Playing with Unbalanced Levels in Pathfinder

PC Death Demotivator - Source unknown
Source Unknown

In the Gygaxian Era, it was common for every PC to start at first level, regardless of the level of their fellow adventurers. While it was not unheard of for players to start at a higher level, my understanding is that it was not common. And from what I’ve read, it certainly doesn’t seem to have been something Gygax himself liked very much. If you were a new player in an ongoing campaign, you could expect to start at first level even if the rest of the group were in the mid teens or higher. And if you were unfortunate enough to lose a high level character to one of oldschool D&D’s numerous hazards, and your compatriots either could not access, or could not afford, a resurrection spell, then that was it. Back to first level for you.

This style of play has gradually fallen out of style, to the point that many players are unaware that it ever existed. And many modern gamers who are aware of it (either anecdotally or by experience) are openly scornful of the idea. The general consensus among many of my fellow modern gamers is that players who are significantly lower level than the rest of the party will be left with nothing to do. Rather than ‘pointlessly punish’ players for being new to the game, or losing a PC, the GM should let them begin at least two levels below the average party level. And in fairness, there is a logic to this argument.

For my part, I’ve always been at least interested in this kind of play. Which isn’t to say I always thought the idea was good. Quite the opposite, I often joined in on conversations deriding this type of play. I thought it might be a fun way to spend an evening sometime, but never expected I’d enjoy that kind of fundamental imbalance in my games. It might have worked in earlier iterations of the game, I thought, when even high level characters were not particularly powerful. But in the modern game, the difference between a high level character and a low level character is too large. The villains in a  high level game would wipe the floor with a low level PC!

Last October, however, I learned I had been wrong. Low level players in a high level game were not useless. Nor were they boring for the people playing them. In fact, that game was an immense amount of fun. As I noted at the time, I don’t think I’ve ever seen that particular player have quite so much fun before. But that was a one-off session. The situation was unusual, and I was unsure of whether that level of fun could be maintained across an entire campaign. If level imbalance were the rule, rather than the exception, would it still be fun?

In the hopes that it would, my Current Pathfinder game is using much stricter rules for character creation. The group I’m playing with has grown slowly, from the three original members, to a fourth two sessions later, to a fifth the session after that, and even a sixth two sessions after that. By the time the most recent player joined the game, the rest were already pushing level three, but I had them start at first level none the less. And while the lower level characters are certainly less capable than the higher level ones, there is not a sense that they’re contributing any less to the group’s success. Often the low level players are able to completely change the course of a battle because they come up with innovative tactics for the party to use, or because they let the higher level characters occupy the monsters while they attempt something clever.

As the average party level gets higher, though, I’ve been more wary about starting players all the way at level 1. The last two members to join the party did so with +1 weapons at their disposal, because I was worried about alienating those players by throwing them into a game where they felt as though they were at a disadvantage.

Earlier today, however, I ran a game where one of the highest level PCs in the party met their end. The player made two extremely poor decisions in a row, and she paid for it when she was reduced to -27 hit points in the first round of combat with three ogres. While the rest of the players continued to explore the dungeon, I told her to begin rolling a new character. I figured that once she was done, I’d have the party encounter her as a prisoner who would join their party, so I told her not to bother rolling starting gold or buying equipment.

Shortly thereafter, the party encountered the ruler of the dungeon: a 6th level evocation specialist wizard with a gear-less paladin chained to the wall. I didn’t know how much the new character would be able to contribute to the battle, but I figured that in the wrost case scenario, one of the other adventurers would free her and give her a spare weapon so she could join in on the fight.I waas particularly worried when I learned that the player had forgotten to select either of the feats they were entitled to as a first level human.

But oh, was I surprised.

First, they asked if they could make a strength check to break the chains that were holding them to the wall. I allowed it, but set the DC pretty high. She not only made it, but she surpassed it by enough that I told her she had pulled chunks of brick out of the wall along with the chains. She asked if she could swing them as weapons, and I agreed. So in a fluid motion, she both broke free from the wall, and smashed the wizard’s two goblin minions in the head with chunks of stone, killing one, and reduing the other to a single hit point. Already she’d significantly affected the battle by effectively removing two nuisance fighters, but I’ll grant you, her success here was largely the luck of the dice.

But she wasn’t done yet.

On her next turn, she asked if she could tackle the wizard, who had just cast fireball on the rest of the party, reducing most of them to dangerously low HP. I told her to make a combat maneuver check, and she easily surpassed the measly combat maneuver defense of the wizard. She tackled him to the ground, and the two rolled down the stairs of his dais together. On the wizard’s next turn, he cast the only spell I thought would still work–shocking grasp. He rolled an 18 on his concentration check, and sent 6d6 volts of electric energy through the shiny new character, reducing  the level 1 paladin to -6hp.

The following round, the rest of the players in the group managed to finish the wizard off, but each member of the party was on death’s doorstep. Two of them had only a single hit point remaining. If not for the round of distraction afforded to the group by the paladin, the battle would have resulted in a TPK.

Let me say that again: A level 1 paladin without any equipment, weapons, or feats, managed to single-handedly turn the tide of a battle which was designed as a challenge for 6th level characters.

If you think low level characters can’t have an impact on a high level game: you are wrong.

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3 thoughts on “Playing with Unbalanced Levels in Pathfinder”

  1. Great anecdote. I’m also wary of power imbalance but love the idea of earning levels to make them more meaningful and the threat of loss of these earned levels must be there for meaningful play

    For what its worth, Gygax had stated on the ENWorld boards that one of his house rules was to start PCs at 3rd level.


    1. I’m glad you liked it! Thanks for the info about Gary’s rule.

      For now I’m content to start new characters at level 1. But if my players get up to level 10 or so I might consider level 3.

  2. It’s not that underleveled PCs are useless. It’s that they FEEL useless. They feel less like a part of the group — like they’re only the support cast. It’s already hard enough to get a new character to fit into the group, yet alone one that will be significantly weaker. It’s also notable that the underleveled will never catch up unless the GM gives them special attention. Wealth, on the other hand, can be recovered eventually.

    I do not discredit the style of starting at first level, but it’s not a taste I share. It creates more work for me, the GM, and makes most players I know feel terrible more often than not.

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