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I've been DMing my first ongoing D&D 3.5 game that has been playing together weekly for about a year. We lost a player to real life responsibilities and have another interested in joining the game. The party all started together at level 1 and are now up to level 9, the new player has never played before and intends to play a magic user of some sort.

I am considering starting him at level 1 so that he can learn the ropes like the other new players did, having a smaller number of spells to mess with, etc., and also adding the responsibility of keeping the weaker character alive to the rest of the group. But I would likely have to nerf their opponents to keep from constantly killing the new guy, or keep their encounter levels the same and the new guy just gets killed. If I leave the encounter levels where they are, the level 1 player will level up pretty fast.

I don't think the other players would necessarily care that the player didn't earn his stripes or whatever, so I could just stick him in at a higher level.

AAAAAaaaaanyway. Is there any kind of rule of thumb for what level to grant new players?

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In the campaign I'm playing, our DM had a character join by having the party rescue them, to find they'd been hired to clear some goblins from a cave, and got captured (as a nod to the RPG trope of pest control jobs for low-level players). It's since become a running gag; new players, or replacement characters when someone dies, always have the backstory of "I was hired to clear out the [monster] from [place], but I got captured". Pest control operatives are now widely known as being highly trustworthy and prone to adventure. –  anaximander May 17 at 16:21

7 Answers 7

up vote 22 down vote accepted

Large Level Gaps Are Bad

Here's the problem. You have a level 9 party. They're probably fighting stuff somewhere around their power level. If you throw a level 1 character into that, they are both highly ineffective (anything with a save will be made, few spells, limited ability to contribute), and absurdly fragile (very low HP, lower saves, probably limited money for gear unless you give them level 9 equivalent treasure).

That combination just doesn't work in 3.5. An experienced player can maybe make it work by knowing all the tricks to get the most out of their tiny allotment of level 1 spells. A newbie will not, and one mistake will get them killed. They do not have a margin for error, and as a new player they need a margin for error more than anyone else.

As the DM, you'd have to avoid trying to kill that character. You can't even do things like throw fireballs around with your NPCs, because a single one anywhere near that character and it's dead.

You could tone things down instead, but then the level 9 characters will steamroll over everything and not be challenged. That's also bad.

Given that, your best bet is to start the new character at level 9.

Mentorship

You and the other players will have to help mentor your new player. That goes with a level 1 character, and it goes with a level 9 character. The main difference is that the level 9 character is going to have more abilities, and some margin for error (a single melee attack won't kill a level 9 character very often).

Your new player will need help building a character, picking gear, learning what their stats mean, when to use skills, and so on. You and the other players can help with that in the first couple of sessions, mostly by helping with character creation, answering questions, encouraging questions, and offering hints and suggestions.

Gradual Spellbook Additions

Since your new player wants to play a spellcaster, the real overwhelming thing is trying to master the spell system and the large spell list. That's where you can help.

Shrink the list. A lot. Start the player off with a pared down spell list, where you pick out a handful of essential spells. If the player wants to, let them look through the book and pick out a few more that sound interesting. Don't give them 100 spells to start. Use a much smaller number (under 30).

As the player starts to grasp things in future sessions, start adding spells. For a Wizard this is easy, as you can say what's in the spellbook initially, and you can introduce spells to add to it later. For a Divine Caster, you may just have to explain why you want him to focus on a smaller set of spells initially to get the hang of it, and that the other ones are available if he wants to use them in the future.

I know when a friend of mine played a caster for the first time (a Cleric, which is a great class), we sat down together and built a "typical daily memorization list". Those were the spells he'd prepare each day, normally. He could make additions or changes if events warranted it, but I built the first list with him and he didn't have to try to figure out what spells were must have on his own. It made trying to figure out what to cast at first a lot easier for him, because that list is much shorter.

For a spontaneous caster, you can handle it differently depending on the class. Something with a fixed list like Beguiler you can treat like a Divine Caster: shorten the available list up a bit initially, and then add spells back as the player starts to get the hang of it. For Sorcerer where you have to pick the spells you will use forever... well, I'd pick an initial list of spells, and then give the new player the option to swap them out later if he decides he wants something else. Sorcerers already have this option every even numbered level, but he will have missed some chances to do it by starting at level 9 and by not knowing what to pick initially. You can be a bit more flexible with the swapping rules by allowing one time swapping of any spell that he came into the game with, so he can customize his character once he understands how it works.

