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Tuesday, November 7, 2023

AD&D's Front-Loaded Dilemma...

AD&D has some front-loaded demihumans. From dwarven saving throws to elven attack bonuses (and infravision, among other useful abilities), non-human characters enjoy substantial advantages up front. Humans get the full range of classes with no level limits, but nothing more. Add multi-classing, and demihumans have undeniable advantages. Casting spells wearing plate armor is nothing less than the best of both worlds and a powerful combo humans lack and won't make up for until advancement most won't reach...

So how do humans balance the ledger? Multi-classers divide hit points, so a character with 8 fighter hits and 2 magic-user points would get 5 (8+2/2), which is almost half those fighter hits, and well within a longsword's d8 damage. Add slower level advancement and humanity sees faster progression. But this is apples and oranges, especially considering those non-human abilities. AD&D's solution, and all of early D&D, was to impose level limits, which may come up short because in old-school gaming, low(er) levels are the only sure thing.

Humans have unlimited level advancement. But is this effective? Early editions were notoriously lethal; and setting violence aside, most characters probably didn't reach those lofty heights. Indeed, most online (i.e., Reddit, etc.) polls settle on 8-12th as the mean maximum level attained. A 3rd-level fighter/5th-level magic-user has some 8 combined levels, plus racial abilities, putting them on par with most high-end human achievers, who balance the proverbial scales only when it stops mattering in the scheme of things...

Which has inspired Robyn and I, as game designers, to give human characters their own racial abilities*, or in the case of race as class, counterbalancing abilities, with unlimited advancement (where applicable) or identical limits otherwise. Now none of this is to say that AD&D got it wrong. Far from it. But B/X and BECMI, its close cousins, embraced race as class and missed an opportunity to better achieve balance; and given the fun these games continue to offer, level limits are a trivial thing, but maybe one worth reexamining.

*Basic Fantasy, a personal favorite, has been doing this for years...


  1. I always felt like level limits were superfluous in low-level play and unnecessarily stifling beyond that, and increased XP requirements didn't really fix anything either. (A B/X elf is going to lag about one level behind its fighter comrades, on average.) Also, it's a missed opportunity for some more flavorful restrictions, like dwarves only receiving half normal effect from beneficial spells because they're magic-resistant, or elves being unable to use equipment made of iron and steel, per faerie folklore.

    1. Great points! Fae folklore is underutilized for sure...

  2. We never had a demihuman reach the level limit back then, but we used to play shorter campaigns for more variety.
    I remember one of our "human fixes" was to let them roll 2 Hit Dice on gaining a level and use the best result. That usually helped in keeping them alive longer, which made them a viable choice for more of our players.

  3. The survival rate of characters is quite good in the AD&D game, which leads to stronger advancement, and that's where you really start to see humans' advantage: not only do they not split x.p. between two (or three) classes, but they nearly always receive a +10% x.p. bonus (depending on class) whereas it's the rare demi-/semi-human that get a bonus in *all* their classes.

    Even so, my players enjoyed the "up front" advantages of demi-humans...right up until they started hitting that 6th-8th level range and could see the end drawing nigh! AD&D is highly conducive to extended campaign play (i.e. play up into the 10th+ levels) and players who enjoy themselves will want to pick up characters that include some sort of high level advancement opportunities.