Aging Through the Ages

I thought age should speak, and increased years should teach wisdom. How have the rules for aging changed between different editions of D&D? An exercise in meta-aging:

Original D&D (1974)

Staff of Withering: A Staff which adds nothing to hit probability, but when a hit is scored it scores one die of damage and ages the creature struck by ten years. (This is not to say it matures it, but rather it shortens the life span by ten years.) A man struck four times thusly will be doddering, an animal dead of old age, and so on. It will have no aging effect upon Undead, and creatures with very long life spans will also be little harmed. (Vol-2, p. 35)

Here, a pretty sketchy rule. The DM must adjudicate what in-game effect "doddering" represents, as well as what proportion of that effect, if any, applies to individual strikes from the staff?

Advanced D&D (1979)

Gygax gives a more comprehensive treatment near the start of the DMG. A series of five age categories are established for each of the PC races, and ability modifiers are given upon entering any of those age categories (approximately every 20 years for humans). In addition, dice ranges are given for establishing the age of starting characters (for example: d4+15, d4+18, or 2d8+24 respectively for human fighters, thieves, and magic-users). The ability modifiers are as follows; in general, physical abilities go down, while mental abilities go up with advancing age (DMG p. 13):

The staff of withering retains its ability to age by 10 years, and so links into this rule -- as well as other added abilities, like destroying a particular target limb (the same "wither" effect as the new reversed clerical regeneration spell; DMG p. 134). Ghosts can strike targets so as to age them by 10-40 years (MM p. 43). Dragons, of course, always have their unique rule for advancing powers with age.

Advanced D&D, 2nd Edition (1989)

In 2nd Edition AD&D, Zeb Cook presents a table slightly stripped-down from the 1E DMG; age brackets and modifiers are only identified for three categories of Middle Age and above (and those modifiers are identical to 1E). This makes some sense, as there could be some confusion in 1E about whether those modifiers should be applied immediately to all newly-created PCs (esp. the +1 to Strength and Constitution in the first two brackets), or whether an older PC (like a human magic-user, starting out Mature at average age 31) should have modifiers for the younger bracket retroactively applied.

A few other tidbits I should mention here. In the Gygax's 1E Unearthed Arcana (1985), the extra-high level Hierophant Druids gained the abilities of "Extra longevity equal to level as expressed in decades", "Vigorous health, equivalent to being in the prime of life", and "the ability to actually hibernate, suspend animation (same length as longevity  -  no aging)" at levels 16 at 17. These anti-aging abilities are maintained in effectively the same format in 2nd Edition. The staff of withering is, as usual, a copy-and-paste job from 1E; and the ghost attack ability is likewise the same.

D&D 3rd Edition (2000)

The 3rd Edition rules maintain mostly the same model for aging as in 2E (modifiers only at the level of Middle Age and above), with a somewhat expanded array of changes to the ability scores (note that all abilities are affected, and the reductions for physical abilities are more severe):

Like many other "exotic" dangers, the 3E ruleset removes the original aging effect from the staff of withering; it is here transformed into the rod of withering, whose effect is to inflict 1d4 Strength and Constitution damage on the target (may be temporary or permanent, depending on a saving throw). Similarly, Ghosts (now a "template" to be added to other monsters) also have their aging effect removed, replaced by straight points of ability-score damage from a suite of a half-dozen different special attacks. High-level Druids still get their immune-to-aging ability (at 15th level, here referenced as "Timeless Body"), and for the first time, Monks also get the identical ability (at 17th level). This latter addition seems new to 3E, 1E Monks did not have such an ability, and Monks did not appear at all in the 2E core rules (perhaps the addition appeared in some supplement of that era?).

D&D 5th Edition (2014)

Looking through the 5E SRD and Basic Rulebook, I can't find any general rule for aging. Druids and Monks still maintain the "Timeless Body" ability, somewhat downgraded, so perhaps such a rule for the effect of aging does exist (see here). The staff of withering now only does straight hit point damage, with a temporary penalty to ability checks (link).

Let's wash our hands of that and look at the "side branch" of the D&D Basic line through the 1980's (you might want to look back at the OD&D rule off of which this branched):

D&D Expert Rules (1981)

To my knowledge, there are no general rules for aging characters in the Cook/Moldvay rules. The staff of withering is modified to say this:
Staff of Withering: A hit from this item will age the victim 10 years. The effect of old age will be fatal to animals and to most character classes, but elves may ignore the effect up to 200 years of aging. Dwarves may also ignore the first 50 years of aging. This item does not affect the undead.

It seems like the DM still has to adjudicate what counts as "old age", and then declare the victim as killed outright at that point? Harsh, Zeb!

