Wednesday, June 16, 2010

Go Epic or Go Home

I have areally mixed responses to Epic Destinies in 4e. Some of them are genuinely fantastic, dripping with flavor and promise, while others are more disappointing. Sometimes it's a mismatch between the flavor and the rules, sometimes it's just a concept that falls a little flat. Whatever the cause, I find them interesting to look at.

To my mind, you can spot the really good ones by their immortality blurb. A lot of the dull ones have some variant on "And then you vanish from the world" but the really exciting ones have something concrete and playable in that blurb. The War Master, for example, goes out in one, huge, impossible fight (win or lose). Eberron's Mourning Saviour exits the game and lifts the curse on the Mournlands. These are the ways stories should end[1] and, perhaps more importantly, they feel genuinely epic.

In contrast, mechanics don't tell you much. Epic Destiny abilities tend to be pretty good, good enough to get excited about, but their scope is rarely any broader than the powers you got at first level. That is, to me, pretty jarring, but it's a symptom of my recurring friction with 4e - a disconnect between the color and the rules. And knowing that, I'm actually pretty chill about it, but it does leave me pondering ways to mix it up a little.

There's a lovely game of postmodern urban fantasy, conspiracy and general grittiness called Unknown Armies which offers some inspiration. Part of its premise is that there is an "invisible choir"[2] composed of a set of archetypes (war, sex, the messenger, plague, greed and so on) which people can embrace to gain power. If you commit yourself fully to one of these archetypes, you can ascend and join the choir, becoming the archetype and taking that seat at the big cosmic table. But there's only one seat per archetype, so people fight pretty hard to be the one to put dibs on it.

But there's one more catch. There are only so many seats at the table (or so they say) and once they all get filled, the universe is finished. Everything gets tidily wiped clean and something new begins, something whose qualities and nature are shaped by the collection of archetypes.

So what would it do to your game if those archetypes and seats at the table corresponded to Epic Destinies? What if there could only ever be one Diamond Soul or Lorekeeper?[3] And if all the slots are ever filled, a new universe is born (with the role of the ascended folks an open question - are they the gods of this new universe?)

Right off the bat, while you could make this incorporate every epic destiny, I don't think you'd want to. Some epic destinies (like the Mournland Purifier) already have incredibly strong stories of their own, and others (like Demigods) draw their power from the current status quo, so would not necessarily be forces of disruption. The question of "which destinies" can make for an important part of the whole structure because, in addition to the people you'd fight with for ascension, there are plenty of folks with a vested interest in THIS universe who might object to things being redone.[4] Knowing which destinies are a threat to the universe means knowing which people to go after.

In my mind, the list of actual archetype slots ends up looking something like the major arcana of a tarot deck (or a deck of many things). Hell, there might even be an actual deck, scattered across the cosmos, desperately hidden, cards traded in secret. It's the kind of thing gods kill for.

I'm going to keep this idea in my back pocket because I think it's just about the right size. While you could make it the basis for an epic campaign, I think it becomes even more interesting as a background element of an epic campaign; one of the big truths of the universe that unfolds in play. One of those things that illustrates that Epic Destinies are not just about a few extra cool powers, they're about everything.

1- Even something moderately dull, like the Diamond Soul's "Retreat into isolation and found a new psychic order" hands the player the opportunity to create something.

2 - Someone with more UA lore than I will be aware of details I'm getting wrong, but the point here is the idea.

3 - Or rather, only one at level 30 - there may be any number on the 21-29 slope.

4- Though others might think that much that is wrong with this universe (like abberant invasions) comes from it not being "reset" properly, while others might feel they could survive a rewrite, especially if they have an ally among the archetypes. It makes for a lot of interesting axes of conflict that may have little or nothing to do with good/evil.

5 - And, randomly, if you've ever read Will Shetterly's "
Cat's Have No Lord", there's a setup like this which might suggest a plot or two. Also, it includes an acknowledged Princess Bride ripoff, and is the reason I love the term "Sword Dancer".


