This month sees the release of our first printed adventure at the epic tier: E1 Death's Reach:
Powerful entities threaten reality’s foundation as they seek to usurp the Raven Queen’s position. To prevent this cosmic coup, adventurers must enter the Shadowfell’s timeless core, where all things find their end.
Death's Reach continues our adventure series that began all the way back with H1 Keep on the Shadowfell—for a great many players, their very first adventure within 4th Edition. E1 continues that series, now at the epic level. Alternatively, E1 also stands alone as a self-contained adventure in its own right.
In today's Use This Book Tonight, we explore a third option: using E1 as a starting point for a new, epic campaign. While a majority of players start their campaigns at 1st level, or at least in the heroic tier, there's no reason why you couldn't start your campaign in the epic tier—in fact, there's plenty of incentive to do so!
For Players: Why Start with Epic?
New campaigns often begin at the heroic tier, with characters entering the world at 1st level. Even then, 1st level warlocks, wardens, and the like are already considered heroes by nature, whether through their natural talent, skills, or simply career choice—namely, braving a dangerous world in search of wealth and experience. Yet while these characters are a step above common folk, they are still just starting out, barely on their way to becoming the stuff of legend.
If you're the type of gamer who prefers to jump right into the deep end—to start off not merely as a hero but as a legend already—then the epic tier may be the place for you. If you haven't yet experienced epic play (21st to 30th level), it's where "characters have truly superheroic capabilities, and their deeds and adventures are the stuff of legend. Ordinary people can hardly dream of such heights of power" (from the DMG, pg. 146).
At the epic tier, your powers are far greater, while the challenges you face and rewards you win are commensurately greater as well. Not everyone wishes to start out with a 1st level character, cutting their teeth against the likes of kobolds and dire rats. If you prefer the high-level game, then we recommend starting at epic, where you'll face the likes of death knights, dracoliches, a death emperor beholder—perhaps even an aspect of Orcus. Traps become endless falls, voids, and stasis vaults. And your challenges become taking counsel with the very goddess of death, charged with recovering the stolen souls of the fallen!
Endless Fall (F)
Level 23 Obstacle
Creatures that fall into this pit blink out of existence.
Trap: The forces of this pocket dimension pummel a character each round until he or she escapes.
No check is needed to see that this pit seems to descend indefinitely.
Additional Skill: Arcana
When a creature enters or starts its turn in a pit square (or the pocket dimension to which the trap sends its victims), the trap attacks.
Opportunity Action Melee
Targets: Each creature in a trapped square or in the pocket dimension
Attack: +26 vs. Reflex
Hit: 3d12 + 6 force damage. If in a trapped square, the target is also transported to a null space bounded by impenetrable black force.
Miss: Half damage.
In 4th Edition, mechanics are as sound at epic as they are at the heroic tier; add to that, D&DI subscribers with access to the Character Builder can create epic tier characters as readily as they can 1st level PCs.
That said, here are some points to consider when building an epic character using the Character Builder. It's possible to generate a 1st-level PC and gradually build him or her up, level by level, but that's not the most efficient or the most effective approach. Instead, start with 1st-level character to make your basic choices, then select "Level Up" and jump directly to your desired epic level. That lets you choose epic-tier powers and feats first, and work down through levels instead of up (you might need to jump around a bit to make sure you have certain prerequisites). The Character Builder also allows you to set your starting wealth at the appropriate level; while there's no need to buy special items or gear specifically tailored for this adventure (as there's a broad enough spread of opponents), at epic level you should certainly have sufficient magic items for your character.
For DMs: Why Start with Epic?
If you're prepared to start your campaign in the epic tier, E1 kicks off a series of three adventures that take characters to multiple extraplanar locales to defend creation itself against the ascension of Orcus. (We warned you—epic challenges would be just that!) Gods are involved and ancient forces are awakened, some as old as time itself. Although the action takes place in fantastic locations outside the normal world, the fate of any creature that can die is ultimately at stake.
It starts with a call to action from the very goddess of death herself, the Raven Queen….
When players are creating new characters for this campaign, you as the DM might help direct and encourage them toward any of the hooks in E1's introduction. Most of these hooks involve the character's potential epic destinies, an important mechanic of the epic tier. If you haven't yet explored this facet of the game, epic destinies are chosen at 21st level, similar to how paragon paths are chosen at 11th level. Yet "unlike paragon paths, epic destinies are not extensions of your class. Instead they offer extraordinary abilities that represent your journey toward your ultimate fate… as you define it" (PH pg. 53).
One option to help direct new party creation would be a cohesive group of characters that take on the task—a group that has accomplished much already but whose members ultimately have separate destinies. Part of the fun for you as DM is creating a history and setting for these characters, playing up the different epic destinies each one seeks and how the overall party can support these disparate goals. In Chris Sims's campaign, for example, the PCs had established their very own point of light. This made it easy for them to be found… and also gave them a bigger stake in the fate of the world, as some of those who might be lost were their own wards.
To keep things cohesive, though, the party’s story should give each character a stake in this endgame. Perhaps these characters are already beholden to the Raven Queen or are her worshipers.
Alternatively, each player might create a character from a differing region of the world. Each character is the greatest among his or her people, having risen to heights of power and influence nearly unimaginable to a normal person. The Raven Queen’s messengers seek out these mighty champions from across the world, bringing them together to face the rising threat of Orcus’s plots. This scenario can allow disparate destinies among the PCs to create friction as each one seeks his or her own form of immortality. As long as the players can make this friction work within their party, that’s fine.
The theme of E1 and related future adventures is also about the fate of the characters involved, as their epic destinies push them forward onto the paths of myth and legend. The Raven Queen has authority over fate, and the PCs must earn her leave to reach their place among the greatest beings the universe has ever known.
Further Epic Options
Of course, not every campaign need start at 1st level or straight away at epic. As we suggested with Dungeon Delve, there's always the option to use E1 as a standalone adventure outside of an otherwise ongoing campaign—as a change of pace or for a new DM to take part behind the screen.
If you play E1 outside the context of your normal campaign, the PCs in that campaign can suffer or benefit from the consequences brought to the world because of the success or failure of these epic characters. In fact, a whole campaign could be based on one or more of possibilities that can befall the world if the epic characters fail. For further campaign options, Chris Youngs's recent editorial covered this very topic.
If played within the context of a normal campaign, it’s also possible that the gods grant the PCs increased power in order to face the coming storm. Perhaps the characters are elevated to epic level and given a taste of it, only to have the divine power removed from them when their task is done. Even so, those who succeed might find having the gods in their debt has unforeseen benefits and challenges.