I Want to Move Mountains

  • Posted on: February 20, 2012
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I have not said much about what I want to see from the next iteration of D&D. I’m pretty content to wait and see a little more info for the most part (my opinion most of the time seems to match the masses anyway it seems), but I was struck with an idea tonight and thought I would post it here. What follows is just an idea. It could be bad, it may not even make sense (it’s 2am now), but it is what it is – something I think would be cool.

Back when I was a kid, we played using the Rules Cyclopedia. When we made characters, our goals were Immortality. Yes, for those unfamiliar there were rules for attaining Immortality and even what to do once you got there!

Wrath of the Immortals - Jeff Easley

There were 4 “paths” to Immortality. They mentioned things like tracking down and bringing about the “permanent destruction of an artifact of the Sphere of Entropy”, which was one part of the “Epic Hero” path. The “Dynast” path contained the task that the character “must found a dynasty” and that it must be ruled by the character and his/her descendants for at least 20 years. If that sounds like a long time, don’t worry because another aspect of this is that the character must find an artifact that allows time travel and use it to ensure that in three different periods in the future, they his/her descendants retain their kingdoms and perpetuate the dynasty.

In today’s “L&L” article, “The Challenge of High Level Play” by Monte Cook, he talks about (primarily) the “breakdown” in high level play that some experience (perceived or not). However, it was something in one of the polls that got me thinking about this high level play even more. One of them essentially asked if you thought “High level is just low level with bigger numbers“. I immediately thought, “it seems like it to me now, but I don’t want it to be”.

Ascend or die.

As a hero, or a hero in the making, I used to think of my characters’ life as a window of opportunity for greatness that was steadily closing and if I was not quick enough, I could miss my shot at greatness. I was either going to make my mark on this world so that future characters of mine (and other players) would always remember him, or I was going to damn well die trying. Don’t get me wrong, there was more to it than something as noble as that sounds… I also wanted the power of Immortality. I wanted a taste of the power that was moving the chess pieces of this world within which I lived.

Back then our characters were just vessels. They were a means to an end, and we quickly discarded them if we had the chance to ascend to Godhood or Immortality. I want this again.

Fearing the unknown

Considering the proposed modularity of the next iteration of D&D, I feel like we have a great opportunity to bring back some of this feel. The separation of the very powerful from mere mortals is something that (in my opinion) requires a separation of rules. The Gods do not play by the same rules as mortals, so why should they have the same character sheets.

Lady of Pain - Tony DiTerlizzi

Back in 2001 or so, I interviewed David “Zeb” Cook (of Planescape fame, among other things). In the interview, I asked him if he thought WotC might ever release anything about the Lady of Pain – her stat block for example. His answer was…

…While I can’t predict what WotC might do, I’ll hazard a guess — nothing. Certainly if it were my choice that’s the way it would be. The point about the Lady of Pain is that she isn’t really anything (except maybe an convenient embodiment of DM law) which lets her be anything. The minute something gets quantified, it loses it’s “reality” and becomes nothing but a game mechanic…

He was exactly right. As soon as we quantify a being of such power, you loose the sense of power all together. I don’t even care if her hit points (for example) were in the tens of thousands, it still would indicate that she is just like us – only it would take many more swings of a sword to hurt her. The less you know about her, the more powerful she becomes.

Of course, in order to PLAY such a powerful character, we sometimes need to quantify things…

Shed your skin… or character sheet

As all of this was coming to me, I started blurting out some thoughts on Twitter and by the time I was done, I decided I should write it out here. Let me put my first five tweets on the subject together to give you a feel for my idea…

Maybe at “epic” lvl, you make a new char using “epic” char creation rules w/your current char as a theme for the new one… So essentially, you could trade your character in for a theme in the “epic” character creation rules… Ex: I have a lvl 23 Juggernaut Warrior… which in the “epic” rules means I could trade him in for the “Storm Colossus” theme… You make your “epic” character using new rules and powers, and leave your old character (sheet) behind for a theme… There could be multiple themes available based on your class and some other pre-met requirements, and even some with no req’s.

