Ancient History – Demi-Human Level Limits responses

Book cover, Dungeon Masters Guide by Gary Gyga...

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An article on what the older edition’s DemiHuman Level Limits were all about has brought forth a fairly long response – which has led to an even longer answer. Ergo, first up for today, is we have Migo’s answer…

I think what’s worth keeping in mind is that level limits in AD&D were a screwed up implementation of a previous idea. I’m actually not entirely sure where what came in, but in reading through the RC, I saw that while a Halfling might cap at level 8, he still continues getting XP and new abilities, just technically he hasn’t leveled up. With Immortals, even a Halfling with sufficient XP could ascend, being the equivalent of a level 36 whatever that a human was.

Actually… No they weren’t “a screwed up implementation of a previous idea”. Dungeons and Dragons and Advanced Dungeons and Dragons were independent lines of development, and branched off quite early on. “Advanced” didn’t mean “This is a rules upgrade”, it meant “This is a new game with more complex rules”.

I’ll go and check the basement to review a little history:

  • Chainmail was ancestral to D&D, but it was a tactical miniatures game. Even with it’s “fantasy supplement” in the back of the book, and a table entry for heroes in that fantasy supplement, it didn’t really have classes or level advancement.
  • Dungeons and Dragons (I’ll call it the “Primordial Edition”) covered characters in book one of the boxed set – “Men and Magic” (1974). It was arguably the first-ever role-playing game. It only offered three non-human races. Dwarves could only be Fighting Men and were limited to level six. Elves could freely switch back and forth between Fighting Men and Magic Users, but could never exceed level four as a Fighting Man or level eight as a Magic User. Halflings could only be Fighting Men and could never progress beyond level four. The boxed set was later supplemented by Greyhawk, Blackmoor, and Eldritch Wizardry.
  • The AD&D Players Handbook by Gary Gygax came out in 1978. This, of course, is the line which – ultimately – didn’t die out. Here too we have level limits, and the reasoning behind them was explained (in the section quoted in the original article) in the first edition AD&D Dungeon Masters Guide – which was really the first book to explain the reasoning behind anything in the game system.
  • The boxed “Dungeons and Dragons” Basic Game Book (Blue Cover) only covered characters of up to level three – but it also contained points where it referred you to the AD&D Players Handbook for more information. It came out AFTER AD&D, and was – in many ways – the last gasp of the “Primordial Edition”.
  • The Dungeons and Dragons Basic Set Players Manual (by Gary Gygax and Dave Arneson, and compiled by Frank Mentzer) came out in 1983. It was folded into the D&D Rules Cyclopedia – published in 1991.

Yes, the rules you’re looking at in the Cyclopedia came out AFTER AD&D – and were a totally separate line of development.

Along comes AD&D, takes the numbers and forgets that advancement continued after the level cap, and 2nd Ed is even worse and cuts everything off at 20.

Sorry, but – as noted above – AD&D came BEFORE the rules you’re looking at.

It’s not the level limits themselves that pissed people off, as much as the fact that really no thought was put into them

Uhm… Given that the quote from Mr Gygax explains the reasoning behind those level limits, I’d have to say that thought was indeed put into them. You may not agree with the assumptions or reasoning that Mr Gygax employed, or with his conclusions, but he definitely put some thought into them. In fact, the people who wrote the rules you’re looking at in the Cyclopedia didn’t entirely agree with Mr Gygax on a number of topics – which is one reason the game line split.

A rather interesting result as well is that if you expected a long term campaign, you would multi-class and come out roughly the same. Halflings would be Psionicist/Thief, Gnomes would be Illusionist/Thief, Dwarves would be Psionicist/Fighter or Fighter/Thief, Elves would be Fighter/Mage and Half-Elves would be Ranger/Mage or Ranger/Priest.

With that, each of the races would keep advancing while the Humans kept going, only they’d have a broader skill-set, but you also pretty much get the pigeon-holed race as class as a result.

