Saturday, August 30, 2014

Stats & Thoughts About Squishy First Level Characters

Every GM in every game has a challenge: craft a fun story that involves the players and gives them the agency to affect the story's outcome.  Of course, for any story to be interesting, it needs to have stakes for the characters within it.  When you're reading a novel, the character has to have something at risk, be it possessions, a relationship, or her soul.

GMs have one advantage that novelists don't: players are piloting characters and therefore should identify with their characters all the more easily.  Of course, that also means that those same characters also need to have personal stakes in the story.  If the character doesn't have anything to lose or the character can't fail, the player isn't likely to be interested in that character's story for very long.  Players need to feel like their characters are actually in danger.  Just like in the novel, that danger can be for the loss of possessions, the loss of a relationship, or even the loss of a soul.  With an invested character, those story arcs might be the most interesting.  It's equally interesting to see whether or not your character gains what they are seeking rather than losing what they already have.  But where characters are most often in danger is in combat.

There are game mechanics that cover the loss of possessions and, unsurprisingly, even souls.  Relationships can be managed through attitude (at least for relationships with NPCs).  But combat happens most frequently and has the most mechanics attached to it.  We have a challenge rating (CR) system that helps GMs create appropriate encounters for their party.  The goal is to create an encounter that feels appropriately challenging without creating a TPK.

Theoretically, you should average the party's level and then create encounters at that CR plus some depending on how challenging the encounter should be.  Each CR gives a GM a bank of experience to fill out with monsters.  This system generally works well--except with first level characters.

First level characters present two unique challenges in combat and they are both designed around death.  First level characters have low hit point totals.  That makes them easy to kill.  Additionally, first level characters are often piloted by new players.  New players may not know how to optimally keep their character alive (you've all seen the melee mage).  We want first level characters to survive for a couple of reasons as well.  First, we want all players to develop bonds with their characters.  Additionally, we want newer players to enjoy the game.  Dying at first level (and possibly during your first adventure) is not a good way to accomplish that.  Adventures that kill new players are not well received.

So, it's easy to kill a first level character.  There are some ways to mitigate this risk of course.  Armor is the most obvious.  Let's look at the statistical chances that a character with a +2 bonus to AC gets hit by monsters from CR 1/8 to CR 4.  Given my recent musings on armor, we will look at characters without armor and characters wearing studded leather or scale mail, which is about the best armor bonus a first level character can afford.  If you have other ideas about good armor choices, the math is pretty obvious, just adjust the percentages to whatever armor class you are interested in studying.  ACs 12, 15, and 17 seem most relevant here:

No Armor
Studded Leather
Scale Mail
Attack Bonus
AC 12
AC 15
AC 17

Characters might have some assurance of safety when fighting mooks, but boss monsters have an excellent chance of landing a hit (as they should).  But, the danger with first level characters is that we are dealing with very little wiggle room.  If the monster hits the character, especially if that monster is a boss monster, that character may go down.

Below are tables covering the recommended high, medium (average of high and low), and low damage for a monster at five CR levels.  Results of taking a hit are given both numerically and color-coded based on the results for that character.  Remember, these are the results for taking damage from one hit only.  Multiple hits by a monster with multiple attacks or over the course of multiple rounds will produce far more damaging results.

Hit points by Constitution bonus and class.  Click for larger copy.
Green stands for living characters.  Yellow stands for unconscious characters.  Orange characters with the lower CON score for that bonus are dead; characters with the higher CON score are unconscious.  Red characters are dead.

Hit points by Constitution bonus and class.  Click for larger copy.
Green stands for living characters.  Yellow stands for unconscious characters.  Orange characters with the lower CON score for that bonus are dead; characters with the higher CON score are unconscious.  Red characters are dead.

As you can see, the options for killing first level characters are absurdly high--especially if the GM chooses to make something a CR 2 encounter or higher.  So, how do we deal with this?  I see four possible options: 1) do nothing & let them die, 2) stick with CR 1/2 and CR 1 encounters until the characters reach second level, 3) the magical insurance policy, or 4) accelerated XP progression to fourth level.

Do Nothing, Let Them Die

One of the best ways that GMs can build trust with players is to roll openly.  Obviously, some rolls have to be secret.  But, more often than not, you want your players to see what you roll.  This builds trust and it appeals to those that believe that the dices' randomness is one of the things that makes the game fun.  The argument goes: if the dice command the result, who are we to dispute it?  And, if you are rolling in front of your players, you are pretty much locked into results commanded by the dice.  Open rolling appeals to me, but against a CR 2-4 monster open rolling can be an invitation for character death.  So, I want to keep rolling in public, but, again, I don't want my characters to die before they have an opportunity to really enjoy being their character.

