Tuesday, March 27, 2012

The Articles of Dragon: "Demi-Humans Get a Lift"

For a lot of old school AD&D players, the appearance of Unearthed Arcana in 1985 marked the end of an era. Filled with a wide variety of new options for players, it fundamentally upped the power level of characters in a way that forever changed the game. What's interesting is that is that, at the time, some people were critical of UA because they felt it "didn't contain anything new." In a sense, that was true. The book consisted primarily of material reprinted from several years' worth of Gary Gygax's "From the Sorcerer's Scroll" column in Dragon. Very little of the book's contents should have surprised anyone who was regularly reading Dragon, as I was.

And yet, somehow, by compiling all that material under one cover, it became more than the sum of its parts. I knew lots of gamers, myself included, who'd allowed this class or that spell from Gygax's columns into their AD&D campaigns without so much as a second thought. In aggregate, though, they all took on a different character. Things that never bothered me before suddenly did, when placed side by side with other options I hadn't allowed (or didn't like). The result was that Unearthed Arcana was the book that "broke" AD&D for me. It was a bridge too far and it contributed to my growing disillusionment with the game in the mid-80s.

One of the last of Gygax's columns previewing material that would eventually appear in UA was "Demi-Humans Get a Lift," which appeared in issue #95 (March 1985). In his characteristic way, he explains the purpose of his article thusly:
 After long contemplation of the plight of dead-ended demi-human characters, and considerable badgering from players with same, it seemed a good plan to work up some new maximum levels for those demihumans with super-normal statistics -- and in a couple of cases just reward those with high stats across the board. Demi-humans were limited in the first place (in the original rules) because I conceived of a basically human-dominated world. Considering their other abilities, if most demi-humans were put on a par with humans in terms of levels they could attain, then there isn't much question who would be saying "Sir!" to whom. With that in mind, let's move along to the matter at hand.
Once again, Gary makes it clear that, in his mind, demi-humans were always supposed to play second fiddle to humans, which is why he included level limits. One may argue that such limits do a poor job of discouraging the play of demi-humans, but there can be no question that that was the intention behind it.

Despite that, Gygax decides here to give in to "considerable badgering" from players of demi-human PCs and provide the means for demi-humans to reach higher levels of experience. He does this in two ways. First, he allows single-classed demi-humans to exceed the standard level cap by two. Multiclassed demi-humans must abide by the usual limits. Second, he allows demi-humans with exceptional ability scores, whether single or multiclassed, to achieve even higher levels. While I think the first change is reasonable, if unnecessary, the second more or less ensured that every demi-human PC from then on would have absurdly high ability scores. In my opinion, AD&D already had a problem with ability score inflation; these changes only further encouraged such bad behavior. The article also opened up for play several new demi-human races, such as deep gnomes and drow, both of which, in my opinion, are too powerful for use in an "ordinary" campaign.

Throughout the article, Gary makes a couple of asides that suggests that he himself doesn't much care for these rules changes but is allowing them because "the gamers have spoken." It's very odd and makes one wonder why, if he really was so opposed to these changes, he nevertheless went ahead and presented in them. The tone throughout is strange and he ends the piece by not only saying that these are the final, ultimate, never-to-be-changed-again, for-real-this-time alterations to demi-human level limits but also by suggesting demands for further power escalation are inevitable:
To put a cap on things, let us get something straight. Any statistics beyond those shown, for levels and ability scores alike, are virtually impossible. Spells and magic, even artifacts and relics, will not increase statistics beyond what is shown, and no further word is necessary. If some deity likes a character so much as to grant a higher statistic, then that deity should also like the character sufficiently to carry him or her off to another plane. (Rules for quasideities will, I suppose, now be in demand . . . sigh!)
Even more than a quarter-century later, I find Gary's tone odd.

40 comments:

  1. I started gaming in '79 at age 9, so much of your blog has resonated with me over the years. I first noticed, as a teenager, that AD&D had "jumped the shark" when TSR changed the color of the book spines to yellow-orange. At that point the game had lost its wild and wooly feel for me, and had become a mass commodity.

