Home > Uncategorized > Ill-advised flamebait post: the dirty little secret of level caps

Ill-advised flamebait post: the dirty little secret of level caps

February 9, 2012 Leave a comment Go to comments

So Trollsmyth posted an interesting, open-ended question about demihumans in 5e and BANG. Level caps in the first comment, end of useful discussion.

OK. Some people on both sides of the level caps question think their answer is simply and obviously the right one. I may be one of them, but I may also be open to persuasion. So please, if you support level caps, try me, because I would like to know why they could possibly be a good thing, by which I mean make for a more fun game experience.

The trick with being persuasive would be to lead with an argument that doesn’t make you sound like a crazy racist. Some pointers:

1. Don’t lead with “because I want humans to dominate my game” unless you also have good arguments for why, then, players can choose to play crippled non-humans, and/or unless you want to talk about why domination is important to you.

2. Don’t say “because I’m emulating Conan (or whatever other Appendix N title)” unless you also enjoy railroading to replicate Conan plots and over-ruling players who deviate ever from acting in a Conanlicious way.

3. Don’t say “it should be there because Gary said it” if there is any aspect of any Gary-penned edition of DnD that you don’t use. And if you can answer that one, then also say why you don’t play Lejendary Adventures.

4. Don’t say “balance” unless you can explain exactly how a few advantages at low level are supposed to balance not getting to play any more at higher levels in a way that actually works for the player party, and how all this would not be better handled (but still badly handled) by different xp targets for leveling up.

5. If you say “because that’s how I roll” I’ll smile and say “sure” but you should know that you haven’t presented an argument.

Here’s the dirty little secret of level caps for non-humans (or demi-humans, if you prefer): if you use them, then the player who decides to play an elf anyway is telling you up front I don’t expect to play in this game for long enough for the cap to matter.

Jeff Rients is the only person to field a workable answer so far, I think.

  1. February 9, 2012 at 10:18 am

    In a game with no demi-human level limits, assuming it is also a game without racial class restrictions, why would anyone want to play a human? And in my experience the majority won’t. I’m a player in such a game at the moment and of the 6 players, I’m the only one playing a human (which is a bugger when it comes to light sources).

    I’m not suggesting that level limits is about balance, just making an observation from personal experience. From a DM’s perspective if I wanted to make demi-humans the minority in a human world I would use racial and cultural prejudice to make life difficult for the characters rather than rules and mechanics that are difficult to justify.

  2. February 9, 2012 at 10:47 am

    Strangely enough, my personal experience runs counter to David’s: I’ve never used level limits, yet most of my players choose to play humans anyway. I think it’s mostly an aesthetic choice; they want to be Conan or Elric or Fafhrd or the Gray Mouser or Gandalf or Merlin or Aragorn or name-pretty-much-any-hero. No one seems to want to be Bilbo or Bombur or . . . a gnome. I’m usually the only one who plays demi-humans.

    • February 9, 2012 at 9:04 pm

      Catgirls wearing tee-shirts that read “Conanlicious”? 🙂

    • February 10, 2012 at 2:09 am

      Elric is totally a dark elf.

  3. February 9, 2012 at 12:58 pm

    In a game with *dungeons* where light is always a problem for humans, being a demihuman is a major advantage. Huge. BITD, most of my groups were dominated by demihumans and if you played a human you were kind of screwing the party with that gaddang torch/lantern/light spell always giving us away. So to my thinking, demihumans really have a big advantage — multiclassing, infravision, stat and/or save bonuses. I mean seriously, a dwarf or half-orc fighter is objectively better in most ways than a human fighter. (OK, the human will be more charismatic, which might help out, and can wield a polearm, but that’s it). so it’s a balance thing.

    I don’t think level limits mean you have to stop playing the character either. Granted in my gaming experience we rarely got to levels where the limits even come into play but they are ‘psychologically’ there, as implied limits to the character’s power. BUT: that 8th level dwarf fighter can still gain superawesome magic items like a Dwarven Thrower. When the level advancement stops, you can still get more powerful with magic items and as others have mentioned political/social power. An 8th level elf with a squad of 5th level henchmen is not too shabby. The halfling seriff with an army of halfling slingers is pretty useful. etc. So to my thinking the fun does not necessarily stop just because the leveling stops.

