I’ve spoken about the Epic Level Handbook in the past, as a sort of ‘pull the corpse open and look at its insides,’ sort of way. Y’know, look, here’s where the liver is all weird and this bone connects to that bone and now you can see how all these parts in a broad way relate to one another and also why the patient is stone dead. It’s a good article, I recommend you read it because it’s about big, overarching problems the book had. I also have written about the problems of challenge ratings, the black box of imbalance that 3rd edition D&D has going on, a black box that gets worse and worse over time, all building on the impossible fundamental error of D&D 3e’s design philosophy, in that it’s intentional for players to be able to be bad at it.
But I didn’t come here to talk about that.
That’s not why I busted out the Epic Level Handbook, to drag the ugliest system rolled with worst dice through the streets again. Nor is to delve into the misshapen balance parameters presented by treating a single level of a class as equal across all classes when representing characters built well and characters built badly. A level 21 fighter is meant to be an equal challenge for a party to a level 21 wizard, even though one of those is essentially a tough guy with a sword and the other is a tough guy with a sword and the power to stop time.
Instead, I want to talk about the monsters of the Epic Level Handbook.
Because I think a bunch of them are cool, even if their execution is stupid.
First of all, the book introduces the idea of the Abominations. This is a great category and it’s honestly the strongest thing in the whole book. 3e was already a system populated by th eidea of categorical monsters, where multiple things with linked attributes were grouped together. For example, Dragons and Demons and Devils all have broad groupings of traits, and then the individuals in that group represent those shared abilities. In that case, those things are linked by a common heritage, and the Abominations are linked by the common trait of being misbegotten offspring of gods.
Now, there’s a bag of powerful nonsense, which is largely a bunch of immunities, and sure, there’s a lesson there in how the stupid rules of the game mean that cool and powerful abilities have to be rendered useless otherwise they cause problems. But set that aside and just consider these monsters for what they are. A child of the god of the forge, an enormous, ineffable machine constantly whirring and clicking, with an incomprehensible need to enact. Every evil of a demon, magnified to the heroic scope of a Hercules. The strange, pre-god things that is the hundred-handed one. A glacier, the very surface of the world, getting up and walking, with dragons flitting about on its shoulders. A monster of time itself, that can chase you into different time streams. A stillborn god, a creature of such entitlement it demands to live a poisonous life despite everything of what it is being inimical to living.
These are baller concepts for a persistent, evil, dangerous threat that defines the very nature of the story you’re in. Each of these monsters, and the way they see the world could be a defining, constant, enduring threat, a monster that follows you from place to place and oh uhm well, I guess the book does also treat them as things you can fight on the way to other things.
Well that’s cool too I guess.
Minor nitpick while we’re here, though, there’s this monster from later in the book, a Hunefer, which is a mummified god. And it’s not an Abomination, possibly because it was behind the door when that grouping got sorted out.
The Behemoths are … weird. They’re animals. Really big, very scary, very dangerous animals. But they’re outsiders, so their stats are better, and druids can’t shapeshift into them, and… that’s it! And like so many of the things in the book, their reason for being is inscrutable, which is a bad thing. It means that instead of being given a collection of ideas you’re being given a pile of pieces, and they don’t work to explain what they are on their own. There’s nothing in the mechanical block of the Behemoth that’s explained by saying ‘well, it looks like a hawk,’ nothing that makes it different to just using a hawk, except for the under-the-hood limitations meant to keep druids from doing something busto with them. It’s not like you can’t just use the Magical Beast option like there is for the Tayellah and Sirrush, two other interesting epic-level beasts.
Moving on from there we get the Colossi. Hey, golems are already dumb as hell, but we can’t just keep calling them ‘golems,’ can we? Note that the change away from golems is in no way an attack of particular mythical sensitivity towards Jewish myths about the golem, it’s just that they ran out of good names. Also, no lies, it’s absolutely cowardly that the Iron Colossus is immune to rust powers, like you’re pre-empting the one clever thing a player might do. Just like with the Abominations, a lot of monster design in Epic is saying ‘you know those obvious things a player might do other than just whaling on this thing? all the broken spellcaster stuff? well, you can’t do that.’
