How to screw up Races in AD&D!


Ogre Race in AD&D seems like a pretty straight forward thing, but when was the last time you looked at the charts?

Fail Squad Games Gamers have been screwing this up for a long time. It ‘s time to take a closer look at race.

Character Races

One of the beautiful things about AD&D was the mechanical balance. Many newer gamers don’t care for the restrictions, but it is these restrictions that keeps much of the strategy and cooperation in the game. Unfortunately, it’s the Racial limits and restrictions that often get house ruled, glazed over, or forgotten.

Another thing of beauty regarding the AD&D books is they walk a player through character creation chronologically and logically. First came the Stats, and now choose a race, then a class.

What is race?

Let’s take a look at what race is in game terms. Unlike our real world which defines this by skin color, AD&D uses a clearer distinction, and perhaps a more proper one.

After a player has determined the abilities of their character, it is then time to decide of what racial stock the character is to be. For purposes of the game the racial stocks are limited to the following: dwarven, elven, gnome,half-elven, halfling, half-orc, and human.

In later books a wider selection would be allowed, and in Unearthed Arcana  (Considered AD&D 1.5) many restrictions were eased. Your DM should decide if they are going to use UA and Dungeoneer’s Survival Guide when starting a game.

Racial Restrictions

The races have various bonuses and restrictions, but through it all Gygax kept a tight rein on them. Humans were the most common creature throughout fantasy hero stories, and there had to be a reason. Humans are versatile, adaptable, and quick to embrace change. This is reflected in the charts that follow the race selection section of the AD&D Player’s Handbook (Easley Cover) Page 13. (click on the image for full size view)

Race Chart 1

Many of these restrictions and reasons for them are peppered throughout the text, they are simply summed up conveniently on Page 13. Let’s take a look at the story we are being told and how it often gets mis-used or house-ruled.

Classes in CAPS are major classes (Fighter, Magicuser, Cleric, Thief (Monk). lowercase classes are sub-classes. The letters in the parenthesis are alignment restrictions. This table has A LOT of information coming at you all at once. Yes or No indicates if it is allowed.

Table II

Race Chart 2

Classes in CAPS are major classes (Fighter, Magicuser, Cleric, Thief (Monk). lowercase classes are sub-classes. A number indicates the greatest level that character can attain, U is unlimited, and (Where we screwed things up), numbers in a parenthesis means that is the maximum level possible but it is ONLY allowed for NPCs. 

That’s right, Humans clearly dominate the ‘known world’ in religion (and other professions). There were no Dwarf, Elf, Gnome Clerics that were player characters. No Halfling Clerics. Half-orcs can only reach level 4 and half-elves level 5 in Cleric, while humans are unlimited in their holy power across the board.

Furthermore, many of these maximum limits are only the maximum if the character has an exceptional prime requisite.

To House Rule or Not?

The question comes up quickly, “Well if this is the case, why the hell would I play a non-human race?”

That may have been exactly Gary Gygax’s point. Humans have a bonus and a benefit; unlimited power.

But frequently complaining players and DMs desperate for a happy table, acquiesce and over-rule racial level limits and others.

Has anyone tried the game enforcing the rules as written? It seems like a broken and restricted thing, but it retains a firm balance. Let’s not forget there are half-orc bonuses, infravision and more. Yes they may be limited to level 4 cleric, but they can be a Fighter/Cleric. A level 8 half-elven wizard is still a being of power in the game, if it is not heavily adjusted.

I have found myself DMming games that had power rapidly spinning out of my control and I didn’t know why. Much of it was because I allowed these balancing restrictions to be lifted. The end result at mid to higher levels was the game stopped being fun.

The Fail Squad Games advice would likely be to house rule these limits with caution, and try the game with them for a while before discussing alterations with the group. Allow an opportunity to re-visit the house-rule later if you feel it slipping out of control and want to rescind it.

Racial Table III

There is a third racial table that follows and it illustrates the limits and minimum stats required to play the various races. Much of this was covered in previous articles on Strength, Intelligence, Wisdom, Dexterity, Constitution, Charisma, and Comeliness.

Which race is best?

I think this is where our friend Gary Gygax succeeds every time. It’s the one you want to play! AD&D has a definite game strategy and mechanic balance. A successful party has at least one of each class, and perhaps an extra race sprinkled in on occasion.  With Modules like Tomb of Horrors, living forever was never guaranteed, and chances are, you would get to play another character pretty soon anyway.

Do you house rule racial level and ability limits?

comment below.

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13 Comments on “How to screw up Races in AD&D!

  1. We almost always played with the level limits in force, but rarely kept a campaign going long enough for it to matter. More recently we had a BTB 1e game and one thing we house-ruled on was dividing hit dice after a level limit was reached — so a cleric/assassin did not end up with less than half the hp of a regular assassin the same level. (1/2 orcs cap at level 4 cleric and “Unlimited” assassin, which I believe is actually level 15 or so, and would gain a HD every level, but being multiclassed with cleric would mean you might have a 4/12 cleric assassin, and his hp would average 30 ((12d6+4d8)/2), vs a 12th assassin with 42 average … directly contradicting Gygax’s write up on the multiclass’s advantage in HP over regular assassins…)
    In B/X, IIRC halflings were limited to level 8, elves to 10 and dwarfs to 12 (or maybe 4/6/8?). That was a bit of a deal-breaker for my players.

