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Penny Arcade recently ran the following strip:

enter image description here

(Original strip here)

While the resolution of this thread hasn't yet been posted, I'm wondering what we think here. How do you game with PCs who are topping out the power levels for your system? How can you keep things interesting or challenging for people who have become epic heroes and demigods? Is there any option other than rolling new characters and starting a new campaign?

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Make a cake, retire the characters, and start a new game? –  Sardathrion Nov 28 '11 at 15:19
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It is worth adding the follow-up comic? –  okeefe Nov 28 '11 at 17:02
    
For dnd4e, there are some pretty good tips in Mike Shea's epic tier book over at slyflourish.com/epic –  Simon Withers Nov 28 '11 at 23:05
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18 Answers

From my personal D&D4 experience:

  1. Add more monsters. If you have 4 PCs, make an encounter for 5.

  2. Make monsters work together (where thematically possible)

  3. Create new powers for monsters to be on level of the PCs (ties in well with n°2)

  4. Create a monster party that "exploits" the weaknesses of the PCs.

Example: You could create a party where there is a tanktype monster with a power that pulls in the PCs to him. You combine this with a ranged monster that deals area damage. Did I mention the tank is immune to this area damage

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challenging for people who have become epic heroes and demigods

...gods?! No, really, when someone becomes epic and gets a demigod status, they will get attention from higher powers - some friendly, some not. And then it all depends on what the PCs want to achieve. Depending on that, there are different hindrances.

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If it has states, it can be killed... –  Sardathrion Nov 29 '11 at 11:10
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@Sardathrion That depends on what stats. "number of people eaten per minute" isn't particularly exploitable. –  Random832 Nov 30 '11 at 18:13
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@Random832: Oh, yes it is! a) Over-feeding it (& bursting it). b) Throw more fighting people per minute at it than it can eat. (OK, I'm a little mean here.) –  Stephen Nov 30 '11 at 19:08
    
That requires a stat that allows over-feeding to have negative effects and a stat for the fighting people you throw at it to be able to do anything to it. There's some system where Cthulhu has "Eats 1d4 people per minute" as its only stat. When something's stats is solely a list of horrible things it can do to you, rather than a list of conditions for defeating it, then it can't necessarily be killed. –  Random832 Nov 30 '11 at 20:16
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That's the No True Scotsman fallacy - if stats are only "complete" if they provide a way to kill it, then of course anything that can't be killed has "incomplete" stats. –  Random832 Dec 1 '11 at 19:35
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A few ideas:

  • escort the squishy priest (no reward if he dies)
  • rescue the kidnapped princess (no reward if she dies)
  • social mission: negotiate a truce, convince a king
  • specifically tailored traps (surprise! the elder dragon knows the best poison for each PC)
  • Deception/betrayal (someone sold the heroes out)
  • covert ops mission (no reward if they players are discovered)
  • underwater mission (hard to rely on sword swinging)
  • ambush/jail (no more equipment)
  • mass battles (the PCs are leading armies, which comes with it's own host of problems)

The general theme is to take the PCs out of their comfort zone, and to focus on goals/rewards that don't directly relate to the PCs staying alive (since they're already amazing at that).

Finally, the game is meant to have an end. If your PCs have truly obtained godhood, it's probably time to roll new characters (with the new ones worshiping the old ones!).

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The first thing you need to ask your group is if they are still having fun at this point, after all the goals they set out to accomplish in the beginning have been completed. If they're having fun, then you need to find a way to keep going. Re-rolling may have to be an option, but you do not have to end the current campaign story. Take up new characters who serve the epic heroes, play people whose lives were heavily influenced by their actions, or a number of other ways that makes the players previous contributions important to a new story. Perhaps even a plot twist of people who seek to loot and plunder the riches of the previous heroes or seek to settle matters with them because their choices had a negative impact on them.

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I'm curious as to why you say the DM needs to find a way to keep the campaign going. –  mattdm Nov 29 '11 at 0:05
    
When I say the story needs to go on, it's mostly personal bias. I believe a story goes on as long as the group is enjoying it or they agree to end it. A little burden on the DM is to be expected. If it has stopped being fun for that DM, then that issue certainly needs to be raised with the group. I did not mean to imply that the DM must keep it going at any cost. I will consider a revision to make my intent clearer when I have time. –  MadMAxJr Nov 29 '11 at 18:12
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Note: If you are looking for rules here, you will not find them.

