The Alexandrian

A fellow over on Reddit asked for feedback on a campaign in which an ancient curse prevented anyone from gaining XP and advancing past 1st level — a “world without heroes”. My random thoughts:

First, experience points are an abstract mechanic that represents the ability for people to learn and grow as individuals. If the world is literally “no XP is ever gained by anyone, ever” then, in terms of the game world, that means a world of horrible, almost automaton-like stasis.

Of course, if people can never learn anything more than the knowledge they’re born with, the human race is basically reduced back to base animals. So let’s make an exception for kids: If you’re a kid, you can still learn and be educated. But once you hit 16 or 18 (or whatever arbitrary age you want to set), the curse takes effect and the light in your eyes is snuffed out.

This opens the door a bit for child prodigies: The exceptional few who can achieve more than 1st level before they turn 18 and the curse hits them. Most of ’em still won’t get far, but you might get the occasional 3rd level character running around just to ease things up in your world-building a bit. (This could also give you a mechanism for your PCs: They’re actually just exceptional 16 year olds. But the clock is ticking for them: At 18, the light goes out. If they’re going to find a way to reverse the Curse, they’re going to have to do it before they join the grey mass of inertia-driven grown-ups around them.


The typical PC races are going to have a real tough time of it if the world is filled with CR 2-20 encounters and they’re all stuck at CR 1. Although the other races are also limited by the Curse, even something as simple as an ogre has a huge advantage in terms of natural selection in this world.

The obvious solution is that the PC races need to either transform themselves into something more powerful or they need to make powerful allies. A few possibilities off the top of my head:

(1) Most of the successful city-states have made pacts with demons. Basically, an entire city will auction off its souls to a demonic patron and that patron will, in exchange, protect them. A few “soul-free” might cling to the edges of civilization, but the lands of the civilized races have become dark and perverted places — a patchwork of demonic alliances waging fruitless and endless proxy wars.

(2) Vampires vs. Werewolves. Cliche? Sure. But undead and lycanthropic plagues are one of the few ways for humans to empower themselves in this milieu. Expect to see cities where vampires rule openly as an elite caste and freedom fighters attempting to overthrow the vampires willingly infect themselves with lycanthropy in order to have the strength to rebel.

(3) Or, vice versa, the nobles are all lycanthropes who, once per month, invoke their ancient rights of sanguis nocte and hunt through the city or countryside to feast upon their subjects.

(4) Or perhaps it’s a world in which human cities are built around plateaus of step-pyramids in which almost constant human sacrifices are carried out as part of the ritual magic required to keep the vast undead armies protecting the city under control.

(5) Dwarves survive because they have hidden themselves away behind vast layers of stone. Their cities are laced with countless traps — an endless layering of defenses which only fuels the well-earned dwarven paranoia. (Because they know, deep in their hearts, that some day a darkness will creep into their cities and they will be powerless to stop it. And the deeper they delve away from the terrors of the sunlit world, the closer to that darkness they come.) The rigidity of their caste structures coupled with the effects of the Curse over long centuries have reduced the majority of the dwarven population to an autonomous hivemind. (Ever read Snow Crash by Neal Stephenson? Think about he describes the form human civilization took before we gained individual consciousness.)

(6) Things are not pretty for the elves. The woods they once ruled are filled with powerful dangers  they are no long capable of mastering and the ancient demesnes that once swore fealty to them are now more powerful than they. They are a broken and scattered people with no homeland to call their own.  It is said, however, that in the earliest days of the Curse some of the elves crafted refuges upon the Ethereal Plane before their craft was utterly lost to them. Its hard to say what may have happened to those trapped within,  having no way to return to the Material Plane when the arts of magic required for the passage were lost to them.

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19 Responses to “Thought of the Day: A World Without Heroes”

  1. louis says:

    That part about having the lights in you eyes snuffed out when you become an adult sadly reminds me of real life.

    This article definitely has some interesting ideas though. I know at least one player who would love the children with a limited time to lift the curse, idea.

  2. Chawunky says:

    This has interesting implications, for sure. The potential for Lovecraftian shenanigans definitely goes up if there are no Conans or Kulls to rein them in–though there aren’t any Kulan Gaths to invite them down to begin with either. Like your demon states, I expect several coastal communities would enter into lucrative breeding programs with the regional Dagon/Hydra representatives.

