Sunday, July 24, 2011

A system for determining starting character level

In my last post I talked about some ideas I had to solve the problem of what level I should introduce new PCs at. I’ve been getting annoyed at the way these guys just show up a out of the blue with no history, not having earned the levels they have. So here’s an example to illustrate the system I’m tinkering with.

Okay, so Jim-Bob’s character was just eaten by a ghast, and it’s time for him to introduce his new character. He decides to play as a fighter named Brorg, a wild hillman from the north. Normally I would have had him start at 4th level (two levels below the lowest level character in the party), but instead I decide to use the system below.

First we determine the maximum level that this character can be. This is easily done, as it’s the same level as the highest level character in the party. In this case, Brorg could potentially begin the game at 6th level.

Next we need to work out the pivotal encounters of Brorg’s adventuring life thus far. There will be one such encounter per level to be gained. Brorg will have five encounters that could possibly raise him to 6th level (he gets level 1 for free).

It’s chart time!

Roll - Encounter Type
1-3 - Combat (CR -1)
4-10 -  Combat (Equal CR)
11-13 - Combat (CR +1)
14-15 - Skill Challenge (Easy)
16-18 - Skill Challenge (Medium)
19-20 - Skill Challenge (Difficult)

Brorg rolls on this chart five times and gets the following results: two combats with an opponent one level lower than himself, one combat with an opponent equal to his level, a difficult skill challenge, and a medium skill challenge.

Easy combat:

Brorg has an encounter with an opponent whose Challenge Rating is one lower than his own level. Since he begins at level 1 this isn’t possible, so he’ll have to fight something with a CR of ½. There are 24 such monsters in the 3rd edition Monster Manual, and a random roll gives me the result of a locathah. A weird result for a northern hillman, but such are the vagaries of random tables. Brorg must fight it out with this Locathah, and the table below determines how well he has done.

Result - Reward
PC loses battle - Nothing
PC wins, but has lost over half hit points - 50% chance of level gain or treasure (player’s choice)
PC wins, but is wounded - Level gain, 50% chance of treasure
PC wins without being harmed - level gain and treasure

Brorg wins this combat, and only loses a couple of hit points. He advances to second level, and also has a 50% chance to gain some treasure. The dice favour him, and Brorg gets to roll on Table 3-5: Treasure in the Dungeon Master’s Guide. Alas, all he finds is a lowly 500 silver pieces, but it’s better than nothing.

Medium Combat:

Brorg now has an encounter with a creature of a level equal to his own. He’s at level 2 now, and there are 45 monsters of the same level in the Monster Manual. Oh no, it’s a monitor lizard! Hardly the stuff of legend. Brorg has a hard time of it fighting this guy, and gets hammered before taking it down. With only a couple of hit points left, he gets a 50% chance of gaining some benefit. If the roll goes against him, he gains neither treasure nor a level.  If the roll goes in his favour, he can choose to either gain a level or roll for treasure. Luckily for Brorg he rolls well, and chooses to advance to third level.

Difficult Skill Challenge:

Brorg has to make a difficult skill challenge, which I am defining as three skill checks of Difficulty Class equal to 20 plus your level (which in this case would be DC 23). We need to randomly determine what skills will be tested. The three I got via random determination were Sleight of Hand, Survival and Craft. It’s up to the DM and player involved to come up with a rationale for the three skills required. The above three to me seem like Brorg went on an arduous quest into the wastelands to recover a treasure and fashion it into a gift for his chieftain. Anyway, Brorg fails the Sleight of Hand and Craft checks, but makes the Survival check. Let’s consult the table below.

Result - Reward
PC fails all three skill checks - Nothing
PC makes one skill check - 50% chance of level gain or treasure (player’s choice)
PC makes two skill checks - Level gain, 50% chance of treasure
PC makes all skill checks - Level gain and treasure

Again, Brorg has a 50% chance of gaining a reward. He makes a bad roll, and is stuck at 3rd level.

Medium Skill Challenge:

I’m defining a medium skill challenge as three skill checks of DC 15 plus your level (in this case 18). Random determination this time gives us these skills: Intimidate, Intimidate, and Concentration. Perhaps Brorg was sent to browbeat some lesser tribes into submission, and had to impress them by firing an arrow while his hair was set on fire. Brorg makes all three challenges, is raised to 4th level, and also gets to roll for some treasure. Given that this is a medium challenge, Brorg rolls on the level equal to his own on the treasure table (3rd level – always roll for treasure before levelling up!). He ends up with 100 gold pieces and a minor magic item: a potion of spider climb.

Easy combat:

Brorg gets another easy combat. Now that he is 4th level, he has to fight something of CR 3. A derro! Alas, the little bugger’s poison use and spell-like abilities do Brorg in, and he loses the battle. No level gain or treasure for him this time.

