So, you’ve got a new character in the group. Whether it’s the result of irreversible character death, a new player, or just a character who didn’t live up to expectations, you as the GM need to decide how much experience to give the FNG  (‘Frakking New Guy/Girl). This decision may not be as easy as it seems.
Three major factors influence your decision, and the first two often conflict:
- Characters created at a certain experience level are more efficient than those who’ve gotten there ‘the hard way’. Deferred gratification is built into many systems. Experienced character builds can leverage ‘dead’ levels and feats that pay off later, and they haven’t spent any resources on short-term needs, like those ranks in Knowledge (obscure crap) that everyone had to take for that one quest.
- Organic character development takes time. Even at the geometric rate of AD&D’s character advancement, where the next level takes as much XP as you’ve earned your entire adventuring career so far, a new character can’t skip levels, and will still take a while to get from ‘zero to hero’. Still, organic characters are generally better invested in the world around them, and their character builds often reflect the setting as much as the rules.
- The gaming system has a say in your decision. Systems vary in how lethal they are to a less experienced character, and how they reward disparate experience levels. All editions of Dungeons & Dragons are pretty lethal to characters significantly below the average party level, but lower-level characters will advance faster than higher-level ones. On the other hand, Savage Worlds is generally less lethal to less-experienced characters, but all characters advance at the same rate.
Caveats: Some systems or gaming groups can ignore this question. Characters in advance-less systems like Spirit of the Century are all equally powerful. RP-heavy groups might not care about character optimization. Also, the Rambling Gnomes have touched on a similar situation here , but this is a bit more in-depth.
Optimized Machine or Organic Monster Chow?
I suggest a compromise: Start characters at the lowest level they can reasonably be expected to survive the campaign, and double their advancement rate until they reach the party’s XP range.
I did this in my last Savage Worlds campaign, and it worked like a charm. New characters were brought in, and they still had to survive the escalator to the party’s experience range, but they weren’t cursed by being behind the curve for the rest of their career. One unexpected result was that new characters relied heavily upon the party, and integrated that much faster. I found it to be a good balance for the system and the campaign. With some tweaks, it should work for other systems as well.
Other factors can increase their survivability, such as a full complement of gear that matches the rest of the party, some kind of “beginner’s luck” mechanic, or a one-use Ring of Resurrection.
If you want a rationale, remember that this ‘noob’ will be surrounded by a group of experienced and knowledgeable adventurers, all of whom are motivated to make sure the new guy gets as much advice and assistance as possible. It makes sense that they would get better, faster. (And if you read the Wikipedia article linked above, you’ll find that this is actually the exact opposite of how FNGs were treated.)
Agree? Disagree? Got another preferred method for maintaining the balance between survivability/playability and optimization? Sound off in the comments and let us know!