Game: Epic Level Handbook
Publisher: Wizards of the Coast
Review Dated: 22nd, August 2002
Reviewer’s Rating: 5/10 [ Perfectly acceptable ]
Total Score: 32
Average Score: 6.40
GameWyrd strives to bring you reviews of the latest releases and that’s just what we’re doing with this review of the Epic Level Handbook. This high profile Wizards of the Coast product was released in the UK just this week. It’s been available for those of you who share a landmass with the Wizard’s Tower for quite some time now. If this were a review of Wizard’s distributing powers it wouldn’t be a very flattering one.
The Epic Level Handbook is well written and has convinced me it’s possible to roll-play epic levels. I remain unconvinced that it’s possible to role-play much of the epic style.
What do I mean by that? Take the cleric class for example. Why does a cleric stay in awe of a god that he’s long since outstripped? And yes, the epic rules in the book will easily let your characters grow to that sort of power. Does Elvis the epic Bard take time off from putting naughty dragons over his knee and giving them a spank to tour around the local towns, villages and cities to pick up the latest songs and gossip. Even if Elvis travels in disguise are all the new songs and tales about Elvis the Bard? I don’t think Bardic Knowledge as presented by this book really works on the epic scale. You could just impose sensible limitations or turn it into a spell like ability (the Bard becomes specially attuned to what people are singing about) but that wouldn’t be mechanically fair on the other character classes. This is just an example but it does show the roll-playing success over role-playing. The book has this to say on Bardic Knowledge, “Though not a spell, bardic knowledge can have a great impact on the characters’ ability to know information.” Oh dear.
Chapter One covers characters, skills and feats. The character section is comprehensive, it not only examines epic levels of the core classes in the Player’s book but it covers and extends the prestige classes in the DM’s book. There’s the suggestion that only 10 level prestige classes can be pushed into the epic levels since they’re the only ones which really count as a full time career. There’s lots of artwork here, each class gets its own illustration and I’m sure everyone will stop to admire the Blackguard’s quality. Then there’s a whole list of epic level prestige classes that’ll sate even the most crunch hungry player (if for only a while). The psionic characters are also covered. I was more impressed with subtler touches such as the starting equipment for epic level characters since it allows people to set up and run an Epic Level Campaign from scratch.
Then there comes a look at the skills. This section has mixed success. As with the entirely of the book it is presented and cleanly and carefully, it’s easy to read and follow. The section is good at finding uses for skills at epic levels and they remind me very much of Anime. Rather than walk, why not leap from treetop to treetop? I’m not convinced some of the examples are valid though; they’re more like spell-like abilities than extremely good skills. “I’ll bet you could use a cooling swim. A dip in that pool of acid would be refreshing,” is suggested as a possible bluff. I don’t think so. Just where’s the bluff anyway? On the other hand, having such a tight reign on your thoughts insofar that you might be able to beat spells like “detect thoughts” seems just about possible, just as we hear rumours of people able to beat polygraph machines in real life. I don’t care how good you are; you can’t balance on a cloud. Mind you the DC for that last one is 120. I wonder what the DC is for trying to balance on light or shadow? The authors should just have bitten the bullet and accepted the fact that at some point skills because superhuman. It really would have made a huge difference if the book had come up with some suggestions as to deal with this level of ability as a roleplaying issue and not just dice. Is it an inner mysticism? A victory over paradox? The awakenings of a blood magic?
If you think the skills are impressive then wait you take a look at feats. There’s a new type of feat – the Epic Feat – and this caveat is enough to allay almost all of the trouble I had with the skills. An epic feat is something more than human. Epic feats like “Bonus Domain” seem to be more than divine too; “Listen up Kord, you’ll give me this extra domain or I’m coming over to kick your arse!”.
Tucked away in this section you’ll find the table for spell slots above 9th level. The spells themselves appear in chapter two. The spells are truly legendary, vast amounts of power to through at your players and let your players throw at their enemies. It does good by stressing that these spells are not a right, it’s entirely up to the DM as to whether they’re allowed. Epic spells need to be specially developed. The mage needs to find time, money and the XP sacrifice to research and master these spectacular effects. In addition the development of epic spells require special seeds and these are the base spells from which the epic ones are grown from. These spell seeds are incredibly powerful in their own right too. The seed destroy does 20d6 over a range of 12,000 feet and requires a Spellcraft of 29.
I’m not sure how this system maps onto divine magic. I don’t think it does. Are clerics left to develop these spells themselves while remaining submissive to the source of their lesser magic?
I think the epic magic works very well – but only for arcane magic.
