Worlds of Design: The Four Laws of Character Death

A problem that I have in GMing RPGs, and I imagine a lot of other people have, is reluctance to kill characters that players have become strongly attached to. I'll describe my evolution in how I have dealt with this.

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Picture courtesy of Pixabay.

The Law of Survivability
In its early days Dungeons & Dragons was intended to be played with a single character per person, with hirelings to beef the party up to a reasonable number. That number was closer to eight than to the four we saw in D&D third edition. Those numbers make a big difference, as "Lew's Law of Survivability" is intended to illustrate:

The survivability of a party varies with the square of the number of characters in it.


Note: this is about survivability of the entire party, but that should enhance individual survivability. The numbers are relative, that is, a party of 3 (3 squared = 9) is one quarter as survivable as a party of 6 (squared = 36).

The Law of Single Characters
And if a player has only one character, the GM is much less likely to allow that character to die, as I indicate in "Lew's Law of Single Characters”:

The more a player focuses on just one character, the harder it is for the GM to have that character die."


Hirelings earned half experience, and if the principal character got killed it was usually possible for the player to become one of the hirelings.

In those early days we didn't make up detailed backgrounds for characters. Sometimes they didn't even have names to begin with, as we let what happened in the first several adventures define the character and suggest a name. We were quite game oriented and not nearly so much story oriented.

I was the original GM in our group, but I wanted to play as well as GM, so I encouraged other players to learn to GM. This led in a large group to players using characters in the campaigns of several GMs at the same time. Hirelings per se were entirely dispensed with. Sometimes a player played two characters when there were not enough players to make a party of at least six and as many as eight. In some cases the players who regularly gamemastered got to play a second character while those who did not GM played just one—gamemaster privilege. There was always a “overall GM” who was in charge in case screwy things happened (which usually involved one GM giving too much "stuff" away).

Today we find many players who are much more interested in story than game, and who want to make a mark on the campaign with the story of their character. This frequently means that the player devises (usually with approval from the GM) an elaborate backstory for their character. I have never done this because it slows down the initial games, and I prefer to get people playing the game rather than worrying about the individual non-game details of their character, especially when there's a significant chance that the newbie characters will be killed with little hope of resurrection.

The Law of Character Generation
I've also seen that the more time a player puts into a character, the more incentive there is for the GM to keep that character alive. Hence "Lew's Law of Character Generation":

The longer players take to generate characters, the less likely those characters are to die.


The Law of Imposed Stories
A strong corollary to the GM telling the players a story is that hardly any character will ever be killed - unless in service of the story. Hence "Lew's Law of Imposed Stories”:

The more a GM treats their RPG campaign as storytelling session, the less likely it is that a character will die.


To go back to the original point, my solution is to get characters into a game as fast as possible—which also seems to be the strategy in D&D fifth edition—while allowing players more than one character when that's appropriate. When players have several characters gradually progressing there are two benefits: it takes much longer (in real time) for players to reach higher levels, and if a player's character dies that player has several others to play, and he/she is not devastated the way they would have been with just one character.

I know that with the experience we have among the readers there have been other solutions to this, and I hope you'll reveal how you’ve coped with the "problem" of character death.[/excerpt][/excerpt]
 
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Lewis Pulsipher

Lewis Pulsipher

Dragon, White Dwarf, Fiend Folio

Blue

Ravenous Bugblatter Beast of Traal
I think any discussion about death is incomplete until you talk about permanence of death and long term consequences of death. Because really, death can be meaningless in terms of gameplay if there are no consequences of it.

Think about a D&D 5e scenario: One character is knocked out and healed up after a fight. A different character is killed and revivified and healed after the fight.

As long as the 300gp of diamonds is not a meaningful cost, these are identical. So trying to call out "death" as important from a mechanical point of view. It can still be important from a character, RP, and story point of view, but from within the system there's no consequences. Didn't even have a player who sat out longer from the death than from getting knocked out - which is good, players bored is a game failing.

Would I have problems killing characters in the second situation, even if the other "laws" protected them? Personally, no. Again, not all parties have revivify, and the cost isn't trivial for many. And it does penalize the person who is likely working as a support character that if their particular character dies, they do have to sit out because two with revivify in the same party is rare.
 

