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Friday, 20 September 2013

Mythic Adventures


When I first heard the term mythic in relation to Pathfinder, my initial impression (which I suspect many other people shared and some possibly still share) was that of epic, character levels beyond 20 as first detailed in the third edition Dungeons and Dragons sourcebook, the Epic Level Handbook. I figured the announced Mythic Adventures book was to be Pathfinder’s replacement for the aforementioned third edition book. It was very quickly apparent, though, that this was not exactly the case. While there are similarities between mythic and epic and even some overlap, they are different things. That said, Mythic Adventures is a sort of replacement for the Epic Level Handbook as mythic tiers (the mythic equivalent of levels) pretty much make epic levels unnecessary, while simultaneously accomplishing quite a bit more.

At first, I was quite disappointed. I actually really enjoy high-level play, and I was looking forward to Paizo one day “fixing” epic levels. Most people will agree the Epic Level Handbook was not a very good book. The system had a lot of flaws in it—its biggest problem being its attempt to make level advancement unlimited with a continuous repetition of the same for infinity. A noble goal, I suppose, but simply unattainable. Nonetheless, the Epic Level Handbook had a few good things going for it, particularly a selection of epic monsters that were powerful, unique, and hugely imaginative. As a revision of D&D 3.5, it seemed natural that Pathfinder would eventually revise epic levels as well. I always expected such a revision to make drastic changes to the very structure of epic advancement. I also fully expected a change of name—primarily because, in messageboard discussions on the topic, Paizo employees had made it fairly clear they favoured a change in terminology. What I didn’t expect is what mythic actually ended up becoming.

In short, mythic is not necessarily an advancement into super-high levels, although it can be used for high-level play (indeed, it’s necessary in order to provide characters with powers beyond 20th level). Mythic can easily be introduced at low levels as well, and the recommendation for a typical mythic game is that characters have roughly half as many mythic tiers as they have character levels. Mythic is essentially a way for characters to gain additional and greater powers beyond those normally available. I have to say that when I first heard about this, I strongly disliked it. The game already has a built-in method for gaining additional power—it’s called levelling up. New powers are introduced to the game all the time through new spells, new feats, prestige classes, and more. And what I heard and read initially regarding mythic paths just sounded like prestige classes (or maybe templates) under a different name.

However, after my initial reaction, I decided to maintain an open mind and wait. I downloaded the playtest document and skimmed it over (unfortunately, I never got a chance to read it fully and never actually participated in the playtest). What I saw there gave me some reason to think it might just work out, although I agreed with some people’s initial responses that it didn’t really feel mythic (to use the literal meaning of the word, as opposed to the game meaning).

Now that Mythic Adventures is out, I have to say I really, really like the results. This is a great book and the system it introduces looks like it will work far better than the Epic Level Handbook’s system ever did. What’s in the book can provide great new dimensions for gameplay and the opportunity to build exciting, unique characters. That said, there’s still one thing I don’t really buy: that mythic characters are all that...well...mythic.

Let’s face it, Dungeons & Dragons and Pathfinder are games that already have a huge variety of weird magic, powers, and monsters. A few more aren’t really going to stand out all that much. But Mythic Adventures takes the stance that mythic characters, by virtue of being mythic, stand out from all others and can accomplish things other characters can’t. Under the “Creating a Mythic Character” section, the book states, “A skilled fighter might impact the history of a region, but a mythic champion can change its fate, and his every move is chronicled and recorded.” But non-mythic characters have been changing the fates of lands for as long as people have been playing the game. They have had their adventures chronicled and recorded for just as long. Basically, people have been playing mythic adventures without the benefit of Mythic Adventures and haven’t had a problem. True, a 20th-level character with 10 mythic tiers is at the ultimate pinnacle of advancement and will stand out beyond a non-mythic 20th-level character, but what of the low-level characters with only one or two mythic tiers? Can they really change the fate of the world in ways that other characters can’t? Does a 3rd-level wizard with one tier in archmage stand out any more than a 4th-level wizard? I have to say, no. The low-tier path abilities have been appropriately balanced so that those two characters are fairly equal in abilities.

