Epic Levels

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To say characters of level 21 and higher have always proved problematic in D&D is akin to bemoaning the fact that rain is always so wet. No edition of D&D has managed to conquer the problems inherenet in high levels, and for most those problems start a lot earlier than level 21. It’s unsurprising to learn that Pathfinder is no exception to this rule. Very high level characters are extremely complex: so complex that the advice from Paizo is not to run them at all, and finish your campaign at level 20.

There are no comprehensive rules for level 21+ in Pathfinder, bar for a few brief guidelines in the Core Rules. Largely, these rules advise GMs to finish their campaigns as quickly as they can once their PCs pass 20th level. There’s a very good reason for this, as the maths behind third edition doesn’t really work at these high levels.

However, I have a party of characters that is marching quite solidly into the realm of Epic Characters and so I’ll need to have some rules and guidelines to cope with those chararacters. In this post, I intend to go through the Epic Rules that we have available and gather consensus on the best way to move forward. There are several options as we will see.

Advancement Tables

While the Core Rules presents guidelines on the XP needed to acquire insanely high levels, there isn’t actually an advancement table. So this is the Epic Level advancement table extrapolated out to 30th level. As you can see the amount of experience required to advance increases exponentially over these levels. Even on the fastest progression, you need 1.4 billion XP to reach 30th level!

Character Level Experience Point Total Feats Ability Score
Slow Medium Fast
21st 8,350,000 5,700,000 3,800,000 11th
22nd 14,350,000 9,900,000 6,600,000
23rd 26,350,000 18,300,000 12,200,000 12th
24th 50,350,000 35,100,000 23,400,000 6th
25th 98,350,000 68,700,000 45,800,000 13th
26th 194,350,000 135,900,000 90,600,000
27th 386,350,000 270,300,000 180,200,000 14th
28th 770,350,000 539,100,000 359,700,000 8th
29th 1,538,350,000 1,070,700,000 717,800,000 15th
30th 3,074,350,000 2,145,900,000 1,434,600,000

A new advancement table, also necessitates an expansion to the table of Challenge Ratings. Here is the Total XP awarded by encounter for challenges up to a CR of 35. That should be enough to keep even the highest level parties on their toes. I haven’t extrapolated out the rest of this table, as I won’t be using it when I calculate XP.

CR Total XP
26 2,457,600
27 3,276,800
28 4,915,200
29 6,553,600
30 9,830,400
31 13,107,200
32 19,660,800
33 26,214,400
34 39,321,600
35 52,428,800

And that inevitably leads to a new table for the amount of wealth a PC should acquire per experience level. Extrapolating this table out is more of an art than a science, although I think the following is generally in the spirit of the game:

PC Level Wealth
21 1,115,000 gp
22 1,405,000 gp
23 1,755,000 gp
24 2,165,000 gp
25 2,640,000 gp
26 3,190,000 gp
27 3,820,000 gp
28 4,453,000 gp
29 5,325,000 gp
30 6,215,000 gp

Armed with these tables, it’s easy to see how I can go on setting challenging encounters and rewarding PCs appropriately into the highest levels of the game. However: we can’t just soldier on beyond 20th level blindly. I might be able to give out the correct amount of Wealth per level, but there are no epic level magic items in Pathfinder as there were in third edition. PCs simply acquire more items that are of a diminishing relative level as they continue to advance. We need to be sensible.

It’s possible that when details of Mythic Items are properly released (I’ll cover the impending Mythic Rules in more depth below) that I’ll be able to tailor rewards more closely to the power level of PCs. In any event, the added wealth will allow PCs to create or commission more of the magic items they actually want, as well as being able to afford the things they’ve always wanted: such as a standing army, a floating castle or the world’s largest navy.

Here are some options, most of which come from published sources. Where a source offers various options of approaching epic levels, I’ll make it clear what my preferred option is. It’s possible, that we might use some or all of them to a degree – epic levels should be about choice above all things.

The 3.0 Epic Level Handbook

There are comprehensive rules for epic characters in the Epic Level Handbook (2002). These rules were updated to version 3.5 in the Dungeon Master’s Guide (2003). The 3.5 DMG managed to condense 320 pages of material into only 5. It is my great hope that we agree to ignore all the epic rules published in third edition.

It’s not because I don’t like the rules per se, but the fact is that they don’t fit in with Pathfinder. The rules for epic feats, epic magic items, epic spells and so are at odds with the approach Pathfinder takes to epic levels which is: characters continue to advance in much the same way and gain access to the sort abilties they’ve always had (just more of them).

