Your gaming group has seen it all. They’ve slain more Orcs than Aragorn on a bender. They’ve thrashed more demons than your average ICP concert. And they’ve laid with more elf wenches than…well, Aragorn. What’s left to throw at your party, when it feels like every adventure is a re-tread? How do you keep your players involved? What more could you ask of the stoic, chisel-jawed men around your gaming table, quietly brooding in a sea of mystery and depth?
Forgive us, it’s opposite day.
If you’re anything like me the quests you write will escalate in danger and importance, slowly climbing the mountain of epic, until the party is eating ancient monsters for breakfast and shitting legend. Their equipment is so expensive that one character could stabilize Middle Earth’s economy by dying abruptly in a national bank. And the monsters that can actually scare the party could only be described as “so rare they were only added to the bestiary on a dare.”
Congratulations, hypothetical dungeon master who made all the same mistakes I did. You’ve revved the engine past the red line, and now the party expects it every game. Epic isn’t a goal to shoot for anymore, it’s the default setting. Can you spot your (my) mistake here? In retrospect, I can. And now, on this very site, I’m willing to share my folly.
So here are 5 reasons why “going epic” can truly ruin your campaign.
1) It Sets a High Bar (Which Will Eat Into Game Time)
You have 10 hp. Your enemy, the dreaded FurryKin, has 12 hp. At your disposal is a dirk that attacks for 1d4 and a single acid spell that deals 1d6. How many rounds, at minimum, will it take for you to emerge victorious?
The answer, of course, is zero. If you’re locked in a room with a furry you’ve already lost the battle, and must wait for the leg-humping to stop so you can begin the life-long counseling you’ll require. My point is, you probably had the battle figured out before you started the next paragraph.
Low level or early games often have shorter combat segments, based purely on statistical simplicity. But when you’re running a 20+ level game with dozens of home rules and expanded material, a simple man-on-furry duel can take all day. A boss fight can last several sessions. And a large-scale battle becomes a weekly bastardization of Math Club and Fantasy Football.
Aim high. Plan for epic (legendary, if you like) level scaling. But try to simplify as much as you can. I prefer a “reroll” system. When the party as a whole reaches too high a level for us to do any real roleplay, I let players retire characters, play as their in-game sons or daughters, or make deals with deities to restart their life at year-one. I’m like the fountain of youth or Avon for warlocks.
2) Power for Power’s Sake Becomes Boring
Absolute power corrupts absolutely. Genghis Khan conquered half the world, and because his favorite past-time (after murder) was getting his Mongolian freak on, 1 in every 200 men today are direct descendants of the Great Humpinator himself.
If the party Bard spends most of his free time trying to get sex from bar wenches, imagine him bored, at level 20, with a Charisma to rival Aphrodite. It’s going to get messy. At that point his CHA rolls are tantamount to slipping her roofies.
Or how about the warrior who seems waaay too willing to slaughter villagers because they overcharged him on tack and feed? Or the necromancer who prefers to make undead horrors out of “fresh” ingredients? Or the sorcerer whose only goal thus far is to see how much “free fire” he can give out to the peasants?
Heroic levels and amazing wealth do not, in and of themselves, make players heroic. I was in a heroic-level game recently when the party took a break to discuss the moral implications of starting an undead harem of camp-followers with a glamor cast on them… unbeknownst to the army they were servicing. Please remember that power in the hands of bored sociopaths can be a ticket to hell with all the boxes pre-punched.
3) There is a Material Cost
Need a demon for the party to fight during this week’s game? Not a problem. A trip to the plastic mini’s aisle and an hour of painting later, and your dungeon boss is ready to gnaw on the party.
What’s that? Your players ride roughshod over anything less than an elder dragon? Well, if you want to uphold your high standards of miniatures, play sets, and models, you’ll need a full scale dragon mini. Your costs just multiplied by a factor of ten. And god help you if you plan to buy armies to send against an epic-level party. You’d be better off buying old board-game pieces and claiming the Top Hat and Thimble represent the plight of the lower class in war.
This is a small gripe. But I’ve seen dungeon masters completely scrap miniatures and maps because it would be too expensive at higher levels. Unless you want to pretend that the goblins they fought 20 sessions ago are now physical manifestations of sin, or some other such nonsense.
4) Unique Quests are Replaced with “Save the World”
Harry Potter. Lord of the Rings. Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Game of Thrones. Any Zelda Game. Can you think of a long-running fantasy wherein the trope of ‘Save the World’ doesn’t come up eventually? When the Earth itself is at stake, how often do the characters take time to go on a heist that doesn’t directly relate to the great evil spreading across the land?
Like fantasy in novels and movies, Save the World will eventually reach the top of the To-Do list. And when it does, investigating the spooky old house on the corner becomes a laughable priority.
There’s an episode of the Walking Dead where the gang runs into an army Sergeant escorting a scientist to Washington because he can supposedly out-science the outbreak. When the party agrees on a detour to help find someone’s wife, the meat-head Sergeant is perplexed. Nothing, nothing could be as important as saving the goddamn world, right? This is exactly how your players will see anything unrelated to your doomsday quest. And quite frankly, they’re probably right.
5) Epic Games Lose Personal Scope
I want you to think back on your early days of gaming. To the first quest you were ever a part of, if you can. Dredge up those early cobweb-curtained dungeons. Those creepy woods. Those lazy afternoons when nobody in your group had finals to worry about, or a full time job, or a major cocaine habit to feed (sorry, projecting.)
Got it? Good. Now I’m going to ask a very simple question. What level were you?
Silly, right? What does your level have to do with your personal involvement? The game was about friendship and humor, and laughing, and Cheetoes and Mountain Dew and all the other stereotypes we can’t escape.
Here’s a fun poll you can give to friends and family. Find the people in your life who tried Dungeons and Dragons or Cyberpunk or Pathfinder, and it just wasn’t for them. Ask them what level the group was. Ask them how long the game had been going before they arrived. I’ll bet, as anecdotal as this seems, they’ll tell you what I’ve heard time and again. They quit because it was too much to take in at once, the group was already established, and they became overwhelmed.
The group collectively muttering “Seat’s taken!” may have played a part.
Lower levels make you feel vulnerable. They make you more creative as a problem-solver because your fireball hasn’t reached DBZ-levels of warhead yield. All the players at the table love to talk about how badass their character will become once he reaches level 5. Or 10. Or after the next 2 feats. But the real game starts much earlier than that. The real game is already established long before characters reach “Epicness”– when they’re still figuring each other out and working together.
When the players run out of challenges that don’t rhyme with Bar-esq-yew– when they’ve gathered enough magical items to start collecting king’s ears on a necklace, that’s when the game is on its deathbed. Reaching epic level starts a clock ticking on your game, and it’s only a matter of time before you run out of resources, challenges, and story to keep them engaged. Savor the early levels, and string them along until you can’t not let them level past that personal sweet spot of storytelling.
Or, you know, kill them all and force them to re-roll at level 1.