The Benefits of Starting at Level Zero in D&D 5e
Why Start at Level Zero?
In preparation for my current D&D campaign, I was determined to do something a little different. I was going to start my players at level zero and do it without classes.
Our motley band of wise-cracking bards, scheming warlocks, noble paladins, fearless fighters, and devious rogues had recently finished Tomb of Annihilation. While we’d enjoyed the experience, we were looking at doing something a little different this time around.
Over the past twenty-four years as a DM, I’ve been lucky enough to DM for some unique characters, but they seldom felt like characters outside of their class. Reading Improved Initiative’s What’s in a Name? changed the way I looked at character creation.
Regardless of their intentions, many of my players had fallen into the trap of letting their class define core elements of their personalities.
Fighters were brash and brave. Necromancers were wicked and secretive. Bards were insatiable horndogs. Paladins were insufferable prudes.
It can be fun to play with these stereotypes, but what if we could play a game where personality came first and the class came later?
Nobody is born a stern paladin or a city-hating druid. They become that due to their life experiences.
How much fun would it be to let personalities develop apart from their classes and have the class fit around that?
Starting a game at level zero isn’t a new concept. Many brighter minds than I have suggested systems to implement it into your games. I’m not reinventing the wheel here, but I thought I would share the system that has made my current game the best game I’ve run in 20+ years as a DM.
Separating Identity from Class
While having players start as low-powered commoners can be a fun way to introduce them to the world and ‘keep them humble’, the main attraction of this system for me was the opportunity to separate identity from the trappings of class.
In practice, this system has seen my current part have a noble-minded rogue who follows a strict moral code, a fearless paladin who likes to drink, sing, and tell tales, a witty, scheming sorceress businesswoman, a ferocious lycanthrope who practices healing, and a monk who is preening, shallow, and borderline arrogant.
By starting without a class to take their personality cues from, my group instead built personalities and relationships based on their backgrounds and their interactions during our two-part session zero.
It has made for a game in which every player’s personality is a separate part of their character, rather than a character trait assigned by their class choice.
First and foremost, I need to give a lot of credit for this system to Giffyglyph, whose Darker Dungeons take on D&D inspired some of the systems. His Rookie Characters system is the basis upon which this system is built. I’ve simply taken it, added a little to it, and put it into practice for my two current campaigns.
Assign Ability Scores
In my current games, I wanted my players to feel relatively low powered. While a 4d6 and drop the lowest setup can translate into more average characters, it usually means there is at least one 17 or 18 on any given character.
With this in mind, I went with a low-powered standard array of: 15, 12, 11, 10, 9, and 7.
That 7 may look like a bitch, but I’ve always found that having one low score offers more roleplay opportunities than being completely average.
What would Raistlin have been like if he were in fine health? Or Tyrion Lannister if he’d been a towering warrior?
I asked my players to place these scores without a mind towards an eventual class, but I don’t doubt all of them had an end goal in mind. That’s fine. I wouldn’t ask my players to play something they wouldn’t enjoy.
Select a Race
Selecting a race is pretty much the same as it is in the vanilla game.
Pick your race, add your ability score modifiers, and you’re off to the races.
I did house rule in that no player could have a score over 17, however, as I did not want anybody to be so exceptional that they would have stood out in a rural setting.
(Optional) Select a trait
To compensate somewhat for the low starting scores, I also introduced a system by which two other ability scores could be increased by 1. I called these ‘traits’ and made one for every potential ability score combination.
These had the twofold effect of letting players buff ability scores they hoped to use, but also added a little extra character definition.
|Explosive||+1 Str & Dex|
|Hale & Hardy||+1 Str & Con|
|Stoic||+1 Str & Wis|
|Driven||+1 Str & Int|
|Attractive||+1 Str & Cha|
|Athletic||+1 Dex & Con|
|Accurate||+1 Dex & Wis|
|Quick-Witted||+1 Dex & Int|
|Willowy||+1 Dex & Cha|
|Stout of Heart||+1 Con & Wis|
|Scholarly||+1 Con & Int|
|Picture of Health||+1 Con & Cha|
|Studious||+1 Wis & Int|
|Inspiring||+1 Wis & Cha|
|Charming||+1 Int & Cha|
Select a Background
Once this is done, the all-important task of selecting a background comes into play.
Whereas a level one character gets their hit points, abilities, and many of their proficiencies from their class, a level zero character takes this from their background.
Once again, I’m making use of Giffyglyph’s terrific Darker Dungeons to sort out this system, as he has found a way to tie hit points and weapon proficiencies to backgrounds, rather than classes. I won’t word for word include his ideas below, but you’ll see my own spin on it.
