The Epic Level Handbook (2002) is a 320-page hardback sourcebook for Dungeons & Dragons 3rd edition, written by Andy Collins and Bruce R. Cordell. It provided rules for playing D&D characters above 20th level.
The Epic Level Handbook introduces rules for player characters and campaigns above 20th level.
The book's cover is designed in the iconic third edition style to resemble a physical bound book clad in brass and inlaid with gemstones. While most third edition sourcebooks used color art on the front cover, the Epic Level Handbook features a monochrome artwork in a style more commonly used for character openers.
The cover art depicts by Arnie Swekel, depicting the iconic character Alhandra. The picture is divided down the middle; the right side shows Alhandra as she would be equipped at a low-level character, and the left side as she would appear as an epic level character.
Chapter 1: Characters, Skills, and Feats
Some 65 pages are dedicated to rules for player characters above 20th level, including the eleven classes of the Player's Handbook (3.0) (2000), the six prestige classes of the Dungeon Master's Guide (3.0) (2000), and the psion and psychic warrior classes from the Psionics Handbook (2001).
It introduces nine new epic prestige classes: the agent retriever, cosmic descryer, divine emissary, epic infiltrator, guardian paramount, high proselytizer, legendary dreadnought, perfect wight, and union sentinel.
It includes rules for skills checks with exceptionally high difficulty classes, such as balancing on a cloud, picking a lock as a free action, ignore falling damage, or swim up a waterfall. It also includes an extended Leadership table, and a series of feats for epic level characters.
Chapter 2: Epic Spells
It features 46 epic spells: animus blast, animus blizzard, contingent resurrection, create living vault, crown of vermin, damnation, demise unseen, dire winter, dragon knight, dragon strike, dreamscape, eclipse, eidolon, enslave, epic counterspell, epic mage armor, epic repulsion, epic spell reflection, eternal freedom, greater ruin, greater spell resistance, hellball, kinetic control, let go of me, living lightning, lord of nightmares, mass frog, momento mori, mummy dust, nailed to the sky, origin of species: achaierai, peripety, pestilence, rain of fire, raise island, ruin, safe time, soul dominion, soul scry, spell worm, summon behemoth, superb dispelling, time duplicate, vengeful gaze of god, verdigris and verdigris tsunami. These range in power from ruin, which deals 20d6 damage and requires a DC 27 check; and vengeful gaze of god, dealing 305d6 damage and requiring a DC 27 check.
Chapter 3: Running an Epic Game
This chapter advises DMs on how to run an epic-level campaign. It includes a list of 100 epic adventure ideas, advice on running and creating epic versions of core concepts (travel, wilderness, dungeons, settlements, NPCs, and encounters), and XP and treasure charts for high level play.
Chapter 4: Epic Magic Items
This chapter presents numerous epic-level magic items and guidelines for their creation. Epic items have a radically higher price than standard magic items, generally placing them out of the price range of non-epic characters. For example, while non-epic armor normally costs 1,000 times the enhancement bonus squared, armor of +6 or better costs 10,000 times the enhancement bonus squared
Chapter 5: Monsters
The Epic Level Handbook introduced the following creatures: abomination (anaxim, atropal, chichimec, dream larva, hecatoncheires, infernal, phaethon, phane, xixecal), behemoth, brachyurus, colossus (stone colossus, flesh colossus, iron colossus), demilich, devastation vermin, advanced dragon, force dragon, prismatic dragon, primal elemental, genius loci, gibbering orb, gloom, golem (mithral golem, adamantine golem), ha-naga, hagunemnon (protean), hoary hunter, hoary steed, hunefer, lavawight, legendary animal (legendary bear, legendary tiger), leshay, living vault, mercane, mu spore, neh-thalggu (brain collector), paragon creature, (paragon mind flayer), prismasaurus, pseudonatural creature (pseudonatural troll), ruin swarm, shadow of the void, shape of eire, sirrush, slaad, white slaad, black slaad, tayellah, thorciasid, elder titan, elder treant, umbral blot (blackball), uvuudaum, vermiurge, winterwight, and worm that walks.