So Which Spellcaster Should He Be?

You mentioned spells, but not which class he's going to play. If he's already picked a class to play, great! If he hasn't picked a class yet, I have a couple of recommendations.

  1. Beguiler - Spontaneous caster, so no preparation of spells at the start of the day is required. Preparation can often be a real stumbling block for new players, so this takes it out of the way. The fixed spell list is a bit limiting, but he won't have to choose which spells he knows, as he just gets all of the ones the class has access to. Also gets d6 HD and access to light armor, which makes them tougher than the Sorcerer (handy for a new player). A lot of skill points and a good skill list is handy too. This is a pretty solid "pick up and play" spellcaster that doesn't need much book keeping.
  2. Cleric - Has to prepare spells, which may be an issue. But other than that, there's a lot to recommend here. It's easy to make a Cleric that's tough as nails (full plate, two good saves, and d8 HD go a long way!), their spell list is strong, they can be strong melee combatants, easy access to healing whenever you want it, and there's no spell book to manage.

Druid and Wizard are both great classes, but they're also harder to play and may not be an ideal choice for a new player. That's not to say he can't play them, because he can. He'll just need more help:

  • Druids have to also manage an animal companion, and wild shape. The animal companion can be a plus, because at level 9 you can get something that's pretty tough (like a Brown Bear or Dire Wolf), but now there's more stats to know and more things to manage. Wild Shape exacerbates that problem even more by changing the player's stats themselves.
  • Wizards not only have to prepare spells each day, but also have to keep track of which ones they're allowed to prepare due to what's in their spellbook. They're also very, very fragile if you don't know how to mitigate that, and the familiar is an extra thing to manage if you don't trade it out for something else.

My Rule of Thumb

There isn't an official rule of thumb. Mine (and it seems to be pretty common amongst players I know) is that the party should be the same level unless there is a good reason why they're not (someone spending XP on item creation feats for example). If a new player joins, I put him at the same XP as everyone else, and try to keep treasure from being too different (though the new person may start with a bit less, as I typically give new players standard wealth from the DMG).

Level is one of those things that can make someone horribly ineffective if you set them back too far. They can make that up by being more optimized than everyone else is, or know how to use their abilities more successfully, but the game in my experience just works better when party members don't have level gaps between them.

A small gap is one thing, but a level 1 new player in a level 9 party is just unworkable.

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Pomp first - I have rather extensive experience with this exact situation. And my advice is:

The new player should join at the current party level.

Character levels in D&D 3.5 are important. A mid-level party isn't playing the same game as a low-level party. Sticking a low-level character into a mid-level game is a recipe for frustration, untimely character deaths. It's not going to be a good introduction to role-playing for anyone.

As for your concern about overwhelming the new player with mechanical information - I say relax, it's not as bad as you think. A new D&D player will have questions, they will be confused about some rules, and they will feel slightly out of their depth with the number of available options. That's going to happen both when you start at level 1, and when you start at level 9.

Starting at level 9 is more complicated, but come on. The player just has to learn a bit faster. Be aware of it yourselves, make sure the new player knows they are jumping into the deep end, and give them a bit of time. Give the player extra space to adjust, and you'll be fine.

As for the precise experience count at which to have the new player join, I recommend having the new player join with an XP count equal to the XP count of the character in the current party who has the lowest XP. It makes sure none of the current players are suddenly "behind", and more importantly, it doesn't make the new player feel behind.

Fostering the atmosphere that the new player isn't a second class citizen in your game should be your primary concern.

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I want to say: I can absolutely vouch for Ernir's experience with revolving players in and out, particularly new players. He was my first DM, and both that game and others I've played with him featured players coming and going a fair bit. –  KRyan May 17 at 15:37

As far as I am aware, no, there are no rules of thumb for this situation. Experience can tell us some good lessons, though. This answer will be mostly based on personal experience, which my meager research has shown to be fairly common.

