The Original End Goal of Dungeons & Dragons
  • The Original End Goal of Dungeons & Dragons


    It's common knowledge that Dungeons & Dragons proposed "anything can be attempted," a revolutionary idea that launched the role-playing game industry. And yet, attempting anything didn't necessarily mean the same style of play throughout. There is evidence that D&D had a very specific end goal in mind for its characters, and it has a lot to do with its wargaming roots.


    What's in a Name Level?

    It's no longer featured in modern incarnations of D&D today, but the game originally had titles for each level of a class. As the character advanced, he or she gained a new level with an associated title. These titles were applied to the core three classes (cleric, fighting-man, wizard) and then expanded to more classes in the Greyhawk supplement and later Advanced Dungeons & Dragons. There was a finite number of titles, and eventually those titles "capped out": clerics became Patriarchs at 8th level, fighters becomes Lords at 9th level, and magic-users became wizards at 11th level. Bart Carroll and Steve Winter explain:

    Name level was the point at which your level name 'topped out'. In some cases, your level name and class name matched at that point… only, that didn't apply across the board, which led to confusion about where the term came from. In fact, there's no clear answer about the true origin. Some people say that it's because of the collision of class and level names; others will tell you that it's the level where a character finally made a name for himself and came to the attention of the powers that be (which we might think of now in terms of hitting paragon tier, in 4th Edition). The truth probably is a combination of both hypotheses. The literal term "name level" appears on page 8 of the Dungeons & Dragons Player's Companion (1984)—its first use in a printed rulebook that we've so far tracked down.

    The significance of name level goes beyond titles however.

    All That Glitters

    In early Dungeons & Dragons, accumulating experience points was directly tied to the acquisition of treasure. You couldn't do one without the other, and there were rules to encourage this style of play. David Hartlage goes into more detail:

    Before 2E, most of the experience players gained came from gold. For example, in the 1981 D&D Basic Rulebook (p. 45), Tom Moldvay wrote that characters could expect to gain 3/4 or more of their XP from treasure. With experience requirements roughly doubling at each level, players needed tons—as in thousands of pounds—of gold to advance. In an evaluation of the basic-expert rules set, Blackrazor calculates that to advance from 8th to 9th level, a party of characters must claim 40 tons of gold. In a real world, such a bounty would cause runaway inflation and threaten an economic collapse. Luckily, PCs typically leave these bounties unspent, keeping a tally on the character sheet instead. No DM makes the party round up the 80 Bags of Holding needed to carry 40 tons of loot. Of all the versions of D&D, these basic-expert rules present a worst case, but every edition serves up enough gold to fill Scrooge McDuck-style swimming pools.

    What to do with all that gold? PCs were expected to spend it in a specific fashion at a specific point in their careers, as Jon Peterson explains in Playing at the World:

    Aside from material possessions, characters may also spend money on leadership and even lordship. Any number of hirelings can be employed to work for a character, provided that the character is sufficiently charismatic. Dungeons & Dragons views management as the natural state of affairs: “It is likely that players will be desirous of acquiring a regular entourage of various character types, monsters and an army of some form.”

    The time when PCs became managers was when they reached name level:

    Name level was a turning point for PCs. One way or another, an important decision was required. Originally, it was the point at which characters could build a castle, temple, tower, guild, etc., and begin recruiting their own force of loyal followers. (Actually, in OD&D, PCs could build a stronghold whenever they were able to afford it. The level restriction came later.) Beyond that, name level was the point at which they were expected to do so. Possessing great power and reputation (and treasure) meant manning up and taking responsibility for making the world a better place. Building a fortified manor, a temple, or a magical 'observation post' on the borderland extends the reach of safety and civilization. It also gives a high-level character a safe base of operation for expeditions into even more dangerous territory.

    The reason for this was because D&D was still in its infancy, as it had only recently evolved from a miniature wargame known as Chainmail. Keith Veronese explores Chainmail's history on io9:

    In the early 1970s, Gary Gygax worked for Guidon Games as an editor, and he co-authored the rules for the game Chainmail with Jeff Perren. Chainmail took place in a medieval context, using miniature figures to serve as proxies in combat. Each figure proxies for twenty of a certain type of soldier, whether it be armored foot soldiers or a low class horse rider. This system allowed for large battles between mixed classes based on the outcome of six-sided dice rolls with minimal "on table" confusion. The first edition of Chainmail was just 62 pages long with a 15 page fantasy supplement. Indeed, one of their big innovations was the idea of including a fantasy supplement with a game of medieval army combat.

