Monday, February 20, 2012

In Which The Warlock Extrapolates on the Epic...

So, in the words of comedian Dennis Miller, "I don't want to go off on a rant here, but..."

...Yeah.  It's time to whip out my weekly Two-Minutes' Hate for Mr. Monte Cook once more.

You see, Wizards of the Coast's latest editorial-flavored travesty has Mr. Cook expounding on the perceived perils of epic-level play.  And, as you can imagine by my opening, I don't exactly agree with Cook's ideas or the conclusions that he draws from them.

Cook's article starts off with a disagreement with what's been one of most common complaints about D&D for years:  the fact that games break down during high-level play.  Cook attributes this to the shifts between tiers of play--something that he admits that 4e dealt with well--but then shifts the blame for the problems back onto the player-base.  At the risk of being accused of reductio ad absurdum, that's like telling a rape victim that it was their fault for walking in a dark neighborhood or telling a burglary victim that they shouldn't have had that big tv in their front room...

Cook continues to antagonize the player base by claiming:"the people that say that the game breaks down at such-and-such level are self-defining themselves as people who don't care for high-level play..." (which he follows with the apologetic "...which is fine, of course").  The issue with this is that many people would enjoy high-level play if more support were included in game material and if the mechanical end of the game held up appropriately.  There simply aren't enough adventures, source material, or GMing advice for a GM to look at running a long-term epic level game.

One of the best games I've ever played--Callon's Dark Tower-themed 3.5e game--was an epic level game.  The game was epic in feel--my paladin had built a demiplane-sized cathedral to my god--as well as in statistics.  We were told to bring level 30 characters to the party, and were similarly equipped.  For Cook to brashly insinuate my own preferences regarding high-level play simply because there's I believe the game breaks down is not only fallacious, but also insulting as a would-be player (and purchaser!). 

Let me put some evidence on the table, before I continue.  The default 4e character sheet right now is a mere two pages.  However, that character sheet only includes the names of each of a characters' powers, and nothing more.  In order to actually play the game, that character sheet must also include power cards.  At level 1, those cards easily fit onto one page--a three page character sheet, while longer than most games, is still not unreasonable.  However, at level 21, those cards--necessities for play, mind you--can take up not one page, but 5 additional pages!  When running the "Day of Dagon" one-shot, characters averaged 9-page character sheets!  That's insane!  Mechanically speaking, that's a disaster.

Yes, I get that he's a Demon Lord.
Three pages of stat block is STILL too much!
This wasn't simply relegated to PCs, nor was it unique to 4e!  The entire reason that I switched away from 3e/3.5e in the first place was my issue with GMing the game at upper levels.  In the final issue of Dungeon, Demogorgon served as the culminating boss of a year-long adventure path.  Demogorgon's stat block?  Three full pages of size 8 text!  Absurd!  That's a huge issue which no one can ignore.

To say that there's not a problem with this--to say that there's not an issue with a game that requires 10 pages of details for every player to keep up on--is outright erroneous!  There's such a thing as too many options and, at high level in 4e, these options bordered the insane.  Let's do some math here:  as a 30th level character has at minimum 4 encounter powers, 2 at-will powers, 4 daily powers, and 7 utility powers.  That's two full pages of power-cards right there.  Add in a smattering of magic items, as well a minimum of 18 feats, and one easily has a character that's simply too complex to play as a one-shot character.  That was the biggest issue we ran into, and was one that still has no solution.

Complexity is a funny thing.  While everyone loves to see their "numbers" increase, while everyone loves to get their hands on an awesome magic item, there simply has to be moderation.  Yes, feats are great.  They've been replicated over and over in games since 3e.  But when you have 18 of them?  That's simply too much.  Yes, magic items are great.  But when you're "expected" to have certain items at each level, each of which brings their own powers and quirks to the table, it's too much to deal with.

While I'd say that Savage Worlds has done well with keeping high-level play in balance with that of low-level play, even this game isn't immune.  High-level NPCs often have feats listed, but no further information, which makes their options almost moot--either the GM must slow down the game to look up necessary information or it must be ignored.  Even a GM with a great memory has more than enough to do without worrying about such issues!

As it stands now, I don't think I'd want to run an 'epic-level' game in any sense, despite for the fact that I love plane-hopping, interdimensional adventures.  The sheer lack of support for such a game, as well as the problematic at-the-table issues prevent me from actively pursuing this.

What's frustrating more, though?  The fact that the man in charge of the newest incarnation...seems to be utterly oblivious to these problems.  And that?  That's inexcusable.


  1. While complexity at higher levels is certainly an issue, I think I'm a bit more concerned about the expectation that certain types of adventures are going to be run at certain levels. You're not expected to have plane-hopping adventures at level 1 and you're not expected to be dungeon crawling at level 30.

    I ran into this when I started running Urban Arcana. After level 10 or so, players were allowed to have powers that had you hopping to different planes. But in Urban Arcana there is only one plane. So heroes in Urban Arcana are effectively capped at Level 15 or so because there is an ingrained assumption that the types of missions suitable for Urban Arcana are the sort of missions that only low level characters would deal with.

    I'm hoping that we get more "switches" about all this. Want plane hopping at any level? Flip a switch. That combined with the "switches" for complexity makes it possible for this to work out. We'll see if Wizards does this or not.

  2. Nailed it in one, brother.

    Why shouldn't we be able to dungeon-crawl at level 30, in the steampunk ruins of a demilich's personal prison plane?

    Why shouldn't we be able to plane-hop at level 1, as bashers in the City of Sigil, a la Planescape?

    Hopefully modularity will come out on top. But, with thinking like Cook's in charge...yeah, don't hold your breath.

    Thanks, man!