Wednesday, November 25, 2020


Volume I of original Dungeons & Dragons says the following about levels:

There is no theoretical limit to how high a character may progress, i.e. 20th level Lord, 20th level Wizard, etc.

Shortly thereafter, there's a section entitled "Levels Above those Listed," which details the progressions for hit dice, fighting ability, and spells for levels above those provided in the "Statistics Regarding Classes" charts. Supplement I: Greyhawk spells these out much more explicitly, expanding those charts for magic-users to level 22 and clerics to level 20. Neither Supplements II or III touch upon this topic again, but Supplement IV: Gods, Demi-Gods & Heroes alludes to the matter briefly in Tim Kask's foreword, where he comments on "the absurdity of 40+ level characters." Precisely why characters of that level are absurd is never explained.

Advanced Dungeons & Dragons does not, so far as I can determine, touch specifically on this topic. A perusal of the Players Handbook shows that the "Spells Usable by Class and Level" charts for both the cleric and magic-user go all the way to level 29 (and illusionists to level 26). Unearthed Arcana increases the maximum level for druids to 23, but druids have always had a clear level cap, as have assassins and monks. Meanwhile, Deities & Demigods, the expanded successor to Supplement IV, seems to cap divine beings at level 25 in their respective classes (though, it should be noted, many of them have levels in multiple classes). 

The Cook/Marsh Expert Set, in a section entitled "Levels Beyond Those Listed" – an obvious allusion to the aforementioned section in 1974's OD&D – states that

Several character classes (cleric, fighter, magic-user and thief) are allowed to advance to 36th level.

To my knowledge, this is the first time in a published D&D ruleset where there is both an unambiguous statement about the existence of a maximum level for character classes (aside from the demihuman ones) and a specific number attached to that maximum level, namely 36. When I first read that section, back in 1981, I remember thinking, "Why 36?" Nearly forty years later, I'm no closer to answering that question than I was then. The idea of a maximum level is not, in itself, absurd, but, once you've committed yourself to that idea, why not stop at, say, 20 or 30 or even 40, since they're nice, round numbers? What's the logic behind 36? What am I missing?


  1. As a kid in my my second year of DMing I went to a local con and in the game room I saw a sign at a table that said “100 levels plus.”

    My first thought was “what am I doing wrong?”

    1. There was, I believe, a module for 2e that was designed for level 100 characters, one of the Bloodstone adventures.

    2. It was the final Bloodstone module, Throne of Bloodstone, which was listed for levels 18-100. My Dad bought me a copy at B. Dalton's (RIP). Copyright is 1988 so I think its AD&D 1E. It even included 100th level pre-gens for Perseus, Circe, Hermes and Artemis. The module specifically says that the authors don't think anyone has legit "earned" 100 levels through play and they're included as templates for how to create "ultimate characters". I played part of it with the standard pre-gens who were in 16th-19th level range, but we didnt make it far before we got wiped out.

    3. That's right. I often confuse very late 1e with the beginning of 2e.

    4. That con I mentioned was around 1979. But the 100 plus tables, full of much older dudes it seemed, may have been Arduin enthusiasts. It WAS in California :)

    5. I remember the Cal-Tech crowd being famous BITD for enormous hundred-level dungeons and high level play, which folks I was closer to disdained and found absurd, perceiving it as munchkinism.

  2. I think 36 may have been chosen because it's a magica number, someway? I may be wrong but I remember Umberto Eco saying something about the meaning of 36 in Foucault's Pendulum.

  3. Because 42 is the ultimate answer to Life, the Universe, and Everything. Moldvey didn't want to oversell it....

  4. Probably a good question for Frank.

    1. While I'd love to hear what he has to say on the matter, the number predates BECMI. I wonder if either Zeb Cook or Steve Marsh have any insights into the matter.

    2. But Frank took over/was given by Gary the D&D line in 1982-ish and started working on his revision/expansion- I suspect he would have had some direction as to why 36, even though he did not make the decision. And Frank has a lot of knowledge of many things going on @ TSR that he was not in direct control of.

  5. TSR's original B/X plan was Basic 1-3, Expert 4-14, and Companion 25-36; as the Expert rulebook says, "until the D&D® Companion supplement is released which will detail levels up to 36 in more detail". TSR possibly chose 25-36 simply because it is exactly double that of 4-14; i.e., 22 levels versus 11. When they instead released the BECMI Companion Set, they pared it back to 15-25, and added the Master Set for levels 26-36, and thus each higher set covers an equal 11 levels. A further question would be, why 4-14 for Expert? Because it looks nice?

    1. I think I recall reading that it was because 14 was the highest level anyone had yet reached by then (presumably 1980). Maybe it was an interview with Rob Kuntz?

  6. I recently calculated the following interesting comparisons between B/X D&D and AD&D:

    B/X clerics need 2,900,000 xp to attain 36th level.
    AD&D clerics with 2,900,000 xp are 20th level.

    B/X fighters need 3,480,000 xp to attain 36th level.
    AD&D fighters with 3,480,000 xp are 21st level.

    B/X magic-users need 4,350,000 xp to attain 36th level.
    AD&D magic-users with 4,350,000 xp are 21st level.

    B/X thieves need 3,400,000 xp to attain 36th level.
    AD&D thieves with 3,400,000 xp are 25th level.

  7. Arduin may have been a factor in how some players had 100+ level characters. If you use their advancement tables, the XP costs to level are much lower, as XP costs do not double each level up to 8th or 9th, but maintain a steady cost for ten or more levels.

    For example, the Warrior "Fighter" XP advancement is:

    1st ... 0
    2nd ... 2,000
    3rd ... 4,000
    4th ... 8,000
    5th ... 12,000
    6th ... 16,000
    7th ... 20,000
    8th ... 24,000
    9th ... 28.000
    10th ... 32,000
    11th to 19th level = 8,000 each level
    21st to 55th level = 16,000 each level
    56th to 105th level = 32,000 each level
    106th level+ = 64,000 each level

    Thus, 1,960,000 XP to reach 100th level... 14th level in AD&D, 23rd level in B/X. I don't know that XP guidelines for attaining levels above those listed in the original LBBs was ever provided for clerics, fighters, and magic-users...

    With the popularity of Arduin at the time, you have to wonder how many players were using this kind of XP/level progression or some similar faster level progression of their own device.

  8. Could it that it is just some multiple of 9? Since most classes gained their domain level at 9, it represents some sorta natural boundary? "36" would be four groups of 9.

    1. That's as good an explanation as any. It might even be true!

  9. This is real easy
    Max Basic Level = 3
    Max Expert Level = 14
    Difference between them = 11
    So if it takes 11 levels to get from the end of Basic Tier to the end of Expert Tier, then it ought to take double the levels to get from the end of Expert Tier to the end of (let's assume its called) Companion Tier, e.g. 22
    14+22 = 36

  10. Perhaps they just picked some arbitrary number before 40 because 40+ level characters had so long been considered absurd.
    ; )

  11. Maybe it's nothing, but 36 is divisible by 2,3,4,6,9, and 12, allowing TSR to make products for specific levels of experience logically, instead of haphazardly (for levels 13-17, for example).