    Dungeons & Dragons was an evolution of Chainmail's combat system, zooming in from army-level to individual level. D&D's heritage is right there in the name levels, with titles for fighters like "hero" and "superhero" shared between both games. That's not all they had in common.

    Putting On Your Chainmail

    Shannon Appelcline explains just how connected D&D was to its predecessor, Chainmail:

    The combat rules in Men & Magic are also quite spare. That's because OD&D recommends the use of D&D's predecessor, Chainmail (1971), for combat. D&D grew immediately out of Chainmail when Dave Arneson used it to run adventures in the dungeons of Blackmoor; Men & Magic shows how closely aligned those two games still were, back in 1974. As a result, the only combat rules actually published in Men & Magic are contained within one page that details an "alternate combat system"ť: a 20-sided die is rolled and compared to AC; if it hits, 1d6 of damage is done.

    Even if a player wasn't familiar with Chainmail, D&D eventually expected the players to transition back to that style of play at higher level. This was how Dave Arneson managed his Blackmoor game, so they expected other players to follow suit:

    In Blackmoor, player characters served as leaders and champions in series of miniature battles featuring armies clashing above ground. PCs explored dungeons to gain wealth that could enable them to raise armies, build fleets, and erect strongholds. Gary had designed the Chainmail miniature rules that Dave used, so a progression from green adventurer to battlefield champion to baron seemed natural to both men. The original D&D game includes prices for castle structures and ships, along with costs for the men at arms and sailors needed to build a kingdom. The game served up riches, but the wealth led PCs out of the dungeon and onto the miniature battlefield.

    There was just one problem: players didn't want to transition back to a wargame.

    Reaching name level signaled an important change in the tenor of the campaign, because the PCs were no longer responsible for just themselves. They had townsfolk and parishioners to worry about, or a clandestine war to wage, or usurpers and challengers to watch out for. When heading out on adventures, they were now often accompanied by small armies of retainers and disciples, which allowed them to tackle very different types of challenges than before. These new responsibilities and challenges brought about drastic changes in the tone of a campaign -- so drastic, in fact, that many groups just ignored them and kept embarking on the same foot-loose, responsibility-free adventures they always had, only at higher and higher levels.

    Hartlage agrees:

    That sort of play made sense to miniature players like Dave and Gary, but the game’s new players had no experience with sand tables and lead figures. The price lists for barbicans and medium horsemen puzzled us. Even the miniature grognards kept going back to the dungeon.

    D&D expanded well beyond into a form of play that lets players level up to 20th and beyond, and name levels fell out of fashion:

    Level names disappeared from AD&D when the game made the transition to 2nd Edition. The chief reason was that, as the game expanded into power levels well beyond its original conception and the number of classes and subclasses grew, coming up with more level names that weren't just silly became harder and harder. It was an element that could restrain the game's growth without adding anything substantial in return, so it was dropped. Along with them went much of what set name level apart from other levels.

    In the end, even Arneson threw up his hands, declaring the conflicts above ground to be so neglected by his ever-adventuring players that he decided it was lost to forfeit, as Peterson reports:

    The Gazette pointedly writes about these dungeon adventures as a distraction from the main thrust of the Blackmoor series of games, which was the conflict between the Heroes and the “Baddies,” which is to say the forces of the Egg of the Coot. As the Gazette reports under the heading “Castle Burned While Heroes Away”: "Although the expedition supposedly bagged the evil wizard of the dungeon and bagged all the gold our bravados could carry, the castle, with all its loot, personal effects, family and defenses were wiped out and for several hours the town lay naked to attack until the wanderers returned from their jaunt." Even the local village priest is berated for going on “trips to the dungeon to look for artifacts.” In the face of a large scale invasion of the forces of evil, one of the preeminent heroes of Blackmoor, William of the Heath (played by William Heaton and affectionately known as “Blue Bill” on account of his magical and willful blue armor) is only dissuaded from a dungeon expedition in search of a sword by the rumor that the Baddies might attack through that same underground. As a result of all this irresponsibility on the part of the heroes, Arneson announced in July that the Blackmoor campaign world was “drawing to a close... with an overwhelming victory for the bad guys seeming to be inevitable.”

    Which just goes to show that despite what the creators might have intended, the players forged their own destinies...and those destinies were more often below ground, killing more powerful monsters and stockpiling even more treasure.