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  2. Never had much of problem with the new level limits. Getting those absurdly high ability scores was difficult if not impossible to begin with, but at least it gave an objective the players could tend to (which is always a Good Thing in any game.)
    Also the single classed demihumans got the "free" +2 level bonus in a class only if the class could have appeared in a multiclass combination. So an hill dwarf assassin would not get the +2 bonus since he is not allowed to multiclass with assassin. This is an important distinction, since it gives incentive to playing single-classed demihumans.

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  3. @Scott Kellogg:
    I first noticed, as a teenager, that AD&D had "jumped the shark" when TSR changed the color of the book spines to yellow-orange.

    The issue with those books was not the color of the spine. It is is that the spines where glued with weak glue and not sewn, as the previous editions were before. This is a hideous decision for a reference book that incurs heavy usage. That is why many of the books post-UA had their pages falling out of them after a few years of use (while the original big-three are still in good shape to this day).

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    1. Ah yes, I'll never forget the resounding CRACK!!!! my brand-new copy of UA made moments after getting home with it when I opened it for the first time. Silly me, I tried to return my poorly bound book for a replacement, but TSR was having none of that. They saw very few of my $$$$ after that day.

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  4. I think this is symptomatic of a larger issue: Gygax was really an innovator in gaming narrative and not particularly good at game mechanics. There is a reason why none of the systems that he put his name on in later years caught on.

    What you had around the time of UA was that people interested in game mechanics (when a lot these ideas were in their infancy) pushing back at what were seen as "ad hoc" rules. Was this good or bad for the hobby? Depends on your point of view. I think we went through some period of painful adolescence in those years, but the understanding that we developed paved the way for a tremendous amount of innovation in computer games and RPGs.

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    1. Got it in One!

      Gygax was truly a trailblazer and top level idea man, and deserves eternal credit for that, but when it came to game mechanics he, bluntly, sucked.

      None of his game designs, to include Tractics, Boot Hill, Cavaliers & Roundheads, Don't Give up the Ship, Classical Warfare, et al, are not particularly well written nor mechanically very good.

      The tendancy is towards complexity and/or "futzyness" (i.e. mechanics that, while not especially hard to learn are nevertheless slow and clumsy to implement). AD&D had this in spades. The combat system alone, spread out over 20+ pages, was a mess if played to the letter with speed factors, weapon length, etc.

      Contrast this with Steve Jackson's "Melee" rules, published by Metagaming. This was a very small, tight, and cleanly written rules set that was hands down better than the AD&D disaster. True, it was a little too simplistic, and had some problems, but these were minor and could be corrected with a bit of careful thought. AD&D is more of a tear down and rebuild...

      I should also point out that Melee was only SJ's second design, after OGRE. Gygax had been gaming and writing games for many years before and after and never achieved anything close to the game design genius of SJ.

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  5. 'If some deity likes a character so much as to grant a higher statistic, then that deity should also like the character sufficiently to carry him or her off to another plane.'
    Particularly ironic considering what Ed Greenwood would do with Elminster.

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  6. We used these level limits without the stat limits. Whatever it said the maximum was, that was the maximum for any member of that class. +2 to that number if you were single classed.

    Worked just fine in play, although I think we only had maybe one guy go for a single-classed demi-human. As for the rest, we did end up with 7/11 level elven fighter/magic-users with less than maximal stats, and nothing broke.

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    1. That was the case for my group as well. Mind you, we were just in high school at the time, so I guess how one defines "broken" could vary. But we never did anything overly crazy, and never had insane weapons or artefacts at our disposal. Level limits never bothered me though;I figured if they were in the game, then that was that. But in the later years, playing 3/3.5 & Pathfinder, with no limits imposed, I think things are fine in this way as well.

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  7. The relationship between game developer and fan was much more contentious in that era than it is now. I think that over the years RPG fans matured and developers realized that fan input was a valuable resource.

