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It makes sense that if you are in a group from the beginning that everyone in the group would be roughly the same level. Yes some classes level up faster than other but in general there is a balance there.

In cases where a character dies or if you get a new member to your group I would think the norm is to create a new character around the same level.

Is there any benefit to trying to have someone start at the bottom and joining in?

I imagine it would make things rather difficult on the GM trying to keep the storyline going and creating situations where this lower level person can survive. It might work if the group has not gotten to far up in levels.

Is this something worth trying or is it not worth the headache?

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Differing rates for level acquisition in D&D were last seen in 2nd edition; in the D&D of the 21st century, all classes level at the same rate. However, the rest of the question is good. –  Jadasc Aug 25 '10 at 11:44
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up vote 8 down vote accepted

Assuming you mean some sort of D&D or similarly structured game, I'd say it's never practical to start a character more than two levels below the highest level character. I generally aim for one level below the party average, as this allows them to contribute, but also shows that they are different, new etc.

Large level gaps in a game can breed distrust both ways. The lower level character's player will feel left out, and the higher level character's players will feel burdened. Also depending on how great the difference in levels is it can change the dynamic of play. A first level character in a tenth level party will be a vulnerability and will require constant protection to stay alive.

The only time this would be useful is in a game where the rules are being used more flexibly and you want to include a lower level character for story purposes. Just be prepared to bend the rules plenty to make your story work.

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Here's my argument against making new characters start at 1st level when the party is higher level.

I just played a D&D 4e game where my 1st level sorcerer (ranged striker) was constantly overshadowed or pushed aside by the 3rd and 4th level characters. It was not fun.

In combat, I could plink away at the monsters, but I wasn't nearly as effective as the rest of the party. The encounters were geared more for a 3rd level party, so at every turn I feared that one hit would kill me.

In skill challenges, I felt like I shouldn't even participate. Other characters could do almost everything I could do, and better. If I failed a roll, I risked setting us back.

Since this particular campaign was a Western Marches style of game, the character roster changed from session to session. I felt like my spot at the table would have been better filled by someone with a higher level character. I feared that other players felt the same way -- perhaps an irrational and unfounded fear, but I felt it.

The justification for starting every character at 1st is often phrased as "make them earn the levels." In a game where the DM tests the mettle of the players and a lot of characters die, survival is a badge of honor. Sometimes the feeling is that lethality is so high that no one is going to get so far beyond 1st level anyway. None of that changes the fact that I felt useless and overshadowed playing my measly 1st level sorcerer.

If you still insist on starting new characters at 1st level, consider giving them some magic items that are more appropriate to the other, higher level characters in the party. Say your party is all around 4th or 5th level (with magic items ranging from around 4th to 8th level), and your character dies. You create a new 1st level character, but start with some magic items in the 4th to 8th level range. That might help take the sting out of starting well below the average party level, and your character's effectiveness will eventually outstrip those magic items.

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With D&D we always had newly rolled characters start at one level below the average of the party.

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I support this. Existing players have worked for their experience. Some players might feel cheated that someone new or someone starting over can jump right in without having contributed the same amount of work. –  MadMAxJr Aug 24 '10 at 16:16
    
@MadMAxJr Are you sure? It sounds like you're supporting starting characters at minimum level rather than only slightly lower than the rest of the party. –  GMJoe Mar 16 '12 at 5:23
    
@MadMAxJr New players don't always start in a group just because. They are usually invited. Make them "pay their due" is a mild form of bullying for me, seeing how I sometimes ask them to participate. –  Adriano Varoli Piazza Apr 12 '12 at 0:12
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I imagine you're asking about A/D&D here.

I let them start from level 1, or use an ex-henchmen. It can be really fun. And D&D has plenty of spaces where a low level PC can help a high party, or even save the party's bacon by, for example, grappling with the Evil Mage or taking out his low level apprentices. The newb has to mainly care about his own survival, and that means also ensure that the whole party survives ;)

Mechanics help the low level guy, by the way: damage dealt by non casters doesn't rise much in older editions, and unless the party level is higher than 10, by when the old character gain a new level, the new guy will have reached them. This is because XP needed to level up double every time:

Knut, level 5 fighter: 16000 xp, needs 32000 to reach level 6

Hamlet, level 1 fighter: 0 xp

If 20000 xp are given out, Olaf will have 26000 pc and still be at level 5, while Hamlet will be level 4.