    Mike "Talien" Tresca is a freelance game columnist, author, communicator, and a participant in the Amazon Services LLC Associates Program, an affiliate advertising program designed to provide a means for sites to earn advertising fees by advertising and linking to http://amazon.com. You can follow him at Patreon.
    Comments 48 Comments
    1. Echohawk's Avatar
      Echohawk -
      Great article, but Carroll and Winter are three years out with this observation:
      The literal term "name level" appears on page 8 of the Dungeons & Dragons Player's Companion (1984)—its first use in a printed rulebook that we've so far tracked down.
      The 1981 Cook/Marsh Expert Set includes the following text on page X3:
      When player characters reach 9th level of experience, they have achieved name level, such as Wizard for magic-users. At name level certain classes may build a fortified base, to protect themselves and their followers. Such a base is called a castle when built by humans other than thieves, a hideout when built by thieves, and a stronghold when built by demi-human classes.
      The Expert Set also uses that term in several other places, and even defines it as "name level — The 9th level of experience" in the glossary.
    1. BackInAction's Avatar
      BackInAction -
      IIRC, wasn't it such that some of the 'name level' could only be assigned to 1 and only 1 person in the world! Basically you had to kill off, or wait for death, before you could level up.

      In today's DND, I just assume name levels really don't start until 20 rather than 9 like they use to. That said, how many players (and DMs) play with characters that are level 15+? I noticed that past few adventures from Wizards are stopping at 11? 12?
    1. jasper's Avatar
      jasper -
      the original end goal.
      Gary was evilllllll.
      He wanted us hooked up with brain taps. As we were playing daily fees for playing, he was going using our cash on beach bunnies and beer.
    1. Banesfinger -
      A small plug:
      The 'Adventurer, Conqueror, King System' (Autarch) gives extensive rules on purchasing strongholds/armies and advancing into this "named" phase of the game.
    1. AriochQ's Avatar
      AriochQ -
      Quote Originally Posted by BackInAction View Post
      IIRC, wasn't it such that some of the 'name level' could only be assigned to 1 and only 1 person in the world! Basically you had to kill off, or wait for death, before you could level up.

      In today's DND, I just assume name levels really don't start until 20 rather than 9 like they use to. That said, how many players (and DMs) play with characters that are level 15+? I noticed that past few adventures from Wizards are stopping at 11? 12?
      I recall that being the case for Monks and Druids, but not for the other classes. Been many years since I have cracked an AD&D book, so that may not be entirely correct.
    1. Blue's Avatar
      Blue -
      Quote Originally Posted by BackInAction View Post
      IIRC, wasn't it such that some of the 'name level' could only be assigned to 1 and only 1 person in the world! Basically you had to kill off, or wait for death, before you could level up.

      In today's DND, I just assume name levels really don't start until 20 rather than 9 like they use to. That said, how many players (and DMs) play with characters that are level 15+? I noticed that past few adventures from Wizards are stopping at 11? 12?
      I don't remember seeing any reference of that in general. Now, when the Monk class was introduced you did need to defeat (though that didn't mean kill) to advance the highest of levels. If you wanted to become a Grandmaster of Flowers you needed to defeat the previous one. But it wasn't for every class.
    1. Mercule's Avatar
      Mercule -
      Excellent article.

      Personally, I think the roots in minis still significantly impacts D&D. The step-stones of levels make a lot of sense when you're talking about how a "fighting-man" is as a leader and solo "hero" on the field. A first-level fighter is about as effective as a stand of grunts, on his own -- having about the same ability to survive and dish out damage. A 2nd level fighter is about twice as effective, in terms of survival. Heck, the hit point abstraction as luck, fatigue, shell shock, etc. even makes sense on a battlefield where the fighter will eventually run out of space to dodge.

      The lower level (soft) limits in 1E AD&D also make sense. It's more like some of the advanced tactical board games of today, where you can promote pieces; those tend to only have a handful of levels, at most. The "empty levels" are anything but, as hit points are the main currency necessary to be effective, with treasure to build fortifications and hire troops being even more important. Even Vancian magic slots are an intuitive and reasonable balance mechanism that don't strain suspension of disbelief for wizards in a single battle. Once you hit name level, the later spells are largely theoretic and serve as plot device.

