Saturday, October 2, 2021

Revisiting Racial Level Limits: How Demihumans Work When I Run AD&D

Before I turn to the main subject of this post, there are two side-topics that I want to address.

• First is the "big news" that I couldn't personally care less about: WotC has announced that they'll be releasing revised core rulebooks for 5th edition D&D* in 2024, on the game's 50th anniversary. It's hard to muster up any enthusiasm for this announcement, given that WotC D&D* isn't, y'know, actually D&D.

• It's closing in on three years now since I decided to finally part ways with the Old School Renaissance, and in that time, I've gained some perspective. I think I have a better understanding now of where I feel like the OSR failed. Soon enough, I'm going to need to write a long post summarizing my thoughts on the matter, where I plan to take my gaming projects in the future, and also articulating my response to lots of other recent old-school gaming blog activity (which I'll link to at the time).

In the meanwhile, though, I want to turn my attention to the subject of AD&D, demihuman level limits, and what is very likely my last substantive post concerning any particular version of Dungeons & Dragons for the near future.

• • •

In my last post, I outlined the structure of the character class lineup in my OD&D games, which necessarily includes all of the playable nonhuman types, since nonhuman characters get their own unique classes in the basic game. I made it clear that while elves, dwarves, and hobbits are still limited to the 10th, 12th, and 8th experience levels respectively, I do allow for the possibility of surpassing those limits using the attack rank and caster level systems found in the Companion and Master Sets, the Rules Cyclopedia, and GAZ5. Demihuman characters who hit their level limits don't have to fade from the campaign right away; but they do advance more slowly, they gain fewer benefits from advancement, and their means of advancement is necessarily restricted (in that demihumans have to "learn" the attack ranks from high-level human fighters, and elves can only advance their magic in an elvish homeland). It's just a normal and expected part of high-level D&D play that nonhuman characters will turn their attention to nonhuman concerns: their homelands, their clans, and probably the creation of special artifacts. While human characters can advance as high as 36th level (and start questing for immortality well before that point), demihumans in D&D have an inherent cap on their capabilities that sits somewhere between 22nd and 28th level for an equivalent human character (but the XP required for a demihuman to reach these heights remains comparable to a human advancing all the way to 36th). 

Now, I want to pause here to inject a bit of a tangent: one of the reasons that the modern old-school gaming movement fixates so heavily on the 1981–2 "B/X" edition of D&D is the fact that it only covers fourteen experience levels. (Well, not really. The booklets promise a "Companion Set" that will run human characters up to 36th level, along with some suggestions of how it will actually work. What actually happened, of course, was that Frank Mentzer was given the job of re-writing the Basic and Expert Sets, and the rest of the game was published as the Companion, Master, and Immortals Sets — and these are the legitimate continuation of "B/X" into levels beyond the 14th. This is not to dismiss the alternative Companion Sets written by JB or Barrataria, but as far as the rules officially published by TSR are concerned, the Mentzer Companion Set is the high-level continuation of both the '82 and '83 Expert Sets. So it would be more accurate of me to say that the change of authorship between the Cook/Marsh Expert Set and the Mentzer Companion Set gives certain old-school gamers a legitimate-seeming excuse to treat "B/X" as a self-contained and even complete edition of D&D, when in fact it is no such thing.) The desire to silo off "B/X" into its own little universe flows from a number of impulses, like the desire to play the game with few rules and few rulebooks, and the desire to keep D&D gameplay confined to the lower levels of experience—when all adventurers are poor, vulnerable, mud-grubbing mercenaries, scrambling to get their hands on what wealth and magic they can grasp at, and never having the power (be it temporal or magical) to really affect the campaign milieu in a big way.

This is, of course, one of the great failings of the OSR: the culture-wide banishment of high-level play from the expected course of a D&D campaign. It is… tragic, the degree to which high-level play has been either ignored or outright ridiculed by the old-school gaming community, and I for one am happy to stand against that trend. Modern D&D gets attacked for being "too much like anime fantasy superheroes"—but it's rarely pointed out that the problem isn't fantasy superheroics. (An 8th level fighting man is a superhero for a reason, after all!) The problem is unearned superheroics taking place at 1st level. Up above 10th level? Superheroism and wuxia and flashy anime moves definitely have their place, alongside the Elric-levels of planes-hopping and the world-shaking magic! 

