Back in ye olden days, when clerics were clerics, wizards were magic-users, and fighters were fighting-men, there were plenty of weird things in the game. However, where you can normally brush aside such bizarre ideas as mere twisted memories of fever dreams of days gone by, these are things that I, unfortunately, have physical evidence for.
Today we’re going to talk about druids and how you had to literally kill (or at least defeat) a druid of a level higher than you in order to advance in level past 11th level.
Yes, it was weird. Very weird.
Just like last time, I’m drawing heavily on my own memories of 2e but I do have quite the collection of old sourcebooks. So I’ll be double-checking my facts, but I might remember some things wrong. You never know!
Alright, let’s get right into it shall we? In Advanced Dungeons & Dragons, 2nd Edition, many systems had weird details. But none were weirder than the druid, so that’s what we’ll be covering today.
In 2e, the druid was a subclass of the cleric, alongside “priests of a specific mythoi” (literally the same as 5e’s Domains). The druid had many restrictions, limiting what armors they could wear, what weapons they could use, and what spells they could cast from the cleric spell list. They also had to be True Neutral, but that isn’t as weird in a game where all paladins were Lawful Good, and where being a bard automatically made you too crazy to follow laws.
One of the weirder restrictions of the druid revolved around the druid leveling path. Like other PCs, druids gained experience and progressed in level when they reached certain thresholds. However, unlike other PCs, the druid was limited in how high a level they could attain.
Only nine druids of 12th level could inhabit a given “geological area” (which to me always seemed to be implied to be a continent-sized location). If you were an 11th level druid who had attained enough experience, you couldn’t progress to the next level without defeating a 12th level druid in a duel (or having a 12th level druid die in unrelated circumstances).
Only three “archdruids” of 13th level could inhabit a given area. Simultaneously, each area only had one “Great Druid” of 14th level. And, lastly, there can be only one 15th level druid in the entire world. This druid is known as the “Grand Druid” and actually is elected to the position from among the Great Druids of each area.
But it didn’t end there. The position of Grand Druid is apparently “demanding, thankless, and generally unexciting for anyone but a politician,” which is why adventurers quickly leave it. But how can you level past the top of the hierarchy? Simple, you become a different class (technically): the Hierophant Druid.
The Hierophant Druid no longer has to worry about offing rivals to advance in level, but they also lose a lot of power from when they occupied the position of Grand Druid. Needless to say, this is very weird.
A Problem of Structure
So this system is a bit strange. To function, it essentially assumes that every world has a secret, global-scale druid conspiracy that governs all members of the class regardless of locale, agenda, or disposition. But it also ties the game mechanic of “levels” to this organization, which feels very odd.
The entire concept of “levels” is not realistic, obviously. You don’t suddenly become much better at something after doing it for a set time, you improve slowly over a long period of practice. But for the game to function, we suspend that disbelief and think of our characters in terms of level.
But what is a level? If we assume it’s a non-canon representation of a character’s skill and experience in their craft, then why can an outside organization arbitrarily restrict it? If a fighter wants to level up, they go fight things and train. Then they level. But if a druid wants to level up, they can’t no matter how much experience they get?
Seems bizarre to me. This is made even worse by the concept of Hierophant Druids, who seemingly regain the ability to just practice and experience things to level up, when they haven’t been able to do that for any one of their last four experience levels. Mechanically speaking, the system just doesn’t make sense.
But game design isn’t the only problem area. You also have to ask the question of narrative. To me, “druid” and “worldwide secret all-controlling organization” don’t go together naturally. Sure, druids can have a secret society thing going on, but I just can’t conceive of it being on such an immense scale that every single druid in the world is part of it.
I ended up just ignoring this whole mechanic, but even still; why have it in the game? If you assume people will play with it, doesn’t that just add a bunch of problems? Imagine having a party with two druids, in a campaign that’s planned to go all the way to 20th level. Or just imagine having to derail the campaign every level after 11th just so the party druid can go fight someone. It just sounds like headache after headache.
Even so, some headaches have their uses.
A large part of a good story is in limitation. A tale in which the heroes can achieve all their goals without obstacle is a boring, short excuse for a story. So limitations like the druid’s can serve a purpose, but only if it’s a narrative-first affair.
In today’s game, a system whereby one class languishes under restrictive level-up rules is not going to fit in. But, when worked into the story of the individual game, it could be a fun source of adventure.
To me, this system seems to work best with the modern warlock, simply because it’s the only class whose power is actually dependent on some sort of structured will; namely that of the warlock’s Patron. This figure is what grants the warlock their power, so if a particularly bloodthirsty Fiend only wanted the strongest to serve her, she could easily limit her warlocks to force there to be only one of a high level. Or perhaps you have an Archfey who isn’t all that powerful, and thus can’t afford to have more than one servant with 5th level spell slots.
You could also potentially use the system with clerics, as they also get their powers from an outside source. Hell, you could even do it with druids if you did it right; maybe the world just can’t support empowering too many high-level druids at once.
In the end, though, this has to somehow advance the narrative. If a warlock’s Patron requires her servants to fight for the right to more power, then the current warlock above our PC has to somehow be available to fight as a normal part of the game. It could also serve as an adventure hook; perhaps the god the party cleric worships requires each cleric of a certain level to cleanse a source of evil from the world before being granted more power.
Mechanically though, it’s hard to enforce. What are you going to do, let everyone else be a level higher than one person just to advance your story? Seems selfish to me, and also like it would absolutely suck for the individual player. But the other option, working it into the flow naturally so that the party completes the limiting task right at the same time that they’re all ready to level up, also seems lacking. If you do that, then what was the real limitation?
So, ultimately, I don’t think this is a good system. It was a weird idiosyncrasy of the old system, and worth knowing about for its humor alone. But, beyond that, it is a wonderful inspiration. That’s why I have all these old books in the first place!
Nostalgic historical revisionism.
Anyway, join me next time for Dr. System-Shock, or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Save-or-Die.