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Behind the Curtain:Epic Heroes
by Charles Watkins

Large and Extra-Large maps lend themselves to scenarios of epic scope, where players have the opportunity to develop several heroes to their full potential. Smaller maps always seem to end just when the heroes are coming into their own, and that’s why I prefer the larger ones. I find that after about 2 months of game time, the lead heroes are maxing out in their starting classes and may have begun to accumulate some side skills. By the 4th month, dual class heroes may have maxed out in both areas -- and that’s about when most larger maps are getting fun.

Today I’d like to put forth my general strategy for developing a cadre of heroes for larger maps in a way I’ve found to be both effective and fun to play. It may not work for you, since it reflects my own style of play, but even so it might give you some ideas for enhancing your own games.

Larger solo games have some distinctive qualities that shape the strategy I’m discussing. In addition to lasting longer, they also tend to give players more elbow room, which leads to more time to develop heroes before hitting the major competition. Rush strategies are seldom productive since a fast win is not a prospect. The amount of territory to be conquered means a single massive army may not be optimal – as the large force moves away, captured territory becomes vulnerable to attack. On many larger maps, the growth of neutrals poses a greater challenge than the computer players. All this means that to do well on larger maps, the player needs to develop a cadre of heroes, rather than just the main one given at the start.

There’s no serious chance that a computer player will be able to score a conventional win on a larger map. They simply lack the persistence to take out all of the competition. What can happen, however, is that the human player falls far enough ‘behind the curve’ that normal creature growth makes the game unwinnable without protracted periods of inactivity to build up to competitive strength. The point is that on larger maps, there is less urgency to engage the enemy and more time to build a force that will consistently overcome the opposition.


How many heroes?

In early stages of the game, I like to use one Main Force and a few scouts. The scouts explore the map and pick up any ‘freebies’ they may come across, but they leave most of the fighting to what I’m calling the Main Force. As the Main Force ventures farther and farther from the home town, it becomes necessary to develop a Second Force to defend the territory already conquered. Given that a town yields 5 types of armies, in each force there is room for at least 2 heroes, and usually 3 since both level one armies aren’t often needed. For this exercise, then, let’s say that 5 or 6 main heroes will be needed.

In addition to these main heroes, there will be several others acting as scouts and castle sitters. Lone heroes make excellent scouts because if they get into a jam, they can bail out with no losses. Naturally, Thieves are the best Scouts because their Stealth gets them past some unobservant guards. However, these scouts are not intended to get into fights, so there’s no need to invest in leveling them up. An exception here is the Fire Diviner or Seer, one of my main heroes who begins her career as the Thief specialist -- and usually ends up as the top hero for scoring purposes. Castle sitters are usually Lords, because of their bonuses to creature growth, but sometimes I use Druids instead to crank out masses of Sprites or Leprechauns.

Optimizing overall development means diversifying. Ideally the cadre should be able to take advantage of any kind of power-up, so all 9 ability classes should be included. If there are only 5 heroes, that means each gets two main classes with only one overlap. If there is a 6th hero, then there can be 3 overlaps. If one of the heroes is an Archmage, who has three magic classes, it adds another 1 to the total. The question is what combinations result in the most effective cadre overall. Side issues are how to balance Might and Magic, which classes to develop first, and the assignment of heroes to the main and secondary forces.

Since most of the heroes will be dual-classed advanced classes, the question is how to combine the classes in a way that provides access to as many game features as possible, while still putting together an effective cadre.

It might be fun to work out your own ‘Dream Team’ before you read further. If you post your solution at the Heroes IV forum we can compare notes. My own choices are given below. . .

There may be other winning combinations, but after hundreds of games, this is what I’ve found works well for me:

Main Force
Illusionist (Order+Tactics)
Cardinal (Life+Nobility)
Demonologist (Death+Nature)

Second Force
Fire Diviner (Scout+Chaos) or Seer (Scout+Order)
Assassin (Combat+Death)
Archmage (varies)

As I said, this combination is not so much aimed at optimal effectiveness as at opening up all facets of the game. Here we have an assortment of interesting special classes. Some may take a while to develop, but they also offer more as they come into their own – and on a larger map, there’s time to see that to happen and then to enjoy the result. We also have spellcasters from all 5 schools, plus a Might character – exactly the same division as for the game’s 6 alignments. And we have the foundation of two solid fighting forces, a Main Force to spearhead the attack and a Second Force to keep what’s been won.

