Posted by Owen K.C. Stephens
Before we get to any OGL content, an editorial aside:
So, why is this tagged as an “Owen Explains It All” post, when that’s very unlike my normal marketing tone? Well, because this links into a new show from the BAMF podcast, titled “Owen Explains It All!“.
We have a logo and everything!
If you haven’t already gone and watched that whole inaugural episode, we talk about The Tomorrow War and how to implement elements of it in a Starfinder Roleplaying Game campaign. We’ll do an episode every two weeks, picking new things from the zeitgeek to use as inspiration for game material.
As we covered in the episode, there’s a lot of good pacing and scene-setting material in The Tomorrow War that can inspire cool setups for a Starfinder game. But the most interesting idea from my perspective was having some of the characters be largely untrained… “0-Level” versions of themselves, not yet even at the base level expected for the things they had to do.
So that’s what we’re looking at in this article. If you want game material inspired from other elements of The Tomorrow War, or want to suggest other things for us to feature on Owen Explains It All, let me know!
Now with that explanation out of the way, let’s get to the OGL game content!
0-Level Characters for Starfinder
There are two common approaches you can use when starting PCs are below-1st-level of power, which I refer to as the Weak Firsters, and the True 0-Level. The Weak Firsters is much easier for the GM to implement, but less flexible for the players. True 0-Level takes more effort on everyone’s part, but it a good deal more flexible. We’ll look at both these using Starfinder Roelplaying Game rules, though the ideas can be easily adapted to any ttRPG system.
Using the Weak Firsters rules, each player still picks a character class for their character before play, and then makes a weaker-than-1st-level version of them. Species are picked and their abilities and bonuses applied as normal, but characters start with only 8 points in their ability scores. Each character can spend a single skill point and select a single class skill (which need not be a class skill for their character class — they deserve some reward for beginning at less-than-1st-level), and pick a single armor or weapon proficiency (which DOES need to be something their class starts with).
And that’s it. No other class features, no other skills or proficiencies. Everyone is suffering proficiency penalties to either armor or weapon choices, and depending on what they begin with (normally the GM will have a standard kit of starting equipment everyone begins with in a game like this, though players could be given half their normally starting wealth to pick their own gear) may suffer penalties to everything at first.
Note that this makes EVERYTHING much harder for the characters than for 1st level characters. If you want to frighten your players with CR 1/2 or 1/3 minor threats, now is the time to do it! Even climbing over a wall or driving a vehicle is challenging at this point, and it should be clear that these characters are essentially untrained civilians trying to survive in a situation they have never been prepared for. But they have a key ability score, and thus Resolve points, so at least they can stabilize when at 0 HP…
However, after each encounter, not only to the characters receive normal experience points, they get to add one element from their starting character. At first, each pick must be a class skill and skill point, an armor or weapon proficiency, one of their two missing ability score points (still limited to a max of 18), or gaining a 0-level spell known and castable (spells again being restricted to their class’s normal options), but once those are filled in, characters can start to gain their class’s actual class features, base attack bonus, base saving throw bonuses, and pick their 1st-level feat. This is trial-by-fire, and surviving a single fight with CR 1/2 wounded Mandible Beasts has the immediate reward of getting better at some thing you just had to do while terrible at it.
Once characters select all their 1st level class features, leveling occurs normally from there. This does mean many PCs will have different class skills than their core class, but if they are restricted to the same number of total class skills and skill points, that’s not a huge power boost, and it is a fair reward for beginning play so weak.
True 0-Level characters have a similar set up with species abilities and 8 ability score points, but don’t have to select a class in advance. Instead each gets proficiency with light armor and small arms (since all classes start with that in Starfinder), but have only 5 base SP and HP, no key ability score, no base attack or base saves, no class skills, and just 2 skill points spend on skills.
Then they gain advances as in the Weak Firsters rules, but make their choices without a class to guide them. Each time they add something other than a class skill or skill point spent, they limit their choices in the future to only classes that have that. For example, if a player decides to gain proficiency with advanced melee weapons, they are then limited to choices matching the solarion, soldier, and vanguard (the only classes that get +1 base attack at 1st level). Once a character has assigned skill points equal to 4 plus their Int bonus, they can only assign more if there is a class available with additional skill points/level.
This is a move flexible system, where players may make careful choices to keep their options open as long as possible, but eventually get locked into a class based on what they want to advance next. Checking that each choice has at least one class that allows it is a good deal more work, and the GM may need to be forgiving of the occasional out-off-class mistake (or even allow one to each player as a bonus–it’s not the worst thing in the world if a soldier happens to have one 0-level spell known, or an envoy has a +1 base attack bonus at 1st level).
So, see uses for 0-level characters in a game you want to run? Want to pitch it to your GM? Interested in having me Explain It All for some other media-inspired content? Leave a comment and let me know!
(This is an Extended Post, with additional material discussing the Deadly Character Pyramid option to go with 0-level characters, exclusively on my Patreon, for my supporting Patrons.)