Remember Your First Time Playing a Role-Playing Game

It was very likely confusing. Especially in a number-rich/detailed statistics version like D&D 3.5, even basic concepts may have been very foreign to you. There was likely a lot of "I roll this dice, then add this number, and then roll this dice?" or "What is a save?" or "What does all this mean?"

Complexity is Added at Higher Levels

... and it is confusing! If you're still trying to grasp what AC is, things like damage reduction, spell resistance, etc. can be really hard to come to grips with. If your new player does not have the patience for unknown terms, short explanations, or doing math, high levels may leave a sour taste in their mouth. Remember, your ultimate aim as a DM is to maximize the fun!

Some Other Options

  • Side Adventures with level 1 characters to learn the ropes. These characters need not even be related to your player characters, but maybe a 1-off adventure to highlight some aspect of your world, to foreshadow something in the plot, or to just have fun.

  • Start off the new character at some lower level that isn't 1. He could be a protege of a party member, starting at level 4 or 5, so they would want to protect him, but he can do some things in combat and not be totally destroyed by a goblin!

  • Start off the new character at the same level, but have another seasoned / responsible / kind player walk them through things. You're essentially giving that player babysitting duty, but it could be helpful forming friendships and easing the burden on you and the new player.

Consider Your Players

  • Can the new player handle the complexity of 3.5? Are they okay with the math and not knowing what everything does exactly? If yes, then throwing them into the thick of things is more acceptable.

  • Is the new player willing to do research on their own? This version often requires a fair amount of "system mastery" to get the most out of it. The only way to get system mastery is to do research. If yes, then higher levels are more acceptable.

  • Are your other players patient and helpful? If they possess both qualities, then they can help the new player with tough concepts. This may be the most important argument for starting them at a higher level.

Too Long, Failed to Read: Consider your player, the established players, and the learning curve. Does the new one learn quickly? High levels may be okay. Are the established players nice? High levels may be okay. The learning curve is steep, but can be overcome with effort.

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side adventures all the way. You can use them to reveal other aspects of the world while teaching the game to the new guy. You can have recurring NPCs between the adventures, you can even make the new characters glimpse the old ones. Awesome! –  Squera May 17 at 2:52
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Complex or not, the game just fails spectacularly to hand split levels well. It's a headache for the DM and a major additional challenge for the new player. Same level as the rest of the party is always the right choice. –  KRyan May 17 at 12:49
    
A big, fat +1 for running a side-campaign with 1st level characters. It's a fantastic idea to get the player into the game, especially since everyone knows his character is a keeper and the veteran players' characters are one-off, giving him some nice spotlight time. It also helps make the world richer. –  lisardggY Jun 15 at 6:30
    
Another vote here for running a side campaign with level 1 characters. You need to teach this player how to roleplay before you give them a level 9 character. –  Greenstone Walker Aug 26 at 1:23

As Tridus said, large level gaps in D&D are unworkable. Anything more than 1-2 levels is essentially a non-starter. Compare to e.g. Shadowrun 3e, where a character with 100 karma is only slightly more powerful than a freshly minted one.

The solution I've used in the past is to roll up a very generic character for the new player, let them play for a few adventures, absorb the way the system works, and then let them create a new character.

That works somewhat flavor wise to; the temporary character could be a mercenary or someone who owes another group-member a favor, so steps in until they can find a permanent replacement for the team-member they lost.

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Something Completely Different

You've got someone new coming into the game? Fantastic. They are about to experience an extremely fun hobby that will hopefully stimulate their mind and imagination, and give them oodles of fun for years to come.

But you're worried that the rules-heavy play of Level 11 DnD will squick them out all at once? That's fair.

The general rule is 'in DnD, where power varies so wildly between different levels, having players at different levels is really hard and only for experienced groups that want to experience that power dynamic'. Your group may be the exception that proves the rule, but generally people don't like being Jim the Mortal Man while everyone else is Joe, Jane, and Dick Superhero.

A simple answer is to make the time to sit down and run a short session or two for your new player (maybe with a few other friends) at a lower level, or lower level of complexity, than your standard game.

