Taran wanted to make a sword; but Coll, charged with the practical side of his education, decided on horseshoes. And so it had been horseshoes all morning long. Taran's arms ached, soot blackened his face. At last he dropped the hammer and turned to Coll, who was watching him critically.
"Why?" Taran cried. "Why must it be horseshoes? As if we had any horses!"
Coll was stout and round and his great bald head glowed bright pink. "Lucky for the horses," was all he said, glancing at Taran's handiwork...
- The opening scene of The Book of Three, by Lloyd Alexander
Actually, in the original Chainmail, a soldier died from one hit; and only heroes had more than one "hit point." D&D was born from this wargame, but even in its first edition, far greater power awaited at higher experience levels.
"I am the Dragon Reborn. Denying won’t change it. Wishing won’t change it. I’m not the man you knew back in Emond’s Field. Do you understand now? Do you?"
- Rand al'Thor, from Lord of Chaos, by Robert Jordan
It's very interesting how deeply ingrained in our minds this concept has become. Even the novel novel, The Name of the Wind takes us from a hero's humble beginnings and traces a path of adventure from there. Granted, it begins as a retrospective; but very soon we return to Kvothe's childhood.
There is nothing wrong with level one. It's designed to evoke this "humble beginnings" fantasy trope. It allows the author or GM to tell a long fantasy epic where the characters slowly grow from farmboys to world-shaking superheroes, and at each major accomplishment, the players can look back and say "look how far we've come." Heck, this trope is ancient:
The fantasy trope of humble beginnings is so powerful that it's even broken out of the fantasy genre. It turns out it's great for exposition, introducing the audience to a fantastic setting.
|This guy should have been pissed that his DM made him start |
with 2 levels of Expert: Carpenter. But he turned the other cheek...
Obi-Wan: I have something here for you. Your father wanted you to have this when you were old enough, but your uncle wouldn't allow it. He feared you might follow old Obi-Wan on some damn fool idealistic crusade like your father did.
Luke: What is it?
Obi-Wan: Your father's light saber. This is the weapon of a Jedi Knight. Not as clumsy or random as a blaster; an elegant weapon for a more civilized age. For over a thousand generations, the Jedi Knights were the guardians of peace and justice in the Old Republic. Before the dark times... before the Empire.
-Star Wars, A New Hope
If you use level one in your game, don't do it just because that's what you do. Do it intentionally, in order to evoke the humble beginnings trope and slowly bring the players through exposition into a new world full of wonder and magic.
Luke Skywalker is amazed at Obi Wan's revelations about the Jedi Order, and Rand al'Thor is bemused by the appearance of an Aes Sedai in Emond's Field. But Rand and Luke aren't the audience in those books. Their ignorance exists to help the reader or viewer soak up the fantasy worlds they inhabit, and their initial awe at Trollocks or Channeling or The Force or Jedi exist to impress the reader of the strangeness and gravity of these things.
A few notes:
- First, the level one concept, applied to magic-using protagonists in fantasy fiction has given rise to the idea of "level zero" -- what was it like before your character cast magic spells?
- Second, when I say "level one" I mean "starting characters." This fits with Shadowrun and Vampire and Mind's Eye Theater and Fading Suns and 7th Sea and Call of Cthulhu and a whole host of other roleplaying games that don't even have levels. Some of these games start player characters off so pitifully weak that, like first level D&D characters of older editions, they might have trouble taking down a housecat. Others start you with heavy firepower, but a social position that puts you at the bottom of the totem pole or make you decide between social position and the ability to fend off angry cats.
The players (or readers and viewers) are the audience, not their characters. If you use level one (or level zero!) your goal is to use that first, low powered phase of the game to introduce them to the world, not to awe them. Why can't you awe them? The players of your game are not country bumpkins. They're not swineherds or sheep herders or moisture farmers. They're gamers, and they're sitting at your table because they want to have dust ups with ogres and battle evil necromancers. They're not going to be awed. Watching Star Wars might awe people, but that's for the graphics and story, not because viewers aren't expecting aliens and light sabers. Your players will roleplay being awed in the right situations, but unless you do something cool from a narrative or game mechanical point of view, they're not going to be impressed with magic and monsters.
So that means you only get two thirds of the effect of the level one trope. Really, that's not that bad. If you're going to run an epic story of increasing scope, in a fantasy world that the players are not familiar with, by all means go for it! But do it intentionally. To do that, you need to know how to take advantage of its strengths and what some alternatives are.
Strengths of Level One
Take advantage of the two strengths you have when using the "humble beginnings" trope, if you're going to do it. Those advantages are gradual exposition of the setting and a feeling of expanding scope.