      Later editions of D&D suffer from hit point bloat, hard to balance high level spells, and toys every level as a result of being based on those early assumptions.
    1. BackInAction's Avatar
      BackInAction -
      Quote Originally Posted by AriochQ View Post
      I recall that being the case for Monks and Druids, but not for the other classes. Been many years since I have cracked an AD&D book, so that may not be entirely correct.
      That's what I thought, it wasn't for all classes, but some of them did have a Highlander approach to leveling.
    1. Jon Salway's Avatar
      Jon Salway -
      Way back when, we loved poring over those castle building tables. After a while original D&D did become a 'managerial' game. Lords would be managing their domains and I remember accounting for every gp my character acquired and indeed having to go on adventures to find the money to pay for each and every man-at-arms in my army. Way before games like minecraft we were out there getting the resources to build every door in my castle!
    1. AverageCitizen's Avatar
      AverageCitizen -
      I'd still love a game with an RPG seamlessly integrated into a tabletop wargame. I'm glad they didn't go with those new mass combat rules. Those were "how to use war as a set-piece for an adventure" not "how to do wargaming in D&D". I'm not sure they'll ever actually do it, but at least it's still on the table.
    1. Jon Salway's Avatar
      Jon Salway -
      A long time ago we tried using Chainmail and later the Swords and Spells supplement to try and recreate the battles our high level pcs set in motion. We had mixed success. A lot of our figures were mounted for WRG Ancients and Chainmail really used one piece mounting. We muddled through, as you do at fourteen on your bedroom floor!
    1. neobolts's Avatar
      neobolts -
      A great 5e parallel is Faction and Faction Ranks.
    1. Jacob Lewis's Avatar
      Jacob Lewis -
      Great article, but now it begs the question: what do you suppose is the "end game" philosophy now? Is there one? Or does it vary with each campaign? One thing I feel D&D has suffered is a lack of definition, which is also one of its strengths. Double-edged broadsword anybody?
    1. Flexor the Mighty! -
      Quote Originally Posted by AverageCitizen View Post
      I'd still love a game with an RPG seamlessly integrated into a tabletop wargame. I'm glad they didn't go with those new mass combat rules. Those were "how to use war as a set-piece for an adventure" not "how to do wargaming in D&D". I'm not sure they'll ever actually do it, but at least it's still on the table.
      I would love that. But I'm sure they would make it very abstract and not much of a real wargame. Lets have Battlesystem 5e.
    1. Gorath99's Avatar
      Gorath99 -
      I don't have my books near hand, but I distinctly remember the revised AD&D 2E books mentioning that fighters became lords at some level. (9, I think.) Also, the previously mentioned Highlander advancement rules for druids. So I think the named levels stuck around in some form or another all the way up to 3E.
    1. Gorath99's Avatar
      Gorath99 -
      Quote Originally Posted by Jon Salway View Post
      Way back when, we loved poring over those castle building tables. After a while original D&D did become a 'managerial' game. Lords would be managing their domains and I remember accounting for every gp my character acquired and indeed having to go on adventures to find the money to pay for each and every man-at-arms in my army. Way before games like minecraft we were out there getting the resources to build every door in my castle!
      Same here, but in 3E using the Stonghold Builder's Guidebook. Loads of fun, especially with spellcasters to cast Wall of Stone, summon elementals to help in construction, etc.
    1. Aaron L's Avatar
      Aaron L -
      We almost always ended up as Lords and Ladies and such in our 1E games. Everyone would usually end up with a title and be Barons, Dukes, and eventually Kings of our own domains (which was the progression of my highest level 1E character, the Ranger Malachi.) We'd find a suitable site, build a castle (or claim an old one) and take control of the area around it.
    1. Higgs's Avatar
      Higgs -
      Quote Originally Posted by BackInAction View Post
      IIRC, wasn't it such that some of the 'name level' could only be assigned to 1 and only 1 person in the world! Basically you had to kill off, or wait for death, before you could level up.

      In today's DND, I just assume name levels really don't start until 20 rather than 9 like they use to. That said, how many players (and DMs) play with characters that are level 15+? I noticed that past few adventures from Wizards are stopping at 11? 12?
      If memory serves, that was only the case with druids. There were only a certain number of druids in each circle, and you had to challenge and defeat one of the existing members after a certain level to continue upwards.
    1. Lord Rasputin's Avatar
      Lord Rasputin -
      “D&D grew immediately out of Chainmail when Dave Arneson used it to run adventures in the dungeons of Blackmoor”

      This statement is often bandied about, but there is ample evidence to challenge it. Bob Meyer (“Robert the Bald,” which makes no sense since Bob still has a full head of hair) just told a group of us who gathered to play Blackmoor yesterday that Arneson only used a commercial combat system (which he didn’t name) once, then ditched it after a “troll under the bridge” episode wherein Bob’s hero got his ass handed to him by a troll immediately, which Bob didn’t find any fun.
    1. Ralif Redhammer's Avatar
      Ralif Redhammer -
      Back in the day, we tried out the whole build a castle and rule endgame. Eventually, the castle was forsaken as everyone got bored of it. Then it was back to questing across the Realms, slaying dragons, and dungeoncrawling.
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