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I've been running an Open Table game this summer and it's going pretty well. I normally favor milestone leveling or other forms of keeping all PCs at the same level so I don't have to deal with level disparities. However, that assumes a pretty steady group with occasional absences. Since this game involves constantly adding new people, with no particular expectation of coming to every session, I had a few unusual requirements:

  1. New players (who are mainly new to DND as well as this campaign) start at level 1 and progress through the levels so they can gradually adjust to new abilities and not get overwhelmed.
  2. On the other hand, low-level characters being exceptionally fragile in DND5e, they should advance relatively rapidly toward the level of PCs who started earlier/attend more often so that everyone in the group is of a similar power level.
  3. People who miss a few sessions don't come back to find their characters suddenly different from how they remember them, or need to rapidly level up before they can start playing again.

The obvious solution, it seemed to me at the time, was to just to follow RAW, award XP during play (only for those present), and use the given XP charts for character advancement - I award it a little differently, but the exponential growth in both XP-per-encounter and XP-to-next-level makes it fairly easy to "catch up."

This worked well when the top players were level 3-4 and I mainly wanted to get people to Level 3 quickly so they'd be full-fledged members of their class and not go down in one hit. However, for the fall I'm expecting more new players, as well as some continuing ones, some of whom are well into level 5, and I see some issues emerging:

  1. Advancing at the same pace we have been (one level every 2-3 sessions for those in the lead) will be far too fast for goal 1 to work well - in the time the senior characters go from 5 to 6, newbies will go from 1 to 5, requiring them to get used to more than one new level in a single session. I'd like them to have more time than that.
  2. At the same time, with CR5+ challenges, it will be really tough to keep the lower-level players alive (goal 2) if things turn violent.

Both of these challenges seem likely get more severe as the level gap between new or infrequent players and more established players increases - and since they're somewhat at odds, simply increasing the amount of XP I give out will exacerbate 1, while decreasing it would exacerbate 2. Has anyone managed DND-ish games with big gaps between PC levels, and if so, how did you do it and how did it work out? (I don't really use XP as a reward, only for advancement, so I'm open to totally different systems of character progression if there's one that can achieve the 3 goals I outlined.)

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    \$\begingroup\$ I wish I could have answered this, but while I run the same kind of group, my lead players have only just hit level 3. Maybe in a few months... \$\endgroup\$ – Erik Aug 28 '17 at 20:26
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    \$\begingroup\$ Thinking about it, I'm open to frame challenges on point 2 especially; PC's being exactly the same numeric level isn't crucial by itself so much as a proxy for things like making sure everyone can feel like they're contributing, not be thwarted at every turn, and not die in their first session without me having to do ridiculous gyrations to spare them. \$\endgroup\$ – SirTechSpec Aug 28 '17 at 20:35
  • \$\begingroup\$ @DaleM Your own answer on that question says it takes about "8 [encounters] to reach 4, approximately 10 for levels 5 through 10..." So if the encounter rate is constant, then the time from level 5 to 6 should be no longer than the time from 4 to 5, no? \$\endgroup\$ – SirTechSpec Aug 28 '17 at 21:20
  • \$\begingroup\$ @SirTechSpec Those are hard encounters vs 1 enemy - for the more typical medium encounter vs 3-6 enemies the numbers are 24 and 30 encounters - I have updated my answer there to make this clearer. Also, the encounter budgets will be scaled down by including lower level PCs - this means less XP for the high levels and more XP for the low levels - I will write you an answer when I get time. \$\endgroup\$ – Dale M Aug 29 '17 at 0:17
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    \$\begingroup\$ Similar question: rpg.stackexchange.com/questions/89523/… \$\endgroup\$ – Shem Aug 29 '17 at 13:09

10 Answers 10

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Give them 'phantom levels'


I ran a game a few years ago, where we had a brand new player (to our table and RPGs in general) join our level 7 party. This was a similar situation to yours, as I had to get them tough enough not to get perma-dead by the first enemy they encountered, but they would have been overwhelmed if I had them make a 7th level character.

What I wish I had done in that situation, and what user T.L.D. has done (for previous editions) was give them the HP, Armor, and Weapons of a level 7 character, with the features of a level 1 character.

My suggestion to you is that they start at level 1, but have the HP that their character would have if they were the same level as your lowest leveled player at the table (or the level of the table if that's how you're doing things).

