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:
- Choose Race. No changes.
- Choose Class. Choose a class as usual; however, you lack some of the class features of the class you choose. See below.
- Determine Ability Scores. No changes.
- 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.
- Select Feats. You do not select a feat.
- 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.
- Choose Equipment. See below.
- 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.
- Zero Level, Revisited
- Heroic Effort
- A Harvest of Men (III)
- Dramatic Timing: The Action Cache
- Fox Magic: Feats
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