Note: For the purposes of this post, “epic” refers to the very highest levels of a RPG. In the case of 4e, to 21st through 30th level.
There has been a lot of talk lately about how 4e manages (or fails to manage) epic mechanics. The consensus seems to be that epic tier fights take too long, are too complicated and generally favor the PCs. In this post we’re going to look at some of the special gameplay considerations of the epic tier and what can be done to prevent them from damaging our games.
Every character has four  fundamental qualities that form the basis of game balance:
- How often they hit.
- How much damage they can do.
- How hard they are to hit.
- How much damage they can take.
At low levels, these qualities are very similar, regardless of role. As they progress, however, players make choices for their characters that have the potential to make them less like the other party members. Defenders become harder to hit, strikers do more damage and so on. System stress appears when something that challenges one party member is either ineffective or overwhelming against another party member. In my experience with 3.5, defense and toughness were the largest concern. Monsters that could put the rugged characters at risk had often had no difficulty hitting the “squishies” and putting them on the floor.
4e does a better job than 3.5 of “tightening the choke”, especially at lower levels, but it is by no means immune to the effect. In an ideal system, the gap between the highest and the lowest character should be no more than 15% throughout their entire lifespan. Knowing this, why don’t designers build systems that maintain close parity? Well, to begin with, maintaining that level of parity means placing serious restrictions on player choice, which is never a good thing.
Another issue is identity. Part of how players connect with their characters is in terms of what the character can do. On a long enough timeline, this can actually lead to some interesting characterization, as mechanics influence personality which in turn influences mechanics. In my Monday game, we had a Rogue played by someone who just wanted to stab people. His character concept was no more complicated than “I do a lot of damage.” Over time, the player started to explore why the character was so cynical and violent. Identification is damaged when a player is forbidden from making choices. You’ve just effectively told the player that they’re doing something “wrong”.
The third aspect of the shotgun effect is optimization. Not every game mechanic is tuned solely on the basis of balance. In fact, most game mechanics give more attention to theme than anything else. Why is a Wizard less likely to wear heavy armor than anyone else? Because that’s not what people think of when they hear wizard. Thematic considerations can and do override optimization. How many times have you heard someone tell a player that they’ve made a suboptimal choice and heard, “yeah, but it fits the character”? Given this, it’s impossible for a designer to know which advancement options are chosen for optimization and which are chosen for theme. As these choices accumulate, the basic nature of the game changes.
Another significant variable in encounter design is challenge. My crew likes a tough fight. In fact, they like it so much that they usually feel cheated when they steamroll an encounter (They are also aware that killing the monsters so quickly that they never get a chance to show off their cool makes the game less fun for me). I’ve been in a number of other groups where this isn’t the case. Most game systems try to take a middle-of-the-road approach, hoping to satisfy as many people as possible. Just like optimization, however, the different perspectives on danger and challenge change what feels right at the table.
I loves me some Penny Arcade and this strip is especially relevant to this topic:
When Tycho asks what Gabe’s game is about, he goes directly to a common problem in epic plots (more on this in a future article), but he misses the most important question with regard to encounter design:
Who isn’t having fun?
Gabe is clearly frustrated that his players aren’t feeling challenged. This is very common for GMs who are having tuning issues. Lord knows that it happens to me. By determining who isn’t having a good time and why, we can focus on adapting the parts of the game that are specifically interfering with fun. Without this kind of “campaign introspection”, it’s far too easy to make unwarranted assumptions.
You also have to pay attention to more than just the overt expressions of dissatisfaction. Try to look at their posture, how often they smile, how engaged they are in the game and what they’re doing with their hands. Of course, there’s absolutely nothing wrong with asking for feedback. You should also examine your own desire to challenge the players. If you’re not having fun, chances are good that your table will suffer.
Once you have a solid idea of how much challenge everyone wants, you can start varying the tempo. It’s okay to go a little harder with the boss fights and a little easier on the throwaways. It’s possible for your players to suffer from “challenge overload.” Throwing them a cakewalk every level or so can prevent this.
