Level Limits

I’ve never met a player of old school games that did not have an opinion on Level Limits.  Some people love them.  Others, such as myself, hate them.  Very few people are apathetic towards them.

For the uninitiated, level limits existed as a ‘balancing’ mechanic on non-human characters to encourage a humanocentric game.  While an elf might only rise to level 10, or in a split race/class system, the elf might be limited to level 6 in one class and level 12 in another, humans could rise to 100th level if you ran a campaign that went that long.  Now, why it was that immortals had a hard cap on what they could learn was never adequately explained (though through the ages, many Dragon articles and splat books tried to explain it away).

Now, the main problem I have with this is that, as a balancing mechanic, it utterly fails.  Few games of old school D&D go beyond 10th level.  Some even consider this the intended ‘end game’ of DND, the time when you ‘won’.  But since few games, or characters, reach that level few characters will ever hit their level limit.  If few campaigns reach that level of limitation, then the ‘balance’ mechanic achieves no purpose.  The non-human character has received their benefits at first level and kept them through their entire career.  The game stopped when everyone hit level 8, so they’ve never ‘paid’ for their racial powers.

Another issue I have with it is that the racial abilities they do have are not that great.  Yes, they provide small bonuses here and there, but frankly, they aren’t worth infinite development (especially in spell casting classes).  The dwarf save bonuses are pretty good.  But an elf’s immunity to the paralysis of a single low level monster?  How often will you encounter them at high level, how often are they a threat for your AC and saves?  The ability, as weird as it sounds, came out of Chainmail (the wargame that started DND), and it made sense.  I just wish they’d updated it at any point ever in the history of the game.  Make elves immune to all undead rider effects (paralysis was the only one in Chainmail).

Wait, sorry, what was I talking about?

Also, the classes and levels picked are arbitrary.  They serve Gary’s vision of what those races were like without regard to how they might be different in someone else’s campaign.  And since not everyone wants to use the game to run a sword and sorcery world, but would rather run a high fantasy or weird science or whatever campaign.  Some would argue that if that is the case, they should play different games, but D&D has been bending over backwards to accommodate different worlds and different settings so I don’t think that’s a valid retort.

Since the level limits rarely apply to PCs, the only time they really apply is to NPCs and the DM’s creations.  When stating up an elven village, the leader cannot be above level X.  Some try to wave this away, saying that level limits are for PCs only, but this just creates even more questions and problems.

And with each new edition or major rules alteration, the level limits have been expanded.  If they constantly increase to allow players to play higher level characters, what possible benefit did they serve to start with?

I think that, on the face of it, it fails in every way to achieve it’s desired goal.  I ultimately think that that one simply should give humans some kind of benefit to balance them, and call it a day.  In my own ACKS game, humans are very popular, mostly for their speed of leveling.

So, no, I don’t like level limits and I don’t use them.


3 thoughts on “Level Limits

  1. D. says:

    Sorry, I’ve been missing – life has been busy of late!

    I personally like my compromise. First, I beef up the abilities of non-human races to be more in line with _Unearthed Arcana_ and then I simpy say that non-humans have a 10% XP penalty per class, which is then doubled when they hit thier “level limit”.

    It keeps humans popular, gives non-humans a penalty, but doesn’t cripple anyone and it certainly explains why non-human society isn’t filled with ultra-level NPC’s.


    • Hey, good to see you back!
      I need to finish your play reports now that I think about it.

      That’s not a bad idea. Your non-human races (that I’ve seen) are definitely powerful so I think that’s a decent compromise. Do your normal humans have any advantages? I just try to make sure the humans are equally appealing (though honestly, with race-as-class as in ACKS, most of my players turn up their noses at the powerful…i.e. elven…non-human classes because the xp cost is SO high!).

      • D. says:

        *chuckle* I need to update those as well, while gaming has been spotty due to some business travel and presenting, I have about three sessions into the “new campaign” that I have yet to chronicle.

        The advantages that normal humans have are primarily social – I like to play up the racial antipathy and non-humans can definately get the short end of the stick at times. If you look, you can see that most people are playing humans with a balance of other races – similar to your group, most people don’t seem to want the XP penalty (or the social penalties).The players who are willing to deal are the ones who like the opportunity to role-play or who want to play some odd multi-class combo.

        That said, I’ve been looking for some other little benefit that I could give humans and haven’t quite come up with anything that fits yet and still has them feeling like humans and not a non-human race.


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