Years ago, when opening the fourth edition Player’s Handbook for the first time, this writer discovered some good news and some bad news.
The good news was that, since heroes began play with 20 to 30 hit points at first level, one solid hit from a kobold couldn’t kill a hero anymore. For this writer, that was the bad news, too.
Some players and Dungeon Masters (DMs) who weren’t around when the first edition of Advanced Dungeons & Dragons was still in print react with mild amusement when old-timers like this writer talk about “the 1e days,” when first level heroes at full hit points (hp) died from single sling bullets, and a saving throw versus poison was an instant life-or-death affair at any experience level – just as they might humor a grandfather who talks about how difficult his childhood was, complete with stories about walking 15 miles to school through three-foot snowdrifts, while trudging uphill during both the outgoing and homecoming trips.
The difference between the DM and grandparent was that the DM was telling the truth. Characters died quickly and often, especially at low levels. That circumstance is probably one reason why the 4e system creates much more durable starting characters than any of its predecessors, presumably on the argument that many players – especially those new to the hobby – wouldn’t want to spend time creating heroes only to have their characters reduced from full hit points to zero by lucky swings from kobolds during their first battle. And that sort of thing did happen in legacy editions. A lot.
Whether or not the former or current level of low-level combat lethality is better for the game is an argument best left for those sites who enjoy wasting their energy on such matters. This post is directed toward DMs who enjoy playing 4e, but miss (or, for the younger ones, may like to incorporate) some of the white-knuckle concern that came with low-level battles in the legacy editions.
Bringing back the danger
An idea of how this might be accomplished came to this writer while reviewing some old rules yesterday. The 1e supplement Unearthed Arcana, published in 1985, contained rules for the cavalier character class. For those who may not remember, it was a chivalrous, knight-in-shining-armor sort of hero, the requirements for which included that the hero be of noble birth or high social class at the start of the game. Potential player character cavaliers without this birthright started with a negative experience point total, and were forced to play through two “zero-levels” – for a total of 1,500 experience points (xp) - before being granted full status as level 1 cavaliers, when they reached a total of zero experience. They earned a fraction of their starting hit points at each of those levels.
One way to bring back the apprehension about battles that was so common in legacy editions involves not starting heroes as full-fledged, first-level characters. In effect, it calls for bringing back those zero levels, on a more limited scope, gradually bringing heroes to first-level capability. After a bit of number-crunching, this writer came up with this outline for how advancement through those levels might work.
- Start each hero at -300 xp. At this point, they are considered novices in their chosen professions. They have only one-third of their starting hp, their at-will attack powers, and whatever equipment the DM feels they should have at that point. They only need 100 xp each – the equivalent of one first-level combat encounter – to reach the next sub-level, although the DM will probably have to run a greater number of less challenging encounters instead to be fair to the players.
- When they reach -200 xp, they are considered apprentices in their professions. They gain another third of their starting hp, bringing their total thus far to two-thirds of their first level total, and their abilities have grown to include encounter powers and feats (including bonus feats). They have the equivalent of two first-level combat encounters remaining to reach first level.
- At zero xp, the heroes are full-fledged adventurers, journeymen of a sort. They gain the remainder of their abilities, including the rest of their hp, class features and daily powers, and the formal campaign can begin.
While mulling this over, it occurred to this writer that combining this zero-level concept with the only zero-level adventure ever published for 1e, Treasure Hunt, could create a unique way to begin a campaign. Treasure Hunt was unique among adventures, in that it could only be used to start a new campaign, since every hero began play as an average person. This approach to adventure design bent the 1e rules a bit, since the game defined zero-level characters as those who had no levels and lacked the potential to ever earn them. For the purposes of the adventure, the heroes started as zero level characters - without a character class, no less - although they would have classes assigned to them by the end of the module.
The plot of the adventure was simple enough. The heroes were shipwrecked, managed to swim to an island where some ruins and equipment could be found, and needed to find a way off the island within a specified time limit to succeed. The DM was instructed to keep secret records of each character’s behavior during the adventure. For example, putting on armor as soon as it was found, choosing heavy weapons from an old arsenal and charging headlong into combat against the island’s monsters all brought checks in the “fighter” column for the hero performing those actions. Praying before or during battle, tending to wounds and wanting to bury the dead all drew marks for cleric, while hanging back during combat and striking from advantage earned points in the “thief” column (remember that this was in the days before the rogue was a character class).
By playing through the adventure, heroes could try the methods of any character class in the rules. At the end of the adventure, the DM announced what classes their heroes had earned, and they were granted first-level status in the class dictated by their actions.
Of course, the module took certain liberties. The 1e rules stated that magic-users and illusionists (later called wizards) needed years of training, so a normal person being suddenly able to use magic after two days on a deserted island was admittedly far-fetched. Learning to use a battle-axe in as much time and in that setting was equally absurd, especially since characters could only be proficient with single weapons, and not groups of weapons.
But what about combining those cavalier-like zero levels with Treasure Hunt’s scorekeeping in a 4e game? With 4e’s much less restrictive approaches on heroes being able to read, everyone being able to cast ritual magic, and offering proficiency with large groups of weapons, it’s a bit easier for heroes to play different roles, especially if the heroes have access to non-player characters from different professions between encounters to guide them, make suggestions or lend equipment.
Although it will be well over a year before this writer will have time to run a regular D&D game again, he shared this idea with some of his once and future players, who were excited about the concept. One stated that, in his 25 years of gaming, he’s never played D&D like that, and can’t wait to try.
This posting is unlike most of the dungeon mastering information on the RPG Atheneum, as the concept presented here is an untested theory, instead of reflections on past games or incorporating historical resources. The “never played like that before” remark really rings with this writer. After all, there may be a reason why something has never been done before - nobody ever sold pizza in a can before, but that doesn’t make it a good idea, either - which is ultimately why this post was published. There is a substantial number of bright, talented DMs out there who may read this. Please consider sharing your thoughts on this approach as comments to this post; any feedback would be deeply appreciated.