    Is the point of the game to level up or to have adventures?

    Having said all that I would have probably made humans the ones who can multiclass and ditched level limits. I’m am apparently one of those rare birds who can live with or without level limits. It is more setting-specific to me. Tolkien-style, demihumans are just better. Gygax-style, humans are.

  4. C Slembarski
    February 9, 2012 at 2:48 pm

    If the rules endow demi-humans with extremely long life-spans without level limits it seems logical that powerful, high-level demi-human NPCs would come to dominate the game world.

    In a sense, human characters come with built-in level limits based on their three-score-and-ten mortality.

  5. +Roger Burgess
    February 9, 2012 at 6:18 pm

    Five comments:

    1. You’ve got the burden of proof backwards, level limits are the standard for OSR D&D variants and pre-, what good reason is there to move away from it?
    a) it’s confining? Yes and deliberately so.
    b) it’s unrealistic? In a world with MagiTech Fireballs? The other one’s got bells on.
    c) It favors playing humans? Yes. Humanocentric is the default D&D campaign.
    I’ve yet to hear a good reason from anybody that doesn’t amount to “I want to be an infravision having, secret door finding|slope and stonework detecting human with a DEX|CON bonus”. Really. Is the cost worth it? Value judgement: Essentially Contested Concept ahead.

    2. Despite the burden of proof being on the side which desires the removal of level limits, I’ll go along. A good reason to keep them is because unlike human classes, you’re playing a caricature of what humans think an Elf or a Dwarf or a Halfling should be like. And we’re right back to how humanocentricity is built right into D&D.

    3. Another good reason to keep level limits is that wanting to remove them represents a failure of imagination. A sonnet is not a highly respected (and bloody difficult) form of poetry because of it’s freewheeling nature. Yet the rules regarding sonnets are completely arbitrary. The Japanese developed haiku but the West never did, just like the Japanese never developed sonnets. That the rules are arbitrary is not a good reason to remove the rules. The rules are there to spark imagination, use them that way. Put another way, just because the rules for sonnets are completely arbitrary does not mean you get to call a modification of the rules of sonnets a sonnet.

    4. Level limits were baked into every class/race combination in Men & Magic, the player’s guide for 0e. Fighting Men and Clerics went up to 10th. Wizards to 16th, in addition to the level limits for dwarves (6th) and elves (4th & 8th).

    5. The argument against seems to give the impression that level-limited demi-humans just stop adventuring altogether at whatever level limit there is for them. The proper comparison would be to compare what resources have been collected by the player if they played a dwarf (say) and a human given similar circumstances and play time. Beyond 9th level, humans generally only gain +X hit points, not Hit Dice. Beyond 9th level the power of the organisation behind you matters just as much or more than your THAC0. Even then, the difference in power level in OSR type D&D is vastly more dependent on non-front-page-on-the-charactersheet attributes than in modern versions. You must use completely different reasoning in comparing them and you have to be exceedingly careful that you are, in fact, doing so.

    Just my thoughts on the matter.

    • February 10, 2012 at 2:15 am

      To quote Men & Magic by way of Grognardia:

      “There is no theoretical limit to how high a character may progress.”

      That being said, I am in favor of level caps (for humans, too, though at the Expert Rules level of 14). The main reason is that the versatility of a 10th level elf is competitive with a 14th level fighter. (Though Men & Magic also says that high-level magic users are the most powerful characters.) The halfling is sort of objectively weaker, but I see that more as playing D&D in hard mode.

  6. +Roger Burgess
    February 9, 2012 at 6:23 pm

    One more thought: D&D historically allows players to set their own difficulty levels. People who want a harder end-game have the choice to play a level-limited class or a non-level-limited one. You have to be a better player to successfully pull off a Dwarf when the party Wizard is 18th level.

    You’re compensated for this (in rather miserly fashion) by having an easier time of it in the primary leveling environment: dungeons or untracked wilderness.

    Thus, level limits are seen as a feature not a bug.

  7. deforest piper
    February 9, 2012 at 6:54 pm

    All right I guess that I’ll step up to the plate here. I have always used level limits (even when we were doing monty haul wackiness back in high school). The main reason is that these limits were the only things that really made demi-humans something other than humans with benefits.

