing called an IMAGINATION. So don’t worry about needing miniatures all the time.

Running hundreds, thousands or even millions of troops will be easy using UNIT combat. In simplified terms each unit is treated much like a swarm. Each factor of ten increases the Level of the unit by +6. Therefore if a lone Orc Soldier is Level 3, then a unit of 10 Orc Soldiers would be Level 9 and a unit of 100 would be Level 15 etc. If you have to represent 64 Orcs then use six units of 10 and 4 individual Orcs.

One of the great benefits of unit combat is that you can also use them as enemies for the PCs. That way you can have your 25th-level fighter take on an army of 10,000 Orcs singlehandedly!

I’ll have a slightly more detailed take on the Unit Rules in the very near future because they are a prominent part of my The Serpent Riders epic tier 4E adventure (the product coming out after the Vampire Bestiary).

2. Thou shalt make the game Challenging

To quote Mike Shea from his excellent Running Epic Tier D&D Games pdf:

Be Kind to them at Heroic

Be even-handed at Paragon

Be a bastard at Epic

Problem

Its far too easy for epic characters to steamroller your encounters, and while such characters should have their moments in the sun, you need to temper this with a short sharp reality check. If the PCs think they can just walk in to a god’s house and beat them up, then you simply are not giving NPCs the proper respect. Yes the PCs should save the day, but they should also be made aware of their limitations and that there are a lot of no go areas where they’ll just get killed. The PCs should almost never be able to beat a deity or demon prince  in their backyard. Too many guards, too many defenses, too prepared, too powerful…and if you can’t go through the guards and defenses you have to find a way to get around them.

In the Savage Tide adventure path from Paizo, the PCs face this exact problem. Demogorgon is simply too powerful to be directly beaten, but the PCs can find allies and artifacts to help them, while at the same time weakening Demogorgon both directly and indirectly by corrupting or killing his lieutenants. This is a much more satisfying way to handle a story than simply grinding until you are powerful enough to beat the boss.

Solution

My first suggestion would be to buy Mike Shea’s previously mentioned awesome pdf.

But a quick idea might well be to borrow from the Savage Tide example with regards weakening the BBEG. Set the BBEG at the theoretical limit of what the PCs could possible defeat (probably about an encounter level of +7  or thereabouts at the epic tier). But then allow the PCs to undertake various missions whereby success will either directly or indirectly weaken the BBEG (by temporarily reducing them by -1 Level per success). Of course success may not be guaranteed in these missions.

Another idea might be to never let the PCs level up until after the adventure. That would make something like E3: Prince of Undeath a decent challenge.

3. Thou shalt embrace Collateral Damage

In the Heroic tier a village might get burnt down by raiders.

In the Paragon tier a town might get razed to the ground by an army.

In the Epic tier deities could be responsible for cities, getting magically ‘nuked’, countries wiped off the map overnight, empires destroyed, reshaping of the continents, pandemics, ice ages, asteroid impacts, planetary axis shifts, world wars and every other doomsday scenario you can imagine.

Problem

Many DMs don’t like to destroy large swathes of the campaign world. Maybe they have put too much work into designing areas and NPCs that the thought of destroying them is too much to bear.

If you cannot bear the thought of your lovely campaign world getting FUBAR’ed then simply don’t play an epic campaign because you will be depriving the game of one of the fundamental cornerstones of epicness: the ramifications upon the setting, the overturning of the status quo, the ushering in of new era’s and epochs. One thing that makes epic games stand out is the ability for the PCs actions and inactions to shape the world around them.

Solution

So don’t shy away from big things happening to the campaign world, embrace it.

Of course you then have to make those big things happen in the first place and there are not really any great rules for that at the moment. Rituals could cover it but then how do you balance them, how can you create something like the Rain of Colourless Fire or the Invoked Devastation (from Oeridian history) or the Mythal from the Forgotten Realms past. Thats something beyond the scope of this article to cover, I’ll explore further in the Immortals Handbook and hopefully future articles here on this website.

However, as a quick rule of thumb (and this is currently untested) it might be possible to introduce Ritual Templates that increase the scale of a spell or ritual’s effect. For instance you could apply the Country Scale Template to the Animate Dead ritual and animate all corpses in the entire country, creating an army of undead. 

4. Thou shalt include Contrasting Cut Scenes

In the Epic tier the heroes try to save the world from the grip of Orcus’ terrible ritual animating all the dead in the world.

…at the same time…in the Paragon tier the henchmen of the heroes defend the castle from being attacked by a Dracolich.

…while thats going on…in the Heroic tier, NPCs (e.g. Karl the Blacksmith or the Landlord of the Rosy Dog Tavern) the heroes met early in their careers are defending their homes against a seemingly endless horde of zombies.

