Thursday, March 5, 2009

Zero-To-Hero Style 4e?

The discussion came up (as it periodically seems to) the other day about the starting power levels of 4th Edition Dungeons & Dragons, and how starting with characters relatively powerful compared to previous editions may put a damper on "zero to hero" gaming--you know, the old "starts out as a stableboy-turned-militia recruit poking a spear at goblins, ends up Warrior King of the Seven Nations" story. The idea of playing the progression of lowly farms boys turned Jedi, as it were, is something that 4e in its default form doesn't really excel at.

I understand that style of play isn't to everyone's liking, but I always sort of liked the option of putting the hero's journey in those terms. If you want to give it a whirl with 4th Edition, Fred Hicks (co-creator of FATE and Spirit of the Century, among other cool things) has written up a system for 3 "pre-levels" to level 1 that make for more of a gradual build-up to the power of first level.

If that's too gradual an increase for you, A Butterfly Dreaming pitched an idea along the same lines a few days ago. Again, if it isn't your style, I understand, but I think they're both pretty cool ideas for that sort of play. What do you think?


Wyatt said...

I like the proposal on Butterfly quite a bit.

The proposal on Zero Hour strikes me as boring overkill.

See, I don't care about a specific system for zero-to-hero gaming because I don't think level 1 PCs necessarily have to be "zeroes" to be weak. I think it's as much attitude and tone of the game as it is "you are made of paper, here's some scissors, go fight that monster." Just because level 1 PCs have 25 hp and 4 powers doesn't HAVE TO mean they're hyper-competent rockstars. That depends on the rest of the world they're in.

You can simulate having weaker PCs of less worth to the world by not using the same standard encounters all the time. Level 1 PCs can kill level 2-3 critters – but it's hard and they'll take some punishment. Now if everything's a level or two ahead of them, who's so superior now?

However, the proposal on Dreaming seems simple and interesting, whereas the other one is, in my opinion, too messy. The proposal to make PCs HP Con Score -2 at the lowest level strikes me as hilariously bad. You'd basically be a minion.

James Maliszewski said...

I continue to be baffled why anyone would want to try and retro-fit old school play onto 4e. The game is not designed to be played that way and anyone who's really interested in that style already has tons of games he can use to do so. I have no use for 4e myself, but, if I did, it wouldn't be to try and emulate things that earlier games already do and do better.

Zachary The First said...

I guess I can chalk up two early "no" votes, then! :)

@Wyatt: I get what you're saying, but I think part of it comes from not wanting your farmboy to know Spinning Golden Dragon Kick right out the gate. Scaling enemy encounters doesn't really address that, and sometimes that doesn't fit with what some folks want their earlier session to look like. Again, it's just a style of gaming, wrong for some, right for others.

@James: Ask Clark Peterson. :)

Thanks for the comments, guys!

Wyatt said...

None of your attacks at 1st level have to be a spinning dragon kick.

They can just be "I hit it with my sword. It falls down."

For a Paladin "I hit it with my sword, which is glowing a bit."

Spinning Dragon Kick is descriptive text. You don't have to be over-the-top hyperweeaboo for any of the attacks unless you want to. Most of the powers can be as dry as "I hit it with my sword but a whole lot harder than before" if that's what you want.

Zachary The First said...

Understood, but again, I think the entire starting level power evaluation goes beyond that. You could also argue that what you've described isn't really encouraged by the rules presentation.

Wyatt said...

It isn't encouraged, but if you really feel like playing 4e to be a weakling, there's much easier places to start with that mindset than by creating negative levels and 8 hp characters.

Gleichman said...

Interesting that this would break out into a debate. Such is the power of D&D and 4th edition.

I woudl think a single level 0 addition that lacks any class features would be the easy solution. They get only that common to all classes and nothing more, with the lowest Hit Die, etc.

One level at that should be more than enough to represent the genre convention and try the patience of the players.

But really, they should be player Age of Heroes instead :)

Dominic said...

Not to sound like a jerk or a Pro-4E Wizards clone or anything, but... really? Is this necessary? 4E already has 30 levels, do you really need to add 3 more to make the PC's weaker?

