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Are there rules for creating level 0 characters in 5e? I've been running a campaign where the players begin sub-standard and 1st Level characters are generated in-game as the story unfolds. I just made them all begin with a couple of hp and 9's across the board for ability scores (since I wanted them at a disadvantage compared to the average human, and to fail at a generic DC10 task more often than succeed).

It was a real grind, with many opportunities for TPK (total party kill) when faced with even a single challenge rating 1/2 adversary (obviously I fudged the dice a little to prevent this). Are there published rules for this?

If there aren’t published rules for this, has anyone tried doing something like this? Any first hand experience on how it has played out would be welcome.

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Yes, in an Adventurers League product

DDAL-ELW00: What's Past Is Prologue uses pregenerated "level 0" characters, and offers guidelines useful for creating them. What follows is visible through the preview function:

• The character has chosen a name, race, and background.
• The character has NOT chosen a class.
• The character has gear plus weapons, up to one common magical item, and proficiencies granted by their race and background.
• A level 0 character has 6 + their Constitution modifier for hit points, 1d6 hit dice, and no proficiency bonus. Weapon and armor proficiencies may be granted by race and background; those are fine!

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No, there are no such rules

There are no official rules for this (yet), and it is also hardly the safest thing to do. You mention that there were plenty of opportunities for TPKs. This holds true for first and second level characters as well, making even weaker PCs is only going to make this even worse.

The first few levels of D&D 5e are downright brutal. A wizard could have as little as 6 HP, a single kobold with a sling could outright kill him if he's already low-health and it crits.

By starting everybody with 9's across, you're making this even worse, as you're looking at -1 on every attack and save (assuming no proficiencies yet), an armor class of 9 (they have no armor proficiencies) and what... 4-5 hp?

If a goblin looks at them funny, they will die.

Besides, D&D 5e is actually designed to have the first two levels serve as your characters' "newbie time". Most classes will lack their archetype and their core skills during those two levels.

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The Commoner

I discovered this supplement published by the Wizards of the Coast for the adventure Hoard of the Dragon Queen that details the stats for a Commoner which may fit perfectly with your Level 0 PC desire. Everyone could start out as a commoner and then upon Level 1 create their 'true' characters. The only consideration you'd need to account for is if someone is choosing a non-humanoid.

AC 10

HP 1d8(4)

Ability Scores 10

Proficiency in Simple Weapons (assumed by Club weapon for the commoner in the supplement with a to hit bonus of +2)

Racial Bonuses

If you'd like to include racial abilities/bonuses, you can refer to Page 8 of that same document (squared parentheses are my additions):

For dwarf [or any other race] NPCs in the adventure, use an appropriate NPC stat block [Commoner] from this section, then add dwarf [or other race] racial traits (see the Player’s Handbook or the D&D basic rules).

Whether you want to boost their Ability Scores or just give them additional abilities (like Darkvision) will be up to you.

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    \$\begingroup\$ This works, somewhat. But it has weird things going for it. If your level 1 character has negative stats, you will "go down" in things on your way from 0 to 1. Likewise, a commonor has a d8 hitdice, if you then become a wizard your hitdice (and HP) goes down. \$\endgroup\$ – Theik Mar 22 '18 at 14:44
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    \$\begingroup\$ @Theik Yes, that is why I said they'd need to create their 'true' characters when the DM determines they have progressed to Level 1. \$\endgroup\$ – NautArch Mar 22 '18 at 14:59
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    \$\begingroup\$ @Theik That's not too hard to make sense in the narrative. Your average commoner probably is stronger and more robust than a wizard who has neglected physical exercise in favor of magical research. Your average commoner is probably smarter than a trained fighter who's had three too many knocks on the head. Etc. \$\endgroup\$ – thegreatemu Mar 23 '18 at 19:00
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First off, there are no rules for creating a player character that's less than 1st-level.

Level 1 is already deadly as written, Theik's answer covers this nicely, and I agree: 1st-level characters can die if they sneeze too hard.

But I have recently tried what you are asking in a one-on-one setting, here's what I did and it seemed to work out nicely:

  • Ability Scores. I let the PCs generate their ability scores normally. Remember, adventurers are extraordinary people, and even before they set out to the adventuring life, they are already extraordinarily talented. In my game, the PC created a Paladin and I let them get all the stats from their race and roll for stats.
  • Hit Points. I gave them normal hit points according to the class they made. In my Paladin example, it was 1d10+con.
  • Racial Features. Racial features are there as normal, my Paladin player in the above example was thankful many times to have chosen Half-Orc as a race.
  • Proficiencies. I didn't give them any. That means no weapon, armor, saving throw proficiencies. During the game, I roleplayed teaching them the Longsword, Shield, and Heavy Armor, then I gave them that. In retrospect, it would have been fine to give away proficiencies right off the bat, especially if you assume a martial character would already have prior training in the past.
  • Class Features. I didn't give them any. That means my "Paladin" in the making had no Lay on Hands until they received training to do it, or in the game I ran, a "blessing".

