Tuesday, March 15, 2016

Starting at 1st

I'm somewhat hampered.  If I want to make an argument defending my policy of having every new player start a 1st level character, regardless of the present level of the party, it is impossible to do so without incorporating my rule changes.  The way the game is written by the company, it does seem to make sense to start a new character at the same level of the party.  I never did this, however, even when I was playing the original rules - because I think it is blatantly unfair to the standing party.

If I am running in a campaign like mine, and I started at 1st level in early 2014, then I will probably be something like 6th level now.  That is a slow advance for a lot of campaigns but it is typical in mine.  In order to be 6th level, I will have risked a lot, sacrificed a lot and experienced a lot of different trials and gained both friends and influence.  I will have done that through my efforts.  Running against a DM like me means putting in the time and steadily building my characters' value, so that as a 6th level today I feel like an experienced, somewhat grizzled campaign warhorse.

I wouldn't appreciate someone stepping into the campaign and being handed all that for free - particularly if that player hasn't yet proved that they're going to be a good fit for the party and the campaign.  There's good sense in starting off a newbie with less, since humility builds character.

Of course, there are many campaigns where the new player is given the equal level charge because the old players will cheerfully bitch-slap the newbie into obedience otherwise.  Such doesn't happen in my campaigns because I won't allow anyone to be mistreated in that way, as I've recently discussed.  I don't care that the newbie is low level; everyone gets heard and everyone is entitled to approach the campaign with an equal voice.

I don't feel that anyone is entitled to free experience, however.  Everyone at the table earned their experience; I expect the noob to do the same.

And that stands for players that die and have to start again.  If the death of a 8th level ranger means the automatic advancement of the new character to being a 8th level mage, then what does death mean?  Nothing, obviously.  Death has to mean those experience points are gone.  They can't be 'willed' to a new character.

This is harsh - and in my early days I did have one player who did quit the campaign because his 8th level ranger died.  As I remember, every player agreed that he should have started out at 1st level again and felt that the player's loss was a fault on that person and not my policy.  Admittedly, this was before my present henchman rule - which was instituted within a year of the death of that ranger.  The henchmen rule means that the player will probably have a slightly lower level character already worked up from 1st level in my campaign.  This mitigates the pain a little.

There's still the chance that both the main character and any number of henchmen will all get offed in the same combat - it does happen that more than one can die and a little bad luck could mean both are gone.  Still, there is another mitigating aspect of starting off as 1st level among 6th levels that probably doesn't work in a game based off the company's rules - but exists predominantly in my world.

The new 1st level gets a lot of help.

Rather than making an assertion, however, let me build a few statistics to make my point.  I'm afraid that to follow this next, the reader will have to be familiar with my experience rules.

Let's start with a 1st level party: cleric, fighter, mage and thief.  Let's have them all be human and let's give them each a 15 constitution and maximum hit points for their class, plus 3 hit points for their mass (see my rules on hit points and hit points per die).  We can then start with this table:

Since my cleric can only use cure light wounds once per day, I've adjusted it so it does 1d4 +4, rather than 1d8 as it is in the original Players' Handbook.

Looking at the above, we can calculate that the party can take a total of 52 hit points of damage, presuming that no player is reduced to negative hit points.  That potentially adds another 36 total damage more than they could suffer, but chances would be this would leave them all unconscious and eaten by vermin, so let's just play with the number zero as a bottom line.

Experience is gained for both damage done and damage received, so let's suppose that in a given fight (which we'll determine the experience for) that they give as good as they get - so that the thief, for example, causes 10 damage as well as receiving 10 damage.  Then we'll give the extra healing (we'll roll an 8) to the fighter and assume that healing was lost in damage also.  Assuming the players survive the fight and get experience, how much would that be?

base describes the amount of experience received for their personal
achievement (xp for damage caused and taken); this is added
to the bonus to get the subtotal (before adding 10%).

