August 10, 2016

Variant Rule: Level Zero

A lot of adventures begin with the premise that the party members are just average commoners, minding their own business, until events of the plot drive them to heroism. What could be better for demonstrating the hero's journey than starting from nothing, and shaping one's own destiny into legendary form? In spite of this plot's popularity, it's actually extremely difficult to do in D&D.

In 5th edition, even a first level character is assumed to have heroic predispositions. Fighters are exceptional in their fighting skills, rogues are exceptional thieves, and clerics are exceptional priests. It is impossible in the core rules to play an everyday schmuck player character. So, I'll quickly present some rules if you want to start your campaign from level zero.

Level 0

Your character has no class levels, no background, and no proficiency bonus. Just as well, because you don't have any proficiencies either. You have your six ability scores, and a d20 to roll. You hit points are equal to 1d4 + your Constitution modifier (minimum 1). May luck be on your side.

Your adventurer doesn't deserve the title yet. He might be qualified to defend a household, but not a village or a city. Your greatest challenge may be a bloodthirsty goblin or a hungry wolf.

Level 0.5

If you miraculously survive level 0, you can level up to level 0.5. You gain a background, a proficiency bonus of +1, and proficiency with one weapon, skill, or tool set. Your hit points go up by 1.

Your adventurer has gained some notoriety, at least in a small town, and has become a little bolder as a result. You might even go toe-to-toe with another commoner, if things don't go your way.

Level 1!

When the time comes to level up to level 1, your proficiency bonus increases to +2, and you keep your additional skill, tool, or weapon proficiency (you’ve earned it.) You finally get a class level, and everything that comes with it.

You're a fully-fledged adventurer, remarkable compared to every other commoner, with a life of excitement and danger ahead of you. Now go fight Demogorgon!



Changelog: 8/10/16: HP Level 0: Should have been 1d4

15 comments:

  1. Absolutely wonderful idea. I only have one question, and that's how to level from 0 to 0.5, and from 0.5 to 1.

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    1. I refuse to attach experience points to this, so it's entirely up to the DM.

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    2. I think the 1d2 hit points should be at least d4, though it should be mentioned that first hit die (and including this one) is always maximized. 2+Con HP is simply too little; a single hit from anything capable of dealing damage will kill you, not just on average but on its minimum roll.

      It should be mentioned in support of this that most CR 0 creatures have at least 3HP, many have 4 or as many as 6.

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    3. This should have been a d4 from the start.

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  2. I'm sorry, but with bounded accuracy, this is practically unplayable. I understand and even enjoy Level 0 characters back in 3.5, but the moment literally anything looks at you funny, you're in for about a 50/50 chance of death. Playing as just another village guard and the novice healer apprenticed to the druid, that's one thing. Between bounding accuracy and minimum damage, I'm not sure there's anything in the game that couldn't kill a level 0 character instantly 40% of the time.

    Is the idea good? Perhaps, but mechanically, 5E deincentivizes it pretty heavily due almost entirely to bounded accuracy. The first two levels of 5E are already basically the rocket tag that 3.P players are used to, and creating something even more swingy is just suicidal. At least a level 1 character is competent in their destiny, even if they are all too close to a single goblin's dagger halting their destiny. And if even a level 1 character stands a chance of getting executed by a single goblin, the least you could do to make this anything other than infuriating for players is give them at least something to hold onto.

    Even a common guard doesn't have 1d2+2. And even a common acolyte is at least trained in Religion and perhaps Medicine, even before they can Cure Minor Wounds. Full HP of a starting class without any of the Class Features, +1 Proficiency, and a Background and the skills that come with it would at least be playable. Then your non-magical acolyte can at least know the rites for their deity and the young city guard can have the chance of pacifying a drunk commoner.

    And you may as well ban the Folk Hero background, because there's really just no way you accomplished that heroic deed at this state. And you can't even really lie about it, given how measly your possible Deception checks would be.

    (Even with 4 HP, a commoner outclasses this variant for anyone without at least 14 Con and isn't beat until you hit 16. His AC of 10 puts him on par with anyone without at least 12 Dex, but his +2 proficiency with a simple club still means that you need 16 Dex in order to escape having a 50/50 shot with each swing of his club.)

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    1. I will concede that a lot of this is true, but it was /completely/ my intention. An unremarkable person isn't going to wade into combat and have more than a 50/50 chance of survival, and that's the point. You need to use your roleplay skills and your planning skills to make sure things are in your favor. If you die, there's basically no penalty either -- it takes about 6 seconds to roll up a character sheet for this (try it: you need a piece of paper with a name and HP written on it. You're done!)

      The d2 HD thing was a flat-put mistake on my part, because it should have been a d4, so that softens things slightly.

      I challenge you to think about this variant rule as a test for your players, not a mechanical test for the system. See what type of solutions they can find for combat that don't involve them getting stabbed. They'll need to be cowardly, clever, and resourceful to survive.

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  3. The way I have done it is at level 0 is they are innately something special that allow them to stand out. They have a +1 proficiency (or else the racial bonuses for races like dwarves and elves weapons are pointless), a background, and either proficiency in a simple weapon, skill, tool, or they can take a single cantrip (got to give those who want to play a caster something to build off of). They have 4 + con mod HP to put them at least on par with most of the weakest of common people.

    I generally stay away from heavy combat at this point, mostly using this opportunity to allow the players to role play the start of their story with maybe one climatic battle against a foe equally as gimped, but more flavor impressive. Once they overcome that challenge or role play their interaction into their class, they gain their first level and the game goes on from there.

    And with that they are ready to play, and have a few more hp, so a random hit from a goat will not end their adventuring career before it begins.

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  4. It may be a little different mechanically, but story-wise, doesn't it make sense to let the 0-level character start with a background?

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    1. Well that's the reason I started with a two-tier system. If you start at level 0, the game is bound to be dictated by chance, and your ability to think out of trouble. The beauty of it is you are completely unremarkable, and the players don't have to keep track of a single thing.

      Level 0.5 is a little closer to being mechanically forgiving, and is where you start to introduce your character's story. (Of course both of these levels should demonstrate how fatal combat is bound to be.)

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    2. My biggest issue with them is that the only RAW activities that reward EXP is combat, but a lv0 or .5 character has purely luck to rely on to achieve first level. Even without benchmarks of EXP in these rules, they simply don't function. I would actually argue that 5e is definitely not the system to be playing someone unremarkable, if to a lesser extent than 4e was.

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    3. The DMG chapter on XP is rife with information to the contrary -- there are lots of ways you can level up your players according to the core rules.

      The point of the level 0 this is that if you just slug it out in combat you're more than likely going to die. This is where you use the environment and out-think your foes, if you're going to fight at all. A successful level 0 character is not a hero, he's a complete coward, a villager that never picked up a weapon but instead trapped the Big Bad in an outhouse before burning it down.

      If that doesn't sound like you're type of game, that's totally fine. This is a variant rule, after all. Totally optional.

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  5. When I used "level 0" in a game, I just told the players they didn't get the class features yet, except casters, who still got cantrips. It played fine.

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    1. Yeah, that ends up being very similar to this. For people like me, who are sadistic DMs, we try to get things as close as we can to a 'pure d20' system when we implement level 0, which actually makes things remarkably simple to keep track of.

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  6. Just a note: Under Level 0.5 you wrote "more bold" couldn't that be rewritten to "bolder"?

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