Removing Demi-Human Level Limits?

I recently started a game where one of the characters is an Elven Nightblade. I never really liked demi-human level limits in other old school games and I have considered removing them in my campaign. Are there any experienced gamers on this forum that can tell me whether or not this is a good idea? If so, what are your experiences with demi-human level limits? Are the elven and dwarven classes so powerful that they need stricter level caps?

In most old school games, folks frequently don’t play long enough for the level limits to come into effect, to be honest. Even when they do, it’s not just about class balance (though that’s often part of it); it’s just as much about reflecting the different psychology and limitations of the races, and the fact that only humans had the necessary drive and flexibility to truly reach the utmost levels of a given pursuit. After all, if any race could achieve any level with ease, the world would be utterly dominated by elves and dwarves, who (thanks to their superior lifespans) would reach truly staggering levels of power.
To answer your question, sure you can remove them (and quite a few folks have over the years). Some people like the strict differentiation between races those limits engender, others don’t. I certainly haven’t heard of any campaigns crashing down in ruins because they were removed.

There are bunch of reasons, but the main one is, why play a human then?
Then there’s the fact that power differentials are very different in B/X derived games than it is in 3e+ derived games. Remember, you stop getting hit dice at 9th level (slightly more for d4 classes like mage) so HP totals are similar, you stop getting attack bonuses at 14 for all classes, so to-hit rolls are similar, you stop getting saving throw improvements for all classes, so saving throws are similar (even better, demi-humans have very, very good saving throws to begin with - look at the Dwarven VaultGuard).
The level limits are there not because they’re harsh, but because they’re a minor adjustment in a game that is by default humanocentric. It’s just not that big a deal, it’s a minor benefit humans get.
Here’s the level 14 line for saving throws and attack value for a Thief-14
14 7+ 7+ 10+ 8+ 9+ 4+
Here’s the same for a Night Blade
11 7+ 8+ 11+ 9+ 9+ 5+
There’s just not that much difference.

Colin, you may find this link interesting as as counter point to the idea that long lifespans engender superior power:

An interesting article, even if I don’t agree with all its assumptions, but if there’re two things I’ve learned over the years it’s that a) debating these things bores me to hell, b) I seldom give enough of a damn to care and just end up playing what I want the way I want anyway. :wink:

The players handbook has a section on the creation of custom non-human character classes and maximum level is explitly traded off against additional power…
You can argue flavour either way, but game balance is predicated on those limits existing. I would be cautious about removing the level limits, as this makes playing human definitively weaker… Which I guess only sucks for the humans

The thing is Alex has stated that the trade offs are based on the previous versions of those character types. They are limited because they were limited. Gygax has stated he limited them primarily to create a human centric setting.
Since nonhuman pcs already pay for their extra abilities (higher xp costs) it’s easy to argue that Gygaxian limits are not needed. It’s also easy to give humans a bit of a balancer if you are too worried nonhumans will unbalanced the game. An extra proficiency for example.
So no I don’t think that the game would be unbalanced by removing the limits.

Of the base classes in the core book, it seems that the maximum levels are more a reflection of distributing additional level benefits slower than the human classes. Not necessarily nerfing the demi-humans. If you think of levels as advancement benchmarks and not “ratings” the whole level limit thing isn’t so bad. Just check out the XPs needed for each level as a more true judge of character “rating”.
But the slight “extra innings” that the fighter and wizard can pull off is kinda a function of the setting and tradition to the games. I just don’t think it is that harsh. Check out the limits in AD&D. I pity the half-orc.

A few quick notes:

  1. ACKS does assume a humanocentric world. The highest level that demi-humans can reach is 13. From the Demographics of Heroism, that suggests that demihumans don’t rule realms larger than kingdoms, whereas humans carve out empires.
  2. Unlike prior iterations of D&Dish games, ACKS really does assume you’ll reach 9th-14th level. The level limits are part of the balance. A Mage gets 6th level spells and opportunities for magic research that a Spellsword never does, for example.
  3. None of the above means you shouldn’t lift demi-human level limits. It may be the right thing for your campaign! Just be aware of the tilt it will cause from #1 and #2 above.

Let me put it this way, if there are no level limits, why on earth would anyone play a fighter or mage, when they could play a spellblade in plate armor to 14 that’s immune to paralysis and doesn’t age?

Talmonis: For Fighters, I’ve always thought the HD and advancement about covered it; for Mages it’s a more difficult question, even with level limits. Then again, the Elf classes are campaign classes- you could house-rule them as you like. I think there’s a fair argument to be made for giving Spellblades more druidic-type magic, for example, and make arcane spells the exclusive purview of Mages.
Alex: I think point #1 is really the issue, far more than balance concerns. As Ataraxzy pointed out, the mechanical differences fade a bit at higher levels. In establishing level limits, the Judge is really determining the heights of political power for that race outside of truly mythic circumstances. If a Vaultguard king decides to somehow join the neighboring human and elven kingdoms into a single empire, and succeeds both in doing so and somehow gaining the loyal fealty of their rulers- well, the Vaultguard basically is a level higher at that point. A Fighter may effectively buy his way to level 14, but the Vaultguard has to do something extraordinary- this is what the level limits say to me.
Likewise, if your campaign world is so heavily populated with a particular type of demihuman that they would form vast empires amongst their kind, the level limits have to give way somewhere.