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toucanbuzz

No rule is inviolate
There are the notable exceptions which I think prove the rule, like a DCC funnel. A funnel celebrates the death of the characters; but the ones that survive are appreciated all the more.

DCC totally changed my perspective on how we can approach character death.

I started playing DCC a few years ago as a change of pace from my usual DMing. For those who don't know, DCC (Dungeon Crawl Classics) starts you in control of four completely randomized 0-level losers, like dung farmers, with 4 Strength and 1 hit point. Whoever survives the "funnel" adventure becomes your 1st level character. It's an old-school meat-grinder, on purpose.

STORY TIME

For us, DCC wasn't serious, even if the adventure is. You can't get attached to your quartet of losers for long. You know in advance many are going to die. The story telling shifted to how absurd we could make it. Instead of "Garack Stormbringer," a deposed prince seeking to restore his kingdom, you're playing a nobody with 3d6 stats rolled down the list. So, we had fun. Got a guy with a pitchfork and 6 Strength? He's now "Dirt Diggler" the dirt farmer with good looks that smells like earth. We also had "Creepy Frank" with his creepy dog who spoke in a low creepy whisper and wore a creepy nipple ring. When attacked in his first battle by a lizard man, the player announced before the DM rolled his d20 that Creepy Frank pulled open his shirt and said "oh yeah..." in his creepy voice. One hit and maximum damage later, Creepy Frank was dead (no one mourned him, he creeped them out, and everyone wondered in the end who invited Creepy Frank on the quest anyways?)

And, I laughed so hard when this happened I nearly cried. Character death, and giving these oft short-lived characters a backstory on the fly, became part of the story-telling.

LESSON LEARNED

Because the storytelling expectation had shifted death to an expectation, it changed how we approached it and narrated it. However, could this translate to D&D, where you don't randomly inherit your character? Having moved to a new state last year, I ran some 1-shot adventures with premade characters and found a similar feel to DCC. You can be a bit more cavalier with the story when you aren't so invested in the character, and this can actually lead to an improvement to the game.

Why? Because you're open to opening up the story to include the death of a beloved character.

...while allowing players more than one character when that's appropriate. When players have several characters gradually progressing there are two benefits: it takes much longer (in real time) for players to reach higher levels, and if a player's character dies that player has several others to play, and he/she is not devastated the way they would have been with just one character.

I've tried this, and even so my experience is players have their favorites and want to play that one. Even in the DCC funnel, I was rooting for a particular 0-level loser (who had the best stats to make a decent 1st level character).

CONCLUSION (Touc's Law)

I give control of the death narrative, when possible, to the players, and DCC helped illustrate this. So, new players know when coming to my table: it's our story, so don't be afraid to let your character die if it makes for a better story.

No one wants a senseless death. Even in DCC, Creepy Frank's death was epic. Not one of those 0-level NPCs went out with a simple whimper. There was a story to be told for each.

So, it's not up to me. It's up to the personalities of the people who roll dice at my table. I'm lucky enough to have met people over the years who don't see the goal as keeping your character alive till the end but rather making his or her story count.
 


While I never played in the days of "filling out with henchmen" was common, it never really impacted the DMs willingness to dole out death and destruction. Because of this, we commonly had numerous characters that we played (1 per adventure though), because if we used only one, if (when) they died, we'd be starting over at level 1 again. I'm currently considered the Killer DM for our group, because I don't pull punches.
 


The Law of Character Generation
I've also seen that the more time a player puts into a character, the more incentive there is for the GM to keep that character alive. Hence "Lew's Law of Character Generation":
Violating this rule can be dangerous to the health of the hobby.

My wife steadfastly refuses to play D&D or any other tabletop RPG.

She tried 3 times when she was in High School.

The first time, she spent several hours creating a character, writing an elaborate backstory, making sketches of the character, generating the character (and having to learn 3rd edition D&D to do so). . .

. . .and the character was killed about 30 minutes into the session, in a dungeon crawl where the DM had her roll a saving throw for a trap in the dungeon. . .she missed, and was instantly killed by the trap.

It was lousy DM'ing on numerous levels, but taking a new player who was still learning the game and had carefully created her first character, and killing the character less than an hour into her first session left her with a bad taste in her mouth.

