Design Diary 16

"What… is… it? It's it!"

(That's a reference to Faith No More's song "Epic", in case you didn't know.)

I started working on the epic material last weekend, and I've finally found the time to sit down and write up a new Design Diary entry.

A lot has changed in Project Phoenix with regards to epic play; as I said on the front page, I'm aiming to fully integrate epic into the core rules and make the transition as seamless as possible. To this end, there is basically no more epic. No, I'm not getting rid of epic levels entirely, just changing how they work. "Epic" is merely a title for "anything above L20". The designers gave it some kind of mystical aura, like once you hit level 20, you become more than mortal, able to leap tall buildings in a single bound, open rifts in space-time with your bare hands, and similar absurd feats. The division between non-epic and epic is artificial at best, a line drawn in the sand because the core rules only extended to 20th level and anyone who goes beyond that must be special. This line of thinking is what gave us the ELH, and look where that got us.

Here's what epic really is. Ready? You're L21 or above. Not very special, is it? Yes, as you gain levels, you gain access to more powerful abilities, feats, and yes, even spells (I have plans for spells beyond L9). Eventually you can (and probably would) attain divinity of some sort. But you're not "epic". You're still a character, a hero, probably more (in)famous than before, and certainly more powerful… but you don't need a new title.

I don't plan to support play much past L40, for several reasons:

  • Things really start to come unhinged. At that point, you can pretty well toss out the wealth by level tables and let the players pick whatever they want because they'll have enough gold for it.
  • It becomes harder and harder to find challenges for characters of that level. Sure, if you're playing in the Krustyverse (our colloquial name for Upper Krust's games with uber-high-level beings), you could do it, but I think even that shine would wear off after awhile.
  • At that point, play simply becomes an exercise in ever-larger numbers, though the Rule of Three could serves to curb the skill DCs.

The rules will probably support play beyond L40, but I couldn't guarantee it, and I really have no intention of playing at that level anyway (despite the fact that I like high-level play, even I have my limits).

So what else has changed? I've made clear many times that the problems we see in high-level play come about at low levels - imbalance of fighter power vs. spellcasters, rampant immunities/resistance to everything, trump cards (i.e., finding that one Achilles' heel to exploit), save or die (or save or suck) spells ruling the field, and more. Most of these I've already fixed; I'm working on the others as I write this. I've got plenty to boost fighters' power - lots of new feats, and some new combat rules that will promote dynamic combat over "I stand and make a full attack", as well as prevent spellcasters from standing in the middle of melee and tossing off spells with impunity - in other words, returning parity to melee vs. spellcasting.

I have found a way to fix EAB/EAS - the epic attack/save bonus. In 3.5, the epic bonuses kick in once you hit 20th character level, regardless of your normal progression. This leads to all kinds of headaches when creating PCs and NPCs above 20th level - what order did he take the classes, so you know when to apply the epic bonus? Or my favorite, the Ftr 20/Wiz 20 vs. the Wiz 20/Ftr 20. This example highlights the absurdity of the epic bonus system - the first character has a +30 AB, and the second has a +20.

My fix is simple: the epic bonus kicks in only after you have reached BAB +20, or save bonus +12. This means that no matter how many classes you have, no matter what your progressions are, no matter what level you are, you will only flip over to the low progression when you max out your existing one. Under this rule, the Ftr 20/Wiz 20 and the Wiz 20/Ftr 20 have the same attack bonus: +30 (their ABs actually become the same at L35). A Ftr 20/Clr 20 vs. a Clr 20/Ftr 20? Under 3.5 rules, it would be +30 vs. +25; under mine, they both have (wait for it) +30. See the trend here? You can take any combination of classes and end up with a +30 attack bonus at L40. Slick, huh? This, along with formulae for determining expected AC and attack bonuses, makes it much easier to create monsters and challenges for high-level parties - you know what they should be able to hit or avoid, and can plan accordingly.

As I'm sure you've already seen, I've incorporated a huge number of feats from the ELH into the existing list. A lot of them have sub-epic prereqs - this is because they aren't really "epic". There were a few that should be epic, but I couldn't justify having "character level 21st" as a prereq, and were far too powerful for no prereqs at all - Additional Magic Item Space, for instance. So, sadly, they had to go.

The next thing I'll be working on is extended progressions for the base classes, and the "epic" PrCs. I won't be coming up with new abilities, just scaling out the existing ones. Maybe sometime in the future, if the creative urge hits me, I might come up with some new stuff, but for now, they'll have to survive with bonus feats and scaling abilities. I've seen only a handful of characters take any single class past 15th level besides mages (and they get spells), so I don't really see it as a major issue.

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