No reason for an elf to be anything but fighter-mage, no reason for a Halfling to be anything but psionicist-thief, so that’s what they all obviously are. It also strangely fixes the problem of wondering why there aren’t any Elf thieves or Halfling priests – the answer is there are, just not among PCs.

Here I’m afraid you’re mixing third edition mechanics into an examination of what demi-human level limits were about in earlier editions. That’s why the title of this article is “What WERE Those About?” – in the past tense. As noted, third edition can be tweaked to achieve the same general human-dominant result if you so desire.

In first edition the notion that “you would multiclass and achieve the same thing” makes no sense. First-edition multi-class characters progressed in both classes at once – and multi-classing was reserved for demihumans. Dual-classing (the closest equivalent to third edition multiclassing) was reserved for humans – and the increasing experience point scales guaranteed that a dual-classed character would shortly be a mere one level behind his or her friends if he or she had dual-classed before twelfth level or so. That was a result of the old-style doubling experience tables.

Those tables had some very useful and desirable effects – but they also meant that – even if you allowed demihumans to switch classes to another permitted class as you seem to be suggesting – it wouldn’t change a thing. So your first-edition elf progresses to 7’th level as a fighter, and then changes to Magic-User?

Back in First Edition, becoming a 7’th level fighter took 70.001 XP. Switching to Magic User and progressing to 11’th level took 375,001 XP. That’s a total of 445,002 XP before your class-switching elf would top out.

Becoming a 12’th level magic user required 750,001 XP. In this “solution” demihuman characters top out even faster than before, since the original multiclassing rules continued to split experience equally between the classes even if a character could no longer advance in one of them – meaning that our elf would have to collect 750,002 XP to make it to 11’th level Magic User.

The same, of course, would apply to adding “Thief” to your Elf or “Priest” (properly “Cleric” in the older editions) to your Halfling; those too would top out long before our single-classed Magic User would make it to level thirteen or fourteen.

This “solution” might work for the “elder problem” in third edition (although mixing fighter and wizard levels is a good recipe for a crippled character) – but in first edition, which is what we’re trying to understand here, it doesn’t really do anything.

Ultimately though if you want to keep humans at the forefront, there’s an easy way to go about it. Give humans a bonus when working in teams. 2 humans working together give each other a +1 bonus, 3 give each other a +2, potentially cap at +3 or +4. Suddenly you have a situation where a lone human is vulnerable, but a squad of them is a nightmare. You also end up getting largely human parties as a result, with a rare demihuman among them if the cap hasn’t already been reached, and an extra bonus of a mechanical incentive not to split the party up.

There are two basic problems here.

First, and most obvious, this article is about why demihuman level limits were in older editions in the first place, what they were intended to do, and whether or not they accomplished it. It’s not proposing adding them to third edition or any other kind of “solution” because – as noted in the second-to-last paragraph – third edition doesn’t really have the same problem in the first place.

Secondarily, you might want to check on this article on Revised Humans and their “Tribalism” bonus.

More importantly, however, this solution would not be effective in first edition. An extra “+4 bonus” (to what?) would indeed help groups of lower-level humans keep up with the lower-level demihumans. Would it really be enough to make groups of short-lived, low-level, humans competitive with thousand-year-old level fifty elven fighter-magi who have had time to make plenty of magic items? (Remember; they didn’t ALL cost anything permanent in older editions – and every encounter and gold piece earned, however minor it might be was worth XP. Longer lives led to higher levels).

If it did, what would you need high level characters for when you could just assemble a mob of humans?

Now, it is amusing to think about that annoying ancient dragon being mobbed to death by peasants with torches and pitchforks, but it would really make a hash of the game.

4 Responses

  1. So instead what we have in either case, is even in the 80s, once the game was out of Gary’s control, the level limits got fixed. And I maintain that no thought was put into them, particularly in 1st Edition. When I first looked through OSRIC I thought it was in error. Elves having Wizard be their highest level class makes sense, Thief just doesn’t. Half-Orc was the only one that ended up making sense since it got Assassin instead. Putting thought into it would have at least had the level limits make sense internally, if not in comparison to humans.

