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I am DMing for the first time. As a player, I like starting with nothing and making use of found items until equipment can be bought. I think this makes the early levels more interesting. Thus, as a DM, I want to start my campaign this way.

One player wants to play a fighter that uses a spiked chain. I'm wondering how to get the spiked chain in his character's hands so he can start playing the character he wants to play.

How long is it reasonable to make someone wait for an item that is a main part of how his PC is supposed to work?

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    \$\begingroup\$ How would you handle a wizard's spellbook, a cleric's holy symbol, or any caster's spell component pouch? \$\endgroup\$ Oct 18 '16 at 16:46
  • \$\begingroup\$ This appears to be purely opinion based, though the answers have done a good job of trying to "teach how to fish," they're going beyond the actual question posed. Can you develop the question so it's not just asking for "what do you think is fair?" \$\endgroup\$
    – mxyzplk
    Oct 19 '16 at 19:39
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One, the game is designed that characters start with some equipment. If you start at 1st, it’s not such a big deal, but if you start at a level higher than 1st, it’s a very big deal. And the game furthermore expects that characters gain an appropriate amount of equipment as they level up. A character with 1000 XP but no equipment is not what the game has in mind when it is thinking of a 2nd-level character. That difference of what the game is expecting versus what your players actually have is going to make various rules and guidelines less useful to you as a DM. Those rules were written with assumptions that are untrue and thus do not apply (at least as well). This can be gotten around by being very careful about how you do things, but as a new DM, in my opinion anyway, you have enough to worry about without also having to worry about what lack of items means.

Two, the game’s expectations may very well be your player’s expectations. You should be sure they are aware of this twist and how it will affect their wealth over the long haul. Like I said, at 1st level, not so big a deal, but it quickly becomes important, absolutely critical in some cases (like with a fighter).

Three, ultimately, 1st-level characters never have everything they want: they lack feats, items, class features, and so on that they’re looking forward to. As I’ve been saying, this idea is viable with some care at 1st level. You could ditch it (would probably be easier for you, might be more fun for players), but you can probably work with it even as a new DM. I would just make sure you offer enough loot/rewards/etc. to get the players back on track by approximately 2nd level, but that can be done just by making the loot slightly larger than they’d otherwise be.

To make it work for this particular fighter, there are several options. Here are a couple:

  • A 1st-level fighter may not even have Exotic Weapon Proficiency yet—maybe he takes that as his 2nd-level bonus feat (and by 2nd level, hopefully he’s found or bought or made a spiked chain), and his 1st-level feats are things he can use with many weapons (Combat Expertise, Combat Reflexes, and Improved Trip, perhaps, to cover even the case of a human with an extra bonus feat).

  • You could allow him to find some kind of “lesser” chain weapon, maybe literally just a length of chain. You could treat this as an improvised weapon (perhaps only 1d4 damage instead of 2d4, and lacks the bonus to disarm, maybe lacks the trip feature or compatibility with Weapon Finesse), but say his Exotic Weapon Proficiency in spiked chains lets him use it with proficiency (no −4 penalty to attacks). After all, a spiked chain seems a lot harder to use than an unspiked chain.

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    \$\begingroup\$ Giving better loot in the first level is one of the things I like about the no equipment start. I do see what you mean and maybe it would be easier. It didn't occur to me to check the feats because if he builds it that way it's not as much of an issue. Nothing is set in stone yet for the beginning of the game (probably won't start yet for a couple of weeks.) So I think I should get with everyone and let them know I'm thinking about this sort of start without any story details and see what their various concerns are. \$\endgroup\$ Oct 18 '16 at 17:22
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    \$\begingroup\$ @SuperTheBoss: Time spent discussion expectations and getting heartfelt buy-in from all participants is time well spent. \$\endgroup\$ Oct 19 '16 at 11:09
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If your players are starting at higher levels, not only would the lack of equipment quickly be fatal, there would be very few scenarios in which it would be logical for heros to lack any gear. At starting level, I can see where this makes more sense, but I still recommend talking to your players about this, as that is the best way to find a solution agreable to both you and them. There are a few challenges to skipping the starting equipment for low-level characters:

  • The combat just got a lot tougher. If the characters have little starting gold and no equipment, I would as a DM consider combat encounters to all increase one difficulty plateau (at least) until they get proper gear.
  • It can put a hamper in their background. In several of the games I've played, characters often had some sentimental attachment to a piece of armor or a weapon, sometimes to the point of overlooking better gear in its favor. If you stop them from having it, it can hurt their backstory and therefore their investment in the character. Letting them have it and barring other weapons, on the other hand, might be unfair to other players.
  • Magic casters. A fighter with no starting equipment still has his fists, improvised weapons, and a nice starting pool of health to help him along. The party wizard has none of that, and can't cast any spells until he gets his hands on some of the most expensive/rare starting equipment, a spellbook.

To compensate for this, you will either need to throw easier monsters at them, or quickly give them the opportunity to get some gear. Characters reaching level 2 or 3 that still do not have the basic gear will have a hellish time in regular encounters.

As for the specific case of your fighter, I would put him in a scenario where he has access to some sort of chain, such as a prison, a kennel, or another such place, and allow him to use this imporvised chain either as an improvised weapon or, if he has exotic weapon proficiency, as a regular chain with some handicap, such as a missing feature, a penalty to the damage or the bonus to hit.

