Randy and I were having a conversation last night about character ideas and starting power levels. I’m one of those people that enjoys starting out at first level with a campaign. Randy isn’t, perferring instead to begin play with a character that more closely matches the capabilities of the orginal character concept.
There was a lot to say on the subject…

To a certain extent, I put this down to which game each of ‘imprinted’ on. I’m a Lonely DnD Player from way back — getting the pink boxed set of DnD stuff via the Sears catalog when I was ten and spending three years just working out the rules and making character after character, trying to figure out how it all worked with no examples, no help, and no other players. I became enamored with the process of character creation, looking at the new sheet and thinking about all the ways that the character could go as things progressed. Starting out on a game like that makes me automatically think in terms of The Beginning Character — the One Who Doesn’t Know What’s Going On. (Look at Hidden Things and Strange Weapons… same deal.)
Randy imprinted on Amber, where the characters start out completely competent at any skill they include in their background, fully capable in sorcery (if they take it), able to change reality at a whim, and (normally) able to handily embarrass or subjugate any ‘normal human’ they run into. Decades, perhaps centuries of the character’s life has passed before we ever focus on them for the game’s story.
That’s a simple explanation of why I like starting a d20 character with the beginning power levels and Randy prefers a more advanced version. I do see the argument for an advanced character in some cases — sometimes the GM has a game she wants to run that involved defeating 2000 mummies, and sometimes you want to play the character you envision, not the character that might eventually become that character after 133 life-threatening encounters. It’s about having what you want. I get that.
On the other hand, I’ve run games where the players told me “We’d just like to be better than first level when starting off — if that throws off the bell-curve or makes us too powerful for the end of the arc, then start us at 5th or 6th and just leave us there until we would have gotten there anyway, or double the experience points to advance levels for awhile, or something.”
That doesn’t work. I’d like to say it does — in the campaign (OA) where I did that we survived the process — but it didn’t work. The main reason is the same as the one behind why I like playing beginning characters.
It’s not the having that’s important, it’s the acquiring; the change that occurs with your character needs to be a semi-constant thing that tangibly affects them (and you) — slowing that down to a crawl, even when your character is all pumped up and touch, is eventually unsatisfying — it’s not fun to be static. Again, starting things out at a higher power level is fine (not usually my cup of tea, but that’s not relevant), but don’t start people out a higher level and just slow down advancement to make up for it — people will eventually resent it.
It’s change that really jazzes most people, even if they don’t realize it. It’s one of the reasons that d20 is still popular: Levels — you get into a new one and BOOM, stuff changes: your base attack gets better, your saves might improve, ditto skills, maybe a new feat or class ability… heck, there’s people whose eyes will dilate just thinking about it — it’s not that they’re power gamers — it’s exciting. I think that a lot of people who want to start out at higher level might subconciously want to get that ‘charge’ all at once. That’s not always the case (in some instances, granted, you can’t play the really whacked out, cool idea you have without a few more points), but I think it might be so more times than most folks realize.
Maybe that’s obvious to most people, but I’d never really thought about it in those terms before. 🙂


  1. Them’s the Crunchies.
    More reasons I prefer higher level characters (in d20 terms, level 4-6):
    1) Backstory. You can actually have one. That’s a little harsh — you can have one that lasts past adolescence. You can have a rep. Even Greedo had a rep.
    2) Versimilitude. You can imagine people actually hiring you to do something a little important to them. You can actually imagine your character getting into module or campaign situations and thinking they have a shot at living through it and maybe even profiting. Instead of having to ignore any reasonable IC reactions for, “Sure, I’m in! I know it looks suicidal but these things are carefully calculated against party level and numbers!”
    3) Beginning characters can’t do cool stuff. Or damned little of it, anyway. Doyce points out that you progress quickly. Yes, you do because you want to leave those crappy levels behind as fast as possible.
    4) Beginning characters are too busy hanging on by luck and healing magic, and too poor, to do any fun “metagaming” things. In d20 — straight generic fantasy d20 — “metagaming” is pretty much everything but combat, travelling to combat, recovering from combat and gearing up for combat. (Not so much the case in OA or Star Wars — non-Living SW that is.) In Amber, most of the game is metagaming. Low level d20 fantasy characters could spend their money on metagaming stuff instead of improved weapons, armor and such but then the next combat would kill them or at least teach the survivors the error of their ways. Gambling your money away or spending it on clothes, women or horses like a Musketeer, a dandy, a gangster? Sending it to your parents, wife, children? Kiss your ass goodbye.