And don’t worry, then we get Golems later on. They’re like Colossi but smaller. A Colossus is like a golem but bigger.
In the category of dragons, we expand from the ordinary colours to the types of dragon that only show up in epic levels, Prismatic and Force. Prismatic dragons’ breath weapons have a random effect, because what you want is area effect random tables. Force dragons have the much more reasonable category of ignoring hardness and resistance, meaning that a force dragon blowing a breath weapon down onto a group is also going to dig a five-meter deep pit they’re all already standing in. They get Todd Lockwood to illustrate them and they look great, but they’re also just Dragons; however you use dragons in your setting, you’ll use these the same way.
The Leshay are the first thing that feels like they can form the base of a campaign, with these progenitor pre-elf elves able to show up and demonstrate that even their mundane members are enormous threats to the players, and yet also signal an entire culture behind them that can Here’s a big component of worldbuilding, a progenitor heritage for the elves that ties them to the fey world, and if you want to make elves that important to your setting, that’s great! Basically, here’s the first thing that both implies a story and presents a variety of potential encounters. It’s a good thing to include in this kind of resource, instead of the multiple unique threats the book presents with the Forgotten Realms numbers filed off (like the Uvaduum and Shadow of The Void). There’s a similar depth to the Neh-Thalggu, which feels to me like the third form on an evolution chart of an Elder Brain from a Mind Flayer campaign.
Finally, as far as specific mentions go, the Vermiurges are cool ideas that you can introduce into the world as a new thing without having challenges explaining where they came from. They’re the gods of bugs – and once one appears, it’s probably really easy for that Vemiurge to convince the bugs around them to keep spreading the word. You can have entire doctrinal wars between bug gods that don’t know about or care about people at all.
There are a few monsters that get further treatments in Elder Evils, particularly the Genius Loci and The Worm That Walks. Both of these are good ideas, but neither make good ‘monster manual’ content because you can’t just grab them and slap them into an encounter without making them seem far less prestigious than they really are.
I think a big part of the problem with these monsters is that their sheer scope means there’s no variety to combat, but rather these things that imply a narrative that they cannot back up. So many of them stumble at the question ‘okay, but what the fuck is this thing?’
There’s a shocking amount of stuff in this book that presents what I call a ‘skeleton archer’ problem. What’s a skeleton archer? Well it’s a skeleton that’s an archer. The entire concept of the thing is encapsulated in its description. The result is in the book there are Elder Elementals (elementals, but older), devastation vermin (bugs, but bigger), gibbering orbs (they’re orbs, you see, and they gibber), the lava wight (it’s this wight, right, and it’s covered in lava), and the winter wight (it’s this wight, right, but it’s covered in ice), the living vault (it’s a vault, and it’s living), and in this category we can also throw the Gloom, which is like, this guy? And he kills people. While we’re also accounting for nothings, though, there’s the Mercane, a CR3 monster person that exists so you can build your own character on top of it, Legendary Animals (animals, but bigger), and the demilich, which is a lich, but moreso, with a bunch of extra abilities that don’t really do anything per se.
See, one of the problems with epic monsters is their relationship to the action economy of 3rd edition. It doesn’t matter how good your turn is if you don’t do something to fix the economy of giving at least three people a chance to mess you up in between those actions. In later editions, monsters in this rarified atmosphere get multiple initiatives, meaning that they’re less likely to just wait for multiple actions getting beaten up before they respond to anything. Without a big structural change, what you get instead is every individual monster in this space either being weirdly weak, or capable of getting lucky and killing an entire party.
It’s a shame, too, because, well, some of these are fun ideas. Some of these monsters, the ones that aren’t Skeleton Archers, they’re some interesting escalations of scale and concept that don’t necessarily exist in the same landscape of Goblins In A Keep.