Thursday, June 18, 2009

B/X Elf Lords

Trying to rectify my idea of the Elf Lord with the limits set forth in B/X is tricky…I’ve been thinking about it a lot lately (which is patently ridiculous, as I DO have job I should be thinking about instead!). Still, it’s like a thorn in my brain…the proverbial itch that needs scratching.

Thing is, there are games that model the Middle-Earth/Norse closer to my idea: MERPS, of course, and Warhammer Fantasy Role-Playing. But unfortunately, neither o those systems are ones I want to play right now.

Right now, I feel like I’ve got four options:

  • House rule a new Elf class (I’d prefer not to do this as I like to stick close to canon whenever possible)
  • Use BECMI “fixes” (either the unlimited level variant from the Rules Cyclopedia or the attack ranks from the BECMI Companion, neither of which appeals to my B/X sensibilities)
  • Play B/X solo…i.e. stop human classes at level 14, and stick to the main monsters…this keeps the Elf Lord (at 10th level) a powerful, viable class. However, I feel this, too, goes against the spirit of B/X (as well as pinching my own B/X Companion plans).
  • Play or adapt a different game system…AD&D, HackMaster, D20, etc. (this is my LEAST favorite option)

I guess there’s another option which would be “quitcherbitchin,” buck up, and play it as written. D&D elves simply aren’t Tolkien elves or Norse alfar. They don’t sport beards. They don’t stand toe-to-toe with Morgoth, nor do they take down Balrogs single-handedly. Or if they DID, they don’t anymore (those were heroes of a latter age).

D&D elves are a different breed. They’re magical (well, they study magic and can read magic books). They’re mean…as in “low” (they delve dungeons, slay mythical beasts, loot tombs of the dead, etc.). Gygax’s elves are not the high-minded Noldor of Gondolin…um, they’re kind of bastards, actually, at least if you judge them by their actions.

On the other hand, I can see a wood elf throwing in his or her lot with a bunch of roguish adventurers… "wood elves like their wine," states Bilbo Baggins, and I’m inclined to take him at his word. And elf-lords certainly rule dominions in the literature: whether hill forts or fairy-land palaces, a Lord is a Lord.

I don’t mind the D6 hit dice (men should be hardier stock than the “fair folk,” even their warriors). But it bothers me that a high level elf doesn’t have the juice to stand up against a high level fighter and give him a run for his money. Here’s how it stands now:

  • A 10th level elf has a THAC0 of 13, compared to the fighter’s 7 at 19th level and 2 at 28th+. Assuming comparable equipment, the fighter is just going to hit a lot more.
  • AND a lot more often, assuming multiple attacks are given to the fighter. Elves only gain multiple attacks if using the BECMI attack ranks rule…but these attack ranks are only gained from “adventuring alongside humans” and learning their skills. What? A thousand years isn’t enough for an elf to learn a few tricks?
  • Elves average max hit points are 33 or thereabouts; an average fighter has twice this many by level 20 and nearly three times this many at level 36 (94 average). This means a human fighter is going to kill an elf lord in one-third the time. Except the fighter will kill him faster than that, what with multiple attacks and a higher chance of hitting.

Basically, no matter how “lordly” the elf, he’s going to be gaffled and quickly by a high level fighter. What fighter is going to fear an elf, once he (or she) has reached level 19 or so? Twice the hit points, twice the attacks, twice the chance to hit…my math tells me the lord goes down in one-eighth the time.

The wizard thing makes up the difference of course…I guess it’s just that I don’t like wizards all that much. I like the idea of elves being magical, but not being magicians…still, this actually goes MORE hand in hand with the Norse tradition (i.e. elves are just like humans and so, while more inherently magical, they still must do the same things as humans…if humans have to study to learn magic, then so do elves). Of course Alfar are as mortal as any other Norse myth.

Maybe a trade-off of some kind is in order…I keep looking back to my Men & Magic book with the illustration of the bearded elf. Here elves were even weaker (4th level fighting ability!). Of course, one has to remember that the Silmarillion was published in 1977, three years after the original publication of D&D. Without the Silmarillion one’s view of the elf lord is rather limited.

But OD&D does offer something on this idea…some way of utilizing a trade-off to get more bang for your buck…more lord for your elf, in other words. Like an elf that exclusively studies fighting (or magic) can get to twice the level…that the 10 level maximum is only present because of a need to split time between fighting and study.