Then give them any mechanical bonuses commensurate to the party's level that do not increase the complexity of their character. This may include:

  • increased proficiency bonus

  • increased HP

  • better armor (magical if appropriate, limited to +1's and +2's)

  • better weapons (magical if appropriate, limited to +1's and +2's)

  • class features that do not induce choice or increase complexity (e.g. Monk's level 6 feature to overcome resistance to non-magical attacks)

Then, after each session (or two), they replace 1 phantom level with a real one. They do not get more health (you already gave that to them), but they add their class features, feats, spells, etc... that a character of their level would have.

This way, you don't have to be afraid to hit them, but they can still learn the character at a normal pace. Obviously, this works best for more martial classes vs casters.

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    \$\begingroup\$ I really dig this idea - was toying with doing something similar - but can't in good SE conscience upvote it due to the speculation involved. Anyone out there actually done this who could provide corroboration/experience of how this works out in actual play? \$\endgroup\$ – SirTechSpec Aug 29 '17 at 14:37
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    \$\begingroup\$ I'm not aware of one, and I realized that it may not be the best SE answer, but I would rather give an idea and get no up votes than do nothing. \$\endgroup\$ – Shem Aug 29 '17 at 18:40
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    \$\begingroup\$ I've actually done something very much like this in previous editions, and it worked out pretty well. \$\endgroup\$ – T.J.L. Dec 2 '17 at 22:02
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    \$\begingroup\$ @Shem It might be worth folding T.J.L's comment into your answer to show an "experienced based" support to your points. Up to you. \$\endgroup\$ – KorvinStarmast Feb 1 '18 at 16:20
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Run Intro Scenes

One of the tricks I used quite a lot is to have a solo session with the new player before they come into the game. This is typically a simple or quick session with or two simple combats to give them the hang of the system. They see what the game is and what is happening in the campaign, from a different perspective.

I try to give those new players some useful information the party needs. This creates a need for the new player and stimulates interaction with the rest of the crew.

Doing that, you can give the player more XP for that mini-session to get them to level up quicker and they will feel like they bring in something.

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  • \$\begingroup\$ Do your players get the hang of the system within 1-2 simple combats, then? Maybe I'm doing something wrong; mine need to be told where to find stuff on their character sheets and how all their abilities work for about their first two 4-hour sessions, hence my wanting to add new abilities slowly. \$\endgroup\$ – SirTechSpec Aug 28 '17 at 21:50
  • \$\begingroup\$ They do not get the full understanding, but they learn the basics: skill checks, initiative, to hit, damage, adv/disadv, etc. Try not to give the most complicated characters to brand new players, avoid the wizard and the characters with many spells. In 1-on-1 you can give them a few tricks and ideas, recommending how and what they should do. Have their PC fight a mugger in the street. \$\endgroup\$ – JP Chapleau Aug 28 '17 at 21:53
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    \$\begingroup\$ Maybe that's the problem - out of 17 players, only 4 aren't casters... \$\endgroup\$ – SirTechSpec Aug 28 '17 at 22:13
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    \$\begingroup\$ Yeah, casters are complicated beasts. I always suggest that new players play half casters or less. (Barbarian, Fighter, Monk, Paladin, Rogue, Ranger) Warlocks aren't too bad, but Bards, Clerics, Druids, Sorcerers and Wizards are not friendly for new players. \$\endgroup\$ – Shem Aug 29 '17 at 13:35
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Solution: Fibonacci XP

Here's what ended up working for me. I dole out and track XP in much larger chunks, which makes it much easier to keep track of where everyone's at. And I dramatically re-scaled the level progression so that each level takes about half again as much as the previous level, instead of the much wider gaps in the PHB. This way, lower-level characters advance quickly (one level per 1-2 sessions) but not overwhelmingly so, while higher-level players can still see that they're making definite progress.

To achieve that without the math getting too weird, I use the Fibonacci sequence starting at the second 1, like so: //=======[]============\\ || Level || XP to Next || |]=======[]============[| || 1 || 1 || || 2 || 2 || || 3 || 3 || || 4 || 5 || || 5 || 8 || || 6 || 13 || || 7 || 21 || \\=======[]============//

This system also makes it much easier to award XP. I still use the old system plus Kobold Fight Club to budget encounters, but then when it comes time to actually award XP at the end of the session, I just do 1 each for progressing the plot, 1 for a major fight, and 2 for a boss fight. When players were levels 1-5, that was about 2 XP each per session; now that they're levels 5-7, it's more like 3-4 each. Much easier than trying to divide 5,875 XP four ways.

