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It's all about levels

9th Jul 2014, 12:00 AM

It's all about levels
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kidra on 10th Aug 2015, 7:28 AM

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Today I wanted to ask a couple questions about levels and leveling up. First off, what level do you think a campaign should start at? I've never liked starting at level 1 because then your character can't really do anything, and near death experiences are somewhat common since it only takes one or two hits to kill even the tanks. But you also don't want to start too high because a lot of character definement happens in the first few levels.

The second question is how often should level-ups happen? You don't want to go too long in between levels because then you get bored and can't try new feats, spells, or abilities. But again you don't want to do it too quickly because then there's less experimenting with your current abilities, and experimentation can lead to some fun stuff.

So what do you guys think?



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starting level

Evan Miller on 10th Aug 2015, 7:42 AM

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depends on the system
I have been running and playing in 5th edition a lot lately, and I think 3rd level is a great level to start in that edition. Mostly because by 3rd level everyone has there first special ability or archtype and they feel like real adventurers rather than adventurers in training.

When I ran Pathfinder and before that 3.5/3.0 I felt that starting at 5th was usually good the party got to start out as experienced adventurers and have some neat back stories as well as had the opportunity to decide on prestige classes shortly after play started.

In other systems it is harder for me to say Savage worlds sort of has a level system which I find the level to start from depends on how gritty you want the game to be, if you want it gritty normal starting stats, if you want it more heroic everyone starts with veteran of the weird west edge.

hiei82 on 10th Aug 2015, 10:10 AM

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I agree with Evan Miller for the most part.

It does depend on the system and d&d/Pathfinder I like the 3rd to 5th starting point and only rarely going above 15th (16th for the final battle maybe). That said, I've seen some very good uses of the very low levels so it also varies on the campaign. Finally, some of the rules sets change things (Mythic in Pathfinder really changes everything; usually for the worse).

As for the rate of leveling, my rule of thumb is "2 levels per story arc, evenly spaced out through the adventure". My reasoning is that - at least in d20 - the radical changes in powers happen every other level (e.g. full-magic-types gain spells every other level, etc). By dividing that way, I keep the powers within an adventure relatively consistent with only the party's overall "endurance" increasing. This means the challenges don't modulate from "impossible" to "easy" within an adventure and I don't have to be so worried about the order in which the party explores the dungeon (as long as they don't go directly for the final boss fight).

That said, from a player perspective I'd probably want to level up a bit faster than that because watching the numbers grow faster is always satisfying. >_>

GAZZA on 10th Aug 2015, 6:25 PM

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To be perfectly honest I don't even like level based systems. I believe they're a crutch that is increasingly unwieldy at the only thing they were ever really designed for - that is, a rough gauge of how powerful you are. That was sketchy even in AD&D1e when "5th level" might mean anything from an "everything except Climb Walls is still well under 50% chance" thief up to a "You guys just chill, I got this" elvish Cleric/Fighter/Magic User. But in the post-3rd edition world, where we're supposed to have skills that measure our capability out of combat as well, you can't rely on level to tell you how likely it is that someone is going to pass a DC20 Perception check, for example. Which means that you need to know more than just "what level are you", and at that point level has significantly decreased in usefulness. HERO, GURPS, BRP, and even (ugh) Storyteller all do just fine without any levels in sight.

But to address the original question, the problem with starting at 1st level isn't that 1st level innately sucks, it's that in the particular system (and I presume we're talking about D&D here) 1st level happens to be extremely brittle. It takes longer to create a 1st level character than it does to update that character from 1st to 2nd level, so if you're playing in a Rules As Written high death game, it doesn't take significantly longer to start at 3rd level or so.

But it needn't be like that. 5th edition is a lot less brutal about death; they've adapted the Death Save mechanic from 4th, and so outside of TPKs you stand a pretty decent chance of surviving even at 1st level. With cantrips added (so there's no more "OK, I need to rest for 8 hours so we can do the next encounter - my Sleep spells are gone" nonsense) it's quite playable; I run one game and I'm playing in another where we were quite happy to start at 1st level.

GAZZA on 10th Aug 2015, 6:54 PM

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As far as rate of advancement goes, then again I'd note that if the thing you're most looking forward to in your game is numbers increasing slightly, then you're possibly not getting the full benefit of a table top experience. As long as the adventures are interesting, I see no problem with NEVER levelling up. Certainly in any edition of D&D prior to 4th - and I'm by no means sold on the idea that this is now "corrected" - it becomes basically unplayable after about 9th level anyway, if there are any spellcasters in the party. So the longer you can take to get there, the longer your campaign will last.

There was even a variant for 3e that stopped advancement at level 6, although you could still get new feats and so on later. The point is there are plenty of ways to motivate your players that have nothing (or little) to do with going up in level.

What is especially interesting is the context here is as part of the Avengers comic. I would argue that comic book superheroes in general, and the the Marvel Movie Universe specifically, there is no level advancement at all. Thor is already max level - you're not going to see him work out how to dual wield Mjolnir and whatever Beta Ray Bill's hammer is called. Similarly with Captain America - he's already as good as he's ever going to get. You might be able to make a case for Hulk (in that he does get more control over his transformation) or Iron Man (new suits), though both of those are better handled in levelless systems (eg in GURPS or HERO, you'd say that Hulk originally had some sort of disadvantage "transforms when angry" that he bought off, or that Tony spent a few points to buy a new "vehicle"; in a similar way, Thor spends a few points to get some Midgard contacts, and Captain America gradually buys off his "unfamiliar with modern society" disadvantage).

