Rules Cyclopedia and BECMI D&D provide rules for advancement up to level 36, with guidelines that adventurers should gain one level every five adventures (Rules Cyclopedia, page 129). I generally take “an adventure” to entail multiple game sessions, but even if you complete one adventure every session, assuming no setbacks such as adventurer death or level drain, and play once per week, a group must play for almost 3.5 years to reach level 361. It seems reasonable to assume that few actual campaigns have followed this procedurally proposed trajectory. This is an extreme, but other TSR rulesets, such as B/X or AD&D, seem to also imply an implausible level of commitment for most people playing most campaigns in most situations. One interpretation of this fact is that the rules are flawed, and it would be better to make endgame rules that people will, in fact, actually play. But what if the main function of late game rules material in TSR D&D, and descendants, is more to entice players into longer games?
A design trend exists around more focused games, which values explicit and transparent description of both rules and intent. According to this sort of evaluative criteria, the late game TSR D&D rules are ineffective, and perhaps even misleading or disingenuous. They promised me a castle, and all I got was this lousy longsword +2! However, there is no inherent reason that the most effective rule, functionally, must articulate its intent and function, or even that the designer must understand the likely function. Surely there are exceptions, but in general focused games tend toward one-shot, mini-series, or shorter campaigns. It seems possible that the lack of enticing phantasm in such designs may partly explain this difference.
Goals are only motivating prior to being reached. Following goal accomplishment, it is on to the next goal. Perhaps the TSR endgame is a form of ultimate imagined goal that works exactly because it is unlikely to be obtained. Lack of complete consummation does come with some drawbacks, such as the anecdotal observation that campaigns often end, following Eliot, not with a bang, but a whimper. As the duration of a campaign increases, an anticlimactic ending becomes more likely, even if players do maintain interest and attention, as changes in life circumstances will implacably conspire against the campaign of unusual ambition’s persistence. Whether a longer, complex campaign, often lacking closure, or a shorter, more contained campaign is better seems like a matter of taste, but either way having rules that players almost never use could still shape gameplay in substantial ways. This is another example showing how taking a text at face value may be a poor, or at least incomplete, guide to game functionality or game meaning.
1. A fighter requires approximately 3.4 million XP to reach level 36. A magic-user requires approximately 4.3 million XP to reach level 36. ↩