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New characters are level one

I’ve said before that #boatmode, our D&D campaign that sorta came back from hiatus yesterday with session 255, wasn’t our first D&D campaign, not even our first campaign on this planet and this continuity. I started the numbering with #boatmode session one because of one defining feature:

New characters are level one.

Well, we use the Tasha’s Cauldron rule for “sidekicks” who don’t have XP but instead have their level follow the party average. That does help even out the party level even more than the inherent leveling-out-effect of an XP curve.

I was kinda hesitant to do this, for three reasons:

  1. In a D&D game I was playing before I started my own group, it was a megadungeon and the DM just plain ran out of lower level stuff for us to encounter. We had spent considerable effort to drill extra entrances deeper into the dungeon, too, which ended up making the game hard to run when we were TPK’d.

  2. One of my best online friends were telling me a horror story about a Pathfinder game she was in, there was lots of stuff in the game she loved but one of the worst things was… New characters, if a character died, had to start over at level one! But that was exactly what I was planning to do. Gulp!

  3. We had been running Curse of Strahd and Tomb of Annihilation, two campaigns that didn’t seem well set up for this. Oh, and Princes of the Apocalypse which basically picks up right after the five levels of Lost Mine of Phandelver.

Having new characters start at level one as old characters die has worked so great that we’ve even seen old characters retire and start sending out recruits of their own, troupe style. To me that’s the core feature of the campaign. Instead of designing the area as “here is one L1 problem, one L2 problem, one L3 problem, one L4 problem” etc (and I just do not want to run such a campaign again, which has put a huge damper on two books I was really excited by but, because of this, was dissappointed in when they arrived: Journeys through the Radiant Citadel and Sunken Isles), I put lots and lots of lower-level content in.

A side benefit of having so much lower-level stuff to do, and the seams somewhat blended over between them, is how the campaign gets really open-ended, and open-middled too, just a wide canvas with plenty of specific goals for the players to choose between.

But should there even be levels?

5e’s math has much less difference between levels than 3e and 4E, and even a tiny bit less difference than many OSR games, and the benefit of that has been that it facilitates sandboxy play. It’s not that big of a problem if the characters stray a li’l too far or linger a li’l too long.

It’s even got me thinking that games that don’t really have “leveling” and “experience” might be a really good fit for me, like Fate or Cthulhu Dark, and I am working on some campaigns for a system like that.

That said, levels do have a huge advantage; they’re part of the self-balancing mathematics of D&D. I’ve been playing in a Dragonbane campaign, a game that doesn’t have leveling, and it’s been pretty brutal having the characters be so weak.