Let us speak of Elves, Dwarves and Halflings as I knew them in my early days of D&D. This being my first exposure to them as playable races in a game, they made a deep impression on me as to what the Elf, Dwarf and Halfling were supposed to be. Today, I still feel a little odd when I hear some whippersnapper talk about his Dwarven Wizard. Modern D&D has none of the class or level limits of old school D&D, which is not a bad thing when one considers that allowing a player to create a character in which they will invest is an incentive to get into the game and stay in the game. But, back in the proverbial My Day, we rolled our stats and picked what was possible. I'm sure I'll talk on these points in later posts in this series. So the first thing to note for players of modern D&D who are unfamiliar with BECMI is that, as mentioned in the previous post, Elf, Dwarf and Halfling are classes, not races that may then take a class. I later learned that this was a holdover from the Moldvay/Cook/Marsh edition of Basic, but the Holmes edition that represented the first incarnation of "basic" D&D referred to rules for demihumans becoming Theives appearing in the forthcoming Advanced Dungeons and Dragons.
So, race as class. What is found inside BECMI D&D is the idea that the characters of the Dwarf, Elf and Halfling classes are archetypal of their race. So what it is to be Dwarven, Elven or Halfling is distilled into the abilities and attributes of the class. While this can be argued to have a negative effect on the diversity of the party of characters, since every elf is an Elf, and every dwarf a Dwarf, we did not see it that way as we started play. The ideal that each of these characters were part of a monolithic society of their fellows appealed to us. After all, were not Thorin Oakenshield and his retinue cut from the same cloth as the Dwarf class presented in BECMI?
Beginning alphabetically, let's talk about the Dwarf. They are described as about 4' tall, and around 150 pounds in weight. Yes, Virginia, female dwarves are described as having beards - short ones, but beards nonetheless. They are described with earth-colored skin and dark or gray hair. Right after the physical description the fact that Dwarves are stubborn, practical, and fond of food, drink, and gold are stated. So, as I noted above, Dwarves are presented as a monoculture, as are the other two demihuman races. The implication here is that all dwarves fit the Dwarf archetype, full stop. Therefore, all Dwarves are fighters, crafters, etc. I find that in my older years this does not bother me as much as it probably should. When I was 11, this was just how things were. When I was 30, I found it fairly simplistic and started to wonder about Dwarves who did other things, or how the Dwarven Cleric was totally a thing in my D&D circles yet wasn't strictly possible without using the Dwarves of Rockhome supplement. As of this writing, I'm 42, a dad, and introducing D&D to my kids and godchildren. The simplicity of Basic and its view of demihumans is actually more comforting than frustrating. I like that I can, when explaining D&D to kids, rely on the fact that a dwarf is a Dwarf, and concentrate on other things.
So, Dwarves are fighters in all aspects- weapons and armor allowed, d8 Hit Dice, and much later the Fighter combat options. They require a CON of 9 or more, and their Prime Requisite is Strength. This makes them the equal of the human Fighter class PCs in any party, level for level. Dwarves do require more XP to advance than Fighters, and they top out at 12th level. The additional XP goes to compensate for the things a Dwarf can do that Fighters can't. 60' of Infravision allows Dwarves to see heat in the dark. They speak four additional languages. They can detect stonework traps, hidden stonework, and the slope of tunnels. The Dwarf also starts with some pretty impressive Saving Throws, two of which are in the single digits at 1st Level. NOTE: In old editions, Saving Throws are numbers to meet or beat on 1d20, so having a low Saving Throw means more likelihood of success. A Save below 10 at 1st Level is phenomenal. Of the seven classes in BECMI D&D, Dwarf and Halfling are tied for best saving throws at 1st Level, and the Fighter is second only to the Magic-User for the worst.
The Level Limit. Yes, this, too could be an entire post on its own. Quite a few bloggers have already talked about this, among them my friend James Spahn, author of The Hero's Journey RPG among many others. He's got a great handle on the Original Source Rules, so I'll direct you to his post HERE until I can pen my own. Dwarves top out at 12th Level- which is the most generous level limit of the three. Bear in mind that 9th Level, called "Name Level" on old D&D Lore, represents the level at which a class reaches it's 'Name' as a Level Title. "Lord" for Fighters, and "Dwarven Lord" for Dwarves. This is the level at which PCs may choose to start settling down and carving our a holding of their own. So, Dwarves, while limited, may progress three levels beyond this. Not too shabby, eh? To be honest, in 31 years of gaming, this level limit has never actually been a problem. In the later books of the BECMI series, the level limit is addressed by allowing demihumans to gain other benefits - like "Attack Rank" which lets them keep improving in combat but without the Hit Points and Saving Throw benefits of gaining an actual level.
How do I feel about the Dwarf? Well, I like this class just fine. I embrace the archetype in my fantasy worlds, and since I love running in Mystara/The Known World where this version of the Dwarf is the in-world Dwarf, it works for me. I find the 10% or so increase in XP needed to level over the Fighter at low levels to be fair enough, given the other things Dwarves can accomplish. Overall, with the addition of the Dwarf Cleric class from the Rockhome Gazetteer, it represents enough material for Dwarves to be a strong, vibrant part of a D&D Basic campaign.