Use Only CR 1/2 & CR 1 Encounters

One way to avoid early level character death is to stick with encounters at the CR 1/2 and CR 1 levels.  The upside here is that first level characters are unlikely to die.  The downside is that these encounters can get very repetitive very, very quickly.  You will also require a lot of them.  Assuming a 4-person party, a CR 1/2 encounter grants each PC 50 XP.  A CR 1 encounter grants each PC 100 XP.  At medium track experience, it will take 20 CR 1 encounters to move the party to level 2.  It takes 40 CR 1/2 encounters.  If you're mixing between the two, it will take 14 of each before characters reach level two.  Now, I'm all for creativity in storytelling, but this seems like a lot of encounters.  You can only disable the weak trap and fight the goblins so many times.  This approach is safe, but it takes a very long time before you have recourse to more variety.

The Magic Insurance Policy

Many GMs like to give the PCs access to some form of resurrection as an insurance policy.  Scrolls of raise dead, resurrection, or true resurrection are the most common.   I have two main concerns with this approach.  First of all, if I'm going to throw such an item at low-level PCs, I want them to either actually need it or be so afraid that they'll actually need it that it has real plot ramifications.  A throwaway scroll does little to advance the plot.

More to the point though, the magical insurance policy is more insurance theater than actual insurance.  Let's review the scroll rules for Pathfinder.  A PC can automatically use a scroll if the PC: 1) casts that type of magic; 2) has the spell on his or her class list (making #1 somewhat redundant); AND 3) has a sufficient ability score to cast the spell/spell level.

Huzzah!  Our party's cleric can use the scroll.  If the PC meets the requirements above but can't cast spells of the requisite level, she must make a caster level check where the DC is the scroll's caster level +1.  This isn't actually too bad...a first level character can cast raise dead 80% of the time, resurrection 70% of the time, and true resurrection 60% of the time.  So, with a caster that operates off of the cleric's spell list, you've got a pretty good chance of bringing someone back from the dead.  Without a cleric or an oracle, you're going to have several Use Magic Item checks at a DC 20+.

If you want to give your PCs this option, it does work.  I suggest ignoring it for the purposes of wealth by level as the raise dead scroll costs 7,250 gp and a true resurrection scroll costs 32,650 gp.  Other GMs might try to avoid this by requiring the PCs to find a high level spellcaster that will raise the dead character, but only in exchange for some aid rendered by the PCs.  Seems like a plan, but remember that the goal is to get the players to identify with their characters.  This quest might get the surviving PCs to identify with their characters, but what is the dead character to do?  You could let the player pilot an NPC, but this doesn't further the goal of getting the player into inhabiting his character (though it might go a long way to getting a player into the idea of a longer-term game).

Expedited XP Progression

So, what's a GM to do?  You don't want to inject a vastly outside of tier item into your campaign.  You don't want to possibly arbitrarily kill your PCs' characters.  Finally, you do want to have some varied and interesting encounters.  My solution is to use an expedited XP progression.  Some GMs just start their players at 2nd level or start them with 2nd level hit points (but no other abilities until the characters attain sufficient experience).

Personally, I like to modify the medium XP table.  I allow characters to attain second level at 1,300 XP (as per the fast XP track), third level at the 4,000 XP mark, and fourth level at 9,000 XP.  Characters obtain XP slightly more quickly, but are back on track by fourth level (and the ratios between levels are constant--just wider).  I stick with normal wealth by level since things are all going to even out at the end of the day anyway.

Level \ XP Track

Does this solve the squishy first level character issue?  Honestly, no.  It doesn't.  Rather, it attempts to mitigate the amount of time characters will spend at first level so that strategies like sticking to CR 1/2 and 1 (and occasionally 2) encounters don't get old.  Then, you've got more space for encounters with second level characters.

It's not perfect, but it works for me.  Is there some power creep?  Honestly, a bit.  But, it's early on when characters are excited about finding a masterwork dagger anyway.  By sticking with the regular wealth by encounter and level tables you go a long way to mitigate things.

Of course, characters may die later on.  But, once players know and identify with their characters, they'll want to take the time and effort to raise their fallen friend.  And the player whose character has died will be ready to do just about anything to get him raised from the dead!

Agree of disagree with my thoughts?  Tell everyone about it in the comments below!