Sunday, August 18, 2019

On Starting as Heroes

Playing devil's advocate a bit: here is a short argument for starting PCs in your standard campaign at around 3rd or 4th level.
  1. Gygax in his later era ran games where PCs all started at 3rd level (see here). 
  2. Arneson started his initial "Fantasy Game" using the Chainmail Fantasy rules, with players starting as Heroes (equivalent to 4 normal men, or 4th level in D&D), and being able to progress up to Superheroes (as 8 men, or 8th level). With that ruleset, there simply weren't any other options for him to start with. (See: Gygax, Dragon #7, "The Origins of D&D".)
  3. Many people have argued that classic D&D is most interesting in the range of 4th to 8th level or so. Not a huge surprise why that may be the case. It's also the most common level range for classic D&D modules (listed here).
  4. There's a desire and trend in D&D play to demand that PCs are inherently "elite" and special, chosen-ones. That's not a completely insane desire (the original texts mention mega-heroes like Conan, Fafhrd, John Carter, etc. as models of play). However, that made later editions shift gauges so that 1st level was head-and-shoulders better than normal men. That kind of discontinuity upsets me; is there nothing in between? Using classic D&D, with smooth graduations, and simply starting at a higher level seems like a more robust solution.
  5. You do get more of a capacity for PCs to take some hits, assess whether they're in trouble/over their heads, flee, and fight another day. This was a design intent that Gygax regularly beat on in early Dragon articles (around issues #1-20), mostly in the context of harping against critical-hits bonuses. 
  6. It's not terrible that wizards get a few spells to resource-manage during the day, not just a single one (e.g., at 3rd level: three 1st level and one 2nd level spell). 
  7. Looking at Arneson's First Fantasy Campaign, we see an eminently reasonable rule modification for wilderness adventures: the (very large) numbers appearing in the standard monster list are only for in-lair encounters; actually wandering bands will be around one-third those numbers (10-60%). When I crunch statistics on those tables with that rule, I find that the encounters average around 4th level difficulty (for a party of 5 PCs). 
  8. When I've analyzed systems for environmental damage (falling, exposure, starvation, drowning, etc.) with units of base 1d6 damage, I keep coming back to the idea that these mechanics give halfway "realistic" results at around the 3rd level (links one, two, three). Or see the "Survival Rule of Threes".

Thoughts?

56 comments:

  1. I quite like starting at second or third for campaigns, especially when I've spent an inordinate amount of time working on the campaign. My wheelhouse is up to fifth level. Obviously depends on the system for me, but I found I did not enjoy upper levels as a player and a gm.

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    1. My current campaign I've been starting at 2nd, and I'm thinking of boosting it to 3rd. "Three is the magic number" and all that jazz (plus getting a 2nd level-spell in play is attractive).

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  2. I've been starting characters at third level and it has worked very well. The characters are a little more durable, though not absurdly so. I do find that it is easier to create interesting challenges for 3rd level characters than it is to create adventures for 1st levels. You can throw more interesting monsters or NPC's with a few more resources at a third level party than you can with a 1st level party.

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  3. For our long-term Wilderlands campaign, we began PCs at 4th level: it definitely works, in particular with experienced players.

    There's still a lot of value in working a PC up from level 1 to 4, in terms of player experience gained at the table/in the game, so returning to that later as a challenge for newer players who never got that chance is well-worth it IMO.

    Allan.

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    1. Good point. When my current campaign started (at 2nd level, with mostly new players), the body count was tremendously high -- several deaths every session. The durability level is much different now that they've reached 4th/5th level, even though I don't think I'm pulling any punches. Also the players got real good pretty fast.

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  4. I have been all over the place on this issue. I have tried various ways to toughen 1st level characters, but now I just start at level 3. Basically 3rd level is the new 1st level.

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    1. This is starting to sound like a consensus!

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  5. I’m not against the idea in theory. Here is what stumps me: how do you figure out the money and property of such a new character?

    Help!

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    1. This is a great question. For 2nd level I've just doubled the starting money. That pretty much gets you plate mail and most anything you need. My opening bid for 3rd level would be to triple the money, although that's likely very conservative.

      In theory, higher characters should have chances for magic items, but for simplicity I wave that off. I was delighted that my new-to-D&D players could roll up their own new characters without my assistance, in the span of a single combat, in a rush to get back in the action (and I wouldn't to over-complicate that).

