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XP and the FNG

Posted By Kurt "Telas" Schneider On March 8, 2012 @ 12:00 am In GMing Advice | 18 Comments

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!

About  Kurt "Telas" Schneider

Kurt Schneider played D&D in 1979 at summer camp, and was hooked. He lives with his wife, daughters, and dog in Austin TX, where he writes stuff, and tries to stay get fit. Look for his rants under the nom de web Telas or TelasTX. Quote: “A game is only as balanced – or as good – as the GM."




18 Comments (Open | Close)

18 Comments To "XP and the FNG"

#1 Comment By Noumenon On March 8, 2012 @ 6:28 am

I really like the idea. It’ll make the original character creation much quicker too.

Do you have any way to get them catchup treasure to match the XP?

#2 Comment By lady2beetle On March 8, 2012 @ 6:33 am

I joined an RP-focused campaign once where the GM asked me to start at level 1 even though the rest of the party was around level 10. It was horrible. Not only was I absolutely useless, but they treated me that way too. They wanted me to be basically a tag-a-long with no input in the game until I caught up because there was no reason for these level 10 heros to listen to a level 1 newb. The GM’s NPCs were even hugely more powerful than me and had more say in the party’s decisions. In the end, I left and it is something I will never again agree to in any group.

Starting characters at a lower level where they can still survive may be okay, but I would caution anyone who does that to make sure the new player doesn’t feel like less of a hero because of it. It was the most horrible experience of my RPG life.

#3 Comment By gamenightpainter On March 8, 2012 @ 9:02 am

Our gaming group has never had a problem with this. No one in our group seems to mind the new person joining in at the same level as the rest of the party. It also helps that most of the people that GM in our group will allow rebuilds. It will usually cost a pretty penny for the player, but it allows players to drop abilities that didn’t work out as well as they’d hoped.

We’ve even had people join as one character, the GM kill them as an NPC when they’re not around, and they will reroll another character if they come back. No one in our group has ever seemed to mind, and it certainly lets you try out new classes.

#4 Comment By Razjah On March 8, 2012 @ 9:17 am

For D&D et al. I allow them to come in at the same level, it is too annoying to deal with as a player, and as GM- making sure that they can pass DCs and other things.

Savage Worlds I had someone come in when the party was Seasoned- they started Novice, it worked great. This was made easier because one other player just had a character die, introducing two people at once was easier than one person than another a week or two later.

Mouse Guard- never had a problem with someone starting as a tenderpaw when others were stronger- game encourages it.

#5 Comment By Kurt “Telas” Schneider On March 8, 2012 @ 9:43 am

@Noumenon – A few options: That ‘happy circumstance’ where they find exactly the treasure the FNG needs. Bring the noob on with far more treasure his or her their level normally allows, through whatever windfall method you desire (rich aunt’s passing, stumbling on a lost stash, etc). The rest of the party can chip in to gear up the noob, since their survival and his or hers are now linked. And if the dear departed character was that ‘rich aunt’, all the better…

@lady2beetle – Ouch. That sounds less like an RP-centric game than a GM-centric game… I’m glad you got that behind you.

@gamenightpainter – Sounds like a good group.

@Razjah – The system is indeed a major factor here; I used the Sidekick Edge in Savage Worlds, and brought in a 0 level character to a 120 XP game. She wasn’t the most effective at first, but she made it through fine.

It occurred to me this morning that accelerated promotion to a certain level would also be a good way to keep the ‘teamwork break-in period’ that is important to tactical games, but would also quickly make the party strong enough to handle a specific adventure or campaign.

#6 Comment By Roxysteve On March 8, 2012 @ 9:45 am

Your Savage Worlds solution is…brilliant! I stealz it now.

The rules in D&D3.5 about character renewal/replacement were never used by anyone with the result that the spells for bringing characters back from the dead were ludicrously underpriced and death had no downside.

#7 Comment By Roxysteve On March 8, 2012 @ 9:48 am

@lady2beetle – Passive-aggressive bullshirt like that is the hallmark of a bunch of sad gits.

#8 Comment By Roxysteve On March 8, 2012 @ 9:55 am

*Is* spirit of the century “advanceless”? I rather thought the advancement was done using skill boosts (which to be sure seems a complex and annoying business to me but then I don’t play FATE system very often).

It’s funny that the question never arises in Call of Cthulhu, which has two advancement tracks: Skill boosts and Cthulhu Mythos acquisition (three if you play like one of my players: with an eye on the final descent into irretrievable madness).

I think it is the presence of those level-based extras (feats, class abilities and edges) that causes the trouble. If it were simply a matter of hit points and skill increases I think there would be fewer problems for all.

Of course, it is the presence of these extras that make the game what it is.

#9 Comment By Svafa On March 8, 2012 @ 10:24 am

In D&D and similar systems I usually bring in new characters at the same level as the lowest party member. It usually works well, but occasionally benefits from adjustment depending on the campaign and party composition.

For games without as much an emphasis on level progression, I just let them start from scratch. Doing so is simpler and quicker and there normally aren’t major penalties for being behind the rest of the group.

Lately, I’ve been looking at E8 and similar systems for our next game, partly to allow for a more deadly campaign without the worry of level differences.