Cut scenes, as an idea, would work with any tier of play. The specific goal here though, is to illustrate the fundamental differences between the mundane and the epic, by specifically having cut scenes designed for different tiers.

Problem

When everything is BIG, BIGGER, BIGGEST! Then its easy to lose track of just how momentous the events have just become. When all around you the dials have been turned up to eleven its easy for the EPIC to become the norm, which means that too much epic becomes mundane, which is why you need a little contrast, every now and again. 

Solution

So what is ‘contrast’ in this context? Basically you need to give your PCs a reminder every now and again of just how far removed the epic is from the mundane, by making them play the lower levels again. However, packing up the epic game would be self-defeating (since we want to run a cool epic campaign). So you have to weave this scene jump into the epic campaign storyline.

The easy way to do this is by having the PCs play as either their henchmen (or some other servants) or even better, as their worshippers. However, this isn’t the only way to achieve this: perhaps the PCs have been weakened by some epic ritual, or perhaps the bad guy has went back in time and the PCs have to defeat him as they were back then when they were less powerful.

The point is, occasionally you want PCs to get a taste of how things were in the lower tiers of play and the best way to approach this is by tying it into the current story. This not only has the benefit of making the epic bits seem bigger, but it also keeps the PCs guessing whats going to happen next and even allows you to juggle multiple plots at the same time.

In the movies and television they do this all the time, for instance in Return of the Jedi you have Luke Skywalker vs. Darth Vader. Then the scene changes to show Han Solo lead the Rebels on Endor to destroy the shield generator. Then the scene jumps again to show Lando in the Millenium Falcon in a big space battle. Back and forth the scene changes heightening the tension.

In the same way when your epic PCs are taking on Orcus in his throne room, perhaps the world is being overrun with undead and the PCs henchmen back home are fighting a losing battle against hopeless odds. When the PCs get Orcus bloodied, change the scene to show the henchmen battling against the undead swarming over the castle and then have the PCs play as their own henchmen in that scene, end the encounter with something even worse coming for them (a Dracolich maybe) and then cut back to the PCs. If they don’t finish Orcus off soon everyone back home is done for.

5. Thou shalt Explore the Unexplored

In the Heroic tier, characters don’t stray too far from home; the civilised areas with maybe some danger lurking at locations on the fringes of society.

In the Paragon tier, the heroes travel to the most dangerous and remote parts of their world; places where even the environments themselves are hostile (the underdark, frozen wastelands, deserts, volcanic regions, underwater cities etc.).

In the Epic tier players get to visit the planes: the vibrant explosion of life that is the Feywild, the enervating dismal ruins of the Shadowfell, the Astral Plane – palaces and graveyards of the gods, the Elemental Chaos the unbridled fury of the elements unchecked and the twisted madness of the Far Realm.

Problem

Now while you can probably visit the planes at the Paragon or even Heroic tiers, to do so somewhat cheapens the planes in my opinion, removing the impact of these wondrous places. I know some of you probably played Planescape back in 2nd Edition and explored the planes with relative impunity at 1st-level. Well basically I am here to tell you that Planescape got it all wrong. Its ‘comfy slippers’ approach let you not only traverse the planes at 1st-level, but you could actually live there amongst the demons, devils and deities. But when demons and gods are commonplace, what do you do and where do you go for an encore? While the idea behind Planescape was a good marketing ploy (lets get to the kewl stuff immediately) to sell a multitude of boxed sets, it was a flawed idea as regards selling Dungeons and Dragons as a whole. The game should embrace the contrasts each tier brings, not seek to blend everything into one homogenized soup.

Solution

So the suggestion here is don’t be too quick to rush players into the planes at the lower tiers, keep something unique for each tier of play, making it stand out more.

In the Immortal tier…well you’ll just have to wait and see, won’t you.😉

6. Thou shalt eradicate the idea of Fixed Level Encounters

Technically this commandment works well at any tier of play, but its probably more important for the higher tiers were challenging the PCs becomes increasingly difficult.

Problem

The game sacrifices too much verisimilitude to throw fixed level encounters at the PCs in easy to handle portions. What this does is act as a security blanket to PCs who know that they should be able to beat any given encounter the DM throws at them, so they can just run amok in Orcus’ backyard with impunity, lets go there, lets take a rest here. Retreat is no longer an option simply because its no longer necessary for PCs to flee the field.

Solution

You need to mechanically remove the security blanket of fixed level encounters.

Firstly, design defended areas attacked/infiltrated by the PCs as if they are a legitimate military base. Instigate a ‘realm wide’ Defcon level for enemy territories.