      The thing I was wrestling with the last few weeks is starting spells. For 1st level MU's I've been giving them the entire 1st level spellbook (which is only 10 spells), but I wouldn't want the same for 2nd level spells. Last week I drafted a list of 5 color-coded "schools" that a player can pick from that dictates a set of 3 2nd-level spells in their starting spellbook. Haven't actually used it yet.

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    2. The spell schools in OD&D is an interesting idea, and everyone likes little props I think.

      So triple starting money but no magic items? Hmmm

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    3. Well, if XP earned is 1/10th Monster and 9/10ths Gold, or whatever that ratio is by edition, I'd go with 9/10ths XP for that level in starting GP. So in OD&D, a fighter starting at 3rd level (Swordsman) would have 4000 * 0.90 = 3600 gp. Maybe let them buy potions and scrolls with some of that money, as these are listed as being fairly cheap to produce (relatively speaking), and 3rd level characters might have a few such items by that time...

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    4. Thank you James. That’s a good answer. Also coming from you, I feel like it has some weight to it.

      Now to decide whether we do straight levels or straight XP. We do Arensonian so a Cleric is way cheaper than an Elf for instance

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    5. You also have to account for what they would have spent on non-durable goods and services, though. Cost of living, level-up training if you use that rule, in Dan's OED rules a hefty amount would probably be spent on healing potions since there are no clerics... I would take that 3600 figure and probably give only 20-50% if I wanted to randomize, or just an even 1000 for simplicity.

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    6. I agree with Dan that a lot of money in my campaign has been going to potions of healing and mithridate (neutralize poison). PCs were pretty money-constrained up until one or two huge hauls they hit around 5th level.

      On James' point: I no longer believe that you can point to any monster/treasure XP ratio and claim it's consistent anywhere. The core problem is that the most important treasures are set by outright DM fiat (e.g., Vol-3, p. 6) with effectively no guidance on scale. So: They'll obviously differ between DMs. In my campaign it's been running about 1:1 (while using 1 HD = 100 XP). Still crunching numbers searching for a resolution to that, like, yesterday.

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    7. Also: Slamming my PCs with monthly upkeep expenses is a major feature of the campaign. It's been common that some PCs who missed a large haul are broke and need to get covered by other PCs.

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  6. There are plenty of good reasons to start at 3rd. One of the main ones, for me, is to leave some room for green conscripts, non-combatants, etc. Even 5e gives the "apprentice wizard" (in volo's, I think) 2 HD. Also, starting with around 3d6 HP falls in line with everything else.
    My only caveat is that OD&D calls 1st level FM "veterans", IIRC.
    In 4e/5e starting heroes are powerful enough that you don't really need to start at 3rd. Not my favorite method, but works well enough, I guess.

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    1. Right, and I think I'm comfortable with starting PCs being at the "sergeant" level (3rd), still not super famous or of note, to start with.

      You make a good point with the 3d6 hp being nice. That reminds me: when I've done a bunch of analysis in the past on environmental survival (falling, exposure, etc.) 3rd level kept coming up as giving a "realistic" survival chance based on units of 1d6 damage for stuff. See "Survival Rule of Threes" on various websites.

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    2. Actually, I just added that to the post as item #8. Thanks for jogging my memory!

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    3. I wouldn't say 5E makes 1st level characters all that durable... at best it's akin to starting at 2nd level, not 3rd or 4th. But what they do set up the system to do, is to rush those first two levels so that characters reach 3rd level very quickly.

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  7. BTW, here is "(d)20 Reasons to start at level 3". Not all are serious, I guess.

    https://methodsetmadness.blogspot.com/2017/05/d20-reasons-to-start-at-level-3.html

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    1. You have put a lot of good thinking into these articles. I went down the rabbit hole a bit. Great work.

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    2. OMG, thanks for that! A lot of those are fairly solid arguments.

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  8. Start them at 3rd., but if that character gets killed make them roll up a 1st. level character as a replacement.

    That'll learn 'em. >:)

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  9. Here's a related issue. I think it's gemane.

    Do you give 3rd level, or do you give a number of XP that puts a certain class at 3rd level?

    A Cleric hitting 3rd has fewer XP than a Magic-User hitting 3rd.