#10 Comment By Lee Hanna On March 8, 2012 @ 12:02 pm

Our house rule has been “party level-1″ for a long time. With the advent of scaled xp awards from D&D 3.5, it sometimes became “party level/2″, since the newb can catch up much more quickly.

For Savage Worlds (different group), we’ve allowed new PCs to enter at 1/2 the xp, as well, and haven’t really noticed a difference.

#11 Comment By Knight of Roses On March 8, 2012 @ 12:17 pm

Similar to the solution I usually use for when I GM point based games, have a block of points less than the PCs get get more points per adventure until it is (more or less) even.

For My current PF game, I have been having everyone at the same level but I might make a new player come in at one level lower and level up after that first game, just for variety.

#12 Comment By BishopOfBattle On March 8, 2012 @ 2:00 pm

I do like your Savage Worlds solution and would steal that in an instant for any fantasy / attribute heavy games.

My group plays Shadowrun, a game where equipment/money plays as heavy of a roll if not more so than their attributes. When we had a player retire his character and bring in a new one, I found it worked well to just let him create a new character with the same amount of upgrade points he had earned with his prior character, but not all the extra money (I did give him a little bit of extra money, but certainly not as much as he had earned). The character started out more or less on par with the party physically, but was somewhat behind them in terms of gear, which worked with his new character concept.

#13 Comment By Kurt “Telas” Schneider On March 8, 2012 @ 2:52 pm

@Roxysteve – Actually, I think D&D’s hit point and saving throw progression is what makes inexperienced characters less likely to survive. The feats and abilities and such do make them more effective. (Survivability and effectiveness are necessary for ‘fun’, IMHO.)

#14 Comment By Lord Inar On March 8, 2012 @ 8:09 pm

I guess I’m 100% player centric. Whatever the player wants to do is fine by me. Some want to start lower because they don’t know the system that well. Some want to be at the same level. That’s fine too. I will agree that it is easier to optimize if you’re building to a certain level, but those FNGs usually don’t come in with the equipment the others have gathered so it pretty much works out.

#15 Comment By mcmanlypants On March 9, 2012 @ 8:09 am

In our D&D group we try to maintain a party-wide XP level, with anyone who makes individual choices that would given them an XP total different from the group baseline (crafting wondrous items, for instance) being trusted to track that themselves. It’s largely a cultural thing for our group after so many years of AD&D and its XP thresholds for leveling having varied from one class to another (at least, IIRC, which is iffy – not a systems guy). When a new character is brought in, or a character returns (we rotate DMs, with DMs’ PCs stepping out of the narrative in ways that allow them to return) we just bring them in at the party XP total, period, with the DM making a judgment call about their wealth level so that they are more or less equal to the rest of the group. I can absolutely see someone being brought in a little under the party level if they thought they would enjoy that challenge but generally we just want to have fun, solve problems, explore tactics and craft a good story and smoothing over the complexities of mechanics by making everyone or the vast majority of everyone have the same XP total throughout tends to help us achieve those goals.

On the occasions when I’ve had a new character join a World of Darkness game, I’ve done the same. I tend to grant a bloc of XP at the beginning of those games, for all the new characters being created, and latecomers get that same one-time bonus plus the XP I’ve given out in the meantime. I prefer to maintain mechanical parity so that PCs can shine (or not) as a result of the choices of the player and the roll of the dice rather than anything else. Again, though, I confess to being way more into it as a collaborative storytelling exercise than anything else. Wargamers, for instance, would just hate playing with me and I totally respect that difference in our tastes.

#16 Comment By Roxysteve On March 9, 2012 @ 8:18 am

@Kurt “Telas” Schneider – Naw, turn your massive damage thresholds back on and watch the high-level characters turn from fearless men-o-war into mice overnight. It levels the playing field in every way.

But of course, the first thing every GM does is turn them off to satisfy the munchin-glands of the players.

The second thing every GM does is start looking for increasingly complex ways of preventing the resulting “God-like player” syndrome (which also includes level imbalance issues becoming geometrically exaggerated)

Turn them back on and there is no real difference, combat-wise, between a character playing a level below the party and the party old-timers. Make sure you turn them back on for the monsters too.

#17 Comment By Tsenn On March 11, 2012 @ 7:31 am

For Rogue Trader, I give a guest character about half the xp gained by the party. If they return for another go, they get another quarter. If they return for a third session they get the balance at the end. It helps simulate the growth process, I feel. RT characters are fairly badass to begin with.

#18 Comment By Dante Inferno On March 13, 2012 @ 11:56 am

The thing about Savage Worlds is, there really isn’t a problem with having characters of disparate ranks running around together. Even starting PCs can be very competent. Savage Worlds tends towards lateral advancement, rather than vertical, so there’s alot less system pressure to have everyone the same rank than there is in other games.

That said, I give the players the amount of XP as stated in the Savage Worlds Deluxe or the Setting Rules, and that’s that. However, I also give a bonus point of XP to the lowest XP player, as long as they’re 2 or more XP behind the NEXT lowest character. If that means we have characters of different ranks when all is said and done, then so be it, there’s no trouble with that.

This isn’t for survivability, again that’s not a huge concern in Savage Worlds, but rather to prevent player frustration from having to slowly build their character up and the perception that they’re so far behind that they’ll never “catch up”. It’s really to keep the players happy.


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