CaSE #12 : The Starting Level of the Characters.

In most cases this particular game condition is a non-starter; the characters in your game will begin the adventure fresh, as Level 1 characters at XP = 0.  They will begin your adventure with whatever back-story your players provide for them.  And they will progress organically, obtaining all their equipment, weapons, armor, magic items, and experience entirely as a result of the encounters you provide.

In this fashion both the DM and the players have complete control and oversight on how the characters evolve.  The character’s choices in encounters and in technical development on level-up will define their personality.

At the start of many campaigns, as the DM establishes their world and the players are rolling up characters, inevitably someone will ask what at level the characters will start.  Particularly if this new adventure comes on the heels of a long-running campaign where characters had advanced considerably deep into their Classes.  Starting fresh at Level 1 is an uncomfortable prospect for some: low Hit Points, low Skill ranks, low or no Base Attack Bonus, very basic weapons and gear, and extremely limited Class-related abilities, Feats, and spells.

So evolves a gentle push from the players, and a temptation for the DM, to begin a new campaign a bit advanced.  Perhaps nothing too outrageous; maybe just starting at Level 3 to gain that first Feat bump…or Level 4 to also gain the Attribute Point…or Level 6 to gain a second Feat bump…

There’s a lot to like about the idea.  For the players, their characters will be much more resilient, presumably better armed and equipped if and when their starting gear is scaled commensurate with their level of experience, and kitted out with advanced spells, feats, and Class abilities compared to a n00b Level 1 version.

For the DM, it seems like a workable idea.  With characters built stronger and more durable, the options for antagonists widens for the DM, opening up many more creatures from the Monsters Manual (MM) much sooner for use in adventures.  And the players will be more comfortable, with much less chance of their character being killed by an unlucky axe or claw in the first round of combat.

But let’s look at the flip side.  Characters that start at higher levels have just appeared out of the Ether; they have no history, no explanation of how they got to where they are.  Where did their equipment come from, their weapons, what have they been doing in the world that got them to where they are ?  They are caricatures, not unique characters.

Assuming that your game is story-driven, an advanced character doesn’t give the player a sense of accomplishment with that character.  Further, the players may not have much attachment to the character or any personal investment in the character’s well-being or its involvement in the events of your story.  The character may just feel like an action-figure popped out of a box and put into the game, armed and skilled but with no personality.

From a technical perspective, a party of advanced-level characters may require the DM to scale up the stock versions of MM creatures in order to provide a decent challenge.  If the characters are very advanced and the players know what antagonists they may face in their DM’s realm, the players might well create potential “game breakers”.  Imagine starting an undead-themed adventure with a party of Level 6 characters, all of whom were intentionally built to thwart Undead-subtype creatures.  You’d be scaling up Undead and adding more of them just to balance the fight in your favour – a lot of extra prep work.

This is not to dissuade you from trying something different.  This is to suggest that you ask some important questions before you decide on what level your players’ characters will begin your realm :

  • Are your players interested in character development ?  If this is an episodic campaign -focused on hack-and-slash or a “monster of the week” hunt- starting the characters above Level 1 might actually be a helpful device.
  • Is this a short- or long-duration game ?  A short game is less likely to see much character development anyways, and may suit a higher-level start.  But if you have a story to tell and want players invested in their characters over the long term, a default Level 1 start is best.
  • What does your story require ?  A very fundamental question.  If this is an epic and sees a number of story arcs and a lot of plot development, the characters should grow with the story.  If it’s a linear quest and the story’s background or theme allows or even demands a party of experienced heroes, then experienced characters you need.
  • How will the characters’ starting level affect your game, and your prep time ?  In the same way that starting attributes can grant an ongoing bonus or deficit to a character over the life of your game, starting level adds to the characters’ relative strength.  The monster that will challenge four Level-1 characters absolutely will not provide the same challenge to four Level-4 characters.  As DM you will be constantly scaling up monster Hit Dice, ability scores, and the number of creatures.  This takes a lot more work than using “stock” creatures from the MM.

If you consider characters starting above Level 1, weigh the advantages and disadvantages as described above.  Go with the option that is most beneficial and least harmful to your story and most compatible with your abilities as DM.




About d20horizons

D&D player.
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