In my observation, most of the people on the interwebs pushing old school games and ideals are DM's. Now, maybe this is the nature of the industry (the people who blog about it are more likely to be DM's) but I don't really see very many players volunteering. They play what they can find, or just go along with their DM because they like the group they are in.

I mean, how many players are going to be like, "You know, I like fourth edition, but I think I started out TOO STRONG. Let's go back 3 levels and start out as weak farmer boys who can get killed by the neighborhood bully, ok?"

For plot purposes, maybe it could happen. But I doubt my players would be champing at the bit to get to that.

Zachary The First said...

Eh, it's all fun stuff. Wyatt and I have pretty different things we want out of our gaming at times, I think, but I like hearing what he has to say.

I do think it's interesting that we see some of the same with this that we do with Necromancer wanting to do a "Classic 4e"--any time you discuss merging older styles of game play with that of 4e, you tend to get it a little from both sides. I'd say this is pretty mild in comparison (except for the email I just received), but it does show that's there's plenty of folks on both sides who have no use for their chocolate and peanut butter to mix, as it were.

Zachary The First said...

@Dominic: No, no worries. You may be right. There may not be a lot of demand for it with 4e players. I suspect that among those who’ve championed or play 4e, you’d largely be correct.

But it’s just an option, after all. We got plenty of unnecessary stuff for 3e and earlier editions that maybe only a dozen people used. We’re talking about a niche within a niche within a niche. It’s just out there to talk about. If it isn’t your cup of tea, no crisis of faith here.

Thanks for the post!

Thasmodious said...

James, which version of D&D covered zero to hero?

None of them. 1st level characters may have sucked sometimes, but they weren't farmboys with no skills, they had a slew of weapons and armor training or already knew several spells, already had a suite of skills. That's why the 0-Level rules were invented in 2nd edition, to bring this type of play to D&D. To really pull it off has always required an extra system like those linked in the blog post or some good tweaking.

That said, I think Wyatt is right that it's about the game's tone. 4e characters at 1st level aren't any more powerful than previous editions, the numbers of the system are just different. Some mechanical aid is nice, too, but not necessary. I started a 0-level game or two in the 2e days and I created a 0-level system for 3e to start such a campaign.

Fred Hicks (Evil Hat Productions) said...

Personally, I wouldn't do the zero to hero thing in my gaming anyway. If I want to make 1st level feel challenging, I do what I've always tended to do -- hit the PCs with encounters that are at least 3 or 4 levels above them.

James Maliszewski said...

James, which version of D&D covered zero to hero?

You will note I said nothing about "zero to hero," which I think isn't an old school formulation at all. There's a reason a 1st-level OD&D Fighting Man is called a "Veteran," after all. I think you're correct that beginning D&D characters have always been more highly skilled than "normal men" and that's been the case since the three little brown books.

That said, the gulf between normal men and 1st-level characters has been widening with each new edition. As I see it, though, that's a feature, not a bug, of the modern editions of the game, so I find myself baffled as to why anyone would want to eliminate it through kludges like this. That was my only point.

Thasmodious said...

Ah, I gotcha, sir. I misconstrued that you were equating zero to hero with old school play. My apologies.

Wax Banks said...

Ironically (given my other predilections), I'm with the ol' Grognard on this one (to an extent) - and have gone on at tremendous length here as to why. Shorter version: a system built for adjudicating heroic fantasy can't handle 'zero to hero' any more than a game about bickering gods can adjudicate a divorce proceeding. Which is fine, because you don't actually want to play a zero - you just want the feeling of contrast, the disparity between what your guy can do in the world and what the world can do to him. There's a reason no one actually wants to roleplay Frodo Baggins.

The disparity is easily achieved using existing mechanics, and 4e is built to make the DM's work much much much much much easier in that regard. Which is where Maliszewski and I part company - his game design credentials notwithstanding, I think his parochialism about the way 4e is 'designed to be played' has nothing to do with the system and everything to do with fanciful (in Coleridge's sense) attachment. Not to ad all over everyone's hominem or anything.

Nathaniel said...

I also created a 0-level system for 4e that you can see on my blog at enworld.

I take a different approach to the system.