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As per @ebear’s request, let’s move out this subthread from [West Marches] How do they get back home every time?.
Curious on what the pros/cons were here as I’m looking to run a higher lethality game in the near future and have been wondering about this very thing, but that’s a different topic all together.
(The other Q was if replacement characters, if PCs die, should be same level as the rest of the group or start at a lower level – again, I told them that we’ve tried both & both had some serious cons – I guess I wasn’t selling D&D particularly well )
I personally think that for OSR style, open-ended games, starting over at the bottom works best. In D&D, it’s pretty quick to almost catch up in a mixed level party, and if everyone died we all get to have that low-level fun again. D&D is set up so that it’s really really hard to survive the first few levels and really really hard to die after a while. In some environments, level 1 and 2 are really dangerous so for some campaigns I like the (house) rule that once everyone’s in the party’s been level 3, level 3 becomes the new baseline. You may start at level 1 or 2 if you wish but with the XP you need to go to 3. In some other environments I’m like “there’s plenty of things for level ones to do around here” and that’s where you go. This is something we usually decide up front for the campaign.
Right now we’re running a module where it says explicitly “A replacement character should be the same level as the rest of the party”. The pro of that is that even though this module is one of the biggest sandboxes I’ve ran outside of aQ [no, not because of the “sand” pun, but because of the thoroughness of the 2e boxes], they can say “who cares about the maguffin, let’s take up life as pirates!” or w/e (there’s even a whole other level 1-16 campaign going on separately in another of the ruined cities here), the module also has a schtick that prevents resurrection magic from working and if they want to make headway towards the maguffin [again, the module doesn’t funnel them there, but they are strongly motivated to try to find it, go there, and do something about it], starting over would’ve been hopeless.
I also interpreted “the same level” as the party’s highest level which was a mistake. Lowest or average or median would’ve been better.
(Either party’s highest level, party’s average level, party’s lowest level)
(Either start over at level 1, or if there are “tier lines” that the party can cross that then become the new starting level.)
I’ve never tried this either, this is something I came up with just now (see, these kindsa thread can lead to design happening) Thinking of putting it in the player’s hands, with a rule such as this. You can give away XP to other players (most likely for the purps of you want them to level up faster than you, maybe if you’re ahead of them) as long as they haven’t received more “gift” XP than they had earned normally. I.e. a party of Bob, Carol, Ted and Alice gets 200 xp each. Ted gives Alice 100xp more from his own share. Alice couldn’t receive more than 200 total as gifts this way until she earns more xp normally idk I’m just brainstorming.
I wanted to touch on the “Gaining more levels at once”; many version of D&D has a rule that if you were to gain more more XP than you need to go to the next level, the excess XP is lost. I guess for when you find a ginormous treasure trove and use XP for treasure system. That rule is not in 5e (and I’m not about to houserule it back in, I don’t like the rule), but if you’re using a version that has that rule, here’s how I’d tweak it: the rule would only apply to people going to a level beyond the party’s currently highest level.