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Starting at Higher Level

Some of your stories may involve a higher power scale than starting off at “level one” or the equivalent in your game system. Perhaps the tale you want to tell with your players is on a greater epic scale. Perhaps you tire of struggling to keep those lower-level characters alive. Perhaps it’s just time to tell a story involving higher powers, increased competence, and more daring dangers. Regardless of your reasons for wanting to start at a higher level, there are some considerations to take into account with firing up a campaign with higher level characters.

Baked In Power Levels

Quite a few systems have higher power levels baked right in. I’m mainly thinking of point-buy systems, such as GURPS, Hero System, and similar games. These are the “easy route” for starting at higher power levels. Just provide more points or higher levels of points acquired via disadvantages. There are also character generation systems, such as Traveller, which can produce more potent characters. Another system is the Dresden Files RPG, which includes different power levels for the PCs to play with. The main thing to keep in mind here is that all players should start out at the same power base.

Non-Level Experience Point Systems

Some systems, such as Savage Worlds, MechWarrior, Top Secret S/I, Fate Core, and Paranoia increase the power of the character via gaining experience points that are then spent or applied toward increases in skills, abilities, special powers, equipment, and other items that make the character a more powerful force in the world. My advice here is to tell the players that they’ll be playing higher level characters, but to create a “baseline” character just like they normally would. Then provide them with the amount of experience or advancement points you want them to have. This will reduce the information overload which can lead to analysis paralysis.

 Reduce information overload which can lead to analysis paralysis. 
If they have their starting character to build on first, the players can then focus in on how to improve what they have. If they get their experience points up front, then they’ll start looking at the higher power stuff and trying to figure out how to get there. Since the combination of “starter” and higher level powers can be overwhelming, the players might spend longer than you want them to spend while deciding where to take their character. The baseline character will provide a creative compass to focus their efforts on advancement.

Another approach is to dole out the experience points in chunks. In Savage Worlds, it takes five points to advance something. Instead of giving the players 30 points to play with, it might be wise to not tell them the max amount they’ll get. Just give them five, wait for everyone to do their quick advancement decision, then give them another five, and repeat this process until you’ve reached your predetermined maximum. This may sound like a slow way of doing things, but it can actually speed up the character creation process.

Level-Gain Experience Point Systems

With games like Dungeons and Dragons, Pathfinder, Starfinder, and so many others, characters gain their new abilities, spells, powers, and such when they achieve a new level. My recommendation here is to strongly advise the GM to have the players make a first level character. Then dole out the levels one at a time until they’ve reached the level you want them to be. I’ve seen GMs arrive at the game and drop the bomb, “Make a 12th level character,” and then the players struggle for a full session (sometimes two!) to get things “just right.” Making the level advancement more organic will speed things up. The GM can inform the players that they’ll be making a character higher than first level, but don’t tell them the final target.

 Start at first level, then dole out the experience points or levels. 
If you’re setting up the game beforehand and allow the players to roll their stats and create the character prior to “session zero” where they all meet up and start adventuring, then the players will have more time to work on their characters. In this case, telling the players what their target level is and to show up with a “12th level character” is perfectly fine.

Money and Equipment

There are two approaches here.

The GM can assign gear (magical or otherwise) appropriate to each character. However, this takes quite a bit of time on the GM’s part, and the gear might not be exactly what the player wants for their character.

The other approach is to give out a certain amount of currency for the game, and tell the players to go hog wild spending on what they want. Just make sure the money is in alignment with the level of the characters. Dropping 30,0000 GP on a 4th level character is probably excessive in D&D. If this approach is used, I recommend setting limitations on the spending. Something like, “No more than half your money can go toward a single item.” This will prevent that special player from spending 100% of their money on a single, incredibly powerful item that can unbalance the game and ruin the story.

World Benefits

Separate from extra powers and equipment, work with the players to determine if their character has accolades, titles, land holdings, a headquarters, and other world benefits. Sometimes, this is built into the point buy systems, so encouraging (or requiring) a certain number of points be dedicated to “worldly goods” like a headquarters might be appropriate for the game. It all depends on the type of story you want to tell.

