The Loss of Innocence
In the early days of my gaming career, I went through three Frodos before I got to 3rd level. This wasn’t the only time for me, and I'm sure many others over the last forty years have suffered similar fates. Mages died from single rat bites, investigators went quickly insane, and ex-space marines died alone in nondescript alleys. At the early stages of characters’ careers death and failure come swiftly, often shattering players’ dreams for their characters. Or did they?
In modern stories and structural theories these deadly moments are said to ruin the fun of the game. To avoid this possibility, many GMs and experts argue that running a long Session 0 and starting at midlevel stages make the game more enjoyable to play. While I appreciate many of the concepts shared by the storytellers and structural philosophers, I believe skipping the Beginners Stage―regardless of the game―leaves both the players and the campaign lacking.
As I discussed in my post on Campaign Balance, the Beginners Stage exists to define the character, the campaign setting and the PC's place in it.
As players bring characters into the world some will die, others will be given up, but a group of these characters will coalesce into a party. The characters’ efforts to meet initial challenges will create much of the background and shared experience that defines them, both as individuals and as a group, in the later stages of the campaign. It is during this early stage that players and characters learn how to work together, both in and out of combat. After all, the tactics used in defeating a giant rat may be the same as those used in defeating a dragon.
At this stage, the PCs will see the world as innocents. If done right, the GM will create both enemies and allies for them. During this stage, for better or worse, your PC should earn a reputation around which the rest of the campaign will grow. Characters in the beginners stage will learn both the dangers and the safe places of the setting, at their own speed and according to their own interest. This creates an organic, “emergent” campaign of shared values and themes.
At this point I should make it clear that I am not saying “No Session 0”. Zero Sessions, or Intro Sessions, can be important to establish the boundaries of the game. The Session 0 game is the “meta version” of the Beginners Stage game. It sets the norms and expectations of both the gaming group and the campaign the characters will find themselves in. Don’t confuse the setting of norms with campaign building. Don't let someone trick you out of the Beginners Stage, for you don't want to miss out on your character’s innocence.