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It's been difficult for me to start a game at higher level than level 1-4 in Pathfinder.

At higher level, the scale of the game changes. In the beginning of level 1-4 you save a village or a clan but around level 14...players have followers, reputation, resources and power. In Kingmaker the party at that level are the kings of a whole kingdom..the story is totally different at that point. You don't fight goblins, you'll be fighting armies of frost giants. How do you create an interesting campaign for a high level party?

Even though my question is more specific to Pathfinder and 3.5, I think it could apply to any game.

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5 Answers

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Your level is about how much experience you have so far. It says nothing about where you are in the story.

Consider the Lord of the Rings. At the beginning of the adventure, Frodo is a beginner, level 1, just starting his career. Aragorn, however, has been in many stories so far (even if we don't see them ourselves). When he joins this adventure, the adventure is at its beginning, even though Aragorn is already quite experienced.

There's no rule that only low-level characters can go around saving villages. The level of character needed to save the village all depends on what's threatening the village.

  • A few orcs in the hills? Send in the beginners.
  • A dragon eating cows and people from outlying farms? Send in some mid-level characters.
  • Some mysterious evil, deep underground, causing the dead of the village graveyard to rise? Send in the highest-level party you can find!

So I'll leave you with two suggestions:

  • Ask every player to come up with a little backstory for their character. They got to level 10 somehow, make it their job to figure out how.
  • Put the party at the beginning of its own adventuring story, but work in elements from each character's backstory. That way the party is new, starting out in the world; but the characters have history.
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Creating interesting campaigns for higher level players is indeed an art unto itself.

  1. More complex, rich challenges - By that level, even moderately min-maxed characters are hell on wheels at their chosen areas of focus and rarely miss skill checks etc. They have access to a diverse set of abilities that render most lower level activities (travel, worrying about crossing pits or opening doors, etc.) mostly irrelevant. Challenges have to be more broad-based and complex, and not solvable by simple application of game rules. A single opponent is going to be easily assassinated for any high level party (Scry-and-die, etc). Kingmaker's a good example of a campaign where you can't just roll attack rolls to build a kingdom. Frankly, Pathfinder and 3.5e's rules break down starting at around level 14 so you want to avoid exercising the rules too much after that. Opponents should be politics, war, plague, racism, or other things that can't just be stabbed to death.

  2. More sophisticated plots - You might be able to get away with it with a new campaign starting at high level, but generally you need plot hooks a lot more sophisticated than "save the village" or "fetch quest." And you can't push PCs around. I remember fondly the opening to Against the Giants that posits "some local villagers threaten to arrest you for vagrancy or something if you don't go kill unlimited giants for them!" Even Good parties always reacted to that by razing the village to the ground for their insolence, then going to kill the giants. PCs of that level are movers and shakers - they should know it and everyone else knows it. It becomes very political - many kingdoms don't have a level 14 guy around at all, and they would love to have one! The thing higher level characters should get (normally it's earned, but starting at high level is the same thing) is respect. Everyone knows they could murder every single person in town if they wanted do. They want to curry their favor, avoid their displeasure, and get them to do things normal folk think are impossible for the largest rewards around. "Become the King's successor" is a valid reward at this level, not "500 gp."

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There are quite a number of ways to start characters off with experience (skills, abilities) but not much backstory.

They could be:

  • Graduates of a magical university (think of the latter 2/3 of Lev Grossman's The Magicians, or what might happen after the Harry Potter books)
  • Amnesiacs washed up on a shore with no memory of where they came from
  • Accidentally caught up in a spell that moves them a long way from home (Farscape, Ulysses 31)
  • Accidentally caught up in a spell that moves them through time to the future or past or an alternate world (Doctor Who, Quantum Leap)
  • Inheritors of powers and capabilities from someone else (Green Lantern)

Or indeed, look at any episodic TV series. The A-Team, Knight Rider, the original Star Trek - all had "higher level" characters whose back-story was dealt with in identical voiceover at the the beginning of an episode, and went on from there.

