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My players just finished Curse of Strahd and are ready to move on to Rise of Tiamat. I have two players with two characters each, and they left Curse at 10th. One player is happy with his characters and will be keeping them. The other player wanted to try something different, so I am allowing him to make two new characters with the same XP total as the ones he is swapping out.

As I work with the player to create his new characters, I have just now realized something. When increasing ability scores upon leveling (ASI), all points are equal - the 'cost' to go from 10 to 12 is the same as to go from 18 to 20. However, for a character's initial ability scores at first level, the 'point buy' method imposes a premium on high scores - raising a score from 10 to 12 costs two points, but raising it from 13 to 15 costs four.

For a character starting at first level, perhaps the most important consideration is having as high an ability score as possible in their prime attribute - both for survivability and for the fun of being effective in their party role. Despite the cost in point buy, there is a strong incentive to have at least one score much higher than the others.

But for a character starting at 10th level, who does not have to worry about being effective at first level, the more relevant consideration is the cap of 20 on their prime ability. If you know you are getting to start at high level, the optimal strategy would be to deliberately set your initial distribution low, for maximum yield from point buy, and then 'spend' your ASI all at once on your prime score.

One issue is CR and what modules assume about the average efficacy of characters of a certain level. A more pressing concern is fairness among players - if some characters started at first and others are permitted to start at tenth, the ones who started at tenth will have higher scores, particularly in classes that have more frequent ASI (one of the proposed PCs in my case is a rogue).

If you have allowed players to start at higher levels, and have allowed this 'backward adjustment' of ability scores, has this caused problems? Either tension between players or encounter-balancing issues?

I am not interested about what is fair or what I should do. Answers along those lines are opinion-based and off-topic for this site.

I am interested in the actual experience of DMs and what sort of difficulties, if any, this has engendered.

I believe this is a general phenomenon, but at Medix2's request I will include some specific numbers. If this character was actually started at first level, suppose the player wanted a human rogue character that maximized Dex for 15 (Dex) with 3 x 12 and 2 x 11 with a 27 point buy.
After standard human +1 to all, at first level this would be
16 (Dex) with 3 x 13 and 2 x 12.
By playing to 10th level, they would have had 3 ASI events for 6 points, and might be then at
20 (Dex) with 2 x 14, 13, and 2 x 12.

If the same character was allowed to start at 10th level and 'reverse buy', they could start with
13 (Dex) with 3 x 13, 12, 11 with a 27 point buy.
After racial bonuses, at first level this would be
14 (Dex) with 3 x 14, 13, 12.
By starting at 10th level, they would have 3 ASI events for 6 points, and could be then at
20 (Dex) with 3 x 14, 13, 12.

The first-level character would start with a lower prime (in this case, Dex). By not having to actually play that character at first level, they could then have the benefits of having a character at 10th level with equal Dex but better in another ability. By focusing their ASI on lower starting scores, they would avoid the premium placed on point buy scores of >13, without having to have paid the cost of a sub-optimal first level character.

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  • \$\begingroup\$ Are you playing with feats? If this is the case the second strategy of distributing ability scores may actually put you at a disadvantage, since you need to invest all ASI to increase the primary score and don't have a option to pick up a feat... \$\endgroup\$
    – fabian
    Jun 1 at 8:15
  • \$\begingroup\$ @fabian No feats in this particular game. \$\endgroup\$
    – Kirt
    Jun 1 at 16:32
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I'm going to say it will have absolutely no noticeable impact. Your example shows that your Rogue gets a total of +1 on his 4th best stat after trying to "abuse" this.

The Rogue is already the second-best option for trying to abuse this, and the bonus they get is trivially weak. Players rarely roll their 4th best stat for anything, and if they do, it's already going to be a long shot to succeed anyway, the +1 won't change much.

However, if you allow your players to start with magic items, the story might change. While abusing point-buy at best gives you a very small bump to a very insignificant stat, the only game I played in myself that started at higher level, I played a Wizard with a 13 Int and a Headband of Intellect.