This is a fair reckoning for the most experience a 1st level party is likely to get in a single combat (in my world, obviously), apart from treasure.  It may vary a little if the party gets very lucky and causes a lot of damage, but then they would be have to be facing more enemy than they'd normally plan for to still take the amount of damage I've depicted them taking.  Usually, when a party is lucky, it means taking less damage so that they actually get less experience if they roll great.  Of course, it also means they live to fight another combat right after and they still get that treasure bonus afterwards.  The party above, the unlucky one that has lost all its hit points, won't likely survive the four orcs in the next room, will they?

The key is the bonus.  Let's stage the same combat, only now let's put one 1st level fighter with three characters that are all 4th level (they haven't gotten any henchmen yet, which complicates this unnecessarily for the point of this post).  We can start by updating the first table.  We'll presume the higher-leveled characters have each rolled average for additional hit points.  The 4th level characters gain constitution bonuses for each level and the cleric will probably have added the aid spell (again, my rules).

We can suppose that everyone still takes their full hit points in damage and each still gives as good as they get.  Now here is a point - the fighter is probably going to be the beneficiary of the cleric's aid, since he will probably suffer most from lack of hit points and combat potential, meaning that he's got between 24-34 hit points he can suffer in damage, benefiting from having a 4th level friend in the cleric.  If that's not enough, it might be necessary to dump the cure light wounds on him as well.  Let's presume that's how it happens - and once again, let's say the cleric rolls maximum for benefits, giving the fighter 28 additional hit points, which the fighter then proceeds to lose completely in the upcoming combat.

I don't have to start the fighter as a 4th level to keep up with the higher level characters.  With the help the fighter gets, it won't be long before things even out.  Soon enough, the difference in levels will benefit the fighter less and less until all evens out.

In fact, it was much harder to be that early group of 1st levels than it is for the newcomer starting down there.  The new player gets a break because there's help to be had.  Low-levels benefit from the extra healing, the combat potential of their fellows, the benefit in resources (my players inevitably lend coin to new players to help them get started, rarely asking for this to ever be repaid), additional magical coverage and so on.  If the fighter dies, it is more likely the party will have the means to get the fighter raised (something a party of 1st levels probably wouldn't bother to do).

Incidentally, some will take note as to the mage's poor gain in the above example.  It should be noted that combats rarely drain everyone of hit points like this and that mages often get experience for automatic damage done by spells.  Additionally, my system tends to penalize low-level mages because of the combat vs experience requirement, but higher level mages have shorter waits between levels AND they get more benefits from climbing a level than fighters or thieves get.  I have found it does balance out - even when the fighter gets the lion's share of the X.P. per combat, in the long run this doesn't help them as much.

I recognize that a lot of this will be lost on those players hopelessly mired in traditional 4e or 5e.  Can't be helped.

Please imagine that I'm holding out a hat now.


Scarbrow said...

Heh. Wasn't going to comment, but calling 4e "traditional" made me smile. After all, even impudent youngsters like me grew up on traditional 3e :)

Now that I've started writing, I'll add that this post would be a great candidate for an "Alexis' Classic Rules Compilation" (or somesuch) tag. Your explanations of your rules, and how they interlock with each other in your world, has progressed a great deal on the last few years.

Maxwell Joslyn said...

For any newbies reading the site:

Alexis's experience system solves all those stupid fucking problems you've been having with the total ass-pull figures listed in every monster manual ever. Even more important, however, is that it balances risk and reward - one component of it is "take more damage, get more XP".


All of a sudden, there is real actual game-mechanical support for engaging your basic tactical faculties and pulling out of a fight you can't win -- and lo and behold, you retain all the XP earned before breaking away. Because, y'know, feeling out the enemy and then fleeing to fight another day MAKES SENSE and is how ACTUAL LEARNING WORKS.

It will plug and play with everything else you use since it's only predicated on having HP totals and damage being done to them. If you don't use anything else on this site, or if you're inspired by the blog but don't know where to start, use Alexis XP.

Alexis Smolensk said...

Honest folks, the caps are only there because Maxwell in passionate.

Yes, I like the system too, Max.

Alexis Smolensk said...


I think that's because of the Wiki. The ability to build and explain rules in an easy format, then link them to each other, enabling my players and I to access them during a game in seconds, has really tightened up my game.

I don't understand why everyone doesn't start a wiki for their world.

