You have your campaign idea and rough outline of a story, but where do you start your players? Do they start at level 1 just at the start of their adventuring career? Or maybe you start them at level 5 with some experience. Of course, the story you want to tell could require that the players start at level 15 or higher. The players may be the most seasoned adventurers in the known world. They are now gathered together (like the Avengers) to stop a world ending challenge.
What level to start your D&D campaign?
This depends on several factors.
First, how much experience do you have as a dungeon master? If you are just starting out as a dungeon master, I would suggest everyone start at level 1. This will be much easier for you to juggle the numerous responsibilities you will have as a dungeon master.
Second, how much experience do all of your players have? If any of them are just starting with Dungeons and Dragons (D&D) I would also suggest you start at level 1 for that player’s sake. There are a lot of rules to learn in D&D and starting them at level 5 or worse 12 could be very overwhelming. This may make for a disappointing or frustrating experience.
Finally, what story are you looking to tell with your players in your campaign? If you are looking to tell an epic-level campaign where the players are high-powered and need to jump into action (think any Marvel movie of late), then start at level 12 or higher. This assumes that you and your players have played D&D for a while. If your story doesn’t need the players to be higher level at the start then start at level 1 – 3.
I know that some people really don’t like starting at level 1 as there are limited options and that makes a lot of sense to me. If I am playing with a group that understands the rules then I could start them at higher levels. I like to start my campaigns closer to the action of the story, spending less time at lower levels.
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What about a starter adventure?
One thing I love to do is to create an adventure before the campaign begins. It allows the players to test out their new character. Many times their items, feats, and spells need to be altered before the next game session.
There are two ways to do this:
First, the pre-adventure could be totally disconnected from your campaign. There is no storyline for this type of adventure. This allows the players to see if they need to change their character before the real campaign begins.
Second, you could use this to introduce the characters to each other. If you want 10 ideas to do this that isn’t just “you all meet in a tavern” click here. The events are real. After the game session, you will allow the players to make minor adjustments to optimize them for play.
In my experience, you may not exactly know how your character works until you can play them out. This also allows for role-playing with little to no consequences as your players figure out how they want to embody this character.
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What about a 0 Level Adventure?
This is a new way of introducing your characters into the campaign.
They start at level 0. They have nothing. No real items, no weapons, no spells, nothing. This works well if your players all start in the same area and know each other before they go off to learn their trades.
You see the concept is to create an adventure that can be done by normal people. So it would have to be a pretty low-level adventure but it could be very cool. Like a movie scene or fantasy novel where the heroes / heroines have their hometown assaulted and they rush to find a weapon. Maybe the wizard reads a book and is able to cast the spell but with a % miss chance. Perhaps the fighter picks up a sword from his fallen uncle and uses it to defend his nephews from the bandits. I think you get the idea.
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Reasons to not run a level 0 adventure
The concept here is to allow your players to really develop their backstories. If you have a party that doesn’t care about role-playing their past then I wouldn’t recommend doing this.
Also, it can be incredibly time-consuming to take another session before they build out their character as this is the session where they actually build out their character.
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Reasons to try a level 0 adventure
The advantage of this play style is that your players will be intimately connected to their character because they had to work to earn their first level. Did the rogue spot a vital weakness while the enemy was flanked and he took and learned how to sneak attack? Did the cleric pray to the god of her parents only to have a spell cast through her from that same god?
The possibilities are endless here. Even though it could take up a game session or two (2 – 4 hours). It would be worth trying at least once to see how it impacts role-playing and gameplay at later levels. The level of depth and connection could easily be worth
In summary, you can start your group at any level you want. I would suggest only starting higher than level 1 if your story requires it and everyone at the table is experienced. Since most campaigns never go past level 12 it could be incredibly fun to start there and see how to run a campaign to level 20 and beyond.
Warning the game gets more and more unstable the higher levels you go just because of the sheer amount of options spell casters have available to them. Also note, that the non-spell casters can’t compete at these levels. This leads to creating two sets of obstacles and combat – one for the spell casters and one for the non-spell casters.
About the Author:
Dwight Scull has been playing tabletop role-playing games (starting with Dungeons and Dragons 3.5) back in 2001. He started being a dungeon master around 2005.
He loves to play many different types of TTRPGs, including Pathfinder, GURPS, Shadowrun, Vampire: The Masquerade, Mage: The Ascension (and other White Wolf Games), Nights Black Agents, and others.
Fan of mysteries, light horror, co-op board games, true crime, sci-fi, and fantasy.