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  8. One of the things that bug me about this latter Gygax approach is that he was basically making rules for people he himself didn't play and that he himself didn't like. This is like designing a car you wouldn't drive, or planning a home you would never live in. It speaks to a deep problem with the game's commercialization - a demand for marketing and turning the game into a commodity that proved to be, ultimately, nihilistic and self-destructive.

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    1. That does seem to have been the case, sadly, but then that was true even of the earliest AD&D materials, a good portion of which had no connection whatsoever to what Gary used in his home campaign.

      A pity.

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  9. Possibly the earliest appearance of non-human level limits, if not the best explanation for them ever, is from the 1974 manuscript version of Empire of the Petal Throne. It explains how non-humans, past 7th level, return to their own lands and retire from the affairs of man except on special missions. So it wasn't that non-humans could *not* reach higher levels, it was just that you wouldn't be encountering them in lands where you typically adventured.

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    1. Humans weren't really all that more different. By 6th level you were expected to have settled down and be a member of the appropriate temple, regiment, or school.

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    2. Thanks for reminding me of that passage in EPT! I'd totally forgotten about it.

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  10. Gygax's tone sounds exasperated to me, like he finally got fed up with players that wanted D&D to be about heroic fantasy where every character is too "important" to die.

    Or maybe he came to the conclusion that power creep was an inevitable part of a constantly growing game.

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    1. Gygax's tone sounds exasperated to me, like he finally got fed up with players that wanted D&D to be about heroic fantasy where every character is too "important" to die.

      You might say that the problem with 'heroic fantasy' (straightforward power fantasy, broadly speaking) isn't that characters are in less danger of dying, it's that many roleplayers (particularly those raised on D&D's 'oracular' dice and save-or-die stuff, etc.) manifestly have a harder time coming up with more interesting stakes than 'the dice might kill you now.'

      Yes, some pushback against 'fragile' characters is about not wanting Sir Precious S. Flake the 2nd-level fighter to suffer a moment's harm or unhappiness. But 'keep them alive a bit longer, and/but make their lives harder' is an interesting and productive response to the same perceived problem. Whether or not it's 'fair' or 'mean' or whatever, plenty of people have pointed out that save-or-die is a somewhat unimaginative paradigm -- it takes what could be a dramatic turning point and hands it off to the metagame (i.e. the character is 'out' instead of 'changed' -- how very Western, huh?).

      Nothing to add re: Gygax's column. He was a dude, he wrote like a dude. He was out of his depth at times. So it goes.

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    2. Or maybe he came to the conclusion that power creep was an inevitable part of a constantly growing game.

      This may well be near the truth, especially if you look at Mythus as an example of his later conception of the baseline power level of fantasy RPG PCs.

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  11. Sounds to me like he was just getting tired of it all.

    I have yet to actually enforce level limits in my 2e games, as characters have never gotten to high enough level for them to matter. If I did, I might feel inclined to increase them by about 5 (making them cap out somewhere between 15-19) so that there isn't a huge disparity in the party, if not remove them entirely like most game groups did back then.

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  12. What I find most fascinating is why Mr. G felt the need to codify rules to explain the lack of demi-human dominance in the first place.

    The game world is dominated by humans because the DM says so. Works for me.

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  13. @Scott
    Is that rule only in the manuscript version? Because it's brilliant. (And now I think I'll buy the manuscript version.)

    Level limits always rankled me because they never made sense. They were arbitrary and, in my opinion, peevish. If Gygax (whom I admire despite my disagreements on some issues) was so deeply opposed to players preferring to play demi-humans, then why didn't he a.) forbid the playing of demi-humans, b.) eliminate their special abilities and just make their demi-human nature a matter of colorful description, or b.) just state that demi-humans retire as player characters (but continue to exist as NPCs) as soon as they reach a certain level (as in the EPT manuscript)? Any of those choices make more sense than level limits. If demi-humans are so distasteful to his fantasy worldbuilding sensibilities, why didn't he just exclude them? In fact, would it not have been better to posit two main campaign worlds for early D&D products: one being a human-based sword & sorcery world for the Conan crowd, the other being a demi-human-filled world where perhaps the humans are the small but hardy minority for the Lord of the Rings crowd? (Both appeal to me.)

