Thursday, August 14, 2014

What Level Do You Make New PCs?

Here's an important question that is only rarely addressed directly in any version of the D&D rulebooks (and related to our discussions of ability-score rolling and reincarnation in the last week)  -- What level should you make new PCs, and why?

In traditional D&D (0-1-2E and B/X), the unstated assumption was that new PCs are made at 1st level, period, end of story. If you lose a character in campaign play, perhaps you've cultivated a henchman NPC to a higher level who can step in as the PC replacement. But if not, are you relegated to 1st level while the rest of the party is higher? On the one hand, survival seems like an issue, but on the other hand, XP may come quickly enough to rapidly advance in just a few sessions.

In the 1E AD&D DMG, Gygax included "Appendix P: Creating a Party on the Spur of the Moment", which supported random creation of party members of advanced level for those cases where it is required, "often if you attend many conventions" (p. 225). However: (a) there is no guidance given for why you'd pick one level instead of another, (b) the party is being generated simultaneously all at the same time (by level, when XP might be a better metric), and (c) the emphasis is on convention play, not for ongoing campaigns.

Probably Dave Cook in the 2E DMG has the most direct commentary on this issue (Ch. 3):

Mixing New and Old Characters

Letting players start at the beginning is fine when you first open a campaign, and all player characters can begin at the same level. As sessions are played, however, a disparity in character levels will develop. New players will join the game and old players will create new characters. Eventually, you'll reach a point where the original group of players has characters many levels higher than when they began. How, then, do you introduce new players and new player characters into your game?
 

There are times when you should allow a character to start above 1st level. A newly-created character should begin a campaign no higher than 4th level unless the group is very powerful. If this is the case, he should begin no higher than the lowest level character in the party (and it may be better to start a level or two lower).

3E D&D had very robust rules for creating PCs at any level (including a formalized "expected equipment" value that could be used to buy any desired magic items at game start). But again, not much guidance as to exactly what level to choose when playing with a pre-existing group.

My long-running Boston gaming group (late 90's-mid 00's) dealt with this issue, obviously, and we had a series of discussions about it. Starting briefly in 2E and then mostly playing in 3E rules, we basically used the Cook advice above: new and replacement PCs started at one level below the average of the existing party. Over time the party levels stretched out a bit (some died more than others), to something like 8th-12th level; so by the end of the campaign new PCs would be made at the 8th level, the same as the lowest-levels in the party. On the one hand this was both several levels behind the party "leaders", and yet it also caused awkwardness that the lowest-level members could commit suicide and then respawn new PCs at the same level. Also this collided with the 3E philosophy of raise dead and the like, that characters come back reduced by one level; in some cases it would actually be more profitable to create a brand-new PC at 8th level, than play the raised PC at 7th level, for example. Some of the more crunchy players might ask: What's the benefit in being raised from the dead in this case?

So what's your rule? How do you decide on the level for new and replacement PCs in a game that already has mostly high-level characters in play? We would seem to want PCs to be viable partners of the existing party, and yet we also want to motivate a high level of play (players should prefer fighting to survive, than retiring/recycling PCs and returning at the same or better level). If you use the 3E principle of raise dead return a PC at −1 level, then seemingly new PCs would have to appear at least −2 levels behind the rest of the party to make that truly beneficial. If that's unacceptable, then seemingly you would have to scrub that rule from late-era raise dead (as well as reincarnation, for example); the two issues seem to be inextricably tangled. What do you think?

32 comments:

  1. I think you also have to factor equipment, not just level. For example, both Resurrected PCs and New PCs may come back at -1 level. But the new PC may not have accumulated swag. (unless they make the exact same class and weapon choices and "inherits" the old characters stuff, and that's a bit cheesy)
    In 2nd ed we went by number of XP equal to the lowest party member, base equipment only.
    In 3rd ed we just made up a new character with appropriate wealth (NPC table not PC table).
    In my current home game, They just come in at party level, Starting Gold x Level in mundane (alchemical and potions included) equipment. Our sessions are to spares and 2 short to worry about ti too much, plus we have lots of drop in players as well.

