Friday, May 1, 2009

First level characters are too powerful - did you know?

Nagora posted this insightful little essay on Dragonsfoot:

First level characters are too powerful

That got your attention, didn't it? Well, half seriously, here's what I've been thinking recently:

In AD&D, zero-level characters are pretty weak. Even men-at-arms have only 4-7hp and normal people have somwhere in the region of 1-5 or so. Now, BtB, "normal people" are 99% of the population (I'm only dealing with humans here). So in a town of 3000 adults, 2770 of them will have less than 8hp; probably more than 1500 will have less than 6hp.

It is these people to which weapons are scaled. A dagger stab is not a serious threat to a first level character given how common it is to grant firsties a hp boost (I rountinely give average hp or the hps rolled, whichever is higher, many people simply give max hp at first level) and, of course, PCs get CON bonuses which 0-levels rarely do (BtB their max CON is 15).

A first level magic user fights as well as any normal person and, equipped with a sleep spell can absolutely count on facing down and killing a gang of 4 such people (perhaps more) single-handedly. If s/he has magic missile then s/he can make most normal people drop dead from 210 feet away. With charm person they can make a town's mayor into a puppet from 360 feet away - while the latter makes a speech or some such. The potential for gaining political power is staggering!

A first level fighter is probably a bit less frightening to normal people, but is still generally able to laugh off even a good sword stroke from puny "norms" whilst their potential for great strength, say 18/51, means that even a glancing blow with a broadsword for minimum damage will almost certainly slaughter even the toughest soldier. Normal people never get a STR bonus to-hit or damage. The first level ranger does all this AND gets a double CON bonus and special abilities too!

Clerics, of course, frequently get bonus spells at first level and don't have to hope on random selection for their spells. So, in addtion to being armed and armoured and better than a normal trained soldier at combat, a cleric can command, cause fear, and/or darkness which the normal person has little defense against.

Thieves are "merely" equal to a trained soldier in direct combat, and have poorer armour in all likelihood, but their potential for DEX bonuses will probably take their overall AC to something in the region of chainmail and their ability to backstab gives them horrendous potential when combined with their ability to get into places where they can attack by surprise.

A party of 6 of these guys in a village is very serious trouble for the inhabitants if the party is hostile!


Okay, so it's overstated (and I carefully avoided the monk) but the point is that many experienced players lose sight of how capable first level characters actually are. They are in fact pretty tough compared to normal people, yet players used to higher level play can be very cautious when playing firsties again, to the point where they sometimes play them as more cautious than I think the player would be in real life!

I recently had a situation with a very old-timer player who, when given a first-level ranger to play hardly ventured out of town and explained that he was just playing "the way I think a first level character would be". Yet this first level character was big, strong, in his 20's and far more capable of surviving a one-on-one attack than most real people, even soldiers. The player's pre-concieved notion of first-level characters as little more than helpless babes crippled his ability to play the character.

Back in the days of OD&D this was understandable - there was no such notion as 0-level and when wandering about, for example, the City State of the Invincible Overlord, everyone you met was basically one of the leveled classes and if you were first level then, quite logically, most of these people were better than you.

With AD&D the "background level" was drastically reduced and in the process the heroicness of the player characters massively boosted. Yet it seems to me that most people never noticed. I think mainly because most play is not in towns, cities, and villages. It's in places where the opposition is almost all supernatural in some way or other.

Re-reading Conan I was struck by how much of the time he is facing hordes of normal people in towns with a tougher leader and/or a single supernatural sidekick. I think this is a much better model for low-level adventuring than the normal "dungeon full of kobolds" model. By placing the first-level characters into a setting of normal people, the superiority of the characters is established by simple comparison while the nature of an "urban" setting allows the party to flee, regroup, rest and so forth in a much less artificial way than most low-level dungeon or wilderness scenarios.

There is a learnt helplessness about low-level play that I think is discouraging for players (how many people here have heard the lament "can't we start at 3rd?"?) while simultainiously draining the colour out of the background and the specialness out of being one of the elite 1% that should be fun rather than a chore on the way to higher levels.

And it cuts the other way too. As I mentioned on another thread, a dragon is the nuclear weapon of the AD&D world, from the point of view of normal people. A dragon played BtB will land in a county and OWN it - simply flying overhead will cause all opposition to flee, the breath weapon of an adult green dragon will kill evey living thing in a market square; a red's will do likewise in an even larger area while also setting the town alight. Economic ruin and destruction are the inevitable result of a dragon entering even the most powerful empire's borders. Nothing and no one can stand in the way of these beasts. Except...the heroes!

Yet these monsters are routinely dismissed as "whimpy" or "in need boosting". Because most of the time they are not in any context which shows how fantastic either the dragon or the dragon-slayer are.

So I'd encourage all DMs to take a little more time to ground their games in the reality of the normal people before they start to complain that 11th level characters are "not high level", or that magic items are what separates a character from the mundane, or even take the fighter's multiple attacks against under 1HD creatures away from them. The more you let the players feel that their character's are special then I think the more fun they will have, and the more they enjoy rather than dread playing 1st level characters then the more willing they will be to take risks and act (anti-)heroiclly and everyone will enjoy the results.

Thus endith the sermon.

There's a lot to chew on, here. One thing I've always been struck by is how many folks see that AD&D (for example) has 20 levels built in, and assume that you're therefore actually supposed to get to 20th level in the course of normal gameplay. Where, from a logical standpoint, 9th (i.e., name) level characters are world-changing heroes, superhuman in almost every way. This puts the lower levels in the proper perspective, I think. (There's a reason an 8th-level fighter is a "super hero"!)

Anyway, good stuff.



  1. Curiously enough, the only time I've had players whine and complain about starting at level 1 was in a town-based campaign... the whining increased the next game session, until it effectively became an ultimatum: up us to 3rd level, or we quit.

    I upped them to 3rd level - and hit them with encounters I'd been saving until later in the campaign. TPK, roll up new characters please... at 1st level.

    Except, I think we ended up switching campaigns about then. Starting at about level 4.

    The fact the previous few campaigns had started at level 4 and run till about level 8 may have something to do with it.

  2. Hahahaha...

    The one thing about Classic / AD&D is that the pace of advancement (as compared to newer editions) makes sure you're damn familiar with your current level of power before it bumps up. I find that a lot of players who want it all at once can't handle the heat once they get there, since they didn't "grow" with the characters, and don't quite know what they can do (and what they can't). Nothing like giving out some mid-level characters only to have the group run'em into the ground. LOL