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.


  1. They had a chart like this on the Labyrinth Lord forum, only used for bad guys.

    I like the direction you've taken with yours, though.

  2. Nice! Seems quite interesting. Want to see it used. :)

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