From an in-world perspective, many of the mythic abilities are not going to be that noticeable to the general populace as being any different from any other characters’ abilities. Abundant casting is a 1st-tier archmage path ability that allows characters’ spells to affect a larger number of targets than normal. Other wizards might notice something a little unusual, I suppose, but the average person won’t be able to tell the archmage apart from any other wizard. A lot of other mythic abilities are “meta” abilities, things that are completely invisible to in-world observers. Abilities to reroll dice do make people seem more skilled (or perhaps just luckier) over the long-run, but no more so than slightly higher-level characters might be.

The chapter on “Running a Mythic Campaign” offers some very good advice on creating a mythic atmosphere and designing adventures to maintain this. It particularly focuses on the monomyth from Joseph Campbell’s The Hero with a Thousand Faces, a pattern found throughout literature. It outlines the five steps of a hero’s journey (essentially mirroring the five acts of classical drama). There’s a lot of great stuff in this chapter, but there’s nothing about the monomyth that makes it unusable with non-mythic games. Indeed, you could follow the advice in this chapter quite easily with non-mythic games and still create an epic campaign that truly feels mythical. It also provides a number of important elements for mythic adventures, all of which, again, I would fully expect to see in good non-mythic games too—things such as “cunning foes”, “powerful enemies”, and “impressive settings”.

Overall, I just don’t see mythic characters standing out as much as the book seems to think they will. Yes, they have abilities that other characters can’t get, but the game already has scores of things with abilities that other characters can’t get, so it’s really not all that different. The highest-level, highest-tiered characters will stand out, but others won’t. I suppose, if the idea is that mythic characters have the potential to stand above all others if they advance that far, then it works, but the book goes to great lengths to emphasize that mythic can be a short-term thing as well. You can have games where characters gain mythic power for a temporary period only. In such situations, I just don’t see the rest of the world viewing them any differently than ordinary heroes. They will be praised certainly, but ordinary heroes are praised too.

But putting aside the whole business of whether mythic heroes really feel mythic, I do like Mythic Adventures. From a player and gamemaster perspective, this book contains tons of new options and new ways to play the game. Mythic characters are varied and unique, and at high levels, they give a great way to expand the game into the area that used to be the purview of epic levels.

One of the things I like most about Mythic Adventures is that there is so much choice available to every mythic character. There are six mythic paths, which work kind of like character classes, except that they don’t advance in the standard things like Hit Dice, base attack bonus, or skills. Each mythic path has a couple of abilities that all members of that path receive, plus, at every tier, characters gain a path ability that they can choose from an extensive list for that path or from a list of universal abilities that all paths have access to. And there are a lot of path abilities, especially low-tier abilities. It would take literally thousands of characters to explore all the possible combinations you can create. This helps to ensure that virtually every mythic character will be different from all others. There is also a good variety of subtle abilities, such as the aforementioned abundant casting for archmages, and flashier abilities, such as aerial assault, a champion ability that allows characters to charge creatures in the air or leap over obstacles as part of a charge.

There are smaller numbers of higher-tier path abilities, which makes for slightly less variety there. This actually is a bit of a problem with 6th-tier abilities (the most powerful path abilities that only characters of 6th tier or higher can take). The champion and hierophant only have five choices each, and the archmage only has four, while the other paths have a few more. Of course, characters always have the option to select lower-tier abilities, and there’s also the four 6th-tier universal path abilities, but nonetheless, I would have expected a slightly more even distribution of 6th-tier abilities across the various paths. 10th-tier characters will have had the opportunity to select as many as five 6th-tier abilities, which means that archmages will have no choice but to select at least one 6th-tier ability from the universal list or select a lower-tier ability. It’s not a major problem (indeed, some people consider wizards already exceptionally powerful, so perhaps this is a balancing mechanism of some sort), but it does seem a little odd. Nevertheless, the huge number of 1st-tier and 3rd-tier abilities more than compensate for this.