Also, the bulk of the Epic Rules are two revisions removed from the third edition ruleset we’re going to be using. This creates issues. Some of the epic feats from the Epic Level Handbook were downgraded to regular feats in the 2003 update, and I have a feeling that eight years later there will be plenty of other material that either renders them obsolete or unbalanced.

The 3.5 version of the epic rules are online at the d20 SRD, so do remind yourselves of them. However, their general incompatibility with Pathfinder in regard to everything from skill DCs to saving throw progression to epic item creation feats makes it problematic to use anything from the book as it is printed. It works well as a GM guide for managing high level characters, but doesn’t work as well as a resource for players any more.

The Mythic Rules

Paizo have no intention of publishing a version of the Epic Level Handbook. Instead, in 2013 they are publishing a book called Mythic Adventures. If you want to get an idea of what these rules will entail, there’s a 54-page playtest document that you can download for free over at Paizo.com.

To briefly summarise: the mythic rules are designed for characters of all levels, not simply epic levels. In fact, they may be less suitable for epic level characters as they succeed in making characters even more complex. There are ten ranks of mythic power, and at each rank you gain extra abilities some of which improve the way your class works, and some of which are more utilitarian. These mythic ranks are gained in parallel with class levels. You don’t earn them by gaining experience points, you earn them by doing great deeds. So you could have a 20th level character with 1 mythic rank, or a 1st level character with 10 mythic ranks.

Obviously, Mythic characters are more powerful than your average adventurer, so there’s a lot of rules for balancing encounters and devising mythic villains for them to face. If I’m being honest, this is the first set of rules released for Pathfinder that I’ve been uttely baffled by. I can’t really see the point of them, as I can’t envisage that there’s any adventure that you must use the mythic rules to tell. Also, the “great deeds” characters are expected to perform read like an achievement or trophy guide for a games console which irks me a little.

The Mythic rules won’t offer us a solution to what to do after 20th level. But they do give us insight into the way Pathfinder wants to approach the game. They seem to be taking the view that there’s always been a great deal of cool things characters can do at high level, but very few players get to enjoy those perks as so few characters even reach those rarified heights. The mythic rules bring god-like power down to the small-town adventurer level and gives everyone an equal shot at world-changing glory.

You may not buy that, and I’m not at all sure that I do either. However, this is another example of Pathfinder’s reluctance to produce support for a part of the game that has been shown time-and-again not to work particularly well. I think at the very least the mythic rules will be useful in providing memorable adversaries and items for epic level characters. When we see them in their final form, they may spark more excitement from me.

Class Levels Beyond 20th

Now, we’re getting into what guidelines Pathfinder does offer for characters of level 21+. These rules, and most of what follows, are on the Pathfinder PRD if you want to see them whole-cloth. In regard to class advancement beyond 20th level, Pathfinder gives us two options:

1) Characters simply continue to advance as they did before. If it’s possible to extrapolate an advancement progression of class features then do so – e.g.  a fighter’s bonus feats, a monk’s AC bonus or a rogue’s sneak attack can continue to increase normally. If there is no obvious progression, such as cleric’s domains, the druid’s extra powers or the monk’s many powers then the class stops acquiring such powers at 20th level.

2) The highest published level in a character class is taken as a hard limit on class advancement. So you can’t progress any further than 20th level in a core class, or 10th level in most prestige classes. You can still go beyond 20th level, but you need to multiclass to do it. So if you have reached level 20 as a single-class monk then you’ll have to multiclass when you reach level 21.

My preference is for option two. It’s easier to manage, and there won’t be any disagreement about what constitutes the class’s epic progression. More importantly, character classes (especially in Pathfinder) are self contained units. Most have a capstone ability at 20th level that completes them. After you’ve reached 20th level as a monk, or a druid, or a fighter then there’s really nowhere else you can do. Yes, you can extrapolate some abilties and advancements, but you don’t get anything interesting after 20th level. You might as well pick a prestige class or another core class and start again.

This is not to say that certain class-defining features (e.g. arcane spellcasting) can’t continue to advance beyong level 20, you just have to pick the right class to move into. The wizard who reaches 20th level has nothing left to learn as a wizard, but instead he can become an archmage, or a Blackfire Adept, or an Arclord of Nex. That’s the approach that makes most sense to me.

I would add one small house rule to this: If a character has advanced to 20th level in his favoured class, then he can select another core class as his favoured class. I think that’s fair.

Base Attacks and Saving Throws Beyond 20th Level

A few things to mention here. The rules for way base attack bonuses and saving throws progress after 20th level are different in Pathfinder than in third edition, so pay attention!