Overall, I think it achieves the goals (moving newbies up through the ranks, doing so fast enough for them to approach the other players but not so fast they can't keep up with their class abilities, and not requiring people to level for sessions they're not there for) pretty well. Still on the fence as to whether the Fibonacci sequence is easier to work with than an arbitrary list of numbers that are similar but "rounder".

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It is not a problem (in a challenge-oriented sandbox game)

I've been running a sandbox Pathfinder game. Some characters are level 1, some are level around 5. (I don't know their level, as it is not really my concern and does not affect my job as a GM in any way.)

Here are some emergent properties I have seen in play.

  • Characters die: As I am running a sandbox game, characters die. This levels up (or down, in this case) the situation quite a bit.
  • Established players have multiple characters: Since characters can die, experienced players tend to have several. Not all of them are active at once. They don't always use the highest-level character, because they are afraid it might die, or because that one is doing something else.
  • Changing style of play: Low-level characters are played carefully and protected, while high-level characters often stand bravely in the front while they still have hit points.
  • Experience curve: Low levels are faster to earn than higher ones, so things balance out by themselves in the long run.
  • Combat is not the only point of play: Players spend lots of time strategizing, figuring out where they are and drawing maps, navigating, gathering information and deducing what is happening and where. This is mostly or totally independent of character level.
  • Character optimization matters a lot, too: At least in low-level Pathfinder, an optimized characters functions as if it were a level or two higher than an unoptimized one. Some players optimize, some do not. The optimized characters tend to survive marginally more often than the non-optimized ones, but the effect is small if it even exists.
  • Players can choose their adventures, and often choose safe ones, or approach the dangerous ones with great caution or trickery.

In D&D 5, the characters should be more homogeneous than they are in Pathfinder, even if their levels differ. Bounded accuracy and all. So don't worry, if you are running a challenge-oriented sandbox game.

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The old players can make other characters.

When a new player joins, the lvl 5 PC can go out for some sessions and his player can play with an other one (which starts lvl 1 too). It will prevent the big level gap between PC on a same session.

The level 5 may come back when the new PCs got more levels or if the new players are missing this session.

Playing different characters in the same universe can cause some metagaming but it tends not to be an issue in Open Table games.

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    \$\begingroup\$ From my experience, players are not happy to have to change from their beloved characters which they enjoy roleplaying and have designed with a specific personality in mind, as this changes the whole group atmosphere. In addition, it feels frustrating after having invested the time to level their characters to forcefully have to change to comparatively inept low level PCs because a new player who might not stay very often or very long has joined the group. Most of my players and I myself as a player would be quite discontent with this solution, as it completely breaks continuity. \$\endgroup\$ – Alex2006 Sep 8 '17 at 9:29
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    \$\begingroup\$ The point is that the old characters can came back when the new player is not here, so if the new player is not here very often or very long that's a non-issue. How did you solve OP's problem? Did you make PCs from lvl 1 to 20 play in the same adventure? Was it well received? \$\endgroup\$ – Anne Aunyme Sep 8 '17 at 12:41
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Let's scope the problem

How far behind will new characters lag and for how long?

Let's assume a party of 2 level 5 PCs and 2 level 1 PCs and that every encounter they have is exactly medium against 4 opponents. I realize that this is unrealistic but we are only looking for a ballpark here.

This encounter is 4 monsters with a total of 550XP which is doubled for having 3-6 monsters to 1100XP - exactly medium. Each PC will receive 137.5XP so after 3 such encounters the 1st levels are now 2nd level and the 5th levels are still 5th. The XP budget then goes up to 600, and so on ...

The results are:

Higher Level    Lower Level    Encounters    Cummulative
      5              1             3              3 
      5              2             4              7
      5              3            11             18
      5              4            20             38
      5              5             4             42
      6              5            24             66

Two things to point out:

  • It takes 42 combat encounters for your level 5 PCs to become level 6. You say they advance one level every 2-3 sessions so that's 14-21 combats per session. Now I can only manage 1 -1.5 combats per hour so you must be running some truly marathon sessions.
  • The lower level PCs spend 3 combats at level 1, 4 at level 2 and 11 at level 3 - that should be plenty of time to learn and use new abilities. Admittedly that's only 1 of your marathon sessions but over an 8-24 hour long session maybe they can bone up during bathroom breaks.