(The two games after that weren't any better, but she still tells me about spending most of an afternoon making her 1st level Elf Druid in D&D. . .only to fail a saving throw and thus fall down a 100 foot pit trap in a dungeon. Seriously, who puts a hundred foot pit trap in a dungeon for 1st level characters?)
 

Flexor the Mighty!

18/100 Strength!
I feel the more time a player puts into a character the more incentive for that player to keep their character alive. I, as the DM have absolutely only one job which is to create fair encounters/adventures and adjudicate them fairly. Bad dice rolls and player choices don't matter to me. If a player's character dies they have two choices, 1) try to bring them back to life or make a new character. In the event they choose the third option of pouting and throwing a fit they can quit the game. The way I see things is the higher level a character becomes the stakes get higher and they are taking on more deadly endeavors and therefore death is very likely. No participation trophies here. Death is part of the game and both DMs and Players should realize and plan for this inevitability. As a DM I'm not designing anything around any one character and the Players should accept that PC love is fleeting. Nothing puts a smile on my face quite like the reaction when the new party runs into undead forms of their old party.

In my current S&W Rappan Athuck game there are quite a few areas that are beefed up with undead PC serving their new masters. I'm my campaign notebook I see the group of 6 are up to 21 total PC so far. One TPK due to ghouls. But we aren't telling stories with the PC as much as we like playing D&D. Tons of fun stories come out of the game sessions though. Nobody has more than a sentence of background at the start.

I just try to keep it fair. But I mostly run site based adventures which aren't really based around some narrative tied to particular PC. I realize my style is looked at as a relic and I'm fine with that.
 
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Lanefan

Victoria Rules
Allowing players* to run more than one PC side-along in the party helps. A lot! That way when one dies or gets otherwise long-term hosed there's still the other to play.

* - provided you don't have more than 4 or 5 players; after that it just gets unwieldy.

As a nice side effect, it also often cuts down on the number of henches-hirelings-adventuring NPCs the party needs to recruit to fill gaps in the lineup.

Further, it allows players more leeway to try different concepts. Of a player's two active PCs one might be a core keep-alive-at-all-costs type while the other is an experiment, no hard feelings if it doesn't work out and if it does, great! (for some reason as a player my own experiments often do quite well while my 'core' PCs drop like flies...)

Fast char-gen is a must. If a player, after learning how via doing it a few times, can't bang out a new PC in 15 minutes or less there's an underlying system problem.

I don't mind players getting attached to their characters but if it gets to the point of a hissy fit if (when!) it dies that's too much, even if the death was due to sheer bad luck - as many are.

Flip side - as @Flexor the Mighty! already hit - is I've learned the hard way to avoid tying plot to any specific PC as far as possible, as sure as shootin' that'll be the first PC to perma-die whenever an opportunity presents.

Also, at mid-level and above I don't really mind revival effects being generally available, if at significant cost both monetary and otherwise: Raise Dead costs between 5-7K g.p.; Resurrection about twice that; and characters returning from the dead are down a Con point and may well have other - beneficial or baneful - "death effects" on them as well.
 

toucanbuzz

No rule is inviolate
Violating this rule can be dangerous to the health of the hobby.

My wife steadfastly refuses to play D&D or any other tabletop RPG....

Sad but dangerously true. I've come across stories like these over the years where one bad DM or gaming experience turned someone away, and it's all about what you were expecting from the game. Instead of a good story, she got a senseless character death.
 

Jeff Carpenter

Adventurer
In the 5e sandbox campaign I am running we are 74 sessions in. Fair number of deaths so far.

4 sessions ago the only PC to survive the whole ways through the first 70 sessions died. Not on any of the larger plots, but on a treasure hunt.

Just bad luck, low on hit points failed a DC 14 Dex save with low hitpoints and was disintegrated. 9th level character gone like that. But he took it in stride. Rolled his new character and the story continues.

Death follows no laws. it's pointless unfair and often random. Just like real life.
 


Stormdale

Explorer
We started in 1983 while at high school. We never played that lots of henchmen/hirlings style that Gygax etc did. We have 4-5 players 1 pc each. Our group shrunk when we hit uni. For the next 3 years I ran with my brother and best mate and they ended up with 1 henchman each from about 5th level onwards and that’s the only time we’ve really used npcs. Once pcs were about 4-5th level they usually had enough money to raise dead pcs if they wanted. When a few years alter we recruited more players then henchmen went bye bye.

