Wednesday, August 29, 2012

Hiatus Interruptus and Zero Level PCs

  I am going to lay the blame for my long blogging hiatus fully at the feet of my lovely wife and gestating larva. My son, my heir, has required massive attention in preparation for his imminent arrival - including appointments, classes, research, and home remodeling. The latter is still underway, and sadly my painting and modelling cave is being retrofitted into a new expanded kitchen area, and all of my assorted bits and bobs are temporarily boxed and stuffed into a spare bedroom while a new office space is arranged.
  In lieu of a modelling and painting update, I guess I'll just leave this here - some of the campaign materials from my groups summer game. A few of my players are teachers, and when summer hits, one of them escapes the stagnant swamp of Virginia for fully three months in exchange for cooler climes. This necessitates a break from regularly scheduled programming. Well, necessitates is a strong word. I suppose 'presents an opportunity' is more accurate. After a year of post-apocalyptia, the itch for some good old fashioned fantasy arose. 
  Had an idea to run a short summer game in the same world as our group's last two fantasy runs, though set a few hundred years in that world's future, allowing me to season the setting with some Victorian gas-lamp goodness. It's essentially fan-service, the premise revolving around the final fate of our group's very first party, which due to shifting player schedules, was never quite resolved after two years of playing. These characters and their shenanigans are still oft quoted and remembered fondly at the table, after four years and a few intervening games. So - I give them the city of Baelheim. A sprawling, seeming endless mega-city, and cast them as children. The idea of PC's as children appealed to me for a few reasons, foremost being that heroes are made, not born.
  In your standard D&D character generation rules, adventurers are exceptional individuals from the outset. You know, that farm-boy who can punch an ornery cow unconscious and is for some reason innately comfortable in plate armor, despite, y'know, never seeing any before.  Low levels have always been the most fun to DM for me. Once you hit around... I dunno, level 12-14 - the PCs realistically have the skills and resources to deal with whatever world annihilating horrors you can dream up with relative ease and aplomb. I greatly prefer being able to ravage them to the point of near-death with a pack of dire rats. It's not just my sadism, though that is certainly a factor, but the blase 'Oh, another ancient lich and his horde of undead servitors' ho-hum workaday attitude that develops. Point being, I want these fuckers scared. Setting them as children in a hostile urban wilderness seems just about perfect to me. 
  I scoured the interwebs for ideas on systems to develop 'under-powered' 0 level characters, and found quite a few great ideas scattered around. I pieced a few of these together and decided on a point-buy system that would allow the PCs to create characters without the physical means to render draft animals thrice their size comatose with a fusillade of fisticuffs. Even better, it seemed to work. First, they get a splash of flavor text and scene-setting. 
     