If you’re going with a system where level does not equate to titles and land holdings, you can give the players a separate pool of money that can be spent on things like this. Just be very clear that this monetary gain is not to be spent on equipment or items specific to their character. I’d also make this pool of money in the style of “use it or lose it.” No banking the money for later use. I like this approach because it gives more freedom to the players on getting what they want and encourages them to establish themselves in the world.

Allocate Time

Building higher level characters takes more time than building a base character. Most “session zero” events that I’ve held take about half the session to get the numbers down on the character sheets and the other half to get the characters together in the world and establish the where, when, what, and basics of the start of the campaign. Obviously, with more things to choose from and more items to purchase, extra time will be needed to get the first half of the session finished. Odds are that it will take the entire “session zero” to get the characters created, so don’t get frustrated at the extra time it will take for the players to make their decisions.

 Building higher level characters takes more time than building a base character. 
Don’t worry, you (the GM) won’t be sitting there bored while you watch people pick through core books and expansions. The players are going to have tons of questions about how certain powers work, what books they can use, where they can find certain information, and how certain things work in the world you’re going to be running the campaign in. If anything, you’ll be busier than the deli guy when the number machine is broken. You’ll be hit from different directions with wildly different questions. Take them one at a time and get back to the players as you can.

Leveraging Technology

As most folks know, the higher the level of the characters, the more crunchy the math gets with powers and abilities and stacked numbers and equipment and such. The rules get a bit more complex at higher levels because of the increased abilities of the powers. This is where software like PCGen and Hero Lab can come into play to help the players keep their characters straight. Yes, this means allowing laptops and tablets at the table, but so long as you are not incredibly opposed to this, it’s a good thing to let the players use. It might even speed things up if the players are comfortable with the software they’re using.

Adjusting the Encounters

Once the characters are made and it’s time to roll into the world with your story, the encounters will need to be adjusted to the power level of the characters. The only reason I mention this is that I’ve made the mistake of forgetting to do this. I took an intro adventure for first level characters and ran fourth level characters through it. It started as a cakewalk because it completely slipped my mind that, “first session does not equal first level.” I completely failed in my preparations. Fortunately, I recovered after the first two encounters (and a couple of questioning glances from my players) and managed to adjust on the fly to increase the challenge. Make sure you have in mind what the challenges, traps, monsters, riddles, and social encounters have to offer to put the PCs to the test are.

Adjusting the Storyline

Most stories start out with the PCs barely able to do small things to alter the world. That’s not the case with higher level characters, especially if you start at the extremes of height in the power structure. Who have the characters already met? What contacts/friends/enemies do they have in the world? Have the characters already “saved the day” in some smaller manner in the past? How does society view them? Are there members of organizations (church, guild, army, leadership, councils, etc.) that will want or need things from them? Can the characters lean on someone else for assistance, monetary or otherwise? Do they have henchmen? Do they have apprentices, squires, or assistants?

 Most stories start out with the PCs barely able to do small things to alter the world. 
These higher level characters didn’t leap from their players’ foreheads fully formed. There needs to be a backstory and history to them. Of course, if you’re doing an old school dungeon crawl, perhaps you can go lighter on the backstory. However, if you’re interested in telling a story that involves interaction with NPCs in the world, some of these details are going to need to be figured out. Probably not to the extent of a full world-building bible like what some authors do for their novels, but there need to be some hooks to grab onto here and there.

Underlings

If the characters are high enough level, they may have followers of some sort. This provides a wonderful opportunity for the players to create (usually after session zero) lower level characters for them to control in side quests or alternate story arcs. I’ve seen this done to good effect, but it can be overwhelming for the players if you show up and tell them something along the lines of, “You’ll be making a 12th level character, a 4th level character, and a 1st level character.” Dropping three characters on the table is rough. Start with the main character, and then slowly ease into the creation of the lower level underlings. Maybe allow the players to create those lower-level characters on their own time between sessions.

Conclusion

While starting at higher levels can be daunting for some players, especially those newer to the hobby, it can be quite fun to unleash the powers and abilities of the more potent characters without spending the weeks, months, and years of getting them to those levels. I don’t recommend this become your normal mode of starting games, but it is a refreshing change of pace.

