Epic Level Handbook

A Walk Through the Planes – Part 78: Epic Level Handbook




I began this series because I genuinely like reading about the weird, interplanar world TSR created for D&D. Admittedly, a lot of my enjoyment revolves around Planescape, but even now that we’re past that setting’s heyday—and waiting with cautious pessimism for fifth edition’s rehash/remake/reconfiguration/reimagining of the setting—I still get a kick learning what became of these locations and, far more rarely, their inhabitants. While the results of these updates are a lot more mixed now that we’re well into third edition and most of Planescape’s writers and editors have left Wizards of the Coast (editor Michele Carter being the most notable remaining employee, but far from the only one still around), much of it is still good. Perhaps the spark of invention from the 90s was gone, but there was still plenty to recommend this writing, especially further down the road in edition 3.5. But then sometimes… sometimes things just really sucked. Case in point: the Epic Level Handbook, one of the more infamous publications from this edition and a work I strongly suggest pretending never existed. 

Let me reiterate that I enjoy reading these books, that it’s a dumb hobby of mine I spend far too much time reading/writing about when I should be doing research or writing for my “real” books and essays. You know, the literary shit that supposedly pays my bills. But there have been a handful of works I’ve dreaded based upon old memories, and unfortunately they’ve usually lived up to my fears. The Epic Level Handbook was the worst of these offenders, perhaps because of the immense contrast between my initial hopes for the book when a friend loaned it to me it back in 10th grade and the reality of what it contained. Back then, I was still reading a bunch of Forgotten Realms and Dragonlance fiction, and on the side played Infinity Engine games. I’d devoured just about every third edition release up until then, and could convert between it and second edition in my head. I both played and thought a lot about D&D, and the prospect of messing around with the high-level abilities of people like Elminster or Raistlin sounded wonderful. I was ready to take the next step, and the book’s immense length promised whole near worlds of wonder, pushing forward past the rote nature of the Manual of the Planes and into something new. 


I was wrong. 

Ok, this does make me want to be an epic druid, fuck you for judging. In fact, I judge anyone who doesn’t want a giant tiger as a best friend.

Do you like dull math? If so, the Epic Level Handbook just might be for you. To quote the sadly unfinished Let’s Read of the book, the main thing to know about characters after level 20 is that “numbers get bigger, hooray.” The tables and bookkeeping here are ludicrous, even though all non-spellcasting classes only get marginally better with each level, as their number of attacks is still capped. Casters (full casters, of course—partial casters are pretty much useless), on the other hand, are gods. They gain access to the creation of their very own, personalized epic spells. I’m not going to spend anymore time on mechanics than I have here, except to state that the game really breaks down long before this point, and pushing things even further is a disaster. What, after all, is the difference between a CR 33 monster and a CR 34 monster? As a result, much of this book seems speculatory in nature, and the act of actually holding together an epic campaign seems like an immense amount of work for everyone involved with very little payoff. My basic advice for playing an epic character is to be a wizard and just go nuts, while my advice for running an epic campaign as a DM is seriously just don’t. 

There are, however, two chapters of the book that warrant a bit more examination. The first of these is “Monsters,” which for the most part consists of ridiculous horrors like the elder titan or vermiurge, beings who can single-handedly destroy entire Prime Material worlds. However, it begins with a surprisingly interesting section on Abominations, which the book defines here as beings “misshapen, grotesque, and horribly marked from their godly birth-throes.” Essentially, it’s weirdo demigods, many of which are actually pretty neat. I wouldn’t recommend actually using them as stated for any encounters, but atropals (“stillborn godlings who spontaneously rise as undead”) or infernals (“born of the ill-starred meeting of god and fiend”) can offer neat plot hooks. Also, the book’s version of Grecian Hecatoncheires has literally 100 attacks! While epic fighters are still capped at four! The entire abomination section is worth reading, and feels like it could play an interesting part in planar campaigns, though dealing with these beings should be essentially the same as dealing with full Powers. Then again, this is also a book that stats out the Cat Lord, who is at roughly the level of a demigod in power yet only CR 39 here and so easily bulldozed by a handful of randos from Union.

Bruce Cordell also has a bit of fun by returning winter wights to the game (you might remember them from Return to the Tomb of Horrors) and adding creatures like the brain collector and the uvuudaum from the Far Realm. There’s even a pseudonatural troll and with it a pseudonatural template so that you can make your very own Far Realm monstrosities. Many of the book’s creatures are silly or contradict other ideas about the multiverse—for instance the new slaads don’t work at all well with what else we know about the race—but plenty of them are quite cool in concept, just unusable how they’re stated here. As such, I enjoyed this entire chapter and found it a wonderful source of adventure hooks, while largely pretending the statblocks didn’t exist. 

An atropal in all of its terrifying glory.