Now, some players may prefer more Combat combinations, but I don’t see a great advantage in having Combat as a first or second class. The game relentlessly pushes Combat skills, no matter what the hero’s class, so Combat can become the ideal third class. The skill progression allows a hero to get GM Combat and Magic Resistance without having to take unneeded Combat skills, so it is not hard to build sturdy spellcasters as well as good fighters.

This principle also applies to Charm and Necromancy, which can increase without a large investment in other skills. Thus the cadre includes two Death and two Order heroes. The Demonologist concentrates on the main Death tree, while the Assassin concentrates on Combat while taking Necromancy as it becomes available. The Illusionist starts by concentrating on Charm, while the Seer or future-Archmage stays on the main path to get access to higher level spells as soon as possible. This may seem odd, but Charm is most valuable in the early part of the game and Main Force heroes develop fast enough to still allow the Illusionist to get the good spells fairly soon.

Why no Combat types in the Main Force? Partly because they are not as much fun to play as Magic heroes and partly because the Main Force will include 3 or 4 creatures in primarily combat roles. Also there is more upside to a Magic Hero. A hero with GM Melee or GM Archery is not going to be dealing 1000s of hit points in damage, and that’s what’s required toward the end of a larger game. For example, who has a better chance of killing a stack of Megadragons—a Might hero with the Sword of the Gods or a Necromancer with a Hand of Death spell? Of course if you really enjoy playing Might heroes, by all means include them. But consider using them as replacements for the monsters on the force rather than the other heroes. And be aware that the Combat heroes are going to top out sooner than the others and that experience they gain after that is essentially wasted. Such is the nature of the larger map.

My Main Force usually starts with a Priest or Mage. In the initial weeks devoted to scouting, it really doesn’t matter what type of hero is used. Their main job is to absorb blows that might kill low level creatures and to take advantage of the free retreats. They aren’t going to pick up chests for experience, but they will take free EPs. After a week or so there will be enough creatures in town to start the Main Force proper and by this time the Tavern will have spawned another hero.

The sequence of development varies according to the starting town and hero. Here’s a summary (which will make more sense when we look at them individually).

Priest Main sequence
Knight Add Order to become Illusionist
Mage Main sequence
Lord Add Life to become Cardinal
Sorcerer Add Order and Nature to become Archmage
Thief Main sequence
Necromancer Add Nature to become Demonologist
Dark Knight Add Order to become Illusionist
Druid Add Death to become Demonologist
Archer Add Death to become Assassin
Barbarian Add Death to become Assassin

The example heroes shown here are from an Expert game of Water Wyrd, played solo. It is the start of Month 5 and the Main Force is about to get its ass kicked in the underworld.


Illusionist

The Illusionist aims to advance rapidly in Order, while adding Tactics somewhere along the way. I find Order Magic to be so useful that I always want it and my starting Mage usually stays with the Main Force throughout the game. All the level 1 spells are great to have, especially the shooter’s best friend, Precision. And high-end Order Magic includes some of the best spells in the game, including Hypnotism, which is plain not fair.

Tactics makes a good complement to Order. Since the hero wants to take advantage of both Might and Magic leveling opportunities, it makes sense to combine Order with a Might class. An Order hero will cast spells throughout combat, so it also makes sense to combine Order with a class that has good passive skills. With the Might class you can get Combat for the Hit Points and Magic Resistance, which can be useful, but Melee and Archery are basically wasted on a spell caster. Instead of going the Warlord route, which again gives a wasted melee bonus, I prefer to add a few levels of Combat and Magic Resistance as the opportunities come along.

Nobility is another candidate, offering four passive skills, but the Wizard King’s bad luck power is again wasted on a hero that serves mainly as a spell caster. And with Order comes Charm, so Diplomacy may prove redundant. Tactics provides four useful passive skills that boost the whole force and the resulting Illusionist class benefits from a +20% bonus on Illusion spells.


Minasli is a level 14 Illusionist who has picked up a couple of nice items. With Expert Order, she is already a major contributor to the cause. She will probably hand off the sword to the Assassin and continue to concentrate on Order. The Sextant will come in handy when the Main Force goes to sea.

Cardinal

Life Magic provides a lot of options for combat tacticians. Even if Priests do not deal damage in combat, they can effectively neutralize an equivalent part of the opponent’s force. The main drawback is that the middle spell levels are filled with various cures and wards before you get to the big two—Guardian Angel and Sanctuary—at level 5.

The passive Resurrection skill supports a low-loss strategy that enables the Main force to stay in the field for protracted periods. As with the Illusionist, I looked for a Might class to combine with Life, and that brought me to the Cardinal’s +5% Resurrection bonus. (With the Ankh of Life and St. Ranan’s Staff, a GM Resurrection is raising something like 70% of losses, and once the hero progresses to Cardinal the Resurrection percentage goes up another 5%.) Consider that the Main force may be in 100 battles during the course of the game and even at 5% you can see how the savings add up. Toward the end there will be some battles where losses are inevitable and it is great consolation to get the majority of them back.

