So you want to start a new campaign. You have the story idea, the maps, the minis, but what level are your players going to start? Should you start your new adventure as fresh-faced level 1 newbies who are just beginning their adventuring careers? Or do you let your party start at level 3 or even 5, marking them as seasoned adventures ready for a real challenge?
What level should your new campaign begin? There is no right or wrong answer to this question. The real question is, what is the purpose of your campaign?
Running a Campaign for First Time Players
If you are running a game for players who have never played Dungeons & Dragons before, or who have limited or outdated experience, I would highly suggest starting at level 1.
I suggest this because new players need time to slowly wade into the bottomless abyss that is D&D. Throw them directly into the deep end and few will swim, most will sink and that will be the end of your campaign. The purpose for first time players is to initiate them, not haze them.
Each class in D&D offers a huge variety of skill options, which can be daunting for a new player to navigate at the beginning.
How is a new player supposed to know what kind of barbarian they want to be? Or what kind of paladin oath they want to take? They simply don’t have the experience or knowledge to make those kinds of decisions right away. They need time to play with their character and begin to understand the game before they are locked into a category. And don’t get me started on spell options! If you give a brand-new player level 3-5 spell options right out of the gate, be prepared to clean up the mess after his/her brain explodes all over your gaming table.
For first time players I always start at level one and I make it clear that, if after a few sessions, they don’t like their chosen race/class/character, they are welcome to change once, no questions asked. This prevents analysis-paralysis and the fear of not liking the class they chose.
There are a lot of options and new players often have no idea if they will actually like all the decisions and strategy that come with spell casting, or always hiding in the shadows as a rogue looking for that sweet sweet sneak attack bonus. They don’t know their style yet, so I let them take their new character for a “test drive.”
I also make sure I don’t rush the game for newbies. I always start small and work them up. It simply isn’t fair to the player or the game to rush.
What does this mean in practice? As tempting as it is, don’t level up after every session just to try and get your players to the “fun part.” Let new players have a few sessions at level one to fully understand their race and class abilities so they won’t forget they have lucky as a Halfling until level 5 and get really pissed they weren’t re-rolling 1’s the whole time. (Yep, that happened).
Just slow your roll, let them learn the game because that’s the only way they are going to love it.
Running a Campaign for Veteran Players
But what if you are DMing a game full of veteran D&D players? They know the book inside and out, they can tell you all the class and race information, they are true dungeon nerds. Surely this group should start at a higher level. Level 3, maybe even 5? I still lean toward no, and here is why.
Dungeons & Dragons is not solely about rules and creating the most powerful character imaginable. Yes, there is a place for this, after all, who doesn’t want to feel badass? But there is more to this game. This is a role-playing game. Character interactions with each other and the world you have created are just as important as understanding when and how to use spells.
You can start your players at higher levels if the sole purpose of your game is to jump immediately into the main action, but make sure your players have a robust backstory that explains how they became so powerful.
Level 1 allows players to create their journey to becoming seasoned adventures, but if your party starts that way, they need to have a clear idea of how or your campaign will have little to no role-playing opportunities.
It is at Level 1 that your players forge bonds through challenges they have never experienced before, that is hard to recreate at higher levels.
Can veteran players handle starting at level 3 or 5? Of course, they can. Does starting at level 3 or 5 give them the best role-playing opportunities to build their characters and party bonds? That depends on you. There are certainly ways to facilitate this character growth while starting at higher levels, as the DM, you just need to aware and provide those opportunities.
A New Idea: Level 0
For years I started all my players at level 1 (aside from a few high level one-shots) and I thought that was a good as I could do. But one issue continued to surface, even at level 1 all the players were still “special,” or had already created bonds with deities or magical patrons. The rest of the party didn’t get to see or experience that with them, it was already done.
Also, new and veteran players alike can change their minds on what class they want to be depending on how the story begins to unfold.
I always thought this was just the way it was, until my husband started a new campaign and tried out a new idea. We all started at Level 0.
The Merits of Level 0
No powers. No contacts. No oaths. No classes. Nothing. We were normal, everyday citizens working and going about our normal lives.
Instead of worrying about what spells we would take or what ability pathway felt right while creating our characters, we focused solely on character backstory.
We spent time thinking about our bonds, families, flaws and inner desires. All the characteristics that would normally be pushed to the back burner suddenly became vitally important. We all knew were we thought we wanted our characters to end up, but, for the first time, we had to earn it.
If we wanted a spell, even as a paladin or warlock, we had to go through the role-play of figuring it out. Someone had to teach us, or we had to practice until we got it right, meaning, at first, it may not work (percentile die roll). If someone wanted to be a fighter or barbarian, he/she had to practice or be in a profession that would lend itself to working with weapons or armor (such as a blacksmith). Everything we did was earned. Every spell, every ability (excluding racial abilities) every level.
By the time we reached level 1 we had an INCREDIBLY rich character development and party dynamic. When had been there with some characters as their tragic story unfolded. By the time we reached level 3 we had lost two members to a young dragon and felt jaded and scarred. By the time we reached level 5 we were grisly and toughened adventures, not because our level said we were, but because our shared experiences made us that way.
Downsides to Level 0
If you are toying with the idea of starting a campaign at level 0, there are some potential downsides of which you should be aware of.
This is extremely time-consuming. In fact, we went through entire 3-4 hour sessions where there was 0 combat, just talking between party members. Our group loves this role-play heavy style, but if you are DMing for a bunch of murder hobos, beware, they may not enjoy it nearly as much.
Not only is it possible for the pace of the game to slow when you start at level zero, but the leveling pace is also slowed. Using this method, a story based leveling system is almost a requirement because players can’t fight anything at level zero. This means you need to have lots of story options prepared for your budding heroes, which leads me to the next downside.
If you are going to run a campaign at level zero, you as the DM have to know exactly where the characters want to go and then give them the opportunities to get there. You can’t tell your party they have to earn their spells and then never give them the opportunity to do so. This means you need to have conversations with your party outside of game time and prepare lots of options for them to get to where they want to go. If you are more of a “fly-by-the-seat-of-your-pants” DM or a DM that doesn’t like to spend a lot of time preparing, I suggest sticking to the standard level 1 campaign start.
If you are willing to take the time and effort required to start your party at level zero, you will be rewarded by deep conversations, character growth, and party bonds. I highly suggest giving it a try.
Regardless of whether you start at level 0 or level 5, remember, this game is about your players. Make sure your campaign meets their expectations and gives them the opportunity to role-play their characters, whatever level they may be.
Until next time,
May you have advantage, my friend!
– Halfling Hannah