Product Spotlight07/12/2002

Epic Level Handbook
With Bruce R. Cordell and Andy Collins

How do you create rules for adventurers who have transcended the limitations of ordinary characters -- heroes able to stand toe-to-toe with the gods?In this month's exclusive interview, two designers of the Epic Level Handbook describe the challenge of creating a system for campaigns with no boundaries.

Wizards of the Coast: First, ancient history: How did previous D&D rules handle epic levels and adventures?

Bruce R. Cordell: There were various earlier edition high-level rules, including Immortals, and more recently for second edition, the High Level Handbook by Skip Williams. I'm sure we all fondly remember the Bloodstone Pass modules, which assumed your characters were exceptionally high level. High Level Handbook had rules for creating high-level spells, called "true dweomers," which share some characteristics with the new epic spell seeds and epic spell development.

Andy Collins: As Bruce points out, previous editions of D&D/AD&D had a wide variety of methods for handling exceptionally high-level characters. Some versions of the game allowed play up to 36th level; others simply trailed off in their support of high-level characters. We tried to start from scratch by creating a system that would be fully integrated into the existing rules.

Wizards:Players who've never considered an epic-level campaign before are likely to respond in one of two ways. First, "Isn't an epic campaign just like a regular campaign except that everything from PCs to NPCs to monsters is raised in power?"

Bruce: In fact, I'd argue yes. If you've played D&D for 20 levels, presumably you enjoy increasing your own powers while at the same time matching them against more significant foes. On the other hand, no. Only at high and epic levels can your characters begin to deal with threats and events that are world-shaking in importance -- epic, actually. For instance, if the Conjunction of the Million Spheres of Reality is set to take place next week, your 10th-level character will hunker down and hope for the best. Meanwhile, your 30th-level character will be out there on the Plain of Condensed Reality, trading blows with demigods seeking to increase their importance in the redrawn cosmos. And that's for starters.

Andy: We aimed to create a system that wouldn't force you to fundamentally change the way you play D&D. You'd still be playing a fighter, a wizard, or whatever, but you'd have new and exciting options available to you as you gained levels (and power).

Wizards: How about the second likely response? "I want to run an epic campaign, but I don't know where to begin."

Bruce: Begin with your current campaign and characters -- the epic rules presume you've worked your way up to 20th level normally (but don't require it). The rules pick up where the old leave off in a smooth continuum. This is the easiest and most satisfactory way to begin for the characters. For the DM, you can unleash some of the high-end creatures in the Monster Manual with 21+ Challenge Ratings, and work them in with some overarching plotline of epic scale -- you know, something that has significance beyond a simple village or dungeon setting. Not to say that you should leave the dungeons behind forevermore: When you're creeping into the sanctity of an Abomination's mausoleum, you'd best remember your most finely honed dungeoneering tricks.

Andy: Assuming your campaign can handle it, I'd definitely advise implementing epic-level rules slowly. Introduce an occasional concept (monster, item, spell, feat) from the Epic Level Handbook as the characters are hitting, say, 17th or 18th level. Over the next couple of levels, get the characters (and players) used to the fact that there's something waiting for them beyond the horizon of 20th level. Then, by the time they get there, they'll be ready for the "shift" (and in many cases, it won't even seem like a change).

Wizards: Can players use the Epic Level Handbook to go straight to epic-level adventures? Or do you think higher-level adventures are better preceded by more standard adventures first?

Bruce: I think standard adventures lead naturally into higher level adventures, and for campaign play, this is the best model. Now, it'd be criminal to not point out that a night of god-bashing with 40th-level characters can't be fun as a one-off or weeklong play. But, without the grounding in campaign-character development, these characters won't mean as much in the long run as those developed from lower levels. And from a purely mechanical point of view, the learning curve is easier this way.

Andy: I couldn't have said it better myself.

Wizards:How do you divide up the creative process in designing and writing a product like the Epic Level Handbook?

Bruce: We each worked on major sections, though each of us contributed lightly to the other's major sections. For instance, Andy did feats, but I sprinkled in a few here and there, while I did monsters, and Andy wrote a few of those. James Wyatt and John Rateliff also contributed lightly to many sections, especially NPCs and monsters. Thomas Reid worked on the epic setting, epic adventures, and prestige classes sections, and also contributed to the other sections, including epic spells, monsters, items, and more.

Andy: Since I was the first designer scheduled for the book, the core of the "rules" fell naturally to me. After all, without the section on epic character creation, it's nigh-impossible to create new monsters, magic items, and the like. By the time Bruce started, we needed a fresh set of designer skills to take on the sections on epic spellcasting and epic monsters. The more "modular" sections were easy to parse out to James, John, and Thomas -- they could design more or less "on their own" using the framework provided by Bruce and me.

Wizards: It seems as if the sky would be the limit in designing a book for such powerful characters. Did you find that you needed to impose some limitations on yourselves to ensure that monsters, spells, or magic items weren't too powerful?

Bruce: No limits. Of course, costing becomes incredibly important. You can do anything you want, but you have to pay, either monetarily, with XP, or by mediating your [character's] ability to cast epic spells with [the] applicable skill totals.

Andy: The sky's the limit, but you don't want to give the sky away up front. The key was to make sure that there was always something else to reach for.

Wizards:Do you ever feel compelled to hold back material or cut developed material because it's too over-the-top?

Bruce: No, not really. You could give yourself "molecule man" powers with the right epic spell -- although the cost for such a spell would, in practice, prohibit it to any but the craziest high-end epic players; even gods would have a hard time assembling the resources for such an undertaking.

Andy: After all, everything has a cost -- there are some spells and items in there that even a 50th-level character could only dream of creating.

Wizards:Let's run through spell seeds, as this idea is unique. Can you outline the concept and tell about its development?

Bruce: Since college, I've always wanted to create a magic system that was more free-form, built up from discrete building blocks. I attempted this in College of Wizardry, with a very light treatment. Skip did something like it in 2nd edition's High Level Handbook. 3E really allowed me to cut loose, though. It provided the grounding in basic rules hearty enough to build the concept of epic spell seeds on top. Once all the seeds and modifiers were created, all that's left is to go crazy developing epic spells. Of course, the XP/gp costs are such that no high-level caster is ever going to develop more than a few every so many levels.

Wizards:What kind of feedback did you get from your playtesters with something as powerful as the Epic Level Handbook?

Bruce: "Wow, are you sure we should be able to get away with this with our character?"

Andy: Yeah, most of the early responses were a bit on the incredulous side. People just couldn't believe that we really meant what we said. Of course, after they started to see the challenges we had designed for such characters, they began to understand.

Wizards: What do you expect players to find particularly engaging? Most challenging? Completely surprising?

Andy: I would hope that players would be excited by the vast number of epic options available, from spells to feats to magic items and beyond. Truly, this is a book that could power your campaign for at least another 20 levels and more.

Wizards:Of which contribution to this book are you most proud?

Bruce: Epic spell casting (and its mental mirror, epic psionic power manifestation), and the Abominations.

Andy: At my heart, I'm a "mechanic" and thus am most proud of the core system we devised to allow characters infinite level progression regardless of their class or classes. It's the backbone of the book, and I think it's remarkably robust.

I'm also pretty happy at the sheer number of new feats I wrote. Crafting new feats is a back-breaking task--it's a lot of work for not very many words, meaning that you have to create a huge number of them to fill any reasonable amount of space.

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