Level restrictions and class limitations were always concepts that eluded me when I played Dungeons & Dragons Third Edition (D&D 3e) and that I imagine tend to be even more alien for players who have begun with Dungeons & Dragons Fifth Edition (D&D 5e). For us the demi-human races have always been unfettered. So when I began reading the Advanced Dungeons & Dragons Second Edition (AD&D 2e) Player’s Handbook I was hoping that there would be some sort of explanation for why such limitations were placed on demi-humans. The Player’s Handbook provided an answer:
“. . . The limits also exist for play balance. The ability of humans to assume any role and reach any level is their only advantage. The demi-human races have other powers that make them entertaining to play – particularly the ability to be multi-classed . . . These powers balance the enjoyment of play against the ability to rise in level . . .”Cook, 27
According to the TSR AD&D 2e Design Team the answer is “game balance” but as D&D 3e would show us there was no reason to make that assumption as you could remove those restrictions and still balance the game. It’s an answer that leaves much to be desired as declaring that something has been done for game balance doesn’t inspire much loyalty to the concept.
Gary Gygax provided a different reason for the restrictions in Dragon Magazine:
“. . . 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 . . .”Gygax, 8
Now that’s a more compelling argument as to why demi-humans should be restricted: because otherwise they would dominate the game worlds to the point where humans were an afterthought – which is exactly what happened in later versions of Dungeons & Dragons (D&D). Another assessment of demi-humans would make the argument as follows:
“. . . Characters of the major demi-human races begin their AD&D game lives with distinct advantages. Some advantages, such as infravision, resistance to magic and poison, and bonuses to attack rolls inhibit the attrition rate of these 1st-level characters. Thus, a demi-human character often has a greater chance of surviving to advanced levels than an identical character of the human race. The lifespans of demi-humans are nearly always longer than those of humans as well. To offset this, the demi-human character is limited to relatively few classes and cannot advance to the highest reaches in most of these . . .”Prager, 24
This line of thinking creates a compelling argument for limiting a demi-human’s advancement which was the standard from 1977 – 2000 (23 years). D&D 3e would ignore this and would instead argue that by providing humans with equitable powers (additional feats, skills, and so forth) to the demi-humans that they could still dominate the game worlds and keep them human-centric. It’s an argument that I have often been at odds with over the years as the powers demi-humans retained (darkvision, magical resistances, longevity, et al) over their human counterparts have made it hard to argue that humans would dominate their fictional worlds. How could humans with their short lifespans and countless frailties overwhelm the rest of the world and become the driving force?
It’s a question there are no easy answers to as multiple settings have attempted to deal with it by arguing that humans breed too quickly, demi-humans too slowly; that demi-humans have been overcome by costly wars with each other and monstrous races. I’ve even seen some settings where humans are in the ascendance because demi-humans can’t exist with technology and humans represent its rise.
There’s not a good reason why humans would come to dominance over the demi-human races that I’ve encountered. And that may be the best argument for keeping level restrictions.
Cook, David “Zeb,” et al. Player’s Handbook for the AD&D Game. USA: TSR Inc, 1996. pg 27 PRINT
Gygax, Gary. “Demi-humans get a lift the last word on level limits and abilities.” Dragon Magazine March 1985: pg. 8 PDF
Prager, John R. “Give Demi-humans an Even Break! More dice are nice when rolling ability scores.” Dragon Magazine January 1988: pg. 24 PDF