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The Rambling Gnomes: New Character, Experienced Group

Posted By Scott Martin On September 17, 2008 @ 1:22 am In GMing Advice | 18 Comments

Rambling Gnomes Here’s a question from frequent commenter BryanB, subjected to the ramblings of many a gnome. I was interested when I saw how similar the gnome responses are; clearly a reaction to our huddling in dark caves waiting for adventurers to walk by, lamenting our former PC status.

Please share the opinions of the sunlit word in comments! Take it away, Brian:

Have we had an article on this common d20 conundrum?
You have a group of 6th level characters and a new player joins the group.
Do you make the new guy the same level as the other PCs?
Do you have the new guy start a level or two lower than the other PCs?
Do you actually consider making the new guy start at first or second level?
What is the best thing to do when trying to balance fairness for the new guy and fairness for the players that have invested time and effort in your campaign?

It isn’t fair to have the new guy have a PC that is vastly outclassed BUT it doesn’t seem very fair to those who have leveled up from the beginning to have the new guy be completely equal in ability. Or does it? Where is the right balance?

Neagley Matthew started us off with a little math:

The linchpin is as follows: Back in 1e and 2e, when it was standard to start new characters at lvl 1, the experience point progression was algebraic. Each lvl required twice the xp total of the one before. Thus, the xp to get a character from the start of one level to the start of the next was equal to that character’s currently earned xp. This formula didn’t hold through name levels, but the benefits of name levels were noticeably less potent than the levels before with the exception of casters.

THUS, under the 1e 2e system, starting the new guy at 1 meant that by the time the group had earned enough xp the gain one level, the new guy had leveled up to the group’s current level and would remain one level behind them until name level.

The 3e 4e system is different. It’s expressed as a factorial function of 1000. Thus, starting the new guy at level 1 means that they will “catch up” to the current character’s levels once the xp gap (the current party’s level -1 factorial(1000)) is bridged within a single level. This means the new guy will catch up when the party hits the level equal to their xp/1000 +1. For example, a level 4 party (6000xp) gaining a new guy, will equalize levels with him by level 7. If they were level 5, they would need to get to level 11. At level 6, they need to reach level 16, and if they’re level 7 they’ll need to hit the level cap in 3e, or get to 22 in 4e.

This isn’t perfect math for 4e (it’s not exactly a factorial system) but it’s close.

Thus, in 3e or 4e it’s not as wise to start a player at level 1 because the amount of time there will be a power disparity will be MUCH longer.

Martin chimed in with:

It’s not New Guy’s fault he joined the campaign after it started, so why penalize him for it? He should start at the same level as everyone else. Every other solution to this “problem” is a complete non-starter for me as a player and as a GM, whether I’m New Guy, the GM running the game or one of the existing players.

If anything, whether New Guy gets to spend 100% of his recommended wealth per level as he sees fit — rather than spending it less than optimally, like a character who reached the same level organically — is fair to the other players. There I’d say no, it’s not really fair, but most groups won’t mind. If it’s a concern let him spend X% of it as he sees fit, and spend the rest for him.

Xcorvis added:

I think that the assumption that the accumulation of XP (and hence
levels) is a measure of player reward is fundamentally wrong. Playing is it’s own reward, and there’s no reason to penalize new players by crippling their characters. I would bring the new PC in at the average party XP.

If a GM suggested that I would join an existing campaign at more that 2 levels behind the rest of the party, I’d reconsider joining the game. A character that far behind is effectively useless.

Kurt responded with some mathematical analysis:

In addition to Matthew’s excellent math, the “power curve” for 1E/2E characters is different from 3E characters. Earlier editions have a more linear progression, while later versions are more geometric; a 3E character basically doubles in power every two levels. (Let’s not get into the “linear fighter” vs. “geometric caster” discussion here…)

That said, I do believe that a character created at an advanced level is generally more effective than one that was “grown from scratch”. Martin already mentioned the optimal magic item distribution. In addition, (in D&D terms) you can take feats like Spring Attack without having to take those boring pre-req feats like Dodge and Mobility. The same can be done with powerful Prestige Classes that build on less-than-powerful base classes (Shadowdancer, Mystic Theurge, etc). Also in D&D terms, it’s easier to optimize skills, since you didn’t need to take those few ranks of Knowledge (Planes) for that quick jaunt to the Outer Planes.