  3. Dasrak says:

    While it’s true that your level 1 humans are going to have a harder time surviving in a world of more powerful monsters, it’s by no means impossible (particularly if the really high CR monsters are sufficiently rare that their impact is more like a natural disaster – something that no one really has any power to prevent but probably will only pop up every century or so). Let’s look at your example of the ogre, which ostensibly has a selection advantage.

    How many warriors do you need to take down an ogre with minimal casualties? If you want a decisive win, you’ll need 7-8 warriors. With that level of advantage, you’re only losing 1-2 men (presuming +1 strength modifier, +0 dex modifier, weapon focus, a longsword, large shield, and chainmail), and that’s if we just presume they’ll naively charge in and surround the larger foe. If they use ranged weapons to soften him up at a distance and charge him with reach weapons once he gets close enough, they’ve got a fairly good chance of killing him without ever giving him the opportunity to attack.

    The bigger problem that these big mean monsters have is that they are grossly outnumbered by your run-of-the-mill humanoids. An agrarian society can support absolutely massive populations. Given a medieval technology level, we’re talking population densities around 100 times that of hunter-gatherers (though most cannot leave their crops, so not all of them can be fielded as warriors; a 10:1 ratio is more practical), and ogres being larger and harder to feed will have even lower population densities. Forget 8 to 1, the ogres are probably outnumbered 30 to 1. Outnumbered by such a vast margin, the ogre army is unlikely to survive even a single volley from longbows.

    Matters only get to be a problem for the humans when monsters get area-of-effect abilities, some defensive ability that makes them effectively immune to ordinary weapons, or are particularly intelligent. Even if they’re only getting hit on natural 20’s, most big dumb monsters will eventually be overcome by human wave tactics. It’s the ones capable of mass destruction, total invulnerability, or careful planning that are going to be truly dangerous, and those are incredibly rare.

  4. Confanity says:

    In part, doesn’t it all depend on what the implications of “no XP” are? As Justin pointed out, if it literally means that nobody can learn anything new past a certain point, then it could have catastrophic consequences on human society even without monsters. Can people form new memories? Can they learn the lay of the land in a new area, or are they forced to use maps whenever they venture out of their childhood homes? Are people who don’t reproduce as teenagers doomed to never figuring out how to raise a child? Could a group of 10 or 30 warriors even figure out how to cope with an ogre, or would they mill about in a panic every time and get picked off one by one?

    It’s very different — and cause for a lot more optimism — if you just say that there’s a level cap of 1 (E1 gaming, but without feat progression?). In that case, instead of needing there to be a curse at all, you can simply say that the range of skill from level-0 commoner to level-1 adventurer is the entire range of human skill. Miyamoto Musashi had an attack bonus of 1+Str, with a couple good feats thrown into the mix. Magic Missile is the pinnacle of mortal offensive magic. Almost all magic items require complex mass rituals or divine intervention to create, instead of a single caster with some feats, or are relics of a lost age.

    In that case, human numbers and ingenuity could take care of most common monsters, a little past the point where you start needing special materials or magic to take them down. That said, high-CR creatures like mature dragons, beholders, sentient undead and the like could probably plow through whole cities without much difficulty; I find Justin’s musings about unwholesome defenses to be a natural extension of the “human ingenuity” angle.

    If you wanted something a bit more complex and optimistic, perhaps have contrast between states where people have relatively easy lives and flourishing arts but are beholden to dark powers, and states where people live on the edge but owe their lives to nothing more sinister than battle-tested technology.

  5. Justin Alexander says:

    You can definitely make things easier for the PC races if you severely limit the population of the monsters and push ’em back into the corners of the world.

    But it actually doesn’t take much to start causing real problems. Historically speaking, small populations of species with advantageous traits tend to rapidly displace other populations even if they’re much larger than they are. This extends even to intelligent species (as, for example, when Neanderthals were displaced).

    If the Curse was laid down within the last hundred years, humans might not be having an problems. But if it’s, say, a thousand years old they’re going to have problems: For PC races to survive and thrive in traditional D&D milieus, the only thing that makes sense is that they’re quicker learners, quicker breeders, or both. Take away the quicker learner advantage (which lets humans churn out 14th level wizards to protect them) and natural selection is not going to be kind unless they can find a new coping mechanism.