The monsters in this sourcebook primarily range from challenge rating 21 to 39, with an average of 27.4. A few weaker creatures are included, such as the CR 5 mercane (inhabitants of the city of Union) and the CR 9 legendary bear. At the high end, few appear in the 40s (devestation spider, devistation spider, old prismatic dragon) and two in the 50s (the CR 50 devestation beetle, and the CR 57 hecatoncheires).
Even more powerful are the eldest categories of the CR 59 great wyrm force dragon and CR 66 greay wyrm prismatic dragon, with this sourcebook introducing a new "Colossal+" size category to accomodate them. The advanced dragon rules also allow for unlimited further progression for all types of true dragon.
The Epic Level Handbook presented the highest challenge rating monsters which would ever appear in any Wizards of the Coast D&D 3.0 or 3.5 sourcebook. The next highest was linnorm corpse-tearer in Monster Manual II (3e) (2002), at only CR 28. Some more powerful creatures than this would appear in Dragon Magazine and Dungeon Magazine.
Chapter 6: An Epic Setting
This chapter dedicates some sixty pages to presenting a context for epic-level adventures, including organizations, enemies, allies, and locations. It describes the epic City of Union, and presents the adventure module Kerleth's Tower, along with some epic adventure ideas referred to as Adventure Concentrate.
Appendices I-III: Epic NPCs
Three chapters here present official statistics for high-level NPCs. Appendix I: Epic NPCs of Faerûn presents Alustriel, Elminster, Epic Red Wizard, Gerti Orelsdottr, Iyraclea, Khelben Arunsun, Manshoon, Shuruppak, Storm Silverhand, Szazz Tam, The Simbul, and statistics for an epic-level Red Wizards. Appendix II: Epic NPCs of Greyhawk presents Catlord, Eclavdra, Lord Robilar, and Mordenkainen. Appendix III: Epic NPCs gives ready-made NPC statistics for level 21-30 characters of the eleven core character classes.
Development and release
The Epic Level Handbook was written by Andy Collins and Bruce Cordell. Additional design was provided by John D. Rateliff, Thomas Reid, and James Wyatt. The cover art was an atypically monochrome artwork drawn by Arnie Swekel, depicting the paladin Alhandra, with full-color internal illustrations provided by numerous artists.
The Player's Handbook (3.0) (2000) initially provided rules for Dungeons & Dragons characters up to 20th level only. The Forgotten Realms Campaign Setting (3e) (2001), seeking to represent exceptionally powerful iconic NPCs of that world, introduced rudimentary rules for "epic" characters above 20th level. That book announced that more complete rules would appear in an upcoming Epic Level Handbook (incorrectly referred to at one point as "Epic-Level Campaigns").
Andy Collins was the first writer assigned to the book, and wrote the core rules defining how characters progressed past 20th level, forming the basis for the rest of the rulebook. Collins also wrote many feats, and some monsters. A basic design premise was that the rules should follow on naturally from the standard rules, on the assumption that the Epic Level Handbook would primarily be played by people who most enjoyed the level 1-20 play experience.
Bruce Cordell later joined the project and contributed the free-form epic spellcasting system, drawing on a previous concept in his AD&D sourcebook College of Wizardry (1998), which introduced the Aleph or Language Primeval, a sort of original raw language of magic. Cordell had wanted to create such a freeform spellcasting system for D&D since before he came to work for TSR in 1995, and described the epic spells as the feature of which he was most proud. Cordell also contributed most of the monsters, including the abominations, and several feats.
Thomas Reid was initially brought in to write an epic level adventure module for release after the Epic Level Handbook, but ended up contributing to the book itself, increasing it from around 220 pages to over 300. Reid created the book's setting and adventure content, including the city of Union. He created monsters, magic items, and spells, and other elements.
James Wyatt and John Rateliff contributed various elements such as NPCs and monsters. Reid, Wyatt and Rateliff's contributions were made largely independently of the main writers, using their core systems as as basis.
Release and support
It was released in July 2002 as a 320-page hardback book for a price of US$39.95, or $55.95 Canadian.
From July 5-7, 2002, the Wizards of the Coast website posted content to support the Epic Level Handbook: a product excerpt, a screensaver, a free web enhancement providing epic-level progressions for 24 prestige classes from six class-based D&D 3.0 sourcebooks, and three PC desktop wallpapers featuring art from the book.
