Whatever Happened to D&D's Underdog?
  • Whatever Happened to D&D's Underdog?


    Dungeons & Dragons is well-known for its class advancement system, which over time has iterated from focusing on collecting treasure to defeating foes. And yet there was a time in the First Edition of Advanced Dungeons & Dragons where players were encouraged to play their characters as novices below 1st level, before they became heroes. These were 0-level player characters, and their story illuminates how D&D models a particular kind of fantasy fiction.


    Oh What a Knight?

    0-level characters first debuted as part of the cavalier class in Unearthed Arcana. Cavaliers had a lot of special rules that tied them to honor and social standing, and one of them affected the character's starting level:

    Usually, the character is of noble origin. Any cavalier rolling a social class below Lower Middle Class will be lower middle class, as peasants below that status need not apply. Characters of at least Lower Upper Class begin the game as first level Armigers; others must begin as 0 level Horsemen (0H), and work through Lancer (0L) to reach this point. Such lower class characters always serve the house of another; Upper Class cavaliers may serve their own house. A cavalier receives d12 hit points per level, plus fighter constitution bonuses, except at level one. A 0 level horseman begins with d4+1 hit points, plus constitution bonus, and gains an additional d4 hit points at 0L and at first level (for a total of 3d4+1+con bonus). A character starting at level one receives d10+3 hit points to begin, plus con bonus.

    In essence, a character with a lower social class started out at 0-level, with less hit points. Co-author of D&D Gary Gygax was attempting to introduce a class system that mattered in a way it hadn't before, and was reflected in the mechanical elements of the cavalier. Noble standing directly affected the character's heroic development; a child that was not nobly born had to overcome adversity (through adventuring of course) to achieve knighthood. This is a traditional chivalric romance character arc, and it's surprisingly not as compatible with D&D as one might assume for a game with levels.

    In fact, knights weren't really a part of D&D to begin with. Although there were always Fighting-Men, knights and the concept of honor were not nearly as prominent as the thieves, rogues, and magicians Gygax cited as inspiration in Appendix N. Even when knights did appear, like in Poul Anderson's Three Hearts and Three Lions -- the inspiration for D&D's paladin class -- the protagonist, Holger Carlsen, enters the story in a fully capable knight's body from the start.

    There was precedent in tabletop role-playing for knights ascending social ranks in a D&D rival, Chivalry & Sorcery, according to Wilf K. Backhaus:

    We wrote an MSS in 6 week which was about 360 pages long. We self-published 40 copies of it under the title of Chevalier. It was our intent and our hope to sell our material to TSR as a sort of "Advanced" D&D. We traveled to GENCON for that purpose in August ''76. We never did show it to TSR because we took an instant dislike to Gygax and so sought out another publisher. It required us about 4 months to completely de-D&D our manuscript - it was during part of that process that we decided on the term "Game Master". The C&S 1st was published in the summer of 1977.

    We may never know if the cavalier class was in fact meant to capitalize on the success of Chivalry & Sorcery, but the class' debut made it clear that D&D didn't have rules for starting out as a nobody. In fact, D&D's tradition of thrusting players into the roles of fully capable goes back to a previous discussion of visitation fiction. Why struggle through being a weakling with few powers when you can start as a hero that's better than your average commoner?

    For a time, D&D capitalized on this sort of power trip, in which heroes emerged fully-formed and players joined them after they knew how to fight, pick locks, create miracles, and cast spells. The debut of the cavalier class made it clear that D&D had to literally go backwards to accommodate a hero's origins.

    Zero to Hero

    The cavalier class didn't just tie social standing to level and hit points, it also set the framework for advancing in power by slowly gaining the attributes a 1st-level character took for granted. It took two additional "0-levels" for a lower class character to move from Horseman (-1,500 XP) to Lancer (-500 XP) to Armiger (0 XP), gaining one third of the same hit points an Armiger started with. The cavalier paved the way for other classes to do the same. The ideas actually went as far back as the AD&D adventure N4, Treasure Hunt:

    In this adventure, you don’t even have the slight edge that training gave you, the edge over the common man. In Treasure Hunt, your character is the common man. To survive the adventure, he’ll have to become an uncommon man — you’ll have to use your wits, survive the odds, and stay alive long enough to earn some experience and begin developing the abilities of the true adventurer.

