Challenges for the Upper Tiers

Don’t Settle for Post Essentials Material, Bring the Heat

I haven’t played the epic tier…yet. I’m both dreading it and psyched for it. I’ve dipped pretty substantially into paragon though, and I can say that I agree with much of the online discussion as of late that the game scales pretty poorly. There are many things that contribute to the less challenging, yet more complex game in the upper tiers, and although I’ll mention team synergy as being, in my opinion, a primary cause for such deconstruction at those levels, I can’t begin to hypothesize or remonstrate all of the agents involved.

A related reference I would like to point out is a recent article by Mike Shea at titled “The Scaling Woes of 4th Edition Dungeons and Dragons.” In this article, Shea suggests that if one wants to stay ahead of the curve, one really shouldn’t even step foot in the upper tiers, and even then, one should only include content from Essentials onward. While I completely agree this would reduce the stress of players outmatching monsters and challenges, it isn’t really helpful for those who are still engaged with the idea of making the upper tier challenges viable. For that, Shea has written an entire book that exemplifies his savviness in dealing with epic juggernaut characters called Sly Flourish’s Running Epic Tier D&D Games, which I highly recommend. The thing I came away with from his article though was that surprisingly, 4e scales in such a way that makes the game effectively easier for players the higher level you are. I hadn’t thought of the system in this light before—I had always presumed I was doing something wrong as a DM in mid-paragon when I couldn’t challenge the players as much as when they were level 5. With numerous systematic examples, Shea shows how the complexity, the exponential growth, the versatility and the synergy that PCs gain in the upper tiers far outweighs the still-simplistic monsters of their level. He does, however, suggest that we wouldn’t want to see monsters that can actually perform better because we would see a stalemate at the table, prolonging battles, nullifying powers PCs are fond of, etc. I am not entirely sure I agree with this sentiment personally, though I can see that an overhaul to simplify the system is what he’s training at, and would indeed relieve the stress of an inverted level vs challenge scaling conundrum.

Another reference I would like to point out is Monte Cook’s Legends & Lore column, specifically some of his recent notions on complexity compared to level. As is a general suspicion in the D&D community, Cook seems to be asking big questions about the game in order to gather data for a future reboot of the system. A recent article by him, “A Different Way to Slice the Pie,” suggests that the game could be streamlined by aligning the complexity of rules to the level of an adventure. I am in full favor of this kind of structure as it helps categorize play style while overlapping with player experience. In many senses, this is already an attribute of the game, but the rising complexity is not necessarily exhibited from behind the screen but in the build of a player character; you don’t start a game with a newbie at higher levels because the monsters are harder or the traps are more complicated…you don’t start them at higher levels because there are too many options to consider when drawing up a character. Cook suggests that if the game is going to have a scale of complexity (which it already does through player generation), that complexity should increase across the board so that not only players gain a complicated portfolio of options at higher tiers, but the challenges they face match such sophistication.

Again, this is somewhat reflected in material that’s been designed so far (for instance, you don’t really see a creature that can petrify a player until upper heroic tier), but the power scaling begins to fall apart real fast in mid-paragon. It would be lovely if the system was built in the opposite way, where any adjustments to the challenges that need to be made are to make them more survivable, instead of adjustments to keep the players awake.

Regardless, those are my thoughts on the upper tiers of the game as I see it, and I am no fool to believe that it is a simple fix, or even if everyone out there believes the same as me. I do find that honing encounters and crafting threats is sometimes an enjoyable experience, so I see the adjustment of upper tier encounters as a challenge. Therefore, I’ve designed a few features myself that might give DMs out there a means to redeem their balors, titans, and ancient dragons.

Some Crunch for Challenging your Upper Tier Players:

First some advice and notes on the designs.

Don’t Go Total Defense. They’ve waited a long time to master Ancient Forgotten Magic or Opened the Fifth Gate of the Soul. Don’t give monsters immunity to the Fifth Gate of the Soul. But do give them a response. I had an idea once to craft resistance or immunity to all powers of a certain power source, like Spell Resistance from 3rd edition—I canceled that idea because I felt it was always nerfing and unrewarding. Instead, think about reflective damage for power sources, skill checks to bypass, or some other engaging option rather than strait up defense.

Fight Synergy with Synergy. One of the aspects of upper tier play is that PCs have so many feats and powers and items that at a certain point they realize that they can spare a few to optimize other team members instead of just themselves. This can lead to very very dangerous combinations, but it’s also something they should be rewarded for. However, PCs shouldn’t be the only creatures in the universe that have thought about working as a team. Add aspects to your monsters that make them more effective in ensemble—breaking apart that harmony can be a great goal to a combat encounter. The heroes can’t have their cake and eat it too in every combat.

They Have Amazing Power…Force Them to Use It. A staple of epic destinies is usually some form of power that returns a character from the dead. It’s hard enough to build an engaging combat that brings them to 0 hit points, but when most have the ability to reboot after such a rare instance, it’s time to pull out the stops. If your players have features that defy even the most fundamental rules, powers that put them in the seat of advantage without risk or any defined measure of limit, put them in situations that don’t just make those powers a useful utility, put them in situations that require such features.

Templates and Monster Themes. A long lost utility that DMs in 3rd edition had that were a nice little go-to for ramping up the threat was adding templates. There are similar utilities in 4e that apply blanket powers on top of your current monsters that not only add potency to their threat, but offer a great opportunity to link them into a thematic story. My regret is that Monster Themes aren’t really divided into level of threat, but they can still be used to bolster your baddies in nearly every encounter. Find or design a few thematically connecting extra powers and give them to all your creatures.

Superior Paragon Powers:

These powers can, and should, be dropped on any standard, elite or solo monsters in the paragon tier to keep PCs on their feet.

Superior Epic Powers:

These powers can, and should, be dropped on any standard, elite or solo monsters in the epic tier to engage and challenge them more. Consider combining these powers with the paragon powers above as well.

Superior Paragon Traits:

These traits can, and should, be dropped on any standard, elite or solo monsters in the paragon tier.

Superior Epic Traits:

These traits can, and should, be dropped on any standard, elite or solo monsters in the epic tier.

Brutal? Yes. Effective? Yes. As Chris Sims has advised before about challenging your epic tier players: “don’t hold back.” Each one of these powers and traits have a loop hole, and most of those loop holes involve powerful combinations or abilities players are already swinging around like Superman tosses missiles. It’s time to bring the heat. Let us know if you have a chance to use any of these, and how it goes!