D&D BXCMI (1983)

Frank Mentzer's rules do introduce aging into the D&D Basic line for the first time, but is considerably stripped down. The general rule in the Companion rules only sets a maximum age for characters at which they die, with no age-bracket gradations or modifiers for advancement (DM's Companion, p. 21). Ghosts (and related "haunts") are introduced in this book, and as in 1E AD&D, their strike ages victims 10-40 years; here, unlike the section for the general rule, each 10 years is further said to drain 1 point of Constitution (p. 33). In Mentzer's Expert set, the staff of withering has almost identical language to the Cook Expert rules, except for a rephrased second sentence: "One or two hits will be fatal to most animals and harmful to many humans." (This could be either more or less harsh than per Cook, still requiring DM adjudication.) All of these edits were maintained in the later Allston Rules Cyclopedia (1991).

And one more interesting "tributary" which we could have easily overlooked:

Dragon Magazine (1980)

I keep returning to Gygax's writeup of Robert E. Howard's Conan in Dragon Magazine #36 (April 1980), within the year following the publication of the AD&D Dungeon Master's Guide. In this article Conan is given more detail than any other published D&D character before or since -- in particular, because different profiles were given for Conan at eight different ages of his story. He is also given a very long list of special abilities, skills, and proficiencies; recall that this later became the template for Gygax's Barbarian class description (later published in Dragon and then Unearthed Arcana). Here's the key table from the original Conan article (reposted from the last time I discussed it):

A couple things from this writeup: First, as usual, Gygax freely breaks his own rules on aging published just a few months before; Conan's ability scores vaguely follow the same trend as in the DMG, but the numbers are quite different (more variation in the upward direction in the case of Conan). Secondly, he applies an additional mechanic: Conan gradually loses Fighter and Thief levels as age advances. This is done at the rate of about 1 lost Fighter level per 2 years, and 1 lost Thief level every 5 years, after the category of Middle Age is reached (40+). I find this to be a commendable idea, and the result seems quite satisfying. Gygax writes in the article text:
The drop-off in level in later years is meant to reflect the effects of advancing age, and while hit points might drop off more, skill level would not drop below 9th level—say until 100 years of age, perhaps, and possibly not even then.

An intriguing suggestion!


In mainline AD&D, the tradition from Gygax in 1E on was to apply some modifiers to ability scores due to advancing age, but to leave the PC in question otherwise unchanged (with 3E removing the special aging effects from certain monsters and magic items). In the D&D Basic line, things were a little more gentle, with a maximum age established by Mentzer, but no other general rule for effects from the aging. Gygax's take on Conan, with both ability-scores and energy levels lost due to advancing age, might be the most compelling mechanic, but it was not used again within any published D&D ruleset that I could find.

Finally, a summary of the various ability modifiers found in different sources (summed cumulatively over all age categories):


  1. Some addenda and confirmations:

    In 4E and 5E they follow in the footsteps of BECMI by giving each race an expected lifespan, but no rules that modify player character abilities based on age.

    The 1981 Expert rules on magical aging honestly aren't any harsher than AD&D. Recall that in AD&D, every time you suffer magical aging, you must succeed on a system shock roll or die. Unless you have a very high Constitution score, your odds of making several in a row are not good.

    Monk was mostly absent from 2E; perhaps since Zeb Cook was the lead designer of Oriental Adventures a mere four years before the debut of 2E, he figured that was good enough? In any case, one version of it showed up as a Kit in the Complete Priest's Handbook, and another showed up in the Player's Option line (Spells & Magic, to be specific). Both were very different from the 1E incarnation, doing away with the supernatural or and psionic-like abilities (e.g., quivering palm) and instead giving the monk cleric spells. Also, the unarmed combat system was unified for all character classes (and WAY different from 1E), and the monk's unique characteristic was the ability to achieve the highest level of mastery despite being a non-warrior class. The assassin was similarly made into a thief Kit in the Complete Thief's Handbook; full classes for the monk and assassin didn't reappear until the very end of the run, in a 1999 Greyhawk supplement called The Scarlet Brotherhood; I don't have the book, but from what I've read the versions therein are basically identical to the 1E versions of the two classes.

    1. Great, thanks for the confirmation on the 2E monk (I do have the Scarlet Brotherhood supplement; so to my eye I missed the whole chicane of writing out the classic monk), and 4E/5E rule (although it seems a bit surprising to have no effects at all).

      I do tend to forget about the 1E aging-system-shock rule, partly because it's such a fine-print item in just one place, and partly because I never liked the system shock rule. I wonder, did anyone apply that to the "unnatural aging" effect from a haste/speed spell, et. al. (DMG p. 13)? Thanks for the reminder!