    When Unearthed Arcana was released, I was ecstatic, but the joy diminished after several players had played cavaliers and barbarians for a time. They were of a power scale far out of proportion to other classes and monsters of their level. It was also a headache to manage all the fiddly subsets of rules for those classes. That was when I really started to miss Basic/Expert D&D. I like some of the spells and magic items in UA, though.

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    1. I'm curious why you think that the Lord of the Rings crowd was a "small but hardy minority" compared to the Conan crowd. Not that anyone has any real data (to the best of my knowledge) but I'd certainly say that my experience in the early 80s was that quite the opposite was true.

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    2. @Gordon Cooper
      Remember EPT nonhumans are a far cry from the watered down Tolkein demihumans: reptilian Shen, multiarmed Ahoggya and insectoid Pe Choi versus smaller/lighter and smaller/stockier humans. Their alienness really supports the idea that they would lose interest in human affairs pretty easily.

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    3. @Joshua
      You misunderstand me. I wasn't referring to the size of the fan populations for Conan vs. Lord of the Rings. I was referring to the human population of the Hyborian Age compared to the human population of Middle Earth. Humans are by far the dominant sentient species of the Hyborian Age, whereas humans share Middle Earth with elves, dwarves, and hobbits.

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    4. @bad wolf
      I think Tolkien's demi-humans were sufficiently aloof from ordinary human affairs (partially because of their greater longevity and partially because of their preoccupation with other matters) that a withdrawal to their own lands is perfectly natural. The elves, dwarves, and hobbits seemed to have little desire to mingle anymore than absolutely necessary with the exception of those less common hobbits found in border towns inhabited by both humans and hobbits. Of course, some campaign worlds seem less like Lord of the Rings than Star Wars, where demi-humans, humans, and humanoids interact so extensively and continuously that the EPT strategy would be a harder sell.

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    5. @Gordon Cooper. Ah; that makes more sense.

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  14. Everyone could see that level caps were a clumsy fix for a minor problem. Many campaigns never reached the levels where level caps became an issue, and those that did mostly ignored them. I take Gary at his word in this article; he was sick of the carping over his work (about which he could be very protective), decided to toss the multitudes a bone, and wasn't very gracious about it.

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    1. I preferred simply putting a cap on the number of demi-human PCs that could be in the party: 1 in 4.

      When it comes to levels and lifespan, gamers are really over-thinking this. If you want to explain why the world isn't overrun with 100th-level elf warlocks or 100th-level dwarf fighters, you can say that just as with humans only a small percentage are exceptional enough to advance in level at all, and only a smaller percentage can advance to high level. Most elves, gnomes, dwarves, halflings -like most humans- are just regular 1HD (or less) creatures with no prospects for advancement.

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  15. See in the past we got around worrying about any of this by playing up the weaknesses of being so very different than the masses of humans. Everything is more expensive when sized for a demi-human (even elves don't quite "fit" in human armor), Humans encountered are likely to deal with humans first (including healers), rural human populations will likely not even trust demi-humans unless they've had extended contact with them.

    Then again, if the part of Fantasy your players enjoy most is getting to be something different and fantastic, then damned it all and play your Half-Drow/quarter-beholder/quarter-dragons with unlimited level advancement.

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  16. John Sapienza's thoughts on this topic might be of help together with Gygax's view. I put them here recently:

    http://mesmerizedbysirens.blogspot.it/2012/02/non-human-level-limits.html

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  17. None of the players in my earlier campaigns got beyond 8th level or so, so I don't remember that the limits ever really mattered anyway. If I ever run a new campaign (big if) I probably won't bother with them.