    It’s easy to say, “Well, if the ogres are outnumbered 30 to 1 they won’t have any problems.” But since ogres probably breed at about the same rate as humans and they’re no longer being thinned out by high-level human adventurers, they’re not going to stay at 30 to 1 for long.

  6. James says:

    @Justin: Assuming the sort of naturalistic setting you’re talking about, no large carnivore could possibly achieve more than the tiniest fraction of the size of an agricultural human population. It’s like saying that if people stopped shooting lions, they’d outbreed us and take over the earth. Unless you’re suggesting ogres take up farming.

  7. Jono793 says:

    Its an intereting premise, but I don’t think removing the XP mechanic would improve the game. Behind the curtain D&D relies on the twin mechanics of XP and wealth to motivate players. I’m not saying those are the only thing that motivate players, but it begs the question as to why PCs would risk their lives in a dangerous dungeon when it brings no greater reward in experience and character development than staying at home and rearing cattle?

    I think there’s something to be said for building keeping the majority of the general population at a consistently low level, a la D&D Calibrating your Expectations. In this scenario all the issues surrounding CR1 humanoid populations surviving in a world in which CR 15 dragons exist still matter. I also have nothing against the concept of level caps for PCs, along the lines of “EX”. But I don’t think removing character progression altogether brings any advantage to the system.

  8. Leland J. Tankersley says:

    Ranged attacks are a great equalizer.

    Forget ogres; consider the purple worm. It’s CR 12, AC 19, 200 hit points or thereabouts. Take twenty longbowmen (Warrior 1) with 12 Dex, they have a +2 attack bonus and do 1d8 damage per hit. They can fire from 100′ away with no range penalty, and thus expect to score 4 hits (20%) per round. Out to 200′ they still score 2 hits per round, and from any distance within line-of-sight they expect at least one hit. It should only take a minute or two to take down the worm, especially if they stay spread out a bit and give ground wherever the worm advances. Even if you’re forced to fight at close range, the worm can only swallow one guy per round. Add another ten archers and you should be set.

    You can mob a creature with melee attacks in somewhat similar fashion, but there are two big problems: first, there’s limited space so you can’t get as many attacks in per round as you can with ranged weapons; and second, most opponents’ melee attacks are more numerous and/or powerful than their ranged capabilities, so you’ll suffer more losses.

    Ogres are relatively trivial to defeat with ranged weapons — 6 or 7 bow hits will drop a typical ogre, and they’re easier to hit than a purple worm. They’re likely to kill one opponent per turn once they’re in melee range, but their ranged attack is less dangerous (but still lethal when it connects). They are challenging to a typical low-level party of adventurers because a low-level party only has 3 or 4 attacks per round, and most low-level parties will be burdened with a low-level magic user of some kind with a usually-negligible ranged attack. And also because they are often encountered in a dungeon-type setting where you can’t easily stay at a distance and pepper them with arrows.

    Trolls are just somewhat tougher ogres once you realize that, once you’ve dropped one, you need to station a guy on top of the body to keep it pacified until someone can rustle up some fire or acid.

    So people are going to huddle together for safety as much as possible, in walled towns and cities where able, and every settlement will have some kind of “minuteman”-style militia equipped with bows. The notion of peasants not being allowed weapons probably won’t fly, unless the nation is large and wealthy enough to support a significant standing army (large enough to put a protective detachment in each significant settlement).

  9. Dasrak says:

    In the real world, hunter-gatherers are on average better fed, healthier, and taller than agrarian farmers. Their diet is more varied and they generally have more to eat and spend less time and effort collecting food, letting them be better rested and giving more time for leisurely pursuits. To put it in D&D terms, I’d make the average hunter-gatherer use an elite array to the average agrarian farmer’s standard array.