Start with the players' characters knowing nothing about the world, then make a plan about how to reveal setting information to them. Make sure to release it slowly, in discrete chunks divided up by topic. The old 2nd edition AD&D setting "Spelljammer" did a good job of this. First players learned about the fantasy world. Then they encountered space travel and the game mechanics behind it. Then they encountered space elves, space dwarves, space gnomes, grell (the hippo people), space illithids, space neogi, and so on. Each encounter was a window into a different aspect of the world. Space elves were a wandering, military race with no homeland. Space neogi were cowardly slavers willing to bargain and make a deal rather than fight. And it went from there.
The other benefit of humble beginnings is that you can expand the scope of the game, with occasional clear moments of victory that allow the heroes to look back on their humble beginnings.
- They encounter monsters in their local village, and become heroes of their village.
- Bad guys from the next barony over start raiding, and they fight off the bandits and get knighted in the big city by the Count!
- The Count recruits them members of his honor guard and they deal with a den of vampires in the big city!
- But they learn that the vampires were part of a powerful evil wizard's plan to subjugate the entire kingdom, so and things like this have been happening in all the cities! So they travel around to hunt down the evil wizard and get rewarded by the king for service to the nation.
- But the evil wizard was just part of the End Times Prophecy that foretells the end of the world if three conditions are met, and two have already been. The third involves a trip to the Far Continent on an airship...
- ...Cross into Hell and explore the nine layers...
- ...Battle a corrupted God while standing on the surface of the sun...
As you can see, geography is the limiting factor, and travel magic should be greatly restricted keep that sense of scope intact. This is the conceptual map:
- Your home
- The village your home is in
- The lord's land your village is in
- The country your lord is part of
- The other countries your nation is near
- The far continents and their strange, exotic cultures
- The other planes of existence
Before moving outward to a larger scale, the heroes should have a major victory, and they should occasionally return home, either to rest and "level up"; to interact with important NPCs there; or to respond to threats against lower-scope lands by higher-scope villains (e.g. a Putrid Exarch of the Nine Hells going to their home village to slaughter their families).
Alternatives to Level One
You think I'm going to say "level four" or something, don't you? Well sure, that's the obvious alternative to level one. It's easy to do, too:
"Start with 100 experience points. That represents some experience adventuring up to now, so I want you as a party to decide what great deeds you've accomplished and I'll refer back to those for hooks throughout the story."
But there are other alternatives to "humble beginnings" that take more creative approaches. I thought up some for you:
- Low Level Nobles: Start at level 1, but make the characters influential and worldly. This requires the players to know the setting fairly well; but it can work for popular games like Vampire and D&D where the settings are so well known among gamers that it's not hard to find 4-5 players who can handle it.
- Power Up: Start at level 1, and progress only once, to a high point of power. In the game world, use a diagetic event to describe that jump, like a magical blessing, an artifact, a prophecy, or time travel.
- Here we Are: Start at level 1 (or 2 or whatever) and stay there. In a class/level game like D&D, you're going to need to have a long talk with the players about this. You may find it very refreshing, though you will get this question: "Shouldn't we get better at fighting the same monsters?" The answer is "Yes!" because the players will get to know its attacks and weaknesses, and be prepared for it. You can also use magic items (specifically in D&D) to slowly increase their power. (If your Big Bad uses a lot of undead henchmen, a +5 Holy Avenger will make those henchmen a breeze, won't it?) An alternative way to play 3rd edition D&D called E6 worked something like this -- the game stops at level 6, but it's designed so you can keep playing after that.
- The Name of the Wind: Start very powerful and don't increase, but "level down" for flashback scenes frequently throughout the adventure. The GM should request the players make three versions of their characters (or whatever number is both reasonable and gives him the flexibility he wants). Flashback scenes are great because you use them in place of knowledge rolls or research. Right when the players would be asking, "Would my character know about..?" you step in with a flashback, "Well actually yes, you've seen them once before..."
- Hard Luck Blues: Start at level 1 in terms of character power and social position, and increase only character power. Gaining skill but not position gives you a "hard luck", "easy come, easy go" story. This would work for D&D as long as you withheld magic items, but gave the players' characters inherent bonuses and blessings to help them stay mechanically at pace with the monsters of their level. Alternately, keep using monsters slightly below their level. They'll gain levels slower unless you give them lots of bonus xp, though.
- Tangible Rewards: Gaining power but not skill is another alternative. Have the players design characters with worldly ambitions, and present a challenge to them that requires influence and strategic application of power to achieve. Whenever they resolve challenges you set, they "level up" in worldly power, but not stats.
So there you have it. Level one. Use it intentionally and use it well; or use something else.