That gave me a 19 Int to play with and really good stats in everything else, and it would make it difficult for me to actually play up to the starting level. (I did make it fit with his story; he was a mediocre Wizard and more trained in other things, but I don't I'd have enjoyed playing him up to 12th level in a real campaign)

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    \$\begingroup\$ Better hope the BBEG doesn't find out, or you'll find yourself without a Headband \$\endgroup\$
    – Jorn
    May 30 at 13:15
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    \$\begingroup\$ @Jorn my Diviner prided himself on never letting himself get caught with his (armored) pants down, so I'm sure that would never happen. (Or it'd be hilarious, either of those) \$\endgroup\$
    – Erik
    May 30 at 16:10
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One issue is CR and what modules assume about the average efficacy of characters of a certain level.

This is a non-issue. The CR and balance in D&D 5e is so heavily slanted in favor of the PCs that 2 or 3 higher stat scores is “meh”. If you roll for stats - which is actually the non-variant method - you’ll get as big or bigger swings than this.

A more pressing concern is fairness among players - if some characters started at first and others are permitted to start at tenth, the ones who started at tenth will have higher scores, particularly in classes that have more frequent ASI (one of the proposed PCs in my case is a rogue).

Full disclosure here: I work in dispute resolution so when I think of “fairness”, I think of procedural fairness. This type of fairness: witch trial

Have the rules been followed? Yes. Has anyone with power to exercise discretion (the DM) shown bias in the exercise of that discretion? No. Therefore, it’s fair.

There are other measures of fairness but they don’t interest me.

If you have allowed players to start at higher levels, and have allowed this 'backward adjustment' of ability scores, has this caused problems?

I have and it hasn’t.

Either tension between players or encounter-balancing issues

No and no.

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One issue is CR and what modules assume about the average efficacy of characters of a certain level.

Barring cases like the insanity that is the first part of Descent into Avernus, this is largely a non-issue in my experience. The reason for this is simple: it’s possible for any character buildable with point-buy to survive to any arbitrary level. This is a side effect of bounded accuracy and the associated limitations on the mechanics in 5e meaning that it’s not only possible, but actually somewhat likely for a character to get really lucky and survive. For example, I was up until recently playing a paladin who had gone down in every single combat he had been in and still survived (well, until he got hit with a near max damage Fireball while at only 1 HP) through to almost level 4. He wasn’t even a particularly bad paladin in terms of stats, just unlucky when it came to enemy damage rolls.

A more pressing concern is fairness among players - if some characters started at first and others are permitted to start at tenth, the ones who started at tenth will have higher scores, particularly in classes that have more frequent ASI (one of the proposed PCs in my case is a rogue).

Nope, not really. Everyone has the same set of resources when just looking at ability scores, the only likely difference is that you may see players starting at higher levels have somewhat more balanced scores than those who started at first level, but this is not inherently better or worse mechanically (many people assume more balanced scores are better, but they aren’t in most cases, they’re just different). Fifth edition makes this even less of an issue because outside of saving throws, most characters will only ever really use 3 of their 6 abilities.

Looking at your example, there’s little practical difference between 20 14 14 14 13 12 and 20 14 14 13 12 12. Yes, the slightly higher total value set will have some minor advantages, but unless this particular character has to fill a bunch of roles in the party, that will not matter much, because they will generally only need to roll stuff for 3 specific abilities. It’s even less of an issue if the character is in a SAD class like a Wizard or Sorcerer, because they usually end up with all the abilities high that they care about anyway, and having one extra ability above average is not going to have much, if any, impact on them.

Where this gets tricky is if you allow the new players to get magic items that the existing players have not had equal access to. This can lead to inequity, but only if you’re not careful about it.

If you have allowed players to start at higher levels, and have allowed this 'backward adjustment' of ability scores, has this caused problems? Either tension between players or encounter-balancing issues?

Usually not and absolutely not respectively.

The approach I take though is a bit different than the book. When I have someone starting at greater than level 1 (even if everyone is starting at higher than level 1), I insist on them providing a backstory that reasonably explains how they got from level 1 to where they are now. I’m generally picky about these backstories, requiring that they are logically consistent within the mechanics of the game and explain both how the character survived to the level they are at now, and how they developed their skills to the degree they have now. I’m picky that there be no deus ex machina aspects unless they work with the campaign as logical story hooks (so, for example, I almost always reject any that rely on a ‘chosen one’ trope or something similar), but I’m generally fine with the character being atypically lucky as part of explaining why they survived.

This, in turn, forces the player to think about how their character developed to where they are now, which usually helps avoid the type of metagaming-derived blatantly nonsensical but overpowered builds you seem to be worried about (which I would argue your example is not a case of), but it also helps the player be more invested in their character.

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