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D&D Alumni
Bart Carroll & Steve Winter

"So tell me… where do you see yourself in 5 levels?"

This month, Dungeon Magazine features the first paragon tier adventure in Scales of War. This led to some thoughts of our own on what it means to reach this next tier. And so, in this episode of D&D Alumni, we look back at one of the past flavorful benefits of rising in level: a commensurate advancement in level name as well … which, at a certain point, had a similar impact on a character's adventures and career plans as reaching a new tier.

In the earliest editions of D&D and AD&D, every class had a different name associated with it at each level. Your character wasn't a 3rd-level fighter, he was a swordsman; he wasn't a 5th-level magic-user, he was a thaumaturgist. If that doesn't mean anything to you, then you started playing with 2nd Edition AD&D or later.

These names didn't have any specific impact on the game, but they provided a splash of color to what was otherwise a fairly mundane piece of game machinery. They also introduced the concept of "name level."

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. (If you know of an earlier appearance, let us know! Sadly, even we don't have a complete set of D&D rulebooks from the '70s and '80s.)

Shown below are the level names from OD&D (the original version of D&D as published in 1974), the D&DExpert rulebook from 1981, and the AD&DPlayer's Handbook from 1978. These lists have significant differences, mostly because of the changing number of classes. The OD&D list, for example, covers only fighters, magic-users, and clerics, as those were the only classes available in the original game. The 4th class, thief, didn't appear until the Greyhawk supplement. In OD&D, no further advancement was possible beyond name level -- the experience charts stopped at these points (until expanded charts came out in Greyhawk, that is). On later lists, the progression usually continued past name level by adding the level itself to the name. For example, a 9th-level fighter in AD&D was a Lord; at 10th level, he became simply a Lord (10th level).

Original D&D

Level Fighter Magic-User Cleric
1 Veteran Medium Acolyte
2 Warrior Seer Adept
3 Swordsman Conjurer Village Priest
4 Hero Theurgist Vicar
5 Swashbuckler Thaumaturgist Curate
6 Myrmidon Magician Bishop
7 Champion Enchanter Lama
8 Superhero Warlock PATRIARCH
9 LORD Sorcerer
10 Necromancer

D&D Expert Rules

Level Cleric Fighter Magic-User Thief
1 Acolyte Veteran Medium Apprentice
2 Adept Warrior Seer Footpad
3 Priest Swordmaster Conjuror Robber
4 Vicar Hero Magician Burglar
5 Curate Swashbuckler Enchanter Cutpurse
6 Elder Myrmidon Warlock Sharper
7 Bishop Champion Sorceror Pilferer
8 Lama Superhero Necromancer Thief

Level Dwarf Elf Halfling
1 Dwarven Veteran Medium/Veteran Halfling Veteran
2 Dwarven Warrior Seer/Warrior Halfling Warrior
3 Dwarven Swordmaster Conjuror/Swordmaster Halfling Swordmaster
4 Dwarven Hero Magician/Hero Halfling Hero
5 Dwarven Swashbuckler Enchanter/Swashbuckler Halfling Swashbuckler
6 Dwarven Myrmidon Warlock/Myrmidon Halfling Myrmidon
7 Dwarven Champion Sorceror/Champion Halfling Champion
8 Dwarven Superhero Necromancer/Super-Hero SHERIFF
9 DWARVEN LORD WIZARD/LORD (no further levels)


Level Cleric Druid Paladin Fighter Ranger
1 Acolyte Aspirant Gallant Veteran Runner
2 Adept Ovate Keeper Warrior Strider
3 Priest Initiate of the 1st Circle Protector Swordsman Scout
4 Curate Initiate of the 2nd Circle Defender Hero Courser
5 Curate Initiate of the 3rd Circle Warder Swashbuckler Tracker
6 Canon Initiate of the 4th Circle Guardian Myrmidon Guide
7 Lama Initiate of the 5th Circle Chevalier Champion Pathfinder
8 PATRIARCH Initiate of the 6th Circle Justiciar Superhero Ranger
9 High Priest Initiate of the 7th Circle PALADIN LORD Ranger Knight
10 Initiate of the 8th Circle RANGER LORD
11 Initiate of the 9th Circle
13 Archdruid
14 the Great Druid

