Why dwarf wizards are not a thing
The more freedom you’ve got in creating your character, the better, right?
You could be forgiven for thinking so, but it’s time to think again.
When creating a character in 1st-edition AD&D, your options are restricted in quite a number of ways that they are not in later editions. Selection of race is limited by ability scores, then class is limited by both ability scores and race which means that options for character class broadly follow stereotypical fantasy tropes.
That’s right, there are no Orc Paladins or Dwarf Wizards in 1st-edition. And if you want to play as a Paladin or Ranger, you better cross all your fingers and toes that the dice Gods are kind! Rolling up abilities high enough to qualify for these classes is hard!
All this is topped off with the most contentious rule of all: level limits by race. Perhaps unsurprisingly, AD&D does not account for Halfling Warlords shaping the destiny of worlds.
“But that sucks, you’re taking away all the fun!”, I hear the 5e player complain.
“I just ignored all those rules back in the day”, is a more common retort of an older player, “Gary Gygax wrote in the books you can change the rules however you like!”
Well, yeah he did. But he also warned against it.
The fact is that you can do the opposite of what every second page instructs if it takes your fancy, but you would not be playing the game the way it was intended to be. Whether that matters to you or not is another story of course. Each player and game-master should run the game the way find it to be fun. This post is not intended to be a lecture on how you must play. That is totally up to you.
Instead, my writing here is simply intended as a defense and justification for the rules as they are written. If you have never tried that, or if you’re new to 1st-edition, you may be forgiven for believing them to be overly restrictive. You may even think that it makes things boring because you can’t choose to play any interesting combinations. Let me try and dispel these myths for you.
I call these rules “Level Limits and Race/Class Restrictions”, and I like them. Paradoxically they do the exact opposite of making things boring, it’s actually the later edition rules that allow players unfettered freedom to create bizarre character combinations that makes things boring. Bear with me here and I’ll try and explain.
Let me start with race/class restrictions. An elf player has the option to play powerful multi-classed combinations such as a Fighter/Cleric/Magic-User, combining arcane and holy magic with ability to wear heavy armour and wield military weapons. A halfling player on the other hand, does not have this option. But what if you allowed the halfling to play as a mighty Fighter/Cleric/Magic-User too, it couldn’t hurt, right? Well, actually, yes, it could.
You see, what these restrictions are actually doing is enforcing uniqueness. The restrictions create the boundaries which define the race. Remove those boundaries and you remove part of what makes each race unique. If you allow the halfling the same occupational options as the elf, not only are you cheapening the elf by effectively making elves less unique, but you’re also creating a halfling that is so far removed from the norms in common fantasy settings that it becomes alienating. And in the end, what’s the difference between a halfling and an elf in your game world? One is three feet tall, and that’s about it. Now that is boring.
This brings me to a point that I believe too few D&D players either appreciate or understand: playing an exotic race & class combination does not make your character any more interesting, it’s just making your character confusing. Neither is it being “creative” or “imaginative”. I hate to be the one to point it out, but inventing a bizarre character is trivially easy. The problem is that Zilbo Zaggins, the arcane Sorcerer and mighty Barbarian Warlord halfling is not so much an “imaginative” character as just a plain weird one.
One of the most important keys to creating a character that everybody at the table finds interesting is to create a character to which everybody at the table can easily relate. Make it effortless and fun for the other players and the game-master to interact with your character and role-play along-side your character, much like good actors play off each other when improvising scenes in a movie. That is what will make your character interesting (and also actually more fun for you to play), so my advice is not to make that more complicated than it need be.
We’re already asked to stretch our suspension of disbelief to the limit to roleplay inside a magical setting of heroic fantasy, there’s no need to stretch it any further. Lord of the Rings and other such works provide a history of well established fantasy tropes and we’d do well to show at least a little respect to those traditions, for it will make our own games all the more accessible, credible and immersive.
That’s all fine as far as races and classes go. Maybe I have even convinced the single human reading this who is willing to change their mind on that subject – or at-least caused a pause for thought. That brings me onto the most contentious of these set of rules: level limits.
Limiting levels by race is easily the most widely ignored rule in all of old-school Dungeons & Dragons. Gary Gygax must have hated the non-human races, right?
Obviously not. Have a look at the monster manuals and you will quickly discover that Gygax was particularly fond of some truly oddities when it came to fantasy races! They are just not the all-powerful shaper-of-worlds that humans can become.
“But level limits are so unrealistic! My Elf lives for hundreds of years!”, some may cry.
Firstly, … “it’s not realistic”? What a strange argument to make regarding a game of heroic-fantasy and magic. It is not a reality-simulator, it’s a game system (and any attempt to make it “realistic” will result in a tediously boring game system). One must realize that there is a balancing act at play here between “realism” (within a fantasy world) and “a fun system”.
Second, it is actually not unrealistic, even within the confines of the heroic fantasy setting. Put simply, elves in the AD&D world are not the elves of Lord of the Rings. Think of them more like fairy-tale creatures … elves may haunt the old forests and dwarves mine the mountains, and all sorts of other fantastic creatures and monsters inhabit the world, but as for the great Kings of the time, the heroes that forged the destiny of the world, that is the role of mankind, not gnomes and faeries.
It’s also worth noting that (although expanded in Unearthed Arcana), many of the human classes (for example, the assassin, monk and druid) are fairly restricted in their level limits regardless of race. This is because player characters were simply never really intended to reach dizzying heights in level. By the time a Druid was of 14th level they were literally the most powerful Druid in the world.
Further to that point, it was widely expected that characters of such advanced level would simply retire into the background of the campaign world as semi-NPCs, managing vast estates and kingdoms. Not continually dungeon-crawling in day-to-day sessions with a small party of adventurers. In this light it’s just not that big a deal that demi-humans have limited advancement.
The last of the character creation restrictions I’d like to discuss is that of limiting one’s choice in race and class to the ability scores rolled. It might seem “mean” to some not to allow the player complete freedom to choose which race and class they want to roleplay. I don’t think it’s mean at all. This rule actually serves two purposes.
Firstly, it keeps power-gamers in check. If your goal in playing AD&D is to select the most powerful options available to you with scant regard to actually developing an interesting persona, then good luck with that. That’s not the point of 1st-edition AD&D (and dare I say, it’s not the point of any edition of D&D).
Secondly, in a similar vein to what has already been discussed, it keeps these rarities special. Rangers, Paladins, Bards are all rare classes. It should actually be a special stroke of luck that allows one to play such a class on rare and treasured occasions, not a whim; and enforcing that in the rules actually heightens the feeling of having something really special when a player is lucky enough to roll up a set of ability scores that allows them to play as such a class (the same, albeit requiring less fortunate ability score rolls is also true of the demi-human races such as dwarves and elves).
“But what about balance? It’s unfair that Bob gets to play a Paladin and I’m stuck with a lowly Fighter!“
There is no balance. That’s the short answer to that.
The fun of the game is not in the competition between you and your fellow players, and if that’s the lens you are viewing D&D through, then I strongly suggest an immediate rethink. Also consider that many players actually enjoy the challenge of playing a sub-par character, and who knows, you may even grow to bond with the struggling underdog that disappointed you so much when the initial dice were cast. Give the poor sod a chance! It might even be fun.
After-all, the “best character” is the one that you and everyone else enjoys playing with the most, not the one with the highest stats and most exotic race and class. And that is because the fun on playing AD&D is in overcoming adversity while experiencing a fantasy world and confronting the challenges therein with your friends, to the best of you and your character’s abilities, whatever they may be.