Would a level 20 elf lord be a match for a high level fighter? Well, he’s certainly better than a 10th level elf lord. He’ll average 53 hit points, have a THAC0 of 7 (as good as a 25th level paladin…um, cleric), AND get two attacks per round if allowed to have multiple attacks like a fighter.

Is losing all magical abilities for an extra 10 levels really worth it? Maybe not. He receives neither the D8 hit dice, nor the additional levels (and multiple attacks) possible for a fighter, in exchange for infravision, a heightened chance to detect secret doors, and a few languages. I’m not sure if that’s an effective trade-off for a high-level character…especially when you could be throwing 10 dice fire balls while wearing magical plate armor and carrying a flaming sword you crafted yourself.

How about triple the level? A 30th level elf lord would certainly be closer in stature (fight-wise) to a fighter, with 73 hit points, a THAC0 of 2, and three attacks per round. That guy’s a combat monster! But if you can trade in 5 levels for 15 fighter levels, plus throw fire balls? That’s a little too much.

And this whole trade-off thing is…well, a little too complicated for B/X, truth be told. I don’t want to complicate my game…if I wanted THAT I’d be playing AD&D or D20. D&D elves are like the fae of Three Hearts and Three Lions…they’re basically faerie kin without the weakness to iron. They can fight (though not as good as dedicated humans) and they can cast spells. They’re also basically Chaotic and malicious, but hey, so are a lot of adventurers. Rather than Tolkien’s highly moral elves, these “lords” are more like the nobles of Zelazny’s Courts of Chaos. Hmmm…I can probably work with this.

Basically, they’re all whimsical and malevolent…they’re all Drow! Ha!


  1. The way I see it, the elf lord has had a thousand years to prepare for the encounter. He has snake serpent demons guarding his palace, he has fire spirits at his command -- not because he has mastered the spells to do that, but because he has lived long enough to make deals with each and every supernatural power. That's why the super human fighter, the demi-god of fighting, will cut the elf lord down in a flurry of blows if and only if he actually reaches him. Charms and curses of a thousand years will block his way.

    Don't you think that this outside-the-rules explanation would work as well?

  2. I think in terms of B/X, the 10th lvl elf is completely appropriate. Its when you move over to BECMI that they get outpaced. Easy enough to alter if you want elves to be more competitive for high-level games. By their presented xp, each elf level needs the same as a fighter x2, simply continue that progression as high as you feel is appropriate:)

    Personally, I've never much enjoyed games that went higher than level 12 or so.

  3. Al, you are definitely NOT the first person to tell me that. Personally, though, I think “playable level” depends on the inherent scale of the game. OD&D peaks somewhere less than 10 (a Balrog only has 10HD for god’s sake), and B/X as written peaks right around 12-14.

    BECMI and AD&D peak much higher for me. This is as much due to the potential scale of the challenge (hierophant druids? Demon princes? Malicious artifacts?) as the potential level of the characters.

    Don’t worry…this conversation isn’t over yet, but I see BOTH your points. A 10th level elf is plenty badass, even without extra attack ranks (assuming good preparation and nice equipment). I’m just trying to reconcile the class/rules as written with my “ideals” based on certain literary visions. But I’m starting to get there.

  4. I hope to start a B/X game soon, and I have also thought about the level limits problem. My solution will likely be to use the B/X solo option. Of course, I favor ditching the xp system in favor of "leveling up" my players every 5 or 6 sessions. With one game session every two weeks, that's a lot of playtime before I have to worry about what happens after 14th level!

    That having been said, another solution I might try is crafting my own speculative companion, but outfitting all B/X classes with prestige classes rather than continuing regular advancement to level 36. Elves above 10th level could be given the option of becoming either Glorfindel-like warriors or Galadriel-style mages. Okay, not a very B/X response, I grant you....

  5. Hey, LB...I don't mind the occasional non-B/X response, just don't expect me to take you up on any D20 (3E+) suggestions, since I don't plan on breaking out THOSE books anytime soon.

    For the record, I don't think of Galadriel or Glorfindel as having some sort of prestige class (neither do I see Elrond as having "Loremaster" or some such added to his stat block). All of these characters I simply see as high level characters...i.e. they are the same as normal elves, just MORESO. It's just that Tolkien sensibilities and D&D don't mesh very easily, I'm afraid....