I’ve been developing a tutorial on game design over at the forum RPGMakerVX.Net and I completed a couple tables to be used in conjunction with my tutorial: one to describe character advancement and one to describe monster advancement. While glancing over the numbers, I had a sudden realization.

I assumed that when a piece of equipment offers a negligible bonus at one level, you skip that level. In fact, i recommend skipping several levels to deliver a worthwhile bonus. To compare, there’s an argument I’ve seen about “first level hit points,” regarding level advancement systems and bonus health at level one.

Often enough, 1st-level characters are considered quite fragile compared to higher-level characters, and not simply due to increased combat statistics. Those characters who have advanced to a higher level generally have access to more and better resources, but that isn’t quite it — I think it’s related to Power Doubling.

In the earliest stages of character development, a matter of a few levels can mean a world of difference in a fight. A critical hit spells the doom of a Third Edition Dungeons & Dragons character, no matter whether they’re a fighter or a wizard, and Fourth Edition characters don’t fair much better (it might take 2 critical hits instead).

But there’s a question as to why a character should receive some kind of bonus at 1st level. The issue isn’t immediately obvious and is terribly abstract. Mostly it has to deal with things from the other side of the game master’s screen, and why a player character has more hit points than a non-player character.

When you make a brand-new character, there’s an assumption they worked for what they started with. A warrior fought in a war, a cleric took religious vows, a thief picked pockets, and a wizard spent time with his nose in a book, but what is it about the first level that gives a character so much more than “level two?”

A quick comparison of levels one and two in Fourth Edition yields the following:

Level one:
Choose race, choose class (optional: choose theme)
Racial ability bonuses
Racial skill bonuses
Racial power
Class defense bonus
Class feature (1-2 powers)
Trained skills (+5 bonus to 3-6 skills)
2 class at-will powers
1 class encounter power
1 class daily power
1 feat
10-15 hit points, plus Constitution score
(additional options reflecting theme)

Level two:
Existing bonuses (attack, defense, skill, etc.) increase by 1
1 utility power
1 feat
5-6 hit points

Based on this information alone, I hope you can see that characters are ridiculously front-loaded. They will accumulate more powers and abilities at level one than they will for the next few levels combined. You could argue that’s because “you have to start somewhere,” but I would argue that not all of these things are necessary at 1st level.

For starters, a class isn’t necessary at 1st level. A player could choose class at 2nd level or higher after they’ve had an opportunity to run around as a for a whole level. Alternatively, they could begin with a class first and choose their race later. Or they could start with a theme. Not every aspect is necessary from level one.

I’ll talk about this some more later, but there is a serious imbalance between the things expected of a character right out the door that I think have a negative impact on the rest of the game. I can’t exactly put my finger on it, and I’m sure someone else has tackled this problem in greater detail that I have, but now you know.