Starting at Zero Level

Usually, when I run a game, I have a campaign concept and story outline in mind. Even in strongly character-driven games (which is the norm for me) there's still an underlying plot that helps propel things forward. It might be very vague and malleable, but it's still there: a unifying thread that ties the whole thing together and reflects the basic theme of the campaign.

Also, as a rule, I like to have the Player Characters tied directly into the story somehow, so I invariably start them at a point where they have enough experience for their underlying concepts to be fully realized. When the game begins, the PCs have already embarked down their chosen path in life, made some connections, and maybe even established a bit of a rep for themselves. I've found that such characters are just easier to work into the plot, because they have a more dynamic background to exploit. It also gives me, the Storyteller, some breathing room, because they can take a bit of abuse right out of the box (insert unnerving smile here). In D&D terms, 3rd level is my usual starting point.

In addition, when the central story is concluded, I usually consider that a rap. The game's over. Whatever stage of development the characters managed to get to by that time is as far as they're likely to ever go.

However, the idea behind Times of Turning was for it to be entirely character driven. Not just a little, or a lot... but 100% character-centric. I wanted to take these raw, bare-bones concepts -- characters that were barely adults -- and just see where they went... and how far. The players would be able to take them to 20th level if they wanted, or even beyond.  I wouldn't have a defined finishing point. There would be no preordained climax that completed the story. It would simply end when no one wanted to play the game anymore, when the characters had gone as far as they could go, or as far as their players were willing to take them.

That was the idea, anyway. We'll see what happens. But onto the subject at hand... 

After examining 3rd edition mechanics, considering the options, and keeping the fundamental plan in mind, I decided to have the Player Characters begin the game at 0 level and without a class. In my view, it was the best and cleanest way to realistically represent a young adolescent PC, a clean slate ready to be written upon. In relation to the experience progression chart listed in the Player’s Handbook, you could think of the characters as being at a –500 XP total.

Obviously, this makes the PCs weak. Playing through this period is dangerous for them, as even a 1/2 hit die monster is a real threat. However, there are benefits to be had with the approach. With this system, at the end of the pre-level adventuring, the characters have earned a slight edge over their standard 1st level counterparts. In the long run, they end up being better off.

But more importantly, when starting at 0 level, the roleplay focus is by necessity on the personalities of the characters themselves, rather than revolving around the schtick of a particular class. The characters are defined by their experiences more so than by an arbitrarily chosen role. This ultimately results, I think, in more well-rounded characters.

Provided they survive, of course.

Below are the guidelines I used for the creation of  0 level characters. They are campaign specific, but could be easily tailored for any D20 game.

 

Ability Scores

At 0 level, ability scores are determined with a “point buy” system (as described in the DMG). All ability scores start at 8 and 22 points are received to spread out among the character's abilities.

Each increase in an ability score, up to 14, costs 1 point. Thus, raising any ability from 8 to 14 will cost 6 points total. Raising an ability from 14 to 15 costs 2 additional points, as does raising one from 15 to 16. Thus, bringing an ability from 8 to 16 would cost a total of 10 points.

Lowering a score below 8 earns 1 point for each step down taken. For example, lowering Charisma to 6 will garner 2 points to spend elsewhere. However, Intelligence cannot be lowered in this fashion, and abilities other than Intelligence cannot drop below 6.

With these points, a player can make an eminently "average" or undeveloped character, which, frankly, is what a 0 level character should be. The character has unrealized potential. Upon reaching 1st level, 0 level characters should receive bonus ability points (I suggest 3 to 5 of them) to bring them up to speed with the "typical" 1st level characters in the campaign.

Game Statistics

0 level characters have a Base Attack Bonus of +0.

0 level characters do not receive any base bonuses to saving throws.

0 level characters determine their Hit Points by rolling 1d3+1 and adding their Constitution Modifier (if any) to the total.

0 level characters have no proficiencies in armor or shields.

0 level characters are considered proficient in the use of club, dagger, and quarterstaff. If you use the Weapon Groups introduced in Unearthed Arcana (3rd edition), this is the Basic Weapon Group.

Feats
At 0 level, a character is given one bonus feat, which should be selected from a list determined by the DM. This feat will not count against those gained in the character’s normal level progression. At 1st level, it will be considered a "virtual" feat.