Have you ever started a game at higher levels? How did that work out for you? Any words of warning or encouraging advice for your fellow Gnome Stew readers?

6 Comments (Open | Close)

6 Comments To "Starting at Higher Level"

#1 Comment By Lugh On August 23, 2017 @ 11:15 am

I love the concept of setting aside a resource pool for “buying” worldly ties. So much here for a title, so much there for a bit of land, a touch to be married, and a big chunk sunk into a major organization owing you a BIG favor. For those systems that don’t make these things actual mechanics, this is a great way to get the “so what did you do on your way to 12th level?” conversation moving.

#2 Comment By J.T. Evans On August 26, 2017 @ 12:35 pm

Thanks for the wonderful feedback. When we did this recently (someone else was the GM), I almost wished he had reversed the money. In other words, give me more money for the “worldly goods” and less for the magic items. However, it’s his game to run, and I have to measure myself and my suggestions to make sure I don’t stomp all over his style of running the game in the manner he wants.

#3 Comment By Blackjack On August 23, 2017 @ 11:21 am

I like the approach of building higher power characters by starting with a “base” character and adding points or levels a few at a time. In addition to reducing the analysis-paralysis problem (which IMO comes largely from excessive min-maxing, a behavior I try to discourage in my games) it also drives the creation of PCs with richer backstories. Ask players to create 12th level characters off the bat and likely it won’t be done with much thought to background. Where players even bother, it’ll be a 2D-ish description in which basically the character was a paler version of itself until today. Asking the same players to create 1st level characters, then update them to 4th, then update them to 8th, etc., leads to characters with interesting twists and turns in their own backgrounds.

Even better, instruct your players to build their characters at each level with a party goal in mind. This prods them to think about choices their characters would make along the way to meet challenges in the moment, rather than simply focusing on where they’d be years later in a perfect world. I’ve seen this lead to a lot of fun a colorful PC backstories.

For example, there was the rogue who was a barge captain when she was younger. The party needed a way to explore dangerous nearby islands, and that’s what they came up with. Then there was the dancing paladin. Courtly graces were important to the challenges she faced at low level, so she invested skill points in dancing at balls. In both cases I allowed the players to retrain away from these skills at higher level so they didn’t feel like they’d wasted their points in abilities that wound up being worthless for the story later on. But without going through this exercise we’d never have had the gentrified, city-dwelling rogue who was once a salty ship captain or the paladin at the head of her order who used to know how to bust a move.

#4 Comment By J.T. Evans On August 26, 2017 @ 12:37 pm

Thanks for input and feedback. You’re absolutely right that the characters should level up together in the stages to help ensure party cohesion and fewer min/max approaches in building these more powerful characters. I also like the idea of doling out multiple levels at a time, instead of one at a time. This is probably a good idea to balance the speed of character creation vs. the need to step things up in phases.

#5 Comment By Nojo On August 23, 2017 @ 6:32 pm

Great post.

Boosting the power is more important in a game with a lot of power gain from start to finish, like D&D, than those with smaller boosts, like Night’s Black Agents. An NBA character at the end of a campaign is more powerful, but certainly not twice as powerful as when they started. A 5E character at 20th level is easily 10 to 20 times as powerful.

Also, the number of levels. My campaigns tend to last about 25 – 30 sessions. You can gain all six tiers in a Numenera campaign, or all ten levels in a 13th Age campaign, but 20? Assuming you care about seeing the end-game.

Unless I have a new player, I always start a 5E campaign at least at 3rd level. My players call 1st and 2nd level the “training wheels” levels.

#6 Comment By J.T. Evans On August 26, 2017 @ 12:39 pm

I also start out my level-based games at higher levels. Usually in the 3-5 range, depending on what I’m going for. I especially do this with players that are new to the game, but I cap the starting level at 3rd level to keep from overwhelming them. The reason I like to start brand new players with a little more capability is that they’re prone to make tactical mistakes, put themselves in tight spots without realizing it, or choose sub-optimal builds. All of these make for great story fodder, but if one mistake results in the loss of just a handful of hit points, that could spell the end for a first level character. I really don’t want to introduce a person to the hobby of role playing by killing their character in the first encounter.