    It’s very easy to say that elves are somehow alien but they were never played that way. Level limits were a hardwired way of saying that an elf was different in a fundamental way from a human being. Having a dwarf top out as a whatever level fighter makes a dwarf different in a way that a few minor abilities doesn’t. And dwarves are supposed to be different aren’t they? because if these races aren’t supposed to be different why give any race any benefit of vision or saving throw or whatever?

    It is completely possible to play dwarves and elves and halflings with no gamey mechanical benefits at all, just do it all as fluff and flavor and in-game role playing possibilities.

    So, I would turn the question around and ask why give demi-humans any gamey mechanical advantage at all? Taking away level limits and taking away infravision and saving throw benefits or anything like that all seem to be in the same category.

    • deforest piper
      February 11, 2012 at 3:17 am

      If your answer calls for a rant I am comfortable with that. I understand that sometimes an answer requires a certain amount of emotional expression in order to be adequately addressed. You are upfront about not wanting to cause offense so I will, absolutely, take you are at your word. Also, I have precious little emotional investment in this conversation. Intellectual, yes, but that’s not enough to take offense.

      So, I understand what you say about racism. I just don’t think that I see it the same way. You said that infravision models a tangible thing, aren’t level limits an equally tangible thing. A fundamental lessness? Kobolds have less hit dice than Hill Giants is that racist? Aren’t level limits just another way of saying that demi-humans have less hit dice than humans? Admittedly expressed in a different, less up-front more back-end way, but still the same thing.

      Level limits always seemed a reasonable part of the game to me. I never thought about whether they were racist back in the day.

      Now I see level limits as a mechanical means of representing a fundamental difference between humans and demi humans in a way that seemed to be explicitly less racist than other ways. Level limits allow an equal playing field for a longer span of game play. Instead of making demi-human characters weaker than humans at 1st level, and every level after that, level limits permitt a level of racial equality until such time as these limits were met.

      Are level limits the best way of achieving this ‘lessness’ mechanically? Probably not. I’m not even sure that this ‘lessness’ is something desirable at all.

      That’s a different question entirely.

      I like having this ‘lessness’. My main reason for not liking it is sort of what you mentioned in your last paragraph above — about not wanting to be limited in what you can imagine. This limitation is a huge problem with older editions of d&d. I am afraid that we may be turning a large segment of the just getting into gaming age population off of role playing by limiting imagination. It seems as if that fear was at the root of 4e. I’m not making a judgement on the game itself, but it does seem as if it was an attempt to not limit participation by limiting imagination.

      Fun series of conversations, thanks for doing this.

  8. February 10, 2012 at 8:33 am

    If the rules endow demi-humans with extremely long life-spans without level limits it seems logical that powerful, high-level demi-human NPCs would come to dominate the game world.

    Short form: I ignore simulation here. Outside of deliberately generation-spanning games (such as Birthright can be) I don’t know that I’ve seen a PC ever change age categories. Even high-level games don’t usually make it that far.

    However, if I were to simulate it, I see a couple of cases.

    Let’s say baseline is 10% of all adventurers die irrevocably each unit of time, and fully half of the remainder move to the next level. Given 100 first-level adventurers, within one unit of time you will have 45 first-level adventurers, 45 second-level adventurers, and 10 dead adventurers. In two years you have 20 first-level adventurers, 41 second-level, 20 third-level, and 19 dead.

    Assuming you start with 100 first-level adventurers and have *no* resupply, in ten units time you will have (0, 0, 2, 4, 7, 9, 7, 4, 2, 0) adventurers from levels 1..10. You will also have 61 dead adventurers. In twenty units time you will have (0, 0, 0, 0, 0, 0, 0, 1, 1, 2, 2, 2, 1, 1) adventurers of levels 1..14… and you will have 88 dead.

    If elves show similar progress rates as humans, they are still on par and the differences are irrelevant. In fact, after the 31st iteration I don’t see any unit adventurers left (lots of fractional ones adding up to about 3, but nothing where you have at least half an adventurer), and that one is only 17th level.

