Thoughts on starting equipment

In my upcoming Pathfinder game, my players are going to be creating 4th level characters. There are only four of us, so I want to compensate for the smaller party size without doing something ridiculous like creating gestalt characters or having players run multiple PCs. I’d also like to have a little more flexibility creating encounters. 1st level opponents are pretty limited. We’d end up killing rats and goblins (and other fractional CR baddies) until the PCs got tough enough to start taking on real challenges, assuming I could resist the temptation to ignore Pathfinder’s encounter building guidelines. That was a problem with many of the Pathfinder modules I’ve run.

Justin Alexander wrote an essay on encounter design and followed it up a few years later with an analysis of several 3e modules, including “A History of Ashes” from Curse of the Crimson Throne. He found that modern adventure modules tended to build encounters way tougher than the guidelines suggested, but if you ran them for PCs a two or three levels beyond the recommendation, the encounters more closely fell in line with the system’s guidelines. Having run more than a few Pathfinder APs, I can say they were definitely pretty tough unless you ran for a group of optimizers, which my players never really were. If I ever ran another AP, I would start the PCs out at 3rd level instead of 1st (plus an additional level for having an undersized party to make the APL three). I’m not this time around, but that’s where I got the idea to start the PCs at a higher starting level.

Several days ago, I came across a thread on the Paizo messageboards. The PC in that game had started at 4th level along with a bunch of minions. The responses raised several questions about the build, but I don’t think that’s really important. The question I had was what the narrative justification was for those build options — “Ask questions and use the answers.” That got me thinking about how I was going to handle starting equipment in my campaign.

Considerations

My plan initially was to stick with the guidelines listed in the core rulebook, which suggest a split of: 25% on weapons, 25% on armor, 25% on magic items, 15% on consumables, and 10% on ordinary gear and coins. That’s balanced. Characters with an appropriate distribution of gear will meet the system’s expectations, especially consumables, which my PCs never seem to invest in enough. However, it’s also pretty boring. If players want to go against the norm when building their PCs, why shouldn’t they be allowed to? They just need to provide narrative justification.

Just like anything else on their character sheets, gear can tell a story. Magic items are an obvious candidate, but even regular gear can tell a story. For example, if you’re going to two-weapon fight with kukris, why kukris and not a longsword and a shortsword? Yes, I know it’s a common optimization choice (for the expanded threat range), but why would the character choose to use them. It may take a little prying, but one should be able to get a little world building out of it.

By the end of session zero, I want to have many tools at my disposal. Along with character backgrounds[1], narratively justifying the PCs’ startring gear should meet that goal nicely, providing a nice source of not only plot hooks but also organizations (both friendly and hostile) as well as relationships with NPCs and responsibilities to either or both (if any).


  1. One of the other things I like about starting past 1st level is that it helps the phase trio part of character creation make a little more sense within the context of Pathfinder. In the phase trio, characters go on an adventure and then cross paths with each other (twice). It doesn’t really make a lot of sense for that to have happened if the characters are starting out at 1st level with 0 XP.