While the Epic Level Handbook contains plenty of guidelines and advice for running an epic-level game, certain issues may arise that force the DM into the unwanted role of discouraging or limiting certain effects, both on his side and the players' side. While that can be a reasonable solution for groups willing to look past the letter of the rules in favor of the spirit of an enjoyable game, it's not always enough simply to say, "Hey, stop casting harm on every dragon you meet!"
That's where the variants presented in this column come in handy. Each one tackles a different potentially problematic issue in epic-level spellcasting. In most cases, these issues crop up simply because of the "no limits" approach to epic-level play. There's really nothing wrong with any of the spells or feats listed below in a non-epic game, though at higher levels you may see hints as to larger problems looming.
If you've been frustrated by any of these situations, discuss the variant rule presented with the rest of the gaming group and consider trying it out for a session or two to see if it lets you get back to a more enjoyable experience.
Epic Variant: No "Save or Die" Spells
By the time characters reach epic levels, spells that kill the target on a failed save ("save or die" spells) can swing an encounter dramatically on the basis of a single roll. These spells have an effect that dramatically outweighs that of other spells of similar level, because death effects generally don't care about your level or hit points. Effectively, these spells get more powerful as their targets become more powerful. (Some spells, such as circle of death or power word, kill affect creatures up to a maximum HD or hit point value only, which means that they have a built-in upper limit of destructive power.)
If you want to downplay the swing factor of save or die spells, consider altering the spells listed below as described. In each case, the "death" effect is replaced by dice of damage, allowing extraordinarily powerful targets to withstand such spells even on a failed save. This means that you're better off wearing down a tough foe for a few rounds before hitting it with a save or die spell.
Destruction: Instead of simply destroying the target on a failed save, this spell deals 20d6 points of damage plus 1d6 points of damage per caster level, with no upper limit to its damage. If this damage reduces the target to 0 or fewer hit points, the target is destroyed utterly, as described in the spell.
Disintegrate: On a failed save, this spell deals 20d6 points of damage plus 1d6 points of damage per caster level, with no upper limit to its damage. If this damage reduces the target to 0 or fewer hit points, the target is disintegrated, as described in the spell.
Finger of Death: On a failed save, this spell deals 20d6 points of damage plus 1d6 points of damage per caster level, with no upper limit to its damage. If this damage reduces the target to 0 or fewer hit points, the target is slain.
Implosion: Each target that fails its save against this spell suffers 20d6 points of damage plus 1d6 points of damage per caster level, with no upper limit to its damage. If this damage reduces the target to 0 or fewer hit points, the target is killed, as described in the spell.
Prismatic Sphere, and so on: The green (poison) layer (or ray) deals 20d6 points of damage plus 1d6 points of damage per caster level on a failed save, with no upper limit to its damage. If this damage reduces the target to 0 or fewer hit points, the target is killed, as described in the spell.
Slay Living: See finger of death.
Wail of the Banshee: See implosion.
Epic Variant: Limited Harm and Heal Effects
Few spells in the game see as much heated discussion as these two. Much like the save or die effects listed above, these spells continue to get more and more powerful as their targets gain levels (and hit points).
If your group isn't satisfied with the ever-escalating power of these spells, consider changing them to deal (or cure) 10 hit points per caster level, to a maximum of 150 points at 15th level. (In the case of harm, the spell can't reduce the target below 1 hit point.) This allows the spells to retain their role as extraordinarily potent damage-dealing (or damage-curing) effects, while limiting them from wiping out or restoring several hundred hit points in a single touch.
Along the same lines, the heal mount spell would cure 10 hit points per caster level, to a maximum of 100 hit points at 10th level (since it's a lower-level spell than heal). Mass heal would have a maximum of 250 hit points cured at 25th level.
Maximum Spell Effects
Some spells in the Player's Handbook have effects based on caster level but don't list a "cap" to these effects. Consider adding the following maximum spell effect caps to your game to keep these spells in line with their appropriate power level.
Augury: The base chance for receiving a meaningful reply is 70% +1% per caster level, to a maximum of 90% at 20th level or higher.
