Rambling Gnomes Here’s a question from frequent commenter BryanB, subjected to the ramblings of many a gnome. I was interested when I saw how similar the gnome responses are; clearly a reaction to our huddling in dark caves waiting for adventurers to walk by, lamenting our former PC status.

Please share the opinions of the sunlit word in comments! Take it away, Brian:

Have we had an article on this common d20 conundrum?
You have a group of 6th level characters and a new player joins the group.
Do you make the new guy the same level as the other PCs?
Do you have the new guy start a level or two lower than the other PCs?
Do you actually consider making the new guy start at first or second level?
What is the best thing to do when trying to balance fairness for the new guy and fairness for the players that have invested time and effort in your campaign?

It isn’t fair to have the new guy have a PC that is vastly outclassed BUT it doesn’t seem very fair to those who have leveled up from the beginning to have the new guy be completely equal in ability. Or does it? Where is the right balance?

Neagley Matthew started us off with a little math:

The linchpin is as follows: Back in 1e and 2e, when it was standard to start new characters at lvl 1, the experience point progression was algebraic. Each lvl required twice the xp total of the one before. Thus, the xp to get a character from the start of one level to the start of the next was equal to that character’s currently earned xp. This formula didn’t hold through name levels, but the benefits of name levels were noticeably less potent than the levels before with the exception of casters.

THUS, under the 1e 2e system, starting the new guy at 1 meant that by the time the group had earned enough xp the gain one level, the new guy had leveled up to the group’s current level and would remain one level behind them until name level.

The 3e 4e system is different. It’s expressed as a factorial function of 1000. Thus, starting the new guy at level 1 means that they will “catch up” to the current character’s levels once the xp gap (the current party’s level -1 factorial(1000)) is bridged within a single level. This means the new guy will catch up when the party hits the level equal to their xp/1000 +1. For example, a level 4 party (6000xp) gaining a new guy, will equalize levels with him by level 7. If they were level 5, they would need to get to level 11. At level 6, they need to reach level 16, and if they’re level 7 they’ll need to hit the level cap in 3e, or get to 22 in 4e.

This isn’t perfect math for 4e (it’s not exactly a factorial system) but it’s close.

Thus, in 3e or 4e it’s not as wise to start a player at level 1 because the amount of time there will be a power disparity will be MUCH longer.

Martin chimed in with:

It’s not New Guy’s fault he joined the campaign after it started, so why penalize him for it? He should start at the same level as everyone else. Every other solution to this “problem” is a complete non-starter for me as a player and as a GM, whether I’m New Guy, the GM running the game or one of the existing players.

If anything, whether New Guy gets to spend 100% of his recommended wealth per level as he sees fit — rather than spending it less than optimally, like a character who reached the same level organically — is fair to the other players. There I’d say no, it’s not really fair, but most groups won’t mind. If it’s a concern let him spend X% of it as he sees fit, and spend the rest for him.

Xcorvis added:

I think that the assumption that the accumulation of XP (and hence
levels) is a measure of player reward is fundamentally wrong. Playing is it’s own reward, and there’s no reason to penalize new players by crippling their characters. I would bring the new PC in at the average party XP.

If a GM suggested that I would join an existing campaign at more that 2 levels behind the rest of the party, I’d reconsider joining the game. A character that far behind is effectively useless.

Kurt responded with some mathematical analysis:

In addition to Matthew’s excellent math, the “power curve” for 1E/2E characters is different from 3E characters. Earlier editions have a more linear progression, while later versions are more geometric; a 3E character basically doubles in power every two levels. (Let’s not get into the “linear fighter” vs. “geometric caster” discussion here…)

That said, I do believe that a character created at an advanced level is generally more effective than one that was “grown from scratch”. Martin already mentioned the optimal magic item distribution. In addition, (in D&D terms) you can take feats like Spring Attack without having to take those boring pre-req feats like Dodge and Mobility. The same can be done with powerful Prestige Classes that build on less-than-powerful base classes (Shadowdancer, Mystic Theurge, etc). Also in D&D terms, it’s easier to optimize skills, since you didn’t need to take those few ranks of Knowledge (Planes) for that quick jaunt to the Outer Planes.

For this reason, I’m partial (in D&D 3.x terms) to starting a new player or new character at roughly 10% or one full level below the rest of the party. Existing players who want to bring in a new character pay this as well.

Regardless of your own choice, the DMG specifically mentions that nobody should start more than two levels below the party average. Survival becomes difficult at that point.

John Arcadian threw this in the stew pot:

I’m not sure I’ve ever started as a low level character with an existing higher level group. The game would be no fun at that point. I’d be watching my teammates and allies sweeping through the low level enemies I am still struggling with, making barter and manipulation rolls with more skills than I could bring to bear, and generally outdoing me in any way no matter how cool my character concept was.

To me, character level is a measure of power rank not reward. At times I’ve actually played the party’s henchman at 1/2 the party level and to much comedic effect, but that was a different situation and as my role was limited I was able to focus on only one or two areas instead of trying to make a usable well rounded character.

Here’s my take:

The fun part of gaming is playing. My games are so awesome that missing them is more punishment than any man or gnome should have to bear. Clearly, they have already suffered enough– I’d bring them in at the same level and have them progress in lockstep with the other characters. Magic items are a good place to differentiate; at low levels, I’d have the new character come in without magic and just increase the treasure handed out a bit to compensate. At higher level, I’d allow the character to walk on with 50% of the standard wealth expected and again increase the treasure handed out to PCs for a while to compensate.

You’ve heard from the gnomes. What do you say?