The feats made available to 0 level characters should be definable as innate qualities or natural talents. In other words, these feats should be ones that don't necessarily have to be learned. Great Fortitude works, but something like Combat Reflexes isn't really appropriate, because it's the result of training or experience. Feats that give bonuses to skills work, because they represent an inherent aptitude. Also, feats that are normally only available to 1st level characters should be available to 0 level characters, and unavailable to them at 1st.  

Skills and Skill Points
To determine a 0 level character’s skill points, add 2 to the character’s Intelligence modifier, and then multiply the result by 2. If the character is human, add 1 to this total. This will result in a total between 3 and 11, which represents the number of points that can be spent on skills.

The skill list for 0 level characters should be limited, and dictated primarily by their environment. Characters living in a desert, for example, should probably not have access to Swim.

In Times of Turning, which features a very celtic/viking atmosphere and a rural island environment, the following skills were made available:

Balance, Climb, Craft, Jump, Handle Animal, Knowledge (Religion), Profession, Riding, Swimming, Survival

Each rank in one of these skills costs 1 skill point, and 0 level characters can gain no more than 3 ranks in any skill. Buying a rank in any skill outside of approved list costs 2 skill points, and characters are limited to only having 1 rank in them.

Once the character achieves 1st level, these skill points, like the 0 level feat, should be considered a bonus. They should not be subtracted from the 1st level point pool (determined normally, as per the PHB rules). This is part of the pay off for actually muddling through 0 level.

Spellcasting at 0 Level
Characters planning to be spellcasters at 1st level should be handled in the following manner:

A 0 level character receives a number of 0 level spells per day equal to half what he or she would receive at 1st level as their target class. The character’s spell selection is subject to the same restrictions that affect their target class. If the character is to be of a class that knows only a lmited number of spells, such as a sorcerer, halve that number as well.

Once a character starts down this road, however, their choice for a 1st level class should be locked in. There should be no turning back. At least one level in the spellcasting class should be taken by the character.

Other Stuff...
Equipment
I handled equipment by giving each of the PCs 30 gold to spend. Note that the characters weren't actually going into a shop and buying the equipment, the gold amount merely represented an abstract limitation on how much stuff they could own. How they actually came by these belongings was a matter for their backgrounds.

Combat
Before the game began, I ran my 0 level PCs through some combat scenarios. They were unable to defeat a CR 3 creature. However, they did handle all lesser challenges, and even made it through most of them without losing anyone. They defeated, in turn, a group of  four CR 1/2 monsters (one PC death), a pair of CR1 monsters, and a CR2 monster. Not bad. Granted, this performance was impacted by player experience, and perhaps even luck, but it should give some idea of what a crew of four uninjured 0 level characters can deal with.

Closing Advice for DMs...
When handling 0 level characters, I think the DM's most important job is making sure that the class choices for 1st level are facilitated in the setting. Preferably, a character's training will begin before he or she even reaches 1st level. Make NPCs available as trainers, and don't be caught with your pants down. Don't let a 0 level character meander about without developing viable class options for the future. It's entirely possible that, in the natural flow of roleplay, a character will end up in a developmental corner and inadvertently disqualify himself from a life of adventuring. In fact, that very thing came close to happening with one of the PCs in my game. Keep an eye out for it. Also, consider allowing certain NPC classes (such as expert) to be available at 1st level, and consider  introducing the concept of racial levels to your game. Both of these are good options for Player Characters who, upon reaching 1st level, are still not sure what they want to do. 

Finally, 0 level characters are, obviously, very fragile. They should not be subjected to the typical campaign scenarios that PCs -- even 1st level ones -- frequently find themselves in. Put simply, 0 level characters should not be trudging through dungeons. When mired in the "significant events" that might develop in your campaign, 0 level characters should be assigned roles that are important, but are ultimately secondary and supportive to what the major NPCs are doing. This might have the PCs feeling overshadowed by the NPCs, but at this stage -- and counter to traditional thinking -- they really should be. 0 level is first and foremost about character development and about being one of the people PCs usually consider to be part of the background. Taking center stage in the story comes later.

-- Scratch

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