    However, there’s a problem with hunter-gathering; humans are apex predators and cannot support very large population densities. At a certain point your choice is between expansion to acquire more territory, infanticide to stop population growth, or farming in order to feed more mouths. Farming is incredibly hard work, requiring more effort and ultimately producing starchy crops that offer calories but poor nutrition. However it allows for significantly larger population densities, so even if the individual is less fit the population overall is more fit. Throughout history, the more numerous but less fit agrarian societies have consistantly displaced, assimilated, and destroyed the less numerous but more fit hunter-gatherers.

    Ogres simply take this to an extreme; they are drastically more fit physically than an agrarian human, but require drastically more food. Like humans from real history, they face the choice of adopting farming or being displaced by more numerous farmers. Even if they do adopt agriculture (putting aside their stupidity, violent tendencies and social ineptitude) the result will be high calorie yield at the cost of poor nutrition and long work hours. The average ogre will be smaller, weaker, and less healthy than his ancestors just a few generations ago.

  10. GeraintElberion says:

    The most interesting stage in this campaign may well be when the curse is lifted.

    The ensuing race to power, skills and magic could be fascinating, and the PCs would probably have a natural advantage. Smart NPCs could reshape society, decide which are the dominant deities and become powerful rulers.

    You would also have a generation which regarded the elderly as stupid and weak, because they are!21

  11. EspyLacopa says:

    I find it odd that you’re detailing all the ways that the PC races are horribly outmatched, and that they have to delve into Evil Acts to regain that power.

    But what about the Angels? What are they doing? For every Pit Fiend mucking things up in the material plane, would there not also be a Solar Angel working against it to be a force of good in the world?

    Sure there’s evil. . .but there are also very powerful forces of Good in most D&D campaign worlds.

  12. James McMurray says:

    I like the idea of angelic cities and demonic cities even better. Take the power struggles that rack the outer planes and push them into the prime as every faction tries to ensure its foothold.

    And just because something is an angel doesn’t mean it’s a good thing for the planet. It’s very easy to picture something with an eye for the greater good and the ability to take the veeery long view doing things that the average Joe isn’t happy about:
    – breeding programs because stats matter a lot more in a world where levels don’t come easy. Forced breeding with an animal-headed archon might not be everybody’s cup of tea, but half-celestials with massive raining regimens (woot! level 6!) make pretty good palace guards
    – seemingly insane schemes hat only make sense after they’ve been running for 200 years (but sir, why are we destroying our own villages?)
    – people are cannon fodder and a renewable resource when your war lasts for eternity

  13. Bill says:

    We played a campaign in which most PC-race creatures (and a good many others as well) were afflicted with a form of immortality. They didn’t age, didn’t grow, and, in essence, didn’t gain any XPs. They kept doing what they were doing, living their lives, growing their crops, whatever but real social and technological development had stagnated. If they were killed in some way, they just respawned at the local spawning point and went back about their business.

    The PCs represented creatures miraculously born with the gift of mortality. We could grow and advance… and die. Our job was to fix the immortality problem. It was an interesting idea. The only reason we didn’t keep playing the campaign was competition for other games and growing disappointment with the rules (it was 4e).

  14. Confanity says:

    @Justin — I too want to go back to biology, but take issue with the assertion that “ogres probably breed at about the same rate as humans”. In general, the more massive an animal is, the longer it takes to gestate: mice take less time than dogs, who take less time than humans, who take less time than cows, who take less time than elephants. An ogre is going to be at least twice the mass of a human, I imagine, which since they have the same basic body plan, will require a longer gestation and therefore less frequent births.

    In addition, it’s common knowledge that the human shape (bipedal, large brain) requires that we be born soft and helpless and that someone protects and nurtures us for years before we’re able to fend for ourselves. Again, with ogres needing more growing to do, it would take longer for their mothers to become free to bear more offspring.

    @EspyLacopa: D&D settings will tend to turn in darker directions in general (I’m thinking of Ravenloft and Dark Sun, for starters) out of necessity. One of the basic premises of the game is that there are lots and lots of monsters that need fighting. Another is that governments don’t have the resources available to solve their problems by just sending soldiers, so that adventurers have to take up the slack. As Mr. McMurray suggested, you could have some of each, but if your premise is that an entire civilization lives under angelic protection… then how do you make a meaningful campaign?

    (Mind you, I’m not saying it’s impossible; just that a Cthulhesque world offers so many more opportunities for adventure.)