    Author Aaron Allston did something revolutionary with Treasure Hunt, in that the players didn't actually pick their classes and alignment, but rather grew into it -- determined by their actions and the Dungeon Master. It was meant to be an introductory adventure to D&D and role-playing in general:

    To start with, both the players and the GMs can read some introductory notes on D&D, which matches what TSR did in the early B-series adventures. However, Allston goes far beyond that, advising GMs on how to run their game throughout the adventure text; he talks about everything from addressing questions from the players to timing the game and staging different combats. There's even a two-page appendix on what to do if the adventure starts going wrong.

    When Jim Ward asked players in Dragon Magazine #129 what they wanted included for an upcoming Greyhawk Adventures hardcover, they picked 0-level character rules.

    Whither Harry?

    Discussions around why there never was a Harry Potter role-playing game pointed to a larger challenge with D&D -- it doesn't model novices well. Although 1st-level characters aren't as fully capable as those of higher levels, they're still more capable than a common person. D&D models the power structure of heroic fantasy (emphasis on "heroic"), not on chivalric romance, in which a character must scrabble his way through the lower ranks (of both society and power) until ultimately achieving his true potential. D&D's inspiration is more closely aligned with sword-and-sorcery, where fully-capable heroes faced even stronger adversaries.

    It's possible that the differences in fantasy are cultural. American authors like Gygax and Robert E. Howard preferred to start with heroes who were adults capable of making their own way through the world, while European authors like J.K. Rowling drew on the legacy of chivalric romance that starts with protagonists as children who eventually fulfill their destinies. To accommodate a boy's long path to king, D&D had to take a literally step backwards on the XP chart.

    Mike "Talien" Tresca is a freelance game columnist, author, communicator, and a participant in the Amazon Services LLC Associates Program, an affiliate advertising program designed to provide a means for sites to earn advertising fees by advertising and linking to http://amazon.com. You can follow him at Patreon.
    Comments 44 Comments
    1. Jacob Lewis's Avatar
      Jacob Lewis -
      I remember this module! Interestingly enough, it takes place in a remote area of the Forgotten Realms just off the northern shores of the Moonshae Isles, but did not advertise such, instead focusing on the novice-level aspects of the adventure itself. In fact, all of the N-series modules at the time, which included the Cult of the Reptile God (N1) were categorized as Novice adventures aimed specifically at starting level characters (I.e first-level). Treasure Hunt was the only one, if I recall, to introduce the idea of level-0 characters.

      Excellent write up, as always.
    1. Leatherhead's Avatar
      Leatherhead -
      I blame the binary pass or fail check system that D&D uses. There is no "You succeed your task, but to a lesser degree than a more experienced person would."

      This results in level 0 characters, novices, and other not-quite-heroic characters, just missing their attacks and failing everything all the time. Which is great, if you want to do a comedy or a tragedy, but rubbish if you want to actually survive and have fun doing things for a real Hero's Journey.

      If D&D featured incremental successes, it would be a different story, obviously.
    1. Ravenbow -
      Wasn't "Under Illefarn" also 0 level?
    1. delericho's Avatar
      delericho -
      Surely it's about popularity - more people wanted their starter characters to already feel heroic than those who wanted them to be newbies, so the game moved in that direction. Hence every edition except 2nd has seen a power-boost over the last. (Well... 5e is probably a step back from 4e, but a step forward from 3e.)

      As regards Harry Potter in the first book, I'm not sure how he's significantly different from Luke Skywalker in the first film - they both come from nowhere, get a minimum of training, discover great innate talent, and are very quickly able to stand toe-to-toe with trained professionals. Only difference is that Harry's a natural on a broomstick while Luke flies an X-Wing.