As for character deaths nothing is more memorable than an absolute pointless pc death. Our most talked about character deaths are two pcs who only lasted ONE session but were especially well played and we still reminisce about their deaths and the loss of so much role playing potential:

1) Nicobose a human fighter who drew his two handed sword with a “shriinggg” sound and an amusing East European accent. Alas he was killed by rot grubs in the Sinister Secret of Saltmarsh (a 3E version in our brief time playing 3e) thanks to the incompetence of two other party members failing to help him in time- and they were given plenty of opportunity to, they were more interested in doing other things, like searching for treasure IIRC. The role-playing that was packed into Nicobose’s 2-3 short hours of RPG life were brilliant and still talked about all these years later at our gaming table.

2. Unca Dunca a half orc barbarian in our first ever 5E campaign. A guest appearance by the player who role played Unca dunka as not being able to talk (except to say Unca Dunka) but communicated by hugging people, lifting them off their feet and licking them. Alas his short, but oh so funny life came to an end when the party wizard cast a wall of ice between the party and the BBEG they were trying to get the hell away from, only to trap Unca Dunka on the wrong side of the wall. The wizard followed up the wall of ice with a fireball which finished off poor Unca. RIP Unca Dunca- it’s always been tough being the red shirt in our games.

I really, really hate pcs having “plot immunity” it cheapens the game and devalues my successes so I’d rather the DM played hard but played fair and we earn our victories…or die trying to. My job when playing is two fold- one enjoy my character’s development and, two make sure I play smart enough to keep said pc alive.

That being said as a DM with new players my role is to teach them how to play, how to have fun and not be dick and kill their pcs in 30 minutes. Explain options (and potential consequences of these options so they can make an informed choice- maybe a wee bit of softballing damage etc) and teach then to play so may go easier on them than my “old crew”. After a few weeks/ months when they have more experience then the training wheels come off a bit more.

Slight diversion
I’ve just joined an game with 6 players who are new to D&D, as the only experienced player my role is simple, support the dm and players to clarify things that they may get confused by but that is it, but sit back and let them get on with learning the game. We are hoping in a week or two to be able to game face-to-face again. Having a group of 6 new adult D&D players in a small town in the middle of the SI of NZ shows to me how successful 5E (and streaming games) has been- I want to support and encourage these guys to love the game that I’ve loved for 35+ years and to become lifelong gamers- the DM being a dick and killing their pcs in the first dungeon is not going to endear them to the game.

Stormdale
 

pming

Legend
Hiya!

A problem that I have in GMing RPGs, and I imagine a lot of other people have, is reluctance to kill characters that players have become strongly attached to. I'll describe my evolution in how I have dealt with this.

Well THAR'S yer prob....sigh...I'm saying that far to often nowadays. ;)

Specifically, "I have...reluctance to kill characters...". That's the problem. You, the DM/GM, are NOT the one "killing the characters". The game has rules for character death...you shouldn't be in favour or against them; your 'job' is to enforce/adjudicate them. In short, it is not your job to keep a PC alive or to kill them...that sits squarley on the Players shoulders. The sooner a DM comes to this revelation...as well as his/her Players...the sooner everyone at the table will start to relax and just enjoy the entire experience, be it for weal or woe for the stalwart adventurers.

The Law of Single Characters
And if a player has only one character, the GM is much less likely to allow that character to die, as I indicate in "Lew's Law of Single Characters”:

Don't mind me as I channel my "Inner EGG"... ;)
..."yes, but only an inferior Dungeon Master would succumb to such a poor guideline for adjudication of the game rules. A DM may feel genuine fear, sadness, or even pity when it looks like Fate has determined that a PC's adventuring career has come to an untimely end, but the superior DM will rise above such things and do what is right for the campaign as a whole; let the dice fall where they may".
;)

In all seriousness though...that is my general "feeling" in regards to a DM wanting some particular outcome for the PC's (or NPC's!). It sucks when a well-played and entertaining PC finally shuffles off his mortal coil, or a beloved NPC for that matter, but the Campaign is what keeps the story going; not the PC's or NPC's. If Elminster gets eaten by a Grue, so be it. The Forgotten Realms won't suddenly implode, nor will all other NPC's cease to have goals, nor will the PC's adventuring careers be over. On the contrary, such a well-known NPC meeting his demise is JUST the kind of unexpected surprise that fuels and wonderful and memorable campaign for all!