It's not just super heroes. Going fantasy, the only ones of the Fellowship of the Ring that even arguably level up over the course of the series are the hobbits - and even then that's highly debatable. Star Wars has Luke, sure, but Han is not a better pilot or smuggler at the end of the trilogy than he was at the start.

cicely on 11th Aug 2015, 8:16 AM

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I like starting at first level---but then, I started D&Ding back in the late '70s/early '80s, so that's just the way it was <i>done</i>.

To me, it's mostly about the roleplaying, rather than being able to hack'n'slash your way through any number of orcs the DM throws at you; and I think it'd be easier to develop <i>individuality</i> for a character starting from first level, letting his experiences guide his personality. Not to start into "I once ran a character that..." stories, but it just feels more <i>natural</i> to me if my character's arachnophobia was <i>earned</i>, so to speak, rather than just <i>mandated</i>.

"Your character can't really do anything" is on the DM---to keep the encounters level-appropriate, and the players---to know when they need to tactically retreat and regroup, maybe live to fight another day, maybe do a bit of off-the-battlefield <i>research</i> (in character, of course) before jumping right into the Big Shitpile.

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Disloyal Subject on 11th Aug 2015, 9:54 AM

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It really depends on what everyone wants. I started a high-risk, high-reward game of 3.5 at level 5, and I've started playing at levels one through three. If you want to jump right into high power, 5 is a good place to start while still having plenty room for advancement, with access to 3rd level spells for prepared spellcasters and a second attack for martials just around the corner.
In the 40K games, I like starting at Rank 2, so everyone has enough XP to be capable of more than just a single skill, or at least have that skill boosted enough that they can reasonably expect to succeed at it.
As far as leveling up, it obviously takes more and more XP as time goes on, so the gaps between level-ups, rank-ups, or what have you should naturally increase even if you aren't using XP. Below level 3 it shouldn't take more than 5 sessions at most to earn the next level, barring remarkable stupidity from the players. After that pretty much anything goes.

Jarimor on 11th Aug 2015, 3:59 PM

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As most people have stated it is more a personal thing than anything else.

i have played from the ground up and a few characters have almost been the freaking king from the get go (and one half orc sorceress was in fact the leader of a kingdom building pathfinder campaign) and personaly perfer the lowwer level starts.

yes there is more inherent danger, but the rewards feel more satisfying that way. and as a side note, never give players the exp from a cr 14 encounter at level three. that screwed that round robin campaign over soooo bad...

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Disloyal Subject on 12th Aug 2015, 10:05 AM

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Isn't there an optional rule of 'no more than two levels gained from a single encounter?' Or was that someone's houserule?

Mysterious Frog on 11th Aug 2015, 8:24 PM

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How often people level is based on two things. One the group, some groups like leveling up quickly and constantly getting new bells and whistles on their character, others like a slow burn, and to earn it over time. In doing so you can give bonus or less exp than is supposed to get.

The other point of interest is the length of a campaign. For instance in one of the groups I GM they began at level 1 and are now level 11 after about 7 months game time. The trick in the end is to pace leveling so they are at the right point you want them to be strength wise whenever they fight the enemy that you have set up for them. The BBEG I have for this campaign is also a level 11 so they have kind of already caught up with him, though he is way, WAY more optimized than them so it is still alright.

Ultimately, it basically just comes down to a group should level up as often as they need to for a story driven campaign or as often as the group wants in a more freeform one.

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Newcago on 11th Aug 2015, 10:42 PM

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Ever since I started playing superhero games, I've never been able to go back. I play using the old Classic Marvel system, the one published by TSR and commonly referred to be fans as "FASERIP". (It's out of print.) While some superhero games DO involve leveling up, this particular one doesn't. While there is the odd exception to the rule, you have to collect so much karma (bennies and xp combined) to level up a power or ability that it makes more sense to spend your karma on something else in most cases.

So what are the advantages of this?

Well for one, the GM gets off easy. No need to attempt to scale the campaign as the heroes level up; you can safely assume they'll be the same level the whole time. It also encourages players to try new things. Face it; your hero is never going to be strong enough to take on Galactus. Heck, if this is a street-level campaign you might not even have a shot at Magneto. So how are you going to deal with one of these guys if they show up? It can often encourage rollplaying instead of roleplaying, and players often times spend less time counting the numbers until they'll be powerful enough to take on the big-bad, more time exploring the world looking for options.

So to answer your question, I feel like the best level is whatever level you're going to be happy playing at for the rest of the game. Enough levels underneath the big villain that it will take careful planning to defeat him, not constant whacking.

GAZZA on 12th Aug 2015, 3:06 AM

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Yes, I know the one, it's on my top shelf. :)

I am not sure I would go quite so far as to say that the rate of advancement should be as glacial as it is in MSH though. Going by the karma awards, She Hulk (who I believe they canonically use an example of someone who went from Amazing to Monstrous strength) would have had to end a galaxy spanning threat dozens of times to pull that off. When I played it - and I haven't played it often, since IMHO Champions or DC Heroes are better systems (and Wild Talents is very good too) - I cut the costs for improvement down by a couple of orders of magnitude.

Few superhero games have rapid advancement by D&D standards. Even Mutants and Masterminds, which uses levels, still doesn't have that much difference between level 10 and level 15, say - it's an entirely linear difference.
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