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As the other answers here state, starting with no equipment changes some of the premises of the game, which should be accounted for. However, as you didn't ask about that, let's dive in to your question:

Option 1: Each character begin play with minimal equipment

As Hey I can Chan commented, some classes will be seriously hampered without their class' "signature tool of the trade" - a cleric without his holy symbol cannot cast spells or turn undead, a wizard without his spellbook is limited to casting the spells he happened to memorize and can't prepare them again, and - as in your case - a fighter built around a specific weapon will be hampered without it.

You can resolve this by allowing each character to have a single/few items which will make the difference between being almost useless and just barely equipped. You can even have that equipment to be of poor quality, to make gaining 'proper' items a priority (such as a rusty weapon with -1 to attacks/damage, or a spellbook salvaged from a fire so that it has no/few blank pages for adding spells).

Option 2: Start with nothing, gain the basics fast

I've once ran a campaign where the PCs started as captives of a gnoll tribe - all their equipment taken, they were caged, guarded, and would either become slaves or dinner if they didn't work together to break out quickly - the players really enjoyed fighting their way out with sticks and bones as weapons, and managed to reclaim some of their equipment (the wizard got his book easily as the gnolls didn't want it, the paladin had the satisfaction of taking his sword back from a slain guard...). Planned correctly, you can either allow your PCs to gain the basic equipment they need, or reclaim their own equipment back (allowing them to still have an ancestral weapon or specifically tailored gear). Granted, this isn't the usual way a campaign starts, but it can be extremely satisfying.

Specifically, your fighter may find some length of chain (maybe he is even chained at the beginning) and use it as a poor spiked chain. You can treat it as the standard weapon, or downgrade it (-1 for attacks, deal bludgeoning damage - possibly less than the regular weapon, be heavier, easier to break etc.). This can even be the narrative reason for the fighter to adopt the chain as his main weapon later on. Alternatively, just have one of the first foes or treasures have a spiked chain. Unlike a wizard without his spellbook, a level 1 fighter with a stick can still handle combat pretty well...

At any rate, starting with no equipment will make the first encounters much tougher, probably deadly - unless you adjust them accordingly - it's probably good to discuss this with the players and make sure you are all on the same page.

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Let the player decide - and accept that he might want to get it immediately.

This is a fundamental change to the game, especially if the characters do not start at level 1 and it takes more than one session to regain the gear they were supposed to have. You may have the best intentions but keep in mind that just because you, as a player, enjoyed starting with nothing and it made your first levels more interesting does not mean that the players of your campaign with have the same opinion.

Of course this does not apply if the characters happen to stumble upon a chest with a spiked chain, a spellbook and a holy symbol after 5 minutes of out-of-game time; that's just the introduction. It will also not have a significant impact if you start with challenges that do not involve the desired item (for example, in this case, you could start with a non-combat situation - perhaps they need to gather clues about a series of murders and then, as a reward, they get gear to catch the killer). Personally I don't see the point of not having them from the start - it's the same from a mechanical standpoint, but I can see how it spices things up.

However, don't shoehorn something like that just to stall and give the gear after X minutes - do it because you genuinely think it's going to be fun. If not, I'd suggest a compromise: let them have some essential items. They are not going to be naked afterall, are they? It is entirely reasonable that the figher that has been training for years with a weapon to have that weapon. Or that the elf wizard that has been studying magic for a century has a spellbook. Just don't let them, in addition to the spiked chain, have a sword, a crossbow, 2 potions, a scroll, lots of coins and a kitchen sink of adventuring items.

On the other hand, this is already kinda built-in the system. At level 1 they have what, about 150gp worth of items? Level 2 is 900gp - withholding 150gp to later give 1050gp is not really going to make a difference...

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Provide a spiked chain as a found item. Maybe he doesn't have Exotic Weapon Proficiency, but you fight your way out of the dungeon with the weapon you have, -4 penalty or no -4 penalty. Make a story out of it. Maybe he's sentimental about it, maybe he thinks it's lucky for him (hey, they got out alive, even if he missed a lot of enemies and broke a lot of furniture). Maybe, in later life, he's only a spiked chain specialist because he found this spiked chain. It's part of his character concept; roll with it.

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  • \$\begingroup\$ Taking a penalty that large makes it so you might as well not attack at all. That could easily counteract your entire attack bonus at 1st level. \$\endgroup\$
    – KRyan
    Oct 18 '16 at 22:43
  • \$\begingroup\$ So give the guy strength 18 and he's on a level with the guy who has the proficiency but only has strength 10. Maybe he's only got one chance in three of hitting your average orc, but he's going to kill that orc in one successful hit more often than not. Plus, swinging that thing around, he's going to scare hell out of everybody, including the rest of the party. It's action-comedy gold. \$\endgroup\$ Oct 18 '16 at 22:53
  • \$\begingroup\$ A guy with BAB +0 and Strength 10 isn’t going to be attacking an orc; he’s going to be casting spells, or he’s going to be running away, which is exactly what this fighter would have to do. That penalty is suicide at 1st level. \$\endgroup\$
    – KRyan
    Oct 18 '16 at 23:17
  • \$\begingroup\$ It's only suicide if the DM isn't doing his job. \$\endgroup\$ Oct 18 '16 at 23:52
  • \$\begingroup\$ Wait, is it really the DM's job to keep his players alive when they are making bad decisions? \$\endgroup\$
    – Weckar E.
    Oct 19 '16 at 6:49

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