Well...IMNSHO, of course. :)

In those early days we didn't make up detailed backgrounds for characters. Sometimes they didn't even have names to begin with, as we let what happened in the first several adventures define the character and suggest a name. We were quite game oriented and not nearly so much story oriented.

I was the original GM in our group, but I wanted to play as well as GM, so I encouraged other players to learn to GM. This led in a large group to players using characters in the campaigns of several GMs at the same time. Hirelings per se were entirely dispensed with. Sometimes a player played two characters when there were not enough players to make a party of at least six and as many as eight. In some cases the players who regularly gamemastered got to play a second character while those who did not GM played just one—gamemaster privilege. There was always a “overall GM” who was in charge in case screwy things happened (which usually involved one GM giving too much "stuff" away).

A perfect example of "...in MY experience...".
In MY experience...I was the primary DM; I DM'ed 90% of the time...and it didn't matter the game system (D&D, AD&D, Gamma World, Star Frontiers, Twilight:2000, etc). There was one other DM that took up the reigns the other 10% of the time. That lasted the first decade of my 'career'. In the early 90's I met someone who would become one of my best friends, and he loved DM'ing almost as much as me. He handled Warhammer FRP, MSHA (Marvel "FASERIP") and D&D sometimes. Oh, and Star Trek (FASA).
That said...I did have a PC for when I did get to play; my PC became a "party NPC"...but I have had my PC die in a game I was DM'ing. Several times. It sucks, but hey...them's the breaks.

Today we find many players who are much more interested in story than game, and who want to make a mark on the campaign with the story of their character.

Yes, and these types of players need to find an appropriate game system AND group. But this is just a "style preference", so no more needs be said.

The Law of Character Generation
I've also seen that the more time a player puts into a character, the more incentive there is for the GM to keep that character alive. Hence "Lew's Law of Character Generation":

The Law of Imposed Stories
A strong corollary to the GM telling the players a story is that hardly any character will ever be killed - unless in service of the story. Hence "Lew's Law of Imposed Stories”:

To go back to the original point, my solution is to get characters into a game as fast as possible—which also seems to be the strategy in D&D fifth edition—while allowing players more than one character when that's appropriate. When players have several characters gradually progressing there are two benefits: it takes much longer (in real time) for players to reach higher levels, and if a player's character dies that player has several others to play, and he/she is not devastated the way they would have been with just one character.

I know that with the experience we have among the readers there have been other solutions to this, and I hope you'll reveal how you’ve coped with the "problem" of character death.

I'm what is considered a "Killer DM" by today's standards. Not back in the day, but I'd say, oh, since about the mid to end of 3e onward.

I don't TRY to kill PC's by deliberately choosing difficulties for them to encounter; in short, I don't "build for the PC's". I have found that a successful suspension of disbelief (and a good campaign) MUST have the world be constructed and run in a consistent manner. If the PC's go into the "Darken-Wood" when they are level 3 and they fight nothing more than goblins, wolves and a somewhat sickly bear....then, a year later they venture through the "Darken-Wood" when they are 13th level, but now encountering multiple ogres with bears, or groups of giants, manticore's, and shambling mounds.... Well, lets just say isn't the way to go. IMNSHO, of course.

Don't "build for the PC's capabilities" and you will start to see Players that see the campaign world through the eyes of their PC's. You'll stop hearing "We can't go there, we're only 5th level and the DC for Swimming in a swamp is too high for us"...and you'll start hearing "We can't go there! The Bottomless Swamp suffers none so foolish as to test it's dangers!" (...ok...maybe it's more like "We can't go there! Are you effing nutz man?! Too much water, swamp, bugs! DISEASES! Screw that! We're going around and taking the extra 4 days!" ;) ).

In short... "I don't think your Laws really work for me or what I've experienced in my TTRPG'ing career. But thanks for the read anyway! :) ".

^_^

Paul L. Ming
 



HJFudge

Explorer
A game without Impactful Death is a game I do not have interest in.