  2. It’s unfortunate (and I mean seriously, truly, regretable)that that (running from combat to combat) is your only exposure to fantasy diced games.
    I’d point out that the only exceptions to the ‘rules’ you mentioned above (OA and Star Wars) were the two d20 games that I ran.
    Perhaps it’s not the game, but the GM you had.
    (Note: Not saying my currently running d20 fantasy game is any better than that. Largely it’s not, because the majority of my players asked for a nice, simple, stress-relieving kill-fest, so that’s what they got. (With a few exceptions.))
    Sometime, remind to run the game where the group consists of friends and advisors to the Grand Duke, and 1st level to begin with. It wouldn’t be hard; I’ve done it before.
    Amber’s not especially capable of this, it’s just that there’s no precedent for anything else. You can think outside of that box, too (and it is a box). I’ve also run an Amber game full of bungling neophytes who didn’t know anything (even what Amber was), where 100 points was ‘1st level’.
    What’s that mean? It means the game doesn’t matter, if you have the vision to do what you want to do. If you think that Game X automatically != Story Y, then you’re denying yourself games you might have enjoyed if you gave it a shot.

  3. My opinions on standard (Greyhawky) d20 fantasy are from playing a little with youse guys, listening to youse, listening at cons and bits picked up on the internet. At the lower levels I was talking about, it seems to be nearly universal. The equipment is factored into the levels. Spend your cash on much of anything else and you don’t have enough healing magic or a weapon that can affect the bad guys or decent armor. And you’re dead unless the GM fudges the die rolls or cuts back on the mooks. Or you consistantly roll lucky.
    At higher levels there’s more leeway.

  4. Equipment is factored into the relative strength of any character. In gurps/champs/besm/amber, you buy it with points. In d20, you buy it with money, and the GM is provided with a chart to tell them how much money they should have towards gear, so money is just another kind of points.
    Paying for a night on the town and nice clothes doesn’t dent this. You can live high on the hog for six months on a third of the cash it takes to silver a longsword.
    As for being dead if the GM doesn’t fudge die rolls, well, that’s a badly designed encounter, plain and simple.
    There is no ‘higher’ leeway a higher levels — the bad guys still scrape off the same percentage of your resources — that’s they way the game’s designed. At first level, the mook required to do this to the party is surly orc barbarian. At fifteen level, it’s a vampiric half-dragon elf sorceror. The percentages themselves (chances to hit, damage dealth and sustained) don’t change.

  5. Half the things I ran in Star Wars over the last two years were originally modules for DnD with the serial numbers scraped off.
    Orcs in scalemail with crossbows and battleaxes look just like Gammoreans in blast vests with blaster pistols and vibroaxes. You don’t even have to change the AC.
    A highjacked wagon full of grain looks just a shot-down air-van full of preserved food packets.
    A ghoul looks just like a dark-side-reanimated corpse.
    Sorcerers become force adepts.
    Find/replace in Word changes the genre and no one notices a thing, so I disagree that a DnD game is so predictable. The only thing predictable is a player or GM’s reaction to it or method of presenting it.

  6. But your resources go up to the point where 10-20% will actually do something.

  7. That doesn’t follow. If I hit something for 20% of his total hit points, that’s what it is: 20% of his total hit points.
    Doesn’t matter if his total is 15 or 150, the percentage of ‘screwed up’ that he is remains the same.
    Your resources going up just keeps your ‘percentage’ the same. If the percentage that you do is a significant percentage, then it’s significant at any level.
    Again, it does not matter that a 15th fighter can crit and 45 points of damage and a first level fighter can crit and do 16: the chunk that they take out of their opponents will remain roughly similar.
    In fact, swing-by-swing, the amount of damage vs. damage sustainable does DOWN as you level — this is made up for by giving higher level folks more attacks to bring it back up.
    Number of rounds to take down the main bad guy at level 1 or level 15 doesn’t change — number of hit points left on the fighter when the fight is over — almost exactly the same… about five.
    The only things that change is that the costume budget for the main heroes goes up, and the bit actors run around inside bigger monster suits.

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