What new abilities?

Most levels bring something new, however, most of the new things are relatively passive (new proficiencies, different modifiers etc.), or expansions of exiting abilities (larger dice, more uses etc.), or more spells (which takes time to select but once selected are usually used as dictated by the situation). Very few are revolutionary new abilities that require a great deal of learning.

Here is a summary of every class & archetype and what they get when.

Bounded Accuracy

Low level characters can contribute in a higher level fight due to 5e's bounded accuracy. Hopefully the higher level PCs are dishing out and taking most of the damage since that is the primary difference between low and high level in this edition. Since the monsters are overleveled for the low levels and underleved for the high levesl, the overall damage dealing potential of the party evens out.

The numbers balance out

The way the XP system is built means that lower level PCs are accelerated through the levels and higher levels are slowed - it all comes out in the wash.

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This is something I ran into in the past. I was dming a group where two people dropped out and others took their place, however the new players decided they didn't want to start at the group's level (level 4/5), but at level 1 as they wanted to progress and level up slowly as they hadn't played D&D before. The others were in agreement saying it wouldn't be fair to them if I jumped up their level.

Basically, what I did was a combination of using lots of low CR monsters to challenge the higher level combatants while still giving the level 1 characters the chance to participate and mixing challenges. The second definitely worked better and felt more organic. What I mean by that is if the party came across a dragon, it would be accompanied by a band of kobolds protecting it, the higher levels would engage the dragon while the lower level players kept the kobolds busy, effectively running 2 encounters simultaneously.

Another thing to try, outside of combat, that is heavily dependant on your party classes, is to give challenges that can only be overcome by the lower level characters. A lever across a chasm with a destroyed bridge that the level 0 Mage Hand cast by your level 1 wizard solves. A reluctant NPC that is convinced to give the location of the item the party seeks by the wily tongue of your level 1 bard, etc. This obviously will only work if the lower level characters have a unique niche in the party. Also be sure not to overdo it as it can become frustrating for the rest of the party if the spotlight is always on the lower level players.

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I've been a part of several games where there has been a massive level gap between old players and new ones. Not only were the old characters higher in level, they also had accumulated more items than the new players. A couple of our DM's will award experience points for things that are not encounters such as good roleplaying, plots twists, character development, and participation. Generally what our DM's do to remedy this though is to start the new player near the levels of the old players, if maybe one or two levels below. If you do not want to start them at a higher level, however, there is one more solution I can offer.

Split The Party Temporarily

Either work with the new characters before they meet up with the rest of the party and give them some encounters that lead up to them finding the party or separate them from the party at some point, like if they go out to collect firewood while the group is camping for the night, and give them some solo encounters. That way you can cater to their low level without having the higher level characters around to simply slaughter what ever you throw at them in one hit.

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The simplest and most straightforward way would be to use the level advancement without XP rules (DMG p.261) for new or absented players to level their characters exactly as fast as you want until they reach the point you are happy for them to enter (back) into your normal advancement system.

You should still divide any xp earned by the party between all the characters, as you would if they were all in the same advancement system, to avoid "overpaying" some characters, and use the xp that would have been earned by the new or absented characters to guide decisions about their advancement.

You should also make sure the players know this is what you are doing and that it is to their benefit overall as it is most likely that you will be rapidly advancing them to equivalency to the whole party.

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Relax your requirements

If you're running a level 5-6 game, you don't want level 1-3 characters in it. I highly doubt your players who have run their characters from level 1 will want to be burdened with level 1 splat PCs while they fight appropriate level baddies. So, relax your requirements to have all new PCs start at level 1. Also, level 1 characters will be mostly watching the horses of the level 5 pcs, and that's not fun for them either.

Instead, start your new people this fall at level 4 or 5 so they can contribute meaningfully to the adventure. I would have the story mostly focus on veteren players until the new characters have had time to affect the game world, and that you know the players will stick around.

Level up the newbs separately

If you can't possibly change your rules to suit the conditions, play newcomers in a lower level in a separate adventure tract until they are higher level to join the main group.

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    \$\begingroup\$ I'm aware of the reasons it's preferable to have characters of similar levels. However, the question is "How can I balance gradual character advancement for new players vs. trying to keep the PCs at a similar level?" You don't seem to address or acknowledge that in this answer. \$\endgroup\$ – SirTechSpec Aug 29 '17 at 14:41

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