  • Defcon 5: Normal Readiness
  • Defcon 4: Possible Threat Detected, increase all Encounters by +1, send a patrol to investigate the disturbance
  • Defcon 3: Definite Threat Detected, increase all Encounters by +2, activate security protocols in that area (special traps/hazards), send elite guard units to mop up survivors
  • Defcon 2: Security Compromised, increase all Encounters by +3, we’re gonna need the A-team on this one
  • Defcon 1: Gentlemen we are under attack, increase all encounters by +4, get Orcus on the crystal ball, he’s going to want to handle this himself

This way, the actions of the PCs have consequences. The PCs trigger the higher alert status by getting involved in fights (encounters) and allowing the alarm to be raised. Every major area will have three grades of response team:

  1. Standard Guard Patrol = Encounter Level about the same as the PCs
  2. Elite Heavy Guard Patrol (by ‘Elite’ I don’t mean necessarily Elite rank – just to clarify) = Encounter Level +1 to +3
  3. Special Forces Strike Team (named NPCs, or unique monsters) = Encounter Level +4 to +6

7. Thou shalt have Monsters Much Bigger Than Gargantuan

In the heroic tier you face ogres twice the height of a normal man.

In the paragon tier the heroes battle dragons as big as a house.

In the epic tier you can face monsters about 10 feet taller than the paragon tier…I mean, really? Whats epic about that?

Problem

Forget what the official books say, I’m here to tell you that (Ancient) Dragons are not proper Epic Tier opponents, that even the Tarrasque is not an Epic Tier monster…yes you heard me THE TARRASQUE IS NOT AN EPIC TIER MONSTER!! They should all be Paragon Tier…of course its too late for me to rewrite all the 4E monster books, but its important to understand why I am making such a claim in the first place. A monster, in particular a solo monster (with no army to back it up) should be a threat (roughly) as follows:

  • Levels 1-5 = Village Threat
  • Levels 6-10 = Town Threat
  • Levels 11-15 = City Threat
  • Levels 16-20 = Country Threat
  • Levels 21-25 = Continental Threat
  • Levels 26-30 = World Threat

Now an ancient dragon is certainly a threat to a city and probably just about a threat to a country. The Tarrasque is probably a good threat for a small country. Now you can argue that “Hey the ancient red dragon and the Tarrasque are Level 30 so they must be epic threats Krusty”. But why are they Level 30, and what does Level 30 itself mean? If the epic tier is about saving the world, then epic tier monsters should be capable of placing that world in jeopardy, not just mathematically placed at that level to challenge heroes of that level. A dragon’s fiery breath might burn down a few buildings, the Tarrasque might eat a few hundred people while the rest scatter and hide but so might a large roving warband of orcs. The epic tier should be about taking on a dragonflight of thousands of dragons, or battling intelligent Tarrasque armed with futuristic weaponry (like Ma-Yuan the godslayer).

Instead what we have is a plethora of monsters who are epic simply because the rules say they are supposed to be epic, rather than epic because of their innate power and ability.

Of course you can have solo monsters who are the leaders of vast armies (like Demon Princes and Deities) who may not necessarily need to have personal power capable of destroying a world because they can threaten it with their armies. But even these mighty beings should have some indirect way of threatening the planet, perhaps Orcus can perform ancient rituals that cause all the dead to rise up on a planet and attack the living?

Solution

But the point is you need to massively up the scale of the monsters in the epic tier, and I have just the set of tools for the job, called Super-Solo Monsters, a set of quick and simple rules for creating truly enormous boss monsters OF ANY SIZE. I’ll have those rules on this website hopefully before the end of May.

How big can the monsters get? There is no limit, but check out this fun clip from a video game in the works called Asura’s Wrath. Now that’s EPIC…and something I’d expect to see PCs battling about Level 29-30.😉

In the Epic tier you can battle golems the size of castles, primordials the size of mountains and dragons as big as planets…that sounds slightly more epic to me than monsters a few feet taller than the last tier.

In the Immortal tier…don’t even get me started…just go watch Tengen Toppa Gurren Lagann and get that Armour ready.😀

8. Thou shalt embrace Politics

In the Heroic tier you battle monsters and gain treasure.

In the Paragon tier you battle different monsters and gain more treasure.

In the Epic tier you do battle with really powerful monsters and gain vast treasures worth a king’s ransom.

Problem

Okay the above is a simplification of the game itself and a generalisation that most campaigns fall into a rut of killing things and taking their stuff (which I know isn’t the case for every campaign, so I apologise to those people). But its worth pointing out that gaming at each tier means more or less the exact same thing, only the monsters are more powerful and the treasure is amplified.

Solution

The solution to this problem is to introduce politics. Now I fully admit to being a predominantly tactical gamer (thats the side of things I enjoy most). But in our epic campaign there was a lot of politics and I have to admit, I loved it. Some problems you just can solve with your fists (or swords) and for everything else there’s politics.

I am sure there is probably better advice than I could muster on how to introduce a political element to Dungeons and Dragons. But I think the first step is to allow PCs to run their own stronghold (sometime during the Paragon Tier). This was something the game always advocated back in Oth/1st Edition but it seems to have been largely ignored by recent designers which is a great shame.  

