Tobold's Blog
Wednesday, February 01, 2012
Level 0 adventure

I am currently preparing my first Dungeons & Dragons 4th Edition adventure, after having taken a break of over 15 years from dungeon mastering. I'd love to share, but as my players can read the internet, I don't want to spoil anything. So instead of talking about spoilers and details, I'll talk about the concept of the adventure.

The specific circumstances of my group are that we are currently playing with a different rule-system, specifically Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay, the Enemy Within campaign. Thus if I really get to DM, it will not just be with a new campaign, but also with a new rule-system. Playing with a new rule-system in pen & paper has its challenges, as players need to know at least the basics of the rules to not spend more time looking up stuff than playing.

Thus I remembered an old idea that has been around as house-rules in several D&D editions: Level 0 characters. The idea is that the players do *not* have to make all the choices that usually go into rolling a level 1 character. Instead they will only need to make some very basic choices: Their race, and what 4E D&D now calls their "power source". The Player's Handbook has Arcane, Divine, and Martial as options, other rule supplements offer more, but I'll stick with the basics. Basically the player just needs to say whether he is some sort of magic user, or some sort of religious character, or somebody who knows how to fight.

The players then start playing with these level 0 characters, with generic low stats of 10 in everything (modified by race), and just one at-will power, based on their power source choice. The adventure not only is designed for that low level of power, but also will teach them the basics of the rules. There will be combat with miniatures on battle maps, skill challenges, hazards to overcome, role-playing, and whatever else I can think of to build an adventure with a representative sample of the game rules.

Besides teaching the rules, the players will also learn more about their chosen power sources. I've created at-will powers with a basic function, plus two optional extra functions which costs 1 action point to activate (and thus basically are encounter powers). By choosing which of these alternative options to use, the players can tend towards what 4E calls a "role". For example the magic using character can use his extra power to either deal more damage, or for some basic crowd control. By seeing what he enjoys more during play, he can then later decide to become a warlock or a wizard.

At the end of the adventure the characters will reach level 1, get bonus stats that get their characters to the stats of a normal level 1 character, and choose a class. At this point they basically create their level 1 character for real, with all feats, skills, and powers. But, and that is the beauty of the system, with a much better idea in their head what they want their character to be, because they already played him a bit. As an added bonus, the characters also gain a background story, how they got from being regular guys to becoming heroes and adventurers. And in my personal case the players also get to see how they like that rule-system and me as a Dungeon Master.
I don't understand why you are trying to teach your players D&D4e if you're going to be using WFRP rules for the campaign. Wouldn't it be better to do your low level scenario using the warhammer rules? They're quite good.
Sorry, but to me the WFRP rules with their careers never made sense. At least not in a group. I can imagine one character having such a typical WFRP career development, with its various non-adventuring steps like Tradesman or Barber. But how do you develop from Tradesman to Merchant by killing goblins? And why did that same adventure made your fellow character develop from Boatman to Sailor, although the adventure was on land?
I remember those level 0 adventures. As a DM I was always intrigued with scenarios involving "normal folk" and fleshing out a back story in a real and meaningful way. Letting players choose a class organically can allow for much more natural roleplaying.

My best college DM would meet with us solo to play out our level increases, too, usually just a short roleplay quest. I was a thief, and to gain entry into the thieve's guild I had to first find the guild, talk my way in, then had a mob boss-type encounter I will never forget. Lost a finger, sweat bullets, that DM was awesome.

It takes some serious self-confidence to DM well. Sounds like your players are in for a good time.
I like your approach to DM'ing Tobold...The rules are yours to create as well as the world.

I had a great DM back when I was in high school...he put together Aftermath and Car Wars for these R.A.F. (Royal Auto Force) adventures.

L.o.l...we'd play 10 hours straight on a winter Saturday...Good times.
While I never heard the 'level 0 adventure' term before, I routinely did that sort of thing in almost all PnP games I ran as a GM. I'd set up 1 or 2 sessions that would act as a Prelude, which would in some cases cover a timeframe of months - years.

People would start with the base stats and then through their actions and how they dealt with situations, I'd have them spend points on skills X,Y or Z. Kinda like the Elder Scrolls games, where you level up what you use.

I'd also work out in that session the reasons the party meets and presto: the PCs were already invested in their lowbie characters.
Rolemaster had a system in-built for this. At character creation you leveled your characters twice to cover adolescence and apprenticeship periods of life. Afterwards you were a level 1 adventurer. This meant you were less likely to be 'one-shotted by a goblin' as could happen in older D&D editions.

Of course you had complete freedom to create an unhealthy character that could be killed by said goblin with minimal effort.

Also you could play through those two levels, instead of skipping them, (there was even the amount of XP needed listed in the tables) if the group so desired.
Well, reading the posts on pnp games I kinda start missing them myself.
I'm finding these D&D posts very interesting. Thanks for writing them.
You and I should talk some time via email about DMing; I've run a lot of games (and it sounds like you have, too), and it would be great just to bounce some DMing philosophies back and forth with another old-timer (which I mean in a good way, of course).

That aside, I love using "starting adventures" with my players' builds that are usually a little zany and set in unusual environments (I've started at a wedding, a funeral, a concert, a rowboat after a shipwreck, etc). After the first story arc (usually only one session but sometimes two), I ask them how they like their character and if they'd like to make any changes. That way, they've had a chance to test drive their toon off the lot before they marry it. I've found it very effective.

I'm looking forward to more!

But how do you develop from Tradesman to Merchant by killing goblins? And why did that same adventure made your fellow character develop from Boatman to Sailor, although the adventure was on land?

The sessions give you xp which in turn translate into skill points and as you fill the required skills, you can move to the next desired path, but that is only the mechanical viewpoint.

Career transitions are normally built into the story by the GM, and assists with new plot lines and hooks.
The only thing I might add is to make sure any combats are fairly short (so likely only versus minions). Only having 1-3 possible types of actions may get stale, unless you really amp up the environmental interactions (which is usually worth doing anyway). So keeping combats very short will help counteract this.

Let us know how it goes! Perhaps you could even convince a player to keep a journal that you'd post?
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