Friday, August 7, 2009

Of The Hobbit and level titles in D&D

I was listening to The Hobbit while driving to work the other day when this exchange between Thorin and Gandalf impressed itself on my D&D-addled mind:

"But we none of us liked the idea of the Front Gate. The river runs right out of it through the great cliff at the South of the Mountain, and out of it comes the dragon too--far too often, unless he has changed his habits."

"That would be no good," said the wizard, "not without a mighty Warrior, even a Hero. I tried to find one; but warriors are busy fighting one another in distant lands, and in this neighborhood heroes are scarce, or simply not to be found."

Gandalf's lament about the lack of qualified swordsmen in the area immediately got me thinking of level titles in D&D, and why I'm a fan of them. Some people think that level titles are a vestigial organ of an older game and rather silly. Others have remarked that they add color and "fluff," but can be safely dropped. But this exchange proves that level titles are not without a practical function: They allow the relative competency of a PC or NPC to be identified without breaking suspension of disbelief, or resorting to metagame language (e.g., walking into a tavern and inquiring about the services of a 9th level cleric).

To get back to Gandalf's comment, in first edition AD&D a Warrior is a second-level fighter and a Hero is a fourth-level fighter. In AD&D terms, therefore, his comment makes perfect sense, as he implies that an experienced sword-arm (i.e., more than a common, 0-level man-at-arms) is needed if the party has any hopes of entering the front gate of Lonely Mountain. A second-level Warrior would fit the bill. From his comment a reader can also safely deduce a Hero is stronger than a Warrior ("even a Hero," Gandalf says.)

In fact, I would submit that this dialogue may have provided Gary Gygax with the idea of level titles.

Of course, as any D&D player knows, a 2nd level or 4th level fighter is hopelessly overmatched against any dragon, even a younger white dragon, let alone an ancient red such as Smaug (who is presumably of the 11 hit dice, 88 HP variety). But given that Third-Age Middle-Earth is, by D&D standards, low-magic and low-powered, and that an infamous article in the March 1977 issue of The Dragon speculated that Gandalf was only a 5th level magic-user, a 4th level fighter--excuse me, Hero--would be quite a formidable swordsman in Middle-Earth, and a welcome addition to the troupe of dwarves and hobbit.


Mike in MN said...

Very thought-provoking. All the more interesting given that one of the level titles for Rangers in AD&D was "Strider." I wouldn't mind seeing level titles come back, too. If I recall correctly, PC's in AD&D had to spend time and money training before they could actually level up. This gives the level titles even more significance, since characters had to earn each level in both theory (training) and practice (adventuring).

Jesse Willis said...

Yep, meta-talk within an RPG session play totally sucks. You should be consultant on the 5th edition of D&D!

Brian Murphy said...

[Consults AD&D 1E PHB]: Mike, you're right, I had forgotten that Strider is a ranger level title. Good observation. And yes, spending money to level up used to be a rule "back in the day" that made perfect sense, but was dropped from later editions.

Jesse: Thanks for the compliment, but there are others far more qualified than I (check out Grognardia for someone I'd like to see at the planning table of the inevitable 5th edition, though I think James is perfectly happy with OD&D).

Barad the Gnome said...

In my game I do quietly use titles when there are organizations to grant them. Rangers and Paladins for example. So within those organizations the title does mean something. I don't use them for every level, and I give the levels as XP dictate but the PC must pass the test to be granted the level, prestige, rights and priveledges bestowed. The tests aren't easy, are they Brian?

Brian Murphy said...

No, the tests aren't easy, especially those given by the Order of the White Arrow!

I think the problem was that Arden is so good with a bow that his melee skills got rusty.

Eric D. Lehman said...

This post also brings up the obvious problem of later D&D and other role playing - the outrageous expansion of both player powers and enemies until we are fighting battles with Dragonball Z characters. It may be unavoidable, considering the human (and especially adolescent human) tendency to crave more and more power. I seem to remember falling into that temptation myself, and creating super-powerful characters that make Gandalf and Aragorn look like, well, 5th level magicusers and 3rd level Rangers.

Barad the Gnome said...

D&D is a game and therefore needs boundaries and rules. Epic tales are not encumbered by rules, only the internal logic of the story. The melding of the two, as well know, requires some give and take. I don't think comparing levels between editions and epic stories is particularly valuable for game analysis. It IS an interesting excersise but not much use in the game. Regardless of the rantings of players, D&D has proven to be a remarkable flexible and resilient game catering to those who want low level gritty action as well as those who want uber-powerful fantastic characters. All it takes is starting with the 'right' edition and a few house rules. :)

Although the rules are a bit helter skelter, I continue to admire and be amazed at the wealth of colorful and interesting tidbits that can be mined from the original AD&D. And I say that as someone who played in that edition for well over 15 years. It is a testament to E Gary's skills, not as a game designer, but as someone who knew what the fun and exciting elements of fantasy gaming really were.

Michael said...

The intended (or, let's say, pre-inflationary) power levels of original D&D are often illuminated by LotR. D&D spectres, e.g., are explicitly identified with Ringwraiths. The Type VI demon (or, in later editions, the "balor") is the awful Balrog of Moria. As these are, respectively, 7 and 8 hit dice monsters, it's very clear that OD&D was intended to top out at "name" levels.

jbeltman said...

You could say that for level titles to be of any use they should be spaced further apart. Who cares what a second level fighter is called? They still suck. Maybe it should be every five levels. That would provide a meaningful difference between the levels and it would describe individuals that could actually make a difference and are worth knowing.