So I think it needs to be shouted from the rooftops, loud and proud: D&D has official rules for taking characters up to 36th level (and beyond, into Immortality). AD&D has official rules for taking characters up to 30th level (and again, possibly ascending to the status of a demigod afterwards). The impulse to halt human advancement at 9th or 10th or 14th level is understandable, given the inherent difficulty of running a high-level campaign… but it's also wrong, given that a healthy campaign necessarily includes at least the possibility of viable high-level play.

Which brings us back to the subject of demihumans. I've heard it said many a time that "B/X" and its not-really-a-cap of 14th level for human characters makes the demihuman level caps make sense. Hobbits 8th, elves 10th, dwarves 12th, humans 14th. And… yeah, no. Given the advantages that dwarves get over human fighters, a cap of 12th vs 14th is hardly a balancing factor at all. Only elves and halflings will ever really "feel" the cap, and even then, it won't happen for a very long time. Already, we run into the most common criticism directed at level caps when considered as balancing factors: they don't matter at all until you hit the cap, and then suddenly they matter too much and constitute the harshest of punishments for having deigned to play a nonhuman character way back at the start of the campaign.

The "harsh punishment" criticism, naturally enough, evaporates when you realize that D&D players are supposed to be running several characters at a time, and that these characters' levels are expected to spread out over time, so that you'll eventually wind up with a stable of characters with a wide variety of experience levels, suitable for tackling a wide variety of adventures. And even the "poor balancing factor" criticism takes a serious hit when you realize that it's not about balancing the raw power of, say, a human fighter vs. a dwarf fighter; rather, it's about balancing out the campaign milieu as a whole, ensuring that the human species collectively has more power in the game world than the dwarvish species collectively. That is to say, level caps are chiefly a tool for enforcing setting flavor, and they're a game-balance mechanism second.

But!—and this is a big "But!"—that game-balance mechanism absolutely must be in place, and it must be inviolable. The 1st and 2nd edition Dungeon Masters Guides agree on this point, even though AD&D 2nd edition considerably raised the level limits for most demihuman character class combinations well beyond even the expanded limits from 1st edition's Unearthed Arcana. Without it, there is usually no direct incentive to play a human character. And then the campaign devolves into, not the "weird wizard show" that Gary Gygax feared from magic becoming too powerful, but a "silly fairy show" where every character is some new nonhuman species, and eventually the players are all trying to one-up each other in the "not just being a boring human" department. And that's how you go from a sword & sorcery milieu with mostly humans and a few elves, dwarves, and hobbits, to the present-day scene, with its influx of player character planetouched and furries. 

(Second tangent: I've just realized that Dragonball, which has been "the silly Saiyan show" ever since the moment Kuririn threw a ki-en-zan at Cell and it had absolutely zero effect, is basically a universe where the humans are level-limited and doomed to fade from relevance at high-levels. The Saiyans are, in D&D terms, the "humans" of the Dragonball universe! Which is why, now that we have Dragonball Super, Goku and Vegeta are literally the only characters in the show that matter at all.)

…Where was I? Ah, yes. Demihumans. For the level cap on demihumans to matter, it can't be so low that it keeps you from wanting to play a demihuman at all, but it can't be so high that it comes within just a couple levels of maximum human potential. It has to be… somewhere in the middle to upper-middle of the human level range. And its purpose is to keep demihuman characters from being the powerful movers-and-shakers of the campaign world. Or, in more practical terms, the purpose of such caps is to cause players to prefer selecting their human characters more and more as the campaign starts to involve more and more high-level adventures (including dominion management, planes-hopping, "save the world" type stuff, and so forth). To that end, I think that the best model for demihuman level caps isn't the "hard ceiling" given in both AD&D 1st and 2nd editions, but rather, the "soft ceiling" of D&D—a slowing of advancement that will eventually peter out at a point where the demihuman character has needed to earn just as much XP as the maximum-level human, but the demihuman's raw power is somewhere between one-half and three-quarters as powerful as the human in terms of total experience levels.

And, in fact, the mechanism for accomplishing this is buried right there in the rulebooks themselves. 

AD&D 1st edition's solution for demihumans exceeding their level caps is to simply raise the cap when the character has an exceptionally high ability score. This is a terrible idea. All it does is promote stat-bloat, and it delays the "hard ceiling" by a couple of levels at most.

