As an old gamer, I’ve seen the topic of “Demi-Human Level Limits” come up a lot, along with the notion that “they don’t work” or “aren’t balanced”. In fact, the post before this was Editorial0’s take on the subject, as inspired by THIS RANT of Sean K. Reynolds.
As is so often true about the notion that things “don’t work”, the problem doesn’t lie in the system being questioned. It lies in a misunderstanding about what it’s supposed to do.
To get an idea of what’s going on, I’m going to crack open one of my first edition books – the Dungeon Master’s Guide – to page twenty-one and let Mr Gygax explain it in his own words.
Advanced D&D is unquestionably “humanocentric”, with demi-human, semi-humans, and humanoids in various orbits around the sun of humanity. Men are the worst monsters, particularly high level characters such as clerics, fighters, and magic-users – whether singly, in small groups, or in large companies. The ultra-powerful beings of other planes are more fearsome – the 3 D’s of demi-gods, demons, and devils are enough to strike fear into most characters, let alone when the very gods themselves are brought into consideration. Yet, there is a point where the well-equipped, high-level party of adventurers can challenge a demon prince, an arch-devil, or a demi-god. While there might well be some near or part humans with the group so doing, it is certain that the leaders will be human. In co-operation men bring ruin upon monsterdom, for they have no upper limits as to level or acquired power from spells or items.
The game features humankind for a reason. It is the most logical basis in an illogical game. From a design standpoint it provides the sound groundwork. From a standpoint of creating the campaign milieu it provides the most readily usable assumptions. From a participation approach it is the only method, for all players are, after all is said and done, human, and it allows the role with which most are most desirous and capable of identifying with.
There isn’t a word there about “balance” – and as far as it goes, Mr Gygax is absolutely right.
Mr Gygax was presuming that most games would draw extensively on historical, literary, mythological, and cinematic sources for background, simply because he knew that game masters did not have unlimited time to come up with material and the players didn’t have unlimited time to learn it in. Moreover, he expected most campaigns to stick to easily accessible source material that the players could reasonably be expected to know about. That’s why I can have an “Arthurian Knights” game up and running in ten minutes, but explaining the lifestyle of Inuit Reindeer Herders, and how it affects their culture and traditions, will take days.
Now, practically all those sources are ultimately about humans. Historical ones certainly are, most fantasy literature revolves around humans, movies usually star humans, and mythology tends to do so as well. There are a few greek myths which star centaurs – but not many, and they don’t generally challenge gods, defeat mighty monsters, or undertake great quests. Those jobs are reserved for humans (even if they do often have divine blood, making them really really talented humans). Even most of the adventures of Coyote, or journeys in the dreamtime, or the Vedas involve humans pretty heavily. What’s that you say? Didn’t the Lord of the Rings revolve around Hobbits? Isn’t that a pretty major influence on most fantasy games?
Yes, yes it did and yes it is. Of course, the Lord of the Rings revolves around… short humans with unusually hairy feet who happened to be quite healthy (likely thanks to plenty of wholesome food, a simple, vigorous, village lifestyle, and plenty of outdoor exercise). They did seem to live slightly longer than current humans do – but in Tolkien’s world mortal longevity tended to be tied to simple virtues and to the concept that the world had started off near-perfect and was slowly degrading. The Lord of the Rings was about the heroism of ordinary folk and the common man.
Now, if I want to base a campaign on a race as near-human as a centaur – in essence, simply changing the shape of the lower body – I’m going to have to explain a great deal more, and I’d better not forget that there isn’t going to be any climbing of ladders or ropes, that sailing ships will be very different, that I’ll need to have ramps instead of hatchways and stairways, or a thousand other details. A more fundamental change such as “seeing in the dark” calls for an immense array of social, linguistic, and other changes (a few of which are explored in this article). A lifespan a thousand years long? That means that – unlike every human culture ever – only a very small fraction of the population will be children, rather than 50% or so. City planning will be wildly different. So will government, and manners, and apprenticeships, and ten thousand other things.
That’s why most fantasy cultures, or sci-fi alien races, are simply humans in funny hats – and a lot of games that claim to revolve around them simply portray humans and historical human cultures in fairly flimsy disguises.
Unlike most fantasies, however, role-playing-games involve a lot of people sitting around trying to figure out mysteries, asking “why”, and saying “Hey, if the giants can do thus-and-such why don’t they use that to do (x) and solve their problem?”.
If humans and cosmetically-disguised humans were going to be dominating most settings, there needed to be a reason for it. Humans needed to be the most special race of all. Humans needed the power to – in the end – make everything, right down to the gods, revolve around them.
Gary Gygax gave it to them. Humans got access to pretty much all the classes, and could advance beyond normal mortal limitations as far as those classes could take them – although even they couldn’t surpass the limits of being a Monk or Druid or Bard or Assassin or other speciality class which only offered a limited number of levels to get.
