A few friends were interested in trying out the epic tier of play, so I put together a one-shot delve to test it. I was interested to see how epic scaled with the other tiers, how much longer it would take, etc. In 3rd Edition, I bought the epic book, created an epic villain (took me several hours) and then called it quits; my campaign didn't go above level 11.
As I put together this epic tier delve, it became less a delve and more a genuine adventure. My idea was to run the PCs through three encounters in about four hours (a little overambitious, I know). I wanted to make sure the encounters were scaled to their level (except the final encounter, which could be a bit higher).
Over the week, the players created their level 23 epic characters. I asked them to think BIG. Think Hercules, Gilgamesh, Merlin, Beowulf, and Marvel Superheroes. Here's what they came up with:
Gwynn, Pariah of the Winter Fey--the exiled fey queen of winter (half-elf warlock harbinger of doom).
Harrier23, Sub-Procurator of the Ptolemaic Pontificate--a cataloger of life forms (deva hybrid druid/wizard demigod)
Tarrym the Thrice-Dead--an axe-wileding barbarian that cannot die (human fighter champion of prophecy)
The Bombardier--a halfling hero who defeated the lich queen Sycorax and saved his people (halfling rogue demigod)
The Dastardly Pirate Ash--a merciless spelljammer pirate and son of Asmodeus (tiefling warlord prince of hell)
This was the setup I gave them.
Adventure Background: The Final Dawn
Hours ago, the usurper Estumishu, "the Smiling King" of the efreets, called for the surrender of all life forms from his home in the City of Brass in the Elemental Chaos. At his behest the sun began to swell, and sudden tongues of flame licked the treetops of the world, the Feywild, and the Shadowfell.
Estumishu offered to spare all creatures that departed their worlds and submitted their lives before him, to become eternal slaves of the efreets. Those who do not heed his warning will perish when, at the next setting of the sun, he will burn the three realms of reality to a cinder. Due to the ancient pacts that have bound them since the Dawn War, the gods are powerless to intervene. They watch helpless as the hostage worlds begin to burn.
But where the gods are powerless, the five greatest heroes of the worlds come forth to stand against Estumishu.
The Pariah of the Winter Fey departed her melting realm. The Bombardier set out from the newly settled Lands of Promise and the new smoke rising from its forests. The Thrice-Dead man shouldered his life like a light satchel to walk fate’s road once more. The Sub-Procurator of the Ptolemaic Pontificate ceased her cataloging and turned her ancient eyes toward the threat that would annihilate her endless task. The Horned Captain adjusted her course and steered her legendary vessel toward the source of this new malice.
Together on board this trans-dimensional ship, the five great heroes speed through the tumultuous expanses of the Elemental Chaos to face Estumishu, discover the true nature of his powerful threat, and put an end to it once and for all.
If the great heroes fail stop him within this next day, all the world’s life shall perish in flame or be forever enslaved.
I constructed the adventure with a fire theme and scrolled through the Monster Builder looking for monsters around level 23 with an affinity for fire. I wanted to think BIG. Most of my campaigns are a bit Game-of-Thronesy. They're gritty, low magic sagas full of intrigue and character emotion. This game was to be the opposite--big, bold, epic. I began with efreets in the City of Brass. I'd just received The Plane Below for Christmas, and I got some ideas (and names) from that book.
I wanted the final encounter to be against something special, so I chose a dragon. All I needed to do then was connect the efreets to the dragon and then throw some role-play and/or skill challenge in the middle to break up the combats. The plot I settled on went like so:
The heroes flew to the City of Brass on their spelljammer ship. I asked Ash's player Shad what the name of his ship was, and he said, "The unscrupulous... no... The Shady Bitch." So the Shady Bitch it was. Aboard the Shady Bitch, the epic heroes descended on the City of Brass (where creatures from everywhere in existence lined up to be slaves if the efreets would spare their lives) and Tarrym tore the dome from Eshtumishu's palace with his bare hands. The heroes dropped down into the middle of the throne room and confronted Eshtumishu, his azer servants, his efreeti vizier, and his three fire giant retainers, who demanded their surrender. The heroes refused, of course, so the efreeti sultan called upon his bond with fire, and the citadel shook and trembled, and a fire titan split the floor and crawled up from below. A big battle ensued.
I thought the battle went well--it didn't seem to take too much longer than a heroic tier or paragon tier battle, and the extra time seemed as though it was more due to the players being unfamiliar with all their new options. There were a lot of monsters on the board, and while the monsters did damage to the PCs, the PCs weren't in terrible danger; nor should they have been--the encounter was the level of the PCs.
In the aftermath, the heroes learned from the surviving fire giant that the dragon was undefeatable because of the deal it had made with Asmodeus, who held the key to his soul and power. Since the father of devils was also (completely coincidentally) the father of Shad's character Ash, the tiefling pirate reluctantly agreed to take them to the Nine Hells. The heroes climbed back on board the Shady Bitch and took off through the Elemental Chaos and into the Astral Sea, traveling until Ash made it "home" to Baator, the site of the Nine Hells. I think the players were a bit hesitant to make this decision; it's just not every day you stroll into the heart of the Nine Hells in the middle of an adventure and meet with the lord of all devils. But this is an epic game; that's the sort of thing epic characters might do in an afternoon.