      And both are pretty much what a 1st level character should look like, IMO.
    1. Polyhedral Columbia's Avatar
      Polyhedral Columbia -
      Great article - thanks for this. I believe our group toyed with 0-level characters when one of our DMs picked up Greyhawk Adventures. I liked the idea.
    1. cuscus -
      I remember years ago 0-level characters in Greyhawk Adventures. I started a campaign where the characters started off a children and went exploring and going on adventures, there actions determined what class they ended up with. I even set it in Ravenloft, kinda had a Stranger Things, It, or Goonies vibe too it, was very well received.
    1. Lord_Blacksteel's Avatar
      Lord_Blacksteel -
      0 level characters were never particularly popular as a whole. Certain groups or individual players thought they were great but mostly what they did was extend the amount of time you spent playing an incompetent, fragile, character with little combat power or magic ability and that's really not why a lot of us play the game. There's nothing wrong with options but this type of character is really not the focus of D&D in the rules or in the published adventures or in the fiction that has grown up around the game or even in the fiction that inspired the game as was noted in the article. I don't really remember anyone back in the D&D or AD&D days saying "hey I'd really like to spend more time as 1st level characters".

      In the end it all comes down to what the DM and the players want to get out of the game. By 1986 the Warhammer FRPG emphasized this kind of game more and was better for it than D&D IMO. Today that's still an option as is GURPS and of course Dungeon Crawl Classics where the zero -level PC is built into the entire concept.
    1. Weird Dave's Avatar
      Weird Dave -
      The Dungeon Crawl Classics RPG uses 0-level characters in a novel way through adventures called "funnels." Essentially, each player rolls 2 to 4 random 0-level characters, which can include halfling cheesemakers, dwarven brewers, human chicken farmers, and a whole lot of other fun. They each get bare minimum equipment, maybe not even a weapon, and are thrust into the path of adventure. Hit points are low and death is frequent, but the characters that survive have that extra special mark of having lived through a harrowing ordeal! Game-wise they get a small bump in hp from other characters, but it creates an investment in the character that can be pretty surprising. You can find funnel adventures at a lot of cons, and I would definitely recommend giving it a try sometime.
    1. lukka5's Avatar
      lukka5 -
      Great article. I think we need more articles like this.
    1. Koloth's Avatar
      Koloth -
      Have played a home brew start as children campaign. If we do it again, will have to try the career decided by deeds done as a kid thing.

      Now that he is dead, Gygax is rarely spoken ill of but the bit from Wilf K. Backhaus reminds us that Gygax did have a talent for irritating folks.
    1. Flexor the Mighty! -
      Modern games are more about being a hero from the get go. I do like a system like the funnel from DCC but its an outlier today.
    1. Polyhedral Columbia's Avatar
      Polyhedral Columbia -
      Quote Originally Posted by Weird Dave View Post
      The Dungeon Crawl Classics RPG uses 0-level characters in a novel way through adventures called "funnels."
      Yeah, that's actually really fun. I DM'ed a session with one player - I had him roll 12 0-level peasants. They made it all the way through Pathfinder beginner box - defeated the black dragon by swarming it. A PC would get killed every attack! The 3 who survived were that much more treasured. Fun stuff!
    1. Spankypants's Avatar
      Spankypants -
      Quote Originally Posted by Ravenbow View Post
      Wasn't "Under Illefarn" also 0 level?
      Yes! You began with -500 experience points at level 0. But, they recommended a start with 6HP, without rolling for them, so it wasn't a bad way to start many characters that originated with low hit dice.
    1. neuronphaser's Avatar
      neuronphaser -
      Quote Originally Posted by Weird Dave View Post
      The Dungeon Crawl Classics RPG uses 0-level characters in a novel way through adventures called "funnels." Essentially, each player rolls 2 to 4 random 0-level characters, which can include halfling cheesemakers, dwarven brewers, human chicken farmers, and a whole lot of other fun. They each get bare minimum equipment, maybe not even a weapon, and are thrust into the path of adventure. Hit points are low and death is frequent, but the characters that survive have that extra special mark of having lived through a harrowing ordeal! Game-wise they get a small bump in hp from other characters, but it creates an investment in the character that can be pretty surprising. You can find funnel adventures at a lot of cons, and I would definitely recommend giving it a try sometime.
      Portal Under the Stars was my favorite gaming session as a player in 5+ years because of the funnel system in DCC. It's such a simple but interesting way to make 0-level a thing that matters to the development of the campaign, as well as the individual players.