    From a simulation perspective, assuming each unit time is one year, the highest-level elf is unlikely to be much higher than the highest-level human, simply because getting there is dangerous enough he’s likely to die… and if you figure on humans outnumbering elves by a factor of only ten (which is likely low for many campaigns) you’re looking at humans, in the same times, having

    * (0, 3, 15, 41, 72, 86, 72, 41, 15, 3) characters of levels 1..10 after 10 iterations
    * (0, 0, 0, 0, 1, 2, 4, 9, 15, 19, 21, 19, 15, 9, 4, 2, 1) characters of levels 1..17 after 20 iterations
    * (1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 5, 5, 5, 4, 3, 2, 1) of levels 11..22 after 31 iterations

    Given the higher population, humans seem to be at some advantage.

    Let’s consider now elves being more cautious — advance at half the frequency per unit time, but die half as frequently (5% die per unit time, 25% of the survivors advance).

    * (3, 11, 17, 15, 9, 3, 1) characters of levels 1..7 after 10 iterations
    * (0, 1, 2, 5, 7, 7, 6, 4, 2, 1) characters of levels 1..10 after 20 iterations
    * (1, 2, 3, 3, 3, 3, 2, 1, 1) characters of levels 5..13 after 31 iterations

    Assuming the frequencies I used above, long life is quite adequately balanced by small population. Yes, the potential is there for an elf to hit a character level massively higher than a human would before dying of old age… but odds are good that something else would get the elf on the way there. If a ‘safer’ path is chosen that reduces the frequency of advancement and the frequency of death, then left alone long enough the elves will eventually pull ahead… assuming similar population sizes. If humans have even 10 times the number of elves the elves are at a huge disadvantage.

    This assumes you have only your base number and time for 31 iterations (if each iteration is one year — freakishly slow for almost all D&D > 3e games I’ve seen or heard of, and pretty slow even for most AD&D games) you likely have time to do this before humans hit old age. If each iteration were a decade elves would pull ahead simply because humans can’t keep up (they die of old age first), but that is not consistent with what I have seen in play.

    Level limits based on longevity are silly.

    I can see having limits of some sort on non-human races because they have other advantages (ability score bonuses, special abilities, and so on), but long life is not one of them.

    (Hrm. I’m pretty happy with this, I think it might go up at my home blog in the next day or two)

  9. February 10, 2012 at 3:25 pm

    I read a thought experiment in a book once (I think it may have been by Daniel Dennett) imagining how we would behave if we had a life expectancy of 1000 years. The answer is we would be much more risk averse – the chance of being hit by a bus one day is much greater the longer you live, so you’d be much more wary about crossing the road. Maybe elves apply the same thinking. After a certain stage they think, “Fuck this, I want to live for 1000 years and the longer I spend in the dungeon the less likely I’ll be able to see it through.”

    • February 10, 2012 at 3:38 pm

      Yeah, I read once — at least 20 years ago — that if old age were not an issue, actuarial data suggests that at about 600 years, the chance of accidental death reaches 100%. Maybe that was in an Omni magazine.

  10. kiltedyaksman
    February 13, 2012 at 3:32 am

    The infravision deal has always been useless in my games. We play with hirelings who are almost always human therefore we need the light sources regardless of what races are selected for the PCs.

    • February 13, 2012 at 3:48 am

      Infravision PCs can still be useful as scouts, even if there are humans around.

  11. Philo Pharynx
    February 14, 2012 at 8:13 pm

    NPC Elves ruling the world (1). If level caps are needed to keep from having NPC’s rule the worlds, then your world will be filled with NPC’s at the level caps. If you’ve got a couple hundred years to do something and you hit your max within a decade or two, then most of your lifespan will be at your peak. Even somebody that progresses over fifty years is going to still spend the majority of their life at higher level. Humans may not have a maximum, but they have shorter lifespans, so they spend less of their lives at high level, and high level characters will be rarer. This means that it’s not going to be a humanocentric world. The elven and dwarven armeies will be higher in aggregate. The big numbers of mid-level heroes will take out the smaller number of high level human heroes.

    Balance. Why not have balance (or human superiority if you prefer) through every level of the game? Why are level caps the best way to do this? What about groups that run shorter campaigns? For those, level caps don’t mean much and you’ll get it demi-human centric.