The other Life/Might combos—Prophet, Paladin, and Crusader—confer powers that only affect the hero and only help in physical combat. (Now if a Crusader hero would get the double attack that Crusader armies do, this would be another story.) Also like with the Illusionist, I like to add a few levels of Combat to toughen up the hero, so I don’t always choose Nobility over Combat when Might levels are awarded. Of the Nobility side-skills, I’ve found Diplomacy to be far more useful than Mining or Estates. With the Illusionist’s Charm and the Cardinal’s Diplomacy I get a lot of enemies coming over to my side. Often I manage to come out of encounters with a better force than I went in with.

Rissa is a companion of Minasli. As a level 15 Cardinal equipped with St. Ranan’s Staff, she is already resurrecting half of the Main Force’s losses. She’d like to get an Ankh of Life as well. In combat, she casts supporting spells and uses her bow to lay enchantments on opponents.

Demonologist

The Demonologist may not be the most powerful advanced class, but it is the only one to offer special spells, so I like to include one when I can. This hero can start as either a Druid or Necromancer, concentrating on main line skills needed to advance simultaneously in Nature and Demonology. It takes some time to fully develop the Demonologist, but the result makes it all worthwhile. The Nature side can provide Pathfinding, Quicksand, and Wasp Swarm at low levels, and the Death side can provide Poison, Mire, and Fatigue – to name a few favorites. The point is that Demonologists can carry their weight in battle, even without higher level spells. Later in the game, Demonologists truly come into their own. It’s quite a jump from Summon Cerberus to Summon Ice Demon. Summon Demon has its uses, but has to be weighed against other level 5 Nature and Death spells.

The Demonologist is an exception to the Might/Magic plan with all the discretionary levels being split between two classes on the Magic side. This means that any Might levels available can go into Combat, which toughens up the character for front line duty. To push ahead in Nature and Demonology, the hero must forego Summoning and Necromancy at first. However, other heroes can make up for this – Assassins and Archmages can concentrate their Death skills in Necromancy, while Druid castle sitters can do the Summoning. (To boost Summoning, it’s better to hire another Druid than to add a level at the cost of 2000 gold.)


Lamentia is a Level 22 Demonologist and able to cast Summon Ice Demon. She has some Combat and her 435 hit points allow her to fight from the front row, which helps get her Ice Demons into the fray. However, she’s been ignoring Necromancy and Summoning in order to progress in the main sequences for Death and Nature.

Fire Diviner/Seer

For most of the game the Fire Diviner or Seer is simply a Thief, picking up Chaos or Order skills along the way when given the opportunity. In many games, these heroes will change class several times, taking whatever levels become available. By cultivating a Thief early in the game, even when playing Life or Order, I get a premier Scout who can evade guards while piling up experience. GM Stealth is like highway robbery.

This means I recruit a Thief as soon as possible and invest every possible resource in leveling her up. (I say ‘her’ because I’ve become quite attached to Erica Fade. I say ‘invest’ because she repays me many times over with resources, mines, and artifacts.) In the early weeks, she travels with the Main Force, occasionally striking out on scouting missions. This lets her ‘double dip’ by getting experience points first by Stealth and then by combat against the same monster. When she gets up to Expert Stealth, she goes out on her own to explore, loot, and rack up more experience.

I like Chaos to go with Scouting because sometimes this hero comes across a lightly defended town and some offensive capability will allow her to capture it by herself. Many maps have armies of high-level guards positioned outside neutral towns. Using Stealth, this hero can beat the wimpy (uncustomized) garrison army without disturbing the gate guards, who can then be used to ward off the competition. Archery can also provide some offensive pop, but not as much at lower levels as the Chaos direct damage spells. And since discretionary Might levels are going into Scouting, Magic levels can go to Chaos. By becoming a Fire Diviner, the hero gains a +20% bonus on fire spells. Combat levels might just as well go into advancing the Combat and Magic Resistance skills.

Alternatively, combining Scouting with Order makes the hero a Seer, which gives a +2 bonus to the scouting radius. Order magic provides some direct damage spells (Magic Fist and Ice Bolt) on a par with Chaos at the lower levels, but can’t match the higher level Chaos spells for dealing damage. Over time the Seer can develop Expert Order magic, which allows the hero to learn Town Gate, another useful spell for a scout. Whether to go Fire Diviner or Seer may depend on what magic skills the Archmage takes. So far, none of the heroes has taken Chaos, so the question becomes whether to have the Archmage develop Chaos or whether to make the Thief into a Fire Diviner. A second Order Magic caster is also a welcome addition later in the game, but that also applies in the other parts, so it may be best to have the Archmage develop it too. More on that hero later.

