Friday, November 5, 2021

Random Roll: DMG, p. 12

 Page 12 of the Advanced Dungeons & Dragons Dungeon Masters Guide includes a short section of "Starting Level of Experience for Player Characters," which I found interesting. Gary Gygax begins by stating the obvious:

As a general rule the greatest thrill for any neophyte player will be the first adventure, when he or she doesn't have any real idea of what is happening, how powerful any encountered monster is, or what rewards will be gained from the adventure.

True words have not been written! I think, on some level, we're all hoping that, one day, we might re-experience this "greatest thrill." I further suspect that this hope plays a big role in why we continue to try out – and buy – new RPGs: "Maybe this game will remind me of what it was like when I first ventured into the Caves of Chaos when I was 10 years old."

This assumes survival, and you should gear your dungeon to accommodate 1st level players. If your campaign has a mixture of experienced and inexperienced players, you should probably arrange for the two groups to adventure separately, possibly in separate dungeons, at first. 

I'm unsure if Gygax's use of the phrase "1st level players" is intentional or merely another example of the conflation between "player" and "player character" that can be found throughout the DMG. 

Allow novice players to learn for themselves, and give experienced players tougher situations to face, for they already understand most of what is happening – quite unlike true 1st level adventurers of the would-be sort, were such persons actually to exist. 

Combined with what Gygax wrote in the sentence immediately before this, I'm struck by how different my own early experiences were. In those days, it was not uncommon for neophyte players to join an already established campaign, bringing their newly-minted 1st-level characters to a party consisting of higher-level ones. I don't think this was anyone's preference, mind you, but it was a fairly standard practice and one we simply accepted as "the way of things." After all, if your 1st-level fighter survived even a single session adventuring with the higher-level party, he wouldn't be 1st level any longer.

If you have an existing campaign, with the majority of the players already above 1st level, it might be better to allow the few newcomers to begin at 2nd level or even 3rd or 4th in order to give them a survival chance when the group sets off for some lower dungeon level. I do not personally favor granting unearned experience level(s) except in circumstances such as just mentioned, for it tends to rob the new player of the real enjoyment he or she would normally feel upon actually gaining experience levels by dint of cleverness, risk, and hard fighting.

I completely agree with Gygax here. In the past, I have occasionally allowed an already experienced player to join a campaign with a higher-level character, but that's no longer my practice. Whenever a new player has joined my House of Worms Empire of the Petal Throne campaign, his character started at 1st level, even though the other characters were more experienced. I'm not sure I can justify this practice of mine beyond saying that I simply prefer that all characters earn their levels in the same fashion. After nearly seven years of continual play, it's worked out quite well and I see no reason to change it.

It has been called to my attention that new players will sometimes become bored and discouraged with the struggle to advance in level of experience, for they do not have any actual comprehension of what it is like to be a powerful character of high level. In a well planned and well judged campaign, this is not too likely to happen, for the superior DM will have enough treasure to whet the appetite of players, while keeping them hungry still, and always after that carrot just ahead. And one player's growing ennui can often be dissipated by rivalry, i.e. he or she fails to go on an adventure, and those who did play not only had an exciting time but brought back a rich haul as well.

My qualms about the phrase "the superior DM" to the contrary, Gygax speaks truly here – or at least it comports with my own experience as a referee over the years. I'd only add that it's not only treasure that can serve to whet the appetite of players. Just as often knowledge and other rewards are every bit as motivating. (Gygax's reference to rivalry between players is something I haven't experienced since I was a kid, but I concede it may well serve as a motivator in some groups.)

Thus, in my opinion, a challenging campaign and careful refereeing should obviate the need for immediate bestowals of levels of experience to maintain interest in the game. However, whatever the circumstances, if some problem such as this exists, it has been further suggested that allowing relatively new players to participate in a modular campaign game (assuring new players of characters of high level) would often whet their appetites for continued play at lower level, for they can then grasp what it will be like should they actually succeed in attaining proficiency on their own by working up their original characters and gaining high levels of experience.

By "modular campaign" does Gygax mean the use of adventure modules? If so, this would seem to suggest that he saw the purpose of these pre-made adventures to be, at least in part, to serve as a "training ground" for players in what it would be like to play at various levels. If that's right, I don't believe I've ever seen this sentiment expressed anywhere else before. Even if that's not what Gygax meant, it's nevertheless an intriguing idea and one I'm not sure I'd ever considered before. If nothing else, it possibly sheds some light on why TSR often published modules whose suggested levels were much higher than anything typically achieved in most campaigns. 