Demihumans – as close relatives to humans – got more limited access to the incredible powers of classes and couldn’t progress as far. They had level caps because they simply weren’t capable of the kind of super-powers that humans were. The could practice magic for a thousand years, and still not be able to surpass mortal limits the way a human could. Most of the demi-humans could become very high-level thieves if they wished – but thieves didn’t reshape the world like archmagi, or dominate society like high-level clerics, or annihilate dragons and rally armies like high-level fighters. They also didn’t have a lot of special powers; they were just very highly skilled.
Humanoids were distant relatives to humans. They got even more limited access to classes; they could acquire a few levels as a “tribal spellcaster” (a Shaman or a Witch Doctor) or they could become a “Leader” or “Chieftain” – none of which amounted to much. Later supplements gave them a few more options, but they never really amounted to much.
Outright monsters might have racial variations, but they generally were what they were. A Ki-Rin was insanely powerful, with enormous innate magical and psychic powers – but it had no options for class advancement at all, despite it’s “supra-genius” intelligence. Monster player characters had a lengthy section on page twenty one again about how and why they sucked and why it was the game masters job to make sure that they did.
Now, Demi-Humans could co-star at lower levels. Indeed, given that first-edition “multiclassing” was reserved for them, and was basically “you’re one level behind but get the average hit points and all the other abilities of two classes” (or sometimes even three), they could easily dominate at lower levels even though their other racial abilities were pretty minor. At higher levels, humans dominated the world – just as Gygax intended.
That also means that the answer to “why don’t we see high level demi-human mages” is the same basic answer as to “why don’t we see hollywood screenplays written by antelopes?”. The answers both boil down to “they aren’t very good at it”. Antelopes aren’t very good at writing screenplays and demi-humans aren’t very good at high magic. There isn’t any simple reason for that other than “that’s how they are”, but there really doesn’t need to be. The underlying reasons are presumably a complicated function of evolution, circumstances, and – in the case of the demi-humans – whatever magical forces are at play.
As a side-benefit, level limits meant that you didn’t have to worry about five-hundred-year-old elven archmagi dominating the world or (when making powerful magic items involved all kinds of odd quests and giving up a permanent constitution point) flooding the world with magic items.
Fundamentally, Demi-human level limits did exactly what they were supposed to do. They worked perfectly, and they are at least as rational as most forms of magic. The question was never “why are demihumans so crippled!” but “why are humans the only ones with this marvelous talent?” – and the answer comes down to “because it’s the talent they were given when the game was designed, just like dragons got wings, armor, and breath weapons”*.
*I’ve also seen an odd argument that – if demi-humans had level limits – they’d want to try and kill humans who were exceeding their limits. Outside of all the basic problems with this approach like “how do you know about it?” and “won’t this get a lot of your own people killed too?”, this is a just as silly trying to assassinate everyone who’s better at a profession than you are – whether or not you practice that profession. Go ahead. Get some of your own higher-level people killed taking out those high level humans. Now there’s nothing to stop that dragon from destroying everyone. Sorry, but communities with a variety of skills are better off under changing or dangerous circumstances – and in AD&D, it’s usually the Humans and Demihumans versus all the monsters of the world, not against each other.
Now, the demi-human level limits were later softened a bit for characters with very high attributes – which were vanishingly rare, but did explain the rare exceptions that had popped up here and there. They were also sometimes house-ruled or ignored, but – despite many statements I’ve seen to the contrary – that wasn’t especially common or routine; I personally played quite a lot of demi-humans up to their level limits. They gained powers and abilities more slowly after they hit those limits – but there were always more items to be gained or made, henchmen and allies to be recruited, magical fountains to drink from, political power to be gained, and many other ways to advance without going up in level. You might indeed accompany a higher-level human party, and still do well – especially since, when the game lacked a skill system, a lot more depended on the players skills than the characters. If you kept it up too long, you’d die – but ANY character who kept it up too long would die. Since replacement characters could easily ride the coat-tails of higher level characters until they – thanks to the doubling factor in the XP tables – did quite a lot of catching-up, the level of parties gradually crept up evan as characters came and went. There were plenty of high-level games out there, they were simply the ones that ran for a long time.
- Demi-human level limits do suck – for demi-humans.
- If you have more powerful races out there, and yet humans (or humans in funny hats) dominate the world without a good reason for it, then your world design sucks. That doesn’t mean that it can’t be a lot of fun, and host a good game; it just means that anyone who looks into it deeply is going to be disappointed at the underlying lack of logic – and that tends to work against long-term campaigns.
- If humans – or those humans in funny hats – don’t dominate the world, but it’s cultures reflect human norms, then your world design sucks again. Still, everything sucks somewhere, and just a few exotic touches may help keep people from noticing.
Oddly enough though, third edition doesn’t really get into too much trouble here. Throw in a few assumptions about casualty rates for adventurers, birth rates, accident rates, high-level characters who want to keep adventuring leaving for other planes due to the lack of challenges at home (thanks to the reduction in XP for challenges below your level), the amazingly swift advancement up to the point where the challenges run out, and the fact that humans now have special advantages other than level advancement, and you can explain why most of the higher-level characters around should be human – and why humans dominate most settings.
I still think that should have been spelled out in the third edition dungeon master’s guide in a paragraph or two, rather than being left as a sloppy assumption – but that’s a fairly minor gripe.