Bigby's Clenched Fist/Bigby's Grasping Hand: The attack bonus of either spell is equal to your level up to 20th, then +1 per 2 levels thereafter. (Effectively, the attack bonus is equal to the base attack bonus of a fighter of your caster level.)
Circle of Doom: This spell is listed as dealing a maximum of 1d8+20 points of damage. This limit should probably be 1d8+25, since it's a level higher than inflict critical wounds (which also has a maximum of +20).
Creeping Doom: It seems hard to believe that a spell that covers a 20-foot-diameter spread could inflict its full damage on a single target within it in any given round. After all, not all of vermin are in each square, so it's not possible for the spell to inflict all 1,000 points of damage to, say, a single human unlucky enough to be the lone creature within its area. This spell fills 12 squares, so each square would have no more than (1,000 divided by 12) roughly 80 stinging bugs. For simplicity's sake, you could round this to an even 100, meaning that creeping doom would inflict a maximum of 100 points of damage in each 5-foot square per round. Thus, a human could suffer no more than 100 points of damage per round (since he takes up only a single square), while a cloud giant (who fills a 10-foot-by-10-foot area, or four full squares) could suffer 400 points of damage per round. (Remember that since each point of damage comes from a separate source, this damage doesn't force a Fortitude save to avoid death from massive damage.)
Fire Shield: The damage dealt to attackers should top out at 1d6+20 points of damage.
Harm: See "Limited Harm and Heal Effects," above.
Heal: See "Limited Harm and Heal Effects," above.
Heal Mount: See "Limited Harm and Heal Effects," above.
Healing Circle: Like circle of doom, this spell should probably top out at 1d8+25 points, rather than 1d8+20.
Mass Heal: See "Limited Harm and Heal Effects," above.
Protection from Elements: This spell doesn't list a maximum amount of damage absorbed. As a 3rd-level spell, it could top out as low as 10th level (120 points), but it wouldn't be terribly unbalanced to allow it to top out at 20th level (240 points).
Regenerate: This spell should probably cure a maximum of 1d8+35 points, rather than 1d8+20.
Spell Resistance: The maximum spell resistance granted by this spell should be 37 at 25th level.
Tenser's Transformation: The caster of the spell gains 1d6 temporary hit points per level and a +1 base attack bonus per two levels, up to a maximum of 20d6 temporary hit points and a +10 base attack bonus at 20th level. After all, beyond 20th level, the fighter and wizard both increase base attack bonus at the same rate, and this spell is designed to give the wizard a fighter's base attack bonus.
Wall of Ice: Just as for wall offire, a creature passing through a wall of ice should suffer a maximum of 1d6+20 points of damage.
Epic Variant: Nonstacking Metamagic
A few metamagic feats -- Empower Spell, Enlarge Spell, and Extend Spell -- can be applied to a single spell multiple times, stacking its increased effect again and again. When casters are limited to slots up to 9th level, this doesn't pose too much of a problem -- you can empower a bull's strength only three times before you run into the top limit of your spellcasting powers.
But as epic-level characters gain spell slots of 10th, 12th, 15th, or higher levels, the stacking nature of these metamagic feats can grow out of control. To address this situation, consider limiting all metamagic feats to no more than one application per feat slot spent on the feat. A character who wanted to empower a fireball twice would thus have to take the Empower Spell feat twice.
This may seem overly harsh to players who have grown used to quadrupling the range of their spells with multiple stacking applications of Enlarge Spell, or dramatically increasing the damage output of their lightning bolts with Empower Spell. As a compromise, consider alternative limits, such as a maximum of two applications per feat slot spent. The DM and players should work together to find a happy medium where both sides are comfortable with the outcome.
Game Resources: To use the material in this article to its fullest, check out the Epic Level Handbook. Of course, you'll also need the Player's Handbook, Dungeon Master's Guide, and the Monster Manual!
About the Author
Andy Collins is the co-designer of the Epic Level Handbook. Read more about him and his projects at www.andycollins.net.