I ran the Nine Hells as a big skill challenge. I didn't want to deal with every level of the hells, and fortunately found a passage in the Manual of the Planes describing how the river Styx is the fastest way directly to the core of Baator, and how it skips a couple of layers. Since Ash was from the hells, he would know this. I wrote the skill challenge down in crude notes, which I'll share here. But the important thing to know is that what happened in the story was the heroes took a whirlwind boat tour through the Nine Hells. Each layer was a piece of the skill challenge and corresponded to its description in the Manual of the Planes. To further complicate things, Dispater sensed Ash's return and sent one of his aspects and a small unit of devils after Ash to retrieve him. Here are my crude notes on the skill challenge:
The PCs head to Nessus, deep beneath Baator. To reach Nessus, the PCs must navigate the dangerous caverns of Baator via the river Styx.
Avernus – desert surface
Challenge: ACROBATICS and ATHLETICS--Onto the Styx Through Legions of Devils: (piloting)
Dis (Styx skips this one)
Minauros – stinking green swamp, home to Mammon, king of greed
Challenge: ATHLETICS—grasping vines must be pulled free.
Phlegethos (Styx skips this one)
* Stygia – icy, bitterly cold, glaciers support ceiling (Levistus, betrayal, frozen)
Challenge: INSIGHT. The Styx divides. 2 devils point the way. One is lying (excited is its tell, but only to one of high insight). Failure: Dispater catches up.
Malbolge – dead forest, poisoned realm, ruined places, used to be garden (Glasya, insects, bone palace)
Challenge: HEAL or NATURE. Necrotic rot over everything. (or lose a surge)
Maladomini – ruined palaces, rivers of sludge, flies, drifting green fires, (Baaelzebul, Lies/Flies)
Challenge: DIPLOMACY/INTIMIDATE or despair overcomes party, and any who do not make a DC 30 Endurance Check lose an action point or healing surge.
Cania – ice, blue-white radiance. Lightless. Howling winds. Frozen godly domain. (Mephistopheles). DC 29 Endurance every hour or lose a healing surge. Icy rift beneath glacier leads to Nessus.
Challenge: HISTORY/ARCANA: to recall the path that once led below.
Nessus – caverns of flame-filled gulfs. Volcanic crater, like an eye, stands Malsheem. Gold-veined marble. Home of Asmodeus.
Challenge: DIPLOMACY and BLUFF; get Asmodeus to give over the vulnerability.
Winter Queen: Arcana, Bluff, Diplomacy
Tarrym Thrice-Dead: Athletics, Heal, Perception
Harrier23: Perception, Insight, History/Religion
Bombardier: Acrobatics, Stealth, Perception
Ash had not been created at the time I wrote the skill challenge; the fact that his player created a tiefling character who was the son of Asmodeus was complete serendipity. It was a happy accident that made the story work really well. I'd had a tough time with Dispater's motives while writing the adventure. But when Ash became involved, it was simply a matter of Asmodeus's #2 guy disciplining his boss's crazy son. Honestly, while the scene was happening, I kept imagining Battlestar Galactica's Colonel Tigh chewing out Apollo for the sake of "the old man."
Dispater's raid upon the Shady Bitch didn't happen, though. By and large the players succeeded at their skill challenges and time was growing short. I wanted to hit all the major points in the adventure, so while Dispater pursued the party, he didn't catch up until they reached Nessus. Had they encountered Dispater, these are my crude notes on the challenge I'd come up with:
If Dispater controls the helm for 3 rounds, the ship crashes, the quest fails, and the heroes are trapped in the Hells.
Countermeasures: Minor action to control the helm. Sliding scale:
1. Ship crashes 2. out of control 3. Dispater controls 4. standard 5. PCs control 6. PCs correct course 7. escape
Dispater’s tactics: devils push PCs over the edge; Dispater puts up iron walls to keep PCs off the helm, separate the group.
What I'd wanted to see: Dispater creates an iron wall in the middle of the ship, separating the PCs from the helm. Tarrym makes an Athletics check and gets over a 40. Leaps over the fracking wall! That would have been epic-ly cool.
The heroes arrived in Nessus just as Dispater's aspect caught up and chewed out Ash. Asmodeus's voice boomed from the citadel, calling Dispater off and welcoming his son. The PCs entered Asmodeus's rich, silent halls and confronted the father of devils himself.
The heroes arrived in the heart of the sun. I placed the gigantic red dragon on the table, eating away at the sun's heart. Tarymm smashed the soul gem and then I replaced the gigantic dragon with merely a huge dragon, some fire elementals, and a fire archon. By this point the heroes had enough fire resistance and daily powers they bloodied the dragon pretty handily. It was around eleven, the game needed to end, and once they bloodied the dragon, I called the game. The dragon surrendered and then tried to escape, so they hunted it down on the Shady Bitch and put an end to it, thus saving the world.
I capped the session with Asmodeus chuckling to himself in his citadel, saying, "I said 'if they perish on their quest,' but I wasn't necessarily referring to this particular quest...'"
In the end, everybody was happy, even Asmodeus.
That was the game. I think we were all pleased with the way it went. I did a number of things to speed up play--I had all my maps and minis ready, I pre-rolled initiatives for the monsters and had the players roll all of their initiatives at the beginning of the game. The tracking trays worked very well, denoting PCs' conditions and making the other players aware of said conditions so they could help remove them. The structure of the adventure was very simple, and yet it felt like a fun little module. In four hours of play time, the PCs fought the sultan of hte efreets and his fire giant/titan minions in the City of Brass, sped through the Elemental Chaos, cruised the Astral Sea, penetrated the deepest depths of the Nine Hells, escaped Dispater, made a deal with Asmodeus, flew to the heart of the sun, defeated an ancient red dragon, stopped the sun from exploding, and saved existence. Not bad for a day's work.