For this reason, I’m partial (in D&D 3.x terms) to starting a new player or new character at roughly 10% or one full level below the rest of the party. Existing players who want to bring in a new character pay this as well.

Regardless of your own choice, the DMG specifically mentions that nobody should start more than two levels below the party average. Survival becomes difficult at that point.

John Arcadian threw this in the stew pot:

I’m not sure I’ve ever started as a low level character with an existing higher level group. The game would be no fun at that point. I’d be watching my teammates and allies sweeping through the low level enemies I am still struggling with, making barter and manipulation rolls with more skills than I could bring to bear, and generally outdoing me in any way no matter how cool my character concept was.

To me, character level is a measure of power rank not reward. At times I’ve actually played the party’s henchman at 1/2 the party level and to much comedic effect, but that was a different situation and as my role was limited I was able to focus on only one or two areas instead of trying to make a usable well rounded character.

Here’s my take:

The fun part of gaming is playing. My games are so awesome that missing them is more punishment than any man or gnome should have to bear. Clearly, they have already suffered enough– I’d bring them in at the same level and have them progress in lockstep with the other characters. Magic items are a good place to differentiate; at low levels, I’d have the new character come in without magic and just increase the treasure handed out a bit to compensate. At higher level, I’d allow the character to walk on with 50% of the standard wealth expected and again increase the treasure handed out to PCs for a while to compensate.

You’ve heard from the gnomes. What do you say?

About  Scott Martin

Scott is an engineer turned gnome and game store owner. He lies awake at night building intriguing worlds and plotting your character's demise.

18 Comments (Open | Close)

18 Comments To "The Rambling Gnomes: New Character, Experienced Group"

#1 Comment By Cole On September 17, 2008 @ 7:24 am

In my games, new players start at the same level as the party, if an ongoing character dies, his replacement is 1 level below the party. That was a necessity in my games, since we use D&D 3.5 with dungeon like crawls every session.

#2 Comment By Rafe On September 17, 2008 @ 7:58 am

I’d also start the new player off at the same level as the party, however… for a player new to 4e (which, at this stage, is very likely), having up to 8 or 9 class powers, not counting any divine feats or racial powers, or magical item dailies, would be brutal and the player wouldn’t be responding at “full power” anyway.

The best scenario, in my opinion, is to have a one-off with the new player, as a 1st level PC. Use some simple combat encounters, test out a rudimentary skill challenge, and let the player sample and become accustomed to his or her first level powers as well as a magical item power. (I don’t know why, but magical item powers feel different, somehow, so I’d give the player a magical item so he or she can be used to the idea of using an item in the same way as class powers.)

Then advance the character equal to the party level and give it a go with the full group. The powers at 1st level are the most any PC gets at a single go. The rest all follow one at a time, so extras at this point are less of an issue. Encourage the new player especially to use power cards so he or she doesn’t have to scribble them down somewhere or have to reference the PHB. Quick reference takes a big bite out of the “what the hell am I doing?” issue which could cause a stall in your game.

As for wealth, I’d take a look at what the rest of the party has and give the new player the same “weight” (same level, magical item type, etc.) as the person in the group who has the fewest. So if someone has 4 magical items, and that person has the fewest, the new player gains 4 magical items. If no one has a +3 anything yet, don’t allow that. If everyone has 1 weapon, 1 armour, 1 neck and then a hand, arm or foot item, make sure the new player is given those slots as choices but no others. Anyhoo… fairness is the name of the game, basically.

#3 Comment By itliaf On September 17, 2008 @ 8:50 am

I agree with the general thrust of the comments so far: that it’s just cruel to hold new characters back more than a level. XP is something that really shouldn’t be messed with. Matthew’s math and the idea of changing starting treasure for new characters did get me thinking about the new math behind 4e. hp, attacks, damage and xp all scale in a strictly linear manner, but magic item values go up geometrically. You can get 5 +1 maces for the price of a +2 mace, and can equip a large army with (lvl5) +1 lightning weapons for the cost of a (lvl30) +6 vorpal sword. So new characters with no starting equipment whatsoever will catch up rather quickly, gear wise.

#4 Comment By LesInk On September 17, 2008 @ 8:59 am

Generally, I make the character come in be one level less than the lowest level character in the group and with starting XP for that level. In addition, I give them minimal magic items for that level (this is usually in GP equal to the table in the DMG). The existing characters usually have slightly better items.