The first thing to understand about good stories is that the heroes are interesting because of their flaws and weaknesses. Not because of how strong and wonderful they are. Get the players to role play their characters' weaknesses. Use those against them in adventures. Maybe come up with a final come back leading to a climactic final. I find it very unlikely that the characters have not done horrible things in the past -- maybe for good reasons -- and those can come back to haunt them. Either in their own minds or as external forces.

Finding challenges for super powerful character is not hard. Just make sure that none of their power can solve the issue at hand. How do you deal with racism, with bigotry, with corruption? What horrible realisation you would have, having killed the Gods of Evil and realise that the world is now tearing itself apart? Without evil, there can be no good. Now, everyone are just grey wraiths, unable to feel or do anything. Well done, PCs, you destroyed the world. How are you going to fix it? Time travel (yuck), become evil yourselves, become a new pantheon of Gods?

Fundamentally, stories have beginnings, middle and ends. Knowing when and how to end a story (or a game for that matter) is a matter of getting together and working out where that end is. If you are not planing for it, then you end up jumping the shark.

An example: Final Fantasy VII: Advent Children. Cloud starts as a very conflicted character that finally gets his shit together. Why was he conflicted? He still blames himself for killing a friend, he is depressed, he lack the will to pull himself out of the downwards spiral he sets himself in. That, right there, is interesting character development -- the fighting with huge swords is incidental. Yes, the fights do look cool. ^_~

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Turn in your geek card. It's FFVII! –  Adriano Varoli Piazza Nov 29 '11 at 12:32
    
@AdrianoVaroliPiazza: ... Yes, that is an epic fail. ^_~ I edited... –  Sardathrion Nov 29 '11 at 12:37
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Well, obviously, there's the Dragon Ball option. Somehow a Bigger Bad shows up, hands them their asses (that can be tough, though) and sends them back to the training montage.

Also in the same vein is the "invulnerable" monster. Not unbeatable, but not without some element that will send them on a quest. To take a popular example, think Harry Potter and the quest for the Horcruxes.

When all else fails, it could be about an Extinction Event that needs to be prevented. A stupid mage has read the Book of Eschaton and thought that it would be fun to cast "Inevitable Doom of the Dimensions". Now the universe is falling apart and it falls upon the PCs to restore the load-bearing pillars of the dimensions...

Long story made short : at this scale of power, it becomes less a question of raw power and more a question of thinking laterally. Not "How do I outpower my players ?" but "How do I keep my players on their toes ?". Threats become less tangible, more indirect.

And if you absolutely need to kill them, engage them in politics.

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+1 for politics. Allow the characters to be rulers for a while... See what mess they make and how quickly they are hated by everyone. Now, a new party gets hired to kill the tyrants. < recursion > –  Sardathrion Nov 29 '11 at 11:10
    
xkcd.com/244 –  mirv120 Dec 6 '11 at 21:59
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I'd say don't let them achieve that level of power in the first place, but to answer, you can throw them in a different dimension where normal rules of physics don't apply, or something like that, so they'll have to learn the new environment quickly to survive. Also, a curse that nullifies magic/extraordinary abilities is a good idea. If you run out of ideas, more enemies is always a good plan. If I don't want that many enemies, I secretly pick what rolls the players pass, dismissing the actual numbers, so that I can tweak the action the way it should be. (so, say, 2 successes, 1 fail, 1 success, 2 fails, 2 successes and so forth)

I won't suggest a more conversation based campaign because that depends on what the players enjoy.

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Once a player becomes a demigod, he's pretty much able to do what he wants on the mortal world. However, I'm sure the "real" gods are a bit grumpy at some upstart trying to horn in on their action. For example, folks belonging to wealthy society frequently look down their noses at the nuveau riche.

The potential drawback is what if a god dies? What happens? Does the pantheon raise a drink to the memory of Grognar, patron deity of tasty ales; or does the very ability to brew tasty ales leave the world until there's a new god of tasty ales?