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    1. That's a good point. Since I have fixed rules for generating magic gear on any new PC, I tend to overlook the accumulating effect of "party scavenges all the gear from the dead PC" until it pops up awkwardly in play. I was thinking last week that I might need to put more emphasis on NPC's looting bodies of the dead to clear stuff out once in a while.

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  2. I always start new PCs at level 1 because it always seemed unfair to me to give a new PC free XP when the other PCs had to earn theirs. However, I also run D&D sessions constantly, so if a PC starts to lag behind (or the Player has to start a new character) there are plenty of opportunities to catch up. I never liked the dynamic of playing once a week and always together. I run solo sessions, team sessions, and, sometimes, even "henchmen only" sessions. FYI this style of play also requires strict time-keeping.

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    1. Interesting! I wish I had that kind of time and consistency, I get jealous of that. :-)

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    2. It helps to be single. :p

      I just made myself sad...

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    3. Trade-offs to everything. :-/ Invite some nice girls. :-)

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  3. When the campaign is at lower levels (1-4), new characters start at 1st level. After that I let new PC join at the lowest henchman level, which usually puts them several levels behind the other PCs. However, all new characters start at 0XP, so even those who start at greater than first level have to 'earn' that level. In practice it helps eliminate the 'new character by suicide' issue, but isn't really much of a impediment. It just takes the new characters a few sessions to top up to their 'true' XP level before progressing noramlly..

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    1. Interesting, does everyone always have henchmen? Because my players tend not ro pursue that. (I guess I'm asking: what's the ruling if there are no henchmen?)

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  4. Newbies starting at first level all the way.
    Due to the way exp to next level grows exponentially, a low level character following behind a high level group catches up very very quickly.

    I also have the option of playing as a henchman (always two levels behind the owning character, mind you) or an expensive resurrection with a higher chance of going horribly wrong the higher level you are - http://tenfootpolemic.blogspot.co.uk/2013/11/death-and-resurrection-in-weird-world_14.html

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    1. Wow, interesting. My house rules for reincarnation (see earlier this week) include a saving throw, with the intentional effect of less of a chance of things going wrong the higher the level. So that's a very different take.

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  5. Mmm...it really depends on what I'm playing.

    In the "old days" of my youth, we tried campaigns that started at 1st level and campaigns that started at 2nd level (I'm talking AD&D campaigns now...when we FIRST started playing with B/X, our characters started at 1st, of course). Once play progressed new characters (replacing dead characters) would normally begin at 2nd or 3rd. However, once the majority of "survivors" started reaching 7th-8th level or so, it became a moot point: the availability of Raise Dead spells and Wishes made sure no one HAD to lose a favorite character.

    Once the "usual PCs" had reached high levels (12+) the only way new characters were introduced to the campaign would be due to a player wanting to "play something different" (like a long-time magic-user player wanting to try an illusionist). In these instances, we'd create a character of level appropriate to whatever adventure module we might be using or "eyeball" something based on the other PCs of the party.

    When I returned to D&D (and B/X specifically) I started doing the 1st level thing again. As the campaign progressed, new PCs (replacing dead ones) were brought in with XP equal to ONE-HALF the average total of the rest of the party (so new magic-users would generally be of lower level and thieves would generally be of higher level). This was the equivalent of promoting an NPC retainer (since NPCs only accumulate half the XP of the rest of the party). It worked well enough, though our campaign was put on hiatus prior to getting into those lofty "raise dead" levels (I think we topped out at 6ish).

    What I've read about Gygax's house rules is that he played almost straight OD&D and had new PCs start at 3rd level. This actually seems quite reasonable and is something I've adapted for a new game I'm designing (though players may choose to play more "rookie" types of 1st and 2nd level).

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    1. It sounds like you play pretty similarly to how I do nowadays. I usually start PCs in the 2-4th level depending on adventure, and I do think that's the most elegant way to deal with starting things off. (I also read that same late-era Gygax quote.)

      The thing with the half-XP idea is that it would tend to put that PC only -1 level behind. My current draft for a reincarnation rule is for characters to come back at 2/3 XP, with the understanding that brand-new PCs come in at 1/3 XP (even that being close to -1 level back).