Attacks per Round

First, let’s make something very clear. The one point that third edition and Pathfinder are agreed upon is that the number of attacks you have per round does not increase beyond four. A 20th level fighter attacks four times with a base bonus of +20/+15/+10/+5. No matter how high that base bonus goes, no additional attacks per round are gained.

Where Pathfinder differs from third edition is that if you still gain additional attacks per round as your base attack bonus rises to +20, even if you haven’t reached that bonus by 20th level. In third edition, there was a cut of point where if you hadn’t got your fourth (or third) attack per round by 20th level you never got it. Pathfinder is more forgiving here.

These rules also apply to class features that run off base attack bonuses. So at 20th level a Monk has a base attack progresson of +15/+10/+5 and a flurry of blows progression of +18/+18/+13/+13/+8/+8/+3. When the monk gains additional levels and gets another +1 to his base attack bonus he would have an extra (4th) regular attack per round. However, although the attack bonus with his flurry of blows also increases by +1 he will never get any more than seven attacks per round with this class feature.

Base Attacks

In third edition, characters of level 21+ had a standardised progression for base attack bonuses. Every class abandoned their original progression at level 20 and adopted the “epic attack bonus” scheme which was +1 to hit at every odd-numbered level after level twenty. Pathfinder doesn’t go in for that, it just says use the base attack progression of your chosen class instead.

Now the reason why third edition had this rule is obvious. The maths of third edition break down after 20th level. If base attack bonuses continued to increase at the same level then very soon fighters would be able to hit anything in the game by rolling a 2 or more on a d20, while wizards would need to roll a natural 20 hit anything. The disparity between the classes would inevitably increase. The theory was that while some disparity is necessary, too much is a bad thing. Therefore the rules fixed the gulf at the size it was at 20th level.

The reson why Pathfinder doesn’t bother with his is because the game doesn’t expect you to progress beyond 20th level very far. If you plan to wrap up the campaign by 23rd level at the latest (as the rules advise) then it isn’t going to cause the same mechanical problem as if you’re running character up to level 50.

In my opinion, I think we stick with the Pathfinder guidelines here. The epic attack bonus strikes me as an unnecessary complication for our purposes. You may disagree, of course.

Saving Throws

Everything I’ve just said about base attacks also applies to saving throws. In third edition all saving throws were standardised, with all classes receiving a +1 bonus to all saving throws at each even-numbered level above twentieth. Again, the Pathfinder guidelines are for the character class’s base saving throw progression to continue to advance normally.

Pathfinder recognises that this is more of problem for saving throws than it is for base attack bonuses. Choice of class and multiclassing can create enormous differences between the highests and lowest base save in a party at normal levels. At epic levels this is greatly exacerbated. The official advice from Pathfinder on this is for characters to make shoring up their poor saving throws a priority. This means that epic level fighters should be carrying something that improves their Will saving throw as a matter of course.

Despite this, I still recommend using the Pathfinder rules. It’ll just be one thing less to think about when advancing characters, and that has to be a good thing when we’re dealing with PCs of this complexity.

Spellcasting Beyond 20th level

The caster level of spellcasters continues to advance by one for each level they take in class that normally advances their spellcasting. So a wizard 20/archmage 5 has a caster level of 25; and he would use that caster level when calculating the variable effects of spells and attempting to overcome spell resistance.

Acquired Casters: At every odd-numbered caster level above 20, the character gains a new spell slot one level higher than the highest level he can currently cast. So a wizard gets a 10th level spell slot. This slot can be used to prepare spells augmented by metamagic feats, or any other spell the character knows of a lower level. At every even-numbered caster level above 20 the character gains a number of spell slots equal to the highest level he can cast, that he can distribute as he sees fit. So a 22nd level arcane caster gains 10 spell slots. He can choose to have a second 10th level spell slot, two 5th level spell slots or any possible combination as long as they total spell slots add up to 10. Classes gain new spell levels at a slower rate (e.g. paladins and rangers) would also gain these benefits at a slower rate. Pathfinder isn’t clear on what that slower rate should be.

Instinctive Casters: Spellcasters like sorcerers or oracles can gain the same benefits as acquired casters if they choose. However, this only increases the number of spells they can cast each day, and not their repetoire of known spells. At any level they can forego the benefits they would have received in order to learn two new spells of any level they can cast.

I think that these rules for spellcasters are head and shoulders above the 3.0 versions, where caster level was fixed at 20th, and spellcasters needed to choose special feats to be able to learn new spells or advance their spellcasting powers at all. If I’m honest, I think instinctive casters have a bit of a raw deal when compared to their acquired brethren but it’s not something I’m tempted to change: Pact of Minimal Tinkering and all.