I also like to get my Thief a level of Life so she can learn Summon Boat. This increases movement options and helps avoid backtracking. But I don’t take a second level until the hero is established as a Fire Diviner or Seer so at future levels, she will be offered advancement in Chaos or Order skills instead of Life. The same goes for Nature. One level may be useful for learning the Pathfinding spell, which takes care of movement penalties until the Thief reaches Expert in the Pathfinding skill. (It strikes me that the Pathfinding spell is one of the great bargains in the game – a level 1 spell that duplicates a level 3 skill!) However, a second level of Nature may leave the Thief with the Summoning skill. It’s damned inconvenient to start each turn with a few Sprites or Leprechauns along, risking revealing the hero’s position to nearby opponents.

Eventually, the Thief will have explored the whole map and can rejoin either the Main or Second Force. Usually this will be the Second Force unless the Main Force is greatly in need of a movement booster. This is where developing Chaos or Order magic pays off. At very least, the Thief will be casting Confusion or Forgetfulness to negate an opponent. More realistically, the evolved Thief will come back maxed in Scouting and pretty far along in Combat with an unpredictable assortment of side-classes, some surprisingly well developed and some little more than place takers.


Kharrd the Fire Diviner has just wrapped up his career as a Scout and is ready to join the fray, most likely as the leader of the Second Force. His travels have raised him up to level 29 with practically no fighting since he split off from the Main Force early in the game. He’s maxed out in Scouting and is working on Combat and Chaos. He studied Life Magic so he could cast Summon Boat and somewhere along the line picked up some levels in Death. He was careful not to take Nature.

Assassin

The Assassin is the most nimble of fighters, thanks to the +3 speed and +3 movement bonuses. Combat and Death fit well together, not just as a Might/Magic combination, but also because Combat compensates for the lack of good direct damage Death spells at lower levels and Death offers the hero battle options at times when direct Combat might meet retaliation. With slower opponents, the hero can start a battle with a Death spell and then go to Melee.

Because Combat is the preferred class, this hero can rapidly develop all four skills and use Melee or Ranged attacks as tactics dictate. I tend use this hero on the front line, and there are a lot of nice Melee artifacts, so this hero may lead the charge. And because this hero tends to use most combat turns for Melee or Ranged attacks, she is not in such a hurry to get the higher-level Death spells. Instead, she can concentrate her Death levels in Necromancy and get to the Master and Grandmaster levels fairly quickly, bypassing Occultism and Demonology. Not only does this hero slaughter the enemy, she also raises them back to join her side!

Early in the game, the Assassin leads the Second Force on local missions such as policing the territory, eliminating enemy scouts, opening caravan routes, clearing ‘month of’ monsters, and cleaning out respawned creature banks. There won’t be a lot of experience points to be had in such assignments, but since there will only be 2 heroes in the force at that point, the Assassin should advance fairly quickly with minimal risk. By the time this hero gets going, some leveling locations will have already been located and cleared by the Main Force, and this helps too. Once the Assassin tops out in Combat, I have her start on Tactics.

At some point the Assassin may bid for a spot on the first team, either by displacing a third level melee fighter or by replacing the Demonologist. But the Second Force is more about attacking than exploring, and the Assassin will want a second roster spot for raised undead, so this hero spends most of the time with the second string.


Archilus became a level 20 Assassin after starting off as a Necromancer. He was recruited out of an Academy and it was easier to get some Combat levels for a Necromancer than to find Necromancy for an Archer or Barbarian. He is taking his chances by developing Melee and Archery instead of Magic Resistance, but he got some nice Archery gear and decided to make the most of it. Somewhere along the way, he picked up a few levels of Tactics and Nature.

Archmage

This is a general-purpose, all-around spellcaster with specialties chosen to mesh with the others in the Second Force – the Assassin and eventually the Fire Diviner or Seer. The Archmage is well suited for the Second Force, which generally does light duty protecting the captured territory. Since the other members of the Second Force are light on magic, it is up to the Archmage to provide the various boosters and enablers that the party needs.

This hero often gets a jumpstart by making a round of all the captured sites that offer magic skills and by visiting the Magic Guilds in captured towns. With a late start, there should be plenty of gold to pay the tuition. For an Academy, this starts with a visit to the University. At a Haven, it means a visit to the Seminary. By taking inventory of available leveling opportunities, I can figure out the best starting class for the Archmage.