On July 26, 2002, 135 pieces of art from the book were published online.
A product FAQ was created for the soucebook, last updated on April 4, 2003. On July 18, 2003, an update booklet was released to allow conversion to the Dungeons & Dragons v.3.5 rules revision. An errata document was released on February 16, 2006.
Several articles supporting epic level content were published on the Wizards of the Coast website between July 2002 and October 2006, in a series called Epic Insights. These primarily added epic level support to D&D sourcebooks.
Reception and influence
Criticism and praise
Prior to its release, an unfinished copy of the rulebook was leaked online, the first D&D third edition rulebook where this occurred. Initial reception was generally negative, with readers of the leaked material complaining of poor balance and lack of epic tone.
Kevin Kulp felt that the epic rules successfully addressed the problem of Dungeons & Dragons third edition normally failing to scale well at high level. However, it tended to do this by flattening the power curve, making ability acqusition primarily feat-based, with some feats being substantially more powerful than others. He also noted that the Epic Level Handbook tended to create a world where all encounters were suddenly scaled to epic-level characters, such as cities where even the town guards are 30th-level, denying players the ability to feel like the most powerful heroes in the world.
Influence on later works
In the Dungeons & Dragons v.3.5 revision, the epic level rules were incorporated into the standard D&D rules, appearing in the Dungeon Master's Guide (3.5) (2003). Content from the Epic Level Handbook was released as part of the System Reference Documents.
Product support for epic-level play was limited, as a relatively small proportion of campaigns ever reached such high level. Wizards of the Coast never released an epic-level adventure module. Only a few subsequent sourcebooks introduced a substantial number of monsters above CR 20, most notably Monster Manual II (3e) (2002) (mountain giant, hellfire wyrm, leviathan, linnorm, phoenix, spirit of the land, bone ooze, chaos roc, fiendwurm) and Fiend Folio (3e) (2003) (thunder worm, klurichir demon, myrmyxicus demon, paeliryon devil); and none were higher than CR 28.
Dungeon Magazine only ever published one D&D third edition adventure module for characters above 20th level: Quicksilver Hourglass, Dungeon #123 (Jun 2005), p.56. Dragon #297 (Jul 2002) included four articles supporting epic level play: Sentinels of the Shoal, Relics of Myth, Rival the Gods, and The Flame of Destiny. Epic level content also appeared in the article Dragon #308 (Jun 2003), p.94.
The epic level rules influenced the design of Dungeons & Dragons 4th edition, in which gameplay from level 21-30 is referred to as the "epic" tier. The function of epic prestige classes is replaced in that edition by the epic destiny.
Dungeons & Dragons 5th edition introduced a mechanic known as the epic boon, allowing characters to progress by gaining unique abilities after reaching the maximum 20th level.
- Epic Level Handbook (3e) on Dungeon Masters Guild
- Product page (Internet Archive)
- Product Spotlight at Wizards.com (2002)
- Art gallery at Wizards.com (2002)
- Web enhancement at Wizards.com (2002)
- Legendary Desktops at Wizards.com (2002)
- Screensaver at Wizards.com (2002)
- Chat Transcript: Epic Level Handbook at Wizards.com (2002)
- Epic Level Handbook FAQ at Wizards.com (2003)
- Product Spotlight: Epic Level Handbook, Wizards.com, July 12, 2002.
- Chat Transcript: Epic Level Handbook. Aug 27, 2002.
- Epic Level Handbook, Wizards.com product list.
- Web Enhancement: Epic Level Handbook, Wizards.com, July 6, 2002.
- Epic Level Handbook Screensaver. July 5, 2002.
- Legendary Desktops: Epic Level Handbook Wallpapers
- Excerpts: Epic Level Handbook, Wizards.com, July 5, 2002.
- Art Gallery: Epic Level Handbook. Wizards,com, July 26, 2002.
- Official D&D Game Rule FAQ, Wizards.com.
- D&D v.3.5 Accessory Update Booklet. Wizards.com, July 18, 2003.
- Official D&D Updates, Wizards.com.
- Epic Insights Archive, Wizards.com.
- Epic Level Handbook (3e) on Dungeon Masters Guild
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