I am alarmed and disturbed by the disdain many players exhibit towards starting characters at 1st level. A few years ago I was shocked to learn that many DMs start their players off at 3rd level or higher for campaign play. Really?
The complaints I've heard about 1st level games usually run as follows: the characters are too fragile, too boring, or lack effective play options, while the variety of monsters they'll meet and amount or quality of treasure they run into are too limited.
I say that's all nonsense. Some of the most intense, thrilling, satisfying games I've ever had the pleasure to partake in have happened at 1st level.
Don't get me wrong; I find high-level play satisfying too, just in a different way. Running a "mature" character with an arsenal of solutions for a wide variety of problems has a different kind of pay-off than trying to bootstrap a penniless weenie. That being said, I get the most satisfaction from running a high level character which I ran up from 1st level (or at least low level).
My analysis of these complaints can be boiled down to two points: a lame group, or lame rules.
We'll start with this one since it is the most problematic and, I suspect, the most common. A lame group is one where there's poor communication between the DM and/or the players. Each member expects something of the other, but that expectation is not clearly understood by one or more of the people involved. Perhaps one person monopolizes the DM's attention and thus naturally falls into the position of the group leader or the person driving the game forward based on their own goals. Perhaps there's no group cohesion (a highly normal situation) or conflicting goals within the party.
As the DM it's your job to get everyone ready for the game. That means managing a lot of expectations. That also means providing them with a satisfactory play experience while keeping everyone on the same page. It can also mean managing your players so that the above situation does not occur. I’m as guilty as anyone of not doing the above at one point or another.
Players, you are at fault for your own part in this situation, whether it is because you don't invest anything in the game, expect to be passively entertained and thus allow someone else (DM or player) to railroad the group in a direction of their own choosing, or because you are the one doing the railroading, not taking the other people sitting around the table into account. If you are the former, speak up for yourself or find a new game group; if you are the latter, shut up every now and then and allow others to have equal time. Simple.
How does this relate to 1st level play? Well, in one of the above situations, where there is a breakdown of communication within the group, it really doesn't matter what the characters' level is, it will end in disaster for someone. Since many groups begin their games with low level play, this is going to be a common occurrence, thus adding to the perceived suckiness of low-level D&D.
Lack of imagination is another problem faced by player groups, particularly new groups. Learning to run games is more art than science, and involves exploring your ability to improvise and generate game content on the fly, which in turn requires a pretty thorough knowledge of the rules being used.
Lame Rules are those that provide a framework for multiple levels of play, but are really designed to work well at only a narrow range of character levels or player skill. These narrow ranges where the game comes into its own are often called “Sweet Spots”, for those who like to give bad design a positive spin. Look at the various editions of D&D and you will find many examples.
For instance, Basic D&D only provided rules for characters level one through three. That's it! No real data on anything beyond that. If you look through the Basic section on monsters however, you will find monsters that go quite a bit higher than what a 3rd level party might reasonably expect to handle.
Enter, the Expert Rules! Now you have rules for level 4 through 14 (or so), and more monsters, magic items and spells.
If you were to attempt to run The Lost City (B4) using only the basic rules from start to finish, your party of 3rd level characters would probably bite it by the time they got to the lower catacombs (Tier 6 through 10) without having access to the Expert Rules. Thus, Basic was the right rules set for beginning play, but not the right rules set for higher level play.
Then there was Advanced D&D; more tables, more dice, more rules! Rules for characters level 1 through the upper teens! The power curve for characters was actually somewhere in the middle, though. Things really took off from level 5 to 9, somewhere between the acquisition of Fireball and Raise Dead and where fighters gained multiple attacks per round. Beyond that things flattened out; before that things were rather dull.
Moving the clock ahead, we come to 3rd edition. Extensive rules for characters and monsters from level 1 through 20. Third edition also introduced concepts like prestige classes, open multi-classing (and thus 'power builds'), templates and Epic-level play. Third edition definitely favored the crunchy, mechanics-driven, high-end play of the teens and beyond. Developing characters from first level was a gruelling process in 3E because the character didn't really come into their own until long into their career.
The Role of Game Mechanics in Perceived Suckiness
The 3rd edition model has really taken over the RPG market, and so remains the 400 pound gorilla. Yes, I know that 4th edition exists, but I found it rather too video-gamey for my tastes. If I wanted to play World of Warcraft, I'd play World of Warcraft.
The real problem with low level games in the 3E game model is the amount of time required to make a character. I can roll up an AD&D character, choose equipment/spells, and be ready to play in 5 minutes, easy. If this 1st level character dies, I've only lost 5 minutes of my life and a modicum of mental energy.
A 3rd edition character, by contrast, requires a bit more forethought. Already, at first level you are having to plan out your feat trees, choose skills you want to develop and plan for the future. You are required to invest in the character up front. When (okay , if) the character dies, you're already frustrated because you've wasted 15 to 30 minutes generating this persona and investing yourself in its future.
This brings me to the next big problem with the mechanical 3E model at low levels; options in play. There's a subtle psychological effect in play here. When you have gone through the aforementioned character generation process, you will want to use whatever abilities you've been given to solve problems in the game.
Think of each character as a toolbox. If I give to one person (the AD&D player) a "toolbox full of tools" and to another person (the 3E person) "A toolbox containing a hammer, a packet of nails, a Phillips screwdriver, a monkey wrench, and a tape measure" and ask both people to build something, the first person will say "oh okay, I use the tools to build a house," while the other will survey the tools listed in the manifest and think about how they can build a house.
The first person is thinking creatively, while the second person is thinking logistically.
And since 3rd edition is a logistic, tactical game system, that makes sense. However, this requires that all parties involved buy into the additional overhead of a mechanical game system. This difference in approaches can have a marked effect on game play. The 3E player is used to having their character's abilities defined by a set of hard and fast strictures, while the AD&D player is used to having a character with a 'soft, chewy center' which is defined by them.
Think about that for a moment. One system indirectly sets boundaries (perhaps 'appears to set boundaries' would be a better phrase) on your abilities while the other lets you define your own potential.
The Joys of First Level
In my opinion, starting off a character at first level is the way to go. It is up to the DM to provide scenarios that the players can negotiate using their limited means. It's a great way for people to build their rules knowledge and learn to be resourceful within the game. The main thing for the DM to remember is not to overwhelm the players with insurmountable obstacles.
Perhaps my favorite starting scenario for 1st level characters is as follows: the party members don't know one another, they are a random collection of people who have somehow been kidnapped by slavers and are being transported in chains to an unknown destination. One of the characters (determined randomly) managed to hide a knife, but other than that none of them have any possessions whatsoever. There are a half-dozen other slaves besides the player characters, and the slavers themselves are better equipped and generally tougher than the PCs.
This sounds incredibly unfair at first glance (and indeed it seemed so at the time), but it did force us to think creatively about the situation and how we were going to escape it. Can we get support from the other slaves? What about the slaver who feeds the slaves? The other slavers don't seem to like him and he's been seen to have a soft side when dealing with the slaves. Maybe we can turn him! What are they feeding us? Hot gruel? Hmmm, that could be a weapon if you throw it in the face of one of the guards, and so on.
That creative self-determination in the face of adversity is what drives character development. If your game uses alignment, your party will very quickly find themselves challenged by their professed alignment as they are forced to make life and death decisions. The thrill of successfully-negotiated adversity reaps emotional rewards, just as in any competitive game or sport, and builds attachment to that character. The player takes pride in the accomplishments of their 1st level character, and then you're hooked!
The intensity of 1st level play builds the bond between player and character much more quickly than starting off at a higher power level.