Second Level GMing: I was not having a good time running combats, but didn’t want to end the campaign, so I asked one of my players to take over that duty. I suggest you try it if you’re feeling burnt out. I mention it here because it has the interesting side effect of showing you first hand what it feels like to be in one of your fights.
Becoming a Game Designer
I’ve heard several people complain that they can’t run epic adventures without having to get under the hood and make adjustments. I think that’s terribly lazy and bad for your table. I hope the first section explains why, at least to a certain degree, it’s not possible for a system to “know” the correct level of optimization and challenge for your group.
My first piece of advice is to learn to audit your table. You should start with monsters that fit your story and theme, but there’s absolutely nothing wrong with modifying the monsters. To that end, I created The Transmogrifier, an Excel spreadsheet that helps you look at your characters in relation to the norm. Here’s the output for my Monday group:
Now, I wouldn’t use the transmogrifier as a hard-and-fast rule (especially for damage expressions, now that I see them for the group ), but it certainly gives me some valuable information. For one thing, the Battlerager Vigor Fighter skews the hit points something fierce, meaning that I have to hit pretty hard to scare the players. These characters are fairly optimized for +hit, especially against AC, but their defenses are fairly close to the normal curve.
I would also suggest learning to keep track of other things that happen at your table:
- Which characters become bloodied/fall to zero the most often?
- What triggers the use of a daily or action point?
- When was the last time someone was visibly frustrated with a miss streak?
- How does the party respond to a monster becoming bloodied?
- How often do they use standard action Second Winds and healing potions?
- How many encounter heals do they have and how many are generally left at the end of an encounter?
- Does anyone ever run out of healing surges? How often do they make decisions based on the number of healing surges they have remaining?
The trick is to tweak in small steps until you find the sweet spot. This is another excellent reason to start the process early, so that by the time you’re running a game with significant variance, you’re more skilled at not letting it get out of hand. Tuning can make any level of play more enjoyable.
- Defenses and attack bonuses are the easiest thing to tune.
- Powers are the hardest thing to tune.
- Don’t be afraid to change the monster’s level, even by one or two.
- Replace insubstantial with increased hit points unless you’re going for a theme.
Sauce for the Goose
A well-managed party has a lot of synergy, flexibility and power, so much so that it can sometimes be difficult to present them with a challenge without having an encounter that drags on forever. Try building encounters in which the monsters have more coordination and synergy rather than complexity. Let’s use an encounter that I planned for my guys as an example:
- Including an elite allows you to fill out your budget, especially in a level +2 or level +3 encounter, without having to manage more monsters. It provides a natural focus for the fight and gives you access to an Action Point (which creates some parity with the party mechanics, but isn’t overwhelming).
- It’s okay to include nasty status effects, as long as you’ve done your research. In this case, half the party makes saving throws against stun at the start of their turn.
- Combat is almost always more interesting when you present them with relevant options. Overwhelming Thought allows the party to have some control over the fight.
- If it’s possible for a PC to never provoke with their ranged and area attacks, then it’s okay for the monsters to have the ability also, just not all the time.
- Radiant Flare allows these monsters to coordinate damage just like the PCs.
- Automatic damage can speed things up. Try to reserve it for encounter powers or auras.
- Temporary hit points are almost always preferable to healing because they can’t stack.
- Mechanics that mirror those commonly used by the characters are less confusing and consume less time.
- Try not to prevent the players from playing (stun, daze, weaken, etc.). Instead, focus on getting the monster into a position to deliver its payload.
When considering overall encounter complexity, look at the monsters as a single character and try not to have similar powers on all of them (racial powers notwithstanding). That means that the monsters, as a group, should generally not have more than one of each of the following:
- “Get out of Jail”.
- Offensive reposition.
- Aura/automatic damage.
Detente, It’s What’s for Dinner
If you’re unable to find a happy medium within the rules, talk with the players about changing the rules. Most often this takes the form of asking them to not take certain powers or feats, but there’s nothing preventing you from changing the rules that bug you.
 – I’ve considered adding a fifth quality, “How much they can heal for”, but the other qualities tend to drown that out and it’s also effectively a subset of “how much damage they can take” that affects the whole party.
 – I suspect that there might be something off about these damage expressions. Please be careful about how you use them until I can find time to double check the calculations.