Monday, December 1, 2014

0 Level Characters in Zylarthen

There aren't any.

That is, Zylarthen avoids distinguishing, say, 1st level player character Fighting-Men from any other able-bodied fighting types such as non-player character soldiers, mercenaries, etc., at least in any general sense. Among other things, all use the same attack and saving throw tables, though for simplicity, soldiers and mercenaries might sometimes use the "Up to 1" hit dice row of the Monsters Attacking table if keeping track of their weapons becomes more trouble than it's worth.

Now, note that I use the phrase in any general sense. There are a few specific ways in practice that player-characters will differ from other types.

  1. Members of the Fighting-Men class (whether player characters or non-player characters) get 1+1 die of hit points as opposed to simply 1 die of hit points for all other able-bodied types.
  2. All starting player characters get as many hit point roll mulligans as they need so as to guarantee their hit point roll will be at least 4.
  3. All player-character or non-player character members of a class have the chance to gain levels by accumulating experience points.
  4. Only player characters or important non-player characters ("important" probably ruling out mercenaries etc.) get to roll on the Zero Hit Point table, thus having a chance to cheat death, if only temporarily. 

That said, it is implicit in Zylarthen that the difference between, say, a classed Fighting-Man and a soldier is merely one of, so to speak, initiative or chosen circumstance. It's certainly not genetic or metaphysical or anything like that. So, for example, when player characters have mercenaries arrive in response to their advertisements--anything from Barbarians (1 silver a day) to Cataphracts (20 silvers a day)--the rules make it clear that they could either be hired in their "ordinary" role, or if the player characters desire, any of them could be invited to be "close associates"--Fighting-Men with the potential to gain levels--as long as they are promised at least half-shares in any treasure.

So, in essence, the only thing that separates you (as a starting character) from that "typical" or "average" guy with a sword over there is that you're brave enough (or stupid enough) to tramp into that dungeon a day's ride away. Or rather, you are that soldier, but you have a desire to make something of yourself by tramping into that dungeon. This may or may not be a good thing.

One might say that Zylarthen shares with Dungeon Crawl Classics the idea of the funnel. Except that in Zylarthen, the funnel isn't something that happens before first level; it is first level. That's a bit of an exaggeration but still...

Why did I design the game this way?

Well, first, since Zylarthen was intended  to follow OD&D in spirit, I wanted to eliminate as many AD&D accretions as possible. And AD&D made much of the distinction between 0 level and leveled types, among other things introducing the term henchmen for non-player characters you could hire--who had a character class and the potential to gain experience and thus level up--as contrasted with hirelings--who were just "normal" mercenaries. In truth, the idea of a Normal Man with attack numbers inferior to starting player characters was first introduced by Holmes, but I'm not sure whether the idea originated with Holmes or whether he wasn't just giving an early launch to an idea that was being tossed around by the AD&D planners. It's also possible, I suppose, that Gygax or Arneson had intended the 0 level distinction for OD&D but hadn't stated it explicitly, or that it was present in some form in Chainmail. Nevertheless it's not in the OD&D text itself.

Second, adding another row or column (for 0 level types or normal men or whatever) to the attack tables just seems fussy. What's the purpose of it exactly? Why are, say Bandits any better at fighting than the average mercenary you might hire? Or, to put it a different way, why go to the trouble of adding an entirely new class or category of people, just to make it clear that bandits (or player characters) are 5% better? Again, what goal does that serve in game terms?

But finally and most importantly, introducing the concept of 0 level characters was in my view one of the first steps into inducing the players to think of their characters as pumped up superheroes--complete with elaborate back stories and titles, etc.--before they had even raised a sword against a Kobold. The Gygaxian conception outlined in The Dungeon Master's Guide (1979) was almost Nietzschean. Only 1 in 100 humans in the average village, town or city were leveled or even had the potential to level. Needless to say, I find the whole trend to be annoying for about five different reasons.

Here's one of them: I wanted Zylarthen to be in part a game about heroism. And yes, I even felt that it had the potential to teach children about this virtue, at least in some small and non-obnoxious manner, without of course getting in the way of the game's primary purpose--using one's imagination to have fun. Not to sound too curmudgeonly, but the point about heroes and heroines is that they need to earn the title. They're not born but made. Or rather, they make themselves through their own actions. Though, having teachers or role-models can obviously help. The anti-0 level thing is only a small part of promoting this idea, I know, but it is a part.

Those who choose to act as heroes or heroines may succeed completely--killing the monster or saving the land or the prince or whatever, perhaps even getting rich as a reward for their efforts. Or they may succeed only partly. Or they may die in the process.

But it is the act that confers the title.


  1. "It's also possible, I suppose, that Gygax or Arneson had intended the 0 level distinction for OD&D but hadn't stated it explicitly, or that it was present in some form in Chainmail. Nevertheless it's not in the OD&D text itself."

    There is actually a difference in Men & Magic between a 1st level Fighting man and "normal men" : in the "Statistic Regarding Classe "tables (p 17), the 1st level FM had a fighting capability of "Man +1", thus making him a tougher opponent than a "Man" or even his fellow adventurers , Cleric and MU, but it was "lost" with the alternate Combat System Tables.

    1. That's true if you are using Chainmail combat. For the Alternative Combat System, it notes below Attack Matrix 1 that "Normal Men equal 1st level fighters" (pg 19).

    2. This is an important distinction to make, as attack capability in zylarthen is clearly modeled off of the ACS, not fighting capability.

    3. Yes, good, porphyre77. I should have noted that. And as Ron Anderson pointed out in his Google+ comments there's also the obvious point about 1st level Fighting-Men being called "Veterans". On the other hand, as Aaron Day points out in his Google+ comments, Arneson referred to 1st level fighters as "flunkies" and Barker in EPT uses the label "Soldier" as opposed to "Veteran".

      I think the evidence seems to point to ideas on this issue being mixed. In the end, though, Gygax's views (were they always his views?) obviously won out.

  2. "In truth, the idea of a Normal Man with attack numbers inferior to starting player characters was first introduced by Holmes, but I'm not sure whether the idea originated with Holmes or whether he wasn't just giving an early launch to an idea that was being tossed around by the AD&D planners."

    The extra "Normal Man" entries are not found in the Combat or Saving Throw Tables in the Holmes Manuscript, so they were added by TSR, probably Gygax, to the published rulebook. AD&D was in development at the time, so it's certainly possible he added it to make the rule sets fit together better.

    1. Yes. That would seem to answer that question. And to be more precise I should have said, first introduced "in" Holmes.

  3. Looking through the 1e Monster Manual, Gary converted all the "Men" entries, such as bandits, into 0 level normal men. In OD&D these encounters all had hit dice like normal monster entries. This seems to be some sort of philosophical change. From that point on, humans only had class and level and were never given hit dice. This created the need for a 0-level.

    1. This makes Holmes intermediate, since it has the separate lines for NM in the combat and saving throw tables, but Bandits & Berserkers still have standard HD. Only in the Sample Dungeon do we get more details on the "Normal Man", in Room M where the pirates are "normal men (1 6-sided hit die)" [versus an 8-sided hit die for monsters in the Monster List, inc Bandits & Berserkers]. This was a conscious change from the manuscript where Holmes had the pirates as "first level (1 hit die)". So 1977 was a transitional year for this concept.

  4. Just found an earlier ref in Swords & Spells (July 1976). The Combat Tables on pages 24-25 include a line "0" for Levels or HD and a note: "0 Level is normal man-type (i.e., 1 die or less, and not able to progess upwards in levels)" (pg 25).