Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Zero-Level Play

Each cycle of hype and release of new old-styled, commercially-produced rpgs elicits a (mostly) silent groan from me. Seems like one can not toss the proverbial stone into the OSR blogosphere without hitting a post about LotFP Grindhouse or Dungeon Crawl Classics. Cranky contrarian thoughts aside though, its undeniable especially in DCC's case there are some intriguing ideas percolating in the minds of Goodman Games.

For one, the game looks like it is expanding gameplay “downward” (much in the way that I have been thinking about rediscovering or unlocking gameplay upward in the Domain Game) to “zero-level play,” a concept I have been interested in ever since seeing Lenard Lakofka's overly-complex system in Dragon magazine way back when. 

I really like the idea of players going down even deeper into schlubiness; exploring their own origin story at the table. Rather than just talk about it, I reworked, trimmed down and synthesized some of my own chargen subsystems as a starting point for some simple guidelines for such play for older edition D&D.

The PDF for the full zero-level system can be downloaded here. Feel free to chime in about any suggestions.

Rules for Zero-Level Play
  • All characters start at zero-level “normal men” with 1d6 hit points and Neutral alignment.

  • Zero-level characters can be rolled using the alternate chargen and equipment tables below (see PDF).

  • Human or elven characters with INT 13 or over start with one cantrip (0-level MU spell) OR human characters with WIS 13 or over start with one orison (0 level Cleric spell). Only one such type of spell can be chosen. See this BFRPG supplement for a list of spells (or use a comparable system).

  • Any character with DEX 13 or over can attempt thief skills at -4%, all others at -10%. (Hear Noise is the same as first-level.)

  • A zero-level character receives no extra AC benefits from armor heavier than chain mail due to unfamiliarity with its usage. Similarly use of weapons over 1d6 in damage convey a -1 to damage.

  • At the completion of the party's first successful adventure (this can span multiple sessions at the GM's discretion) and a year of training the character levels up to 1st level. In consultation with GM, player picks class and alignment based on performance and experience in the adventure. Fighter and other warrior types receive an extra hitpoint after training, magic-users lose one from making deals with various eldritch forces. All other class abilities for 1st level characters are assumed as normal.


  1. There was also a mini-game of this sort in the old 1E Greyhawk Hardback.

    I thought it was silly and a bit complex but I liked the idea.

    I think if I ever did something like this I'd allow people to retain any L0 skills they had. This way there is a sense of continuity and a little reward for playing along.

    I'd even let MU's keep the extra HPs (I still give max at L1) and subject to ethos other classes can keep cantrips and weapon proficiencies. One cantrip will not unbalance a fighter nor will handaxe use unbalance the thief.

    Since I'd probably use 2e for such a thing, I'd give L1 base thief skills and dex/race bonuses for the thief. This way the 60 points is the L1 add on and the system gets to be pretty consistent.

    The only real downside is that this slightly favors the MU but given how weak MU's are in the minds of players , thats OK by me.

  2. I have now run two zero-level encounters, one for Rolemaster and one for 4E, though the basic premise can apply to almost any level based rpg.
    All I did was allow for stat rolls during this initial character generation. After that the characters had no access to any class based skills or abilities; even skills were defaulted from the core stat modifiers.
    The adventure was about 5 encounters with the the monsters appearing being limited in number. Whereas before I might have thrown 5 monsters at the party I now only had them fight 1.
    After the adventure the players were allowed to complete character generation by adding in their chosen class.

  3. @5stone
    I will take this as a "friendly amendment". I had contemplated not having the characters lose hitpoints or other abilities when they leveled up, perhaps it doesn't unbalance the game all that much.

    I do like having all characters maintain some degree of access to thief skills, it makes a good deal of sense to me and has implicit roots in pre-Greyhawk OD&D.

    And how did you find it working? Did the players enjoy it?

  4. I've run 0-level games a couple of times, and I can't say it was really a worth it. It was ok, but I'm ok with going straight to 1st level.

  5. I remember an article from Dragon back in the early 1980s that had a set of random tables to determine what in-game knowledge your character learned prior to the adventuring career. A good way to provide background withhout actually playing through 0-level.

  6. ...oh man...as if first level doesn't suck enough. Welcome to zero.

    I played in an RQ pbem where all PCs started out as children as a sort of preface. That was pretty dreadful.

    Good ideas though and likely good an afternon of pure masochistic fun.

  7. I also played in a game where the PCs were all kids and it was extremely interesting. It wasn't a dungeon crawl, mind, but GURPS Cthulhu. An interesting way of dealing with the "you're all alone" issue there - nobody will believe your wild stories or even humour you enough to take an interest.

