If you’re anything like me the quests you write will eventually escalate in danger and importance, slowly climbing the Mountains of Epic, until the party is eating ancient monsters for breakfast and pawning legendary weapons at the local market. 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 actually scare the party could only be described as “so rare they were 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 Epic Scale in every game. Epic isn’t a goal to shoot for anymore, it’s the default setting. And every quest the players embark on is now “To Save The World” in some way or another.
So today I will share my folly, and offer a few reasons why “Epic Scale” can truly ruin your campaign.
You have 10 hp. Your enemy, the flea-bitten Mur-Kin, 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 combat with a flea-infested murkin you’ve already lost the battle. My point is, you probably had the encounter math figured out before you started the next paragraph.
Low-level games have shorter combat engagements, based purely on stat simplicity. But when you’re running a 20+ level game with dozens of home rules and expanded materials, a simple man-on-mur 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 the players retire their characters, and then they play as their sons or daughters, or they make deals with deities to restart life at year-one.
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 people today are direct descendants of the Great Khan 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, and 1 in every 200 NPCs will be his direct descendant by the time your campaign ends.
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 pass out to the peasants?
Heroic levels and 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 beauty glamour 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.
Need a demon for the party to fight this weekend? 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 classes.
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 nonsense.
Harry Potter. Lord of the Rings. Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Game of Thrones. Any Zelda Game… Can you think of any long-running fantasy wherein the trope of ‘Save the World’ doesn’t dominate the story 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 players’ To-Do list. And when it does, investigating the spooky old house on the corner becomes a laughable priority. Interesting, fun, quirky quests are abandoned when slaying Sauron takes precedence.
There’s an episode of the Walking Dead where Rick & Friends encounter an army Sergeant who’s escorting a scientist to Washington. The scientist claims can help cure the outbreak. When the party agrees on a detour to find someone’s wife, the Sergeant is perplexed and outraged. Nothing, nothing could be as important as saving the world, right? This is exactly how your players will see anything unrelated to your doomsday plot. And quite frankly, they’re probably right.
The best stories are about small scale, personal stakes. Logan was about saving one little girl. The Magnificent Seven were magnificent for saving one little town. And LOTR was really about one hobbit’s addiction, and a really committed support network.
I want you to think back on your early days of gaming–back to the first quest you were ever part of. 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.
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 investment in the game? The game was about friendship and humor, and laughing, and Cheetos and Mountain Dew and all the other stereotypes gamers 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 and discovered that it 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 they quit because it was too much to take in at once, the group was already established, and they became overwhelmed by the mechanics of the high-level combat system.
— Google Images
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. But low levels are also simpler, and they put focus on the storytelling.
Players love to talk about how badass their character will eventually become. 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 out how to work 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 quests to keep them engaged. Savor the early levels, and string them along until you can’t not let them level past that sweet spot of storytelling.
Or, you know, kill them all and force them to re-roll at level 1.
Pictured: Your party after 3 hours of arguments.