Generally I don’t like making characters above first level. There’s really no reason a 1st level character can’t play alongside higher level characters and feel useful. Particularly in OSR style games, where power levels don’t range quite as wildly as they do in other games.
That said, when the whole party is level 6+ and I die, I sometimes get grumpy about needing to start back at level 1. And today in the shower I came up with a neat option.
The referee sets a limit for how high the character can level using this system. A good limit would either be one level lower than the level of the player’s recently deceased character, or the average level of the party as a whole. The character levels up one at a time until they either reach this limit, or decide to stop wherever they are and introduce their new character at the level they stopped at.
Each time the character levels up, they roll 1d20 against 10 + their new level. (So leveling from 1 to 2 would require a roll against 12. Leveling from 2 to 3 would require a roll against 13. And so on.)
Pass or fail, the character levels up either way. But if they roll above the target, then they get to roll 2d6 on the boon table. If they roll below the target, then they have to roll 2d6 on the mishap table.
2. The character has made some excellent investments in shipping ventures! They gain gold equal to 200% of the XP that would normally be required to reach their new level from their previous one.
3. The character has been afflicted by some beneficial mutation. I recommend rolling on The Metamorphica, and re rolling anything that player seems too upset about. Alternatively, the referee could just fiat something cool. An extra arm that can hold a second shield, a fungus growing in the character’s stomach that means they almost never have to eat, a 3′ prehensile dick that can spit acid for 1d6 damage. That sort of thing.
4. The character has carefully saved their money. They gain gold equal to 100% of the XP normally required to reach their new level from their previous one.
5. The character has somehow acquired some official title or authority for themselves. It ought to be appropriate for the level it was rolled for. A lower level character may have earned a commission as captain of the duke’s guard, with some authority that can be exercised within the duke’s territory. A higher level character may have simply earned the title of duke.
6. The character saved somebody’s life. They’re more interesting than a simple peasant, but they’re really not that important in the grand scheme. Maybe a city guard, or a village priest or something. They consider the character a very good friend, and may even have decided to join the character as a hireling. If not, then their home will always be open to the character to crash in. They’ll happily offer interest free loans, and gifts on special occasions.
7. The character has been wise with their money. They gain gold equal to 25% of the XP required to reach your current level from the previous one.
8. The character managed to save up enough cash to purchase some expensive piece of commonly available adventuring equipment. This is probably a suit of plate armor, or perhaps a faithful steed. The player might have bought a small shack or cottage somewhere.
9. Through rigorous time taken off to train, the character has improved themselves. Roll 1d6 to randomly select an ability score. The character gains +1 in that ability.
10. By hook or by crook, the character managed to convince someone big and important that they’re a pretty neat dude. Some character, like a general, a wizard, a duke, or a wealthy merchant will treat you well and be disposed to you over others. They won’t load you up with cash. Think about the best friend you’ve ever had in the workplace, but never really made that leap into hanging out with outside of work.
11. The character has managed to get their hands on a minor magic item. The referee will need to figure out what is appropriate for their campaign. I’m thinking a healing potion in a game where healing potions aren’t for sale. Or maybe a hat that gives you +2 to lying, or something.
12. The character managed to get their hands on a magic item of top notch coolness. The referee will need to figure out what is appropriate for their campaign. I’m thinking a sword that summons lightning bolts on a natural 20, or gloves that allow you to cast Charm Person on anyone you shake the hand of.
2. One of the chartacter’s hands was crushed into a pulp and had to be amputated. Randomly determine which.
3. A cannonball or ballista tore through one of the character’s legs, removing it just below the knee. Randomly determine which.
4. The character was stricken by a horrific disease which brought them to the very brink of death. They recovered, but were forever weakened. Roll 1d6 to determine a random ability score. Reduce that score by 1d4.
5. The character has been afflicted by some horrible mutation. I recommend using The Metamorphica, and rerolling anything the player looks too happy about. Otherwise the referee can simply fiat something icky: a craterous formation that oozes pungent mucus, a blind eye stalk growing from the character’s ear, a second mouth that lisps insults at everyone the character meets. Stuff like that.
6. Some minor villain has declared a blood oath of vengeance against the character. Whether a petty thief, or proud warrior, or a single monster with a taste for the character’s particular flavor of flesh, this foe will hunt the character and attack them until one or the other is dead.
7. After a bad night of gambling, the character accrued a debt. The debt is equal to 25% of the XP normally required to reach the character’s new level from the previous one.
8. The player suffered a period of extreme hardship. Either stuck out in the elements, trapped without food or water, or tortured by a sadistic foe. Regardless, they’ve never been quite the same. Roll 1d6 to randomly determine an ability score. That score is reduced by 1.
9. Deserved or not, the character has made themselves a dangerous enemy. A character with significant resources (a wizard, a baron, a wealthy merchant) has decided that they cannot sleep soundly until the character is dead.
10. After a really bad night of gambling, the character has accrued a significant debt to some dangerous people. The debt is equal to 100% of the XP normally required to reach the character’s newest level from the previous one.
11. A stray sword struck the character’s hand in battle, chopping off a finger. There is no necessary mechanical penalty for this.
12. Whatever the character has endured, the scars cannot be hidden. They criss-cross his body, deeply discolored. Chunks of meat are noticeably missing. There’s splotchy bubbling, and perhaps even puss. The character suffers a -1 to charisma in any situation where they want to appear friendly or attractive. But a +1 to charisma in any situation where they want their martial prowess taken seriously.
In retrospect this is kind of a ripoff of Traveller. But meh. At least you can’t die. =P