    I'm with 5stone about not taking stuff away, but then I'm not a big fan of the by the book weapon/armour restrictions. OTOH I did toy with some video game ideas years ago where the PC's equipment broke piece by piece, so as you progressed through the game you had to get smarter about problem-solving with less. Ablating off hirelings/other 0 level mates a la DCC could have a similar vibe.

  8. The players in my game seemed to enjoy the zero-level encounters. At the end of a combat they felt like it was a titanic struggle to kill one creature, which helped to reinforce the fact they were youngsters. The memories of the fights seemed to be more vivid and less forgettable (or that may have just been the fact it was the start of a new campaign). One character kept the rock she used to kill the crocodile and eventually had it made into the head of a magical flail.

    However, they were more than happy to complete the process and finish rolling up their characters thereafter.

  9. @Desert Scribe
    Hmm...maybe it's the same article I was thinking of? I will try and track it down on The Dragon CDrom.

    I know I am a big fat hypocrite, characters start at the high end of 2nd level in the Hill Cantons. But they are shockingly hard to kill, which is why my next campaign will feature a correction. Bwahaaaaa.

    I could see this especially working for horror tropes (fragility in the face of a stalking unknown evil and the like). In my mind's eye most of the scenarios I can think of naturally gravitate there myself.

    Great minds think alike--and fool's rarely differ--I have been thinking about breakage and wear-and-tear rules to be used with this. I like the idea of mundane equipment suddenly becoming vitally important.

    I would say that's a success then. One thing I like about this approach is giving perspective about the subsequent life of an adventurer. A 1st level character becomes less of a mook and more like the entry level position for the exceptional people they are becoming.

  10. I was going to make a joke about roleplaying as a baby and then as a child going to school and scamming the teachers and town adults, but then Richard presented the idea as a serious one.

    This sounds like more fetishizing the suboptimal. Can I play a fetus? How about a sperm - you know, I'd have to combat others to succeed in fertilizing the egg. Hm. Playing an unfertilized egg must have limited roleplaying possibilities.

    Could I go even one step further back and play the mother of an unfertilized egg? Oh, wait. That would be D&D as it is now, wouldn't it?

  11. @Alexis
    "This sounds like more fetishizing the suboptimal."

    Perhaps I internalized--and inverted--that conversation about Gor. Personally I think playing the "gleam in the milkman's eye" would be more fun.

    Seriously though, over at Dragonsfoot my zero-level stuff got panned--for not defanging the PCs enough! I wanted some guidelines for providing a single adventure's worth of play as proto-heroes, not an exercise in complete masochism.

    Second edition Chivalry & Sorcery (Harnmaster lifted this whole cloth) instructed players who rolled up "serf" as a background to play out a session in which they escaped the manor for the relative freedom of the medieval city. Now that's masochism.

  12. @Alexis
    Me point out--after reading your post on travel attrition--that pot is calling kettle black on fetishizing the sub-optimal.

  13. Hmm... didn't you leave the following sentence hanging in mid-air relative to the rest of your post, Chris? :)

    > I really like the idea of players going down even deeper into schlubiness; exploring their own origin story at the table.

    How do you do that if the overarching timeline is still going forwards in the rest of your article, per "At the completion of the party's first successful adventure (this can span multiple sessions at the GM's discretion) and a year of training the character levels up to 1st level"?

    "Going backwards" was similarly missing in http://hillcantons.blogspot.com/2011/03/adding-pendragon-epic-time-to-d.html - presumably because that's more a "narrativist role playing" device rather than the gamist D&D mindset where the risk of dying is more inherent in the game mechanics/gaming paradigms? Temporal anomalies...? pfft. *g*

    (Compare, say, with the narrative story-line approach of Curtis, Blake and Colwill (p.88 conveniently scanned on http://tomeoftreasures.com/forum/viewtopic.php?t=438 ), around the part where they backtracked to find out how their characters came together in the first place).

  14. "...oh man...as if first level doesn't suck enough. Welcome to zero."

    Hah. That seems to be true for D&D, which to me always seems to work best as a game with quite a lot of combat encounters. Keeping players alive past first-level by careful fudging was a temptation that is very hard to resist.

    In games such as WFRP, or a D&D game that awarded experience per session rather than per GP / monster defeated, the classic, 'roll your hero. ... hmmm. You rolled [consults chart] beggar. Well, you'll make a great team with the ratcatcher that Dave rolled', becomes a viable - and exciting - adventuring party.

    Playing the suboptimal is fun.

  15. DCC seems to be getting some grief from more than a few bloggers for its emphasis on this kind of play.

    I can certainly see why some people's preferences would be for a loftier, more heroic stage, but I guess I am still rooting for the suboptimals myself.