For those of you unfamiliar with the concept, the idea is to run the first game of the campaign playing regular folks who by some turn of events are somehow thrust into the life of an adventurer. There are a few benefits to running a Level 0 session. First, it’s a great tool for fleshing out a character’s history in a way that will be memorable to the player down the road. Secondly, it’s a good way to establish a long-term connection between your characters before your campaign even begins. These people you’re fighting beside aren’t just strangers that you met in a tavern. They’re your lifelong friends. Finally, it sets a good tone regarding problem solving. When you have a bunch of spells and attacks on your character sheet, it’s naturally tempting to go charging into every situation looking for a fight. You have a hammer (sometimes literally) so therefore everything’s a nail. By playing a Level 0 character initially, you’re hopefully forced to look for some alternative solutions to conflict. (although some fighting will probably be inevitable)
The idea of a Level 0 game has been done before using many different systems by many different people, but it seems like an idea that’s particularly suitable to D&D 5th Edition. With all of the focus on background and character traits along with the mechanics of bounded accuracy, we should have most of the tools that we need to run a productive Level 0 game session.
Your players probably may already a good idea of the character that they want to run once the regular campaign begins. The idea here isn’t to force them into a choice that they wouldn’t make otherwise. Give them the same level of background information about the campaign that they would normally have available to them (i.e. “A cult devoted to worshipping dragons is attempting to free Tiamat from the Nine Hells. You must stop them.”) as players, have them decide on a general idea of their character concept. You may want to discourage them from coming up with too many specifics about their final character so that they are open to being influenced by the events of your Level 0 session.
When it comes to creating characters, follow these guidelines:
- Race: Depending on the demographics of your world, this could be simple or tricky. Do the good races all basically live together in harmony? If so, then no special consideration is needed here. If some or all races tend to live in isolation from one another, you’ll need to think about what has brought your likely multi-racial group together. If there’s only one outlier, it’s easy enough to explain that they are from the only <whatever> family living in a town of primarily <whatevers>. If your group is more diverse than that, you might want to center your adventure around a special event or place that could potentially bring different groups together. It may not place in the hometown of any particular character, instead the group may all meet at a neutral location when they travel for a market, religious pilgrimage, etc.
- Ability Scores: You could potentially use any of the standard methods for generating attributes. If your players are open to it, this might be a good opportunity to do some old-school rolling in order where you have little or no control over what number gets assigned to which ability score. Remind your players that some of the best characters are defined as much by their flaws as by their strengths and that having abilities that seem “out of type” (fighter with high Charisma, a rogue with high Wisdom, etc.) can really help to create something unique and memorable. Some players will be more open to this approach than others, so proceed at your own discretion.
- Background: This will be the mechanical crux of your Level 0 character. Give them the skills and features associated with their background. From a story perspective, some will be slightly easier to explain than others. Noble, Urchin, and Outlander are all easy ones since those statuses are typically established at birth. With others, you should assume that the character is still “in training” for their chosen background. If they’re a soldier, they’re a recruit that is close to completing their training. The same would go for an Acolyte. Charlatans, Criminals, Entertainers, Guild Artisans, Sages, and Sailors could all be part of an “apprenticeship” period of their life as well. Hermit is a bit more of a stretch, with two possible options being that the character was either raised by an isolationist family or that they literally grew up alone in the wilderness. (i.e. “raised by wolves”)
- Hit Points: These are individuals who are essentially fully grown but not exactly hardened adventurers. Give them one 6-sided hit die and 6 + <Constitution modifier> hit points.
- Ideals, Bonds, Flaws: Select these as normal with some discretion. Anything referencing years of service or some dramatic event may need to be adjusted accordingly. Consider allowing changes to these items after the Level 0 session is completed based on the outcome of the adventure.
- Proficiencies: +1 Proficiency bonus, skill and tool proficiencies per the character’s race and background, Simple weapons only.
- Equipment: Per the character’s background. If you’re going to immediately dive into combat, give them some simple weapons as well. (daggers, clubs, tools, etc.) Otherwise, make those items available for them to find as needed.
- Other abilities: Finally, give them a taste of what their Level 1 character might eventually be. Give them a choice between a +1 to hit on weapon attacks, proficiency in a single martial weapon, or a single cantrip. Any toned-down version of a Level 1 class ability would work here. These people aren’t full fledged adventurers yet, but they clearly aren’t ordinary mooks either. Give them something to set them aside from your average everyday non-adventurer.
Rather than trying to go directly from running Level 0 characters directly into a standard campaign, run the Level 0 game as a flashback that will feed into their established concept for their character. This will be a look into the character’s past. It should revolve around an influential event in each character’s life that introduced them to their adventuring companions and led them down the path to becoming an adventurer. Set it during the equivalent of the teenage years for human characters unless someone specifically prefers a character that begins their adventuring career later in life. Starting a Level 0 PC as a younger child may push the boundaries of realism or good taste, but consider allowing it if someone has a strong concept in mind.
The adventure itself should be something simple that can be resolved during the course of a single gaming session. Try to incorporate aspects of each character’s background to highlight each character’s pre-adventuring life. Use some combat to keep things exciting, but go easy. As much as my inner killer DM rebels against this point, try not to make this a lethal session. You’re going to great lengths here to set up a good back story for these characters. That doesn’t have nearly as much impact if only three out of five of your characters survivor until the current timeline of the campaign. Write in some “outs” for yourself, such as enemies that are more inclined to take prisoners than to kill. If all else fails, plan a Deus Ex Machina to use in case things go badly. If your fledgling adventurers fail in their task, perhaps they get rescued by a group of full-grown adult adventurers. Something like that might have a big influence on a young person and lead them to take such a path for themselves someday.
If you have any long-term PC’s in mind for your campaign, now would be a good time to sow some seeds for future adventures. Even if it’s only a brief meeting, you’ll be able to call back to that character far down the road and it’ll be more meaningful than simply informing a player that they happen to know this person that they just met. Set up a grudge with a long-term enemy. Establish who the party’s allies might be. Give them items that they will consider significant later in their careers.
Ater your Level 0 adventure is complete, have each player consider what impact those events would have on their character’s eventual career. Have each player explain briefly what their character ended up doing as a result and how they came to gather with the same group once again at the beginning of your campaign. Some PCs may have decided to stay together and others may have chosen to walk their own paths as they underwent additional training. Hopefully by now there is a bond formed among the group that will make starting your campaign that much easier and more satisfying for you as a DM.
Have any more suggestions for running a Level 0 campaign? Please leave them in the comments!