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  1. - Top - End - #1
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    Gemini Lupus's Avatar

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    Question Reasons an Experienced Character Might Start at Level 1

    So, as the title says, I'm wondering for what reasons you might have a character, whose back story would give him/her a significant amount of experience, but you want to play them in a game where everyone is starting at low level, and so for obvious balance reasons, your character also has to start at that same level.

    Using popular media for a sec, lets say you've got the Fellowship of the Ring. You've got Gandalf, the Wizard who has wandered Middle Earth for centuries and is one of the most powerful beings in Middle Earth. Aragorn, a Ranger who has all kinds of experience fighting the enemy and in the wild. Legolas, the Elf who has thousands of years of experience doing all kinds of elf-y things. Gimli, the Dwarf warrior who is also seasoned fighter. Boromir, a Captain of Gondor and great hero of the wars against Mordor. All of whom are renowned and skilled heroes, traveling with four Hobbits, all of whom are most definitely level one and the traditional starting adventurer.

    Now let's say that the DM wants to start at level one, so four players bring the Hobbits, with their back stories that are very appropriate for level one adventurers, and the other five bring their characters, also level one, but have back stories that are more appropriate for higher level characters. How does one justify this? I understand that I'm intertwining mechanics and fluff, but it just strikes me as a strange disconnect.

    TL;DR: Other than the amnesiac, such as Tellah from Final Fantasy IV, how can you justify a back story with experience of a high level character for a level one character?

    Note: D&D/PF is my standard game and the foundation of my question. Other games still have this issue, but it might not be quite as evident.
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    Default Re: Reasons an Experienced Character Might Start at Level 1

    Well, at level 1, I personally think there shouldn't be much of a backstory. Why? You're just starting out. All your character has really done thusfar is acquire his first level skills, and survive to adulthood. The players generally haven't mastered their characters' skills yet, so it's fitting that people making such mistakes and blunders would be newbies. Also, a 1st level character is quite likely to die horribly, so it's just as likely you'll waste any effort you spent.


    You also have the explanation that a higher-level character got smacked around by a Wight and failed his saves. Or that you need to gain some XP just to acquire your first PC class level, which could justify some adventuring.

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    Default Re: Reasons an Experienced Character Might Start at Level 1

    The backstory of a first-level character can involve story, just not successes. He was kidnapped by slavers, was a slave in a palace for years, and recently escaped across a vast desert to a land he knows nothing about. That has lots of information and connections and story, but no xps.

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    Default Re: Reasons an Experienced Character Might Start at Level 1

    I don't,but I also do not like making characters like that. I remember someone making a level 9 fighter for a game whose entire thing was being this Indiana Jones swashbuckler who was renouned for his dedication to the whip. Halfway through the first session, he decided whips were silly and traded it for a halberd. in all your years of background adventuring you never realized that?
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    Default Re: Reasons an Experienced Character Might Start at Level 1

    Other than amnesia, they may be at a temporary disadvantage. A fighter may have received a nasty bump on the back of the head and is still trying to get used to his body again after a short-lived coma. A wizard may have been tricked by a rogue to such a degree that he not only lost his spellbook, but lost several effective levels (perhaps a magic item the rogue has). Perhaps a cleric sacrificed himself defending innocents from a Wight who drained nearly all of his levels before paladins of his order could make it to help them out.

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    Default Re: Reasons an Experienced Character Might Start at Level 1