The one truly planar part of the Epic Level Handbook, and the reason why I felt it couldn’t be skipped in this column, is the incredibly idiotic city of Union. If you’ve ever played an Elder Scrolls game or any other title where monsters continue to scale up as your character levels, then you may find this location familiar. Here, in a demiplane inexplicably ruled by the mercane—I say this because they’re quite weak and, frankly, should be immediately routed and looted by pretty much any other planar race who wants their goods—everyone is epic level. For instance, break a law, and you may get harassed by the city’s resident force of police pigs, whose backup members are level 31 NPCs. That’s right, a random run-of-the-mill nameless guard here could rule over much of Faerun without much difficulty, is more powerful than Drizzt Do’Urden or Halaster Blackcloack, can wipe the floor with Manshoon or Kitiara, can give Par-Salian a swirly and make Raistlin his bitch, can give Mordenkainen a wedgie and… you probably get the point. And I’m not just pulling these names out of a hat, either, all of this is based upon the stats from this or other third edition D&D books, though the ones from this one feel particularly bad given the context. Random shop clerks here will be 12th level and higher. Just wandering around town looking to meet people? Well right over there is a 20th level wizard/11th level loremaster death slaad with nothing better to do than hang about killing time. Sure, he could decide to rule over Greyhawk’s Oerth and no one on the plane could stop him, but I guess he’d rather be a vendor here and just take in the sites.


The level scaling of Union makes the entirety of the rest of the multiverse bonkers nonsensical. Frankly, any random group of back alley thugs here could wipe out a layer of the Abyss without too much difficulty, so why are they here being, well, back alley thugs? Union is actually given quite a bit of detail, and as a result seems as if it might be an interesting place in the planes if you just ignored the power levels of everyone inhabiting it, but that’s rather difficult to do given that its society relies on the insane magic of everyone who lives there to make internal sense. After all, a demiplane containing a huge number of controlled floating islands demands some explanation, and all of these involve ridiculous amounts of magic. I suppose it might be kind of fun for a session to have your PCs run into an 18th-level pastry chef, but all of this just causes more questions, none of which can be logically answered. If Union exists in your campaign as written, it means the entire rest of the multiverse makes absolutely no sense as it currently exists, but conversely if you scaled down Union so that it was at the level of any other city then Union itself no longer makes any sense, plus why not use Sigil or any other town instead given that Union’s only real defining traits revolve around the epic level of its inhabitants.


In short: Union sucks, and given that any random group of citizens there can spend a quick afternoon wiping out a few Archdevils or Demon Lords without breaking a sweat, maybe it’s best if we all pretend this entire section of the book never existed. 

Union also manages to be absolutely free from wonder and awe. Look, it’s a city. Some’s in the sky, we guess. See? Great, now go to a tavern already.

The first of Epic‘s two adventures (and the second one barely counts) is also planar based, which completely opposes Planescape’s whole ethos of planar adventures not being an epic thing but a place for everyone. Worse, it assumes characters start out in Union, and has several pages devoted to getting characters from there to the Plane of Fire. Ugh. From here, players, uhh, fight a balor and a mithral golem and a half-fire elemental ettin and… ok, I have to admit, I couldn’t force myself to finish reading this part of the book. By here, I was so worn down with a combination of boredom and distaste that I just couldn’t do it. I made excuses for weeks before just giving up and deciding to read better books instead. In this adventure, players retrieve the Codex of Infinite Planes from a ridiculous enemy. Maybe they chat with a bunch of efreeti. Maybe they fight a challenge rating 25 advanced great red wyrm. Whatever, who fucking cares? 

Perhaps the biggest surprise to me about Epic was that it was co-authored by Bruce Cordell, who at this point had become my favorite remaining WotC author. However, after doing some research about the book’s complicated design process, it made more sense to me. Cordell described how they went about this in an interview for Wizards.com:


We each worked on major sections, though each of us contributed lightly to the other’s major sections. For instance, Andy did feats, but I sprinkled in a few here and there, while I did monsters, and Andy wrote a few of those. James Wyatt and John Rateliff also contributed lightly to many sections, especially NPCs and monsters. Thomas Reid worked on the epic setting, epic adventures, and prestige classes sections, and also contributed to the other sections, including epic spells, monsters, items, and more. 

Andy Collins was in fact the primary designer for the book, whereas Cordell came in to do the spellcasting and monsters sections and some general cleanup, and Reid seemed to write the stuff I truly loathed. So with that in mind, it makes sense then that monsters are the one saving grace of this book, and Cordell noted in particular that he designed the abominations. There’s that mystery cleaned up, at least sort of. Back in the 90s and 00s at least, Cordell seems to have a ton of creativity and fun ideas when it comes to story and setting, but his systems design work… yeah, I’m not much of a fan. 

Two issues with this drawing. 1. This is supposed to illustrate what an epic-level story consists of, a typical kidnapping scenario? 2. This is clearly NOT just a typical kidnapping scenario, who approved this art?

Wizards never did any real support for the Epic Level Handbook. There were no other epic books, and fortunately Union would rarely if ever be mentioned after this. I believe there were a handful of epic adventures in Dungeon, a few mentions in Dragon, and some web supplements over the next year or so updating content from new books, but that’s it. This is the one book that didn’t get any sort of updated version for 3.5 edition, and I don’t think this was an error of omission. For the most part, it’s a canonical work that no one seemed to particularly like, so its ideas were forgotten and whenever possible ignored. I hate to simply go with the consensus, but in this case the consensus was certainly right, and this book and Union are better off as just a footnote in the history of the planes and henceforth ignored.

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