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I posted a question a couple weeks ago to the 1st Edition AD&D (“1e”) social media groups: When a 8th level paladin or 9th level ranger gain the ability to cast spells, what is their caster level? Despite literally decades of debates over the issue evidencing that the answer isn’t printed in any of the sourcebooks, I received several claims that the answer was clear, but there isn’t a clear answer in the rules. None. If you can find it, please enlighten everyone who’s come before you with a sourcebook and page number linking to a clear statement on the matter. There are, however, just a couple of reasons that I fall on the “caster level is the character level” side of the discussion.
Silence Is Telling
The fact that there’s no statement expressly saying that a 10th-level paladin doesn’t cast at 10th level places us in the default position of “caster level is the character level,” as is the case in every other context (i.e., clerics, druids, illusionists, and magic users). The wording of spells always tells you that variable effects are based on the “level of the caster,” refusing to distinguish between caster level and character level. Consider, then, the third level illusionist spell, Dispel Illusion (using my own words).
The caster can dispel any illusion, with or without an audible component, cast by a non-illusionist, and can dispel an illusion by an illusionist with a 50% base chance adjusted 2% downward for each caster level beneath the illusion’s caster, or 5% upward for each caster level above the illusion’s caster.Player’s Handbook, p. 96
Per Unearthed Arcana, the magic user doesn’t get the spell until 4th level, and even then:
A magic-user attempting to dispel an illusion is considered at two levels below his actual level with respect to illusion/phantasm spells cast by an illusionist.p. 56
It’s one of only a couple of spells that expressly breaks the “caster level is character level” rule, and it tells us two things. First, despite the illusionist needing to be better at illusions than the magic user, it isn’t when dispelling illusions not cast by an illusionist. Even thought the magic user doesn’t get the spell as early, it immediately is as powerful of a caster. However, second, the game wanted there to be a distinction when the spell was casted by an illusionist, so it expressly stated one. It never did so for paladins or rangers. Any other interpretation is reading more into the text of the game than is there. While I don’t believe anyone who tells me that Gary Gygax himself once told them something, it makes me believe that’s possible.
It certainly helps that Sage Advice once agreed after supposedly “speaking with the higher ups.”
Much Ado About Nothing
Most importantly, however, is that it doesn’t matter. One could rule that the caster level is the character level, or a fraction of the caster level, without changing the game significantly. This report provides a list of all the spells a paladin will ever be able to cast from the Player’s Handbook and Unearthed Arcana. In it, you’ll see that there isn’t a single spell where the caster level determines damage or healing. Mostly, the differences are in duration, with a few differences in range and area of effect. Rangers tell the same story as evidenced by this report providing a list of all the spells a ranger will ever be able to cast from the Player’s Handbook and Unearthed Arcana.
Is it at all overpowered to allow a paladin to create an extra 8 cubic feet of food and water or a ranger to predict the weather for and extra 14 hours? If not, then the primary two reasons for ruling otherwise – 1) paladins and rangers should be fighters first and casters second, and 2) it would make them overpowered – are quickly undermined. A notable exception is Magic Missile, but consider how
useful useless a 1st-level Magic Missile spell would be against 9th-level threats? At 9th-level, that’s an extra 4d4+4 damage (average 10 hps) against 1-2 Storm Giants with, on average, 72 hps each. A ranger is generally far better off attacking with a bow. The benefit of paladin and ranger spellcasting is increased versatility for those classes, so the real limiting factor is that a ranger could never cast even Fireball or Fly, let alone Power Word Kill or Time Stop.
This may seem like I’m trying to make a strong argument for why I’m right and you’re wrong, but there is no right and wrong here. The rules are ambiguous, and the consequences to the game are insignificant. There’s nothing wrong with ruling either way, and I’d be happy to play at a table with a different rule. I’m just explaining my rationale for my choice in order to spur more conversation and am pointing out that any claim of a clearly correct answer is objectively wrong. There’s no absolutely correct way play D&D.
Only a Sith deals in absolutes. Are you a Sith? Are you?
EDIT: @nrfoley on Twitter provided the following official ruling from Polyhedron 7 (July, 1982), though it doesn’t change my personal decision. As always, YMMV.
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