    2. We'll probably never know, but I wonder if perhaps there was some legal hang-up that prevented a reprinting of the monk until after WotC bought the company and made peace with Gygax and Arneson.

    3. I toyed with the idea of demanding System Shock rolls after aging 1 year to see whether you are enfeebled for the rest of the day (rather than death as for the written rule, which I think was more for larger blocks of aging). But really the 1 year of aging for Haste is harsh enough. I find that humans typically refuse to accept the spell and Elves blithely Haste through year after year without a care. Which all makes plenty of sense to me :P

      I've never had a DM force System Shock on polymorph, petrification, or aging though.

    4. I agree, such a weird rule; to my eye I was sure it was one of those cranky AD&D-isms Gygax would introduce to tamp down the power of those magics. Then I was super weirded out to find that it actually was in OD&D from the beginning (again, curtly stated in one place: Vol-1 p. 10-11).

    5. 1d30:
      There's certainly some precedent for that; the Baldur's Gate video game series didn't want to mess around with aging, so in those games the haste spell made your characters fatigued after it wore off.

      In all honesty, I never made anyone make a system shock check for being the subject of a haste spell. I probably would have in the case of, say, a ghost's touch, had I ever used one of those. As it is, though, it hardly matters for a ghost, as unless the dice are really in the players' favor, two or three touches is enough to age a human to death regardless.

  2. Great stuff!! I especially liked the Conan analysis. I've always thought it was a significant gap in the rules, given magic etc. that effects aging, for there not to be some kind of aging table in OD&D.

    I thought it worth mentioning that Gygax wasn't the only D&D creator to write about Aging. Arneson gave rules in Adventures in Fantasy for "Natural Death" that included aging. Here is the jist of it:

    First number is age range; second is the AiF score Percentage Reduction per Year; third is what that would translate into for a 3-18 score range:

    46-50 4% .26
    51-55 5% .3
    56-60 7.5% .5
    61-UP 10% .6

    Arneson writes, "At these ages, old age begins to take its toll. To simulate this, when the player reaches these ages he will subtract ...from ALL physical characteristics... this means a reduction in all player characteristics except Intelligence and Charisma. For the play of the basic game it is not necessary for the player to risk the effects of senility and so Intelligence and Charisma are considered immutable by age." (AiF p6)

    Note that there is no Wisdom score in AiF.

    So, to put the above it into whole factors for D&D, Strength, Dexterity, and Constitution, (but not Intelligence, Wisdom, and Charisma) are reduced by 1 point from current total at these ages:


    At ages 63+, the Character loses 2 points every 3 years.

  3. This one is interesting, lots of thoughts:
    1. Always just ignored aging most of the time.
    Player wants to be a grizzled semi-retied fighter, let em, those aging penalties are harsh!
    When it came up as a combat situation, Ghosts, Wild Surge, etc. Ability Score/Skill penalties seemed like an easier to adjudicate approach.
    Plus D&D combat is not good at simulating the "wise old master" who can still kick butt, but only once a day and is real tired after (I guess that's why 3e monks got timeless body)
    2. Funny interactions with the later skill systems. Wisdom goes up, so eyesight and hearing get better!
    So Conan, needs to get better overall Int, Wis and Cha to represent increased learning, life experience and diplomacy as king since there is not a skill system in place to represent that.

    1. On 2:
      I've come to view perception rolls as less about sensory acuity, and more about making sense of what you sense. Two people walking along a trail together might notice the same thing: some sticks lying across the trail. While one ignores it (because we have to filter out tons of information at all times), the other has seen something like this before and perks up, recognizing a trap set by goblin-witches.

      Imagine a pair of guards on a sea wall, one new and the other old and experienced. The new guard might notice ships approaching and shrug, while the other squints and realizes they're headed through shoals that should be impossible to navigate.

      Because D&D has no "perception" stat, and uses Wisdom as the associated stat, I think this is a worthwhile explanation for why D&D uses WIS. But it brings up whether Wisdom makes sense as a stat: if you track experience with EXP and level, why would you have a static ability score for experience (Wisdom)? If WIS is your natural (and relatively static) ability to synthesize experience into knowledge, it should be the stat that grants EXP bonuses for everyone. If Wisdom is your natural ability at developing understanding about something vs. applying knowledge of it (sorry I was reading Jung yesterday), it could work as-is but makes little sense as a perception stat. Instead you should use INT or your level to determine whether you've seen this before, and WIS to try to understand completely new things you encounter.