  One hundred and fifty years ago, the great northern capitol of Balin's Watch was razed to the ground in a legendary battle between the Three and the nameless horrors awakened by the necromancer Vethin and his illithid thralls. Iberra heeded the call of the Three, and the ranks of the Army of the North swelled with heroes of legend, united against the seemingly endless tide of darkness. The battle raged for nearly a year, the armies gathered and led by the Three clashing against the creatures disgorged from the Abraxus riftsea north of the Ettinspine mountains. They fought, the weight of the entirety of the world on their weary shoulders. They fought, and they lost.
Betrayed in the end by a creature called Kasparov, the Army of the North was scattered and destroyed, the battlefield soaked with the blood of heroes. A final desperate charge was mounted by the Three and their remaining allies, striking deep into the heart of the enemy, forcing them to abandon defense of the city.
In their absence, the remaining defenders were overwhelmed, and the flood of darkness poured through the city, slaughtering it's inhabitants to the last and tearing it's ancient towers from their foundations. The creatures flowed over and through Balin's Watch, Iberra's last bastion against the tide of nightmares threatening to drown the world in darkness. All was lost. The cities and villages of the north were swallowed whole.
And then, the Flare. There are some among the long-lived races who still remember those dark days, when the end of all things loomed close enough to taste on the wind. A flash of white, from the distant north, a light of such purity and ferocious intensity that it struck witnesses blind for days afterward. The flash, and then the Howl. A chorus of screams from the advancing armies of the rift, a cacophony of rage and frustration, so loud that it is said that it rattled the windows in the southern desert palaces of Khapra. The darkness was gone.
Though they never returned from that final charge, it is commonly held that the Three and their allies somehow managed to seal the tear between the worlds at their end, banishing the darkness back to the void. They were raised up by the religions of Iberra as martyrs, and shrines were erected throughout the Thirteen Kingdoms. It is claimed by many that the Three and their allies were lifted up by the gods at the last to reward their sacrifice, and they are widely considered to hold places among the pantheon. Zende the Black, patron saint of warriors and pirates. Rhona the Wolf, matron of madness and the hunt. Dracht-Cha, patron saint of storms and the wild. In recent times, worship of Olidimarra has been almost entirely abandoned in favor of Garren the Grand, one of the Three's staunchest allies, who accompanied them on their final charge, as the patron saint of thieves and luck.
Balin's Watch stood abandoned for a decade, a cursed place, haunted by the dead. But the living have short memories. The promise of abandoned riches drew adventurers, the lure of arcane secrets drew scholars and mages. Behind these enterprising pioneers, settlers began to creep back into the lands of the north. The village of Baelheim was established over the ruins of Balin's Watch, and grew quickly. Wooden palisades and clapboard hovels rapidly gave way to permanent structures, and stone towers again began to climb into the sky. Up and up they stretched, their upper stories connected by broad covered bridges, wrought from stone scavenged from the bones of the dead city beneath them, blanketing the lower city in perpetual twilight of factory smoke and shadow. Gaslamps burn on most corners in Lowtown, a feeble attempt to banish the fog and murk that Baelheim's lower classes work and live in.
In recent years, harvests have been especially poor, the once fertile ground gone sour, the livestock barren and sickly. Lowtown is hardest hit, the winter dead stacked like cord-wood at the intersections, picked over by Collectors from the Scholia Biologica or the hooded acolytes of the Brotherhood of Silas. Countless refugees are driven into the great city from the outlying villages, their homes either ravaged by plague or razed by the pale-haired, sharp fanged White Elves of the Ettinspine mountains. It is a hard, cold place. As the snows begin to fall, the debauched nobles and scholars of the Upper City debate politics in teahouses warmed by alchemical light-globes while below them orphans with black, frozen fingers dig through the red slush run-off of the abattoirs for scraps of fat to sustain them.
The city is a nest of warring factions and guilds, an endless parade of alliances and betrayals, bribery and blackmail. Gangs offer the only chance of survival for many in Lowtown, and their ever-shifting turf boundaries are marked in the blood of their rivals. The High Guard, with their faceless, gilded helms, patrol the Upper City, but Lowtown is left to it's own sort of brutal, primal law – survival of the fittest. Beneath them all, the Under Guard stand their thankless watch, debtors and sentenced criminals pressed into service in the endless, unmapped web of ancient collapsing sewers, tunnels, and mines that honeycomb the earth beneath Baelheim – and things have begun to again stir in the darkness beneath the city. Black, nameless things, like from the stories of the Three.  

  There's the fan-service portion, Zende, Rhona, Dract-Cha, and Garren being characters from previous games, raised at this point to sainted status. The setting lifts ideas from all sorts of places, most notably Wermspittle and Vornheim. I like to think 'inspired by', though bits and pieces are stolen whole-cloth.  From here, they rolled out their characters from the point-buy system detailed below.

Character Creation -

Characters in this campaign will start as adolescents, orphans living in the Lowtown streets of Baelheim. When creating your character, consider what path you envision them taking at level one, selecting from among the more traditional base classes. This choice will determine your starting Baelheim class.

Fighter –             Street Tough      +1 HP, +1 Str                Typically street gang muscle
Barbarian -          Feral                   +2 HP, +1 Con             Usually nonverbal loners
Rogue-                Guttersnipe        +3 skill points, +1 Dex  Pickpockets and hoodlums
Ranger-               Streetrat             +1 Dex, +1 Wis             Self reliant survivors
Sorcerer -            Witchborn          +1 Wis, +1 Cha            Tainted blood grants magic
Wizard -              Squint                -1 HP, +2 Int                Physically weak, smart
Cleric, Monk -    Adept                +1 Wis, +1 Con             The faithful are few

I particularly like the idea of 0 level characters having access to under-powered setting-specific analogues to the traditional classes. I realized later that I left druids out of the list, unintentionally.

