At Tenkar’s Tavern, Erik has some unkind things to say about the latest Rule of Three he’s read.
There is the idea that starting at a level higher than first should be reserved for experienced players, and newer players should start at first level to minimize the complexity of their characters.
I agree with Erik that this is pretty lame. The complexity of a third level character is hardly remarkable in a world where high school students are being taught things I didn’t get until university, as part of the normal curriculum, and for fun they play video games with complex interactions and relationships between the game elements.
Years ago my son started playing a Pokemon video game on his Nintendo, and while it is a simplistic game, there are enough variables to keep track of at any given time that it’s probably in effect more complicated than a typical third-level character. The box handles the mechanical elements (determining whether your attack was successful), but even though the choices available are typically constrained there are quite a few options available.
I think he can handle a third level character. In fact, his first time at the table (when he was eight or so) he played a sixth-level monk (“can I be a zombie ninja?” “Ehh… given that we’ll be in Ravenloft I suggest against the zombie part, but ninja we can do”) and apart from some mechanical difficulties as he learned the different dice and when to roll each he had a pretty easy time of it. The class options weren’t a problem at all.
Starting at a reasonable level above first is not particularly difficult for a new player, unless the game is a fair bit more complex than D&D.
There is a culture of starting at first level in D&D, since that’s how it has worked pretty much all the way back. Except in Dark Sun, where PCs started at third level in order to give them a chance to survive. Mutants & Masterminds (which isn’t D&D, but uses the d20 framework) recommends starting at tenth level. Chivalry & Sorcery, I am told, you can start at whatever level/age is needed for the scenario.
I don’t see any problem with starting at a higher level, even for new players. There are exceptions (I wouldn’t want to make anyone not familiar and comfortable with D&D and with good spell knowledge to play a medium- to high-level spell caster, for example), but overall starting a few levels above first shouldn’t be a problem of complexity. A low-level wizard is manageable, even.