Zero Level

February 25th, 2009

Fourth-edition Dungeons & Dragons is scaled to a higher starting level of power than third — or, for that matter, than any previous edition.  First-level characters are no longer fresh off the farm — they’re already skilled adventurers and even heroes in their own right.

Personally, I like this.  I enjoy a more heroic style of play in fantasy, even when I’m running with a low-magic setting.  I like proactive characters who aren’t afraid to take risks and try cool things, and who’ve learned a couple of tricks, and who won’t die of a scratch.  I used to start most of my campaigns at third level.  In fourth edition, first level feels good to me.

But some people enjoy playing at a lower power level, and watching those farmboys — the ones who survive, at least — develop into heroes.  This can be a fine idea for a game, but it’s not something that 4e as-written really serves.  4e is a flexible system, though, and by borrowing a little from the game’s past, it can be made to suit.

Back in the old days, long before 3e, there were players who felt that the first-level characters of the time were too powerful, and who wanted to take their characters from fledgeling heroes, just a hair or two beyond the masses of commoners, and develop them into real first-level adventurers.  For them, an optional system was devised — a set of pre-first-level tiers, a “zero level” for a player character.  A zero-level character had a subset of the abilities of a first-level character, and would need to gain about half a level’s worth of experience in order to reach first level and gain the rest.

The same idea can apply to 4e.

In keeping with the design of 4e, a 0-level character will be tougher and capable of more tricks than his 1e counterpart was, but the feel is still pretty much the same.  A 0-level character is more limited, more fragile, and less heroic in nature.  The potential is there, but it needs to be developed.

A 0-level character is created in a slightly different manner than usual.  Make the following changes at each step of the process:

  1. Choose Race. No changes.
  2. Choose Class. Choose a class as usual; however, you lack some of the class features of the class you choose.  See below.
  3. Determine Ability Scores. No changes.
  4. Choose Skills. You know one fewer skill.  For example, a cleric knows Religion plus two (rather than three) skills from the list of available class skills.
  5. Select Feats. You do not select a feat.
  6. Choose Powers. You select at-will powers normally.  You may select an encounter power, but you may only use that power once per day until you reach level 1.  You do not select a daily power.
  7. Choose Equipment. See below.
  8. Fill in the Numbers. You have half the hit points and half the healing surges that your class would normally provide.  You take a -1 penalty to all attacks.

Class features are a little tricky, since we don’t want to lower survivability too much — half hit points and fewer healing surges already make adventuring quite dangerous.  We also don’t want to leave a class unable to fill its role.  I suggest the following:

  • Cleric: No Channel Divinity or Ritual Casting.
  • Fighter: No Fighter Weapon Talent.
  • Paladin: No Channel Divinity.
  • Ranger: No Fighting Style.
  • Rogue: No Rogue Tactics.
  • Warlock: No Shadow Walk.
  • Warlord: No Commanding Presence.
  • Wizard: No Arcane Implement Mastery.  Ritual Casting limited to one ritual.

Equipment can be handled several ways.  It might seem easiest to simply cut the starting amount in half, to 50g, but the way pricing is set in the Player’s Handbook, this method doesn’t prove very effective.  It’s better to either allow the full starting gold but restrict the available equipment (there’s not much full plate armor on the farm…), or to dispense with the gold and give each character a designated set of gear.  Perhaps a choice of two weapons or implements (or shields), a set of light armor, a standard adventurer’s kit, and 10 gp or so in pocket change.  Either of these approaches should allow the character to be reasonably geared while still falling short of what a standard first-level character might boast.

A 0-level character has -500 experience points.  Once the character reaches 0, he becomes first level.  At this time, he gains training in one class skill, a feat, and any “missing” class features.  His “daily” encounter power becomes usable once per encounter, as standard, and he chooses a first-level daily power.  He gains the other half of his first-level hit points and healing surges, and the -1 penalty to all attacks no longer applies.  He has the opportunity to retrain.

By the time the character reaches level 1, he probably has a little more equipment or other personal wealth than a starting first-level character would have.  That’s okay.  You can reduce the monetary awards you give during level 1 and 2 until the characters are back on pace, if it’s important, or you can just handwave it — the difference is quite small in the long run.  If you’re going by the treasure parcel guidelines in the Dungeon Master’s Guide, I’d take the lowest five parcels for level 1, divide the cash rewards by 2, and use those amounts.  Generally, no magic items should be awarded during the 0 level, aside from perhaps a potion or ritual scroll.  Instead, you might use items of quality that weren’t available to the players during character creation (like that platemail).

