Monday, July 14, 2014

The Limits of the Fading Folk

So one of the common problems folks have with many games that fall under the OSR heading is the level limits imposed on non-human (sometimes called demi-human) races. In Moldvay/Cook era D&D they were a class unto themselves and limited to half as many, or fewer, levels than human classes. In 1st edition AD&D, with the exception of a few race/class combos, they had some pretty restrictive level limits as well. I wanted to throw in my two coppers regarding Demi-Humans and Level Limts because I feel like I am in the minority in that I actually like them. I'm going to discuss this primarily from the rules and limits presented in Moldvay/Cook style D&D and Labyrinth Lord, since those are my favorite OSR games. I should preface this with a fair warning, my OSR gaming is very heavily influenced by the themes, feel and style of Tolkien's Middle-earth so my point of view on the matter is filtered through that love of his world.

A halfling, dwarf and an elf walking together
(from the Brothers Hildebrant's Fellowsihp of the Ring)
According to both the Rules Cyclopedia and Labyrinth Lord rules, demi-humans have some pretty tough limits. Dwarves cap out at 12th level, Elves at 10th, and Halflings at a mere 8th level. What the hell, right? I mean they live longer than humans, so you'd presume that they could actually exceed the normal cap of 20th level (or 36th, depending on your game), right?


Let's begin with the elves, who even according to the lore of my own beloved Lord of the Rings are supposed to be powerful beyond measure when compared to the mortal races. So, why the heck can they only cast 5th level spells at best? What gives? Well, let's look at the elf class. They get to wield any weapon, wear any armor, a solid hit die, great saving throws, a strong Attack Value/Thac0, keen senses and infravsion, an immunity to ghoul touch, extra languages, and they get full access to all magic-user spells (which they cast at the rate of a standard wizard). Now, granted, they pay for that in a slowed level progression because of increased experience requirements - but still, that certainly falls into he catagory of "abilities beyond the gifts of mortal men."

"I'm kind of a big deal." -Galadriel
So, elves have all the powers of fighters, magic-users, and some extra to boot. Why do they cap at level ten? Because, by the lore of Tolkien's world, the elves are fading. Yes, they possess absolutely amazing gifts - but these pale in comparison to their former glory. Fingolfin very nearly slew an evil god in single combat when an entire host of divine beings couldn't do it! That's the kind of powers the elves once had. But that is a world that has moved on, an age that has passed. Even so, the player character elf is still exceptional by the mere fact that they are choosing to adventure. Elves are primarily concerned with their own lands and their own people, after all. In my mind, when an elf reaches name level (9th), they are expected to retire to their own lands and tend to the affairs of the their people. Elrond in Rivendell, Galadriel in Lorien, Thranduil in Mirkwood. Thus, they are no longer adventuring - but instead come to the service of their people. This, to the elvish mind is a greater and more noble thing than plundering ruined tombs and forgotten halls for petty treasure.

"Dragon shmaggin - that gold is mine!" -Thorin Oakenshield

Next we have the dwarves, who are limited to 12th level. They have all of the abilities of a fighter, plus great saving throws, infravision and various abilities regarding caverns and stonework. Unlike elves, they don't have a ridiculously increased experience point cost as they level, though it is more than most other classes. So, why are they limited? I put forth the argument that they're not really that limited. In older versions of D&D and most OSR games, after a character reaches 9th level, they no longer gain hit dice - which is a key factor in character endurance. Instead dwarves gain more hit points per level after 9th than any other class. And this is the way it should be, after all dwarves are a hardy folk are they not? This coupled with the likelihood that they already have a high Constitution which has served them well from 1st to 9th level means its entirely likely that an 11th or 12th level dwarf might have just as many hit points as a fighter well into his teen levels. Also, from the point of view of Tolkien's work, dwarves seem pretty obsessed with establishing their own kingdoms. Thorin Oakenshield sought to restore Erebor to its former glory. Balin (like Durin IV and his son Nain I) sought to free Moria from the hordes of orcs who had overwhelmed it in ages passed. This says, to me, that dwarves are looking to prepare themselves for the ultimate goal of establishing kingdoms and homes of their own. By that logic, by 12th level any self-respecting dwarf should have the resouces and followers to make such an attempt - though in the cases of all the bearded folk above, it cost them their lives. Even Gimli attempts to establish his own realm in the Glittering Caves beneath Helm's Deep in the Fourth Age.

Lastly we come to the unassuming halfling, who reaches level-cap at a mere 8th level. But let's call them what they really are: hobbits. These guys get the full weapons and armor of a fighter, along with an equal Attack Value/Thac0, great saves, a bonus to initiative and missile attacks and an amazing gift for stealth - which they can use regardless of what kind of armor they're wearing! So, yeah, like the other demi-humans, they're a cut above the standard human characters - or at least it would seem so at early levels. But, let's look at the source material to find the game logic. Bilbo, Frodo, Sam, Merry & Pippin set out on their adventure with a specific purpose in mind. They're all looking to go "There and Back Again." They're not looking for the next dungeon to plunder, and adventuring is not a life-long career or lifestyle choice for them. They've got a job, and when they get it done they'll go home and relax. They don't have the drive to go beyond 8th level. Once the job is done, it's done. The fact that they're 1st level shows that they're already exceptional to begin with.

"Well, I'm back." -Samwise Gardner
Lastly, and equally important but often overlooked is the fact that this is an age of legend and it's fading away (according to Tolkien, at least). There will come a time when elves, dwarves, halflings, dragon, goblins and a great many other creatures of the world will fade into legend. Legend will become myth. That which should be remembered shall be forgotten. It is a world of humans, and they are rising to power. Thus, they have an increased level limit. It's an increased potential for greatness, if only they will sieze the opportunity. And they often do. But they leave in their wake the other races, who quietly disappear from the world.


  1. Well said. Over decades of playing D&D, I've noticed level limits never really got in the way. Usually campaigns died around name level or players chose character race/class combinations that avoided level caps. As a DM, I used the level caps as a guide for NPCs and let players keep advancing. If they can get a character to name level, they deserve to keep going. Then again, how many 13+ level characters have you played?

    1. In 25 years, I can think of one character: Milo Goodbottle, a Halfling druid I played from 3rd level all the way to 22nd. Two and a half years of a weekly D&D 3rd ed game.

  2. Best explanation of enforced level cap I've seen. Serves as a reminder and a glimpse into the original mentality of the creators of D&D; they weren't just creating a game, but a simulation of a fantasy world, with several core assumptions that have faded since.

  3. Very nice and internally consistent! A cool approach...