      That's what I think for games that have perception checks. In older D&D the DM would describe a thing and the player must decide what he knows and does. Naturally, your character knows what he's experienced during the game. The player knows what he's experienced in all his time playing. You don't need a roll for anything. The varying perception outcomes are determined by what the DM describes (if he thinks it's too dark to see, or brush obscures it until pulled aside, he describes less. You need to interact to get more info) and what the player thinks (I the area dark, can I reveal things by digging around, how likely is it that this searching will be worth the time and extra encounter checks). This all takes more time and skill, and is more or less enjoyable depending on what you like.

    2. Yup, thats part of what I find so interesting about comparing these sorts of rules across editions.
      What existing rules/systems did they have at their disposal for "modeling" and if/how they updated rules based on new mechanics, and the possible unintended consequences.

    3. Good observations. Of course in my mind, the first three abilities (STR, INT, WIS) are originally there to give "something" that keys into the classes of Fighter, Magic-User, and Cleric. Which makes it not a big surprise when you you try to give concrete effects to them that one (WIS) may be a bit wonky. In my house rules I actually use INT as the bonus to observation/search checks, and WIS as a bonus to all saving throws.

  4. Are the 3rd edition modifiers actually cumulative? I couldn't see that on the table and you didn't mention it in your summary.

    1. Yes. Texts says, "The effects of each aging step are cumulative."

  5. I had always assumed that Character Aging and Racial Class Level limitations were designed to be used together in order to not have level 30 or 40 Elves that are barely middle-aged. I can't quite recall the "justification" for the Class Level limits, though. Was it ever justified? Was it the level limitation within human society, assuming inherent racism?

    1. This is what EGG had to say about it in Dragon magazine (Issue 29):

      The character races in the AD&D system were selected with care. They give variety of approach, but any player selecting a non-human (part- or demi-human) character does not have any real advantage. True, some of those racial types give short-term advantages to the players who choose them, but in the long run, these same characters are at an equal disadvantage when compared to human characters with the same number of experience points. This was, in fact, designed into the game. The variety of approach makes role selection more interesting. Players must weigh advantages and disadvantages carefully before opting for character race, human or otherwise. It is in vogue in some campaigns to remove restrictions on demi-humans — or at least relax them somewhat. While this might make the DM popular for a time with those participants with dwarven fighters of high level, or eleven wizards of vast power, it will eventually consign the campaign as a whole to one in which the only races will be non-human. Dwarves, elves, et al will have all the advantages and no real disadvantages, so the majority of players will select those races, and humankind will disappear from the realm of player character types. This bears upon the various hybrid racial types, as well.

    2. That's very interesting. Thanks for posting that.

    3. Yes, thanks for that as well, Daniel. I'll just say that this is also consistent with words EGG wrote in the DMG (p. 21), there in regards to prohibiting more exotic monster PCs entirely:

      "ADVANCED D&D is unquestionably 'humanocentric', with demi-humans, semi-humans, and humanoids in various orbits around the sun of humanity... It is the most logical basis in an illogical game. From a design aspect it provides the sound groundwork. From a standpoint of creating the campaign milieu it provides the most readily usable assumptions. From a participation approach it is the only method, for all players are, after all is said and done, human, and it allows them the role with which most are most desirous and capable of identifying with. From all views then it is enough fantasy to assume a swords & sorcery cosmos, with impossible professions and make-believe magic. To adventure amongst the weird is fantasy enough without becoming that too!"

    4. So much is packed into the phrase "capable of identifying with". At least, from that flows the argument that in a game about exploration, it's best to leave as much to be explored as possible rather than given away in exposition such as "this is what your character would know about". Insert a little outcry here from a novelist in the back to "show, not tell". I think the counter-argument that players should be supported with rules for playing whatever they want is meaningless from the perspective of the first argument: once players tire of humans, they'll naturally develop the game into whatever they want anyway, but the writer believes it's healthiest for the players' development if they start with humans.

      The counter-argument that a good system will make expanding into other types of character so trivial that it's virtually automatic, is a separate thing with its own merits and pitfalls. See: 3E.

    5. I think a large part of Gary's argument always was that it isn't and shouldn't be a trivial exercise in role-playing to take on the mindset of an elf or dwarf. He specifically didn't want them to just be rubber-forehead aliens (http://tvtropes.org/pmwiki/pmwiki.php/Main/RubberForeheadAliens) that players all take because they're sick of having to carry torches and lanterns.

    6. Great, great points: both 1d30 and Daniel.

  6. Way late to the party. I've read and re-read Men & Magic 25 times and never noticed the implication that the "survival" roll - what would later be called the "system shock" roll - applied to "paralyzation." Does anyone actually use it this way when playing OD&D?

    1. I'm sure somebody does. ("For any crazy thing, someone believes it.") I've never seen or heard of anyone, though.