If you go the route that a god's death should be momentous and terrifying, then sooner or later your characters will get in situations where they can't kill/fight the god who is taunting them, but pride demands that they can't walk away. I also believe the original creators of D&D planned that somewhere around 10th to 15th level players would stop adventuring for gold and loot, and start putting down roots and adventuring to find the cure for the plague that's hitting the town their keep is attached to.

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Read Amber Diceless Roleplaying. All the characters are basically demigods. They conflict with each other more than anything else.

In one high level/high magic Forgotten Realms campaign I ran, half the party got turned into vampires due to a poorly planned sexual escapade, and the rest of the campaign was Vampire PCs vs Mortal PCs. I was surprised at how much of a blast everyone had doing it, too.

Besides combating each other, there are things like sickness/death/plague, corruption/human nature, etc. that require plenty of attention and have little to do with power level - power itself doesn't overcome them.

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+1 for Amber. There are other games that deal with super powerful entities. –  Sardathrion Nov 30 '11 at 7:56
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Nobilis is another example. –  David Allan Finch Nov 30 '11 at 12:42
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Is there an end-game for your story? Perhaps you could find out what they actually want to achieve and then set something epic up for them which, once they complete, is the end of the game.

Alternatively, go down the trophy-making shop and get a few trophies with "I got so powerful I killed the game" written on them and hand them out next session ^^

You could take on Shakespeare's "seven stages of man" philosophy (http://quotations.about.com/cs/poemlyrics/a/Seven_Ages_Of_M.htm) and start giving them negative experience... haha. I'd love to hear how that works out!

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Scale back the players and standard monsters. That is, from now on all values are divided by 5, so d20+25 become d4+5, AC 30 become AC 6. Now create a new type of being that has values that are large than this. There is no reason to say that there are not things outside your normal campaign meta verse, in my modern game I called the "Out of Context Entites" OCE. I suggest the divide by 5 only so you don't end up with d20+103 type value.

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The Tycho solution is to change systems:

So there are many ways of dealing with what are classic problems, drawn from a host of different inspirations. Have players control a stable of characters, so that true lethality isn’t synonymous with Game Over. Alternate ways of dealing with criticals. Combat as an elemental, almost abstract element. Less ornamented systems that focus primarily on table rapport, or more strict, simulationist approaches that focus on broad tactics. Fourth Edition suffers under an especially heavy yoke when it comes to power creep in our experience, and after so many expansions there’s a lot of homogeneous abilities and uniformity as an ironic result of having so many options. I still think it can be fixed, but I am sometimes accused of optimism.

The Conflux, Part 4 Original strip

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Raise the stakes.

If your PCs have killed their gods to ingest their godseeds, or whatever, then raise the stakes. The PCs are clearly movers and shakers of the multiverse, and should get sucked into planar politics. Their enemies should fire a warning shot over their bow by killing 1/10th of the population of their homeland. If they are approaching godhood, they should start being on the receiving end of commune spells.

If you want to see someone pull it off, go read the Tales of Wyre, a play report that begins with a simple attempt to undermine a 14th level paladin, and eventually shakes the ground of the multiverse, all in a clear progression.

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Your players are reaching the the end of the power limits of your system and are becoming gods, to such a point where as the DM you feel unable to provide them with a reasonable challenge. If your story is still incomplete, let them complete it: throw the final boss at them; let them win the day and save the universe. After doing that, or if that has already been done, it may be time to end the campaign.

If the players still wish to continue playing in that game world and or with their characters, consider having the players retire to be kings, or gods, or whatever. Have the players say how they would attempt to change the world. Then, toss the game a large number of years into the future, with the players playing new characters within the world they have helped to create. This will give them the feel of connection to the world that playing your campaign created, while allowing you to not have to deal with high level characters for some time.

My advice for how to actually perform the process would be to have your players spend a session stating the actions they take upon victory, and you as DM having the world react to them. This session would play fast and loose with the rules, with few dice being rolled and for the most part players taking actions like, "I walk into the palace and declare myself king, fireballing anyone who disagrees. My first proclamation is…". Then, once the players are done fiddling with their world, start throwing monkey wrenches at it. Foreign invaders, political factions, etc.

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It's not a problem

Looking at "Eating an apple with your nose" as well as a recent Rule-of-Three guest editorial by Chris Perkins, it's not a problem.