Because Archmages need to progress in three schools of Magic, they may not get high level spells in any of them until late in the game, so the schools should be chosen based on their lower level spells. Order magic is almost essential, since at level 3 it lets the Archmage learn Town Gate, which is invaluable for a defending army that needs to get back to town in a hurry. Order also gets Forgetfulness and Teleport at level 3, and that’s another reason to get there as soon as possible. Most of the time, a hero can get to Expert Order with only 6 levels – a budding Archmage starting as a Mage with two levels of Order could get there in 4.

This leaves Life, Death, Nature, and Chaos for the other 2 classes. If the fighter is an Assassin, then Death will be covered. But if the Thief follows the path of Order and becomes a Seer, then the Archmage may want to go with Death in addition to Order. I don’t mind having two Order casters in the party, since one can concentrate on Charm and the other on the main skill progression. The Order/Death combination makes the hero a Shadow Mage, one of the best advanced classes with a +50% bonus to Ranged defense.

Order/Chaos is another good combination, making the hero a Wizard who gets 2 points off the cost of spells. While starting out, this savings allows the hero to get off a lot of spells before recharging. Also, Chaos provides some direct damage spells that complement the Magic Missile and Ice Bolt from Order.

Order/Nature makes the hero a Summoner, but the +20 EPs of summoned creature is one of the weaker advanced powers. The main reason to go with Nature is to get the useful Pathfinding, Quicksand, and Wasp Swarm spells. At level 3 the elemental summoning spells become available.

Finally, Order/Life makes the hero a Monk, whose Chaos Ward will be helpful in fighting against that alignment. Life has some very good spells at level 1 – Bind Wound, Bless, Exorcism, Spiritual Armor, Holy Word, and Summon Boat – with Heal, Martyr, and Song of Peace coming at level 2. These may be the only healing spells available to the Second Force, so Life is usually a priority. However, it is relative easy to get one level of Life and thereby access to the level 1 spells. Song of Peace may not be so attractive when the Archmage with Nature can cast Wasp Swarm instead.

If the circumstances are right, I prefer to start my Archmage with Life and Order, adding Death, Chaos, or Nature as the opportunities arise. If I’m stating with a Sorceror, then I add Order and Nature. Once established as a Monk or Wizard, I try to pick up that one level of Life. Developing 4 magic classes is within the realm of possibility, but I don’t take all 5 types of magic, since I want to save a slot for a few levels of Combat.


Maureen is an Archmage, having started as a Monk (Life+Order) and added Chaos as a third specialty. She has a large repertoire of spells and enough Combat to stand on the front row of the Second Force, shielding a low-level shooter that was no longer needed in the Main Force. Her most important spell is Town Gate, which allows the Second Force to secure the area that has already been captured by gating to towns threatened by interlopers.

Epic Adventuring

Of course game conditions may make all this planning irrelevant, but for typical larger maps, it works pretty well:

In the long run, it really doesn’t matter much which heroes are started first, since it is rather easy to help backward Second Force heroes catch up by rotating them into the Main Force for a few battles. (I’ve even been known to have the more advanced heroes launch suicide attacks so as to channel all the EPs to ones needing to catch up. Or just letting low level heroes take the Main Force out for a short campaign while the big boys go back to town for upgrades.)

Wouldn’t it be better to concentrate on just one or two main heroes? I think the answer is ‘yes’ in the short run, but ‘no’ in the long run. This is where larger maps and smaller maps differ. Smaller maps are often finished before a hero reaches Grandmaster in one class, much less two. I know some players who have never even seen a GM Demonologist. But on larger maps, heroes start to max out in one class toward the end of the second month and in a second class somewhere in the fourth. After that, additional levels are less valuable, so little is lost in stretching out development a bit. Bear in mind that lower levels require fewer EPs than higher levels. Also note that this strategy is set up with little duplication among members of each force, so that heroes are not usually competing for levels.

With a cadre of heroes to choose from, it becomes possible to assemble Special Forces designed for particular battles. There may be times when a fourth hero is preferable to a fourth army of monsters. Or times when you want multiple Order Magic heroes to thwart enemy shooters. Or a hundred other tactical deployments that would not be available with a set lineup.

And that is the point of the cadre approach. I cannot say that it will be the most successful deployment any more than I can say my own style of play is best for everyone. But I can say that it works well enough for me. What I like is that it gives me access to all facets of the game while affording me an enjoyable variety of hero play – and isn’t that why we play this game?

Do you have your own system? Want to talk about this some more? See you in the forum.

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