Each mythic path is tied most strongly to one of the six ability scores rather than to specific classes (although some paths may be odd choices for some classes, such as archmage for fighter). This is a good way to do it as it avoids the problem of having to create a new mythic path for every new class that gets released—not just by Paizo, but also by third-party publishers. Since there’s still a huge variety possible in each path, just about all characters should be able to find paths that particularly suit them. For some characters, more than one path may be appropriate, in which case players may need to make a choice. Alternatively, there is the Dual Path feat, which allows a character to gain abilities from a second path.

Speaking of feats, there is, not surprisingly, an extensive selection in Mythic Adventures. The vast majority of them are mythic versions of previously existing feats, and they require the non-mythic versions as prerequisites. At first glance, this may seem a bit uncreative, and perhaps even a bit of a cheat. After all, it’s not that hard to create “improved” versions of feats by simply boosting bonuses. However, I rather like how it works in this case. Every mythic character gains a mythic feat at every odd-numbered tier, so these feats don’t eat up a character’s regular feats. And these feats do tend to do a little more than just boost the bonuses of their non-mythic counterparts (although there are a few that do only that). For example, Mythic Deflect Arrows boosts the number of arrows you can deflect per round by a number equal to your tier, and it also allows you to deflect a ray spell by expending a use of mythic power (all mythic characters have a pool of mythic power that they can expend to accomplish various things). There are a few unique mythic feats as well, but keeping the number of these low helps keep mythic feats distinct from path abilities.

Similarly, mythic spells are also just improved versions of existing spells. If you prepare a spell (or simply cast it if you’re a spontaneous caster) that you know the mythic version of, you can cast the mythic version simply by spending a point of mythic power. By expending additional mythic power, you can further augment many of them beyond their standard mythic form. Unlike mythic feats, there are no unique mythic spells (not even a small number); however, there are a few new non-mythic spells in the book (and many of those have mythic versions, some of which also have augmented mythic versions). These new spells interact with mythic characters or creatures in some manner, even if they are not mythic spells themselves. Lend path, for example, allows you to share a mythic path ability with another creature

Mythic Adventures also includes a number of mythic magic items and artifacts, but more interesting than these are the legendary items. These are items that grow in power with their users. A legendary item is generally bonded to a specific user. While other people can use the item’s most basic abilities, only the bonded user can access all of the legendary item’s abilities. As the bonded user advances in mythic power, so does the item. This is one area where mythic characters really can start to stand out from others—as their equipment starts to stand out from other, rank-and-file magic items. Magic items in Pathfinder can sometimes feel a bit run-of-the-mill and not very special. Legendary items bring a uniqueness to magic items that the game desperately needs.

The only section of Mythic Adventures that I’m actually a little disappointed in is the monsters section. I was really hoping for some new and unique creatures, but everything here is just a mythic version of a pre-existing monster. While this works for feats and spells, I feel it’s a missed opportunity for monsters. It’s good to have a few such monsters, as it demonstrates how to add mythic power to monsters as well as characters. However, too many mythic versions of normal monsters takes the specialness away from mythic. It’s yet one more thing that makes mythic not really feel mythic. If everything is mythic, nothing is. I realize the intention isn’t that all these monsters should show up in every mythic campaign; however, page after page of mythic cockatrices, mythic demons, mythic dragons, mythic medusas, mythic owlbears, etc. make them seem not-at-all unusual.