Oddbit said...

Speaking as a late join Mage...
I didn't start out doing a lot, BUT, I adapted to the system and managed to make a good pace.
I'd have to double check the final levels, but I think I was at most 1 behind the highest level at the end. (I think we were near 6)

If I had focused less on utility and more on damage I imagine I could have done even faster leveling.

Maxwell Joslyn said...

Alexis, responding to your point above:

Wanting to start a wiki for one's own world requires that your houserules are extensive enough to require real documentation. That alone means that anyone playing by the book or mostly by the book is right out. And of course you've also got to have actual persistence in playing the same world and ruleset, which means long-term play.

Take those requirements together and guess how many DMs satisfy them both. One in ten thousand? Dunno.

(I'm bloody-minded enough about text editing to be unsatisfied with a website/wiki tool that I can't run myself by editing files on my computer and uploading them, instead of a web-based editor like your wiki host uses. Thus I still don't have my own slice of the web for my game/world ... but I do have a "wiki", it just lives on my hard drive. Eventually it'll be time to sort out the whole "discoverability" thing and slap it onto the web.)

Alexis Smolensk said...


I think it is interesting that you were recently asking how to make a non-real world more substantive; and now you are pointing out the unlikely probability that a DM will have created a lengthy set of house rules or a persistent world.

This has to be central, doesn't it? Substance doesn't come from a thin veneer of accepting another person's guidelines blindly or from failing to dig in an create something that provides weight and complexity.

Perhaps if they apply themselves to making a wiki, they will also find themselves questioning the rules and WANTING to have a consistent world. In any case, if that's not what they want, what do those DMs think they deserve from players in terms of respect or compliance?

Maxwell Joslyn said...

Of course it has to be central. No question about it. One who doesn't want to put in the work will not do any work in any form -- they won't question the rules, they won't build up houserules and precedent, they won't need somewhere to organize any of that stuff.

One possible reason for this lack of desire to change/edit/evolve things is that D&D is popularly conceived of as taking a lot of work to play BY THE BOOK, multiply by ten if one is DMing. Average Joe looks at the stack of rulebook(s) and says, "holy shit, you dudes do this for fun?" and gets the fuck out of there. Joes who stick around put in the "work" to learn the game and get used to it, but unless they're the kind that is really committed to playing the game, they're just gonna get frustrated by rules changes and stuff piling up. They're gonna wish for the beer and pretzels game. And you need more gumption than that to arrive at the Tao of D&D.

So it takes a certain person to learn to play D&D well. And it takes a certain-er person to learn to DM well, which is what I was getting at before. It looks and sounds obvious -- but how many awful games have you played in where everyone is oblivious to the quality?

(I want your advice on substantive non-real worlds because I DO satisfy my own requirements and I'm putting in work every day -- but I know you weren't questioning that.)

Alexis Smolensk said...

Nope, not questioning that.

Tabletop RPGs are a strange culture. I does take a certain person to play D&D well. It takes a certain person to kayak well and it takes a certain person to paint well and it takes a certain person to build model aircraft well. However, people in other fields don't spend all their time talking about what people who don't spend 80 hours a week at their hobbies don't want to do - because they don't care. The autophile who spends every evening and weekend in their shop also has a huge pile of books to get through to understand how a car works, and yet the automagazines are churned out by the hundreds every month and the readers can't get enough. Those books and magazines aren't full of complaints of how much work carbuilding is or how long it will take to rebuild the chassis and engine on a given model.

Yet all I ever hear of people in this activity is bitch, bitch, bitch; and if we're not bitching about how much work we're putting in ourselves, we're writing apologetic statements about how much work other people don't want to put in because reading, rule changes, blah blah blah, why can't we just drink beer and eat pretzels?

When I say that a wiki will vastly improve a person's game, it's just like saying, "Wow, duude, I just hit this fuckin' AMAZIN' black diamond run outside Aspen, totally rad, dude, you GOTTA try it!"

It blows my mind that the answer I get back (from someone) always seems to go, "Well, I've got this day job and black diamond runs are pretty hard . . ."

Just makes me want to bang my head.