Chapter three offers advice on running and epic game. The main suggestion is to retool the world, changing everything to suit the new epic characters. The hugely powerful necromancer lord the characters destroyed a campaign back was actually just a pawn being used by an even more powerful undead abomination called an atropal. If the characters haven’t heard of legends during the course of the campaign, legends which can be turned into epic campaigns then there’s some suggestions as to where to go from there; perhaps the world is young and the group is the first ever to reach such heights. Leaving the world behind seems likely after that.
It would be too easy to slam the book for suggesting that epic level campaigns are ones set in bigger and more dangerous dungeons than the dungeons used before. It’s exactly what it does do – but this is a written with Dungeons and Dragons in mind. Suggestions include using a adamantine portcullis rather than a wooden door and using a wall of force rather than a paper wall. Actually, I think the stats for paper walls are there only for completeness! The dungeon concept actually does work on the epic scale, some terrible place where terrible things have been imprisoned. It’s the Monte Cooke formula; some cleric came along and trapped evil demons in the temple, temple that looks like a statue or barrow ready and waiting for you to come along and deal with them. The DM is just left to work out why the characters want to be in such a place anyway. Not for another pile of gold, surely? The epic wilderness seems unlikely since creatures of power enough to bother epic characters would clearly have wiped clean any wildernesses long before the players got there. Those are the two case studies. If it’s locked up or enclosed then it’s a dungeon, if it’s outside then it’s a wilderness.
The chapter considers variants on some rules, how do deal with challenge ratings now that the players are using the special epic system, they scale up the demographics to exceed the 100,000 gp limit of a metropolis too 600,000 gp for a planar metropolis and tinker with the previous settings and there’s even some suggestions on how to deal with mixed-level campaigns. There’s a table of 100 epic adventure ideas. It’s a nice touch, I suppose, trying to show that the game goes on at this level. Examples include, “A ranger hero recognised around the world begins to organize a group of explorers for reasons unknown.” (on the poor side of the scale) to better ones like “Dwarf miners follow a vein of adamantine to a hinged valve sealed with divine magic of an age older than any of the current deities.” Speaking of which, if you want your epic characters to ascend to godhood, go for it, the handbook is happy to push you in the direction of Deities and Demigods.
Chapter four is on epic magic items. What can I say? More crunchy! Power of the universe! Page 143 is work checking out for the illustrations of interesting magic staffs. Um. More crunchy! Okay, sure, it’s very crunchy but it’s crunchy done well. It’s cordon bleu crunchy with silver service.
And what of chapter five? Monsters. This is another chance for the crunch experts at WotC to shine but better still they’re actually fairly inspirational creations, some truly scary things and I can say with some certainty that we’ll begin to see chatroom names along the lines of ‘Atropal’, ‘Xixecal’, ‘Brachyurus’ and ‘Devastation Vermin’ within seconds. I do like the idea of Devastation Vermin. If you build a better mouse-trap then nature will build a better mouse. There are dragons here too, epic dragons like the ‘force dragon’ (think ‘wall of force’) and the prismatic dragon. It’s a different angle from Gygax’s recent Slayer’s Guide to Dragons but I think it’ll be possible to combine the two. My favourite is the Worm that Walks even though it’s an idea I’ve seen used to great success elsewhere.
There is a sixty-page campaign setting for chapter six. It’s actually rather well written and the introduction of groups and factions (albeit at an epic power level) gives some hope that scenarios with subtly, politics and drama are still possible. It’s set in the mighty city of Union, one of those places that sit on the nexus point of planes. The campaign is complete with colourful maps, detailed descriptions of the places therein and NPCs. At the end there is an adventure set in the campaign setting. I think this strategy of introducing a place and then the adventure is a step forward from the old habit of diving straight into the adventure and suggesting that the locations can be used again in homebrewed scenarios.
The appendixes will be of interest to crunchy Faerun and Greyhawk fans. Figures like Elminster, Szass Tam, Iyraclea, Eclavdra and Mordenkainen appear in illustration and in new epic level character sheet format. The very last appendix is a collection of succinct charts and tables for the creation of epic NPCs.
I’ve grumbled a lot in this review. I’m not keen on the idea of epic level games and I think that’s clear. I was hoping that the book would pull me around and although it tugged in places it hasn’t really succeeded. On the other hand, if I wanted to run an epic level game or didn’t want to retire characters fast approaching 20th level then I would less grumbly. The book is of unquestionably quality. 320 colour pages, hardback, expensive ($39.95 US and I paid £26.00) and wonderfully illustrated. With the exception of epic divine magic the book’s mechanics are nicely worked out too. The resulting good / bad effect leads to a middling rating, all things weighed and measured, I’ve found it to be a fairly average book.