The Epic Level Handbook for the 3rd Edition of D&D was a big disappointment for me. Instead of really epic material for mythological and high fantasy games all I got was just an infinite (and bland) progression of the actual rules, just adding more damage and bonus to the usual mix. Epic Level adventures – at least in that book’s terms – are about dungeons full of absurd and ridiculous traps (some of it the medieval equivalent of nukes) and yet more powerful monsters. Life goes on the same for adventurers.
Ok, enough rant.
I don’t know how many people remember but when the Forgotten Realms Campaign Setting was released for the 3rd Edition, the luminary Jonathan Tweet posted a great Gen Con article on the Wizards of the Coast site called “Unofficial Rules for Characters Beyond 20th Level” (I can’t find the link anymore these days).
The article’s main goal was to share some simple guidelines for what would one day be called epic-level rules. It came to support the high-level NPCs of the Forgotten Realms book. The interesting part is that Tweet (an amazing gaming designer) had a different point of view for high-level characters.
Unofficial Rules for Characters Beyond 20th Level
By Jonathan Tweet
Since we have not yet developed the rules for the proposed “high-level handbook”, we want to provide you with basic rules that you can use. These rules, while unofficial, are compatible with the rules we intend eventually to publish. Or course, you can run 21st-level play however you like. These rules represent our best guidelines.
Basic Rules Concepts
1 Improvement per level slows down: If you don’t decrease benefits per level, characters became hard to use. In 1973, D&D was designed to work up about 10th-level. The new edition takes pains to make the game work more smoothly up to 20th level. Simply extrapolating the classes past 20th level, however, can give you problems.
2 Levels past 20th scale infinitely: The 21+ rules don’t have a natural cap the way the Player’s Handbook rules do.
3 No level charts: Past 20th level, you don’t look up your abilities based on your character or class level. If we charted features by level, we wouldn’t be able to scale infinitely.
4 Scale XP normally: As with levels 1 to 20, the number of extra XP you need to go from one level to the next equals your current level times 1,000 XP. (We won’t however, be printing an XP table for levels 21 to 10,000,000,000. Figure it out yourself.)
At each level past 20th, you gain one benefit of your choice. The four basic benefits are:
Increased Ability Score: Add +1 to any ability score. Since this benefit is available at every level, you no longer gain +1 to an ability score automatically every four character levels.
Increased Attacks: Add +1 to all attacks. This increase does not give you additional iterative attacks (as increases to base attack bonus do).
Increased Spellcasting: You gain the ability to cast a spell one level higher than your highest level spell (which might allow you a bonus spell of that level, as well). You have to already be casting spells that are the highest level for your class in order to take this benefit. You fill these higher-level spells slots either with metamagicked spells or simply with lower-level spells. Thus a 21st-level wizard can a 10th -level spell slot. (If she has an Intelligence 20 or higher, she gains a bonus 10th-level spell, giving her two per day). She can fill these slots with spells of any level or with (for example) an empowered (+2), maximized (+3), quickened (+4) magic missile. Such spells deals about 33 damage as a free action.
Increased Class Features: Gain the skill points and class features one level higher than your current effective class level. For example, when an 11th-level wizard/9th-level fighter achieves 21st-level, she can select “increased class features” as her benefit for that level. With that benefit, she could gain the skill points and improved spell progression of a 12th-level wizard. The “increased class features”, however, doesn’t give you increased saves, increased attack bonus, ability increases, or feats. Classes, however, only go to the 20th level, so you can’t use this benefit to increase your effective class level to 21 or higher. Note: A single-classed character can’t use this benefit. The “increased class features” benefits allows a multiclassed character to get class features all the way up to 20th level in each class.
Other Level Benefits
The design team isn’t finalizing other benefits yet, but we intend that the high-level handbook will include lots of other benefits. Other benefits could include:
+1 to all saves
+20 hit points
+10 skill points (spent as any class you have)
Gain two feats (replacing the automatic feat per three levels)
+1 DC on all class features (including spell saves)
10 levels of new spells known (great for sorcerers)
Create or enhance an artifact or signature magic item
The high-level handbook probably will also include powerful feats (including new metamagic feats) to give high-level characters more options.
The Dungeon Master’s Guide tells you the average value of an NPC’s gear by level. This chart scales up with levels the same way past 20th.
Level Gear GP
High-level characters tend to have fewer items, each of which is more powerful. For example, a cloak of perfection could have the following powers: +10 armor (force); +5 resistance, deflection, and natural armor; +6 to each ability; SR 21; and damage reduction 5/+5. Its value would be a mere 1,114,000gp, about a tenth of what a 35th-level NPC would have.
Very high-level characters may also have resources other than gear. For example, in the Forgotten Realms, the Simbul rules a kingdom. These resources can have a least a nominal value to balance against other resources.
And that’s it.
I wonder what kind of system we would’ve got with that approach. I can’t help myself but to think that Tweet was right on the spot with such guidelines. THAT was what the Epic Level Handbook should’ve been: a more intuitive, versatile and customizable high-level system; with rules for “buying” kingdoms, organizations and other major structures (this last bit reminds me of the old stronghold rules of D&D). It seems to me to be a lot easier to create new epic benefits than to correct the official rules. Unfortunately, I didn’t have the chance (yet) to test Tweet’s epic system.
Even if you don’t liked the system above, I think it is a fine piece of the D&D’s history.
Finally, due to this post’s theme, I also would like to mention two other options for epic play that I’m aware.
The first is the alternate system of the Advanced Player’s Guide for D&D 3.5, from the Sword & Sorcery Studios. It advances all the base classes to the 30th level, with new mechanical benefits.
The second option isn’t really about a high-level system: Epic Destinies for 3.5 Edition*. I know this may sound a little odd, but I enjoyed them a lot more than the final Epic Destiny for the 4th Edition (where these mechanics seem too uniform and insipid). The article suggestion to use such rules for characters between levels 12th-21st also offers an excellent option for those who don’t wish to play beyond the 20th level limit.
*Wizards of the Coast site surely is the result of some tanar’ri plot. The thing is a complete mess and all links to the Epic Destiny article for 3.5 let you at the front page. I have a saved copy with me, if any of you are interested, just leave a message.