This is part of my RPG series of entries here at SOB. See the inaugural entry in the series for more details.
Years ago, in AD&D 2E — in the early ’90s, in fact — when the world was young and dinosaurs roamed the earth, a campaign world called Dark Sun was published. This campaign world was deadly enough that first level characters were pretty much chowder, so it was recommended that all characters start at third level. In those days, multiclassing was (according to the published rules) a pretty hairy, annoying thing, and nobody I knew liked to do it. It was better, when you needed a multitalented character, to make either a Bard (Bards were jacks of all trades in 2E rather than imbeciles who sat around playing Cat’s in the Cradle while everyone else was fighting and dying) or a new character class to suit the concept.
Somewhat more recently, roughly the Dark Ages, 3E came out and multiclassing changed dramatically. It became something useful now, something that actually worked well for fleshing out character concepts. All was rejoicing.
Then, merely a year ago (but still using that colonial era game, D&D 3.5, despite the availability of “modern” 4E), the SigO and I were invited to play a game with a few people with whom we’ve never played before. One of them was a friend of mine who had basically never played an RPG in his life, and the others were friends of his. We showed up and were told we’d be making characters of a somewhat higher than normal level, though I don’t remember the exact level. Maybe fifth?
The Baran Cole Problem
Out of that experience, which lasted for all of one actual session of play (we weren’t a fan of the GM’s style, and he apparently didn’t like all that “roleplaying” we were doing either), came my character concept Baran Cole. He’s a multiclassed Fighter/Rogue, a bit of a scoundrel, a solitary mercenary (after his mercenary company was betrayed by its employer and slaughtered down to a few scattered survivors), and a gambling addict with a bit of a deathwish. We started out with some magical gear, of course, being higher than first (or even third) level characters, and I basically blew all my magic item budget on some good armor — good enough to suit a single-class fighter — whose best characteristics were its silence and lack of penalties for roguish skills or mobility.
Well, after only getting to play the guy once — and after the SigO only got to play her character, Vettig the greasy underworld enforcer (a single-class half-elven rogue with something like a 17 or 18 Strength score), once as well — we discovered we really liked the character concepts. We just needed a campaign in which to play them together. Alas, since that time, nobody has started running an appropriately D&D-like (or PRPG-like) game other than the SigO and me. As a result, we still haven’t gotten a chance to slot them into a game anywhere. Even once we find someone to run a Pathfinder game, it’ll need to be someone willing to run a campaign where they’d fit in, and where we could make characters of higher than first level.
I’m not saying we’d necessarily have to play them at the levels at which we originally made them. When I hashed out the background for my character, however, I did so only based on his current skill set, without thinking about things in terms of how characters progress according to the rules. As such, in his background, I had Baran Cole essentially a Fighter/Rogue starting at level 0 (just a really weak one at that point). Worse, I had him getting his special armor at something like first or second level — but, more to the point, at a stage in his background that should be in his past when I start playing him. After all, background is a huge chunk of what makes the character interesting to me.
Some Partial Solutions
In the process of thinking this stuff through, I started coming up with ideas for some house rules that could be used to help ease the pain of coming up with good character concepts with rich backgrounds and having to figure out how to fit them into the rules. I also started combining these thoughts with other thoughts about how to house-rule the game into a better state of affairs for verisimilitude of an ongoing campaign and similar issues not specifically related to the Baran Cole “problem”. One such result of these ponderations was Special Item Advancement, an idea for a set of rules designed for adjudicating customized special items — magic items, for instance — that grow with the character rather than just being traded in on newer models in a typical treasure churn.
Another major outcome of thinking about this stuff, partially inspired by Dark Sun, partially by the problem of Baran Cole, and partly just by my laziness in wanting to avoid creating custom classes all the time (though I’ll still do so sometimes), is to just decide that in future games characters who would otherwise start at first level should always start at second. That way, you can have two levels of one class if you like or one level each of two classes, or maybe even mix in some NPC classes from the DMG (in D&D) or the GM’s resources in the PRPG core book if you like — with an exchange rate that allows one to have NPC classes more cheaply than PC classes. This allows for greater richness of character background at character creation, as well as allowing one to hybridize the character archetypes a bit for a starting character.
The Case for Second Level
Treating second (rather than first) level as “starting level” or “entry level” isn’t really an earth-shattering “new” idea that’ll revolutionize gaming everywhere. I do think it’s something most gamers don’t consider, however — especially for those who haven’t played Dark Sun, I guess. I also think it’s important to make a case for it, so that those who’ve encountered the idea but rejected it out of hand might be inclined to revisit the notion. After all, “second level” according to the rules isn’t exactly the same as making high-level characters in the game; it’s still pretty much in the category of “weak” and “beginner”. Even when gamers have considered starting characters at higher than first level, they probably skipped over second in their considerations, because the concern was probably more over playing a higher-level campaign or playing characters who are already established heroes.
In my experience, though, most players creating first-level characters have some ideas in mind for a character who has some background and experience in the world that makes him or her something of a professional quality practitioner of whatever the character does best. Sometimes, it can be difficult to justify this in light of the relative weakness of first level characters in the world. Second seems to be the point where competence is starting to be something characters can claim, where more than one fight a day isn’t a recipe for severe danger of losing a party member under pretty much any conditions. It’s the point where you’re playing the character you wanted to make, rather than the character for which the rules said you had to settle.
It’s not the same as the 4E approach of making people walking murder machines, dealing death as easily as dealing a hand of Old Maid. It’s also not the same as making a supposedly professional swordsman and having him fall in battle to an average farmer, though. It seems like the ideal place to start, particularly where an entry level adventurer who nonetheless has enough experience under his belt to be something more than just a farm kid who left home yesterday is concerned — but it is still weak enough that for the most part, farm kids who left home yesterday are still within reach of the character creation standards, if only just.
. . . But Not Only Second Level
There will always be room for games that start at first level. I just tend to think that shouldn’t be the default, any more than requiring all players to start with only one level and making them choose an NPC class for that level should be the default. In fact, I think for games that start out weaker than second level, next time I have the motivation to run one, I’ll actually make the players choose NPC classes instead of PC classes — and grow into their PC classes.