Have some fun with standard roleplaying tropes to ease them in, or up the ante and throw a moral dilemma or two at them if they come in strong and swinging. Leave the plot relatively simple so it can be resolved (think Episodic Storytelling) in that one or two short sessions.

That should 'ease them in' without leaving them feeling like DnD is a game about everyone else being awesome and them feeling impotent and third wheel-like.

Alternately

Something I like to do is have little asides with simpler characters than the main cast as a bit of a 'break' from regular content. Side-stories, like cutaways in a movie, with the players playing different characters or even sets of characters in these styles.

If you wanted, you could even have this cutaway be part of the new player's character's backstory - if they're level 11, they've probably had some adventures, and shining a light on that could help flesh them out as a character in a way the party has had plenty of opportunity for already.

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Lower than the party, but with some tools for surviving the first few adventures

A twist that I have used in the past is to bring the new player in at a low level (maybe not as low as 1), but with considerably more resources than a typical character at the level you chose would have.

For instance, he could be the heir apparent to some significant merchant fortune and as such has

  • The very best equipment far in excess of what a typical character at his level might have (but possibly with limited uses or some other way to ease this advantage out of the game).

    For a magic user this probably means scrolls and wands and some protective tools.

  • A loyal servant who is himself a more potent force than the character but whom you will allow to advance very slowly (so that the character will surpass the servant in level in a reasonable amount of time).

    Lets say he has a manservant who was a long time mercenary before trying to retire to a monastery where he learned some clerical healing before giving up and getting a straight job again. This guy is tough enough to have some survivability in a fight suitable for a 9th level party and will devote all his considerable talents and resources to the protection of the new guy.


Even using this kind of approach there are limits to the size of level difference that can be absorbed. Level 1 in a level 9 party is a disaster in the making.

The point is to start the new guy with some resources that will protect him and give him value in the party but to allow those initial advantages to lose their impact at the character levels up.


A fun side-effect of this is that the character can be provided with a back-story to makes him out to be naive and overly impressed with himself, which often matches a newbies style of play neatly.

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-1: complicated/unwieldy, answers different question –  Jack Lesnie May 19 at 17:15

This is going to sound really specific, but either

Start the New Player's Character 3 Levels Below the Party Average...

At level 6 PCs became eligible for the feat Leadership (PH 97, DMG 106-7)--whether the DM allowed the feat in his campaign or not--, and that feat limits a leader to a cohort 2 levels below the leader (barring feats the leader could take that let him increase this limit; e.g. the feat Improved Cohort (HB 98)). Introducing a new player-character at 3 levels below the party average means the new player-character probably won't overshadow even the lowest-level party member, even if that party member's an NPC.

I call this the great leader method of character insertion.

...Or 1 Level Below the Party Average

Were an involved-from-the-game's-beginning PC to be slain, the other PCs would probably (I mean, depending on the game and the character and the player) pay for the dead dude to be the target of deadraising magic. This costs the slain PC a character level, but the other PCs would continue adventuring with him, despite the stink of death about him and his reduced character level. By the same token, there's no real difference in simply adding a different PC who's 1 level lower to the group instead of keeping the now-not-dead PC in the party. Introducing a new player-character at 1 level below the party average means it's like having a long-running PC in the game who's just been recently slain and brought back from the dead.

I call this the O, my God, they killed Kenny! method of character insertion.

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-1. Sorry, but your reasons and conclusions look entirely out of sync with the asker's situation. This advice might be applicable were the newcomer a known optimizer. –  Ernir May 17 at 14:51
    
@Ernir I answered the question, "Is there any kind of rule of thumb for what level to grant new players?" I can delete the Warnings if you think that'd make the answer better. –  Hey I Can Chan May 17 at 14:57
    
To be fair, you did answer that question. The real problem I have is that I think the conclusions are terribly inapplicable here. :( –  Ernir May 17 at 15:20
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@Ernir We've a valid difference of opinion, then, considering your own answer. I'm more concerned about shorting players who were already there than the new player feeling shorted. –  Hey I Can Chan May 17 at 15:26
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@HeyICanChan I do think the warnings are out of place here. They're solid advice on their own but don't really apply to a new player joining. –  Tridus May 17 at 16:35

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