Friday, June 19, 2009

The Limits of Ambition

There are good reasons to limit demi-human level advancement in D&D (and here I am referring to B/X) based on something other than "game balance." Most will agree that while a 12th level Dwarf or 10th level Elf has the approximate “adventuring power” of a 13th or 14th level human, an 8th level Halfling certainly does not. Halflings get the same saves and attack abilities as Dwarves (up till level 8), but have fewer hit points and more weapon restrictions? In exchange for a +1 to hit with missiles and an ability to hide? What the hell? Yeah, nothing says high level play like having the ability to hide from powerful monsters…and with the exact same chance as a 1st level Halfling, may I add. Clearly, game balance is NOT truly a factor in demi-human level restrictions. Dwarves and Elves requiring more XP to advance is a game balance issue; max levels are not. There are two things level limits do (that is, other than causing players to all choose human characters or insist on a different game system like AD&D): 1) It relegates non-human characters to “lesser roles” in the scheme of the game. Humans are the movers and shakers of the campaign world, dwarves and elves are lesser players, and halflings are bit parts (hey! The tavern owner is a Halfling! Or the wagon driver! Or the torchbearer!). 2) It forces demi-human characters into “early retirement” from their adventuring career. #1 is simply a reflection of D&D’s humanistic sensibilities…humans are supposed to be the heroes of the game world, not some elf, no matter how cool he is with his dual wielded scimitars (ugh). To me, #2 contains some interesting ideas based on literary precedent. Certainly none of Tolkien’s hobbits were intent on having adventure after adventure and becoming legends in their own land…the most they aspire to is the comfort of home, a little wealth perhaps, some good yarns to tell, and maybe a mayorship or the title of sheriff. Dwarves, of course, are interested in gold...but the mining and crafting of it more than looting of it. Once they have the wherewithal to carve out a mountain kingdom (around about Name level) they no longer need to “adventure” but are content to settle into their stronghold with their clan of followers, maybe a dwarf-wife or two, and set up shop. Elves face the ennui of immortality, I would guess…the same lassitude that eventually compels Tolkien’s elves to “head west across the sea.” Of course, not all Tolkien elves share this lassitude, and some like Elrond, Glorfindel, Galadriel, or Cirdan the Shipwright (just to name some from the Third Age) hang around Middle-Earth for thousands of years. Damn it…not all elves are pansies (to use my wife’s term)! And certainly, non-Tolkien elves are even less so. Still working this out....


  1. Maybe – to use Tolkien's images – the level limits describe the elves that have never left Middle-Earth. Once you've reached Varda, however, the sky's the limit. Somebody like Glorfindel and Galadriel aren't just elves that have hit their level limit. They have left Middle-Earth, gone to Varda, talked with the gods, and they have come back. Clearly, they must be semi-divine in power and no longer bound by level limits.

  2. Yes, yes...and they each have four to five "18s" in each of their attribute scores.

    I'm not so concerned with modeling badasses, so much as characters that have elf lord potential. I'm actually making a lot of mental notes as I re-read my Boyer novel.

  3. "It relegates non-human characters to “lesser roles” in the scheme of the game."

    Why? It sucks. Fantasy should be fantasy not just humans with swords. I'm fine if there are no humans or human in name only. Say brightly colored sorcery fuel ala Carcosa.

    "is simply a reflection of D&D’s humanistic sensibilities"

    This is probably #1 why I don't like OD&D or BECMI. Screw humanistic sensibilities. Why are they there? Cause Gygax felt that way is not even remotely good enough of a reason for me. If I wanted that kind of crap I'd play old Harn before they added fantasy elements.

    I'm kind of into the lower level campaign/"go retire and build a castle/tower/church when you reach name level" old edition concept. But, if it's good for the demi's it's good for the humans.

    Finally humancentricity triggers moral outrage in me. I'm very against the idea that humans are special or superior or that other creatures are for our use. Playing human centered games is same(to me) as playing a KKK game were we all sit around and slap ourselves on the backs for how superior white people are since they have unlimited levels.