Thursday, February 16, 2012

Meditating on Level Limits

There has been a low buzz in the blogosphere about racial level limits. Since I just got done proposing a bunch of non traditional race-as-classes with built-in level limits, I thought I'd add my two cents worth. The arguments I have seen floating around go something like this:

  • Modern gamers don’t like them, so they have to go away if we are to expand the hobby.
  • They should go away, because nobody ever uses them anyway.
  • They need to go because they are inherently racist.
  • The have to stay because they help maintain mechanical balance.
  • They have to stay because D&D has always been/is/should be human-centric.
  • They have to stay because they balance the traditional D&D world.
  • Embrace them, because as a player I get to retire my character at X level and actually accomplish a major goal for my character.

I may have missed one or two. All in all, each has its own merit and one could justify using/not using them all you want with any of these arguments. I believe, however, that they all miss the point.

Level limits are not limitations, they are opportunities. Note that in 1e AD&D that it is not only demi-humans that have level limits — humans do too. No one, no matter what race they are, can become a 16th level assassin. The question isn’t whether or not level limits are good or bad, but rather Why? With the assassin the answer is that there can only be one Grandfather of Assassins and he/she is always 15th level. This has all kinds of implications for the campaign world and for adventures that include assassins — especially PCs as they get into higher levels.

Since such answers are only provided for assassins, druids and monks, we are free to come up with our own answers for demi-human level limits. We are also free to make them different for different campaign worlds. Do these limits exist because of cultural reasons? Physical reasons? Magical reasons? Theological reasons? The options are endless and each one makes the gaming world that much richer and more interesting.

For example, in my version of Averoigne, demi-humans are all fey-touched humans who have rejected their humanity. As such, they have rejected the image and likeness of God within themselves. Since God is infinite, humans have infinite potential when it comes to levels. Since creation is finite, demi-humans have finite potential when it comes to levels.

Here is my greater point: if a campaign world has specific reasons as to why level limits exist, than creative players can come up with campaign specific reasons as to why they can be overcome.

Question: Which would you rather have?

  • A 15th level halfling because level limits suck.
  • A 15th level halfling because the level limit was overcome by stealing Queen Mab’s eye?

Personally, I’ll take the latter every time.


  1. The whole debate is silly because I'll wager not even 1% of all campaigns get to the Olympian heights where level limits are invoked. As you have parties carving through demon lords and very old dragons with ease, there's even an argument to have level limits for *everyone* so the ultimate challenges remain big and scary. The one thing I find offensive about them, is that something that gets invoked three years of play time down the road (if ever) can be passed off as a balance mechanism for the undoubted advantages that demi-human PCs get from day one in AD&D.

    But I do like the idea of the Grand Master of Elves, and the like.

    1. I myself also prefer the notion of limits for all classes (including humans), mostly because it communicates to the players at the beginning of the game the level of PC power the game is likely to enable, and it's always good to be on the same page from the beginning. Treating the Cook/Marsh Expert rulebook as a de facto limit is more or less what I have been doing recently, but ACKS writes this into the rules explicitly (which I like).

      Personally, the balance issues don't resonate with me, but I do also agree with the last example FrDave gave:

      Embrace them, because as a player I get to retire my character at X level and actually accomplish a major goal for my character.

      Also, I think this is a bigger deal for new school players because they are more used to reaching the highest levels. I think this is a combination of lower lethality plus player entitlement. I would bet that a much higher percentage of 3E and 4E games reach the Olympian heights.

    2. The whole debate is silly because I'll wager not even 1% of all campaigns get to the Olympian heights where level limits are invoked.

      This is why I much prefer this whole discussion to be about campaign specific reasons for limitations rather than the limitations themselves. Whereas campaign specifics are something my dwarf or elf are likely to be affected by, level limits are something I will hardly ever have to deal with.

    3. Not really part of the 4E community, but I play a lot of 3.5E, and one of the design features (or bugs) of 3.5E is that with steady weekly play you can get from 1st to 20th in about 18 months. This is great for some campaigns, terrible for others.

      One point of view is that 3.5E sucks for making leveling too easy. Another point of view is that many players don't want to play for 5 years to make 9th level, and why have rules for high level play if no one ever actually uses them.

      I think lower lethality and player entitlement are less to blame than a desire for shorter play sessions and shorter campaigns. I used to be able to play 10-12 hours every Saturday all year long. Now I can maybe squeeze in 4 hours every 2nd or 3rd Friday.

    4. I don't know, I think the shorter play sessions thing is more about life circumstances. I'm with you, in the sense that as a 31 year old professional and not a high school student, I'm only able to play weekly for about 3 hours per session. (Well, more like 2-3/month because periodically we have to skip a session for a holiday, DM absence, or whatever.) But if I was younger with lots of gamer friends I'd be able to play a lot more but I think the new school games would behave the same. That's why I think lower lethality and player entitlement are the real underlying causes here.

  2. Stary elements and such seem to be the reason for level limits, that Gary intended. To emulate a certain feel for the Game, Gary installed a series of level limits.

    Looking over Unearthed Arcana last night I noticed Elves are unlimited in the Druid class. Also all classes are unlimited Thieves.

    A simple "No you can't" just doesn't seem to fly with me. I need a deeper reason for why I will not allow something.


  3. I never liked that limitation from the very first read of the rules. On the contrary limitations on spellcasting because of low abilities were something I not only understood but somehow found them fitting.

    In the end of the day I think it has to be the rationale. I could not come to a good explanation of why an elf (or dwarf or...) would never be able to go beyond a certain level. In my campaigns I substituted that rule for a penalty in XPs - making demi-humans advance slower than humans from that level onwards - which also tied better with their extended life-range.

    But as is stated above it made really no sense as we never ever reached such a problem in my campaigns as we never did reach these levels.

  4. While I've never liked level limits (and still don't) your suggested rationalizations for them are interesting, Dave, and I like the way you try to turn them into a positive. And I have to admit it never occurred to me to ask "What about Assassins and Druids,then?" Touché!

    Still, I'm not fond of them; they're at heart just a clunky attempt at "play balance," giving humans some compensation for the cool mechanical abilities demihumans get. Much better is some sort of XP penalty after a certain level, as has been mentioned above. It has the similar effect (Humans eventually outstrip the demi-humans), but lacks the ugly hard cap on level.

    (That's for AD&D, since the XP charts are tied to class. For the forms of "Basic" D&D, as I recall, race-as-class characters already need more XPs to gain a level. I suppose one could apply an additional penalty past a certain level as a sort of surtax, but I wonder if that would be gilding the lily.)

    "Here is my greater point: if a campaign world has specific reasons as to why level limits exist, than creative players can come up with campaign specific reasons as to why they can be overcome."

    This, however, should be the universal exception to whatever rule is used. :)

  5. I look at it from a very different perspective. I blogged about it a while back - - but the short version is that it's not that demi-humans are weird for having a level limit, it's humans who are exceptional by *not* having such a limit. "Name Level" (around where demihumans cap, depending on edition) is crazy-powerful as it is, and humans in D&D can keep on getting better and better and better than that. It's the "humans are special" fictional trope.

    For example, look at fighters: dwarves may have more stamina than humans but they're not agile, and elves may be quicker than humans but lack raw toughness; eventually an elven or dwarven fighter gets to the point where their racial weaknesses hold them back more than their racial strengths help them, so their progress stalls (and even so, bear in mind that by this point they're already warriors of superheroic proportions). The human, on the other hand, has the perfect balance of natural traits to develop endless potential.