For me, if I feel like the DM I am sitting with is fudging the dice rolls or making decisions to try and prevent my characters death, it offends me.

Let the dice fall where they may, as many have said.

Now, as prior stories have attested, there is a difference between 'ah, bad luck/bad choices, sorry friend' kinda death and a 'gotcha!' death. Also if I am DMing, I make it very clear I will be playing fair and thus death is a possibility. I don't do hidden dice rolls to prevent any temptation I may have to bend the roll to make the story go in a direction I want.

I want to see what story emerges based on the results of the parties success or failures, and the enemies success and failures as well.

That said, I do my best to balance any challenge or encounter so that the danger level fits the scene. If the party wipes during some encounter I thought would be trivial, well thats my bad. Obviously the dice have a mind of their own sometimes, so I try and bake that into most situations. Retreat is almost always an option.

In this way, by carefully curating the challenge level of the dangers, I can help to make it far more likely that if they go down, its in some interesting and dramatic fashion: Throwing themselves at the Dragon to buy time for the villagers to escape, Fighting the Necromancer Cult Leader to a stand still before succumbing to the overwhelming hordes of undead, or realizing they have no hope of stopping the demon from breaking free of his prison, so they bring down the structure on themselves to trap it (hopefully) forever.

This way, if they DO kill that dragon, or they DO stop the demon from breaking free...well, they know that it was because of their choices. Not because I, the DM, willed it to be inevitable.
 

That said, I do my best to balance any challenge or encounter so that the danger level fits the scene. If the party wipes during some encounter I thought would be trivial, well thats my bad. Obviously the dice have a mind of their own sometimes, so I try and bake that into most situations. Retreat is almost always an option.

Our last adventure left off where the PCs were in a battle that could very well end in a character death if not a TPK. Now I dont care either way if they live or die, even though the odds are stacked against them I gave them ample opportunity to run as they saw the number of enemies steadily increasing until the main instigator showed up to investigate the disturbance. We are adding a fifth player this coming week and Ive decided that 2 out of the 3 current PCs will level up if that should even the odds. So the players either die and their actions have results because they stuck their nose where it didnt belong or they defeat the bad guys because they persevered in the face of danger. The third option is that the undead form of one of the partys fallen compatriots who was buried in a shallow grave two streets over shows up seeking revenge against the players and their enemies who both were instrumental in her death. Im curious to see how this battle plays out eventually but I think I need to make the encounter a little more even as it wasnt entirely planned.
 

Ratskinner

Adventurer
I don't think anything is particularly "wrong" in this analysis...but it is a bit short-minded.

That is...it seems to presume that semi-random "difficulty-based" character death is a good thing, or at least the preferred thing (e.g. "..my solution..."). I don't think it is. It certainly can be, and I've had fun with those games, but it doesn't have to be. Sometimes I think the attitude displayed is like the "redshirt" deaths in the old Star Trek show. Why did newly-introduced Lieutenant Jones have to die?...to show you how serious this threat is. Why did Fighter 2 die?... to show you what a tough DM this guy is.
 

Jeff Carpenter

Adventurer
Out of curiosity if the character that died was 9th level what level is the new character?

When a charachter dies they start at half of the XP they had. This was enough to put him at 7th. The party ranges from 9th to 6th curently.

I will point out it's not just XP lost though it's all the contacts, reputation, and clout the charachter had in the world. He was one of the brave who helped free the slaves at Boar Tusk Mine, was a heros of The Battle of Stormpoint, slayed the evil mage Omvroy the Eel and ended the threat to the western border, owded favors by the Duke, ect.
 

When a charachter dies they start at half of the XP they had. This was enough to put him at 7th. The party ranges from 9th to 6th curently.

I will point out it's not just XP lost though it's all the contacts, reputation, and clout the charachter had in the world. He was one of the brave who helped free the slaves at Boar Tusk Mine, was a heros of The Battle of Stormpoint, slayed the evil mage Omvroy the Eel and ended the threat to the western border, owded favors by the Duke, ect.

Bummer the multiverse is a lesser place now.

Ive never done the math, because...well Im lazy and never cared to but half xp translate to half level? If a players id 12th level and die their new PC is then 6th? If a PC dies their new character starts at 2 levels lower than the lowest leveled PC. Seems to work OK as I dont keep track of xp.
 

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