  15. EspyLacopa says:

    @Confanity: Oh sure, sure. But if the plot is that there -are- no heroes, they can’t rely on something like adventurers, since they no longer exist. All they’d realistically have left is that army.

    The problem I find is that the various D&D settings are designed that while there are powerful (very very powerful!) forces of evil, there are in fact Heroes that rise up to stop them. If you remove those heroes from the equation, but don’t introduce /something/ to stop them, they’ll just roll right over the world and rule supreme until other forces of evil shove them out. And unless the players are that other force of evil, what role would the player’s have? In a situation where there are no “heroes” you need some type of Force of Good (whether it be powerful good-aligned outsiders, or the metallic dragons, or other strong typically good-aligned race) to serve, at the very least, as a patron to empower the players. Otherwise. . .they’re likely to just be more commoners and peasents to be crushed under the forces of evil that suddenly reign supreme.

  16. Confanity says:

    @EspyLacopa: The premise isn’t that there “are no heroes,” though — the premise is that there’s a hard limit to how much power (as reflected in character-class levels) the heroes can gain. Being a hero often requires nothing more than bravery; being a successful hero requires that plus some wits and luck, neither of which is dependent on level.

  17. Yahzi says:

    “Even if they’re only getting hit on natural 20′s, most big dumb monsters will eventually be overcome by human wave tactics”

    Which is why the PCs are always wandering off to small villages to fight monsters; the monsters stay away from the big cities, because the army will kill them; and the armies stay away from the small villages, because they don’t want to sacrifice that many soldiers for such a low-value asset.

    It’s not that the King can’t have the monster killed; it just costs too much in terms of manpower. So he hires footloose thugs to do it, because nobody will miss them if they don’t come back. 😀

  18. Paul says:

    There’s a wide interpretation above as to what this curse does, but to my mind it’s like Confanity’s first comment – presumably everyone’s not turned into mindless automatons, but there’s a level cap of 1.

    It matters as well whether there was always this curse, or whether it was imposed on a “normal” D&D world. There are two aspects to this – what’s the baseline gear level, and what’s the common view on how the powerful gain their power?

    Assuming it was imposed, but a while ago now, and everyone who was over that level’s died out. However their heirs have inherited a reasonable sample of magical weapons and armour.

    From a world view point of view, remember that characters don’t metagame – they have no idea that levels exist. They do know though that many of the powerful started off from humble beginnings, went out and did great deeds, then returned rich and powerful beyond the normal limits of [insert race here]. However when the next generation try this they get a certain way (up to level 1) – then found they could go no further. Feats their grandparents boasted of were just impossible for them. Presumably the bravest and/or most reckless (and of course the unlucky) died trying, but the rest just decided things were tougher than in their grandparent’s day, pulled in their horns and clung to what they had.

    Your toughest fighter is now the one who rolled 18 for strength, dex and con. Assuming they rise above the herd and don’t stay as normal humans, there’s around 8 or 9 of these in a population the size of medieval Europe. There’s also a number of heirs (or those who’ve otherwise got their hands on the loot of previous generations) who are powerful because of magical artefacts.

    Against these are the monsters who fill the rulebooks, some of whom thrive (up to a point) in a top-predator way in their normal environment, some of whom push against the boundaries of civilisation.

    Some of the latter group – ogres, trolls, hippogriffs and the like I think we’ve decided aren’t a problem – perhaps frontiers are pushed inwards, but eventually civilisation will deal with these by numbers alone. And if they cause enough trouble an army will be raised to deal with them, for a time.

    But others will cause real problem – lich-lead armies for one. Civilisation has very little to stop these, so pacts with angels and demons, or the vampire plan, are the only real solution.

    Looking at it from a gaming perspective, either –
    a) in a D&D world it’s only interesting if the characters somehow find out that there’s a curse that needs to be lifted
    b) alternatively it’s called changing your ruleset to one with much more “realistic” power levels. WFRP instead of D&D anyone?

    So, assuming the campaign is “let’s lift the curse”, where do I sign up? :) If it’s D&D but without XP, I’ll pass I’m afraid.

  19. John says:

    Strictly speaking a purple worm has two attacks per round, and can burrow, allowing it to engage and disengage at will. I think that changes the equation a bit.

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