    You can also get creative with this. If you have a more experienced character hanging out with a group of hobbits, you could do a few interesting things:
    They're holding themselves back for the sake of the party, to make them stronger. Their exp isn't so much a measure of how much experience they're gaining, but how much less they're beginning to hold back. It could also be a good way to justify why the wizard gets a split of the exp despite not being there, and mechanical nonsense such as spells being added to their spellbook as they level up (which, while it makes sense mechanically, really doesn't make much sense from a roleplaying perspective). This could also encourage the player playing such a character to plan their build out in advance and adhere to it no matter what happens as a self-imposed challenge. While a regular adventurer may acquire a certain feat that turns out to be extremely useful for what the party is currently doing, this wizard cannot because he was ALREADY that level before.
    It can also give you a bit of leeway with events: a TPK due to really bad dice rolls can be averted as the wizard accessing his true power to get access to something that would bail the party out. Such as toasting that mummy that just knocked out the rest of the party with a meteor swarm.
    He could also be holding back for the sake of HIMSELF: His power is great and vast, but he hasn't truly mastered it or is hampered by some sort of force that makes using it more costly than usual. His progression over the course of the adventure allows him to acclimate to the power more and more and use it without consequence. Just like above, it can be a "get out of jail free" card in case of an imminent TPK, but something the character can only do once, and it either kills him or requires some other heavy price.
    Given the infamous mortality rate of low level characters, this could be a convenient out for that...or at least make it so only one guy has to reroll rather than the whole party.

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    Default Re: Reasons an Experienced Character Might Start at Level 1

    It would be hilarious if the players with the less extensive (adventuring-wise) backstories spent the whole adventure claiming that their party members just made up all of their tales of adventure and bravery, because really, anyone who went through all that would know how to handle a sword a bit better wouldn't they?

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    Default Re: Reasons an Experienced Character Might Start at Level 1

    Quote Originally Posted by Kornaki View Post
    It would be hilarious if the players with the less extensive (adventuring-wise) backstories spent the whole adventure claiming that their party members just made up all of their tales of adventure and bravery, because really, anyone who went through all that would know how to handle a sword a bit better wouldn't they?
    I think a character whose backstory is a complete lie is even better when everyone else actually HAS an epic backstory
    Especially when they inevitably find out. Hopefully there were some real stakes on his previous connections

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    Default Re: Reasons an Experienced Character Might Start at Level 1

    The OP's example, honestly, isn't a very good match for tabletop campaigns; there's a DMPC, a wide level mismatch, an absurd artifact, half a dozen other slightly-less-absurd artifacts, and more than a bit of DM fiat.

    I love LotR to death, mind you, but it's not a great example of how a game should run. The difference in levels is one of the lesser pitfalls, really.
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    Default Re: Reasons an Experienced Character Might Start at Level 1

    What I found as a really good explanation I read somewhere:

    The soul is unrefined and get's better the more adventures/things you do.
    The catch in this is: unless you are "chosen" by the Gods or Ao or whatever you accumulate this stuff slowly or only up to a certain point. As such a cranky old wizard can still be only level 2.

    Basically your Soul is a Jar(in a Jar in a Jar in a Jar). Unless Chosen you have a small opening to it to allow Experience (tm) to accumulate in it. This starts with the smallest container. When "full" (aka level up) and this boon of the gods is still on you you unlock a bigger jar and so on.

    So you can have rather epic adventures but as soon as you come to meet the group, the party get's this boon as the deities know what lies before them and gives them their boon.

    As such a Spellcaster can use this experience to fuel spells/magic items.
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    Default Re: Reasons an Experienced Character Might Start at Level 1

    First, I agree with tuggyne that LotR is a bad example. It was written as a story. If run as a game, you'd be hard-pressed to overcome all of the issues you've outlined.

    Secondly, I would really advise against a DM letting first level characters have a background story that would only be possible with character levels. There are some ways around that though. For example, a life of adventure at sea before starting your adventuring career could be explained with a few ranks in Profession: Sailor. Many aspects of past adventures could be explained away with exceptional luck, or higher powers taking interest in the PCs and ensuring their survival.

    Of course, you could go the route of amnesia or even level drain. I recently played a long campaign in which every single PC was a legendary character in his own right. But we started the game with plot driven amnesia and a massive amount of level drain, starting us off as 3rd level.

    It was an awesome campaign. A contributing factor however was that we didn't really write backstories. The DM wrote the backstories and would reveal them piecemeal as we were exposed to them and started remembering.

