Infamous Characters, and the history of levels in D&D

Author: DHBoggs / Labels: , ,

Levels are at the heart of D&D, from experience to combat to hit points - not to mention how much the term is used for other things, such as dungeon level and magic level.   Knowing when character levels came to be in the form familiar to us from the 1974 rules would go a long way to really understanding the development of the game.
We know Gary Gygax used the familiar numbered levels in his write-ups of the game from the winter of 1972/73 onward.  What's been unclear is if he invented them or inherited them from Dave Arneson.
We know that Dave invented the concept of levels and experience points, but the question has always been whether Dave’s levels were ever more than “Flunky. Hero, Superhero”, or if he also subdivided into 1-3rd level flunky, 4-7 level hero, etc.
There’s no doubt that Gary gave the names to each level (i.e. thaumaturgiest), but did he also come up with the numbers?
In Arneson’s First Fantasy Campaign there is the section titled  "Blackmoor's More Infamous Characters: Giving a breakdown on the sheets handed out to the players..."  Further Down it says "Krey turned traitor and joined Soukup... during the first year."  This is followed by a list of "Blackmoor Military Manpower" (good guys) and their Hit Dice which includes Krey and thus we know this list is from a very early period of gaming, before Krey turned traitor, but also apparently after Svenson's character had been promoted to superhero - perhaps the first quarter of 1972.
This list is followed by write-ups of "bad guy" infamous characters.  It is not at all clear if these write-ups are also supposed to be from the first year handouts or from later years or a mix of each.
There is a brief "table of contents" introducing the write-ups that is particularly interesting in that it  leaves out four entries: The Blue Rider, Svenny, Mello and the Bishop. These four are all the "good guys" and appear in the text sandwiched between the last and next to last entries mentioned in the brief “table of contents.”
Okay, so what?
We know that the Blue Rider, for example, contains information from adventures that took place in 1973, a time when the D&D playtest rules were being used, and not surprisingly, there’s no weird or UnD&D like terminology in any of these four write-ups.  So that would seem to indicate that all the write-ups date to 1973 or later, unless the four good guy write-ups were additions to an earlier handout.

Now if the four heroes are additions, and the brief table of contents was really the original list of an earlier handout, then it opens the possibility that the earlier handout also dates to the first year (1971/2).  Another clue suggesting the four hero's are added to an earlier "bad guy" handout, is that the afformentioned Captain Krey is not on the list.  If the bad guy handout was made before his character turned traitor, it's sure he wouldn't be on it.  In any case, the bad guy write-ups are worth investigating to see if they indicate pre Gygax information. 
So, looking deeper we find these clues:
“level fourteen Lord”
Egg of Coot:
“Level II intelligence”
Alchemical spell magic (non-Vancian)
Ran of Ah Foo
Alchemical spell magic (non-Vancian)
Ran is dual class
            Class: Warrior (not fighter) “skill” Level 10
            Class: Magic (not Magic-user) 10th Level
Dragon types being bred by Ran include Red and Gold dragons at “Max Level”.  D&D dragons are not graded by level.
Rans assistant is “Level 7 Warrior and Magic”
Description includes many wargaming notes, including a modifier for “morale condition” perhaps ala Don’t Give up the Ship.  There is no such thing as “morale condition” in D&D.
Gin of Salik
Alchemical spell magic (non-Vancian)
Marfeltd the Barbarian, Duke of the Peaks, Final Notes
Nothing pertaining to D&D.  Many more Wargaming references.
These “bad guy” write-ups listed in the “table of contents” show very clearly they were prepared before Gygaxian D&D introduced the concepts of Vancian Magic, named levels, and terms like “fighting-men” and "Magic-user", at a time when monsters were still graded by “level” rather than “Hit Dice”, at a time when Level II intelligence meant something and wargaming was very much a factor in the minds of the players.  They must therefore date to 1972 at the latest, and are pre-D&D, just like the Blackmoor Military Manpower listing that precedes it on the page.  Indeed, it may very well have been part of the same 1972 handout.  Note that no mention is made of Clerics either, further suggesting an early date, possibly as early as fall 1971.
We see then that Dave developed two “skill” classes, that of Warrior and Magic and divided each into at least 14 levels.  We know that heroes and superheroes were still meaningful terms, and we see “Lord” used here also.  So it follows that Dave had divided Flunky, Hero, Superhero, Lord into the familiar levels 1-3, 4-7, 8-10, 11-14 or something like that, very early on, and in any case, long before he introduced Gary Gygax to the game.   


Anonymous said...

That's a nice bit of detective work there Daniel. It gives some fascinating clues to the beginnings of our hobby.

DHBoggs said...

Thanks Dave! Glad you found it interesting.

AndreasDavour said...

Extremely interesting. Have you found any hints on why 1-3 is the Flunky levels? Level 1-3 seems to always be the starting area for new characters. Is that range significant in what hints you have found about Dave's campaign?

DHBoggs said...

Attack Dice and CHAINMAIL. It takes 4 simultaneous hits to kill a Hero in CHAINMAIL, 8 for Superheroes. Dave simply reversed that to Hero's having 4 attack "Hit" dice. He gave out 1 Hit Die per level, so Flunky's were levels 1-3. Whether Dave was grafting his level system on the CHAINMAIL Hero, Superhero map or whether Hero's as a level came first is hard to say.

AndreasDavour said...

Ah! I see. Thanks Dan.

Joshua Fontany said...

Cool stuff. Thanks!

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