The mélange of XP tracks in classic D&D and AD&D: Weal or woe?

Part of the fun of early D&D was choosing what class to play. Each had unique abilities that the others did not have. Each had its own “character” and personality.

But abilities were not the only thing distinguishing the various character classes. Over at Grognardia yesterday, the question was raised why different XP tracks were created for the classes in older versions of D&D (OD&D, B/X D&D and BECMI D&D), and also by implication in AD&D. James Maliszewski proposes the theory that perhaps higher XP requirements to reach 2nd level were consciously made to dissuade players from choosing to play the ‘cooler’ classes (fighters and magic-users). Then farther down I think he hits the nail on the head:

Magic-User studying AD&D

First level magic-usery is both a perilous and long path.

I should note here that all of the above is pure, undiluted ex post facto rationalization for a bunch of XP benchmarks that were, in all probability, made up without any rhyme or reason…

I agree with this, especially looking at AD&D. Magic-Users, for example, start leveling up slowly. But suddenly around Level 6 or so they start leveling up much faster relative to the other classes — precisely when they’re starting to learn 4th and 5th level spells! (Isn’t this around the time they started to surpass the martial classes?) Meanwhile, nearly every other class is still doubling every level until they hit name level.

The XP tracks in B/X and BECMI D&D were no less random. Here are my theories for each class’s 1st-level XP goals in B/X D&D:

Fighter? He’s the default in the game world so let’s give him a nice even number. 2,000 XP.

Cleric? They don’t even have spells yet! Let’s get them to 2nd level faster. (Of course, this gets forgotten in AD&D where they often cast 3 spells a day at 1st level.) 1,500 XP.

Magic-User? They’re the weakest class and eventually become much more powerful, so let’s make them extremely weak longer! 2,500 XP.

Thief? You suck because you have only 1-4 HP and can only do things 10% of the time even though you specialize in them. We’ll throw you a bone. 1,200 XP.

Dwarf? They’re like fighters, but a little cooler cuz they see pit traps and such. So they need what fighters get, but a little bit more. 2,200 XP.

Elf? They’re like fighters, plus they do what magic-users do! It’s like two classes in one, so let’s double what elves have to earn! 4,000 XP.

Halfling? Who plays halflings anyway?

I like Gygax’s organic “tender loving care” approach to crafting the various classes and races in AD&D, and there’s a charm when every race or class has a different “feel” due to an uneven application of rewards and restraints. But when it came to larger system-wide considerations, the early versions of D&D reflect his ad-hoc adjustments and add up to a jumbled mess. It was only when D&D 3rd Edition rebuilt the game’s foundations that this changed. (For better or for worse? Another topic for another day.)

So for you, what do you think about early D&D’s XP tracks? Weal or woe?


About ronaldsf

Grandmaster of the Pathfinders' Guild at Martin Luther King Middle School.
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4 Responses to The mélange of XP tracks in classic D&D and AD&D: Weal or woe?

  1. I enjoyed the varied XP amounts required to level up depending on your class type. I think they start wizards out as such because they require so much studying to become a mage in the first place. You basically have to pay your dues. But as you advance in level things get easier, the light bulb comes on and the mage says “Ah ha! I’ve got this!” and takes off from there.

    I really like your articles and insight. If you would like to write some posts for NERD TREK so you can start to stream some traffic over to your site I would be most appreciative. Your old school gamer approach to blogging is right up my alley! 😉

  2. ronaldsf says:

    Yeah! I’m sure I can think of something. Let me get back to you on that. 🙂

  3. Yeah, I don’t want to pull the Game-Design-Hadn’t-Gotten-this-Far-in-D&D trigger too often, for fear that we will overlook learning something, but there are times that it is just going to be the answer. Sometimes, as the move was made from OD&D to AD&D, for example, things were kept or given insufficient translation or simply dropped without the kind of thought that you’d expect from Gygax. But he was juggling lots of design balls in his head, and if something like the logic of XP progression wasn’t what he was focusing on, I can easily see it falling by the wayside, so to speak.

    • ronaldsf says:

      Yes, Gygax was working on a million projects at once — between 1977 and 1979 he spit out the AD&D Monster Manual, Player’s Handbook, and the DMG. And just yesterday I saw the list of modules Gygax had authored: a very busy man he was.

      Still, someone in the TSR team should’ve asked these questions so that it wasn’t all on Gygax. But oh well, the game was still emerging from nothingness and there were a lot of decisions to be made, and hindsight is 20/20.

      Another interesting thing this shows is that you didn’t see so much of today’s concern about “balance” in the first days of D&D, in terms of how the different classes stacked against each other — at least not as much. This is from Gygax’s preface to the AD&D Player’s Handbook:

      This is not to say that conformity or sameness is desirable… Uniformity means that classes are relatively the same in abilities and approach to solving the problems with which the campaign confronts them.

      And this is from the Introduction to the AD&D Player’s Manual:

      The characters and races from which the players select are carefully thought out and balanced to give each a distinct and different approach to the challenges posed by the game.

      So Gygax had two goals that were at tension with each other: balance, and making each class “feel” different. He wasn’t as concerned about the 1st factor as some gamers are today, and he went so far as making it a design goal for each class to have a different XP track, even if the reasons for specific decisions may have been questionable. (I still don’t see why Magic-Users actually level up faster through the middle levels than the other classes, and Jonathan what you said was another example (though handyl!) of a post facto justification. :).)

      There’s a number of reasons for today’s concern about “balance” that that I’m sure we could talk forever about. Oh the joy of blogging 🙂

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