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    Default Re: Reasons an Experienced Character Might Start at Level 1

    Simple: you don't start them off at level 1. You tell the player to either cut off some of their backstory (possibly with the promise of maybe including it as part of the campaign in the future rather than the past) or you increase the starting level.

    To use your own LoTR analogy; yeah, the hobits were probably level ones at the beginning of the story, but Gimli, Lelgolas, Aaragorn, and -certainly- Gandalf weren't. Most close scrutiny doesn't even have Gandalf as a basic human character that, in a game like D&D, would even be allowed to start at level one.
    Last edited by Kelb_Panthera; 2013-06-12 at 03:41 AM.
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    Default Re: Reasons an Experienced Character Might Start at Level 1

    For some RPG's, the Level 1 characters are already powerful and heroic, it's actually the level 1's without backstories who are the strange ones.
    It always amazes me how often people on forums would rather accuse you of misreading their posts with malice than re-explain their ideas with clarity.

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    Default Re: Reasons an Experienced Character Might Start at Level 1

    Quote Originally Posted by Vitruviansquid View Post
    For some RPG's, the Level 1 characters are already powerful and heroic, it's actually the level 1's without backstories who are the strange ones.
    Just because the backstory of a powerful character isn't given up-front (even if its because the player hasn't made it up yet) doesn't mean stuff didn't happen.

    Also, those rpgs are clearly not the kind the OP was asking about.
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    RogueGirl

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    Default Re: Reasons an Experienced Character Might Start at Level 1

    PCs are, as a rule, exceptional members of their race and/or society.

    They can be exceptional by their years of training and experience just as much as by sheer talent.
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    Default Re: Reasons an Experienced Character Might Start at Level 1

    Quote Originally Posted by Slipperychicken View Post
    Well, at level 1, I personally think there shouldn't be much of a backstory. Why? You're just starting out. [snip]
    Things could've happened to you that don't constitute much xp but constitute a rich plenty of backstory that tie into the game and future campaign. If your character starts out at a meager 16 years then that's still thousands of NPCs he could know and millions of things he could see, all without gaining a single level.

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    Reasons to start at level 1? Fun? The characters I've had most fun out of have been the ones that were just average skill-wise.
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    SamuraiGuy

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    Default Re: Reasons an Experienced Character Might Start at Level 1

    I always figured the best way to create a backstory is based primarily on the character's starting race, class, and level. How did the character get to where he/she is, and what are his/her motivations? A level 1 character can have a rich backstory, but they are only just starting out in their class/as adventurers. A level 1 character cannot have the backstory of single-handedly defeating the evil empire and starting an era of peace and prosperity (barring amnesia and level drain, of course). That would be ridiculous at best.

    However, what if the character wasn't anyone important? In an army, the foot soldiers are often NPC Warrior class (level 1 or 2 at most), while the Commanders and Officers are generally level 1 Fighters. Anyone higher than level 1 with a PC class is most likely a knight or other sponsored fighter-of-the-state. What this all says to me is that a foot soldier that becomes an officer through merit has gone through the transformation from level 1 Warrior to level 1 Fighter. They are slightly more knowledgeable and experienced than a basic NPC Warrior, but not necessarily more skilled in raw combat prowess.

    When I want to give a character a rich backstory of military or profession experience that would be more representative of a PC class rather than ranks in Profession skill, I like to take the route of making the character an army veteran of no import. He served his time, then retired/the war ended before he advanced to a higher level. Or, the woodland druid learned her trade/life path in a time of peace and never had to challenge herself before, but now the situation has changed so she must grow to overcome the evil and protect her forest. I think of elves, and how they reach adulthood at 110 years of age; surely it is impossible for an Elf to start as a level 1 character, right? Nay, they simply did not do anything meaningful in terms of class experience before that point.

    There is a plethora ways to create a rich backstory for a level 1 character, many of which include experience in their given field of interest. However, it is just silly to write a backstory detailing great feats of heroics that the character cannot reproduce mechanically on day one of play. Unless the character was especially lucky or fell on particularly hard times, I always write the backstory to fit the mechanics of the character, not try to fit mechanics to a pre-written story.