Something like this could be easy to do in a modular environment. There could be an “Immortality” set of books (or a boxed set) that allows for these kinds of things. You could play without them and level up to 30 with all of the power that goes along with it, or grab this set and take that step to Immortality. Working on your path to Immortality could begin at any time, as long as it was clear what that entailed. For example, it could be that at level 14 you discover the path, and by level 26 your plans are finally completed. Maybe it takes less time – maybe you discover what your path will be at level 22 and complete it by level 28.

Once completed, you would then be ready to shed your mortal skin and leave this world behind. Not only could this be done symbolically in-game, but mechanically you could move into a new set of rules entirely. As my tweets mentioned, your character sheet could (for example) be used as a resource, allowing you to trade it in for a theme when creating your new character. This not only demonstrates a transfer of the personality of your “soul” from its mortal shell to its Immortal version, but it is helps ground it mechanically as well. This is a new being, but there is a connection to its past.

This idea also reminded me of an idea Monte Cook had put out when discussing having too many powers at later levels. The idea that you could trade in some powers for a more powerful power of a higher level. In this case you would be trading in a whole suite of powers/feats/skills for something much more powerful, but much less complex – a new base from which to build upon in the Immortal realm.

I am more than you, mortal

In my opinion, without separating the rules you can not effectively demonstrate the difference between playing a mortal and playing a God without ratcheting up numbers. I don’t want my Warrior to just get stronger. I want him to shed the “Strength” attribute entirely. As I said in another tweet later…

Strength? That means nothing compared to my “Presense”, which alone can move mountains… etc

by Lin Wenjun

by Lin Wenjun

It could seem strange that you might trade in your powerful warrior, a character who has some 20 abilities and powers, who has a sword that slays dragons, for a new character with 5 abilities (for example). After all, we would immediately stand our new being next to our previous Warrior and compare their power… But again, the rules would be different now…

…Most of those warrior abilities were about spitting out a ton of damage, but that means nothing compared to having a “Manipulation” power (for example) that allows you to alter the reality around you to various degrees… throwing hills with a flick of the wrist, or smashing bridges with a gaze… that’s ONE ability!

…What is all that “mortal” Armor Class when I now have a damage resistance of 200/mortal?

…What is that Strength of 25, when my strength is measured in how many mountains I can move?

…The Warrior conquered the Black Tower in a day and attained a powerful staff that shoots Fireballs? I’ve attracted 2,000 new followers in that time! Their chants echo through my halls rejuvenating me! When Za’Uradk, the Black Mane, came to my temple on a mission to slay my aspects and claim my power for his own, it was the voices of these followers that empowered me to slay 300 of his minions with one swing from my blade – a blade that would take your life if you looked upon it.

A few other ways to look at this…

…You have “experience” you earn? I have a “mortal connection” I want to deplete/disconnect from (which has mechanical consequences).

…You have “hit points” you want to protect? I have a “following” I NEED to maintain (which could also have mechanical consequences).

…You worry about “death”? I worry about being “forgotten” (again, this could also have mechanical consequences).

Conclusion

Obviously it could be argued that there is a difference between “high-level” play, and playing a God or Immortal. In fact, high-level play could (to you) mean level 20 or it could mean all the way to the end (level 30 for example). This article was meant to address an idea of making a distinction between the regular progression you see from level 1 up, and moving beyond that to something more powerful (and in my opinion, more meaningful) at some point near the end. Whether that actually means you are referred to as a God, an Immortal, or just a very powerful mortal is not as much of a concern for me. Rather, I think there should be a means (even if optional via a module) to break out of the “mortal” mold that helps illustrate what our characters are from a mechanical standpoint.

I don’t want my “epic” level/tier character sheet to look anything like my “mortal” character sheet. I want to move beyond the rules I had to play within up to that point. I don’t want to fight for me anymore, I want to fight for my following. I want to fight for my place in the stars/heavens/worlds. The rules used while “leveling” up to that point can’t handle the rules needed to meet these new goals. Rules attempting to make “Godlike” play work within that same environment would have to be hamstrung in order to maintain balance.

Don’t get me wrong, balance is great, but it is not needed (nor does it make sense) when comparing mortals to Gods/Immortals.

Thanks for reading!

Follow me on Twitter @theweem!