Let's talk about Elves. The BECMI Elf is a pretty darn good choice for the player who wants to do it all. Like a Dwarf, the Elf gets all weapons, all armor, and the same combat progression as a Fighter. The d6 Hit Die makes the Elf as tough as the Cleric, and tougher than the Thief and Magic-User. On top of being as fighty as the Fighter save slightly lower Hit Points, the Elf can cast spells as a Magic-User. While wearing armor. So, we've got a combat machine that can cast spells in armor. That's great! Wait, you mean there's more? Yes, Elves are immune to the paralysis caused by ghouls. The can detect secret and hidden doors. They speak four extra languages. They have 60' of Infravision. WOW. Their Saving Throws are better on average than the Fighter, Magic-User or Thief, and equal to the Cleric. One might think the Elf was the perfect character class.
Well, not quite perfect. Elves must have an INT of 9 or better. The Elf requires more XP than any other class in the rules to advance. By way of example, Elves become 2nd Level at 4000xp. A Fighter is 3rd Level at this point. A Thief is 800 XP short of 4th. Clerics are 3rd and 1/3 of the way to 4th. It takes a LOT of XP to level up as an Elf, and their progress through levels tops out at 10th. This means that Elves never have the potential to cast spells of 6th Level or higher as human Magic-Users can. Elves are often left behind by one or two levels as their party climbs the experience charts due to these disparities.
The description of the Elf might be a bit confusing to modern readers. Elves seem to have gained about half a foot or more in height since the BECMI days, where they are said to be 5'-5 1/2' tall. In 5e, they can be "just over 6 feet," a height unheard of in Basic D&D elves. Aside from that, this Elf is just as much an archetype of the "elvishness" most of us were familiar with as the Dwarf was of "dwarvishness."
How do I like the Elf? I think it's a wonderful mix of fight and cast, and the XP requriements give a healthy bit of pause to players who just want to play Elf for the potential power. I enjoy having this class in my games, though I have very rarely played one. On further thought, this is probably more because I took up being the DM quickly and have been a DM far, far more than I was ever a player. What would I do differently with the Elf? Well, if I get to run a BECMI campaign any time soon, I may give players the option to choose to cast Druid spells as opposed to Magic-User spells, but this choice would be permanent and reflective of the tribe of the Elf PC. So, more or less "Wood Elves" would cast from the Druid list, and "High Elves" from the Magic-User list. In concept it sounds cool. I wonder about how it would play in practice.
Halflings! Like the other demihumans, the Halfling functions as a Fighter, and has Fighter access to weapons and armor and Fighter attack progression. Halflings are second only to Dwarves in their Saving Throws, indeed by 4th Level all a Halfling's Saves are 10 or less. These are the smallest demihumans at 3' tall and 60lbs. They are the most restrictive demihuman class to create, requiring a 9 or more in both DEX and CON. So what's so great about Halflings if they can't cast like an Elf? Why pick one over the Dwarf, when a Halfling only gets a d6 for Hit Dice versus the Dwarf's d8? The Halfling can't even make Name level, capped at 8th, one level before other classes reach this goal. That means that ultimately, the Halfling loses out on a Hit Die.
Halflings have some bonuses no other class can match. Halflings, due to their size, gain a better Armor Class against large creatures. They get a +1 To-Hit on any missile weapon. If using Individual Initiative, they receive a +1 bonus. Since Initiative is rolled on a d6 in BECMI rather than the more modern d20, this is the equivalent (roughty) of a +3 or +4 Initiative Bonus on a d20-based roll. So far, so good. What else have Halflings got? Glad you asked. One of the things BECMI Thieves are often criticized for their abysmally low percentage skills in doing the things Thieves do. Halflings can hide successfully with 90% ability in the woods, and 33% in a dungeon. A Thief would have to be 6th Level to outdo the Halfling in the Dungeon, and 13th Level to outdo the Halfling in the woods. These abilities never improve, but they are very impressive when compared to a Thief. Later in their careers, Halflings will continue to advance in Attack Rank like the other Demihumans, and eventually take 1/4 Damage or no Damage on successful saves against some forms of attack.
The Halflings depicted in the Five Shires Gazetteer are a bit more adventurous that Tolkien's Hobbits, but they are obviously heavily inspired by Hobbits nonetheless. The Halfling is a great addition to any party as it represents a crack shot with a bow or sling, a good (short) sword arm, and an extremely sneaky scout. Sure, I'd like to see Halflings able to master a Thief skill or two - but remember, even Bilbo was pretty darn bad at picking pocketses.
So, here are the Demihumans of BECMI D&D. This is the starting point from which all other D&D versions of them will evermore be measured in my mind. Even having played each edition, including taking the '74 rules for a spin (with Frank Mentzer as DM) and recently getting a game or two of Holmes, I would gladly play any of these incarnations of the non-human D&D races. I can see in my head fun concepts for characters of all three of these classes. It might seem limited to a modern player, only one class per race, no feats, no customization to speak of. But, having played with this version, 3.x, 5e, even 4e, what I can tell you is sometimes more complex isn't better. There is something to be said for boiling it all down to basics and just playing the game, stereotypes, cliches, and all.