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    Default Re: Reasons an Experienced Character Might Start at Level 1

    Quote Originally Posted by Mastikator View Post
    Things could've happened to you that don't constitute much xp but constitute a rich plenty of backstory that tie into the game and future campaign. If your character starts out at a meager 16 years then that's still thousands of NPCs he could know and millions of things he could see, all without gaining a single level.
    I meant in terms of things which give XP.

    You can have all kinds of rich, interesting experiences and interactions before level 1, just not ones which the DM would award XP for. You can have daddy issues, or have escaped from slavery, or traveled across the land, but not be an expert goblinslaying mercenary or have cleared dungeons before.

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    Default Re: Reasons an Experienced Character Might Start at Level 1

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    Default Re: Reasons an Experienced Character Might Start at Level 1

    A veteran soldier who has been on a few campaigns might still be a level 1 fighter - the span between adulthood and fighter 1 can take as long as 4 years, and a lot can happen in that time. A wizard's apprentice may have been that way for twelve years before getting his first level. For other races, this is even longer - an elf might spend a total of 170 years before hitting level 1. Plenty of time to have adventures, they were just part of his learning experience to reach level 1 in a PC class.
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    Default Re: Reasons an Experienced Character Might Start at Level 1

    The Lord of the Rings is nowhere near as bad an image if you've read the books and understand what's going on. There are only four PCs.

    Gandalf is called a Wizard, but he is in fact an angel (Maiar). He's the ultra-powerful NPC who brings you the quest, and occasionally bails you out, but who is conveniently removed by the DM every time he wants to test the PCs.

    The story is about four low-levels caught up in a story too big for them. The only reason hobbits are along is because the Ring is cursed, and will corrupt higher level characters. The four of them travel with high-level characters until the DM gets them where their real task starts, and takes the NPCs away.

    But the fact that they are not high enough level, and are facing encounters with CRs too high for them, is a major theme of the book.

    "This is the hour of the Shire-folk, when they arise from their quiet fields to shake the towers and counsels of the Great. Who of the Wise could have foreseen it? Or, if they are wise, why should they expect to know it, until the hour has struck?"

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    Default Re: Reasons an Experienced Character Might Start at Level 1

    It's not as bad in a E6 setting. "You're way under level so far, so just sit back and sponge XP for a few sessions, ok?"
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    Default Re: Reasons an Experienced Character Might Start at Level 1

    I once played level 1 Alchemist here on giantitp. She was fallen Paladin who misunderstood why gods make her fall (she saved goblin baby in Prisoner Dilemma scenario and thougt gods made her fall for that. In reality it was because instead of talking her way out of situation, she butchered her entire party) and turned away from them, picked a bow and learned some alchemy. In backstory I said she was adventuring for quite some time before this happened. But as she had lost or abbandonned all her paladin ways, she just starts from the scratch.
    Last edited by Man on Fire; 2013-06-12 at 04:08 PM.

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    Default Re: Reasons an Experienced Character Might Start at Level 1

    Honestly, I'm not sure there is a good explanation for why you would have an epic backstory full of D&D-style adventures and still only be level 1, unless you died and got raised a whole bunch, or somehow just didn't count your experience. But that is pretty contrived, and anything else (reincarnation, amnesia) isn't really you playing that character.

    Generally, I prefer games that start off all adult characters (even NPC's) at around 3 HD, (1 HD is children, 2 is teenagers) which gives you a lot more leeway for history. A general rule I remeber reading somewhere for backstory is that it should average about 1 parapraph per level.
    Last edited by Deepbluediver; 2013-06-12 at 04:14 PM.
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    Default Re: Reasons an Experienced Character Might Start at Level 1

    Your character donates XP on a regular basis, and the local wildlife is of a number and CR that allowing free levelling would quickly result in diminishing returns.

    It's not a core mechanic, but I believe there was an article on the Wizards site about non-crafters donating XP for item creation. It seems like it would be pretty easy to houserule independently of the article.

