Monday, April 29, 2019

XP Limits > Level Limits

When it comes to D&D and OSR games, it seems like a lot of referees like to put level limits on the PCs in their campaigns. Many rulebooks might provide for theoretically infinite character leveling, but beyond a certain point the game may begin to change in ways undesirable to the referee or other players. It could be an issue of challenge, of game balance, of changing mood, of world-building, or whatever. And of course, some games already have level limits by default.

Okay, hold that thought.

One aspect of old-school D&D/OSR game design which took a while to grow on me was the deliberate lack of a unified experience table for all classes. It still hasn't entirely grown on me, in all honesty, but I've come to appreciate it as a method of creating class balance, even if it isn't my preferred method. Cavegirl talks about this in more depth, and with more eloquence, over at her blog HERE and HERE, using LotFP as her example. This, in turn, was based on an excellent project at Breeyark! using Original and Basic D&D.

Sure, Class A might not be as tough/well-rounded/capable as Class B when they're both at, say, Level 3. But they don't level up at the same rate, so in all likelihood, they won't be at Level 3 at the same time. Given the same amount of experience points, Class A might be at Level 4 or 5 when Class B is at Level 3, so it doesn't entirely make sense to compare them at the "same level." One of the advantages of Class A is that it levels up faster, so one could argue that, insofar as the different classes are "competing" to be attractive options for players, Classes A and B should be compared at the same experience point total, not the same experience level.*

Returning to that thought from earlier, doesn't it make more sense to put an Experience Point Limit on one's campaign, rather than a Level Limit? That way, the rate of advancement for each class continues to matter into the endgame, and "weaker" classes with faster advancement rates are not disproportionately weakened when the limit is reached.

Let's look at Lamentations of the Flame Princess, for example. Here are six possible XP limits that I find rather sensible, and the corresponding level limit for each class in Rules & Magic.

288,000 XP
Cleric 9, Fighter 9, Magic-User 9, Specialist 10, Dwarf 9, Elf 8, Halfling 9
(This is the minimum needed to get all but the Elf to "name level," although that doesn't really exist in LotFP.)

480,000 XP
Cleric 11, Fighter 10, Magic-User 10, Specialist 12, Dwarf 10, Elf 9, Halfling 10
(This is my second-favorite choice. I don't personally prefer to set the limit any lower than this.)

784,000 XP
Cleric 14, Fighter 13, Magic-User 12, Specialist 15, Dwarf 12, Elf 11, Halfling 13
(This is my #1 pick right now. I guess you could call this my "comfort zone.")

1,056,000 XP
Cleric 16, Fighter 15, Magic-User 14, Specialist 18, Dwarf 14, Elf 12, Halfling 15
(In LotFP, this is the closest I could get to both the limits in the Dave Cook D&D Expert Set and the minimum XP needed for a level 14 Magic-User in the Rules Cyclopedia.)

1,152,000 XP
Cleric 17, Fighter 16, Magic-User 15, Specialist 19, Dwarf 15, Elf 13, Halfling 16
(This is the minimum needed for the Magic-User to get an eighth-level spell slot, and for the Elf to get 6 points in Search.)

1,296,000 XP
Cleric 18, Fighter 17, Magic-User 16, Specialist 20, Dwarf 16, Elf 13, Halfling 17
(This is my third-favorite choice. As far as I'm concerned, if you put the limit any higher than this in LotFP, you might as well have no limit at all.)

In LotFP, I would say this gives a bit of extra edge to the cleric and specialist, and helps the magic-user get out from under the elf's shadow. It also helps each class gain access to many of their major milestone features (better saving throws, new spell levels, skill increases) even when they come at different levels, without discarding level limits altogether. If you're not going to have a unified experience table, you might as well get the most from that choice, right?

What do you think? Any disadvantages to this method I've overlooked? Or any other advantages to point out, for that matter?

*This is also relevant if you're joining a campaign in progress and creating a character above first level to match the party's experience. Or if you're creating a group of pre-gens that are intended to be roughly equivalent in power or ability. After all, old D&D modules seems to be teeming with examples of "balanced" parties in which the characters are all at different levels. Instead of going by the average level of a party, it might be fairer to look at the average number of experience points.


  1. The problem I have is that my campaigns dont last to higher levels. My last LotFP campaign got to 8th level and that was only because I was giving levels out like candy. I think OSR type games have a built in level cap because they dont tend to last long anyways.

    1. Oh yeah, I hear that a lot. Could that be specific to LotFP, or is it generally common to OSR games, or what? Maybe it's not always like that in actual brand-name D&D? I don't know. The Rules Cyclopedia goes up to level 36, doesn't it? How many people ever got anywhere near immortal level?

      Even when you deliberately want to avoid higher levels, I don't think any kind of level limit is strictly necessary, per se. Low-level play seems to be the case for the majority of OSR gaming I hear about. But I figure that if I ever want to make it an official "rule" in a campaign, I might as well go about it in a way that feels fair and sensible to me. And it seems to be a topic that comes up for some people, even if they're in the minority, so I felt like talking about it.

      But yeah, this could totally be a solution in search of a problem. :P

  2. It had never occurred to me that the different xp tables was a balancing thing, although it's obvious in hindsight. Huh.

    1. I'm no expert RPG historian, so I could be wrong. I THINK it was intentional? I'm always kind of waiting for someone to come along and school me about some deep-seated misconception whenever I write a post like this. At any rate, if it's not a balancing thing, then I definitely don't understand the point of not having a unified table.

  3. For reference, in the D&D Rules Cyclopedia, 1,050,000 XP will get you a level 17 Cleric, a level 15 Fighter, a level 14 Magic-User, or a level 16 Thief. It will also get a Dwarf 2 "attack ranks" past level 12, an Elf 1 "attack rank" past level 10, and a Halfling 3 "attack ranks" past level 8.

    This is the minimum XP needed for a level 14 Magic-User in the RC, and I believe level 14 is the highest a Magic-User can reach in the Expert Set (in both B/X and BECMI). In LotFP, I think that 1,056,000 XP seems to be the "best fit" in terms of matching both.

    Of course, a level 14 Magic-User in D&D does not have the EXACT same capabilities as a level 14 Magic-User in LotFP, but I imagine that they are close enough for most purposes.

    If you want something just a BIT lower in LotFP, you could try 1,008,000 XP. That gives you: Cleric 16, Fighter 14, Magic-User 14, Specialist 17, Dwarf 14, Elf 12, Halfling 14.