  1. +1 Great way to revitalize Epic Destines, and a nice nod to UA

  2. If ever I were to see a 4E campaign into it's epic years, THIS is what I'd want to be struggling over. Very cool.

  3. Like this a lot. Another good suggestion regarding 4e - keep 'em coming.

  4. A LARP named From Light to Darkness had this concept in spades: there were two sets of 8 musical chairs that let characters shape the next Age in various ways. It's a powerful concept!

    And in a straight-up D&D game, Brad came up with someone who had decided to be a demigod as his epic destiny, and his character sounded so insufferably arrogant that I naturally had to play his ex-wife who was determined to prevent him from becoming a god. "You do NOT deserve to be a god, you JERK." We haven't even started play and we're already having tension over his epic destiny? Awesome!

  5. @gretchen The wife thing is awesome, but my mind is now TRULY racing at the idea of musical chairs at the center of a LARP. Oh, Man.

  6. The Mourning Saviour is good because it's tied to a specific setting (people, place, events). If my players wanted to use some of the more boring destinies, I would definitely tie them to the campaign world in a significant way. I don't bear those bland EDs too much ill will for being generic - it's the nature of the beast.

    The choir idea is very cool, but I'd only use it if it were the focus or a major element in the story.

  7. @Goken I agree, but the balancing act in my mind is this - I would do this if all my players wanted in on it, and I would do it if only some of them wanted in on it, but if none of them did? To hell with it.

    -Rob D.

  8. As to disappearing from the world, I've always had a soft spot for the Chivalry & Sorcery alchemist who completes his Great Work and sometime later mysteriously vanishes from the world. I mean, after you have achieved that this world ends up being rather boring, so why not leave.

    On the note of epic level play, have you seen Lesser Shades of Evil, and more importantly, it's supplement Inklings of Power. Very evocative of the sort of epic destinies a legendary being* should have.

    Actually I think it is implicit in the 4E Immortality that there can only be one legendary destiny.

    The trivial example is the Mourning Saviour. After all, what's the second one going to say? "Sorry, I slept in. I'll now lift the... Hey, where did it go?"

    But consider the War Master. If there are two of them then who was the better one? Are they both the same? In which case no one knows if that individual was truly the ultimate Master of the art of War. Where is their supposed "immortality" now? [Except in endless pub arguments as to who was the better warrior, which would eventually be solved by a television series...]

    It's all part and parcel of the very player-centric nature of 4e. The party of player characters are the heroes, and the only ones that will be able to make it to the very end.**

    [* It's a game where you start out awesome and just improve.]

    [** Which is another reason I'm not a fan of 4E.]

  9. @Rev I don't know the game, but you pique my curiosity. I'll check RPGNOW.

    The problem with the immortality blurbs is that they're all over the place. Some of them (often the best ones) implicitly set it up so there can be only one, but others have different models (Avatars for example, seem to implicitly be the _current_ avatar) or no model at all (demigods).

    I think you _can_ serve most of them up on a purely player-centric plate, but you need to tweak things a little, and on some level this is just such a tweak.

  10. @Rob: Lesser Shades of Evil

    It's a rather mechanics-heavy rule system (a bit too much for modern sensibilities methinks), but I love the whole ambience and feel of the world that it embodies. To me it has a very Breakfast in the Ruins style, typified of the British New Wave SF. Although I may be reading that into it. You could just as easily run it in a more haunting gothic style, depending on your essential optimism. <grin>

    Oh, and the supplement was Inkings of Power. Mea culpa. [But I actually prefer my version...]

  11. 'Hell, there might even be an actual deck, scattered across the cosmos, desperately hidden, cards traded in secret.'

    In all things, Roger Zelazny precedes us. Or maybe Richard Garfield.

    I really like this idea. Though, in some ways, this also brings Epic Destinies even closer in touch with the Immortals from....whichever version of D&D had them; I'm unaware if it was 'Original' or 'Basic' or what.


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