The key, I find, is how I give out XP. I don’t just total up the XP and divide evenly. No, I give XP based on that character’s level. After an encounter, the lower level characters receive more XP than the higher level characters. Although this may seem unfair on the surface, it goes with the logic “a lower level character learns more by doing harder battles”. My group actually does not mind this method.

I should also point out I’ve been working through an interesting D&D 3.5 lawful evil campaign where the group started with two higher level characters (8th and 9th) and a group of 1st level characters. The high level characters served as the ‘watchers’ or ‘trainers’ of the lower level characters and they were told to keep the low level characters alive (or their master would punish them). The hardest part was to throw engaging combat that challenged everyone, but eventually a general pattern of 1 or 2 high level monsters with a horde of smaller monsters seemed to work (although the mage would blast many of them before his attention turned to the high level enemies attacking one of the weaker characters). The end effect (along with the above mentioned XP system) was that the low level characters were going up roughly 1 level every game while the higher level characters progressed at a more natural speed. Currently, 12 sessions later, the high level characters are 10th and 11th while the lower level characters are about 8th. Now, since this is an evil campaign, the lower level characters are speaking of overthrowing their unfit leaders … and since there are more of them than their leaders … okay, you get the picture.

The campaign has been an interesting exploration into level differences and I will say that there are certain character classes that suffer from the level difference more than others (for example, a monk) and that a GM will need to be willing to help the lower level classes progress faster or compensate with a few overpowered (for their level) items. Fun is still the keyword here and if it isn’t happening, you need to make quick and appropriate adjustments.

One last thing, if I had another player join this campaign right now, I would definitely not bring them in at 1st and would probable settle with the stated rules at the top of this message. Its one thing to be the only 1st level character in a group catching up for several sessions versus having several friends suffering together.

#5 Comment By baron On September 17, 2008 @ 9:46 am

I always just go with the addage of what’s going to be the most fun. Having a player well behind the power level of the others isn’t fun. I’ve normally just brought them in at the same level as the lowest level PC and then given them a stack of cash to spend as they will. There might even be a restriction on the max value of any individual item, but to be honest, as long as everyone is happy it’s never even been an issue in my games.

Why the lowest leveled PC? When I say lowest leveled I actually mean the same number of XP as they PC with the fewest XP. There isn’t normally much of a difference between lowest and highest, but what there is comes from bonus XP for a cracking bit of RP and a good recap of the week before (50 to 100 XP here and there).

Even the buying of magic kit has never been an issue, as there’s normally the understanding that I can vito anything unbalancing to the setting they’re playing in.

#6 Comment By BryanB On September 17, 2008 @ 11:00 am

Thanks for posting this topic Scott. It is nice to see that so many GMs are having a similar train of thought on this subject.

In a Star Wars Saga Edition game that we have coming up, the PCs have achieved 6th level based on their heroic exploits during the last installment. We have a new PC joining in and he will be bringing our group up to a total of four PCs.

I’ve been thinking about what level to start him at and level 5 seemed like a good choice. It seems as though my intuition has been serving me well. Given the experience required to achieve level seven, the odds are that he will catch up to the PCs (level wise) before the original PCs level up again. Once everyone has gained a few more levels, there won’t be a difference at all in their base capabilities.

#7 Comment By Scott Martin On September 17, 2008 @ 11:08 am

Thanks for weighing in everyone, though I’m still a little disappointed that no one has taken up the “make them suffer, it makes them stronger” point of view. (Though LesInk’s experience sounds like an interesting campaign.)

#8 Comment By Target On September 17, 2008 @ 11:17 am

When I get my Starship Troopers game off the ground I may let you know, Scott. I’m toying with the idea of having ‘replacement’ characters arive fresh out of boot camp. I’ll probably have to accelerate their advancement, but I was thinking about ignoring the XP table anyway.

#9 Comment By Walt Ciechanowski On September 17, 2008 @ 11:44 am

I guess this Gnomie will chime in late :)

Matt’s math is a bit off (or mine is, at which case this gnomie will die of embarassment!). Under the “doubling” XP system of 1e/2e, the new PC will get one level behind by the time the old PCs level up again. After that, the new PC will only be a half-level behind the others.

Back on point: I think it revolves around a number of factors, such as:

1. The lethality rate of the game (how often are new PCs being introduced?).

2. The waiting period between new characters (if Snort the Barbarian gets killed in the Day Spa of Doom, can Snort’s player bring in Upchuck the Ranger before the party moves on the the Blowdryer Trapped Room or does he need to wait until after the party leaves the DSD and gets back to town?).