AD&D 2nd edition mentions several times that demihumans may be allowed to surpass their caps if they're instead required to earn double, triple, or even quadruple XP to gain levels, either right away from 1st level, or only once they've hit their cap in their class. This is a better idea, but it's not very elegant, and any rule that outright removes the level cap (even if the cost in XP becomes so high as to be not practically attainable in a real campaign) isn't doing its job to incentivize players to prefer human characters.

But if we combine these methods, in particular starting with the lower AD&D 1st edition level limits and then gradually slowing advancement until the character hits a hard ceiling at the AD&D 2nd edition level limits (only reachable after earning a considerable amount of extra XP), then that just about does it. Instead of "punishing" the player with a low hard cap and halting advancement, we instead have a mechanism that models the demihuman character gradually losing interest in human concerns (like adventuring, amassing wealth and power, and ruling), becoming less and less able to keep up with the power-accumulation of ambitious humans—and knowing full well that while a human can eventually reach 30th level in their class, a demihuman will eventually be limited to the mid teens in two or three classes.

Here's the final table:

As noted, it works by allowing demihumans to advance normally until they hit their "first cap" (which is usually, but not always, their level limit from the 1e PHB). Beyond that, the character requires double the normal amount of XP to attain the next two levels, triple XP to reach the next two levels after that, and quadruple XP for their final two attainable levels, with the second "hard cap" always being six levels above the initial one. 

As an example of the caps in action, let's take the classic combination, the elf fighter/mage. Elves hit their first fighter cap at 7th level and their first mage cap at 9th level. Beyond that, an elf can eventually hit 13th/15th level as a fighter/mage, but the XP required to reach those levels is multiplied considerably. The elf's advancement table would thus be:

Level

Fighter

Mage

1st

0

0

2nd

2,000

2,500

3rd

4,000

5,000

4th

8,000

10,000

5th

18,000

22,500

6th

35,000

40,000

7th

70,000

60,000

8th

180,000

90,000

9th

430,000

135,000

10th

1,180,000

365,000

11th

1,930,000

615,000

12th

2,930,000

1,740,000

13th

3,930,000

2,865,000

14th

 

4,365,000

15th

 

5,865,000

Now, keep in mind, multiclassed characters do have to continue splitting their XP even after reaching an ultimate cap in one of their classes, so in order to actually attain 13th/15th level as a fighter/mage, an elf character would actually need to earn a grand total of 11,730,000 experience points — far more than it would ever take any human to reach 30th level. (Well, except for druids and monks, but druids and monks are outliers.) In fact, as a point of comparison, here are the XP requirements to reach 30th level in each class, assuming no +10% XP bonus for high prime requisites:

Fighter … 5,500,000
Ranger … 6,600,000
Paladin … 7,700,000
Cleric … 4,950,000
Druid … 10,500,000
Monk … 9,750,000
Thief … 4,400,000
Assassin … 5,250,000
Bard … 6,400,000
Mage … 7,500,000
Illusionist … 4,620,000
Necromancer … 5,250,000
Psionicist … 6,000,000

As you can see, the system I've devised ensures that AD&D demihuman characters can always, in principle, continue to advance alongside their human counterparts… it's just that for demihumans, the actual rewards for advancement will becoming increasingly rare and less worthwhile, gradually falling off to nothing. This should, in my estimation, provide the "gentle nudge" (rather than the original "sudden slap in the face") that will have players picking their human characters over their nonhuman ones as a campaign transitions into epic-level play.

• • •

So there you have it. This is the last post I'm going to make on either OD&D or AD&D for a while, because I feel like "I've done it." I've hammered my house rules for both systems into an elegant and functional shape that works well, while still honoring these games' original forms. I don't feel like there's much more work to do on the rules themselves. All that's left is to build campaigns and just play

That said, there is still one related project I have in the works: I'm presently working on a set of spell cards for BECMI (including the druidic spells and those weird extra magic-user spells from the Rules Cyclopedia) that I'll eventually post here and also try and spread around the blogosphere and the r/osr subreddit and what-not. My motive for doing this is a combination of the usual desire to have a handy play-aid on hand and to share it with the community; and also (perversely) to evangelize for the continuity between B/X and BECMI. After all, these days? The majority of gamers who will be using something like this will probably be Old School Essentials players. They need to know that there aren't just fourteen levels of "B/X" and then some adulterated AD&D rules that can optionally be tacked on as the "Advanced Fantasy" supplement. There are also levels 15th through 36th and Immortals play out there waiting for them—waiting for old-school gamers to rediscover the true source of gonzo, bonkers, super-powered fantasy that is the epic level campaign!