- Acolyte: 6 hit points.
- Charlatan: 8 hit points.
- Criminal/Spy: 8 hit points.
- Entertainer: 6 hit points.
- Folk Hero: 8 hit points.
- Gladiator: 10 hit points.
- Guild Artisan/Merchant: 6 hit points.
- Hermit: 8 hit points.
- Knight: 10 hit points.
- Noble; 6 hit points
- Outlander: 8 hit points.
- Pirate: 8 hit points.
- Sage: 6 hit points.
- Sailor: 8 hit points.
- Soldier: 10 hit points.
- Urchin: 8 hit points.
The hit dice for each background should match the number of hit points they start with, obviously.
You’ll also take starting equipment, proficiencies, languages, and features as per the background description.
Lastly, and this is not something I did myself, Giffyglyph has optional rules for giving certain backgrounds cantrips. As I didn’t use these rules, I’ll let you make up your own minds.
(Optional) Apply racial ability modifiers
If you’re not comfortable with letting race dictate a character’s ability scores, you could try playing with my system that attaches ability score increases to background selection.
You can read more about that in my post on backgrounds and ability score modifiers.
Saving Throws and Proficiency
I let each character choose one saving throw in which they were proficient. I didn’t tie this to a background or one of the above traits.
In my initial game, I also reduced proficiency to +1 for level zero, but my subsequent game has gone with +2. This is mostly because Roll20 can’t handle +1 as an option.
This is my favorite part of Giffyglyph’s level zero system, although he calls the Destiny Points.
This currency has no hard and fast in-game effect. There is no specific dice roll tied to it.
Instead, it is a kind of roleplaying currency with which players can ‘buy’ in-game effects that help to shape their character’s eventual shape.
As an example, my wife was keen on playing a sorcerer, and so she used her hero points to manifest a blast of lightning in the sole combat. I didn’t tie this to a specific spell or limit it with a dice roll. Indeed, it blasted a trio of goblins away from her and left them smoking on the ground.
Another character wished to be a ferocious lycanthrope (using the awesome Accursed class), and so his hero points bought him a barbarian’s rage and vicious claws for the combat.
Some DMs might not like the free-form nature of this, or they might find it too overpowered. For me, I wanted to tell a story with my players, and so letting them describe a fantastic ability (within reason) was a great way to get them on their hero’s journey.
Playing a Level Zero Game
With characters drawn up and ready to go, you’re obviously not going to run a standard level one adventure.
Level zero characters are super squishy and don’t exactly have skills, abilities, or spells to throw about.
Instead, my session zero (which ended up expanding to two four-hour sessions at the players’ request) was about forming relationships, establishing a connection with the town, and building personality.
These three things are the building blocks upon which the entire campaign has been built.
I’ve done the ‘heroes meet in a tavern’ thing more times than I care to count.
I’ve also done a few in media res style starts to get right into the thick of things.
What I had never done is spent not one but two sessions just letting the players roleplay amongst themselves and with NPCs. It was something truly amazing to behold. Players who seldom got involved in roleplay in previous games were suddenly forming crushes, enmities, and friendships with NPCs they might otherwise have seen as dispensable.
Our two farmer backgrounded players not only roleplayed a friendship, but also a surprisingly sensitive and plausible budding homosexual relationship. The table’s power-gamer was playing a stuttering, shy would-be lycanthrope with an interest in herbalism and an unflinching moral code. Our usual ‘leader’, while still the lynchpin of social encounters, spent two sessions exploring his character’s battle with alcoholism and his relationship with his catatonic father.
This has created the most unified party I’ve ever DMed for. There are no odd ones out. No edgy characters who cause friction. They’re all very different, but those two sessions also ensured they were all friends.
Establishing a Connection
The starting base for a campaign can be a variety of things.
Sometimes, such as in Rappan Athuk or Night Below, it’s the low-level quest hub and the place players recuperate between dungeon delves.
In other cases, it is the touchstone that grounds players. They return time and time again, form relationships, and influence the town’s growth.
I wanted the latter for this game, and the sleepy little Japan-inspired town of Oki-Jo has become a character of its own thanks to the time spent exploring it together.
The sorceress flirts shamelessly with the married daimyo, who is, in turn, a father figure to the aforementioned (now reformed) drunk.
The two star-crossed lovers, a yak farmer and yam farmer, spend time whenever they’re in town checking on their farms. The sorceress has even gone so far as to hire and train a local girl to run her tea house while she’s adventuring!
