I’m getting ready for the first session of my D&D 4e campaign this year, running on Sunday. I’d say preparing, but since this session has already been delayed twice, it’s prepared – this is more about polishing and getting myself back into the DMing head space.
We left the campaign back in November at the very end of heroic tier, with the heroes levelling up to level 11 and choosing Paragon Paths for the continuation, so part of me getting myself ready for the game has been thinking about what the tiers actually mean in terms of where the campaign should be going.
Hitting the Books
My first thought was that I should have a look at what the PHB and the DMG have to say on the matter. What’s strange is that they have very little to say – they both devote some page space to laying out the tiers and how the party’s power levels are likely to increase, but don’t give too much details on what the expectation is on what they will be dealing with. This is good in a way – it gives DMs plenty of leeway to build their campaign how they want to – but to me it seems a little weak; the Paragon Paths and Epic Destinies both imply a certain level of plot progression. Clerics gain more favour from their deities, Warlocks are granted more gifts from the givers of their pact, Barbarians get… well, Barbarians get more angry. All of this suggests to me that bigger issues should be in play as the tiers progress.
In theory, you could run the same game all the way through 30 levels. The only thing that needs to change is how tough the monsters are, how tricky and lethal the traps in the dungeons are, what doors are made of and how much loot is sitting around in the dungeon. I don’t think this is quite enough – to me, going from one tier to the next should feel like an event, a change of gear and a bit of a switch in feel for the campaign itself.
So I’m hoping that as we go through Paragon Tier, and again when we hit Epic, my players will feel like they’re playing a slightly different campaign to the one that went before. The party aren’t just the local go-to problem solvers, or big fish in a small pond heroes anymore – they’re chosen exemplars of their religions and heroes of their people, known and feared as far as word of their deeds has had time to spread.
Laying Things Out
Thinking that things should progress, we need to decide how to break things and decide what sort of issues are parties going to deal with in each of the level bands. Thinking about what I have in mind for my campaign, I’ve broken things down like this…
Heroic Tier is about heroes fixing local issues – they’re all strong and capable warriors and can deal with problems that a normal villager wouldn’t even dream of tackling, but in general things aren’t going to resonate on any wider a scale than the towns and local areas that they take place in. These adventures could be full of the first things that come to mind when you think about starting up a D&D campaign – a local baron needs to hire someone to someone to deal with a pack of kobolds, goblins or gnolls have been harrying merchants on the roads, weird lights have been seen around those ruins at night and need investigated. Preferably all these things will be tied together nicely, come with some plot twists and give the players enough leeway to decide how they’re going to deal with what’s going on.
By the end of Heroic Tier, the party will have made a name for themselves – they’re known as problem solvers, capable heroes, and word will have spread to both other towns and regions of how they can help, and some of the forces of evil in the area will know that the heroes are out there and will be keeping a close eye on them.
Paragon Tier will step this up significantly. The enemies that they’re dealing with now are powerful enough to threaten whole regions, or even countries, at a time. The party have gone from being contracted by local barons, mayors and merchants to being discussed among the most powerful figures in the area – by the end of the tier, they might quite possibly in contact with the ruler of the land. Extra-planar adventures could figure prominently here, depending on how you’re putting your campaign setting together. Not only are the enemies here bigger and meaner, but the consequences are too – if threats aren’t dealt with, thousands of people could be in danger, whole cities – or maybe even countries – could fall.
By level 20, the party has seen off some of the most the most significant threats in their end of the material plane, and possibly some of the others too. They’re spoken of as local legends by the people they helped out at level 1, and they’ve made their corner of the world a better place for thousands of people. They’ve been granted great favour by their patrons (both mortal and otherwise), but will have made powerful enemies.
By now, there is not much in the mortal world that can threaten the heroes – even great dragons wouldn’t want them to come knocking. The issues now at hand could be powerful enough to threaten the world, and the enemies powerful enough to match. With heroes powerful enough to take on the gods themselves by level 30, the sky can’t even really be considered a limit anymore – after all, not even death can stop them. What the heroes do doesn’t only resonate on their own world or plane anymore – even the ripples of their actions can tumble empires and dethrone kings.
By level 30, the heroes stand as demigods, and are a threat to any force in the planes. You can be sure that the threat wont allowed to stand without opposition, but the players will usually have the abilities to meet it head on.
Putting that in to Practice
Through out heroic tier, the party in my campaign have had hints of wider things going on, although they might not know that directly yet – some of the threats they have dealt with are part of wider concerns. On Sunday, they’ll learn what some of this means for the Nentir Vale as a whole, and maybe the lands beyond. How they’ll deal with the threats will be up to them, of course. There are certainly options there for more hack and slash adventure against bigger and badder foes, or we could see them plane hopping, or there will be plenty of options for them to combine the two. Whatever they decide, the impact of their actions will be felt far and wide – success could reforge an empire, failure could bring misery to thousands.