Perkins notes:

Don’t concern yourself with encounter balance. By the time they hit epic tier, the PCs have enough resources to extricate themselves from almost any precarious situation. Throw the kitchen sink at them. If the encounter ends up being too hard, the players will be forced to make some tough tactical decisions, call in some favors, buy time, and put their epic destinies to the test. If the encounter ends up being too easy, the players will feel as invincible as their characters, and that’s equally awesome.

Having just completed a fairly significant campaign changing game at level 25, I can certainly attest to that. While some encounters become narrative speedbumps, our last encounters were: facing high multiple beholder, aboleth, and a kraken. (To start the day out. It kinda hurt. But our fleet survived. Our sea-serpent wasn't quite so lucky.) Then it got worse. The day ended with two PC perma-deaths. The thing is: we were able to emerge victorious through stupidly difficult encounters. The idea of "balance" goes right out the window in high paragon and epic. Instead it's "What monsters feel right for this situation?"

To govern the situation, we turn to Rayla with Gnome stew:

If you’ve ever played or run just about any edition of D&D, but especially 3.x or 4e, imagine this scenario:

Your party of 1st-level PCs all start the game with +5 weapons and 9th-level spells (or for 4e, 20th-level powers).

In the context of the average D&D game, those characters are essentially gods. Sure, they’re fragile, inexperienced gods, but boy are they going to be able to make up for those deficiencies in short order.

...

Now consider Star Trek, where by default the PCs start out in command of a starship:

Your party of zero-advancement (Decipher Trek’s level equivalent) PCs all start the game with access to a vessel capable of stunning a city block’s worth of enemies from orbit, and they’re armed with weapons that can vaporize any opponent on a successful hit.

In Star Trek, that’s not a problem. Why not? Because the expectations, both mechanically and from a game fiction standpoint, are very different.

Are the PCs going to navigate their starship back to Earth and start stunning cities because it sounds like fun? Almost certainly not, because “that wouldn’t feel like Star Trek.” Similarly, while the PCs may not have amazing ranks in their skills (IE, not be mechanically all that developed as characters), they have godlike powers by way of their technology — and again it’s not a problem, because Star Trek isn’t about those powers, it’s about character development, moral choices, and human drama.

From an older campaign I was in, we were using a depressingly homebrew adaptation of the Marvel universe. In this, our party included someone who could speak the Absolute Truth (me), someone who could stop time, and someone who could invent hyper-tech while stopped in time. As students. We stage-managed a battle between the x-men and one of the major villians because "history was supposed to work out that way." And... it wasn't a problem because our real enemy was: The Dreaded Moral Dilemma. (No, really. moral questions posed the only challenge to our group. They kinda stung.)

An epic level D&D group has transcended the world. Literally. Nations? Cities? Those places that are worth less than a healing potion? If there's a problem that the heroes spot, you bloody post a want-ad in your adventurer's local, and back it with some random spare change you have.

Instead, the fight is about moral choices, decisions that impact the lives of counteless millions living on continents, on other plains, or in the heroes' very own city. Then, choices matter. Because the heroes are beholden to no-one, and because they have the ability to rewrite the world with magic, cash, or swords: their choices matter. Simply figure out the impacts their choices have (besides the big plot BBEGs) and present them back. The fallout from choice will present plenty of drama and conflict. If some battles are too easy? Awesome. they're epic. If some battles are OMGWTF hard? Awesome, they're epic. They have resources. They have hoarded plot coupons from 20 levels in the past. Countless favours that they might be able to draw on.

It's not business as usual. When adventurers can hire adventurers to clear a dungeon... present them with the dreaded Moral Dilemma. A monster they cannot kill with a laser, but one who's cut is all the more keen for that.

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Give them moral and tactical dilemmas instead of encounters.

--

Here are some examples (thanks for the encouragement, wax eagle!)

Give the players a need to be in more than one place at once. Let them figure out where they need to be. Basically you want them to be triaging crises. How they handle an individual crisis may be a straightforward fight, but which crisis they handle will be an interesting decision. (The ones they ignore should come back and haunt them of course, but don't go overboard. You don't want the players to think they made the wrong choice on all the previous crises!)

Moral dilemmas are a bit trickier and will depend a lot more on your PCs. One theme that came up quite a bit in my last game is that the PCs all firmly believed that the ends justify the means. They would gladly sacrifice an innocent if it meant they'd save the world.

I made them question that belief in character. How much of a population would they sacrifice to save the world? World saving events are never guaranteed, so how good of a shot at success would they need before making a sacrifice? Does this belief that they harbor condition them to accepting that something gets sacrificed, causing them to go for the lesser evil route without seeking or inventing a third, wholly good option?

If you're lucky you'll be able to pinpoint where your PCs' moralities differ. Exploit the hell out of it (assuming of course that your players don't kill everyone that disagrees with them...).

Also, as a sidenote, not every character will have this much morality. Most of the time it'll just be players playing exactly their own beliefs or playing a monster with no morality to speak of. Try to get your players to find something about their character's morality that they would disagree with. I tried to do this implicitly in my last game and it worked for some players better than others. Next time I GM I plan on straight up asking them what their character believes in that they don't approve of and what they believe in that their character won't approve of.

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You should expand on this a bit. I love the idea, but its not a great answer as a single line. How would you as a DM go about doing this? –  wax eagle Jan 5 '12 at 17:15
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Personally, as a GM, I tend to prefer running higher level games. It lets me do a combination of some of the ideas being thrown around here (getting them involved in politics as a force potent enough to have a direct effect, throwing truly enormous monsters with numerous henchmen at them, even getting deities involved personally as both mission-givers and opposition...) that I tend to enjoy. It makes it easier to do things on a large scale. I also just enjoy creating situations where they still have to treat a very low level character respectfully (that king is only 16 years old and a second-level fighter, but he has an army to call on...)

But one option that I don't think has been discussed is to partially depower them without stripping them of their history or their core nature. This is a relatively common trope, especially in video games. Poor Kratos seems to somehow lose many of his toys at the end of each game (or beginning of the next).

There are a number of ways of doing this. Divine intervention for isntance, Elminster was constrained by Mystra from using much of his magic more than once when Mystra wanted him to learn something new... You could also transport them to some new plane of reality, but in the process much of their equipment is left behind and some of their skills may not function quite right. If this is DND, then having the dark powers in Ravenloft pull them across might do nicely. The Dark Powers took Azalan the Lich down several pegs initially before they permitted him to finally regain (and eventually exceed) the power level he had before they brought him over.

Finally, I'll echo some of the other comments that it is perfectly OK to do a denoument and say the end. Perhaps the characters settle down into a glorious retirement, or have a final chance to die heroically, but their death saves the day one last time, or perhaps they do ascend and join the pantheon.

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Having had to deal with this pickle a few times I have a few tricks up the sleeve to make it where the PCs will want to retire or move on to new characters.

  1. A adventure to end all adventures. Example I had a group of over-powered PCs that could eat ancient reds for breakfast. I sent them on a adventure where the gods where dying and the universe was slowly being ate by a ancient evil. In the end the party had to take up the mantle of the gods to put the universe right. One they accepted the mantle they knew nothing of their mortal lives. However I did let them make some adjustments to the unvierse. Stuff like the ones that worship the god of Death are now know as the followers of Mutt and the temples of the Warrior god all look like kegs of ale.

  2. Politics, since the PCs are so widely known. Everyone wanting power is trying to court them and get them to be the facemen of their political gains. They can't excatly fight their way out of this issue unless they suddenly want to find themselves at war with the commoners and nobles alike

  3. Old age - tell them the years on the road are catching up with them. They no longer can jump out of bed after a night on the town. Wounds are slower to heal even with healed by magic. There packs feel heavier and people comment about their graying hair.

  4. Boredom - They find the fame precedes them. That they go to kill a bandit leader only to find him all to willing to surrender that see his men slaugthered by the great and powerful heroes. Shop keepers raise the prices since they are great heroes loaded with coin. Nobles stop offering money since they are great heroes and must be loaded with coin.

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Option 3 part I may not be an option in some cases (age can be overcome with sufficient amounts of Power in many games), but I can see the reputation part working alright. Why not split n°3 in two (post could use a handful of edits for readability, while you're at it) ? –  Nigralbus May 24 '12 at 16:05
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