Every character has ties not only to the town but to the people in it. The local ranger trained our eventual rogue in archery. The fiery wise woman trained the sorceress, while the town’s monk has tended hurts and given sage advice. Our lycanthrope spends a great deal of time volunteering at the shrine.
Dice were rolled on occasion, of course. There were skill checks and even a combat in which the party was assisting higher-level NPCs with a bandit raid.
What this means is that they care about their home base. When bandits attacked it in a recent session, their vengeance was swift and bloody. They rode down fleeing bandits and pursued them to their keep, burning it to the ground and taking prisoners. The emotional stakes made what might have been an otherwise unremarkable bandit encounter something truly memorable.
Without the pressure to immediately leap into adventuring roles, the players got to really explore who their characters were.
I’ve had fleshed out characters in the past, of course, but those two sessions of solid roleplay without the constraints of character cliches were invaluable.
It has lead to a party of diverse characters who – at a glance – you might not be able to guess the classes of. Our most tender, caring player is our werewolf tank. The most troublesome is not our rogue, but our sorcerer. The biggest stick in the mud? Our rogue!
Of course, all of this should be possible in any game. A player can make the conscious decision not to conform to class stereotypes. Maybe your group already does this.
For my players, however, I found it was hugely helpful to give them a session (or two) to find their feet as characters before they locked in a class.
Our Session Zero
My current campaign takes place in the East-Asian inspired village of Oki-Jo. Cut off for the past five hundred years from the empire that founded it, its people live simple lives. To the east and north lies the impenetrable, fey Wildwood. A vast marsh lies to the south while towering mountains prevent travel to the west.
In this idyllic setting, five relatively unremarkable residents are about to become heroes. There’s the town drunk (Tom Tom), two farmers (Nycticorax and Mitsu), a teahouse owning conwoman (Hatsumomo), and a shaggy outcast (Joshua).
The first day is spent simply learning about ‘a day in the life’. We spend time with Tom Tom’s catatonic father and with Hatsumomo’s scam of passing off regular tea as having magical properties. Joshua mucks out Mitsu’s stable while Nycticorax tends to his yaks. Unremarkable stuff, but I wanted to establish this status quo.
Stealing from Neverwinter Nights, there is a festival. I let the players choose which competitions they wished to enter, using Festivals, Feasts, and Fairs for inspiration. Some of them won and drew the attention of local figures: the head of the militia or the daimyo himself.
Others lost but had minor roleplaying encounters with the town drunk, a local geisha, or a raving Oni-worshipper. The stakes were low (as were the DCs), but this allowed each character to form a few bonds right off the bat.
A Taste of Adventure
Of course, it can’t be all roleplay and skill checks.
I sent each of the party members out on a little errand with a notable NPC from the town. Our eventual rogue went hunting with the town’s ranger and ran from a wounded lion. One player helped the local priest look for herbs while another went on patrol with the leader of the militia.
This not only let the players form an immediate connection with somebody in the town but also gave them valuable backup for their minor combat encounters. Level zero characters are squishy!
Once they had proven themselves (somewhat) capable, it was time to bring them all together.
Members of Clan Viper had raided the town and the group found themselves joining the daimyo, the leader of the militia, and a few soldiers to give chase. The ensuing ‘combat’ was more theatrics than true combat, with each player using their hero points to manifest abilities for the class they felt closest to.
Our sorceress threw a blast of lightning to fend off her enemies, our shogun shouted orders that saved an ally from certain death, and our rogue rained arrows with deadly accuracy.
Leveling Up and Choosing a Class
Whether your Session Zero/Level Zero experience is two hours or two sessions, you’ll eventually want to level up.
As many have told me on Twitter, being level one sucks enough without compounding it with a whole extra level of being awful at everything.
When this time comes, there are a few steps beyond choosing a class, but it’s pretty simple:
- Choose whether to give characters their class equipment or introduce it during your Session Zero.
- Increase the character’s hit points and hit dice to reflect their class. If there is a decrease, leave their starting hit points as they were, but use their new hit points going forward.
- Add additional proficiencies and abilities.
For me, it felt a bit jarring to simply have my players become powerful over a single night. I used the downtime between sessions to have the players describe their own training montage, and allowed 3-4 in-game weeks to pass.
This way, they got to choose their own journey from average joe to hero, and they could decide who trained them (or if they trained alone). This is not only another fun bit if roleplay to start the first official session, but further ties players to the setting.
Have you ever run a game that started at level zero?
As a DM, what systems did you use to ensure that the players had a good time?
As a player, how did you enjoy the experience of being thoroughly unremarkable?