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epic level handbook | judgement
Epic Level Handbook (2002)
During the 2nd Edition Dark Ages, TSR released the High Level Campaigns Sourcebook. I found it generally flawed in concept and outlook, though it did present some interesting ideas which eventually found their way into 3rd Edition D&D.
This book is Wizards of the Coasts indirect update of the High Level Campaigns Sourcebook.
First impressions are that weighing in at 320 pages the book is indeed epic in scope. However it should be noted that the text is less densely packed than either the core rulebooks or Deities & Demigods. The cover is unfortunately one of those which can’t decide if its a mock tome cover or an illustration. Nothing about the cover screams ‘epic’.
Chapter One sends us straight into the mechanics for levels above 20th. The two primary changes are that saving throws level off for all classes and that base attack bonus does the same. The former idea has some merit, however the latter idea is potentially flawed.
The class levels are extended indefinitely, albeit in a generic fashion. Personally this is the only way it could have been done, though it would have been nice to see actual extended progression for some of the classes; obviously there would be no point outlining the cleric, fighter, sorcerer or wizard classes up to 50th-level, but some of the others could have benefited from the added flavour, like the barbarian, bard or monk.
Nine new epic prestige classes follow. Personally I felt the lack of illustrations hurt this section somewhat as we don’t get a good visual picture of the classes. Though the prestige classes themselves are suitably powerful and mechanically pretty good.
The next section covers epic skills. Unfortunately most would have been better covered with epic feats since you don’t really want to wait until your monk character gets to 80th level before they can balance on clouds when a Wizard can do that by 3rd level. So it sort of makes this section obsolete.
A large portion of this chapter is devoted to the new epic feats. Many are functional extrapolations of existing feats or class abilities. Few really stand out as being epic in flavour, but they are generally well balanced.
Chapter Two delves into epic magic with almost 50 epic spells and a completely new system for developing such spells. The system itself is very flexible, though I have wondered why they didn’t just use meta-magic to flesh out epic spells, given that the system is already in place and gels perfectly with regular magic.
The sample spells do a good job of showing off the system, but while there are some interesting spells in there, you never get the impression that they tried thinking outside established parameters.
So does it really offer anything new, or does it merely extend the goalposts. Either way I think credit is due for creating such an ambitious spell system.
Chapter Three outlines some advice for epic campaigns. This chapter is fairly brief but it does include a few interesting ideas and suggestions. However it does fail to properly address some fundamental problems with epic gaming, or to be more specific, challenge ratings and encounter levels.
Chapter Four gives us epic magic items. This begins with some new rules for creating epic magic items; these more or less multiply the costs by ten, although XP costs are themselves quartered. I agree with the cost policy, in that epic items should be differentiated and thus far less common.
The actual magic items themselves flatter to deceive. There are four new armour abilities masquerading as fourteen; five new weapon abilities disguised as twelve, eight new rings made to look like twenty-five and ten wondrous items pretending to be forty wondrous items. Inventive abilities are few and far between, though I did like the Ever-dancing weapon ability, the Bulwark of the Great Dragon shields and the Wyrm rods. The section on staves was actually more interesting, though predictable. The wondrous items seem to have no thought invested in them whatsoever. We then get some material on Intelligent Items, most of which is reprinted from the Dungeon Masters Guide, although extended to include Awesome Powers. The chapter ends with some examples of classic D&D artifacts. Unfortunately these are all underwhelming, not to mention underpowered when contrasted against the majority of epic items.
Editors Note: Dragon magazine #297 has a fantastic article on (real world) epic artifacts that’s vastly superior.
Chapter Five unleashes epic monsters upon your campaign. In trying to cover all bases, some are inevitably derivative: Primal Elementals, Elder Titans and Treants. There were also a few duplicated monsters: Lavawight/Winterwight, Shape of Fire/Shadow of the Void.
It was nice to see the return of some OD&D monsters, namely the Blackballs and Proteans. Though I did miss updates for some of the more powerful 2nd Edition monsters like Adamantite Dragons, Baernoloths and Tuen’Rin among others.
One questionable aspect for some of the monsters is the erratic allocation of ability scores and base damage. The colossal Xixecal deals 2d8 base claw damage while the ‘merely’ huge Behemoth Gorilla deals 4d8 base claw damage. The colossal Ha-Naga has a strength score of 27, while the Sirrush (basically a big scary dog) has, for some reason, an intelligence score of 40.
However, overall I think this is a good chapter, in fact probably the best of the book. The various Abominations are inspired, and there were enough interesting monsters (and templates) to make this chapter a success.
Chapter Six opens with some epic organisations. I think, as with the epic prestige classes, the lack of illustrations for this section does hurt it somewhat. The organisations themselves were a mixed bag, but I thought both the Garrotte and the Godkissed were useful and intriguing respectively. It was curious that very few of the organisation leaders were over 30th-level though.
After this we are drawn to the city of Union, an epic setting. Comparisons with Sigil are unavoidable, and unfavourable. But take into account Planescape was spread over half a dozen or more boxed sets whereas here the designers only had twenty pages or so to play with. Personally I don’t really see the point to Union though, given that it ostensibly covers the same ground as Sigil. I would have preferred the City of Brass, Tu’narath or Ilkkool Krem to be detailed (all three are mentioned in a sidebar), or even all three given a dozen pages or so would have been of more interest and benefit.
Some adventures follow, although in reading them they didn’t overwhelm me as being epic, probably because they target the lowest common denominator (low-mid 20th-level characters).
Editors Note: Dungeon magazine #97 has a much superior adventure called The Storm Lords Keep.
I think they would have served themselves better by reworking an established high level adventure such as Baba Yaga’s Hut or Queen of the Demonweb Pits.
Appendix One provides us with updated stats for eleven of the Forgotten Realms most powerful characters. Predictably Elminster leads the way, even though alphabetically he is not first.
Appendix Two gives us four Greyhawk characters. For some reason I found these much more satisfying and interesting. Perhaps because the characters themselves didn’t need to resort to multiple classes (every FR character has between 2-5 classes).
It would have been nice to see some stats for Conan, Baba Yaga, Cu Chulainn, Elric, Gandalf, Gilgamesh, Hiawatha or a few of the others also mentioned at the start of the books introduction. Especially in place of the Forgotten Realms characters who were pretty much just reprinted from the Forgotten Realms Campaign Sourcebook and ‘tweaked’ slightly.
Appendix Three gives us basic NPC tables for every major class from levels 21 to 30. This proved to be a very useful addition indeed.
It would have been nice to have seen some PC stats based on the iconic characters in the book.
It’s also notable that very few of the NPC characters within the three appendices have any epic items at all.
The art throughout the book is fairly good. Wayne Reynolds just about steals the show from Brian Despain (who has criminally too few illustrations in this book for such an amazing artist). One nice touch is the myriad vignettes throughout the book which feature the epic iconic characters illustrated at the front of the book in various situations. Other pieces of note include Brom’s Atropal and Marc Sasso’s Epic Blackguard.
In conclusion, the word that inevitably springs to mind is not epic, but rather average. The book covered the basics of epic level play well enough but rarely ever astounded. The good work done in the monster chapter was undone by the poor quality of the magic items chapter. The rest of the book was similarly hit and miss. Throughout it all though, the book never gives you a sense of what it means to be epic in anything other than name, and that is its greatest failure.
Unless stated otherwise, all content © 2001-2006 Craig Cochrane. All rights reserved.