And that's about it, I ran it pretty loosely, with NPC help- a master and apprentice setup, and it turned out really fun, the player enjoyed it.

This answer works because, the way I see the game, a class is a class because of its Class Features, and I was trying to emulate the stage of the PC's life where they turned into the class they chose. Without the ability to Lay on Hands and Smite, a person with PC-level Ability Scores and proficiencies is just a generic person- though talented and gifted. And during the game, I gave them class features arbitrarily according to what naturally transpired.

There are a issues though: leveling up at 1st-level is pretty fast, so it would follow that leveling up at 0th-level would be even faster. By the time the PC in my game learned how to properly use a longsword, they have already killed an ochre jelly, killed an orc, stabilized a dying paladin- that's already a full adventuring day to most. I ran with it, I made them level up but only adding HP, and nothing more. When the game was over and they completed their "training" phase, they were already a full-fledged 3rd-level Paladin.

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  • \$\begingroup\$ I love this - I may use it for my intro session with new players! To explain the tougher than first level “adventuring day”, I’d do it as a montage of moments from throughout their training/origin, spreading it out over weeks, months or years as appropriate to the class and backstory. \$\endgroup\$ – Guybrush McKenzie Jun 13 '18 at 21:56
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No, but following the RAW would help.

There are no official rules for Levels < 1 because levels 1&2 are already balanced to suck for pretty much every class. But they would suck less if you were following the rules as written. Let me explain.

I just made them all begin with a couple of hp and 9's across the board for ability scores (since I wanted them at a disadvantage compared to the average human, and to fail at a generic DC10 task more often than succeed).

I don't want to sound rude, but I have no idea why you would do that. The rules for generating a character exist for a reason. The game is already (mostly) balanced. AFAIK, no class starts with <6 HP. As stated in the DMG and in this answer, you're supposed to change the difficulty of the game using other means, not by adjusting ability scores.

If you want them to be more likely to fail a DC check, raise the DC! If you want them to have more trouble fighting, add more or more challenging monsters! If you need to introduce them to the game somehow, railroad them and fudge dice rolls. Your game is already struggling because you homebrewed. The solution to this is to follow the rules, not homebrew even more.

There are three ways to generate ability scores: using a standard array, point buy or rolling. Rolling is bad IMO as it can make the characters unbalanced, so you probably want to use the standard array or point buy. All the information you need for this is in the PHB and I think is in the basic rules as well.

There are many places where you can homebrew rules and still have the game work as intended. Character creation is not one of them.

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    \$\begingroup\$ One reason he would do it is for story reasons. Before you were a wizard - you were something. Before you were an adult - you were a teen. As Robert Mckee notes (i.e. Peter Jackson & Fran Walsh’s muse for writing Lord of the Rings) - the parts of story that are most engaging are the choices and growth of the characters. We see it in all the Marvel movies today. This guy’s adventures could capture those additional beats of the character arc in the story. \$\endgroup\$ – Praxiteles Mar 23 '18 at 12:06
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There are no such rules in published material. If you want to do this you are completely into homebrew territory.

Low levels are generally more difficult. The PCs don't have a lot of abilities and not a whole lot of HP. By reducing the HP further and making it harder for them by lowering their stats from the normal array (15, 14, 13, 12, 10, 8) + racial bonus to have 9 everywhere and thereby a modifier of -1 for everything it's becoming a lot more difficult. It's quite understandable that your players had problems with even CR 1/2 enemies. These enemies are geared towards being used against a normal group of Level 1 PCs after all, even if their number is supposed to be greater.

Especially at low levels a single crit from an enemy and a failure from a PC could very well result in the PC being reduced to 0 Hit Points. This is not necessarily instant death and is still far from a complete party wipe.

If you don't want your players to feel like they could die every moment you should simply start a normal level. After all you explicitly want them to be worse than normal people, but you are still pitching them against foes that are meant to be fought by extraordinary individuals. PCs are simply better than normal humans, even at level 1. Your intention behind starting at Level 0 and your expected playing experience don't seem to match - decide what you want to achieve. It's possible to start with sub-normal characters as you did, but a few character deaths should be pretty much expected in such a circumstance. If you don't like that you should rethink your approach to start at Level 0 or at least create your own monsters. Simply reduce the enemies HP and give them lesser weapons - daggers or even unarmed strikes instead of scimitar and shortbow for a goblin for example.

Another thing to keep in mind is Proficiency. If you want to start so low it might be a good idea to reduce the Proficiency Bonus to 1, too, though this change will make it harder for the PCs again.

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There are no rules for level 0 characters so you will have to homebrew a bit for something like this.

Going forward I will be talking about my own opinion of balance and how you might achieve something similar.

What you have already done is not too bad but anything involving dice would be highly random since the characters don't have any special abilities or big modifiers from stats. If you and your players are fine with such random gameplay that is also perfectly fine.