Epic Destinies

Okay, here come the House Rules. These rules are intended to replace anything you’ve just read. They are simply a further option for customisation that I would like to support from 21st level. My view is that after spending 20 levels toiling through a character class, you should all have the option to advance your character in exactly the manner you wish.

After 20th level all players should have the option to create a new charater class that is unique to them, and that includes the abilities and powers that they think are most important to their character.

Let’s take Elias as an example. We can use Elias for an example for almost anything, he’s great! Elias Raithbourne, has reached 20th level and he is made up of a mixture of the following classes: Sorcerer, Fighter, Rogue, Paladin, Pious Templar and Glorious Servitor. He also has a blue dragon bloodline. From 21st level we could invent a single class that encompasses the essence of Elias.

This isn’t about creating a class that’s more powerful than any other class, simply one that better defines the character. So maybe Elias’s epic destiny is a class where his paladin smite continues to progress, as does his ability to shapechange into a dragon, that has a good base attack bonus (as he is a warrior) and grants him some nifty draconic abilities from his bloodline. That’s probably not the way Marc would see the character going, but you get the idea.

Of course, no-one has to have an epic destiny, or you could defer your epic destiny to a more appropriate level. For example, Arvan is currently a Druid 15/Warshaper 3. Maybe he wants to stick with druid now until level 20, and not start his epic destiny until level 24.

Obviously, creating this new content for the game would be time consuming, but the onus would be on the player (not the GM) to come up with an appropriate progression for their character, and then for the GM to decide whether it was suitable and to make the necessary changes. Any prospective class should also be reviewed by other players at the table.

For me: I think that epic characters need to be special, and a unique character class (an “epic destiny” in 4e-speak) goes a long way to achieving that. Raza the 21st level monk is borning. Raza the Monk 20/Godspeaker 1 is unique! What I like about these suggested house rules is that they don’t require changing any of the rules and guidelines that already exist in the game.

In Summary

You can’t raise your class level above 20 in a core class, or 10 in a prestige class; but through multiclassing your character level can be as high as you like. Base attack bonuses and saving throws continue to accrue at the normal rate after 20th level, although you can’t have any more than four base attacks. Spellcasting automatically improves as your caster level improves. Epic characters can devise their own unique classes, or “epic destinies” if they wish.

What do you think? Enough to keep us going?


5 thoughts on “Epic Levels

  1. I’ve never played at epic levels and it’s never really interested me. Levels 17-20 are pretty epic in my view. Where do you go from there? If a level 20 wizard isn’t powerful enough, I don’t know what is.

    Campaigns like Forgotten realms with their 35th level characters cheapen the deeds of the PCs in my eyes. You’re a 17th level Cleric, capable of summoning Pit Fiends to do your will or reweaving the bodies of the disintegrated and restoring their soul. However, compared to Elminster or Szass Tam, you’re a bumbling idiot. That’s not cool.

    I think there’s a lot to be said for ending the campaign by level 20, or as soon as possible thereafter. However, that doesn’t look likely in the case of the Chosen of Narramac (although, my preference is that they don’t keep getting better forever).

    I’ve only skimmed the Mythic rules, but I quite like them. The idea of having godlike powers that are very specific in nature and not part of an endless power curve is appealing. Again that won’t work for the Chosen, as it’s too late to start bringing that in – they would have to continue leveling alongside any extra powers they get.

    I’ll take your work for it that the epic level handbook won’t work. Received wisdom agrees with you.

    So, that just leaves your epic destinies idea. It’s extremely vague, but it may well work in an evocative way if we all put the work in. I’d like to see how it goes.

  2. I’m not a great fan of D&D beyond level 20, and I certainly appreciate why Paizo doesn’t want to touch epic levels with a 10-foot pole. But with Elias pushing 21st level, I figure that we need to at least know what happens next.

    After we finish the League of Light campaign – which we will with the Council of Korvast – we’ll have to look at what we want to do next with the campaign, and where we want to take the old characters. Some of you might want to continue playing them, but after twelve years, there’s not a great deal more that can be done with many of them. The amount of personal plots that you have are wearing a little thin.

    Sure: they all need closure of one form or another, but we really need to think about how many more sessions or adventures you need to achieve that closure. Some of it’s plot driven of course, but certain plots can be kicked into the long grass while you invent new characters… if that’s what you want to do.

    The rules for Epic Destinies are intentionally woolly. They’re simply an option for players who want to indulge themselves. As the responsibility is on the player to come up with a workable progression I don’t think that I need to say much more about it, do I?

  3. I agree that the game is much more satisfying at lower levels. I would say that the sweet spot is between levels three and seven. However, the campaign has moved into Epic Levels, and the Epic Destinies really seem the way forward to me.

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