Characters generated using these guidelines will need to be careful in their adventuring.  They’ll be relatively poor in combat.  They shouldn’t be so poor as to die from a single bad roll, but combat is a much riskier proposition.  They lack the resources of a regular first-level party — the lack of daily and encounter powers means they have much less to fall back on, or to “open big” with.

On the other hand, if you’re the sort of player or GM who’d like it tougher still, you can rule that 0-level characters cannot gain or spend action points.  With the reduced resources I mentioned, an action point is a much smaller benefit, but losing it will make things harder on the PCs in a pinch.


Related posts:

  1. Zero Level, Revisited
  2. Heroic Effort
  3. A Harvest of Men (III)
  4. Dramatic Timing: The Action Cache
  5. Fox Magic: Feats

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  1. Wyatt, Feb. 25, 2009, 10:51 am:

    One of the first reasonable propositions I’ve seen for “0th level”

    Wyatt´s last blog post: The Primus Libris: Chapter 1

  2. Anarkeith, Feb. 25, 2009, 12:03 pm:

    This is great! Seems very well thought-out. I think it’d be worth revisiting later if people want to playtest it and report on their experiences. I’m currently in a group that has a bunch of folks grumbling about powerful 4e characters, so you’ll be getting some new readers soon!

  3. Swordgleam, Feb. 25, 2009, 1:40 pm:

    Looks really good.

    Half HP seems a little low to me, and full ability scores seems a little high. I would probably go with 3/4ths HP and -1 to two ability scores, but that’s just my gut. I have no idea which would be more playable and/or better simulate “classic low-level” play.

  4. Scott, Feb. 25, 2009, 2:49 pm:

    @Swordgleam: I’d considered ability score penalties, but I thought that the -1 to attacks was a little easier to handle. Practically, players would assign the penalties to their dump stats if they got to choose. You could always say -1 to the two highest abilities, I suppose, but that would hurt some ability score arrays more than others.

    You might extend the -1 to skill checks, I guess.

    HP was intended to be low, for the “fragile” feeling, and easy to calculate. Might be a little too steep a drop though. That’s something I’d need to revisit after more playtesting.

  5. Wimwick, Feb. 25, 2009, 5:44 pm:

    Interesting ideas. While I have no desire to play below first level what you’ve created appears to be balanced. Similar to you in 3.5 my group typically started campaigns at 3rd level as this power base felt balanced. 4e does a much better job at this as you mentioned.

    My view on D&D has always been that the PCs are the hero’s and their actions should influence the world. PCs are always smarter, stronger, faster etc than the rest of society. That’s why they are the hero’s. So being tougher than everyone else at level 1 makes sense from a story point of view as well.

    Wimwick´s last blog post: Necromancer Paragon Path

  6. Zachary, Feb. 25, 2009, 8:05 pm:

    Interesting! I’m not sure it completely does what I want from zero-to-hero gaming (I think there may be too much of a jump between 0 and 1; I think for personal preference I’d have to space out the gradation more), but it’s good food for thought, and another good article regardless!

    Zachary´s last blog post: Weird Notes From Old Campaigns

  7. Samuel Van Der Wall, Feb. 25, 2009, 11:53 pm:

    Cool idea. I know that in some other d20-based systems, they have a Level 0 option. For example, Spycraft v2.0 has it. It definitely gives you a great option if you really want your players to start out at the bottom of the barrel and work their way up.

    Samuel Van Der Wall´s last blog post: Miniatures and 3D Gaming For Modern Campaigns

  8. King Nate, Mar. 6, 2009, 11:08 am:

    I don’t know how I missed this blog while researching my rules for 0-level characters in 4e. Our idea starts off similar but I cover some things differently in my blog at enworld.

  9. Scott, Mar. 6, 2009, 6:07 pm:

    @King Nate: Interesting… yours is a good bit harsher than mine, though. I think it’s probably closer to the old-school zero level, but the power jump between your 0 and 1 is even more marked than the one between my 0 and 1. Yours is likely to be a lot deadlier, with the lack of second wind; mine reduced healing surges to cause an increased attrition effect.

    I think it’d work, if that’s the sort of game everyone’s after. It’s not my taste, though. ^_^

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