There was a recent blog or G+ post I read about level limits which could be interpreted thus:
Level Limits are made to be broken.
They exist, and therefore should be observed.
However, there always exists the potential that a character could rise above them because of things they do in play - epic quests, major magical items (the kind of unique and special thing that only comes up once or twice in campaign - the eye of a god for example)
King Vaultguard the Seventh became Emperor Vaultguard the First when, through his mastery of the Hammer of Sigmar, he became the first dwarf to ever weld the human kingdom of Altdorf, the dwarven kingdoms of the Misty and the Iron Mountains, and the Elven kingdom of the Greenwood into a single cohesive whole. Seventy years later, upon his death, the Hammer was lost and the Empire crumbled once more.
That sits very well with me.

Perhaps if one wanted to formalize it, you could rule that demi-humans can advance past their maximum level, but ONLY from campaign XP and not from adventuring XP. (Or vice versa).

@Alex – I agree… there is a tilt that’s created by simply lifting the level limits. The old game DragonQuest from SPI addressed this by allowing a “roll” to see if the character was of another race or not… that might balance out the tendency for the world to go all demi- on us.

I’m surprised no one has mentioned that ACKS handles level limits substantially differently than any similar game. For example, in B/X D&D (and AD&D), demi-humans have level limits, but humans don’t (or they are obscenely high, like 36th level).
In ACKS, everyone has level limits. They just vary from 10 to 14. (This is actually very close to how I have house ruled B/X: treat the Expert rulebook as the level cap.) The ACKS approach softens the level limits because they are all within spitting distance of each other. The OD&D hobbit has a level limit of 4! Ignoring some additions in the Greyhawk supplement about demi-humans being able to advance without limit as thieves. In B/X, halflings can only advance to 8th level.
Also, unlike later games, you should not be comparing level numbers, you should be comparing experience totals. This is somewhat nonintuitive and inconvenient, but it is the tradition of older D&D (only broken/fixed with the release of 3E and the single XP progression table). The reality is that the cost to the PC for advancement is XP; the level number is merely an abstraction.

  • An archmage (level 14 mage) requires 1,060,000 XP
  • An overlord (level 14 fighter) requires 850,000 XP
  • A wizard-lord (level 10 elven spellblade) requires 600,000 XP
  • A theocrat (level 14 cleric) requires 700,000 XP
    There is a 100,000 XP differential between the highest level cleric and the highest level spellblade, but there is a 360,000 XP differential between the cleric and the mage.
    I’d also like to highlight this comment by Alex:
    “A Mage gets 6th level spells and opportunities for magic research that a Spellsword never does, for example.”
    Maintaining properties like that is important to the feel of the game, so take care when allowing non-mage classes to prepare the highest level spells. That takes away significantly from the specialness of the mage.

“Maintaining properties like that is important to the feel of the game, so take care when allowing non-mage classes to prepare the highest level spells. That takes away significantly from the specialness of the mage.”
I feel that it’s important to maintain the feel of /a specific kind of game/, but it’s not definitively necessary for /this/ game. If you want a different kind of setting, it’s not only unnecessary but unhelpful.
Gygax put in the restrictions because he wanted a humanocentric game. He put them in, in part, to ‘balance’ a game that rarely reaches that high of a level anyway, making it a poor mechanic at best.
But what advantage do human PC’s have? They have quick advancement, which shouldn’t be scoffed at. A Spellsword is going to suck it with 1HD while his human friends are at 2 or 3. One of my players playing the Nightblade looked at the amount of xp he’d need compared to the Bladedancers and even the dwarf in the party and it was soul crushing. Getting to level 2 is a big part of survival, and non-humans have it much harder in that department.
Non-humans pay for their powers by costing more to advance. I think level limits are unnecessary beyond that.

By “feel of the game” I didn’t mean that there was one right way to play; however, if you change aspects like this, there will be side effects. That’s all I meant. These changes might be better for your group, but will result in a game with different emphases (and probably many more demi-humans).
Slower progression alone might be a reasonable trade-off for greater final power. One might even say that was the original intent regarding magic-users. Gygax wrote, in Men & Magic:
“Top level magic-users are perhaps the most powerful characters in the game, but it takes a long, hard road to the top, and to begin with they are weak, so survival is often the question, unless fighters protect the low-level magical types until they have worked up.”
I agree that getting to level 2 or 3 is probably the most significant milestone regarding survival.
Here’s another blog post I came across recently that you might be interested in:

And yes, there are setting assumptions embedded in the core ACKS rules. That’s why the racial classes are listed under campaign classes and not core classes.

Tywyll: Bear in mind that for most of the game the Spellsword is just one level behind a human class. I play in a B/X campaign that’s over 100 sessions long, and we’ve reached the point where people wonder if we shouldn’t exclusively play Halflings, Elves and Clerics.

Why halflings?