A zero-level adventure co-written by myself and Viral will be available tomorrow.
(rules after jump)
0-Level PCs and YouThe idea of starting as 0-level characters has been a fascination of mine since I first noticed the small table that listed "0-Level Hit Points by Title". Seeing it really gave me a better idea of how hit points corresponded to some rough measure of fortitude. It made sense that a manual laborer, brawny and scarred, would have almost as many hit points as a trained solider. I remember debating with myself over where the boundary was between "Child" with its meager 1d2 HP and the "Youth" with its vital and strong 1d6. Obviously somewhere in there is a tween with 1d4 hit points.
So if you're not a masochist who enjoys dying immediately, what's the draw in playing a character that's so obviously mechanically inferior to one with a PC class under their belt? For me, it's the chance to start at the very beginning of a character's life, when the call of adventure had not yet reached him and he's still enmeshed in the world that spawned him. At this level, death is not only more looming, but without the range of nonweapon proficiencies granted to PC classes he is hobbled, no better than any other man around him.
That brings us to the meat and bones of this idea: how to go about making an NPC-class character that's still interesting. We start by rolling attributes like any other character. How you roll them depends on how arbitrary your DM wants to be, but once you have your stats sorted out, it's time to pick a title and its accompanying hit points. You can choose from Manual Laborer, Soldier, Craftsman, Scholar, Invalid, Child and Youth. If you're stumped on how to classify a particular archetype, most people have 1d6 HP. Interestingly, 0-level gnomes and dwarves have 1d8 hit points regardless of title.
The next step is to determine what kinds of skills he has, and how they are represented mechanically. You might have a different idea in mind (if so, don't hesitate to use it instead!), but a quick consultation with the optional Secondary Skills rule gives us a rough guideline of what you could expect to know in a given profession. Most of the skills are readily translatable to nonweapon proficiencies, and to balance out the distribution of skills, giving every character four NWP slots from a profession's list allows those with only one notable skill to be very good at it. The farmer may only be truly skilled in farming, but spending three slots on Agriculture gives him +2 to any check related to it. He may also take nonweapon proficiencies from the list of general NWPs, provided that he has already dedicated at least one slot to each of the NWPs in his profession's list.
Most 0-level characters won't have any weapon proficiencies, but if he belongs to a profession that would use weapons (such as a soldier or hunter) he instead has three NWP slots and one weapon proficiency slot.
Now that our 0-level character has a name, attribute scores, a title, hit points, and skills, there's only one thing left before he's fully playable: saving throws! This last step is expedited because the saving throws for a 0-level warrior are already provided! Warriors are the only group to have their 0-level counterparts listed, doubtlessly because they are the only group of unleveled characters likely to enter combat! At the whims of the DM, the saving throw for paralyzing and poison might be raised for the less-hardy characters, but the saving throws are already quite bad.
Of course, we probably don't want him to be cast out into the world naked (although that sounds like a good plot hook to me), so a generous DM might provide him with equipment and possibly even arms and armor, or at least the equivalent PC class's starting wealth dice (ignoring the multiplier) to acquire his own lot.
At this point we can step back and examine our creation fully. He has little or no combat skill, few resources, a depth and breadth of knowledge that could impress only the simplest peasants, and yet he is as lifelike as any player character before him.
Should he take up the mantle of hero and prove his worth and potential, the DM might allow him to become a leveled character. This could be a standard class like a fighter or wizard, or another class more befitting his low-powered nature, such as an apothecary, cartographer or guide. Upon becoming a 1st-level character he gains all the benefits, abilities and proficiencies of that class, as well as increasing his hit points to the maximum of his level-1 class. (Or his current HP, whichever is higher.)
Two options for reaching this goal are presented here. The first allows the DM more control: to reach level 1, the character needs only a single experience point, but he must seek training with a leveled character, for as long a period as the DM decides. This could mean gaining PC levels after a single game session, or stringing the training along for months or years of game time.
The second option is possibly much harder, but the goal is clearer and allows a larger payoff: to reach level 1, the character must gain XP equal to half the amount required to advance to level 2 in his chosen class, but once he reaches level 1 the XP remains, placing him halfway to level 2.