I've tried something similar when I wanted my players to play the younger versions of themselves as a fun one-shot. What I did for stats was to give them all 10s +/- racial modifiers. So even as kids they were heroic. (Compared to other kids that is.)

Another thing you as the DM have to provide is a reward for creativity even by bending rules from time to time. For example I let one of the players put on additional clothes to get a +1 AC. When not abused these little bonuses will make everyone happy and close the gap of the character stats compared to level 1s. For social encounters let the little things add to their dice or lower the DC even if you normally wouldn't (puppy eyes? lower DC a little). This should also help them forget the proficiency bonuses they are missing from time to time.

Then come the combat encounters. You need to penalize the enemies as much as you did for your players. You can simply build an encounter as if your players were level 1 and lower the monster stats to match the players or use limited number of 1/4 and 1/8 CR creatures.

From there you can either put their stats to normal at level 1 or slowly increase their stats to match a 27 point-buy or however you calculate level 1 stats if you have a longer level 0 game in mind.

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  • \$\begingroup\$ Great ideas @FenrirG ! \$\endgroup\$ – AcmeCat Mar 22 '18 at 11:07
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As many have pointed out, there are no rules in 5e for creating level 0 characters.

If there aren’t published rules for this, has anyone tried doing something like this?

There was a 1e module, Treasure Hunt, that was intended for character creation in a way similar to what you described. Characters started as shipwreck survivors, who had to deal with some goblins on the island. Their choices guided how the characters developed into adventurers. For example, were they drawn to fighting more, or did magic intrigue them.

Perhaps you could modify this for your needs, our take inspiration from it. You might even be able to find a copy somewhere in the vast internet.

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    \$\begingroup\$ There is also a solo campaign in the 3.5e red box which might be a source of inspiration. \$\endgroup\$ – MeanGreen May 9 '18 at 9:57
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I’m actually starting up a group with a 0-level adventure to help them get into the character and “know” each other before play. They’re all kids in a town that’s attacked (I’m using the Flight from Fallston module).

Their attributes are the standard array, they have their full racial benefits and background benefits (not counting the feature), +1 Proficiency bonus, and all of the proficiencies and skills granted by their classes. Their age begins as the base Adulthood for their race (meaning they’re all young, but neither children nor adults).

Sorcerers and wizards get 4+Con mod HP. Artificers, bards, clerics, druids, monks, mystics, rogues, and warlocks get 5+Con mod HP. Fighters, paladins, and rangers gets 6+Con mod HP. Barbarians gains 7+ Con mod HP.

  • Artificers begin with the Magic Item Analysis feature.
  • Barbarians begin with Rage (1/long rest, +1 damage) and Unarmored Defense (half Con mod added to AC).
  • Bards begin with Inspiration (d4) and Spellcasting (1 cantrip, 2 spells, 1 1st-level slot).
  • Clerics begin with Spellcasting (1 cantrip, 1 1st-level slot).
  • Druids begin with Spellcasting (1 cantrip, 1 1st-level slot).
  • Fighters begin with Fighting Style.
  • Monks begin with Martial Arts (1d4 damage) and Unarmored Defense (half Wis mod added to AC).
  • Mystics begin with Psionics (1 talent, 1 discipline, 2 psi points, 1 psi limit).
  • Paladins begin with Divine Sense.
  • Rangers begin with Favored Enemy (+1 damage).
  • Rogues begin with Expertise (1 skill) and Sneak Attack (1d4 damage).
  • Sorcerers begin with Spellcasting (2 cantrips, 1 spell, 1 1st-level slot).
  • Warlocks begin with Pact Magic (1 cantrip, 1 spell, 1 1st-level slot).
  • Wizards begin with Spellcasting (1 cantrip, 3 spells, 1 1st-level slot) and Arcane Recovery.

If their character starts with a Martial Weapon, give them a Simple weapon. If they start with a Simple weapon, give them an improvised weapon. If they start with Medium armor, give them Padded Armor. If they start with Heavy Armor, give them Hide Armor. Finally, find whatever their starting wealth is by class and give that many items from their starting packs (if their wealth is 5d4×10, then give them 5 items).

They start with -150 XP. When they level up, they add 1 point to each Attribute, they add 1 Hit Die (rolled and added to their current HP), add the rest of their features, lose their current items, and gain their starting packs. Finally, they “agree” to meet in one year at the tavern they ended up in (a tavern in Neverwinter where they’ll go on to meet Gundrin Rockseeker for the Lost Mine of Phandelver module).

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    \$\begingroup\$ Hello and welcome! I have tried to improve the formatting and grammar of your answer, please make sure I did not change your original intent. This set of rules as an answer will be greatly improved if/when you come back after playing with them and add in how the it turned out. You can also see this meta post to understand why it is important to share how the homebrew actually worked out in practice. \$\endgroup\$ – Sdjz Jun 13 '18 at 18:43

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