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  18. I did not like level limits in the early 1980s (although my highest level character was 9th level). I did however prefer the conceit of an anthropocentric world which was in step with almost all literature.

    In the end nonetheless I have come to prefer the solution of Pathfinder and the Fourth Edition: weaken or eliminate the most powerful racial abilities and make men extremely attractive with an extra feat and skills to represent the adaptable genius of Man.

    (Of course when I play Old School, I want the old feel, and then I revel in characters with a maximum level of 4, 3 hit points at third level and a highest attribute of 12.)

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    1. I think there are two different problems with non-humans. One is game balance, which was pretty minor in pre-3E games.

      The other is just making sense. If Elves and Dwarves live 100s of years old, or even 1000s, why aren't there 100th level Elves running around running everything? Heck, more than 100th level.

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    2. Because that's a strawman arguement. Keith Davies did a fantastic break down of why that argument doesn't hold water...with MATH!
      http://www.kjd-imc.org/2012/02/11/longevity-and-level-limits/

      Basically, the statistical chance of anything surviving that long are about nill. Unless you have a home ruleset that somehow allows for it of course (I'm looking at you Arduin!).

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  19. I liked the +2 to the limit for single-classed demihumans. After that though, and for multi-classed demihumans, instead of capping the levels I simply required double the XP to advance after reaching the standard limits.

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    1. I also allowed further advancement but with XP penalties-not too bad for the first level or so, but increasingly steep. There was only one campaign where it really became an issue, but the players did appreciate that there was the possibility of advancement even if it was extremely difficult.

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  20. To a certain extent, I think UE was a financially driven product. Didn't they need cash about then? So they whipped up UA, mostly from Dragon articles and rushed it out.

    But as someone who often played half-elves, I did run afoul of level caps. I remember having a Cleric Ranger that was stuck on 5/8.

    Also liked Weapon Speciali

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  21. I found much more troubling the allowance of PC (multiclass) clerics for ALL races, elves in particular. This made half-elves and half-orcs essentially redundant. Nowadays, even when using UA, I still keep the class choices per PHB, or allow only single-classed elves and dwarves clerics.

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  22. Note that Gygax doesn’t say that the level limits are there to discourage PC demi-humans. I don’t recall him ever referring to this as a PC-vs-PC balance issue. Rather, his argument is about the logical consequence on the game world if demi-humans aren’t level limited.

    Indeed, some of the alternatives designed to balance demi-human PCs against human PCs or to simply discourage demi-human PCs don’t address the issue Gygax was concerned about. Even if you replaced the level caps for elves with requiring double the XP per level, with their long AD&D lifespans, the argument can still be made that they’d dominate humans.

    The problem I have with that Gygax’s reasoning here is that the rules that govern PCs aren’t meant to represent the a complete set of laws that govern the entire game world. Just as monsters follow different rules than the PCs. If the DM wants the world to be human-centric, he simply declares it so. It’ll take a lot of elfin PCs to change it, and the DM will get burnt out before accepting that many players into his campaign. ^_^

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  23. Note that Gygax doesn’t say that the level limits are there to discourage PC demi-humans. I don’t recall him ever referring to this as a PC-vs-PC balance issue. Rather, his argument is about the logical consequence on the game world if demi-humans aren’t level limited.

    Indeed, some of the alternatives designed to balance demi-human PCs against human PCs or to simply discourage demi-human PCs don’t address the issue Gygax was concerned about. Even if you replaced the level caps for elves with requiring double the XP per level, with their long AD&D lifespans, the argument can still be made that they’d dominate humans.

    The problem I have with that Gygax’s reasoning here is that the rules that govern PCs aren’t meant to represent the a complete set of laws that govern the entire game world. Just as monsters follow different rules than the PCs. If the DM wants the world to be human-centric, he simply declares it so. It’ll take a lot of elfin PCs to change it, and the DM will get burnt out before accepting that many players into his campaign. ^_^

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