AD&D’s “sweet spot”

While there is often debate on the virtues of high-level and low-level campaigns, I think it’s more interesting to talk about the “sweet spot” is in terms of levels. That is, what’s the level range for the best gaming experience? Obviously it’s a subjective topic, but I think the rules can point us to a likely set of numbers.

Looking at magic-users, I think the definition of the sweet spot is driven by the spells that are available at different levels. When you think about the “classic” spells that are the most iconic, you think of spells like lightning bolt, fireball, hold person, etc. Those 3rd level spells are where the magic-user class really comes into its own, and they start to become available to 5th level magic-users. Thus, I put the bottom of the sweet spot for magic-users at 5th.

Looking at the top of the range, I look at 5th level spells like cone of cold, teleport, and the last of the wall spells. Once you get past those, there are spells that are undeniably more powerful, but simply not as iconic as those we see in the 5th level spell list. And 5th level spells are available to 9th level magic-users.

From a magic-user perspective, I’d thus put the sweet spot at 5th-9th level. Illusionists lag behind ever so slightly, not getting 5th level spells until they hit 10th level, but I think that can be regarded as an outlier.

I think that range works for clerics, too. That’s when we get the more useful clerical spells such as dispel magic, animate dead, create food & water, etc. It also takes us through the last of the cure spells (significantly, I think) and raise dead. I think the spell lists argue for the cleric sweet spot to also be 5th-9th experience level.

In that same 5th-9th experience level zone, druids get their ability to change form, paladins have their warhorse, rangers start to get their spells, and thieves for the first time have a better than even chance to hide in shadows. Monks, ever oddballs when it comes to the other classes, does the thing that’s iconic for them in this same range; they start having to fight to advance in level once they hit 8th level.

In terms of the iconic spells and powers of the various character classes, we see a real comfort zone between the 5th and 9th levels of experience. That’s when they start to get all the cool powers they were expecting, yet before the range where the nature of the game changes. It’s also, undoubtedly not coincidentally, the range in which most classes hit “named level”; 9th level high priests, 9th level lords, 9th level paladins, 9th level wizards, and 9th level thieves. Some of the sub-classes buck the trend slightly (10th level illusionists, for instance) but these are only minor changes.

For me, the “sweet spot” in AD&D is 5th through 9th level. What about you?

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Wargamer and RPG'er since the 1970's, author of Adventures Dark and Deep, Castle of the Mad Archmage, and other things, and proprietor of the Greyhawk Grognard blog.

8 thoughts on “AD&D’s “sweet spot”

  1. Seems damning to the rules that fighters don’t even merit discussion in the post (other than noting that at 9th they become Lords) and thieves are supposed to be happy that they can succeed at one of their most important abilities on better than a coin flip. Neither class gets anywhere near as much out of leveling up as casters do. Levels 5-9 are still sweet spots for them, but that’s only because it’s the last point where their advantages even vaguely make up for the power and versatility of wielding magic.

    I’ve known that was the case since 1979, but it’s depressing to see it spelled out so clearly, if unintentionally.

    1. The thing with fighters is that they have a very linear power progression. Their progression on the combat tables is the smoothest of any class (one step every two levels). I suppose it’d be possible to do an analysis comparing fighting ability against various “classic” monsters like trolls, ogres, etc. But that was a bit more math than I was up to for this one. I might just do a little spreadsheetery in a follow-up post, though.

  2. Are you implying that you’d like to start your PCs at 5th level and cap them at 9th? Are we talking long-time play with the same PCs or just using them for the adventure/module?

    The last game I DM’d, we used the pre-gens in S4. The two games I’m in now, the DM wanted us to play the A series so we got to start at level 5 and the other game we started a home-made adventure at levels 10-13. So for the first two campaigns, the levels were decided because of the modules we were playing through. The last one was decided with the idea that the players didn’t want to start at 1st and work through the lower levels but rather start with more of the classes’ advanced abilities.

    1. I don’t think I’d skip levels 1-4 entirely. To paraphrase Gygax, what happens at levels 1-4 is backstory. But I think next time I will probably accelerate the progression through those levels to get to the sweet spot.

  3. This might sound almost blasphemous, but could some of the 3E feats and some of the powers of other classes be “reverse engineered” to give fighters some extra abilities and some variety in their skill sets?

    Fighters could improve their ability scores the same way as cavaliers, choose to use Power Attacks or Combat Expertise as battle actions, gain additional dexterity bonuses in light armor the same way barbarians do, etc. They could choose from a certain list of abilities every few levels.

    It’d give fighters more tactical options in combat, and different fighters having different skillsets also gives them more variety. They’d have more of a mechanical justification for using lighter armor like scale or chain mail, instead of always needing the heaviest equipment.

    And yeah, I know I’m crazy when I write this so don’t bother pointing it out.

  4. I’ve been thinking for a while now that D&D losing its steam at higher level was never about hit points, or damage, or armor class, or saving throws, but all about spells.
    All the other numerical factors are completely different in every edition, but the same spells becoming available at the same levels has remained very consistent throughout all the decades. In every edition, a vast majority of people say that the most fun is somewhere in the range of 4th to 12th level. Sometimes it goes a level or two higher, sometimes a level or two lower. But it seems really consistent.

    I believe D& shouldn’t really bother with content above 15th level anymore, at least in the primary rulebook. If some people really want to play at those levels, some kind of rules expansion book could work. But having the high levels and the high level spells being introduced to new players as a default part of the game only leads to the rules getting bigger, players having to learn more stuff at once, and setting unrealistic expectations.

  5. Yora,

    Your comments seem like an argument for a set of basic rules and advanced rules. ….See what I did there? 🙂

    But more seriously, yes what you’re saying makes sense to me. I think that is why if you look at the Holmes rules they seem so great. The Advanced rules we got were not in-line with the original concept since Gary changed his mind and decided AD&D should be considered its own game which then has rules for starting at level 1.

    I could see an argument for a 6th Edition which takes that approach of really splitting basic rules from advanced rules. Where to split those levels between basic and advanced would be an interesting conversation and sort of what this post is about.

  6. 5e treats the first three levels as quick introductory levels. DCC compresses that into a zero-level funnel.

    The biggest problem I’ve seen with higher level adventures is the lack of worthy opponents for them. Paizo’s original adventure paths in Dungeon tended to end up in conflicts with demonlords.

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