Some of your stories may involve a higher power scale than starting off at “level one” or the equivalent in your game system. Perhaps the tale you want to tell with your players is on a greater epic scale. Perhaps you tire of struggling to keep those lower-level characters alive. Perhaps it’s just time to tell a story involving higher powers, increased competence, and more daring dangers. Regardless of your reasons for wanting to start at a higher level, there are some considerations to take into account with firing up a campaign with higher level characters.
Baked In Power Levels
Quite a few systems have higher power levels baked right in. I’m mainly thinking of point-buy systems, such as GURPS, Hero System, and similar games. These are the “easy route” for starting at higher power levels. Just provide more points or higher levels of points acquired via disadvantages. There are also character generation systems, such as Traveller, which can produce more potent characters. Another system is the Dresden Files RPG, which includes different power levels for the PCs to play with. The main thing to keep in mind here is that all players should start out at the same power base.
Non-Level Experience Point Systems
Some systems, such as Savage Worlds, MechWarrior, Top Secret S/I, Fate Core, and Paranoia increase the power of the character via gaining experience points that are then spent or applied toward increases in skills, abilities, special powers, equipment, and other items that make the character a more powerful force in the world. My advice here is to tell the players that they’ll be playing higher level characters, but to create a “baseline” character just like they normally would. Then provide them with the amount of experience or advancement points you want them to have. This will reduce the information overload which can lead to analysis paralysis.
Another approach is to dole out the experience points in chunks. In Savage Worlds, it takes five points to advance something. Instead of giving the players 30 points to play with, it might be wise to not tell them the max amount they’ll get. Just give them five, wait for everyone to do their quick advancement decision, then give them another five, and repeat this process until you’ve reached your predetermined maximum. This may sound like a slow way of doing things, but it can actually speed up the character creation process.
Level-Gain Experience Point Systems
With games like Dungeons and Dragons, Pathfinder, Starfinder, and so many others, characters gain their new abilities, spells, powers, and such when they achieve a new level. My recommendation here is to strongly advise the GM to have the players make a first level character. Then dole out the levels one at a time until they’ve reached the level you want them to be. I’ve seen GMs arrive at the game and drop the bomb, “Make a 12th level character,” and then the players struggle for a full session (sometimes two!) to get things “just right.” Making the level advancement more organic will speed things up. The GM can inform the players that they’ll be making a character higher than first level, but don’t tell them the final target.
Money and Equipment
There are two approaches here.
The GM can assign gear (magical or otherwise) appropriate to each character. However, this takes quite a bit of time on the GM’s part, and the gear might not be exactly what the player wants for their character.
The other approach is to give out a certain amount of currency for the game, and tell the players to go hog wild spending on what they want. Just make sure the money is in alignment with the level of the characters. Dropping 30,0000 GP on a 4th level character is probably excessive in D&D. If this approach is used, I recommend setting limitations on the spending. Something like, “No more than half your money can go toward a single item.” This will prevent that special player from spending 100% of their money on a single, incredibly powerful item that can unbalance the game and ruin the story.
Separate from extra powers and equipment, work with the players to determine if their character has accolades, titles, land holdings, a headquarters, and other world benefits. Sometimes, this is built into the point buy systems, so encouraging (or requiring) a certain number of points be dedicated to “worldly goods” like a headquarters might be appropriate for the game. It all depends on the type of story you want to tell.
If you’re going with a system where level does not equate to titles and land holdings, you can give the players a separate pool of money that can be spent on things like this. Just be very clear that this monetary gain is not to be spent on equipment or items specific to their character. I’d also make this pool of money in the style of “use it or lose it.” No banking the money for later use. I like this approach because it gives more freedom to the players on getting what they want and encourages them to establish themselves in the world.
Building higher level characters takes more time than building a base character. Most “session zero” events that I’ve held take about half the session to get the numbers down on the character sheets and the other half to get the characters together in the world and establish the where, when, what, and basics of the start of the campaign. Obviously, with more things to choose from and more items to purchase, extra time will be needed to get the first half of the session finished. Odds are that it will take the entire “session zero” to get the characters created, so don’t get frustrated at the extra time it will take for the players to make their decisions.
As most folks know, the higher the level of the characters, the more crunchy the math gets with powers and abilities and stacked numbers and equipment and such. The rules get a bit more complex at higher levels because of the increased abilities of the powers. This is where software like PCGen and Hero Lab can come into play to help the players keep their characters straight. Yes, this means allowing laptops and tablets at the table, but so long as you are not incredibly opposed to this, it’s a good thing to let the players use. It might even speed things up if the players are comfortable with the software they’re using.
Adjusting the Encounters
Once the characters are made and it’s time to roll into the world with your story, the encounters will need to be adjusted to the power level of the characters. The only reason I mention this is that I’ve made the mistake of forgetting to do this. I took an intro adventure for first level characters and ran fourth level characters through it. It started as a cakewalk because it completely slipped my mind that, “first session does not equal first level.” I completely failed in my preparations. Fortunately, I recovered after the first two encounters (and a couple of questioning glances from my players) and managed to adjust on the fly to increase the challenge. Make sure you have in mind what the challenges, traps, monsters, riddles, and social encounters have to offer to put the PCs to the test are.
Adjusting the Storyline
Most stories start out with the PCs barely able to do small things to alter the world. That’s not the case with higher level characters, especially if you start at the extremes of height in the power structure. Who have the characters already met? What contacts/friends/enemies do they have in the world? Have the characters already “saved the day” in some smaller manner in the past? How does society view them? Are there members of organizations (church, guild, army, leadership, councils, etc.) that will want or need things from them? Can the characters lean on someone else for assistance, monetary or otherwise? Do they have henchmen? Do they have apprentices, squires, or assistants?
If the characters are high enough level, they may have followers of some sort. This provides a wonderful opportunity for the players to create (usually after session zero) lower level characters for them to control in side quests or alternate story arcs. I’ve seen this done to good effect, but it can be overwhelming for the players if you show up and tell them something along the lines of, “You’ll be making a 12th level character, a 4th level character, and a 1st level character.” Dropping three characters on the table is rough. Start with the main character, and then slowly ease into the creation of the lower level underlings. Maybe allow the players to create those lower-level characters on their own time between sessions.
While starting at higher levels can be daunting for some players, especially those newer to the hobby, it can be quite fun to unleash the powers and abilities of the more potent characters without spending the weeks, months, and years of getting them to those levels. I don’t recommend this become your normal mode of starting games, but it is a refreshing change of pace.
Have you ever started a game at higher levels? How did that work out for you? Any words of warning or encouraging advice for your fellow Gnome Stew readers?