    “Here I’m afraid you’re mixing third edition mechanics into an examination of what demi-human level limits were about in earlier editions.”

    Nope, and I’m not sure what reading error you made to come to that conclusion.

    “First, and most obvious, this article is about why demihuman level limits were in older editions in the first place, what they were intended to do, and whether or not they accomplished it”

    They were in there because Gary couldn’t think of anything better. They never accomplished it anyway, because either nobody hit those levels because the campaign stopped well before 9th level or they just decided to throw them out. For them to accomplish anything, they’d need to have been used, rather than just percolating in Gary’s head. Nobody liked it, everyone thought it was stupid. The BECMI line axed it. 3rd ed axed it. No other RPG made ever decided to include it. Nobody misses it. It didn’t accomplish anything it set out to do, particularly with module writers throwing in their Mary Sues who broke the rules anyway.

    “More importantly, however, this solution would not be effective in first edition. An extra “+4 bonus” (to what?”

    Everything that they’re cooperating on. Might be a -4 bonus depending on the action.

    “Would it really be enough to make groups of short-lived, low-level, humans competitive with thousand-year-old level fifty elven fighter-magi who have had time to make plenty of magic items?”

    For every high level elf wizard, there’s 50 human arch mages. Even using the optional high campaign rules, there’s really no power difference after level 21, and no way a single elf wizard could match up against a group of humans – spells don’t get more powerful, the only difference is the number of spells being cast, and the elf is still stuck at 1/round.

  2. Friend, I’m not suggesting your opinion on the merits of level limits is wrong, but there was a clear line of thought involved in them. Whether they are good or bad, Gygax had a specific reason.

    He thinks you are confusing it with 3rd edition because you apparently do confuse how the multiclassing and dual-classing rules worked. I immediately thought the same when I saw your post. I’m sorry if that’s not what you meant, but what you actually wrote leads one to think that way.

    People did indeed use level limits, though sometimes grudgingly. I don’t quite know if mean that to be so literal, but yes, people did actually use those rules. Not everyone liked it, and there was a huge debate on the matter.

    An extra +4 bonus on *everything* is rather beefy. In fact, it’s by far the most powerful bonus you can get short of +4 and up templates. And you’d have to answer why humans were supposedly so good at working with one another compared to halflings, dwarves, and elves – who were hardly known for being uncooperative in comparison. Frankly, it doesn’t even pass the sniff test, and proposing it as a “solution” doesn’t either. You’d have to make humans a much different race in the game than in reality. And that’s fine, but it’s not really DnD, either.

    In any event, the point is that it wouldn’t fix the perceived problem anyhow. You’d certainly get humans dominating at low levels. That doesn’t mean you’d get any more humans at high levels – there are only so many adventurers to go around and it’s not going to make that much a long-term survival difference. You’re still going to have Elven Archmages outclassing everyone else sans level limits and under the original rulesset, armed to the teeth with magic goodies.

    Finally, I’m not sure exactly what rules you are referring to at the end, but it’s simply to true that you’re limited to 1 spell/round. In fact, it’s quite possible, albeit difficult, to get to a great many spells per round and grab much more powerful spells to boot. it all depends on your magical gear and the time you take to research spells… both of which the elves with no limits have in abundance.

    Personally, I prefer other ways to limit the matter than level limits, but your concept here just doesn’t work. It won’t really fix the problem, drastically changes the setting, and causes all kinds of issues for the game.

    • I’ve never been quite sure about addressing people as “friends” when I don’t actually know them. It always makes me feel like I’m selling something a little bit sleazy.

      On the other hand, apparently most of the rest of the world doesn’t agree with “The only way to be polite is to thoroughly analyze everything you say – because anything less would imply that I was either ignoring you or not taking you seriously”.

      And I don’t think I’m rich enough to qualify as “eccentric” either.

      Oh well.

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