3. Does the GM hand out bonus XP (for good roleplaying; increased challenge, etc)?

As a player, I wouldn’t mind joining a game late if I had a chance to mitigate or catch up to the other PCs, but I certainly wouldn’t want to be penalized over the course of the entire campaign for it.

As a GM, I usually give the new PC the average amount of XP that the party has. However, I also don’t allow replacement characters to just drop in; I bring them in at the earliest rational opportunity.

#10 Comment By nblade On September 17, 2008 @ 2:58 pm

It’s been a long time since I’ve thought about this issue. I use to be very strict with these sort of things. It use to matter when and where a player started. But with one thing about having a family, it’s a really free time killer. With that means what gaming I do get to do, is with whoever I can find at the time. This means players sometime disappear between session in the middle of an adventure. While I still try to end sessions at a place where players can come and go,this is not always possible. So, I don’t fret of it too much anymore. And since all my players have the same time crunch problem, they are fairly forgiving. As the main question, I usually start a new player off at what ever level the lowest party member is with just the right amount of XP to get them there. The new player doesn’t get a huge bonus nor is he at a loss. Since not all players play every session, it tends to work out that they advance about the same time anyway.

#11 Comment By BryanB On September 17, 2008 @ 3:48 pm

@Scott Martin – One of my old game masters did it “by the book.” We had first level PCs joining tenth level ones. It was a lot like being a red shirt straight out of the Starfleet Academy.

I remember being quite paranoid and jumpy all of the time. I volunteered to carry a lot of loot as I recall. This would enable me to stay in the middle of the pack (our groups were usually eight or nine PCs back then) and cautiously gain group XP until I wouldn’t be killed by a giant’s sneeze.

After going through four first level characters in one game session, I told the GM, “There has to be a better way to do this.” He reluctantly decided to make new PCs half the level of the highest level member of the party, much to the joy of all. Positive changes in GM policy are a good thing, especially when one gets to put away their worn out red shirt.

#12 Comment By Lee Hanna On September 17, 2008 @ 5:46 pm

I (and most of my group, I think) are in the “one level down” school. Given that in 3.x, xp awards are also scaled to levels, we’ve seen new PCs catch up really quickly; as well as PCs who have died once or twice across 15 levels in the longest game we’ve played so far. Dying more often, however, seems to keep one permanently behind the pack (warmages seem to draw the enemy’s attention).

#13 Comment By Swordgleam On September 17, 2008 @ 9:33 pm

@Scott Martin – I don’t support that theory myself, but just to be devil’s advocate: If you’ve got a party of 10th-level PCs out heroing, they’re going to be some of the most powerful people out there. Wouldn’t they have heard of another, equally powerful hero before he dropped out of the sky and into their laps? It makes more story sense to have a new PC start at a lower level.

#14 Comment By Kurt “Telas” Schneider On September 17, 2008 @ 11:14 pm

@Swordgleam – Oh yeah, they’ve definitely heard of him. That bit of information just wasn’t important enough to mention… yet. ;-)

#15 Comment By Matthew J. Neagley On September 18, 2008 @ 11:45 am

Yeah, I think you’re right Walt. They’re not a FULL level behind the rest of the group which means sometimes they’re numerically the same level sometimes they’re one down.

#16 Comment By Walt Ciechanowski On September 18, 2008 @ 12:27 pm

Matt – No worries; I had to chart it all out in order to figure it out (I’d always assumed, like you did, that it was a full level during the “doubling” levels.

We also should remember that in earlier editions different classes advanced at different rates (IIRC, the 1e Druid advanced at an extremely quick pace), so your class choices also made a big difference.

#17 Comment By Swordgleam On September 18, 2008 @ 9:18 pm

I seem to have utterly missed something when it comes to all this nostalgia for the broken 1e druids. Our druid just sat around repeatedly asking, “Is it cloudy out yet?” Even if we were in a desert. Or indoors. I can’t recall him ever doing anything useful enough to suggest class brokenness.

#18 Comment By Walt Ciechanowski On September 19, 2008 @ 12:12 pm

Swordgleam – Now I seem to have missed something. What does a 1e druid’s level progression have to do with nostalgia?

I was never a big fan of druids either and could never understand why there couldn’t be druid-rangers (although I think UA 1e listed them, but it was an error IIRC), since they sounded like a natural fit (bad pun intended).

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