Discuss this at wizards.com: http://community.wizards.com/go/thread/view/75882/28981565/True_Epic_Level

NOTE: It’s almost 2am here and I am pretty tired. I’m hoping that this post was coherent enough that it made sense for the most part. This was primarily a post allowing me to pour out some excitement about some things I would like to see in D&D “Next”, which was good for me – I don’t do this often enough any more.

9 Comments

  1. Magician · February 20, 2012 Reply

    I agree that epic level/godhood/immortality should be about different things and operate at a different scale than the regular “mortal” D&D. But what you’re describing is basically ditching D&D altogether and using some other system once you reach this point in your story. Which is a cool approach and would make for a great conclusion to the campaign, but most likely won’t be in D&DNext because, well, it’s not D&D.
    Without taking things that far, you can add sub-systems to your game when the characters reach particular points. E.g. founding their own city with all that entails (I’ve used company rules from Reign for this purpose, and they work ok). While the characters may still gain levels and improve their AC, the advancement they really care about happens on the city sheet.

  2. LonePaladin · February 20, 2012 Reply

    I’m with you on this one. If they don’t make a move along these lines, I’ll be more than happy to help you write it.

  3. Thorynn · February 20, 2012 Reply

    Very cool, man! It reminds me of the old Forgotten Realms Time of Troubles novels. They started as mortals, but as most of the main characters became gods, they changed significantly. Sounds like an awesome game system all unto itself!

  4. Rhetorical Gamer · February 20, 2012 Reply

    Great post. I miss the old Immortals set sometimes. I pulled it out of the closet a while ago and thumbed through it just for kicks.

    It’s an interesting idea but I think I agree with Magician… I doubt it will make (at least early on) D&D Next because it changes the fundamental assumptions of D&D too much at a time when the designers are hearkening back to the old school experience a little more (or so it seems).

  5. Scott · February 20, 2012 Reply

    Have you seen the Primal Order (Wizards 1st RPG product)? It could use updating but had the essential idea of a new set of rules for the ‘gods’. The additional power allowed them to bypass or completely override any mortal concerns. It was inspirational at the time and I still go back and read them every couple of years.

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Primal_Order

  6. Jeremy · February 20, 2012 Reply

    Very, very interesting post. I thought that one of the impressive things about 4e was how they took the same mechanical system and made it work (reasonably well) across 30 levels. 3e took more of the “new rules” approach, albeit badly, because they still tried to ape the old system.

    Still, as Magician says, you’re basically talking about an officially-sanctioned port to a new game, set in a similar setting. It’s neat, but you’re inherently doing some radically different things, and you need radically different challenges.

    I like the idea of having “somewhere to go”, letting you keep beloved characters in play longer. But by the same token, is it meaningful to transform them so utterly? I think different people’s mileage will vary.

    Which of course means that this makes for an excellent optional module!

  7. AnExtendedRest · February 20, 2012 Reply

    Love the sweeping ideas of this form of epic tier play. It is one thing to just have an escalation in the game and this is more of a transformation into a completely different game. Something beautiful and terrifying.

    As a module setting to give an option if you want your character to embark on this kind of ridiculous and over the top adventure would be super cool and I could see a special rule set fitting the bill well. Even if it was only a third party project, I’d buy the heck out of it.

  8. James Bryant · February 21, 2012 Reply

    Ok now you have made me want to play Scion. I really like your idea if it is done right it could be fantastic.

  9. Micah Blackburn · September 30, 2012 Reply

    I think this is an awesome, if somewhat unworkable, idea. It’s not that it couldn’t be done, but as mentioned above, I think it would be a new game entirely.

    Not that that wouldn’t be cool.

    I guess also it questions one of the tropes of DND…can a mortal challenge a god? In most versions of DND, the answer is Yes. This fits with mythology and a lot of fantasy fiction (though not all of course).

    That being said, I agree, I’d rather see epic games be about more than bigger numbers. I want an epic fighter to not get just an extra cleave, or bonus die of damage, but I want him to slay 50 men with one blow, or leap over a hill/mountain to reach the enemy army on the other side. I want them to be mythic, and I think that context is lost when ‘epic’ just means bigger numbers.

    That being said, I’d love to play the game you are describing above… ;)

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