Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Starting Level for New Characters

I was thinking last night about what level new characters to a campaign should start at.  My knee-jerk old-school instinct tells me "Level 1", as my preference really is for characters to be built from the ground up.  And while I get the feeling that can work in earlier editions of the game, particularly in sand-box play, I don't think it's a viable option for a 3rd Edition campaign that's mostly plot-driven.  Either that first level character is going to die very quickly, or the campaign plot is going grind to a halt while that character is nursed to the higher levels.

My current method is to start a new character at two levels below the lowest level character in the party.  This keeps new characters useful, while still a little bit less powerful than everyone else.  But I've recently gotten annoyed with the necessity for these mid-level character to just pop up out of nowhere.  And as I said above, I don't like starting characters at higher than first level.  It's kind of like cheating if you don't play through it.

So I'm thinking of methods that I can use for players to sort of simulate the experience of playing through those low levels.  In my younger days I might have contemplated just running the character solo, but time is at a premium now, and besides that there's always a chance that the character could die.  Another much quicker method would be a simple chart that determines your character's starting level.  Like this:

Roll :   Result:
1         Start at Level 1, loser!
2-5     Three levels below the lowest level PC in the party
6-10   Two levels below
11-14 One level below
15-17  Equal to lowest level PC
18-19  Equal to highest level PC
20       One level higher than highest level PC

That gives a greater spread of potential levels, but doesn't really solve the problem I have with these characters springing up out of nowhere with no background.

Here's another thought I had.  Get together with the player and hash out the rough background of the character.  I generally don't require a background for first level characters, but I always like one for characters of higher level.  From this background, work out a number of pivotal moments in the character's life equal to the amount of levels he could start at (for me, this would be equal to the highest level character in the party).  For each of these levels, design a simple encounter that represents that moment, possibly a combat or a skill check or even a bit of roleplaying.  The result of that encounter determines whether the level was gained, and possibly if the character gets some other benefit like treasure or a magic item.  If the encounter is botched the character won't die, but he won't get any benefits either.  Play through every encounter, and eventually you'll have a history for that PC and some levels that feel like they've been earned.

This is all pure thought experiment on my part at the moment, as I haven't tried it out yet.  And it does require some prep work.  But I like the idea, and I might try and work up an example in the next few days to test out.


Leland J. Tankersley said...

This is something I've recently been toying with. In my game (3.5) everyone rolled up 4 characters, and is mainly playing one; the others are the "bullpen" of replacements for character deaths, and/or available for a change-of-pace character.

I have also tweaked experience awards, so that combat/encounters are only worth about half the "book" value; in addition characters can sacrifice treasure to their patron deity to earn XP (but only enough to get half-way to the next level of experience).

Anyway, the way I'm going to try to handle replacement is, every time a PC reaches a new level, all of the bullpen characters get an award of XP and gold. For example, when the first PC hits 4th level, all of the guys in the bullpen will receive enough XP to be at the midpoint of 2nd level, and enough gold to be at the wealth-by-level guidelines for 2nd level.

Then they have to roll on random tables for magic items. This campaign doesn't have a lot of high-end magic shops, so in general characters can't just go and buy any magic item they might want. Mainly they are stuck with what they find. The bullpen guys pick tables and roll (tables are for e.g. light armor, shields, med/heavy armor, melee weapons, potions, wondrous items, rings & wands) -- they then have to "buy" the item rolled at normal list price. If they can't afford it, they lose half of their on-hand gold and can't roll any more. They must continue rolling until they have spent at least half of their bonus gold for that level.

None of the items are really great (+1 enhancement, a few of the cheaper rings/wands, and so on). After getting items, they have the option to sell any items (at half price, of course).

I think this will give the bullpen characters some nice "shape" for not much effort. And by doing this as levels are earned by the party, rather than right before a new PC joins the group, there's less chance of the replacement PC being a carbon copy or perfect replacement for whatever character died -- a pet peeve of mine.

Nathan P. Mahney said...

The way you do it still feels to me like the bullpen characters aren't really earning their advancement. They advance through the efforts of the primary PC, which doesn't appeal to my sensibilities.

I'll agree that it would alleviate the problem of carbon copy characters, though. That used to irk me, but now I don't care. If a player wants to do that, that's his choice, and his way of enjoying the game.

Leland J. Tankersley said...

Originally we were going to have the players sometimes take the bullpen guys out for adventures, too. But it became apparent that there was going to be one primary party, and that the replacements weren't going to get enough face time to advance at the required pace to be suitable fallback characters. So we adapted our plans.

Another idea was to have other players rotate into the DM chair to run sideline adventures that these B-characters could adventure in, to advance them more naturally. But no one has stepped up to do that.

A problem I see with devising customization adventures/combats is that either it's completely random, or else you are in the position of deciding what special item(s) a replacement character has. I've personally been shying away from this kind of thing recently -- I prefer to devise some tables so I can retain at least some detachment. (Example: the characters want to buy some magic item. I have to decide whether it's available for purchase, or not. If I am just making this choice by fiat, then ultimately I am either satisfying or frustrating the players BY MY CHOICE. That leads to an unpleasant dynamic. Instead I developed 1 page of rules for randomly determining if item X is available for sale within community Y, and for what price (can also be usable for selling items). The old-school reliance on dice and tables has some nice side effects in this area.