So this may seem like an odd topic to cover. I mean we all know what a Level one character is right? well time and time again I see many players do not truly grasp the concept. It is mostly apparent in their backstory or attitude during role play. Now do not get me wrong, every player is new at some point or another, so these kinds of things can be expected (to some degree) in the fledgling role player, but I see it in more seasoned players too, and who quiet frankly should understand this better. And thus the reason for my article.
Character Creation and Back Story.
Lets begin at character creation. Now regardless of which order you choose to do things, be it pick race first, class first, roll stats first etc. You inevitably come up with a basic level one character. Too me however the character backstory should be interwoven during character creation, and thought out as you create the character. If you are playing a version that uses skill points for example, where you spend these points should be indicative of what your character has learned growing up so far. His attributes should influence the backstory as well, and if he has a high strength or intelligence, the back story should in part explain its former development. Now I know I am going on about backstory here, and you are right, this is not an article about creating back stories for your character, that being said it does require some brief attention.
A level one character is untested. He has no real experience at his chosen craft or career, and he has only his former life to draw from. A back story for a level one character should be thought out carefully. aspects like “He spent a year working for the local militia”, indicate some experience with combat and weapons training. It can justify his weapon and armor proficiency. However if it were to read “He spent many years as a sergeant in the militia,” it would suggest some real experience. He spent several years in service and rose to a higher rank, so it is not likely he did so without surviving some scuffles, being involved in some battles and arresting some criminals. “I toiled over my masters spell books when he was not looking” indicates some basic interest and understanding of magic, where as “I studied and practiced my magical arts for years, and accompanied several adventurers on their quests,” would suggest much more experience. The point here is to think about the basics. Your character has only a basic entry level understanding or apprentice level of aptitude. Also do not forget that experience is not directly tied to skills and talents and proficiency but to life in general. If your character has a vast array of life experiences in the back story, it is not likely he learned nothing from it and again it seems unlikely he would be a level one character. If you are creating a higher level character then naturally your back story should reflect his experiences in getting to the level he is currently at, but as a level one character his experiences should be limited.
Attitude and outlook.
The biggest area that I see players fall down on with their shiny new level one character is in the way they role play his attitude and outlook on life. Again he is untested in many ways so it is not likely that he will valiantly and fearlessly dive in to battle with the first Orc marauder he sees. He would probably be wary, scared and apprehensive. Only after several encounters and victories is he likely to become more sure of himself and less afraid. The first time he descends into a dark crypt, and hears the creaking of a coffin lid as it is raised by some undead creature should send shivers up his spine and make his skin crawl with fear. Yet time and time again I see people playing their level one characters as brave and sure as a level ten battle tested knight. At level one, you need to allow your character to feel. Feel scared, feel apprehensive, feel anxious. The exploration of these feelings will go along way to shaping your character and making him become a believable entity with depth as apposed to a shallow shell of numbers and statistics, (which I am sorry to say is the category where the majority or characters fall). Not only is is more believable to role play out these feelings but its fun. Another thing to consider is how naive and limited their outlook on life should be. Now of course you have to consider different racial aspects here, (as even a young barely mature elf may have lived one hundred and thirty years) but in general their lack of worldly exposure should be considered and taken into account during play. On a side note, I strongly suggest new players either do not play non human races or at least do their research first. I am not fond of players who chose to play a Demi-human race, get the racial benefits, and then proceed to play it like a human. You have a diverse cultural background at your disposal so EXPLORE IT!
Creating the back story and personality for your level one character is fun. We often like to make them exciting and interesting, but hold up a little. The biggest part of their life and the most exciting part is yet to come. This is the part that you are going to explore through play. Its OK for your character to be average or unexciting at the start. Its alright if he has no deep dark secrets. All this will come as you play through campaigns and adventures. Think of a novel that has a single main protagonist. The author does not spent chapters developing the past of the character (although many will give you a glimpse into their past). Instead the character develops throughout the story. Now, do not misunderstand me. It is OK to have some meaningful or even powerful events in your characters past prior to beginning his adventuring life, but its so easy to become cliche. Also think about the event you wish to have your character part of. How much should he have learned from these events, and should it have been significant enough that its no longer believable that he is only level one because of it?
When I do one shot adventures I am always wary of what bizarre and unbelievable back stories players are going to present for their characters. For a one shot (while often I cringe) I can live with it. For an ongoing campaign, I can not. I always get involved as my players create their characters, and make sure that some basic guide lines are observed. When it comes to our live show Howreroll, I have to be involved more so. Much as a director or producer has to be for a play or movie. Because we are creating stories for people to watch and enjoy (rather than just for our own amusement), We must maintain some elements of control, and we need to be sure the characters FIT.
In closing it is important to remind yourself about your characters range of experiences leading up to becoming a level one character. Focus as much on what he has NOT done, as you do on what he has done. Remember he is not just defined by his lack of skills, talents or proficiency but by his general lack of life experience and explored opportunities. Enjoy role playing the level one personality, not just the level one statistics………