So that leaves Brorg at 4th level, pretty much where he would have been had I went with my usual method. He does have a little more treasure, and a minor magical item, which is more than I would normally give out; I don’t allow new characters to start with treasure beyond a normal first level character. What he does have now is some background. He’s a hill tribesman, but it might be worth making him from warmer climes given the encounters he had early on. He went on some raids with his fellow tribesmen on a number of locathah settlements. Once proven as a warrior he was sent across a lizard-infested wasteland to get back his clan’s stolen ruby, but he was unable to do so. Still later he was part of an expedition sent to intimidate some villages into servitude, and was forced to beat them in an archery contest while they set his hair on fire to impress them. Later he set out alone for a life of dungeon delving adventure, and deep in the underground he had a disastrous encounter with a derro. After his first setback as a solo adventurer he decides to seek out some companions, and that’s where he comes in to the campaign.

Obviously this system could become unwieldy at higher levels, but by that point the PCs have access to raise dead, so it’s pretty unlikely that it will get used beyond level 8 or 9.

Note that at no point can the character die during this process.  The combats involved here are symbolic of the trials the character went through to gain those levels, rather than representing actual combats that he fought.

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.

Monday, July 11, 2011

Post-Game Roundup

Finally, after three long years, I have played D&D.  It was a good session, though not a great one.  It's to be expected after such a long hiatus.

The first thing to note is that I was incredibly rusty and self-conscious.  In my old games I was guilty of some amateur dramatics when acting out my NPCs, and it took me a little while until I was comfortable doing that again.  It probably didn't help that there were some non-gamers floating around.  It took until the first combat for me to get back into the groove.  The next session won't be at least for another month, but I suspect that I'll be better next time.

The game itself was supposed to focus on the siege of the PCs' home base by an army of orcs, but we didn't really get that far.  (It's always the way; we never get through as much stuff as I'd like to.)  While the siege was going on, the players spent most of their time exploring a dungeon full of wonders from a previous age, looking for things that can help them beat the orcs.  The first thing they dealt with was a pit to the land of the dead that they had found last session, from which they could summon people back to life.  (Read my last post for some of the issues surrounding this.)  They submitted their freakishly long list of fifteen characters, and had to defeat a skeletal monster of my own devising to get them back.  The catch was that this monster had an extra hit dice for every dead person requested, so I ended up with four characters of level 6-8 against a 20 hit dice monster.  They would probably have died, except that I went a bit stupid with the magic items in the last session.

They have what I named an Arcane Warsuit, which is kind of like a small mech with wands mounted on the arms like a gatling gun.  I think I got overexcited when designing this thing, because I'd forgotten that it has the capacity to fire meteor swarms, and to cast disintegrate.  I don't know what I was thinking.  Luckily it's an experimental model, and it's eventually going to explode and mess up whoever is inside it at the time.  No such luck this time, but eventually the dice will fall that way if the PCs keep using it.  In this game the meteor swarms may have saved them from a TPK, so I don't mind.

So the PCs destroyed the skeletal guardian and resurrected a bunch of guys, including three very high level fighters.  Legendary guys like King Peramis I, the First King of Men, and Gwynian Purehand, founder of the order of paladins.  I think I managed to succeed in having them not take over the game, but I was helped in that most of the action took place in the dungeon and not during the siege.  What did happen was that a lot of my long-standing NPCs got lost in the shuffle, including one guy who I want to make the shift into major antagonist very shortly.  I have to remember not to get too caught up in playing the high-level guys.

The majority of the rest of the game involved a lot of the players following clues and deliberating about how to follow them.  And I do mean deliberating; I threw them a number of nuggets to help them get where they wanted to go.  They did find the Skull of Vecna, a leftover from my 2e campaign, which they may be able to use to raise an undead army.  They also found "The Body of the Light", part of my campaign's shattered sun god.  This one involved a lot more difficulty, in that it was housed in a series of rooms full of random teleporters, each room with a monster inside it.  The result was a lot of bouncing from room to room with characters getting into solo combat.  It was fun at first, but eventually the random teleporting got a bit tiresome.  It even resulted in the death of the thief, who was unlucky enough to be paralysed by a ghast and eaten alive.

The biggest problem with the game was that I crashed and burned at around midnight.  Perhaps it had something to do with me getting up at 7:30 am and looking after three kids all morning.  It could just be that I'm three years older than I was the last time I played.  But it wasn't just that I got tired; my head was friggin' killing me.  I seriously could not think any more.  I frequently stay up until 2 or 3 in the morning without any ill-effects, but for some reason D&D just fries my brain.  If anyone knows how to head that off, I'd appreciate the help.

The next game should wrap up this whole siege thing.  The players have the means in their hands of repelling the invasion already; they could seriously wrap this baby up in about an hour.  But I figure that with all of their deliberating and dithering around that will stretch out to a decent session.