Ability Scores -
Ability scores will be determined with a 'point buy' system. All ability scores start at a baseline value of 8. You have 22 points to distribute among your character's abilities.

Each increase in an ability sore, up to 14, costs 1 point. Thus, raising any ability from 8 to 14 will cost 6 points total. Raising an ability to 15 costs an additional 2 points, as does raising one from 15 to 16. Thus, bringing an ability from 8 to 16 would cost a total of 10 points.

Lowering a score below 8 earns 1 point for each step down taken. For example, lowering Charisma to 6 will garner 2 points to spend elsewhere. However, no ability can be lowered below 6.

With these points, you will have created a character whose scores are average at best, and could appear under developed. Well, they are. Your character has unrealized potential. Upon reaching 1st level, your character will receive a small pool of bonus ability points to be again distributed in the above manner, raising their ability scores to 'heroic' level.

This seems a good idea to me, as well. A character achieving level 1 in Baelheim will be just a touch above a normal level 1 in terms of skills and ability points, owed to the harshness of their upbringing. It's a hard-knock life. For us.

Game Statistics -

0 level characters have a Base Attack Bonus of +0
0 level characters do not receive any base bonuses to saving throws.
0 level characters determine their Hit Points by rolling 1d3+1, and adding their Constitution modifiers (if any) to the total.
0 level characters have no proficiencies in armor or shields.
0 level characters are considered proficient in clubs, daggers, and quarterstaves.

Feats -
At 0 level, a character is granted one bonus feat, which should be selected from the list below.
Acrobatic, Agile, Alertness, Athletic, Deceitful, Deft Hands, Diligent, Nimble Fingers, Persuasive, Skill Focus, Self-Sufficient, Stealthy, Toughness
Others may be deemed acceptable at the DM's discretion.

Skills and Skill Points -
To determine your skill points, add 2 to the character's Intelligence modifier, and then multiply the result by 2. If the character is Human, add 1 to this total. This will result in a total between 3 and 11, which represents the number of points that can be spent on skills.
The skill list for 0 level characters is limited, and dictated primarily by their environment and upbringing. Available skills are listed below -
Balance, Climb, Craft, Jump. Handle Animal, Knowledge, Listen, Profession, Riding, Swimming, Spot, Survival.
Each rank in one of these skills costs 1 point, and characters can gain no more than 3 ranks in any skill at level 0. Buying a rank in any skill outside of the above list costs 2 points, and characters are limited to only having one rank in them.
Once the character achieves 1st level, these skill points will be considered a bonus. They will not be subtracted from the 1st level point pool (determined normally, as per the PHB rules).

Spellcasting at 0 level -
Characters planning to be spellcasters at 1st level will be handled in the following manner -
A 0 level character recieves a number of 0 level spells per day equal to ½ what he or she would receive at 1st level as their target class. The character's spell selection is subject to the same restrictions that affect their target class. If the character is to be of a class that only knows a select number of spells, such as a sorcerer, halve that number as well.

  From this system, we ended up with a Feral (Barbarian), Witchborn (Sorcerer), Adept (Cleric), Streetrat (Ranger), and a Guttersnipe (Rogue). And so it started off, five orphans living in Castor's Home for Wayward Youth in the Kettleblack Downs district of Baelheim's Lowtown. After four or five game sessions, I can say that forcing them to create theses decidedly 'un-heroic' characters has really changed the pace and feel of the game. It's been great. There is no 'kick down the door' playing, they are forced to think carefully before fighting when they could pretty easily be murdered by a pack of giant hairless molerats, and even those among them who rarely engage in RPing seem to really be getting into their characters.  It has been a really great experience so far. 
  While my modelling stuff is currently packed away, maybe I will try to put up the occasional game report or synopsis. Anyhow, that's all for now.

-JM out