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  6. 1st level and if you're entering in the middle of the adventure/dungeon, there's a good chance you are a prisoner that needs rescuing, so don't bother shopping for equipment, you don't have any.

    If you want to play a henchman (if there are any) you're still stuck with the henchman rules i.e. You're getting paid, not a share of the loot, 1/2 experience, everyone gets to tell you what to do as you are an employee, etc. until the party makes you a full member, for some reason.

    Can't take over an NPC, they're my characters and might be up to something, or not. I'm loathe to give any clues by refusing to let you play one NPC but refusing another. So the answer is always NO.

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  7. Historically I've tended to stick with the one-level behind for new characters. In my most recent game, I did something a bit different. I had each player create four characters at first level. One was their primary, and the others were intended to be a sort of "bullpen" for when characters died or were off doing research for 6 months or whatever. Bullpen characters could go adventuring, and in fact my party took the 'B' team out for a few adventures. Notionally all of these characters were adventuring in the area, so the idea was if someone died it wasn't implausible that the party would "know a guy in the next town over that could be our rogue."

    Characters that were "in the bullpen" would get leveled-up as other characters got ahead of them (basically, when they fell more than 2 levels behind the highest-level character, they got some bonus XP which was calibrated to keep them 2 levels behind the highest level PC. They also got an allotment of gold to keep them on the "wealth-by-level" guidelines (this was 3.5), and could roll on different tables to see what sorts of magic items they had accumulated in the course of their "off-screen" adventuring. In effect they had to buy these items using their gold, but then could sell them (at 1/2 price) if they weren't useful. The idea behind this was to give the replacement characters some "shape" so they wouldn't be complete cookie-cutter duplicates. At that I think it performed pretty well. The system could also be used to just advance a character all at once up to some level. It worked pretty well up to about NPC level 6 or so, to keep it relevant beyond that would have required some expansion of the item tables. I should post that for download, actually -- it was one page of tables and about a half-page of instructions.

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    1. Yeah, that's interesting. More than once I've been on the cusp of telling players to roll several characters at once, as you call it, the "bullpen". (I tend to think back to Paranoia clones, but of course they're not clones.) I do come to convention games with a stack of PCs and deal more out of the stack when deaths occur. I like your idea of keeping them calibrated 2 levels back, that does seem approximately right to me.

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  8. Depends a lot on system and campaign style. Older games tend to have shallow power curves and it's possible to survive and be useful across 3-6 levels of seperation. I've used all of the following:

    start 1st level (or 0th level in DCC). primarily old school games where power curve is low and 9th level is very high.

    Above, plus encouraging development of henchmen / protogee's that may be taken over if main dies. [My prefered solution]

    roll d6; 1-2 1st level, 3-4 2nd, 5 3rd, 6 4th. Rolled during original character creation as well.

    XP = to lowest current party member. OSRIC

    Everyone is same level, all the time. New, old, returning players, doesn't matter. For story based "heroic" games where xp and level really don't matter all that much. Being supplanted by "progressing the plot".

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  9. My current rule...

    If a PC is replacing a dead PC, they start with half the XP of the previous PC. Working with XP instead of levels avoids the weirdness of the different XP charts. And the roughly exponential progressions means that half-XP is about one level less.

    Brand new PCs start at first level. Again, the geometric nature of the XP charts means that once a 5th level fighter has earned the 16K to progress to 6th level, his 1st level companion will have made 5th level. (And I don’t enforce the “one level per session” rule.)

    For equipment, I encourage players to name an heir who will be their next PC and have legal right to the previous PC’s gear. (Although there are still many reasons they might not be able to claim it.)

    Other than that, replacement PCs get no extra gear or starting money than 1st level PCs. They’re already getting some “free” XP. And I tend to avoid doing things in ways that makes gear a prerequisite for anything. The party usually has some spare gear to help outfit the newcomer anyway.

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    1. Yeah, that's very attractive to me and very close to where my instincts go. The deleting the "one level max advancement" rule is pretty key to that, too (you've clearly thought it out carefully). One thing is in the past I've gotten major player pushback regarding starting at 1st level among a higher-level party, even when I tried to explain that mechanic.

