Sunday, November 1, 2009

Race and Class in Older Editions

Since Friday's AD&D game (my first in over 20 yrs.) I've been thinking about racial limits to class and levels.  When later editions came out, I remember thinking cool, they got rid of that.  It never made any sense. Now, looking back, I think it made sense from a certain perspective.  After getting back into the literary roots of the game, and reading a bit about where certain aspects of the game came from, I think I get and appreciate the class and level limits a bit better.

Basically, the bottom line reason, is that Gygax wanted humans to be the predominant race, and the other races were somehow lesser.  Also, even though they looked human, they were different creatures.  Elves weren't humans with pointy ears.  They were physiologically, and more importantly, mentally different than humans.  Hell, they didn't even have a soul.  They were  a part of nature/faerie world.  The physical similarities didn't make up for the fundamental differences in the way their brains were wired.

I think one of the reasons that the limits were excised was that it is not politically correct to say that someone is inferior to another in certain ways.  It leads to all sorts of accusations of racism and hate crimes.  So as not to engender that, and to recover from the early bad rep of D&D as satanic, all aspects of that were wiped out.

Also, players wanted the ability to make their elves Uber, goddamnit, and why do the rules say we can't?  In all the novels I've read they are Uber.  I wanna be Uber!  Whhaaaa!!  Coming from a different literary background latter-day gamers didn't recognize the base of where D&D came from, me included.

For example, personally speaking, I cannot do higher forms of math--as in anything beyond pre-algebra. My mind is not wired for it.  No matter how much I was taught, over and over, I never grasped it in the slightest. I could memorize steps to do basic pre-algebra equations, but I really had no understanding of what I was doing.   On the other hand, in areas like reading comprehension and analysis, I test very high.  It's a breeze.  My brain is just wired that way.   Within the human race we have very wide degrees of separation between people.  Though it's politically incorrect to say so, not everyone is created equally.  But within the human race, there are measurable norms and variations from that norm.

Now imagine an entirely different race of beings, which only superficially look human, but are as different from you or I both spiritually and mentally as we are from kangaroos, but who are highly evolved and very intelligent, and are able to communicate with us verbally.  That's what gnomes, dwarves, elves, and halflings are.

With that in mind it is completely understandable that they would have racial level and class limits.  Their minds can only mimic the human world's classes and abilities to a certain extent, the extent to which their brains are wired for it.

On the flip-side, something which was not explored but would have been cool if it had been, what are the classes that the demi-humans are naturally wired for?  What spells or spell-like magical abilities would they have had? What inherent racial traits, other than ones in the context of a human-centric point of view or the ones useful for adventuring, would they possess?

It's interesting to think about.


  1. An interesting idea but one that is hard to make sense of the way level limit were imposed.

    Elves, a race who live and breathes magic, caps at 11th level in magic user. Dwarves, warriors to the core, cap at 9th level in fighter. Hobbits, not adventurous people, however have no level limit as thieves . . .

    If there was some rhyme or reason to it beyond "humans should be top dog", I would find it easier to buy into the idea.

  2. The thing is, only in later editions and fluff do we get into elves as a race that lives and breathes magic. Dwarves are miners and smiths to the core, and warriors secondarily. Elves are creatures of nature in the pulp fiction roots and in the phb and mm. (ignoring tolkien, who wasn't Gygax's main influence in game style, despite him copying hobbits and rangers).

  3. Tolkien wasn't the primary stylistic influence for Gygax though. He stole hobbits and rangers, certainly. But the pulp influences listed in the back of the DMG were a lot stronger than Tolkien in terms of style of game and other classes. I think a lot of people were in the same position as me, when it came to reading the books in that appendix, in that Tolkien was the only author available at the library. I couldn't find any of the other ones. And since the authors of the 80's onwards followed Tolkien's pattern, and TSR went from adventure gaming to storytelling gaming with second edition, people think that elves were meant to be more powerful than humans in 1e AD&D. Gygax wanted a human-centric world, where demihumans were considered lesser races. Hence the arbitrary level and class limits.

  4. He did it for game balance. If you suffered through 9 or 11 levels of being a human without infravision, ability score bonuses, multiclassing, and so on, then you can thumb your nose at the elf and dwarf who've been better than you your entire adventuring career. - SKR

  5. The Thing is Joe, is that the entire chart of level limits didn't add anything to the game. If the game didn't want you to be a non-human, it should just not let you be a non-human.

    Instead, the game tries to have it both ways, and it doesn't work.

    The reduction and elimination of level limits was a good thing.


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