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    1. Another good point. When I make pregenerated convention-game characters, I always set a fixed XP value to start with. But in my current campaign I've just been giving level 2 (min. XP) so as to simplify things for the possibly-new players. Now that you mention it, I'm a bit surprised I haven't thought/seen that as an issue at any point in the last year.

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    2. Dan, your classes per your house rules are fairly well balanced at 3rd level.

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  10. Starting on 3rd level has been my default for beginning campaigns since 2005 or so. This has worked out very well in practice.

    1) Third-level characters are hardy enough to go on an extended dungeon and wilderness expedition without getting one-shotted, but they must exercise care not to push their luck or make bad decisions.
    2) In my mind, third level represents a competent individual with a well-rounded set of skills - the default "adventurer" of a pulp fantasy story. Here, the rules align quite well with the fiction. In my mind, Conan from Tower of the Elephant, Ffahrd and the Mouser from Ill Met in Lankhmar, or Cugel from Eyes of the Overworld are roughly third-level characters.
    3) My settings - again, some differences apply - follow Bledsawian level demographics (as you often see in Judges Guild releases): there is a fair amount of low-level NPCs, but there are very few truly high-level ones. This is, again, a fairly good fit for a world where fantastic monsters and supernatural menaces exist: communities often have enough sturdy outdoorsmen to protect themselves from basic menace, but there is no Elminster to save the day when things go really bad.
    4) Corollary: no matter the starting level, you always start with basic equipment (in edge cases, I may allow a random magic item). You may be Conan, but you will be Conan who has recently lost it all except a loincloth, a battle axe, a shield and a sack for the loot. That, again, is fairly faithful to genre, while playing quite well in practice.

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    1. A counterexample: in my current OD&D megadungeon, beginning players can take one 2nd-level character or two 1st-level ones (yeah, different XP). Either way, these characters are more fragile, and the campaign has a fair number of casualties (although most of them are hirelings).

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    2. Excellent thoughts, and I'm really fond of thinking through the pulp literature sensibilities like you've done there.

      Another thing on my mind with OD&D is that, e.g., NPCs in the wilderness have 2-12 assistants of level 1st-4th. In the dungeons it's "apprentices" of 3rd, 4th-6th, even 7th level (that latter maybe excessive or a typo?). Which seems to imply that around 4th level is the transition where you might strike out on your own.

      Of course that's different from AD&D where most hangers-on like that got dialed down to either 0th or 1st level only.

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  11. It may be interesting to roll a die to determine levels for each character in the party. For example, a d6 could divide between three levels 1-2=1st; 3-4=2nd; 5-6=3rd. The mix of character levels might have an interesting impact towards shaping the campaign and the party's decisions over the long haul.

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    1. I probably wouldn't do that, but it's interesting to think about. (I might have scar tissue from past 3E debates where a player was truly upset being one or two levels down from losing a PC.)

      Likely I'd put some non-uniform spin on the distribution. In fact, my rule for those NPC assistants is: 1-3: 1st level, 4: 2nd, 5: 3rd, 6: 4th.

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  12. In my OD&D con/one-off games of a few years back I used a starting XP table by Jeff Rients which could generate characters of anywhere from 1st-6th level but averaged (on 3d6) around 3rd. For starting money, 1st-2nd level characters had the normal 3d6x10 GP, 3rd-4th level had 3d6x100 GP, and 5th-6th level had 1d6X1000, and I allowed starting magic items to be "purchased" at the prices from the AD&D DMG. I only ran a few games this way, but it seemed to work pretty well - we were able to get started pretty quickly and everybody always had fun (and the higher-level characters didn't have a noticeably higher survival rate than the lower-level ones - if anything closer to the opposite, because they were more likely to be overconfident and take dumb risks).

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    1. that's a really good answer. Jeff has a way of making fun and simple old school feeling answers to mechanics. Thank you for bringing it forward.

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    2. Huh, thanks for that info. I'm very leery of buying magic to start -- I had a roommate in early 00's who literally spent a whole week crunching numbers in spreadsheets for best magic purchases before starting a 3E game, and I felt super bad about it.

