Year of 4E: Paragon Paths & Epic Destinies
This month I want to get into one side of a topic that was representative of the design backbone of 4th Edition: the tier system. While mechanically embedded in the edition this was, conceptually, quite useful to think about. Despite being something that previous and later editions have considered in their own way, the specific mechanical design of 4E really helped put the concept into perspective.
A Brief Note On Tiers
The first thing I want to do is talk about the tiers themselves. My hope is to get deeper into the concept from the DM’s side later on in the year, but we should bring it up right now. In 4th Edition, there were three tiers of game play defined by about 10 character levels each. This began with the Heroic Tier from 1-10, where characters we champions of a localized area. They were powerhouses, but still small players in the world. Following this is the Paragon tier where they represent the best of the best in the world from levels 11-20. Finally we travel into the Epic tier from 21-30 where they became more than mortal. They would be archmages, godlings, and legends. Campaigns of the 4th Edition were designed with this pacing and so were the advancements of characters.
Paragons Of Adventure And Heroism
The Heroic Tier had players taking their classes, advancing in power, and diversifying their abilities. By the time they hit level 11 though, they are among the best fighters, mages, clerics, and rogues in the world. They have been exposed to dangers beyond their villages and the towns nearby. When they get to the Paragon Tier they should be specialized in their play style and on their way to fight larger threats to the world. Enter Paragon Paths.
Paragon Paths, in a way, take the place of many of the prestige classes of 3rd Edition. Rather than having a list of prerequisites that you should plan for from level one and then deciding how to divvy up levels, a paragon path utilizes perquisites you should have already if you are even considering it. Things such as cleric domain or warlock patron were themes for characters from the get go and become themes for the paragon paths. Moreover, the abilities you get from them are standardized to specific levels and alternate with base class choices. This means no hard decisions between the two from level to level.
Epic Tales Like Those Of Old
The greatest epics had the greatest heroes who could defeat death and perform acts nearly unfathomable to the average person. When you hit level 21 you are no longer just concerned with potential world threats, things fighting the kingdom, or the like. Instead you are fighting armies of thralls as minflayers coat the world in darkness to end history as we know it or primordial elemental gods breaking their chains and risking an apocalypse. By level 21 you have already specialized and gotten great at what you do, but you have learned even more.
Epic Destinies represent the story aspects of mortals transcending that which we are familiar with. When you die it is not the end. You need not hope your friends can bring you back, you simply get back up again. Or perhaps you become a ghost to destroy those who hurt your physical form. Maybe you just blink in a contingency plan of arcane supremacy. The point is, you are not easy to defeat and even harder to kill. Different from most other games, when you hit this tier of game play you are effectively super heroes capable of insane acts of power, but there are stories to go along with it.
Themes, Choice Insight, & Minor Planning
One of the best things about this set up is the ease with which you can build around the choices. Paragon Paths offer up themes built around archetypes, play styles, and settings. They provide the right tools for the jobs you will have and the wants you want. While you need not look at them, they do provide insight if you are having trouble making choices.
For example, say you want to play a warlock but you aren’t pulled by a specific patron for story reasons. You just like the idea of a pact and are open to any of them, but you still have to pick one. You gain some insight from the powers granted, but you can also flip to the paragon paths and see what you will be able to specialize in. Damage, illusions, area effects, what ever it is that the path provides might inform you as to your preference and, thus, your initial choice.
For those with expansion books like Arcane Power or Heroes of Shadow, you might be looking at something a little more specialized. Knowing your game is going into the desert, the Feywild, or planes hopping you can look into a Paragon Path that fits both your class and your theme and say okay, I need this one extra thing by level 11 and plan for it.
A Nod But Forgotten
5th Edition brings in a nod to the design matrix of 4E, but this is very much restricted to the Heroic Tier and initial class choices. In a way Heroic Tier might be considered levels 1-3 in 5E where you have a class and figure out some of your play style stuff. When you pick your monk way, your pact type, or your paladin oath it is very similar to picking a Paragon Path. It is far more condensed and there are a lot less choices going on, but the pattern is there.
Beyond that however, we have lost most of our choices. One thing we can still do is take feats, but those are sadly underwhelming for the most part. A handful are incredibly useful, but mostly for specific character rolls/types. And something we never get to see are anything like Epic Destinies. While there are incredible endgame powers, some of which keep you alive, you never get that cool legendary choice.
In 4E these were less tied to style (like Paragon Paths) and more tied to story and concept. Things like archemage and demigod were the choices you would make. You could become a champion of gods or a spirit of nature itself. In 5th Edition you might get to do something like this if the story plays into it, but while any arcane class might become an archmage in 4E, its only the wizards who get level 9 wizard spells in 5E.
I understand the reasoning, but its disappointing. Epic Destinies were one of those things that help create flak for 4E. It was very insane, especially at those high levels. Moreover the game was VERY wargamey and story is often seen as being left by the wayside in that edition. I would argue that people tend to forget that the mechanics are designed to support your story. For me they hide in plain sight and are only missing when underplayed by the group or by focusing solely on mechanics. Epic Destinies were a part of this. They were huge story aspects of a game that hit the transition into something wild and crazy. No, it’s not for everyone, but the concept was glorious.
Later on we will get into the DM side of tiers. This is the other side of the coin and very integral to campaign design. I loved these and still try to think about things in a similar way. But we’ll get there. Let me know your thoughts on tiered play below. Did you like the idea of Paragon Paths? Think they were poorly implemented? A partial step towards prestige class refinement?? I’d love to know!