Did you know D&D 5e actually has an official method for generating 0th-level characters?
The Adventurer’s League module “What’s Past is Prologue” stars classless characters, and you can view the rules for generating your own in the free preview. I was pretty excited to learn this, as the ‘level 0 session’ is a popular unofficial method for playing underpowered ‘commoner runs.’ Today I wanted to talk about this niche ruleset, its pros and cons, and whether you should use it.
Should you use Level 0 characters?
My first caveat is that you should not run level 0 characters for beginning players. It’s a quirky ruleset that will only lead to confusion unless you already know D&D pretty well. It’s wholly optional and adds nothing to the leveling experience beyond a chance to roleplay your character’s prequel. I also don’t recommend it for groups who care about hack-n-slashing over roleplay, as the terrible stats and limited abilities will only annoy them. These characters are weak, I’d hesitate to put them in any combat whatsoever.
But if you want a fun way to establish how your characters met before they became adventurers proper, or if you like the challenge of surviving with no class abilities whatsoever, a level 0 session can be a blast. I really enjoyed getting to roleplay the moment that set my character on their path to becoming a hero.
The facets of a 0th-level character
So if your character doesn’t get a class…what DO they get? Next, let’s go over the various mechanics still in play at level 0, and how much they matter.
1. d6 Hit Dice
Every character gets the lowest Hit Dice possible, on par with Sorcerers and Wizards. Combined with no armor proficiencies, this means that you’re all gonna be really squishy, another reason to avoid too much combat!
2. No proficiency bonus
This is probably the biggest slap in the face level 0s need to endure, as it negates a large chunk of their character sheet. You still choose a set of skills from your race and background, but they don’t do anything! While playing my lvl0 character, it was weird to keeping thinking things like, “Okay, time to make an Acrobatics check. I have that skill…but it does nothing, so I guess it’s just the normal Dex bonus I’d have gotten anyway.” Gonna need to wait for level 1 before your skill choices matter!
Paradoxically, I found the lack of weapon proficiencies to be really freeing, as there was suddenly no downside to wielding anything. You wanna grab that bloodstained greataxe off the ground, future-wizard? Why not, it’s not like you’re sacrificing any sort of proficiency bonus! Take advantage of level 0 to run around with something bizarre before you reach level 1 and need to use the proper weapons for your class.
3. Racial and background stats
One reason I enjoyed level 0 is that racial abilities suddenly become very important. The races who get weapon proficiencies (elves, dwarves, githyanki and hobgoblins I believe) suddenly matter. The racial spells super matter, as it’s literally the only way to know any magic. Racial abilities are usually sidelined by a character’s class, so it’s cool to let them take the spotlight for a single session.
But the one edge case that the rules sadly don’t address involves feats. One of the pregenerated characters took Variant Human and has the “Aberrant Dragonmark” feat, so we know level 0 characters get their racial feat. But how do level 0 characters handle feats with prerequisites that would be met if they were level 1?
Let’s say a Variant Human future-sorcerer wants her racial feat to be Spell Sniper. That’d be possible in a normal 1st-level campaign, but not in this weird 0th session where she doesn’t know a spell to qualify for the prerequisite. The fairest errata I can think of would be: “If you take a feat with a prerequisite that would be fulfilled at level 1, that feat is deactivated until you reach level 1. Feats without that issue can be taken and work immediately.” Up to your GM if they want to assume the same stance.
5. One common magical item
This offhand clause should get even the number-crunchers excited: level 0 characters get to pick a common magical item during character creation! Regular level 1 characters don’t get to do this at all. So that item is honestly the primary reward for playing through your characters’ prologue.
Now, the module is a bit contradictory on what exactly qualifies for a “common magical item.” It seems they meant “any magic item of common rarity,” a not-unreasonable interpretation. However, one pregenerated character gets a Hat of Disguise, which is actually uncommon rarity, so there’s wiggle room if the GM wants to bend this restriction a little.
Overall I’d say this is the most exciting reason to run level 0. Remember that normally magic items are entirely chosen by your GM. This is a great opportunity for anyone creating a build that needs a simple magic item to function properly.
A note on Experience Points
Because the base module is designed to star NPCs, it includes no instructions on what to do if your characters earn XP at level 0. For milestone-style levelling, this is no issue whatsoever. But what should happen if your 0th-level character kills a rat and earns 10 XP?
Personally, I think the characters should be unable to earn any XP until they reach level 1. This is supposed to be a prologue after all, the real adventure hasn’t actually started yet. Even backlogging the XP until level 1 is a bad idea since they’ll then have less time at 1st-level to learn their class the proper way. I recommend treating the level 0 session as a roleplaying experience and not an opportunity to start racking up bonus XP.
Overall, I think there are a number of reasons you might find a level 0 session worth experiencing. It’s a chance to develop your character before they learn their core skills, and an opportunity to earn a magic item for your troubles. On the flipside, if the concept doesn’t appeal to you at all, you’re not missing much by skipping it and starting at level 1 as usual. GMs might also find these rules useful for generating any commoner NPCs who are intended to be more unique than the standard commoner statblock.
So all in all, I’m glad these 0th-level rules exist. It’s a cool facet of D&D levelling that wasn’t touched before, a chance to experience your character in a wholly different light. Seeing them at their absolute lowest will make their eventual heights all the more impressive. Taking a single hero from level 0 to 20 would be a crazy and commendable feat indeed!