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    3. A less number-crunchy way to achieve the same effect might be another 3d6 table with higher-level characters either able to add to their roll or make multiple rolls (say +1 per level above 1st or trade +2 for an additional roll - so a 6th level character could make 1 roll at +5, 2 rolls, one at +2 and the other at +1, or 3 rolls, 2 unmodified and one at +1), where 1-12 or so is "no magic item," and most of the rest of the table is potions, scrolls, and magic arrows, but if you roll an 18+ you might start with a magic sword, wand, ring, etc.

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    4. I would say, no magic items to start. Finding one is so much fun that I wouldn’t want to rob a player of that experience.

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    5. To be fair, the prices in the AD&D DMG are pretty steep - off the cuff, I can't think of anything crazy you could afford with those starting gold amounts. I might just limit it to items of less than 5000 gp value, to rule out a couple of questionable items like Rings of Mammal Control.

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    6. I also had a different goal in mind when using that system than what's being described in the OP. I wasn't re-setting the campaign baseline to say that "3rd is the new 1st" but rather was fast-forwarding and abstracting out assumed off-stage prior adventuring. My (via Jeff R) tables were effectively a simpler and more randomized version of the "creating a pre-experienced party" tables in the back of the AD&D DMG. So I agree that it makes more sense to include "starting" magic items in the latter (as assumed treasure from prior off-stage adventures) than it does in the former - that if "3rd is the new 1st" then starting 3rd level characters shouldn't have magic items even though a 3rd level character who worked up from 1st probably would.

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    7. FWIW, my own rule for determining magic items for advanced characters is this: for level N, roll Nd6 and every "6" that shows up gives a magic +1 boost to one item. Do this 3 times: For fighters it's weapon/shield/armor; thieves weapon/armor/ring; wizards dagger/ring/wand.

      But currently I'm waiving it for 2nd level PCs because even that is more complicated at outset than I want.

      Dan's point is true that DMG prices are pretty hefty. But consider the brand-new player: they'll need to study 5 pages and roughly 500 line-item figures in the DMG to determine that (to say nothing of know what any of the items do!). That's just a non-starter in my games, unfortunately.

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    8. Not to keep harping on what I did in my games, but I had a whole array of cardstock player handouts and the magic item pricelist was one of them - only items from D&D Vol. 2 were included, and only items reasonably within a PC budget. The whole list fit on one side of an A5 card. Yes, there was still an issue of a new player not knowing what a Potion of XYZ or Elven Boots actually DO, but this wasn't an issue in the games I was running because the players were generally experienced (and were willing to guide those who weren't). Again, I realize you've got a different set of priorities and what worked in my games wouldn't necessarily work in yours, but it really did work in mine, at least.

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    9. That's definitely a huge improvement over what I saw in that 3E game! Good idea. Likewise, I also have a few potions added in the margin of my OD&D equipment list that players sometimes need to ask about.

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  13. Interesting. I'm surprised to see so many OSR players agreeing, given the usual emphasis on lethality and earning your ability to be a hero.

    The ruleset I've been playing recently, Knave, actually goes backwards and not only do you start with 1d8 hp (no con modifier), you also start out rather undergeared in most cases. This results in the first stage of play being something of a half-level in which characters get their first treasure haul and are able to properly equip themselves, and THEN get to have the increased survivability.

    I think the reason this is possible is the strong emphasis on fair encounters that foretell their lethality. No random corridor traps in Knave, ideally! I've only had one character perish in knave (that wasn't playing intentionally suicidally) and they perished due to saying yes to being experimented on by mushroom people. HP and level was not a factor here.

    Certainly am not against a higher starting level, but there's definitely something to the level 1 struggle.

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    1. I'm likewise very surprised by the comments so far! I'm even a little surprised at myself for having written the post in the first place.

      A major part of the motivation is actually playing a campaign starting close-to-the-book and struggling with the incredible wilderness encounters lethality as written. 1st level PCs trying to go from a village to a town in an environment where encounters average what 8 10th level PCs seems could take is obviously unworkable. So I agree that something has to get dialed up (PC levels) or down (encounter lethality) or both. There's clearly a disconnect there by RAW.

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    2. That’s interesting, that you’re coming to it via wilderland travel. I can think of a way to mitigate the danger the characters face if we are just talking about a nearby village.

      What about for a focused megadungeon episodic campaign? Would you still say level 3 is appropriate?

