Thursday, February 11, 2010

4E Success or Failure: Epic Destinies

This is the first in what will no doubt be a sporadic series about some of the new concepts in 4th Edition. It will judge which aspects succeeded and failed, and rate how close the mechanic came to its goals and how beneficial it is to the game experience.

This is all my opinion, and your tastes or experiences might give you a higher or lower opinion of whatever I'm talking about. There's also a wide span between the great examples of each mechanic and the weakest, so I'll often qualify my opinion when I'm talking about the potential versus the reality. My first topic: Epic Destinies

I'm covering this first partially because I want to talk about paragon paths soon, and I plan to call back to some of the things I'll say here. The two have similar goals: They aim to enhance the feel and themes of each tier and provide more character differentiation.

Let's see what worked and what didn't.

  • Epic Feel: Both the mechanical magnitude and story text of (well-designed) epic destinies get across the idea that epic tier is really different. The average destiny includes a way to cheat death, a burly power, and a way to flat-out break the rules. Often, they also increase one or more of your stats. All these go beyond the scope of most ordinary powers, which lets them truly feel epic. The emphasis on story also gives destinies an extra kick. Since a destiny needs a way to tie into a destiny quest, the designer has to think about how a destiny will fit into the story and who it will appeal to. It's good for different RPG widgets to point designers in the right direction via their format. It can be easy for a designer to create new stuff without really solid story foundation, but destinies have a way of pointing the designer in a creative direction. To be fair, there are some bad destinies out there, usually because they've been designed with the scope of a paragon path instead of the scope of an epic destiny.
  • Big Impact with Few Additions: An epic destiny gives a minimum of four benefits over 10 levels, but each of these features and power have a strong impact. Because it's focused, a destiny requires each of its bits to work harder. It also helps that the designer has permission to go a little crazy with a destiny.
  • Broad Acquisition Possibilities: A PC can take an epic destiny after aspiring toward it for many levels or through an in-game event. I'll dub these "aspirational" paths and "organic" paths. It's likely a wizard will look forward to Archamage for his entire career (an aspirational destiny), but a character might become a demigod either after a lifetime of religious devotion or by chance after completing a quest to help a deity.
  • The Starting Batch: The biggest weakness of epic destinies has more to do with which ones appear than the format or concept of destinies. When the game came out, there were only four: One only a wizard could take (which is rare for destinies, and hardly ever a good idea), one that severely limited who could take it by requiring Dex and Cha of 21, one which was open to everybody, and one that was for people who don't want epic destinies. Demigod—a damn good concept, to be sure—had a disproportionate influence and prominence. The fact that it let you increase two ability scores meant that later destinies had to give a similar benefit to have a chance. This was an unintended consequence, but it's a real limitation.
  • No Attack Power: I'm split on whether I should include this, but some destinies really feel like they should have attack powers. It's not universal, but a limitation is a limitation.
  • Hard to Design: Yes, the format points designers toward the goal destinies try to achieve. Still, the requirement for a big, interesting concept and for breaking the rules can be daunting. The designer has to find the balance between "too good for powers or feats" and "too good to be in the game at all anywhere." I think this difficulty is a good thing overall, but that doesn't make them any less frustrating to work on.
  • Most People Won't Get Them: This isn't really a weakness, but it's unfortunate that most people won't get to a high enough level to enjoy the benefits of taking a destiny.
  • Hard Transition: Destinies suggest how the PC might fulfill a destiny quest, making the transition at the end of the campaign more smooth and interesting. Unfortunately, on the other end, the 21st-level end, there's not a similar transition. Everybody in a group flipping the destiny switch at the same time (since most groups will level together) doesn't really allow for a satisfying conclusion to the story arcs that lead to each character assuming his or her destiny. It might be more interesting if destinies kicked in at level 21 plus or minus 2, with each character getting a little more face time for this big moment.
  • Less Connected to Your Theme: Your playstyle might determine whether you think this is good or bad, but it's hard to find a destiny that ties into a specific or narrow character theme. A winter wizard can take cold powers and a cold-based paragon path, but have a hard time finding a winter-themed epic destiny to continue the trend all the way through.
The Score
Though I think epic destinies achieve their goal, there are some less-than-stellar ones out there. Factoring the execution in, I'm going to give epic destinies a grade of: