This is a failed idea that I’ve abandoned. But it’s an interesting approach. I couldn’t turn it into something I wanted to use, but I thought maybe someone else could run with it and give it a good home.
I find that D&D, at least by the rules that we use, is most enjoyable up to about 8th level. At some point beyond that, the game starts to feel more like a super-heroes game. Cutting characters off at a certain level would work but I don’t like such arbitrary limits. Steepening the experience table would work as well, but that just didn’t sit right either.
AD&D imposed level limits on non-humans. I never cared for this idea but it got me thinking. It isn’t the level limit itself that I didn’t like. It was the lack of rationale for its use; it was too arbitrary. What if I added level limits that weren’t arbitrary? There is some sense in a character with high strength being able to become a better fighter than a character with average strength.
Here is what I came up with: Characters may not advance in level in any class higher than half their prime ability score for that class (strength for fighters, wisdom for clerics, dexterity for rogues, and intelligence for wizards). This, at least to me, feels less arbitrary. Now there is some actual rationale for why the character is limited in level.
For character generation, I use a standard array that (in conjunction with racial ability bonuses) allows each character to be guaranteed one ability score of 16. Assuming that this score is used as the prime ability score for whatever class the character starts as, this sets the limitation at level 8 (which is at, or near, where I would like them to top out at).
However, this is not a hard limit. If a character manages to raise an ability to 18, the limitation raises to level 9. In fact, I don’t have any hard and fast rule that ability scores are limited to 18 max (although raising an ability above 18 is extremely rare).
This system seems workable. However, I do have a few problems with it. Once you reach your maximum level, any further experience is essentially wasted. I do use a custom multi-classing system that allows characters to easily train in multiple classes, but not all players may want to be forced to multi-class just to “use up” this extra experience.
What I came up with instead is the ability to “buy” an ability point with this extra experience. If a character with 16 strength is a level 8 fighter and has enough experience to become level 9, she can’t actually become level 9 because of the level limitation. Instead, she could spend this experience to increase her strength to 17 (her total experience would then be decreased to the beginning of level 8). Raising strength from 16 to 17 won’t affect the level limitation but she will gain any other benefits of the change. When she regains enough experience to reach level 9, she again “buys” another point of strength (bringing it now to 18) and lowers her experience back to the beginning of level 8. She is still level 8, and has the corresponding amount of experience, but with an 18 strength her level limitation as a fighter has been raised to level 9. When she once again gains enough experience, this time she can train up and become a level 9 fighter. Obviously, I just used fighter as an example. A cleric could do the same to raise wisdom, etc.
I’m the first to admit that this is a rather convoluted system. But it does have the benefit of allowing players to circumvent the level limits and continue to strive for higher levels. Essentially, it triples the experience needed after a certain point, and thereby slows leveling.
As I said earlier, I have a few problems with this system. What to do with extra experience was just one. The above deals with that (albeit in a rather bulky manner). The next problem is the potential for abuse. If our level 8 fighter with 16 strength gains enough experience to become a 9th level fighter, what is to stop her from borrowing a magic item from a friend that grants +2 strength (now giving her 18 strength which raises her level limit), training to level 9, and then returning the item? A couple of approaches come to mind, but they all seem rather unfair and fall in the category of curbing a player’s ingenuity just for the sake of saying no.
My last problem with all this is that it firmly places the focus of a character’s viability on the character’s ability scores. There is a trend among newer players to believe that if a character doesn’t possess super-human ability scores then that character is pointless and unplayable. When I started playing D&D, we used 3d6 in order and had a wonderful time. What a character can do is often only limited by the imagination and resourcefulness of the player. I’d like to retain that as the focus opposed to bringing ability scores to the forefront.
I started this post by saying this was a failed idea. I think it’s unfortunate that I couldn’t make it work because I like the concept. Even the convoluted method of buying ability points could probably be made easier. But the last two points are what finally drove me to abandon it. Hopefully someone will find something useful to pull from this. I hate throwing an idea with such potential off to the wayside.