Savoring Level One

Say for a moment that you are starting a brand-new role playing campaign. I’ve known some GMs to begin players at mid-level so they don’t have to toil around as a first-level character. Yet I think doing so misses the sweetest part of many role-playing games: starting your characters inexperienced and watching them grow.

Role playing is all about getting into your character and enjoying the game experiences they can get into (and get out of). When your character progresses, learning new skills and abilities, it is usually pretty rewarding; you’ve met and overcome some challenges and grown as a result.

That character growth you’re rewarded with is one of the primary feedback mechanisms in role playing. By solving problems, besting adversaries, and defeating challenges (or sometimes simply surviving them), you’re earning the right to continue adventuring, building reputation, and often developing into a stronger, smarter, or more capable character who can face even more challenges.

Progressing by Levels

Josh recently posted about the pointlessness of XP and the “ding!” effect, and he makes some good, er, points. In general I also prefer systems which are free of levels, such as Shadowrun’s where characters simply earn karma which can be spent to improve skills and stats gradually, rather than a sudden jump to the next level with increases across the board. For the purposes of this discussion, I’m focusing on the type of games which do involve experience levels.

Traditionally role playing games have kept track of these rewards primarily by handing out experience points (XP) and allowing characters to increase some or all of their stats and skills when they accumulate enough XP to reach the next level.

Gaining a level and bumping up a bunch of stats, possibly gaining new spells, abilities, feats, etc., tends to result in a quick and marked increase in a character’s relative power level. Since characters need somewhere to grow to, not only do the higher levels in a role playing game tend to result in ridiculous amounts of power but the lowest levels are usually quite weak, offering a large grade of potential for characters to traverse.

Jumping Right Into the Action

After a few games, some players and GMs get the idea that playing with stronger, mid-level (or even high-level) characters who has more significant powers and abilities is the fun part of role playing. And it can be, in a way. This leads some to start their next game by building characters who are past level one, so they can immediately tackle larger threats and affect the game world in larger ways.

I think this is a mistake. If you enjoy this sort of thing, go right ahead. Yet I think it’s much more valuable to earn those powers and grow into that role than to skip the lower levels entirely.

Building Character

As Calvin’s dad used to say, “…It builds character.” From the viewpoint of someone who wants to jump right into the action, that may sound dumb. But I think it’s more fun to start at the bottom, at level one.

Why? It has to do with the growth curve, the rate of progression as your character learns and develops. At the beginning, when your character has relatively low stats at level one, that first level increase is a big deal. In some systems going from level one to level two can mean almost double the power.

The next level up is also a pretty big deal, but maybe just a little bit less of an increase in power than going from level one to level two. The trend continues from there, each level bringing an increase in power but generally at a slightly smaller amount than the previous increase (similar to the law of diminishing returns). This is another way of saying your character’s growth is fastest at lower levels and slows over time.

Change is Fun

I’m not talking about political change or the stuff you find in the couch (okay, finding couch cash can be fun too), but change affecting your character as a result of a level increase. When you play your character for a session, or several, you feel their power level pretty directly. It encapsulates the type and amount of influence you can exert on the game world. Through role playing you inhabit and become your character, and feel both the limitations and freedoms that your character’s power level affords.

Then your character goes up a level. You get to learn new spells, talents, or abilities, increase attributes or skills, perhaps all of the above. Play your character in subsequent sessions and chances are your ability to influence the game world has increased.

Take, for example, your standard magician-type character. They may start out with a combat spell at first level, but it’s probably something wimpy. Sure, eventually after several levels they’ll get access to Fireball (or its equivalent), but even moving up to level two they tend to learn something better than that first combat spell, allowing them to do more damage or have greater range, etc. That’s not even considering the capabilities possible outside of a spell effect designed simply to cause combat damage.

What it comes down to is that playing your level two character after having played the same character at level one and working your way to level two is going to feel better than if you had jumped right in at level two. You’ll appreciate it more. Also there’s simply more room for growth (the primary reward in role playing) when you start at the bottom.

It’s All Relative, Isn’t It?

What about high-level campaigns? Starting at mid-level and adventuring through level 20-plus? Going from level 15 to level 16 is still an increase. Yet in most game systems that increase is smaller than the increase from level one to level two, often much smaller. Back to the law of diminishing returns.

The other problem with high-level campaigns, from my point of view, is that it becomes harder to prevent the characters and events from divorcing reality. But wait, we’re talking about role playing, isn’t leaving reality behind the whole point? Not exactly; generally speaking role playing is about altering certain aspects of the world while keeping others intact. The game might be set in a different time period, the world might be infused with magic and Elves and Orcs and talking dragons, or perhaps you’ll take the role of someone whose other form has teeth and claws. In each case the game world and reality still have a lot in common. Some physical laws may be bent or broken, others operate exactly as in reality. Some social norms may have changed, but not others.

In order to inhabit and understand the made-up game world we start from the reality we’re used to on a daily basis and extrapolate. Our actions and decisions in game are still based partly in reality, even if we’re not constantly thinking about the real world outside the game.