    Dealing with adversity. Some people apparently like to game in a way where they are at an increasing disadvantage. Every GM I know will let you do that to your character. They’ll maim them or give you a horrible wasting curse or let you not level up. This seems like a better solution than making it mandatory for some characters and not possible for others.

    NPC Elves ruling the world (2). In order to prevent having lots of ancient elven masters, you have eliminated all of them. I simply rule that NPC’s don’t level up like PC’s. So you have a couple of ancient elven masters, a couple of ancient human masters and a couple of ancient dwarven masters. Much more flavorful.

  12. Bargle
    March 5, 2012 at 5:19 pm

    As 3e showed. LL for demi-humans in early d&d is about balancing multi-classes not pointy ears; it just so happens that it’s pointy ears that multi-class.

    It’s the same rule in skyrim, or any other game. The guy who can both wear plate and cast fireballs is balanced against those who only wear plate or only toss fireballs. When looking at the whole picture (especially saving throws–the most important stats in the game). A 7/11/13 f/mu/th has the same xp as a 20th level thief, a 15th level fighter and a 16th level mu—and he’s not any weaker.

    So unless tou plan on playing 20+ in your games, multi-classes are fine.

    • Philo Pharynx
      March 5, 2012 at 7:19 pm

      @Bargle, And how is this balanced if you choose not to multiclass?

      • Bargle
        March 5, 2012 at 7:32 pm

        I think the expectation is that if you are playing a demihuman, then you are of course playing a multiclass. It’s like how do you balance a fighter who wields a mace and all the best weapons are swords? Sure, you can play against type, but you lose the joseph cambellian sub rosa ur-mythology of the hero+sword (beowulf, arthur etc).

        An elf is a magic wielding-fighter (elric archetype) as default. I suppose the answer (if one is going to move away from this) is simply to remove the level limit for single class demis, or provide a small penalty commensurate with their abilities.

        • Philo Pharynx
          March 6, 2012 at 5:03 am

          I suppose if you like playing a game that channels you into stereotypes. *shrug* I guess I like games with the flexibility to play many different styles of character.

          • March 6, 2012 at 5:59 am

            Any game with classes is going to channel you into a stereotype. That’s part of the point. You can play against type, if you want, but that may come with some cost in power. (In fact, if there is no cost, isn’t playing against type somewhat empty?)

            I’m not sure why choice of race should be any different. But I realize this is one of those “fault lines” where different people will just have different tastes. I like my demi-humans to feel different.

  13. March 17, 2012 at 8:13 pm

    I’ve always felt that Level Limits represent a failure of imagination.

    I get that they were going for ‘human-centric’ games, but even in their Appendix-N source material, non-humans were never limited in the way LL created.

    To me, the answer has always been: give humans an advantage. 3rd Ed figured that out, and in most of the 3rd Ed games I’ve run or played in, humans dominated. The design didn’t think of that, and so we got stuck with a horrible, illogical, kludgy “balancing” mechanic like LL.

    Burn it with fire I say.

    • March 17, 2012 at 9:00 pm

      So I just ran a game of Moldvay Basic D&D for my gaming group (we normally play a hacked version of 4E) using Raggi’s Tower of the Stargazer module, and I noticed something very interesting. 3d6 in order is humanocentric. Why is this?

      I had seven players and I had them all create new characters, 3d6 in order, no modifications allowed, no such thing as an unplayable character. Six of the seven chose humans (remember, this is when race is a class); two clerics, two thieves, two magic-users, and one halfling.

      Almost all of them chose their class based on their highest attribute. High dex led naturally to thief, despite the fact that I emphasized that playing against type was viable as both I and the Moldvay rules deemphasize the impact of ability scores. Since the demi-humans do not have obvious prime requisites, fewer people chose them. One player rolled up an elf after their thief was killed, but only because he rolled super high strength and intelligence.

      Full report is here, if you are curious:



      My experience in 2E, 3E, and 4E has been different that yours. Humans are almost never played, even with the extra feats. Every party I have seen has been 75-100% demi-humans, both that I have been a part of and that I have read about online.

  1. February 12, 2012 at 8:28 am

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