  1. I've re-read the 'modular campaigns' paragraph several times and I come to the same conclusion - that the pregens in modules could be used to give novice players a chance of playing at a different level (or even a different class).

    The pregens in most of the early modules would actually support this idea too.

    I can see a benefit from this modular approach in thst it allows ypu to use the full range of spells in the PHB that you might otherwise look at wistfully (as I always did).

    "it has been further suggested" tells me that it may not be Gygax's own opinion.

  2. "Gygax's reference to rivalry between players is something I haven't experienced since I was a kid, but I concede it may well serve as a motivator in some groups."

    It's a foreign concept to me too, but I wonder if some of it might stem from some of Gygax's campaign having crazy numbers of players who essentially made up several discrete parties that had a competitive approach to exploring/looting the same megadungeon? Never played in groups nearly large enough to split up like that (nor did we use the numbers of hirelings and henchmen that seem to have been Gygax's norm) but I can see where that might drive rivalries between "teams" of adventurers.

    1. As is often the case, recognizing that early D&D was a massively multiplayer offline RPG is key to understanding its overall design, component rules, and sundry peculiarities.

    2. Aptly put. Then again, I never did MMORPGs either past a brief flirtation with Everquest in its heyday, so still pretty much foreign territory for me.

  3. I think that "modular campaign" here has nothing to do with modules and simply refers to short, self-contained campaigns: what today we might term "mini-arcs" or even "one-shots."

    1. I think you are right, it also would fit with the open-table, massive group.
      And with Mentzer basically calling a game session "an adventure" in BECMI (I remember James making a post about that... last year, maybe?)

  4. "I further suspect that this hope plays a big role in why we continue to try out – and buy – new RPGs: "Maybe this game will remind me of what it was like when I first ventured into the Caves of Chaos when I was 10 years old.""

    I have tried that time and again, but it never works. The closest I get to that feeling is when I run games for kids, and even some adults, who have never played before. I may not be able to recapture that feeling directly, but running a game for someone else who is just starting to learn to play D&D? That's even better.

    That's what has really hurt during the Pandemic. I used to run gams for beginners all the time at the local game shop. Hopefully, someday, I can run games there again.

  5. "Maybe this game will remind me of what it was like when I first ventured into the Caves of Chaos when I was 10 years old."

    I recaptured that feeling just once when a group I played with in college tried out the RPG for Legend of the Five Rings. We'd played the card game so were familiar with the setting and powers the characters and NPCs might potentially have, but the rules were totally new. We were all completely absorbed with nerves on edge as we searched an old castle looking for a rogue spell caster (shugenja), having no idea what would happen to us if we encountered the spell caster or the monsters he was said to keep company with. Although we never found any adversaries in the castle, it was still a vivid experience that was truly frightening. Half the party died at a beach location not soon after the castle. It reminds me that D&D rules work best at lower levels of play when there is still palpable risk of character death and everything has an edge of real danger. I've read that many OSR DMs with decades of experience prefer to run campaigns where characters rarely advance in level and don't use levels beyond 7th at the highest, or there about. They'll do one shot adventures if players want to experience characters with higher levels, but not in campaigns. I like the idea. I'm in Hanoi, Vietnam right now and don't like playing RPGs over the internet, so have yet to try this out.

  6. The old exponential experience tables also support this - by the time everyone else has gained a level, the new character will have caught up.

  7. Back in the day, we MOSTLY started new characters at 1st level, though I remember crafting a non-1st level PC for joining the occasional session with Glen Blacow (as mostly a GM, other than some GMPCs, I didn't have any actual PCs, joining a one off session with a 1st level PC would almost make it not worth playing). Of course with "open worlds" and PCs moving from campaign to campaign, many players had appropriate level PCs to bring along.

    We had the occasional session where the higher level PCs would escort a new 1st level PC on an experience gaining expedition that would be safer than the high level play but gain XP faster.

    Later in college, I did start to relax a bit on starting XP. And with my Cold Iron campaigns, since ALL characters are basically multi-class to some degree, I started PCs off not at 1st level so someone who mostly wanted just a fighter got to start of with a higher fighter level than the spell casters (otherwise, who wants to play a 1st level fighter when everyone else is 1st level fighter/1st level caster...).

    I don't remember if my Fantasy Hero campaign which was the only point build campaign that lasted long even lasted long enough for it to be a consideration whether new PCs should start with more points.

    It's possible my 1990s RQ campaign lasted long enough that new PCs got a little boost. My current RQ campaigns haven't lasted long enough for a starting PC to be that out of line, though at some point, new PCs may benefit from revisiting the previous experience system and making it kick out some better combat skills.