Why PCs should be competent, or "I got a lot of past in my past"

Staffan

Legend
One issue I have with D&D and many of its descendants is that the default method of character creation is designed to create young, inexperienced characters who get threatened by something like a giant rat or a bandit. Some people argue that you need to start low in order to have a proper "hero's journey" and start talking Star Wars, Lord of the Rings, Harry Potter, and Campbell's "Monomyth" and stuff like that. The issue is, those are primarily solo stories. There is one Hero, and though they may have a cast of supporting characters they are primarily the story of that One Hero and their growth from "young person with a great destiny" into, well, a Great Hero who can defeat the Darkness or whatever.

But if anything defines RPGs, it is that it is a group activity. I mean, sure, you can play one-on-one or sometimes even alone, but it is primarily about a group of characters. And stories about groups generally start with them already experienced. Take any Star Trek crew, or the Serenity crew, the Guardians of the Galaxy, the All-New All-Different X-Men, team Leverage, the crew of the Rocinante, the A-Team, the IMF, and so on. They are already mature characters when we get to know them. In some cases they are newly recruited as a group, but they're still highly competent individuals. And that's because an ensemble show doesn't have room to give us detailed origin stories of every member of the ensemble. Save the background stuff for when it becomes relevant to the present.

And starting out as experienced characters gives more room for bringing in background elements. Someone who started the campaign as a 17-year old 1st level wizard's apprentice probably doesn't have much background to draw on that didn't happen during the game. But Amos Burton? Yeah, that guy's got a lot of past in his past, and it could pop up at any time.

In one way, I think this might have been relevant to the success of Critical Role. When we first met Vox Machina, they were already 9th level or so. They had established group dynamics, and had made allies and enemies already. That might have been a reason I had a hard time getting into their second and third campaigns – I just didn't find the origin stories interesting.

Of course, that doesn't mean one shouldn't have room to grow, both in an interpersonal way by building relationships and dynamics within the group and in a more direct way by becoming more powerful. To use Leverage as an example: Parker starts out as one of the best thieves in the world, and doesn't become appreciably better as a thief over the course of five seasons. But she does have a lot of personal growth, by establishing friendships with the rest of the crew and a romantic (such as it is) relationship with Hardison. She also becomes more adept at other aspects of pulling off heists, such as grifting and planning. So there's definitely room to grow even if you start off competent.

Anyhow, that's just a bit of rambling on my part, prodded on by my realization that the difference between Hero's Journey and Already Competent often has to do whether the story focuses on one person or a full cast.

Oh, and Lord of the Rings is a bit of a special case, in that it basically splits into two. While Frodo goes on his Hero's Journey (along with Sam), the rest of the Fellowship goes on to do Badass Things (albeit with a side quest for Merry and Pippin to get buffed by the ents). And that's basically an illustration of my thesis: it's the single hobbit and his friend (while some would argue that Sam is the Real Hero, narratively he's more supporting cast) who goes on the Hero's Journey, while the group goes on to do Badass Stuff. Aragorn, Gimli, and Legolas are fundamentally the same characters after the books (Aragorn might be King, but that's just a matter or recognition, not of him leveling up or anything), but Frodo is fundamentally changed.
 

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TwoSix

"Diegetics", by L. Ron Gygax
I agree with your general thesis that a D&D style party generally works better with characters who are "experienced" than with a bunch of farm kids on their first journey outside the village.

The complication, of course, is that the core mechanical conceits of D&D are based around starting with very few abilities and quickly rising to have a lot of abilities.

I have noticed, though, that my games that have been most successful story-wise have been those where the characters started at higher levels (anywhere between 5th-10th) and only gained a few levels throughout the campaign.
 
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GMMichael

Guide of Modos
One reason to start small, for a campaign, is that the players need to learn about each other's PCs. You can easily say, "we're a seasoned group of death-defying adventurers," but when you put them up against the Statue-Maker (petromancer) and her Five Minions, will they act like a seasoned group of adventurers with years of teamwork experience? I bet they'll each focus on their solo abilities, and not remember all those encounters from which they ran away (which allowed them to become seasoned adventurers).
 


bloodtide

Legend
I would not say the D&D rules make the adventuring group "kids". That is more a metagame social thing: most kids that play D&D want to be kid characters. Before 5E the expatiation was something like three years per level in a generic sense. The bulk of the guards are in their 20's and 2nd level, the captain is above 30 and 3rd level and the 40 ish guard commander is 5th level. And like 10th level is a living legend.

And to any mature adult being like 10th level at age 18 is just silly. I've been a teacher longer then this kid has been alive, and I'd say I'm like 7th level. But they watched a You Tube video and claim to be an expert on education.

It's a bit wrong to compare to Movies and TV shows. Those characters are like 15th or even Epic level and they are in a 1st level world. That is how movies and TV shows make fake fictional drama.

But see that does not really work in a D&D game. Make some 15th level characters and run through a 1st level adventure and it won't be much fun for most people. Killing a 2 hp goblin with a 100 damage from the Sword of Doom is not as much fun as it sounds.

And the big D20 in the room: most players will still act like themselves even if they have a 20th level experienced character. Most players won't even try to role play an experienced character. Most will role play like they are clueless bumps on a log.
 

MarkB

Legend
It seems like a problem with a simple solution - start at a higher level. Personally, I don't like to start out players any lower than 3rd level.

But there are players and groups who will want to start out their team at the lowest level, and craft their story more through ongoing play than backstory, and it's good that they have that option.
 

Umbran

Mod Squad
Staff member
Supporter
One issue I have with D&D and many of its descendants is that the default method of character creation is designed to create young, inexperienced characters who get threatened by something like a giant rat or a bandit. Some people argue that you need to start low in order to have a proper "hero's journey" and start talking Star Wars, Lord of the Rings, Harry Potter, and Campbell's "Monomyth" and stuff like that.

I think these folks, and you, both miss the actual point. D&D starts with relatively inexperienced characters because character power growth is a thing that some/many people like to engage in. And the lower you start on the power curve, the longer the game can go with growth of power.

If you want a game in which folks start competent, and don't grow much in power over time, may I direct you to Fate? Other rulesets (like Gumshoe, Cortex, and others) also have similar characteristics.
 
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aco175

Legend
I've heard of a background called retired adventurer I think. Basically you are older and have long retired from your days of adventure, but get called into action once again. You are rusty (1st level), but quickly get in shape and recall the knowledge of your youth.
 

MarkB

Legend
I've heard of a background called retired adventurer I think. Basically you are older and have long retired from your days of adventure, but get called into action once again. You are rusty (1st level), but quickly get in shape and recall the knowledge of your youth.
Baldur's Gate 3 handles things similarly. Most characters available in Act I are experienced and powerful, but their current plot-related affliction has stunted their capabilities.
 

I've heard of a background called retired adventurer I think. Basically you are older and have long retired from your days of adventure, but get called into action once again. You are rusty (1st level), but quickly get in shape and recall the knowledge of your youth.
i know level up has 2 such backgrounds, a destiny, and optional rules centered around this concept.
 

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