      It poses a lot of problems for folks who come to D&D as "story gamers" in the sense that they build elaborate background stories for their characters, though. You basically have to forgo building more than a sentence or two of background in the funnel system, because chances are your character's dead inside of session 1.
    1. Mistwell's Avatar
      Mistwell -
      I loved playing a 0-level character at GenCon once. Where finding a set of armor that could fit was a major deal!
    1. Earth2Carnifex's Avatar
      Earth2Carnifex -
      I remember giving zero level characters a try back in the day, but as I recall, we did not particularly like it, mainly because it really did not change much. If your high attribute was Intelligence, there really was no question what you were going to do, absolutely no one decided to choose a class that was not dictated by their attributes. All it really did was add a few games onto the front end of the campaign were the characters were exceptionally vulnerable. Today, if I were going to run a game like this, I would choose a system more suited to it, like GURPS where I can start at 75 points and organically grow the character into a 250 point hero.
    1. Lanefan -
      I see D&D's persistent move toward PCs that are already heroes when they first start out, as compared to the average commoner, as a serious bug rather than any kind of useful feature.
      Quote Originally Posted by Weird Dave View Post
      The Dungeon Crawl Classics RPG uses 0-level characters in a novel way through adventures called "funnels." Essentially, each player rolls 2 to 4 random 0-level characters, which can include halfling cheesemakers, dwarven brewers, human chicken farmers, and a whole lot of other fun. They each get bare minimum equipment, maybe not even a weapon, and are thrust into the path of adventure. Hit points are low and death is frequent, but the characters that survive have that extra special mark of having lived through a harrowing ordeal! Game-wise they get a small bump in hp from other characters, but it creates an investment in the character that can be pretty surprising.
      The DCCRPG system has its flaws and issues elsewhere, but the funnel method of character generation is pure brilliance!

      And it reflects real life as well, where survival can have as much to do with luck as with talent.
    1. Mark Kernow's Avatar
      Mark Kernow -
      Sorry, but I think the author is taking a fairly niche class from a single book (1st ed UA) and generalising too widely. Until 3rd edition was released in 2000, 1st level characters could, and many did, start play with a couple of (1 or 2) hit points and if you were a magic user, a single spell, or if a thief very low chances to sneak or find traps. Clerics in OD&D and Basic D&D couldn't even cast spells until 2nd level. I can't see how these were 'fully capable' heroes. And that was essentially the status quo from 1974 to 1999 (the first quarter century of the game). It was even christened 'zero to hero' as a style of play. The fully capable starting hero didn't arrive until the much later editions of the game (3rd through 5th) in my view.
    1. JacktheRabbit -
      Just what I want a chance to be zero level in 1e and aspire to having 1D4 hitpoints plus con and cast a single spell once per day.
    1. Zarithar's Avatar
      Zarithar -
      Quote Originally Posted by JacktheRabbit View Post
      Just what I want a chance to be zero level in 1e and aspire to having 1D4 hitpoints plus con and cast a single spell once per day.
      That actually sounds like a level 1 magic-user from AD&D. Level 0 wouldn't even have the spell! I thought the 0 level idea was a good one at the time as well... what class would the player end up gravitating toward? It's a fun idea.
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