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    3. Great ask. I'm wrestling with that right now, I don't know. I would feel a bit bad that the dungeon 1st level isn't (featuring monsters of) 1st level anymore. Maybe options are (a) 1st level is 3rd level, (b) everything has triple monster numbers, (c) something else?

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    4. Also: You're right that one can mitigate by keeping the local dungeon, say, within the patrolled/safe barony area of a village. Although on the other hand I get weirded out by having the unlooted dungeon so close and accessible.

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    5. My campaign city has gone to the dogs. There are many areas inside the walls that are no-go zones where monsters or nature have reclaimed neighborhoods once inhabited.

      On the other hand there are two megadungeons with access points within the walls, so players can have both dungeon and wilderlands adventures close to home.

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  14. OK, I'll be the dissenter here. Why do you want to take away a part of the game that I love? I think level 1 is super fun. I like that it forces us into the habit of challenging players rather than characters. With characters that weak and low on resources (only 1 spell?!) the players are trained early to find other ways around challenges that avoids dice rolling as much as possible. I like that it reinforces the arc of character progression from a hopeful wannabe to a hero. I like that it makes characters that survive into 2nd and 3rd level feel all the more special for having survived, even though as stated this is more likely a refelction on player skill than their character's stats. I like that it starts the power influx of fighter vs. magic-user -- at 1st level the magic-user is near useless and must be guarded by the figther, but around level 6 or so that relationship starts to invert.

    Somewhere above in the mass of comments was mentioned the problem of wilderness encounters. I think this is another case of B/X getting it right. The basic book covers levesl 1-3 and dungeon exploration. Levels 4+ and wilderness encounters are not introduced until the expert book. I have always taken this as clever and intentional design. The early game should be about low level punks trying to make a name for themselves by dealing with the local monster infestation. They spend all their time hanging out at the keep and making forays into the nearby caves to fight some kobolds. Only once they have proven themselves at this are they introduced to the idea that the world may be bigger than the 5-6 mile radius around their safe little keep, and they set out to see the world.

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    1. Thank you for the counterargument! Probably the top worry I have at this idea is that it opens the door for players being incited to write "backstories" for their PCs.

      And definitely (as always) B/X did great stuff with both volumes they did. I noticed with the Expert set they're in the spirit of Arneson's FFC rule. The wilderness numbers appearing are for actual wandering-in-the-outdoors numbers, whereas lairs (in a text note) are suggested at 5 times multiplier. That makes the wilderness actually maybe manageable at around 4th level. (And also easier for DM as opposed to my current roll-a-big-number and divide by 3 mechanic.) That ruleset was just so well thought out. If only Gygax permitted a serious co-editor on his editions.

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    2. OT a bit but this was at a time when there was some acrimony between the Gygax and Arneson camps. It would be a lot to ask for them to share editorial vision just on principle.

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    3. True, but I mean just ANYBODY as a co-editor would have been huge. Holmes or Moldvay would have revolutionized how solid the game was circa AD&D.

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  15. Even though mine appears to be the 50th comment, I'll add my thoughts:

    Having just run in several con games this weekend that featured low level characters (in one game I ran 1st level magic-user with 3 hit points), I can say that the odds of survival are radically altered by the presence of a large party of adventurers (7-8 with perhaps 0-2 NPC hirelings). It's not that tough to grind. And especially for new PLAYERS, I think it's good to start them off at 1st level so they can have the whole breadth of experience (and as Paul said, learn some strategies to keep from dying).

    Having said that, I understand it can be personally frustrating to run a low-level character as an experienced player, especially if the DM is stingy with the XP.

    And I will also note that my current B/X book (getting ready for publication) recommends PCs begin at 3rd level due to the danger involved in the specific campaign setting.

    So...um...sometimes I like 1st level and sometimes not.
    ; )

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    1. LOL, I sympathize so much.

      The truth is, in my current campaign I started people at a higher level precisely because I wanted to interface with those old modules that expected 8 1st level PCs, and I could only plan on about 4 players in attendance -- hence, 2nd level. Also my players are generally anti-henchmen (well, they've come around a bit since), but even I didn't want half or more of the starting party to be NPCs (nor would it make sense that 1st level PCs could afford that).

      At any rate, I totally agree with big number being a buffer like that. When Paul & I played in Bill Webb's games last year with 22 or 27 players at the table, us being 1st level felt reasonably survivable (and we did).

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