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    2. Yeah. Between switching off GM duties and systems and not having new players that often, the 1st level PC with a higher level party issue doesn’t happen a lot in my group in practice. We’ve got one player who has been away due to real-life stuff and who has expressed concern about her character still being 1st level. I think she’s thinking more in 3e terms because I don’t know when she last played classic...or if she ever has. But real-life is still keeping her away.

      And even the replacement PC rule has only come up once since I decided on these.

      The last PC death before that I’d had in a classic D&D game was a TPK, so everyone was in the same boat. And they hadn’t made 2nd level anyway.

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    3. Interesting. It's an issue that's clearly connected to the playing group's playstyle, frequency, etc. I'm trying to detect some kind of pattern to people's take on it, so thanks.

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  10. I prefer the "start at 1st level" method (or 2nd/3rd, if that's where other characters started out). I have used the 1/2 XP method, but I don't like it. Your suggestion, above, of 1/3 XP might be a little better, but it still seems like a cheat to me.

    1st level characters will catch up quickly enough, anyway.

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    1. I would be prone to agreeing, but I've had some major player-grief at the prospect of playing at low level for an adventure like that (regardless of how fast they'd catch up). There are some reasonable points about likeliness of surviving area-effect attacks from NPCs in that case, etc.

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  11. My general policy for the con games I've run and for the game I've been running at the office is to set a starting XP level and go from there. I generally go 20,001 XP, which puts most Labyrinth Lord classes at 5th. lvl (with Thieves at 6th. and Elves (or elf analogs) at 4th.)

    I generally have a table of basic magic items that they can roll on for any magic they might have acquired before entering the scene (with bonus rolls on the chart if you're eligible for xp bonuses from your prime requisites) This table includes basic stuff like healing potions, ropes of climbing, and +'s to weapons of choice.

    Lately, though, I've begun to consider starting players lower. Maybe not 1st. lvl but possibly 3rd.

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    1. That sounds really solid. So what's your policy these days on someone dying while the rest of the party is advanced? Are they straight back to the base starting point?

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    2. Well, there's a combination of unusual factors in play in the campaign. I usually make 'em start back at 20,001 exp, which hasn't really affected levels 'cos the play format (two 1 hour sessions a week with occasional 4 hour megasessions) makes for slow leveling across the board. Most players have only gained 1 lvl in a total of about 83 hours of play.

      Also, since this is a gothic, more than slightly gonzo campaign and mad science is a thing, there are a lot of ways characters can come back without resorting to Resurrection. I have one class of Frankenstien's Creature type characters who can be revived from the dead with a Cure spell and a Lightning Bolt. (And the two characters have benefitted from this.)

      Another character who's a half vampire was decapitated, but very luckily for him had it happen at the estate of the top mad scientist in the field. Dr. Von Himmel was happy to help out, and the character wound up as a bat winged severed head bossing his zombified body around.

      So long story short I have killed off some characters, but mostly in the Creepy Crawl campaign I've taken character death as an excuse to impose bizarre new states of being on them.

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  12. A good idea I read somewhere is, in megadungeon campaigns, to allow new characters to start at whatever level corresponds with the deepest the other PCs have made it to.

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    1. That's not bad. Elegant. Also there's a reward to adventuring that feeds back into PC generation that I've desired in the past (kind of like unlocking save points/new PC types).

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  13. I think the exponential increase is super important to note. Effectively it means by the time everyone in the party has gained one level, the new player is one level behind.

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    1. I agree, but I've had some players really resist that anyway. Getting the 1st level PC to survive that one adventure may be an issue.

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    2. “Getting the 1st level PC to survive that one adventure may be an issue.”

      Yes, but if the 1st level PC doesn’t survive, they haven’t really lost much. They just make another 1st level PC. Eventually one will survive and catch up quickly. ^_^

      (Written with tongue-in-cheek mind you. I suspect that argument won’t change the mind of most balking players.)

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    3. I'll keep that in mind if it comes up again. Certainly I'm fond of playing that way myself. :-)

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