  2. We used the Class / Race limits for 2nd ed. (which we played and modded 1st ed stuff for) but we also used the bonus levels for high prime scores.

  3. There is short term gain and long term gain. I have a love/hate relationship with the racial system, but you are right, it has to be in place for the game to function long term. It doesn’t always make logical sense, especially if you want more of a Tolkien feel.

  4. I always took racial level limits as a status of events. Meaning that once you reached that level limit it too twice as much XP & training time to get to the new level. Once that a given race’s class reached a new level the level limit for that race was raised by one. So while most campaigns did not last long enough to make these changes several did and as of this minute PCs can be Lizard Men Magic-users up to level 5, Gnomes can be Monks up to level 4 and Elves have gained two levels in Magic-user.

    • I have really only hit that level 9 stage once or twice in all the years I’ve played. It seems that 6 is about my doom. lol
      I always wince when I see young players come to a con and show me thier 2E character sheet with their 29th level – whatever.

  5. Just like humans at one time could not do the 4-minute mile and now many can. (not me but others)

  6. I play 1e to this day and except for letting all races be allowed to chose cleric (why have Demi-human and Humanoid gods, then?), I follow the tables/limitations closely.

    • That is a very valid question. I suppose there are plenty of folks in the world who pray to various gods without becoming clerics though.
      If you think about it though, a Level 9 Dwarf Fighter (Max) isn’t much different than a level 12 human fighter (Who just gets 3hp / level beyond 9)
      In 1e it’s tough to survive into that range. There’s a lot of save or die rolls!

  7. To keep a balance in the game as intended but also not have the human players run away in HP and other “perks” I instituted a rule by which the non-human experience points were halved up to the maximum obtainable level with a good prime requisite. After that their experience points were then quartered. This made it seem as if the unobtainable was, eventually, obtainable and retained the original balance intended by the designer (EGG). At the same time it appeased the player that they were not going to be stuck with a level 4 1/2 orc cleric forever (instead they would top out at level 6 when everyone else was 8 to 12). I found this solution worked without the above mentioned “spiraling out of control” power imbalance.

    • Not a bad solution. It can be a little disheartening when you realize, “I just peaked….”
      After playing and talking with the old school guys a while, I get the impression that even getting beyond level 8-10 was pretty rare.

  8. Yea, Level 9 was a career ending level most of the time. Very hard to work past that, though I still have Fantell Lightbringer (AD&D 2nd ed caster) who, upon achieving level 9, starting turning his and his parties entire fortune into magical items, because that’s just what you do at that level. He retired from active adventuring on the cusp of level 10 somewhere, and has since reached level 12 in his semi-retirement.

    He has been on a few big adventures since then, sometimes because it was necessary for the kingdom at large, other times because he just needed to get some magical bauble or ingredient that was otherwise unobtainable, but mostly he spends his time taking commission on the manufacture of magical goods for those who prove themselves good and true, which has been his main source of income and XP for the last two levels.

    To bring this back to being relevant, this was 2nd edition, and he reached level 9 while most of the party was around level 7, and continued to adventure with them until they also retired into what had, at that point, become Fantell’s duchy. This took somewhere around a year of VERY regular play. We all lived in one house, as students, and this is what we did by candlelight for hours at a time, whenever there was a night that none of us had late classes. There were deaths; I remember several characters that didn’t make it, such as the cowardly cleric we all called yellow-belly, a large Immortal Nubian fighter who went down in a hail of spears finally proving he wasn’t, in fact, immortal, a Bard who saved us from the siren song of a Harpy only to die to the poisoned talons of its pack-sister that same day. There are other deaths, some ignoble, but all memorable, and throughout all of that, I don’t remember anyone, ever, reaching maximum racial levels and wanting to retire a character.

    In the end the surviving party consisted of a Half-Elf Ranger, a Barbarian (possibly a fighter on paper, or something from a supplement that the GM allowed, I really don’t know), a Paladin, a Halfling Fighter/Thief, and a Dwarven Fighter/Thief. as a side note, I specifically remember The Dwarf had his lowest stat in Dex. A 10, with a Con of 19 and a Cha of 17 to boot. Used to think it was a weird combination, with such a low Dex, but he maxed lock-picking and F/R Traps, ignored every other skill, and told everyone he was a toy maker who specialized in puzzle-boxes. that meant his Max level as a Thief was the minimum of 12. he never got close. The Halfling did, but even after everything, he barely scraped level 8 as a Fighter, let alone the level limit of 9. Not sure he even managed to 8, in the end.

    Point is, the question of max level never came up. for either of them. It is, still to this day, inconceivable that anyone could really get there, because you effectively cap at level 9. the only classes to gain at this point are spellcasters. They get higher level spells. IF they have a high enough spellcasting stat.

    so we have a game where any class can level to the vaulted level of 9, which is where they generally retire, because while the monsters get stronger and the threats bigger past that level, the player characters do not. At that point, you play simply because you like the character, as I did, or because it matters to the gameworld you and your DM have shaped, as it did when I continued to play my Mage.

    I should note that The ONLY race/class combo to not make it to level 9 is halfling cleric. the only other level limits below ten are again the halfling, this time in fighter, the gnome cleric, and the half-elf druid. that means any other allowable combo can reach level 10, without even needing the boost to the limit from having a high prime requisite.

    So yes, in answer to the overall question of do I play with level limits on. But then, I ALSO play with weapon type vs armor modifiers. Because that way the cost vs AC of the different armors actually make sense.

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