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It depends heavily on the system, I think. In a system like AD&D, it could be a little problem because the level gaps can be really harmful. In other systems, WOD for instance, you could have a character starting at the bottom and not being harmful to the group.

I think the main parameter is the way you play : if you're more in a Storytelling kind of game, have a "noob" character is not a big deal, but in a Ludist point of a view, it would be a real handicap.

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It’s going to be system dependent, of course, but it sounds like you’re talking about D&D/AD&D here.

The main issue is going to be those first few adventures; after that, a character starting at 1st level will have quickly risen. This is due to the approximate doubling of experience point requirements for each level.

Take, for example, a fighter who died in AD&D just as the other fighters rose to 4th level.

The new 1st level fighter needs 8,001 experience points to get to fourth level. The old 4th level fighters need around 10,000 experience points to get to fifth level. Experience points are divided equally amongst the party.

The AD&D requirement to rise one level at a time will moderate this a bit, but basically the 1st level fighter—if they survive—will reach fourth level before the fourth level fighters reach fifth level.

The trick, of course, is “if they survive”.

There should be notes in the game rules about what to do when a new character joins an existing group; I think that the reason AD&D seems to assume first level is because of the doubling math of experience points to level progression.

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Totally depends on the game. When you start a Mouseguard patrol, the members can range anywhere from grizzled veteran to rookie teen. It works great.

Back in my AD&D days, we played with fairly wide level differences and part of the goal was for the old-timers to keep the newbies alive. Plus, with equal XP distribution, they level up pretty fast.

I'm not D&D4 expert, but it seems like wide differences would explicitly break things.

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Not only does this depend on the game as most people have pointed out, but it depends heavily on your players.

Not all parties are going to be annoyed if a new player is equal to them in experience - some folks just want to put together an effective party and have fun, and will welcome another powerful ally regardless of his or her invested playtime.

If all else fails, just ask the party what they think is fair.

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The major benefit of starting from the bottom when new characters come in, aside from streamlining the character generation process, is actually taking advantage of the balancing (such as it is) in early editions of D&D.

Fighters are generally linear in improvement, while dropping off around 14th level, Mages have a curve where they're pretty crappy at low levels, and strong at high levels, and Clerics (depending on the edition), start off incredibly powerful but then peter off and slow down around level 10.

That actually brings in a thing that Wizards should use Priest XP tables, and vice versa. But it also brings in that once you have a high level Wizard in the party, almost the only reason to introduce another one is incase the current one dies, or if he's an apprentice. Alternatively, bringing in a level 1 Cleric into an existing party that sits at levels 6-8 can work out reasonably well.

Of course, with XP as it is, the character will come up to 2 or so levels behind the rest of the party in short order, so from a verisimilitude perspective it's better to just start out 2-3 levels behind everyone else, instead of starting at level 1. You somehow lose some plausibility of advancing so quickly when you're essentially riding on everyone's coat tails to finish the encounters.

For practical reasons though, I'd probably leave it up to the players, depending on whether they want to deal with the hassle of building their character and then leveling up.

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Assuming sandbox play, here's some reasons for starting at low levels, since the opposing point has been well made:

  • There are probably several low-level modules or adventures that were not emptied out and are now not worth the effort for high-level characters. For characters of lower levels they are a good fit. Others get to play alternate lower level characters or henchmen, if they want to.
  • A high-level character does not magically appear, fitting a world where the player characters and pretty much only the player characters are adventurers.
  • The characters gets to develop history and legends that any character of high level should already have, as well as personality and relationships with other characters.
  • If the game has mechanical character customisation, then played character will feel different from one constructed directly at high level.
  • If characters have mechanical complexity, then one gets to learn and master the mechanical bits in smaller chunks if starting at low levels.
  • Lower level character develops faster.
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Your second bullet is technically true, but rarely applicable. In most DnD type worlds, it is generally the case that there are multiple adventuring parties running around doing heroic things. Even if you say that the PCs are the only advernturers in this region you can just say the new PC came from another region. There are also plenty of "almost-adventurer" professions that would likely get to decent levels, such as employed soldiers, knights, or a wizard that hasn't adventured before but studied extensively and learned high level spells. –  TimothyAWiseman Apr 11 '12 at 18:55
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