Tuesday, March 17, 2009

The 12th Level Cobbler and the 0th Level Pope

It's one of the most common tendencies I see amongst both new and old schoolers: the tendency to assign greater personal power to greater public station and the tendency to throw character levels onto NPC's that have no earthly business having them in the first place (i.e., the cobblers in Forgotten Realms or any other setting that just happen to be middle or high level fighters or thieves). These are really two issues, but both are sides of the same coin.

Assigning higher character level to more important NPC's is something that Gary Gygax spoke specifically against at one point when he said that 99% of the population of the world were unclassed, unwashed masses. These means that most people the PC's run across should be nothing more than 0 level folk, including the king and all his knights. Players who assume that somebody of higher station is higher level (or any level at all) get what they deserve for such assumptions. Seeking out the highest ranking religious figure in the land assuming that he's capable of raising the dead or curing a disease is likely to end in heartbreak.

Ideally, the PC's should be the most personally powerful individuals in the region, barring the occasional folk passing through civilized lands. Those persons who do have levels either know how to conceal their inherent ability to avoid being plagued by penitents or challenges, are great heroes of legend themselves and have little time for the PC's, or use their abilities for their own ends perhaps becoming villains in their own right.

By the same token, I suppose, DM's feel the need to throw levels onto certain NPC's either in some attempt to preserve their life span just long enough to impart important information (assuming that the players play along the lines of Knights of the Dinner Table) or providing some level of challenge to the players (how tough, exactly, is a 0-level guard to a 5th level fighter after all?). This I can understand a little more. After all, there's very little holding the PC's in check at times but the threat of reprisal from local authorities, but then again, that doesn't mean that all the town guard need to be 3rd level fighters and the captain of the guard a paladin. A squad of guards played by a DM with even a modicum of intelligence can be a threat to a party of any level.

I'm not sure where this urge comes from, but I'm pretty sure it's been there pretty much from the start and the so called "Grognards" are to blame, but it was really the advent of the latter half of AD&D 2nd edition and then truly in 3rd edition that not only institutionalized, but reveled in it. Town descriptions in 3.x actually have a notation indicating what percentage of the populace is what level of NPC class and what level of PC class, and those percentages seemed absurdly high in my view. It was literally no longer acceptable to say that a man was the best blacksmith around, his level of ability must be quantified according to the great and holy rule set. Whatever benefit is derived from that is more than I can see when weighed against the added levels of complexity and book keeping.

Merely the mad ruminations of a delusional and asthmatic mind. If you're still reading this, you must be insane.


  1. Zero level Unclassed characters are much more flexible than the name implies. T1 Hommlet has perhaps the best example of what they are all about in the form of the Tailor. Indeed, the very idea of a "levelled" character really only makes sense with regard to player characters and their associates, since nobody else in the campaign world advances via experience points.

    Interestingly, Gygax's Greyhawk knights tend to be 4th level, which puts them at the "hero" level. A lot of stuff has to be considered in that context, but more importantly the idea of level and class is itself typically an illusory short hand for abstractly describing the capabilities of a character.

    That is to say, there is no reason that a 0 level character cannot cast spells or have several hit dice, or large numbers of hit points. The best default example of such a character, is probably the sage in the first edition DMG.

  2. That is to say, there is no reason that a 0 level character cannot cast spells or have several hit dice, or large numbers of hit points. The best default example of such a character, is probably the sage in the first edition DMG.

    That's absolutely true, but I tend to leave such things for special instances. Short term villains, for example, or important NPC's. For the most part, my world is populated by plebes who are just a half step above the goblins that prey upon them.