Thus the higher your character’s power level goes, and that of the game environment as it keeps pace, the more play tends to diverge from the reality we innately comprehend. This isn’t inherently bad, but it certainly adds to the challenge of maintaining the willing suspension of disbelief that keeps players “in character” and allows them to remain invested in the events their characters are supposed to be a part of.

Best Bang for the Buck

It turns out that the right power level for your game, and starting power level for characters, rests in the hands of the GM, and a good GM strives to balance the needs of their story with the desires of the players in it.

Ask your GM if Level One is right for you.

…Seriously though, I think most groups get the best bang for the buck by starting out at first level, watching their characters grow from there, and enjoying the journey.

Questions, comments, opinions, and feedback are appreciated, let me know what you think!

Additional notes:

  • Inspiration for this post came in part from David Heinemeier Hansson’s talk about Legacy Code, how it reflects not decay of the code but growth of the programmer. Worth watching for those who write code for a living.
  • I tried real hard not to make a crack about characters ascending to godly power levels. Almost succeeded too.
  • Finally, a film quote: “Maybe the real God uses tricks. Maybe He’s not omnipotent. He’s just been around so long, He knows everything.”
    Mike Says:

    I look forward to growing up with Joe in your campaign Scott. I always liked starting as fresh bait in the world of adventure.

    The only issue I always had in RPGs was magic. A first level character should be able to cast many low-power spells, as opposed to the obligatory 1-2 a day, followed by lots of missed or ineffective staff swings. Maybe 5 a day at first level, then progressing from there. Seems silly to go an entire day with 1 spell given that there’s usually more than 1 combat each day…leaving all the extra work for the fighter-types.I can see many magic users throwing in their votes for a mid-level campaign start, hehe.

    Joe Meister Says:

    I can agre with you, Scott, about the value of Level One.
    However, there is much to be said about campaigns that allow you to affect the world more by starting at slightly more than Level One. Say Level Five-ish.
    It all depends on the story the GM has in mind, the length of the campaign, and the players’ commitments to their roles.
    It can be fun to do a one-shot, starting at a mid-level, where you can do some cool stuff and still have room to grow if the campaign is fun enough to garner GM and player loyalty.
    Level One is fun, though. It allows you to literally grow into your character. You need to plan your development more. In a mid-level campaign, you can taylor you character from the get-go, making choices that would have made a Level One character hard to play, without having to play them at Level One.
    I forgot how fun it is to make new characters in a new game!


    To be fair 4th Edition D&D has changed a lot of this. The creation of Encounter Powers (effectively abilities that recharge after a short amount of time) and the inclusion of “at will” powers means the Wizard is never without several spells. While there are still the big Daily spells these are the things that are meant to be wiped out when the going really gets tough.

    Also the changes have made every level matter. To be honest 4th edition feels fairly even as the characters level without the big jumps early. The real big jumps are levels 10 to 11 and 20 to 21 where the characters move from Heroic to Paragon and then from Paragon to Epic.

    I love the fact that my players are now level 10 and I can still make interesting and fun encounters for them. In 3.5 the fun was all at the beginning. Levels 1 – 5 or so were great but after that it was a pain in the butt to make anything that would be interesting but would not have a chance of auto killing them.

    Still, in many games I do enjoy the early stuff and while the later stuff in 4th is better that does not make the low levels worse. It just makes every level interesting in its own way.


    There was one topic that I left out of this post because it was running longer than I had planned:

    Challenges relative to the level of the characters. Sure, level one characters start out relatively weak, and in some sense that could mean they can’t have as much of an effect on the game world. But if the NPCs and events are tailored to match then it can be relatively smooth, and the challenges can grow with the player characters.

    Even if it means that some PCs start out similar to Taran, the humble pigkeeper.

    Joe Meister Says:

    Since you mention it, I loved the Chronicles of Prydain, especially Taran Wanderer.


    Oh, and Joe- yeah, making new characters in a new game (or for me one I haven’t played in a long time) is a blast!

    Now I just have to come up with the adventure seeds for you guys… hey, that’s what lunch break at work is for.


    Did I miss where you guys talked about what game you are playing?

    Joe Says:

    We are currently starting a RoleMaster campaign. I am also occasionally participating in a long term D&D 3.x mod campaign.


    Cool. I use to love Role Master, though we kind of butchered the system by making only spell casters playable…

    I’m really a D&D 4.0 guy now I guess. The more I learn how to run Skill Challenges the more I enjoy the system and feel that it can accommodate a lot of story and role playing.


    I decided to leave the game specifics out of this post, feeling it was a little more generally applicable.

    Heh, I’m pretty slow in the adventure-writing department, probably time for me to read some old fantasy novels to spur some ideas, maybe we’ll get beyond character creation before the end of Winter.

    Role Master 2nd Edition is the game this time, for a few different reasons, mainly that I had it on hand and that I wanted something that I wouldn’t feel bad about running with a very loose style and ignoring the written rules whenever I feel the need.

    I still like the magic system, in some respects the best part of Role Master’s design.