Whether the campaign starts at a higher level than usual, a new player joins midway through a campaign, or a PC meets an unfortunate end and needs another to take her place, one issue all Game Masters eventually face is the introduction of “experienced” player characters.

A complicating factor is that players creating “experienced” characters have a window into their PCs’ careers and can make optimal choices that they may not have made if they had to live with each decision on a day-to-day basis. This gives the new PC a leg up on her companions that had to do so.

This issue may be reinforced if the GM also gives the new PC funds with which to purchase gear – such purchases are laser-targeted to the PC’s needs, rather than the result of finding gear through play or purchasing immediately useful gear as the funds come in rather than wait to go on a spending spree six sessions down the line.

While there certainly have been techniques over the years to ensure that new characters suffer a penalty (starting at level 1, getting an amount of experience points equal to the lowest member of the existing party, or being limited in choice of gear), I’ve noticed two trends in my circles that mitigate these somewhat. The first is the move from varying individual rewards to a uniform group award, so everyone in the party has the same amount of XP.

The second is “letting XP reside with the player,” which simply put means that when a player retires a PC, voluntarily or involuntarily, her new PC starts with the same XP total as her previous PC. In some cases the PC can “cash out” her old gear to purchase new gear to more appropriately outfit her new PC.

Here are a few ways to moderate new PCs so that they “feel” like they came through the gauntlet, rather than simply given optimal builds. These techniques can also be combined to best suit the needs of a campaign.

Allow the player to build the character normally without telling her where the endpoint lies.

This technique works best with new campaigns that are intended to start with more experienced PCs than normal. Rather than tell the players “we’re starting at Level 4” or “I’m giving you 50 extra XP,” the GM simply tells them to make beginning characters. Once that is finished, the GM gives out a few more points and resources gradually, allowing the players to advance their characters incrementally.

The trick here is that the players don’t know when the GM is going to announce that character creation is finished. Thus, a player that’s optimizing her picks for a “fifth level” build may be surprised when the GM stops character creation at third level. A player hoarding her XP for a 400 xp ability may be caught with 300 unused XP when the GM stops character creation just short of handing out another 100 points.

New PCs start as beginning characters, but they get accelerated advancement until they catch up.

The main difference between a PC that gains advancement through play and one that gets the advancements up front is that the former has to live with her choices. If the latter has to as well, even for a shorter period of time, then she’s more likely to make immediately useful choices rather than build optimally.

When using this technique a new PC starts out as a beginning character when joining the campaign. During play the GM doles out extra XP or gear to the character incrementally, allowing the PC to eventually catch up to the rest of the group. How much and how often the GM doles out rewards depends on the nature of the campaign.

This technique works well for games where experienced PCs are often only slightly less-fragile than beginning characters; in level-based campaigns the GM may wish to incorporate the first technique and announce that she’s allowing the new character to “level up” a bit after the new PC is generated.

You can’t always get what you want.

Using this technique the player makes decisions, but there’s a random element involved that may take away choice. There are two ways to do this. The first is for the player to come up with three or four choices and then roll a die to determine which option the PC actually receives. This diminishes some optimization while allowing the player to retain control over building her PC.

The second option is for the GM to assign percentages to each new ability. If the player wants to purchase it, she needs to roll under the percentage. If she fails, then that option isn’t available. The GM can either assign a uniform percentage to all abilities (e.g. the player needs to roll under 60% for every ability) or she can assign varying percentages based on the perceived usefulness or optimization of the ability.

A word of caution with the second option. While the second option grants the GM more control, Murphy’s Law tends to favor the player rolling to keep abilities you’d rather not let them have or, worse, grant the player a string of bad luck that eliminates the worthwhile options for her.

Choices for new PCs are limited.

This is the nuclear option. Using this technique, the GM may limit the choices a new PC can make. In a game with multiple “splatbooks,” for example, new PCs may be limited to the core rulebook. If “prestige classes” or other advanced options are available, a new PC may be barred from joining them until after play has begun. The GM may offer a limited selection of abilities and allow the player to choose the one that best suits her. At the extreme, a GM may even pre-build career paths so that new PCs following it have their options chosen for them.

This technique should be considered carefully and used sparingly. While it certainly works, it can dim a player’s enthusiasm. After all, the other techniques still grant the player varying levels of control over building her character. This technique makes the new character more of a “pre-gen.”

Still, this technique is great to limit some of the more outrageous options and ensure that the new character doesn’t walk into the campaign outshining everyone else.

Final Words

Obviously, the usefulness of each technique depends upon your particular campaign style and your group chemistry. You may find that limiting choices isn’t an option for your players or that starting a new PC as a beginning character is effectively handing her a death sentence before play begins. You may find that your players really enjoy the “select from three abilities” technique more than the “pick three and roll for it” technique. Use what works for you!

That said your particular campaign may already have enough safeguards built in to ensure that new PCs don’t gain unfair advantages. If so, what techniques do you use to ensure that new PCs are “balanced” with established ones? Is this a bigger concern for you in some games but not others? Have you used any of the techniques offered here and, if not, would you consider any of them?