I also think the distinction between mythic rank and mythic tier causes some problems when mixed with templates. Monsters have always had slightly different rules from characters, such as being built off of type and Hit Dice instead of class. However, even here, many monsters can still advance in classes. In a way, types are just monster classes, and monsters can multiclass into character classes as well. Mythic monsters have a mythic rating instead of a mythic tier. A mythic rank of 1 is equivalent to a mythic tier of 1, but doesn’t have a specific path associated with it. In a way, mythic ranks are the mythic equivalent of type. However, you can’t stack mythic tiers on top of them. For the most part, this works pretty well—except with certain templates. With templates, things just get weird. Take the lich, for example. A wizard who becomes a lich can still advance in a mythic path (say archmage) and gain tiers. However, a wizard who becomes a mythic lich gains a mythic rank and cannot gain tiers. An archmage who gains the mythic lich template loses his or her mythic tiers and replaces them with mythic ranks. But ultimately, what really is the difference between a lich with mythic tiers and a mythic lich? There’s really no need for both in the game. Vampires and mythic vampires have the exact same problem. To solve the problem, either there should be no mythic lich or mythic vampire templates (just let liches and vampires gain mythic tiers with their character classes) or remove the distinction between rank and tier (which ultimately means a mythic lich is just a lich with mythic tiers and not really a new template at all). Keeping both in the game as somehow separate things is unnecessary and just overcomplicates things.

Mythic Adventures concludes with a short sample adventure, “Fire Over Blackcrag”. The adventure is fairly straight-forward. It is for 7th-level characters who begin without mythic tiers. They gain mythic power early in the adventure, however. Intriguingly, the adventure breaks one of the guidelines from the rest of the book by giving PCs three tiers right from the start. Generally, gaining additional tiers after the first (known as ascension) requires completing an increasing number of trials for each tier. Exactly what the PCs need to do to accomplish a trial is left to the GM, but is generally something of great significance. GMs are allowed to adjust the number of trials needed to fit their own campaigns and the needs of those campaigns. They can even do away with the trials altogether. So this adventure isn’t actually breaking any rules by awarding three tiers right away, but it did strike me as a bit odd. That said, awarding three tiers does keep the party’s mythic tiers at half the party’s level, which is in keeping with other guidelines in the book.

The adventure itself is a decent, short adventure, in which the PCs journey to save a town (Blackcrag) from being destroyed by the Queen of the Inferno, a deity of fire and violence. It has a great and thrilling opening as a local volcano erupts near the town and the PCs need to help save the townsfolk from fire elementals that come with the volcano’s lava. From this point, the adventure is quite straight-forward and follows the monomyth format outlined earlier in the book. The PCs must go through a literal journey to acquire the means to defeat the Queen of the Inferno’s servants, first seeking out an ancient oracle who provides them with their mythic power, and then to an island that once had to face the Queen of the Inferno in the same way that Blackcrag must do so now. There, they acquire an item called the earth chalice, which is the only thing that can contain the mystic waters needed to defeat the Inferno.

Although there’s nothing really wrong with the adventure, there’s also nothing about it that makes it all that different from other adventures. It follows a pretty stock formula and doesn’t do anything a non-mythic adventure couldn’t do (other than provide encounters that a 7th-level party would normally find too difficult—but a 9th-level party could probably handle just fine). But this pretty much fits in with my view that mythic—as good and interesting as it is—isn’t really all that mythic.

In the end, I think Mythic Adventures is a very good book and it offers a lot of new and interesting options for players. I really like the idea of being able to improve abilities in ways that aren’t linked to experience points (now I just wish there were a way to do that with skills so that you could have highly-skilled NPCs who aren’t also accomplished combatants) and base attack bonus. However, I don’t think the book achieves its desired aim of adding an overall special feel to the mythic characters. Apart from the way they gain their powers, there really isn’t anything that makes them stand out from, or be any “better” than non-mythic characters. A low-level mythic character is no more likely to change the world than a non-mythic character of just slightly higher level. Where the book really excels though is in creating options for high-level characters. Mythic makes an excellent substitute and replacement for epic levels. A 20th-level character with 10 mythic tiers is truly a force to behold and one that really does stand out above the rest of the world.

1 comment:

  1. Well, I didn't share your views of here come a "Epic" HC expansion book I tend to look at materials on face value, will I use them, will I get my money's worth and long term usage. Lots of people give me a hard time about placing real world morals in to my gaming, but the reality is I lost mega amounts of investment with the D&D3 & 3.5 systems change overs. I now purchase mainly pds and really try to limit my purchases to common sence tangable materials that will see lots of in game useage.
    I was quite happy with this book.

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