Thursday, January 05, 2012

Everyone has Level Limits exactly backwards except Timrod and me

In yesterday's lively discussion about the sucky AD&D subsystems poll, Timrod of Unfrozen Caveman Dice-Chucker writes:
I might be the only person ever to say this but I actually liked demihuman level limits, and I played demihumans all the time. It was kind of satisfying to know that you'd taken your character to the pinnacle of his ability. Also, my old gang usually retired our characters by the time they reached 7th or 8th level, so unlimited levels were wasted on us.
Preach it, brother Timrod!  I'm right there with you!

Let me walk the rest of you through my thinking on this one.

One of the great lies (or at least horrible misunderstandings) we repeat over and over again is that there are no victory conditions in RPGs.  I've seen some variant of "there are no winners in RPGs" written in lots of "What the crap is a role-playing game?" chapters.  What all these passages should really say is that there are no fixed victory conditions in RPGs.  This is one of at least two ways that RPGs trump the bejeesus out of other game forms, the other being that you can attempt all sorts of plays not anticipated by the rules.  That second one we all know and understand.  It becomes especially clear the first time you play a computer "rpg" and you think of 14 reasonable things you'd like to do that the stupid machine won't let you even try.  "Why can't I attempt to climb that dang wall, you stupid game!?" etc., etc.

So one of the ultimately cool things about RPGs is that each player can invent their own victory conditions.  Usually there's simple survival and a bland default one based on genre ("Get a million gold pieces", "Stop the bad guys from wrecking Gotham", "Don't let the Rooskies win the Cold War" etc.) but those are pale imitations of the real deal where a motivated player takes the reins and says "Screw those guys at Hogwart's! I'm starting my own magic school!" or "I'm gonna get those vampires that killed my dog!" or any of an infinitude of other options. 

(Incidentally, this is one of the easy ways I can tell whether an indie game sucks donkey balls isn't my cup of tea: If the victory conditions are inflexible I probably don't want to play it.)

So here's a self-established victory condition: I'm going to play a half-orc.  I'm going to make him a cleric.  And I'm going to be the best damn half-orc cleric possible.  It's a humble goal, and a little metagamey, but also objectively achievable, unlike becoming the greatest wizard ever, which depends on a lot of campaign-specific mumbo-jumbo. 

So I say, take some of those "crappy" class and race combos dictated by Crazy Uncle Gary's level limit rules.  Play that halfling up to max level.  Spend some of your hard-earned gold on a retirement party and use the rest to buy a well-appointed hole somewhere nice.  Then go for a gnome fighter or a half-elf ranger or something equally nerfed.  Eventually the landscape will be dotted with your smugly non-dead ex-PCs.  What do those guys with unlimited advancement have to show for all their toils?


  1. Anonymous10:05 AM

    Uh... technically the level cap kinda fell by the wayside with the Companion and Master rulesets allowing demihumans to progress (martially at least) with Strike Ranks I believe they were termed. Just saying...

  2. I've never had a problem with level limits for demi-humans (well, at least after I got out of middle school anyway).

    Most of my campaigns end when the PCs reach "name level" (9th level or so). Demi-humans really don't get ahem "short"-changed in that regard. But then again I'm human-centric when it comes to gaming.

  3. Strike Ranks are an abomination unto the Lord.

  4. I can't believe Weapon vs AC or the ungodly messes of initiative/speed and unarmed combat get less hate than Level limits.

  5. I really, really like this solution.

    It's still an ingenious patch, though. Not that I'm against that, as such.

  6. What you're saying makes sense. In the past 2 years of gaming (granted, we rotate DM duties and games), nobody has ever made it past 8th level anyway. So it's not like we have a bunch of superheroes running around.

    I'd be hesitant to play a PC with a 4th level limit because - damn - that just comes too quick. But I'd have no problem playing a PC that was limited to 6th or 7th.

  7. I supported E.G.G. reasoning behind level-limits, but I prefer a "man"-centric game too.

  8. I think the reason I picked level limits—as some other people talked about—was that almost all the other things are subsystems you can ignore. You can ignore level limits too, of course. But if you think that demihumans need some kind of disadvantage, you can’t ignore it without swapping in something else in exchange. 2e did give you an XP penalty option in the DMG, I think.

    Or something. In any case, I’m really perfectly fine with level limits. But the other aspects of AD&D that I don’t like just always seemed easier to ignore.

    I’m not sure it’s a good idea, but I’ve often thought about making custom victory conditions explicit. Each player would create a list of goals for their PC. The DM would then assign XP values to each.

  9. Anonymous10:57 AM

    I think the level cap is a poorly-designed rule because it rarely does what it is supposed to. If you never play the game to those levels, it is NOT a balance for the demihuman advantages over humans. Plain and simple. I'm all for an end goal and maximum level for PCs though... but it should be for all characters not just nonhuman ones. Infinite advancement is not a good model to use, as it gives no sense of what "good" really is. That applies to levels, ability scores, ACs, skills... anything in a game really.