If they have specific gear or abilities which are unusual, you can explain these with a single sentence (because it's not going to be very relevant), or just not explain it at all (in the case of the amnesiacs, for instance).

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Like has been mentioned by some already; if you are starting the campaign at a higher level, then have it start there. There is no rule that says that a campaign has to start at level 1. There are a couple of different ways you can handle this.

Existing Party: Like mxyzplk suggests. The group is an existing party that has already adventured together, but their last adventure has ended. The villain has been defeated, the princess saved, and the loose ends tied up.

And then another adventure starts. Maybe the king has another unrelated quest. Maybe their reputations have spread, and they are sought out by a grand wizard. Maybe a new evil rears its head, and the adventurers seek it out on their own accord.

Benefits: The group has a good reason to travel together. They can draw on past contacts (which you can make up on the spot "Oh, you need help identifying the potion? There was that alchemist you saved during your last adventure.")

Drawbacks: You (GM and players) either need to make a solid background specifying what that past adventure was about and how it went, or you need to accept that there is a good chunk of background that isn't really specified. The first is potentially a lot of work, the other can lead to a lot of questions ("Do we know the mayor of this town? Have we even been here before?") This can be alleviated by setting the new adventure in a distant land from the first one.

Existing heroes: The heroes are already established badasses, but haven't adventured together before. One might be a wizard with his own tower. One might be a knight of the realm. One might be the best cat burglar in all of Asharn. They then end up together in an adventure due to circumstances, or they are called together by an outside force. Just like if they were level 1 adventurers.

Benefits: The players get to be established badasses and have fun with their backgrounds. Who doesn't want to start the adventure as the best cat burglar in all of Asharn? And it is a classic in fiction; a monarch or other authority figure calling together the best people his realm can offer for a mission.

Drawbacks: The group had less of a reason to stick together. This is also true with 1st level groups, but when the wizard has his own tower, and the barbarian is the chieftain of a small tribe, there is greater chance of friction and "I don't need the rest of you"ism. Make sure that players collaborate to make a group that can work together. Friction between the paladin of the realm and the realm's best assassin can be fun, as long as it remains differences of opinion and not party-splitting quarrels.

New heroes: Maybe the heroes just start off at level 10. Maybe there are no level 1-9 wizards and fighters. Once your apprenticeship is done, you are level 10 with all the spells and feats that this encompasses. This is likely to be an ultra-high fantasy campaign with continual flame on every street corner, and wards on every door and window to keep out the flying, knock-equipped rogues.

Benefits: An ultra-high fantasy campaign might be a fun jaunt. In this case, the benefit is probably all about whether you like the setting or not.

Drawbacks: All the opponents and NPCs should probably be 10+ too. Have fun stating that up.

Empowered heroes: Maybe the heroes just start off at level 10. They were experimented on by an evil mage. Or wandered into the fairy forest. Or touched the Artifact of Divine Heroism. And now they have all these powers. And their first quest is probably tied into whatever it was that empowered them. They probably start off without any magic items, but as long as you keep this in mind when picking out the monsters, and let magic items drop at a steady pace until they are geared up, it shouldn't be a problem.

Benefits: They are just like level 1 characters, except they are level 10. And whatever empowered them is likely to both tie the group together, and provide a good plothook.

Drawbacks: Some weirdness might arise (the Leadership feat works how?). Might feel more like a super hero starting story than a fantasy starting story (though some might consider that a benefit). Be careful that the starting hook isn't too constricting, unless you know your players will be okay with that.

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@Oblivious Sage has a great possibility.

He also brings up a great point: Why do you feel that just because the character is a higher level than 'start', the character must have a story already in progress? Depending on your specific mechanical reason for not starting at level 1 (should there be one), you may find that it makes no sense to have the characters be in media res as it were.

This applies well to any game where the PCs start off with more than 'base' XP. Perhaps they are joining with another group due to a ( most likely, their ) recent PC death, or were invited to play. Perhaps you are aiming to go to "Epic" levels, or to high character power levels.

TL;DR : Level is a mechanic that has nothing to do with story.

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