9. With great power comes great Responsibility*

*Yes I know you used that quote last week S’mon and I passed the XP points on to Stan Lee. :-p

In the Heroic tier you are relatively unknown and few have heard of your deeds.

In the Paragon tier you are respected (or feared – for villainous types) at a national level, when the king requires champions your name is one of those spoken.

In the Epic tier you are a superstar, adored (or despised – for villainous types) across the known world.

Problem

If the PC’s just exist in a vacuum where their actions or inactions simply have no consequences beyond their character sheets then you are missing probably the epic game’s greatest USP (Unique Selling Point) – the vast gravitas of events. But for that self same gravitas to impact the players they have to care what happens to NPCs.

Now its possible that some players may care about the fate of NPC henchmen or long time allies…but lets be honest, most won’t.

Solution

So how do you get players to care what happens to the millions of people Orcus just killed? Simple…you make PC’s power directly dependent upon ‘the little people’ by replacing experience points with worship points.

I introduced this idea back in 3rd Edition with the Immortals Handbook: Ascension. In that book the more worshippers you garnered, the greater your divine rank (which back then was a template). The key aspect of this approach is that the number of worshippers could go up or down depending upon the success or failure of certain events. The beauty of this mechanic is that the DM can then challenge the PCs indirectly with attacks upon their worshippers. Trust me, when power is directly linked to worshippers, the players WILL care about the well-being of the little people.

Now the Immortals Handbook: Ascension book wasn’t fantastic by my own admission (you can read my thoughts on that here). But I now understand all its flaws and I will be starting a 4th Edition version of those ideas in a few months time. One of the pitfalls of Ascension 3E was that I didn’t make the worship angle central enough, which meant most people didn’t bother with it (and maybe it wasn’t well enough explained to begin with). In the days of 1st/2nd Edition we used a similar method but the lesson I forgot was that beyond a certain point (roughly 16-20th-level depending on class) PC levels were almost meaningless in 1st/2nd Edition. This meant that worshippers were far more important than XP in terms of powering up a character. Yes they were more trouble to gain and maintain but the benefits were ultimately worth it.  But I think in 3E it was not worth the bother when you could just use one of the other paths (Power or Resonance rather than Glory) to gain divinity and so most people did just that and ignored the worship feature which is (IMO) the most important feature to have in an epic/immortal game. Added to which character levelling in 3E still meant a hefty increase in power.

In the 4th Edition Immortals Handbook I am leaning towards the idea of integrating the Worship Points rules at Level 21 with a probable suggestion that campaigns abandon the EXP rules (for leveling at least) altogether. But thats still work in progress so its not set in stone.

A word regarding Commandments #8 and #9…

To put these paradigm shifts into the context of the different tiers:

  • Heroic Tier: Adventuring
  • Paragon Tier: Adventuring + Politics (National level: Running your own Stronghold)
  • Epic Tier: Adventuring + Politics (Global Level: Running your own Country/Empire) + Worship (Pre-Divine Ascension)
  • Immortal Tier: Adventuring + Politics (Planar Level: Running your own Religion) + Worship (Post-Divine Ascension) + Realm/Plane Building

10. Thy Weapons shalt be outrageous

In the Heroic tier you use the best weapons you can find.

In the Paragon tier you are equipped with the best magic weapons money can buy.

In the Epic Tier, destiny draws you to artifacts of power fated to become your legendary signature weapon (or weapons).

Problem

There is no problem as such here, consider this a style thing: “Epic eye for the mundane guy” or something like that.

Solution

Its an unwritten law of epic…probably. Either in terms of design (e.g. your sword has three blades and they shoot out), function (e.g. when you throw the weapon it comes back you you) or scale (e.g. that sword is WAY too big for a normal person to wield), epic weapons simply need to be improbably outrageous.

Examples of Epic weapons include:

  • The Glaive from the Krull movie
  • The Gunswords from Final Fantasy VIII
  • Thor’s hammer
  • The sword from the movie “The Sword and the Sorceror”
  • Lightsabres
  • Kratos’ Blades of Chaos from the God of War videogame
  • The Flying Guillotine from movies such as One-Armed Boxer II
  • The Sword of the Moon and the Spear of the Sun in Slaine.

My ultimate plan is to have new races in the Immortals Handbook (both Epic tier and Immortal tier) and each of these races will have its own signature weapon type. For instance the Sirian race from the Far Realm will wield crystalline items and weapons made from Ioun Stones, while the Devoids from the Dimension of Death will have items and weapons made from Liches.

Final Thoughts

I hope you enjoyed the article and get to ask yourself how many of the above boxes does your own epic campaign tick. If you have any feedback at all feel free to post those comments below.