  10. "What do those guys with unlimited advancement have to show for all their toils?"

    Prismatic Sphere, Shapechange, Wish...

  11. Preach it, Jeff. I think that AD&D's level limits are actually too high. I prefer the original (1974) D&D game's level limits:

    1. Dwarves could be fighters of up to 6th level. That's it.

    2. Elves could get up to 4th level as a fighter, and up to 8th level as a magic-user.

    3. Hobbits could be fighters of up to only 4th level. That's it!

    Your idea of dotting the campaign world with retired, maxed-out demi-human PCs is very cool.

  12. I totally agree with you here. Ethically, I do not love the CONCEPT of demi-human level limits and the human-o-centric worldview it conveys, but practically, I have no problem with it and rarely take PCs much above level 9 or 10 anyway.

  13. Anonymous11:45 AM

    If we're going to nerf levels for demi-humans for the sake of making a human-centered campaign, why even bother having demi-humans as a PC option? And if it's balance we're worried about, why let races that are Mary Sue as it is multi-class? And what's with unlimited demi-human thieves? The whole thing has always looked muddled to me.

  14. Anonymous12:52 PM

    I was always rather found of the DragonQuest (the RPG by SPI) version of that where the long-lived and powerful races took XP penalties, in the form that that paid extra to buy skills with XP. The other quirk of that was that as orcs were short-lived and not very powerful as a race, they effectively got an XP bonus.

  15. If you're developing your own win conditions anyway, why bother focusing on arbitrary and kludge-y rules?

    It was my pet peeve because it makes little sense from either an in-game or meta-game perspective.

  16. "If you're developing your own win conditions anyway, why bother focusing on arbitrary and kludge-y rules?"

    Why not?

  17. Because it makes little sense from either an in-game or meta-game perspective. ;)

    "Badmofo will retire when he hits level 9 because at that point he'll be able to handle just about any challenge that a mundane life will throw at him and will therefore feel secure in settling down and starting a family."

    Same practical effect without the bad rule.

  18. It never ends. No matter how many posts I devote to making lemonade, somebody always comes along and tells me I should have started with cherries.

  19. Level limits are fun because it's great to watch the guy who had to play an elf get to level 5 and then start whining.

    W vs AC and Weapon Speed are great fun as well. If you want to play B/X then play B/X! If not, then make sure you buy a helmet because 1 in 6 blows is coming at your AC 10 head. Another great AD&D rule.

  20. This comment has been removed by the author.

  21. TheMetal12:55 PM

    I never had a problem with the level limits and the victory conditions I think would be a helpful idea. What I find rather intersting about the idea of Victory Conditions is that WOTC has implemented that by including the Epic Destiny as the sort of End-Game picture of the character, with the Paragon Path mid-way to help focus the character interests.

    Jeff are you secretly working on the development team for 5th Edition?

  22. @ Jeff:


  23. Actually, I'm part of an elite squad dedicated to making a Negative First Edition of D&D.

  24. My humble solution that exports this idea to all characters:

  25. I just don't understand the desire to play with a system as-is, warts and all. If it's just that you like this particular wart, have a ball, but it looks more like trying to pass off a big hairy wart as a "beauty mark."

    If it's just some sort of misguided nostalgic desire to run a "pure" game using the rules as written, i don't see the fun in that. Back in the day when 1st ed was all there was, we had no problem ignoring or house-ruling all sorts of stuff we didn't like.

  26. Yes, yes, Matthew. You make excellent points and are correct in every possible way. Now could you please stop harshing on my mellow over here?

  27. lol...point taken. ;)

  28. Anonymous6:35 PM

    Jeff's mellow is a beautiful and magical thing, like a butterfly landing on your hand or finding a $20 in your wallet that you forgot was there.

    But it is, apparently, fragile :/

  29. A think a choice between seeing in the dark now and being able to eventually cast prismatic sphere is a wonderful piece of game design balance, and is eminently fair.

    Demi-humans get unlimited Thief advancement because it's a crap class.

  30. Also, you have to remember that we are talking about demi-humans here, not people; in the D&D paradigm they're half person/half monster.

    And ultimately they're from fairy tales as well; I can handle a being from fairy tales being badass, not not the most badass.

  31. Anonymous7:45 PM

    I'm playing a halfling fighter with a bow specialization in my buddy's game. Although he'll have to retire at level 4, he'll effectively have the same "THAC0" as a 10th level fighter.

    I also plan to have save almost all of his treasure and use it to start a mercenary company when he retires (and provide services for his former friends at a discount).

    To me, that is total and unabashed winning.

