How do you deal with level 1?

Level 1

From the time my friends and I started playing D&D back in the 80’s until today we have been making house rules around level 1. Almost all other gaming tables I have encountered also have rulings and adjustments to levels 1-3. What follows are some of our general adjustments, but I would like to know how others deal with low level characters, if at all.

Level 1Hit points

We allow maximum possible hit points for all level one characters. This might portray that characters are assumed to have a little background or training to get to level one before heading out into the fantasy world. We started this rule early in Basic red box. If we began a game and the wizard had 1 hit point, it was a real drag to get anywhere toting around the delicate flower. At first we were just ignoring all rolls of 1, but later the rule became maximum HP at level 1.

In later years as we headed into Advanced Dungeons and Dragons, then 2E, the rule stuck. Some campaigns we would allow for ignoring ones up to level 3, but later ditched the idea.

Why keep rolled HP at all?

  • It’s a real challenge when you play it through.
  • Random chance does add a fun element and represents life.
  • 0 hp doesn’t necessarily mean DEAD!
  • It starts a party out operating as a team. YES – you NEED the wizard and you have to keep them alive! Yes, it’s part of the challenge of the game!
  • In old school D&D character death happened regularly.


Special items for wizards

In some circumstances special items were given. In our campaign world, we adapted a loose interpretation of the Dragonlance schools of wizardry. Upon graduating to level 1 (For wizards of the schools) wizards might be given a ring of spell storing that held a few first or second level spells. Some might have been awarded an item that allowed for the spell Cantrip to be cast for free each day.


No one wanted to play the cleric. Team players late to the table would ask, “What do you need in the party?”. If you had to ask, you KNEW it was cleric. The biggest drag of playing a cleric was that there were plenty of cool and useful spells, but you KNEW all of your level one memorization would be “Cure light wounds”. You were the healing battery.

We began by allowing any level 1 spell to be swapped at will to ‘cure light wounds’ as needed. This helped. Later we adopted something much like 5E Spell slots for clerics. If you knew the spell, and were granted it by your god, you could cast it. You were still required to pray each day to rejuvenate the ability, but weren’t required to memorize each spell every day.

Clerics and blood-letting weapons were a quirky rule, but added balance. We occasionally waffled on this ruling. Eventually we decided that if a character followed some gods, the player could appeal to the DM. A god of war, or sacrifice wouldn’t insist on all their clerics wielding a club or mace.  This is less of a rule, and more of a play-style, but it seems to work and it keeps the game balance in check.

We knew that Gary was thinking of LG Clerics of a generally Christian historical feel. We also knew that the limitations were part of game design. So we pushed and pulled this line to keep the spirit of the game in place, but break it when it added more fun.

Did it help?

In the end, all these things boosted the survivability of level 1 at our table. It’s worth noting though, that often we turn back to level 0 sometimes and begin as kids with nothing but stats of 3-9. The roll for HP at level 1, and all the challenges offer some great roleplaying and deserve at least a try at the Rules As Written sometimes.

It would be helpful to hear about some of the rules around level 1 characters from your table in the comments below.

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One Comment on “How do you deal with level 1?

  1. I am currently running a zero-level game, and I have instituted changes to hit points at first level and beyond in my campaign.

    First level hit points in the rules I wrote are equal to one half the character’s constitution score, rounded up, with the class modifier (+4 for fighters, +2 for clerics, +0 for thieves, -2 for magic-users) added on. So a first level character with a 13 constitution (13/2 = 6.5 or 7) would have 11 hp as a fighter, 9 hp as a cleric, 7 hp as a thief, or 5 hp as a magic-user. And, of course, the minimum hp cannot be less than 1.
    When leveling up a d6 is rolled for each class and then the class modifier is added on. Thus a roll of 3 would be 7 more hp for the fighter, 5 for the cleric, 3 for the thief, and 1 for the magic-user. Again, no matter the class modifier or the constitution modifier no one can gain less than 1 hp per level. In addition the ‘minimum 1’ rule is applied after each stage of modification. Thus a magic user with a -2 class mod and a +2 con bonus would apply each in turn: M-U rolls a 2. Class mod drops to 0, but cannot be less that 1 so becomes 1. Con mod increases to 3. Total gain is 3.

    For my zero level campaign the rule of character creation is that no dice are rolled. The player picks two abilities that the character is GOOD at, two they are AVERAGE at, and two that they are POOR in. The good abilities count as having a +1 modifier, average have no modifier, and poor have a -1 modifier. Since there are no numeric values, no racial abilities are applied (these show themselves during training to first level is my justification). Each character will also have a choice of background training based on their two good abilities which gives them some basic abilities. In my current playtest I made half a dozen background jobs for each. Each player chooses two jobs from each of their good abilities blindly, then may decide which of the four they want their character to have as their background. Oh, and since I know that the effective scores for each of the good, average, and poor abilities are 13, 10, or 7 I can give them their zero level hit points of 7, 5, or 4 based on their constitution.

    There’s more to it, but I’m not going to write a dissertation here. :-p I did a ten part story and rules on my gaming blog that starts here if anyone is interested:

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