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    Default Re: Reasons an Experienced Character Might Start at Level 1

    I once heard a podcast of Fear the Boot where they tossed around the idea of a character who had been a great warrior until he got his right arm cut off--and he was right handed. It was cursed, and could not be regenerated. He therefore was level 1 because he was having to relearn everything he knew about fighting for his nondominant hand. This would realistically result in some other penalties, but I like the concept.

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    Default Re: Reasons an Experienced Character Might Start at Level 1

    New idea! Possibly they used to be a higher level but just regressed due to lack of practice. Just like someone who gets a degree in chemistry probably comes out of school as a level 4 expert, but if they then go on to live their dream career as a singer or something ten years later they've probably lost all their skill points in craft(explosives)

    So these "experienced" adventurers are just the fat old guys talking about how they used to be able to do all this cool stuff. The wizard spends the first three rounds of combat going "Fireball! Confound it, I remember you just need to..., maybe wiggle like this.... fireball! Fireball! Fireball! F*** it, magic missle!"
    Last edited by Kornaki; 2013-06-12 at 11:03 PM.

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    Default Re: Reasons an Experienced Character Might Start at Level 1

    Quote Originally Posted by Kornaki View Post
    New idea! Possibly they used to be a higher level but just regressed due to lack of practice. ...

    So these "experienced" adventurers are just the fat old guys talking about how they used to be able to do all this cool stuff. ...
    I really enjoy this idea! I may have to implement something akin to this for NPCs and PCs in my future games. Ralph the Ranger still knows how to track a caterpillar across a desert, but he's so out of practice he can't even remember if a wolf has five toes or three. Or was it six?

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    Default Re: Reasons an Experienced Character Might Start at Level 1

    Quote Originally Posted by Lvl45DM! View Post
    Recently reincarnated from a very different race, like a centaur or mind flayer. Keep the memories lose the skills
    This, and other related ideas (age, rust, maim, trauma, career change, curse), gives a very sound mechanical explanation and has a lot of potential for RP.


    On a side note, the opposite may work much better - putting a rookie in the middle of a veteran party. Just rule the number of HD or HP is equivalent to the rest of the party, so the characters isn't too much squeachy, but stats that grant effectiveness, like BAB, skills, class abilities etc are the usual. So the rookie character wouldn't get more HD as he advanced and got closer to the veterans. Would he be underpowered? Of course, but he wouldn't be less fun to play because of it, as long as he was still relevant to the party, for example, the only one able of healing, the only arcane caster, the only skill monkey, etc.

    Similarly, the only veteran on a rookie party could have some advantage design to represent his experience - a higher BAB, a single feat that is only avaiable at higher levels, very high ranks in a single skill - but lose some of his class features for balance, at least until some levels are passed and it is decided everyone has kind of the same life experience.
    Last edited by Mighty_Chicken; 2013-06-13 at 12:41 PM.
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    Default Re: Reasons an Experienced Character Might Start at Level 1

    Quote Originally Posted by Deepbluediver View Post
    A general rule I remeber reading somewhere for backstory is that it should average about 1 parapraph per level.
    Oh, jeez. I've gathered from conversation that the group I'm playing with started off with about 6-7 pages of backstory per level. At level 2.
    What am I working with?

    Quote Originally Posted by Sutremaine View Post
    Your character donates XP on a regular basis, and the local wildlife is of a number and CR that allowing free levelling would quickly result in diminishing returns.

    It's not a core mechanic, but I believe there was an article on the Wizards site about non-crafters donating XP for item creation. It seems like it would be pretty easy to houserule independently of the article.
    OH. I hadn't even considered crafting. A wizard starts mass spending his XP to create hundreds and hundreds of unique magic items, regardless of the toll to their XP. Perhaps this wizard was one of the few who knew the secret to crafting truly unique magic items (which he has forgotten as he burned his XP for them, though he knows he did it for a very good reason at one point...). Grant him a situational bonus with some magic items (the ones he created) since he's seen them before. I'm assuming a high level wizard would make so many items that he would not be able to tell them apart readily.

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