  32. The Great games give EVERYONE a level limit and not just the dang Hobbits!

    Max level is 10. Done,finished,you won,go live fat and happy.

  33. Sweet Nelly!

    Also: What the hell are strike ranks?

  34. Anonymous10:15 PM

    A shot of lemonade: I once played a Half-Orc cleric that I quite enjoyed, Brother Cleaver, a chaotic neutral nihilist. He lasted about 3-4 sessions, as did the campaign. I was playing Paranoia heavily at the time, which I found refreshingly simple after years of D&D, and this was a big influence. It begs the question... how much 'investment' does a character merit? Cleaver was fun, though not very memorable, but the longer term characters seemed a huge sop of time by comparison.

  35. Anonymous11:49 PM

    I always kind of felt like the level limits would have worked a bit better if the multi-class vs. dual classing rules for humans and demihumans were reversed: that way a demihuman would advance to the peak of their racial ability within a class and then walk away from it, reinventing themselves as something else and still being able to advance and learn through the span of multiple human lifetimes. Would keep that second or third century from being boring . . .

    All that said, I don't mind them as a mechanic - there are argueably better ways to balance, etc. but they certainly have never detracted from my enjoyment of the game.

  36. Jeff's just worried if we don't keep em in there place those darn pointy ears, short stacks and bearded boys will ruin the neighbor hood for good old humon beans

  37. Hell yes, I couldn't have said it better. The retirement condition is absolutely the point.

    Also, D&D players have been conditioned to only consider experience points as advancement, but, just like in the real world, one can accumulate wealth and influence to an unlimited degree, if one is so inclined. Someone want to try to make their halfling the next Alexander the Great? Go for it!


    Absolutely. I am fond of the Expert rules for limits on the four core classes (14th, generally). This also means that those pesky humans never get Prismatic Sphere, Shapechange, or Wish (at least not as spells they can prepare; they might get scrolls or something). I find this is also in line with the LBBs.


    And if it's balance we're worried about, why let races that are Mary Sue as it is multi-class?

    Can anyone parse that for me? I'm having trouble.


    It's only ethically problematic if you equate demihumans with race relations in the real world (a trend I quite dislike). But if they are truly alien, fairy-tale creatures I don't see a problem. Should we be offended that crickets are not allowed to progress to 20th level as a magic-user?

  38. "What the hell are strike ranks?"

    A crappy work-around in the 1983 BECMI version of D&D that allowed Elves, Dwarves and Halflings to continue to gain combat ability despite hitting their level limit. Your Halfling would be Level 8, but fight as Rank A, then Rank B, then Rank C, basically gain fake levels.

  39. Anonymous5:52 AM


    "Mary Sue" refers to a character that is too good to be believable. Elves and possibly Half-Elves are Mary Sue races, IMO. They have a slew of multiclass options and get to cast arcane magic while wearing plate armour... and we haven't even gotten to Elves' racial abilities. I would curb some of that before opting to restrict levels.

  40. "Actually, I'm part of an elite squad dedicated to making a Negative First Edition of D&D."

    consider this +1'd!

    "I always kind of felt like the level limits would have worked a bit better if the multi-class vs. dual classing rules for humans and demihumans were reversed"

    same here - though I don't think I'd quite realized it that clearly before.

  41. Anonymous10:16 PM

    By stripping the races of their advantages, such as +1 Dex for Halflings, then level limitations can also be removed without needlessly worrying that human characters will be abandoned for more powerful non human options.


  42. I find Attack Ranks were a good idea instead; they addressed two aspects.
    First, you keep demihumans in play by "compressing" their advancement so that they reach their "maximum" rank/level at a much higher XP requirement than other classes.
    Second, you only get SOME benefits of level advancement instead of ALL benefits; namely improve attacks, but no more hit points nor improved saves.
    Actually, I have devised and used something similar to Attack Ranks, namely Skill Ranks and Magic Ranks, so for example a demihuman can be a Thief gaining normal levels up to some point, but going forward he only progresses in Thief skills, never improving saves nor attacks nor hit points.
    Overall, IMO the B/X/Mentzer approach works better than the AD&D one since you pay in some way for your "special" demihuman abilities from day one, not until you get to some level (which you might reach or not, making it pointless.)

    Anyway, your idea is cool :)

  43. "What do those guys with unlimited advancement have to show for all their toils?"

    All they've got to show for unlimited level progression (for humans and demihumans alike) is unwrapped campaigns. I prefer to retire characters when it makes sense: As Barons, Wizards or Patriarchs), even tho, I think that demihuman level limits are wrong* for all the right reasons.

    *It makes no statistical difference on the amount of high level demihumans on a campaign world that progresses teleologically, in the end you would end up with a anthropocentric campaign world, with or without level limits, because, due to sheer population numbers and death ratios you'll end up with more high level human characters, than demihumans. ( Teleological v/s Ontogenetic: )