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Would it very materially destroy balance to say a player character can have a “zeroth level” in a class? The two proposed cases I’ve come across are

  • a swashbuckler who has the acolyte background and says “I started out training as a cleric but before getting 1st level I went on another life path; I still see myself as a fledgling cleric”

  • a Champion Fighter who took the Magic Initiate feat and said “I’m basically a zeroth level wizard now, right?”

The specific mechanics of the game would not be changed except where the class has spells and/or attunement items. For example, a fighter who had zeroth level wizard could attempt to use a wizard spell scroll, and attune to an item that requires attunement by a wizard. The presumption is a fighter normally could not even make the saving throw to attempt using a wizard spell scroll because the spell is not on his spell list. But if he can declare himself a zeroth level wizard, he can at least attempt it. Although he does not get the class features of wizard we read about in the PHB that say "when you choose this class at 1st level", he still counts as a wizard of lower-than-1st-level status.

To clarify further, this proposal gives no class features per se, but makes someone “count as” the class for any rules external to the class description that require a PC to be a member of a specific class.

Clearly this is opening up a situational benefit, but the question is, would it make player characters OP to allow these mechanical benefits, as in this example, for a particular fighter character? Would it materially wreck the balance of the game?

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This would be unbalanced, because it takes the spotlight away from spellcasters.

In your proposed houserule, a character who has a reasonable justification (like a background or a feat) counts as a member of a class that they don't have levels in for the purposes of magic item use. On it's face, this seems sort of reasonable; magic item access isn't a particularly powerful ability, and it fits the flavor of a person who is learning their way into a class, but doesn't have the mastery to have a full level yet.

This houserule only really allows players to be zeroth level in spellcasting classes, though. There are no magic items that require you to be a non-spellcasting class.

Mechanically, this isn't really unbalanced. It allows non-magic classes to cast spell scrolls (albeit at a fairly high DC, with the scroll being destroyed on a failure), use staves, and use wands. There are a small number of other class-based attunement magic items, but those generally involve improving class features that a zeroth level character doesn't have. This benefit is pretty situational, and mostly just gives an extra way to use magic items that you probably already have. At best, it spreads around some spellcasting duties in situations where having an extra caster is more useful than an extra martial class, and only if you have the right items for the job.

The problem with this is that it takes one of the fun parts of being a spellcaster, namely being the person with a bag fun of weird tricks for different situations, and spreads that out to other players. Magic items are rarer in 5e than they were in previous editions, and if I have to give up one of my wands to a person who's almost never going to use it because maybe someday it'll be useful, I'm going to feel a little bad about that. Also, if the fighter ends a combat due to quick thinking and a wand of lightning bolts, I'm going to feel like they stole my thunder.

When most people talk about balance, they want to know if the mechanical interactions between rules makes one character more powerful than the other, but to me, that's secondary to a different heuristic: Will this houserule make my game more fun for my whole group? I think your houserule will be a bit more fun for the zeroth level player, but much less fun for the spellcaster that they're overshadowing.

This changes a bit if you don't have any spellcasters in the party. Access to healing magic or utility spells is a super helpful thing to a party of martial characters, and a houserule that grants that access can make the game better. I've played in several games where no one was a Cleric, and we found homebrewed "wands" that let non-Clerics heal each other out of combat. Your proposed rule would likely make your no-spellcasters game better, but would run the same risk of stealing spellcaster thunder if one joins the party later on.

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    \$\begingroup\$ I agree with all of this. FWIW the two examples I gave were both cases of players compensating for a "missing role" in their adventuring a group. The swashbuckler was in a group that had no cleric, the fighter was in a group that had no sorcerer or wizard. Also, both were quick to point out their perceived trade-offs, e.g. the fighter had to forego the opportunity to take other cool fighter-ish feats, to take Magic Initiate, and the Rogue could've had more rogue-ish benefits from a background other than acolyte (like, charlatan). I wonder what you think about these contexts? \$\endgroup\$ – Valley Lad Oct 28 '18 at 19:14
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    \$\begingroup\$ I added a paragraph specifically addressing no-spellcaster games. \$\endgroup\$ – DuckTapeAl Oct 28 '18 at 21:42
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This is an unbalanced thing to do. It gives access to extra flexibility for free

Every class level comes at an opportunity cost. Instead of that next level of Fighter, you've chosen a level of Wizard instead, for example.

Taking your 'Zero'th level' option gives the character access to the perks of a class without any opportunity cost to balance it out. By removing 'spells and attument items' you still would get the Wizard's saving throw proficiencies in Wisdom and Intelligence, the Ritual Casting class feature, and Arcane Recovery (along with the spellbook, which even if you can't cast, you could use to record found spells, then sell them to full wizards later)

The problem gets worse by opening the door to zero'th levels in other classes, like Rogue. What do you cut out at level zero? A lv zero rogue could still argue for the Dex and Int save proficiencies, Tool and Weapon Proficiencies, (Thieves tools!) and the boost in four (!) skill proficiences, as well as Thieves' Cant. Your zero'th levels, even if you leave off the class features specifically listed in the chart at level 1, is a huge boost.

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    \$\begingroup\$ You seem to be applying first level features of classes to the proposed idea. I don't think that's what the question was proposing, since they said "The specific mechanics of the game would not be changed except where the class has spells and/or attunement items" (and "spells" seemed to just refer to spell scrolls or similar features that rely on class spell lists). \$\endgroup\$ – Gandalfmeansme Oct 26 '18 at 19:06
  • \$\begingroup\$ @Gandalfmeansme proficiencies, like mentioned in this answer, don't require a level. They are gained as part of initial character creation and class selection. Additionally, the text of Thieve's Cant does not specify "at 1st level...." like most other traits. I haven't looked at the multiclassing table for proficiencies, but I would assume those are the only ones that could be gained at "zeroth" level. Beyond those, I think we really need more detail on what "zeroth level" actually means to the OP. \$\endgroup\$ – Newbie12345 Oct 26 '18 at 19:22
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    \$\begingroup\$ @ValleyLad So what? The issue is that players taking a 0-th level get some benefits of multiclassing, for free, with no downsides of any kind. This is true even if you leave proficiencies out of the mix. As for not having a mechanical effect until condition X is met... that's always true. The rarity of condition X depends on your GM and table, but if it ever happens then the player got the benefit, for free, with no downside. Unevenness across classes is why doing this would be unbalanced. Can you do it? Yes. Will it be fun? Maybe. Is it balanced? No. \$\endgroup\$ – Upper_Case-Stop Harming Monica Oct 28 '18 at 14:52
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    \$\begingroup\$ -1: The question says that the only mechanical benefit the character gains is magic item access, but you don't mention that at all in your answer. This answer could be improved by focusing on the specific mechanical changes the houserule involves, rather than other possible interpretations of "zeroth level". \$\endgroup\$ – DuckTapeAl Oct 28 '18 at 17:41
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    \$\begingroup\$ @MarkTO To quote the question: "To clarify further, this proposal gives no class features per se, but makes someone “count as” the class for any rules external to the class description that require a PC to be a member of a specific class." It's very specific that they don't get any class features. \$\endgroup\$ – DuckTapeAl Oct 30 '18 at 1:25

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