While there’s no official release date yet, it goes without saying that we’re getting fairly close to the formal release of D&D Next (the most likely date being August of 2014, to coincide with the fortieth anniversary of Dungeons and Dragons).
D&D Next, also known as D&D Fifth Edition, has a lot to live up to. It purports to use a series of add-ons, which it calls “modules” (not to be confused with the adventures for older editions) to allow groups to set the style of game they like, from rules-light exploration to intricately combat-focused. Moreover, these modules will purportedly cover specialized areas of game-play, such as underwater or planar adventures.
The idea here is that every niche will be spoken to with a module of its own, and that these will be – if not complementary – then at least clearly delineated so that it’s easy to mix-and-match. That’s an admirable goal, though I wonder how well it can be accomplished, but what I’m curious about is one such module in particular: epic-level play.
Epic-level play is (much like rules for gods) something of a divisive issue among D&D gamers. There’s a general consensus that the higher the game’s level goes, the more the rules “break down.” Attempts to define what that means tend to be poor, but usually vacillate between problems of administration when there’s so much information to keep track of, and bonuses that are far and away larger than the range of the die roll that they’re attached to. As such, those who want to “go epic” with their game – which is usually understood as leveling characters beyond level 20 (or whatever the basic rules’ level cap is understood to be) – tend to be something of a minority.
One of the problems with discussing epic levels, to my mind, is that there’s no real consensus on what such levels actually constitute (beyond the aforementioned definition of “going beyond what the rulebooks list”). In fact, if you look back at the history of D&D in its various editions, each version of the game has tackled this particular question in very different ways, each with their own strengths and weaknesses.
Given that D&D Next is still a little ways off, and that its module regarding epic-level game-play is likely a bit further than that, it’s worthwhile to look back at the history of the game and seeing how each version of it dealt with the concept of going beyond the upper limits.
Original D&D – the “woodgrain/white boxed set” and its five supplements, also called “OD&D” or “0E” – is something I’m hesitant to speak about. Of all the various versions and iterations of the game, it’s the only one I’ve never directly seen in one form or another (though I hope to change that in the future). As such, take the following with a grain of salt, as it’s based on second-hand knowledge.
Original D&D had only a few character classes (three in its original release – the fighting-man, wizard, and cleric – with the thief added in the first supplement), and the listed set of levels for these classes was quite low: in the single digits. There was no real reference to going beyond these levels, either in terms of a prohibition against doing so, or as a how-to for those who wanted to. This aspect of the game, like quite a bit of game-play using these rules, was open to the interpretation of the Dungeon Master (and his players).
It does seem safe to say, however, that at this point there wasn’t really a codified sense of “where the game wanted you to stop” and how to move past that barrier. Rather, the game rules seemed to paint a picture of taking you so far, and then leaving you to your own devices. What we’d later come to think of as “epic levels” simply wasn’t something that was fully conceived of yet.
Before talking about Basic D&D, we need to clarify exactly what this term encompasses. Moreso than any other edition of the game, Basic (also called “BD&D” and interestingly not having an edition number) is made up of several different versions of the game, all superseding and reinventing each other as they went.
The first Basic Set, written by Dr. J. Eric Holmes (aka the Holmes Basic Set) was meant to be a repackaging of OD&D, but included enough changes to the rules that it’s generally considered to be its own animal. Like its predecessor, it didn’t really speak to the idea of going beyond the listed levels, more as something not considered than deliberately ignored.
It was only later, with the release of the B/X set – that is, the Basic Rules boxed set by Tom Moldvay and the Expert Rules boxed set by David “Zeb” Cook and Steve Marsh; these were another introduction to D&D that changed just enough from their predecessor to be their own animal – that the rules started to speak to strict limits on how high characters could advance. Ironically though, this series never got that far (at least, not for most characters. Demihumans, however, hit hard caps here); a third set of rules that was supposed to present the upper limits of character advancement, called the Companion set, was never released.
Or rather, it wasn’t released for B/X. Once again, the Basic D&D game was re-released as a series of boxed sets that changed enough of the rules to be considered their own thing. This time it was in the form of the five boxed sets known as BECMI – Basic, Expert, Companion, Master, and Immortals – by Frank Mentzer (though they would eventually be re-released, with some tweaks by Aaron Allston in the form of the D&D Rules Cyclopedia and the Wrath of the Immortals boxed set). The first four of these boxed sets established, for the first time, that there was a ceiling to how high a character could advance (AD&D First Edition had already been released by this point, but it didn’t have the same cap; see below), that being level 36 (save for the aforementioned demihuman level limits, which were far lower).
Notably, the game didn’t stop here. The Immortals/Wrath of the Immortals boxed set(s) showed how PCs who had reached their level limit could potentially ascend to become deities (that is, “Immortals”) in their own right, at which point they could begin ascending the Immortal hierarchy.
PCs who hit the top of the Immortal hierarchy then had only one potential method for advancing further: they could give up their immortality and start as 1st-level mortals all over again. That certainly sounded harsh, but for those who managed to once again make it to the limits of mortal experience, and then ascend to the uppermost ranks of immortality for a second time, earned a special send-off for their character: they immediately attained the status of being one of the Old Ones (beings as far above the Immortals as the Immortals are above mortals) and were taken beyond the Vortex Dimension (which is to say, being the Basic D&D game’s multiverse).
The above is notable as it not only presents a hard-cap, but does so in a way that mandates that the character be retired from play, something not seen again until D&D Fourth Edition. Moreover, unique to all forms of character retirement, this one removed the character from the game world. Every other method of retiring a character, from death to divine ascension, turned the character into an NPC that was still part of the game world (and so could conceivably be featured again at some point). A character that attained the status of Old One in Basic D&D, however, had literally moved beyond the game itself.
Next time, we’ll look at the various editions of AD&D, and its ways that PCs could (or couldn’t) surpass the common limits for characters.