Level Magic-User Illusionist Thief Assassin Monk
1 Prestidigitator Prestidigitator Rogue (Apprentice) Bravo (Apprentice) Novice
2 Evoker Minor Trickster Footpad Rutterkin Initiate
3 Conjurer Trickster Cutpurse Waghalter Brother
4 Theurgist Master Trickster Robber Murderer Disciple
5 Thaumaturgist Cabalist Burglar Thug Immaculate
6 Magician Visionist Filcher Killer Master
7 Enchanter Phantasmist Sharper Cutthroat Superior Master
8 Warlock Apparitionist Magsman Executioner MASTER OF DRAGONS
9 Sorcerer Spellbinder THIEF Assassin
10 Necromancer ILLUSIONIST Expert Assassin
11 WIZARD Senior Assassin
12 Chief Assassin
13 Prime Assassin

Click for enlarged view

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.

AD&D upped the ante from simple stronghold-building to incorporating all sorts of turning points appropriate to the class:

  • Clerics could build temples and attract worshippers and low-level priests.
  • Fighters could build strongholds and attract low-level soldiers.
  • Rangers didn't build strongholds but they could attract 2-24 followers.
  • Paladins didn't build strongholds or attract followers, but they could begin casting cleric spells.
  • Wizards and illusionists could build towers and begin enchanting magic items.
  • Thieves and assassins could build secret lairs and start their own thieves' and assassins' guilds. Doing so triggered a war with whatever guild already operated in the area, a conflict that could be settled only by wiping out the other guild's leadership. What's more, the assassin could reach that point only by assassinating the head of his or her own guild, who undoubtedly was well aware of the danger posed by the up-and-coming executioner and would take steps to protect himself (probably by eliminating the threat outright). Thus, high-level assassins spent much of their time looking over their shoulders.
  • Druids and monks were special cases. Druids didn't build strongholds in the normal sense, but they could take up residence in a particularly serene or secure woodland glen. They could not, however, actually advance to 12th level until they defeated one of the nine (there were always nine) 12th-level druids already occupying the inner circle. Losing this duel meant losing all the experience points gained as an 11th-level druid and starting over on the path to reaching 12th level. Every advance beyond level 11 meant fighting and defeating a fellow druid in either magical or physical combat -- and the occasional 11th-level challenger of one's own to deal with! Monks followed more or less the same routine. On becoming Master of Dragons, they had to face the current Master in a one-on-one match. If the challenger won, he took control of the master's monastery and attracted new monks as followers.

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. Unfortunately, early versions of D&D weren't very well geared for high-level play. Many of the races had limits that flat-out prevented them from advancing beyond low double-digit levels (those were ignored, too). What's worse, the game's underlying math simply broke down or, at best, became unwieldy as characters rose above level 15. A lot of effort was poured into supporting that type of play -- epic-level handbooks and such -- with varying degrees of success. As always, a good DM made all the difference.

Changing the campaign's emphasis toward managing a temple, fiefdom, or guild was an excellent alternative for dealing with those high-level problems. Assuming you built your stronghold, you had to decide whether to keep playing that character with all of his or her new responsibilities or ease your beloved PC into a well-earned retirement as an important NPC/patron and start up a new character. It was even possible to have the best of both worlds -- start a new character who serves the old one (as one of those newly-recruited soldiers, acolytes, or apprentices) but occasionally bring the old hero out of retirement for an epic adventure.

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 4th edition, the ghost of name level haunts the battlements in the form of paragon paths and epic destinies. They aren't quite the same as carving a new barony out of the wilderness or challenging the King of Thieves to a turf war, but they do signal major changes in the tone of the campaign and the challenges awaiting the PCs. Just think about that the next time you're faced with the choice between becoming a demigod or an eternal seeker!

About the Authors

Bart Carroll is loathsome beyond description and has no redeeming features. His body resembles that of a huge, bloated buffalo and gives off an offensive odor. The author's neck is long and thin, and perched atop it is a big head uglier than that of a warthog. His legs are thick and stumpy, much like a hippopotamus. The author's tail is strong and snakey, however, and moves with amazing swiftness to strike enemies.

Steve Winter is a writer, game designer, and web producer living in the Seattle area. He's been involved with publishing D&D in one form or another since 1981. Tiny people and monsters made of plastic and lead are among his favorite obsessions.

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