Wednesday, May 4, 2011

Leveling Up To 1

There was a great discussion on twitter yesterday about what might go into a hypothetical RPG for new players based on changing 4e or Pathfinder. Lots of good ideas, but it also reminded me of another idea that I’ve been sitting on for a while, one that puts 4e through a lens of Harry Potter inspired school play.

The idea is based on a simple premise: first level 4e characters are pretty capable, enough so that it’s possible to create an arc from “zero level” to the place where a character starts play. This idea is that there’s some manner of academy for exceptional students who have the potential to “graduate” to being level 1 heroes. The exact details of the school are fodder for another post - maybe it’s a dungeon crawling academy, maybe it’s selecting future leaders of the land, maybe it’s a feeder to an even more elite school, maybe it’s something else. We’ll worry about it after the basics have been sorted out.

So how do you do this? First, start characters off with all their stats with one 8 and four 10’s and 1 12 (modified by race), 10 hit points and starting racial package of abilities.[1] All characters begin as trained in a single skill. This can be ANY skill, and this stands in lieu of a background bonus, and it is also the exceptional thing that drew the school’s attention to the kid.
Importantly, characters do NOT have all the capabilities of a first level character. Specifically, they cannot:
  • Flank
  • Aid Another
  • Bull Rush
  • Charge
  • Perform a Coup de Grace
  • Escape
  • Equip or Stow a Shield as an action
  • Grab
  • Second Wind
  • Total Defense
  • Perform any minor action (all require a move action)
  • Perform an Opportunity Attack
Characters are proficient in no armor or weapons, so even though the basic Attack action is available to them, they gain no proficiency bonuses. And, obviously, they have no class abilities, no powers, and just the one skill. Beyond that they’re basically a blank slate.

Play proceeds on that assumption, and the DC for pretty much everything the characters might do is 10, which means they’ll be really fantastic at their particular schtick, and capable at their racial ones

The model of play, then, is to follow a pattern of going to a class about some element of this (such as basic arms training) with a quirky and interesting teacher. After the class is done, they get the particular ability, and are then faced with a challenge (either an explicit school test, or some part of the plot) which makes use of that skill or set of skills. For example, after the characters have learned Aid Another, they may be faced with a challenge with an impossible difficulty (like a DC 21 for something none of them have any bonus towards) that they need to overcome.

Once the characters have gone through all the universally available things (like the actions above, as well as learning their initial feat) they may then choose a class as their academic focus, and the process will be similar, with characters learning class abilities, and eventually powers, in their classes. The goal is that, at graduation, the characters have all the abilities they would if they’d created the character at first level.

Now, exactly how many times you want to repeat this cycle is going to depend a lot on your group. Some groups might want to rip through this stuff, others might want to stretch it out. This can just as easily be a single night’s play as it can be an entire campaign, especially depending on how much you want to focus on challenges and play within the school. Whatever you decide, divide 20 points [2] among that many periods and let players spend them as they wish.

For example, a school with 4 years, two sememsters each, might do Basic combat training (Simple Weapon Prof, Equipping shields, minor actions ad flanking) semester one, Advanced training (Aid Another, Bull Rush, Charge, Grab & Escape) second semester, Focus exercises (Second WInd, Total Defense, Coup De grace, Opportunity Attack) third semester then Horizon broadening (First Feat and trained skill) fourth semester. Class is then “assigned” at the end of the second year (angst!) and we move onto more class-specific classes.

Now, part of the appeal of this is that school play is fun. It takes work to bring the school to life and bring in challenges that keep players engaged, but it’s a neat setting premise with a familiar literary base. But there is also some appeal in that you can make learning 4e a part of the process. Players can start with only a minimal understanding of the system, and with each successive challenge, they pick up a few more fiddly bits. Only after they’ve got a sense of the basics do they even need to start worrying about class abilities and powers, and at that point, they’ll probably look pretty darn awesome.

Anyway, this is obviously only half an idea. Without a solid pitch for what the school looks like, it’s got no wings. But I’ll be shocked if some of you are not already thinking “What does 4e Hogwarts look like?”

[back] 1 - You can actually start without Racial Abilities for all races and come up with progressions for them to learn them, but this requires that the GM work things out on a race by race basis, and requires some thought regarding what races are allowed in the school. This is easy to do, but it requires more bookkeeping than I can squeeze into an already long post. Humans are probably the easiest to do in this way - just delay their bonus stuff until after play has begun.

[back] 2 − 20, not 22 because 2 points bought the starting 12. And if you use some other method of stat generation, then just apply the idea rather than the specific mechanic. The improvements come steadily over the course of play.


  1. Heh, and of course, it's totally video game-like (in a good way!)

    I'd add shifting ("How To Escape A Fight 101") and slowly introduce the different attack types too ("Your First Burst.")

    Difficult for anyone who knows the rules to sit through, but sounds like an awesome way to teach.

  2. Reminds me of the board game Dungeon Lords (Similar to Dungeon Keeper the computer game), which was a lot of fun, but you have to play a training module first before you can play because it is so complex.

  3. I love this, and my cabal of cronies (can two people be mutual cronies? I don't mean to imply any sort of subservience on their part) are right in the midst of discussing a game where players start pre-adventuring career and work up to it.

    The concept of starting a character below first level and working through those crucial, defining choices is something that's fired my imagination for years; I honestly wasn't sure how well 4e would stand up to it, given the relatively more robust nature of a level 1 character. Seeing it broken down (even if I might eschew the school setting in terms of character development) is very exciting.

    I'd also definitely keep the various racial abilities as-is, since it feels as though that would provide a lot of excellent rp fodder. The human ranger and the elven ranger start on a roughly equal footing, but the elf is always pulling off the more difficult shots and is something of an ass about it. The half-elf and the dwarf have a rivalry that often leads to fisticuffs, and the dwarf takes forever to beat down...but the half-elf isn't above pulling out a sly maneuver he picked up watching pirates gamble down at the docks.

    And no one, no one pisses off the Tiefling.

  4. @Dave When I was writing, I excluded Shifting because it's just moving slowly, but in retrospect, I think you're right. It's moving in combat, and I'd teach at at the same time (or right after) I teach Opportunity Attacks.

    And yes! Video gamey! In a good Way!

    @Arashi Not familiar with the specific game, but yeah, definitely going for the "Tutorial level" you encounter at the beginning of a lot of games.

    @Seth yeah, as I was thinking about it, it struck me that this is a context where racial abilities become really interesting and differentiating rather than just one more factor. For newbie characters, race becomes a really big deal, and that feels right in this context.

  5. Not just a big deal; it makes race distinctive. The more I think about things, the more exciting I find that concept...the idea that my decision to play my rogue as a gnome, rather than a halfling, is more than just a shuffle of a few stat adjustments. That fading from view is freaky and strange rather than equivalent to dodging an attack.

    And some races, like Goliaths, suddenly become much more impressive relative to their friends. The lesser-acknowledged traits (like rolling twice for Athletics) become even more important in a smaller campaign with smaller challenges.

  6. This is a super cool idea, Rob! Also, well executed, even if this is just the starting point for a specific campaign structure.

  7. I like this idea quite a bit.

    I have even considered using B/X D&D levels 1 to 3 as "Pre levels" for 4th Ed. Use the older rules to build up to the newer ones.

    I am going to come back to this post after a bit.

  8. This is a neat idea. The only issue I have with this is that, if the training exercises are as combat-centric as a typical 4e game (or even somewhat less so) you're going to push the students into picking up Str and Dex -- since that's what's important to the Melee Basic Attacks they'll be making all over the place. At least, if the players care about their characters' effectiveness here pre-1st level. That will be suboptimal for characters who are headed towards classes with other Prime Requisites.

    I'm not sure how to address this. Ideally you would have a school training environment that gives niche protection out to Cha- or Int- focussed characters. How to develop an environment like that into the Melee Basic Attack paradigm of 4e-without-powers isn't obvious, since it's the class powers that give those other stats their oomph.

  9. Sign me up.

    Technically, I am running a 4e game, but it is pretty seat of the pants and relies on my 13 year old's command of the rules. I just pretend to know what I am doing and keep reminding myself I am not in AD&D land anymore.

    It is fun, but I would love to have the hand holding to take me through what the game and characters are capable of.

    I wonder if the flexibility of the concept compacts sufficiently down to "Taste of" session at Labyrinth games?

  10. Great post! I've taught D&D 4E to new players using similar techniques but with 3 key differences:

    1. You start with the bare minimum.

    I announce that "we're going to play heroes in a fantasy world filled with monsters, treasure, and adventure! You play the heroes and I will play everything else and teach you how to play. It's fast an easy." Then I give everyone their own personal d20 and a blank sheet that says:

    - "What is your hero's name? Circle one of the following names…" followed by name examples.

    - "You heroes are all friends. Introduce your hero and write the names of your hero's friends here…"

    - "Tell me what you want your hero to do and then roll your 20 sided die to see if they succeed. If you roll 10 or higher, your hero succeeds!"

    - "Place stickers here…" with designated spaces to place stickers.

    That's it! You don't even have hit points. If someone hits you, you drop!

    2. We start roleplaying!

    I write down "monster", "child", and "gold" on 3 separate index cards and announce, "you see a monster trying to rob a child carrying a bag of gold. What do you do?"

    Everyone takes a turn saying what they want their hero to do, rolling a d20, and then describing how they succeed or fail. Usually when people say what they want their hero to do, they end up introducing new people, places, or things into the world. When they do, I write the name of these new people, places, or things down on an index card and place it in the middle of the table.

    3. We introduce new rules every turn.

    After everyone has a turn, I will ask them a question about their character, "what do you look like" and then introduce a single new game rule. Everything from, "now you have hit points" to "here is your miniature" to "this is how many squares you can move" to "now the monsters can attack back".

    Each rule is printed on its own sticker (usually letter labels). When a new rule is introduced, you grab a sticker and place it on your character sheet. I will often color code the rules so the more important rules stand out. The 3 main benefits of stickers:

    - They stand out and players remember them.
    - Players don't have to write down the rules and instead they are available in an easy to read format.
    - You can place a sticker with updated rules over an existing sticker. No erasing, no re-writing.

    It's ridiculously easy, players never feel overwhelmed, it's fast, and players don't forget the rules. The only problem I've run into… the more rules you add, the more restrictive the game becomes and not all players like all the restrictions (especially once they've had a chance to play first without those restrictions). For example, people who get used to playing without a miniature may not then enjoy playing with maps and minis. But the advantage of this problem is you get a solid idea of what players do and don't like, and can customize D&D 4E to their tastes.


  11. I like it a lot. It reminds me of what I like about How to Train your Dragon.

    Regarding Str/Dex and powerless play: I think early on, players will likely avoid Melee Basic Attack (especially if they don't know it exists) and choose all kinds of Basic Actions.

    This could be a perfect way to train players to be open to creative play after the concept Ryven Cydrelle introduced here: Singularity: The Grand Unified Theory of Skills and Powers concerning everything being actions, with Powers being special moves that PCs can accomplish consistently. Ryven's explanation works excellently within standard (and stripped down) 4e rules and allows players to basically build their own powers like you're describing here. Some might develop Str/Dex powers, but others may solve problems using other stats, which then evolve into fitting powers. There're so many powers by now, everything should have something close for DMs to emulate.

    Later, even if players have many more powers and skills, they should be able to remember that they can do anything they want.

    I really like the angsty youth focus on seemingly overwhelming race distinctiveness, with some seeming better in certain circumstances, and the pressure of choosing what program to choose at 3rd year (class features, etc) since that has a high opportunity cost.

    I would love to see the campaign that takes place after this type of game, because each level could be run the same way. Players decide ahead of time what the next 4 levels will give them, and then the DM works occassions for those incremental increases into the story organically, but the players themselves have to work and act in such a way that the +1 Intelligence, new feat or new power on the list could develop, until the DM finally says, "Now you have ___" Perhaps a character needs to try a Ryven-style maneuver once before earning the power, perhaps 8 times, or maybe in a dramatic way, or situation. This way, levels could also be used as rewards for players taking ownership of character development in the narrative sense. Some players may be +2 or -1 level relative to the others, but that's ok in moderation. The DM can focus sessions on situations highlighting the lowest level characters to push them to develop.

    Yeah, I like the ideas this produces.

  12. George H-One way around the problem of overemphasizing the basic combat stats could be to use skill challenges rather than monsters. The sequence of posts starts at, I think, and goes into some things that could be very useful for this sort of game.

  13. Regarding Str/Dex and powerless play: I think early on, players will likely avoid Melee Basic Attack (especially if they don't know it exists) and choose all kinds of Basic Actions.

    Assuming we are talking about a combat situation, I can't imagine many players avoiding MBAs for long unless the DM gives them wands of avada kedavra. You can come up with creative rug-pulls and Hermione-moves all day, but the simplest way to end a fight is "I hit it." And given that apprentice-level characters will probably be fighting minions, it's probably the most effective way too.

    Honestly, I like this Hogwarts concept but I hate the implementation. I had a DM run us through an apprentice-level adventure once, and it was boooring. I can see it maybe helping brand new players, but none of us were new and all I could think was " when will I get to play my real character?"

    If I were to play a Hogwarts type adventure, I wouldn't start before 1st level. This may sound radical, but I'd simply start at 1st level and treat the heroic tier as "gifted youngster" levels. Hell, the heroic tier pretty much is a game tutorial. You become a big boy when you hit 11th level and choose a career (paragon path).

    If I absolutely had to start before 1st level, I'd simply rule that MBAs use a stat of the player's choice. It's a fairly common house rule to begin with, but if ya need justification you can require players to describe Hermione using her smarts to land a hit.

  14. From someone who's played and GM'd his fair share of 0 level adventures, this is awesome.

  15. Rob,

    I have come back to this after doing a post on my own blog. I am going to give it try when I re-start up my 4e game.


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