Wednesday, June 11, 2008

First Level Appropriate Challenges

So the other thing that I'm not sure what to do about in my upcoming campaign...

What do the PCs do at first level?

First level characters are not weak. When you compare them to a party of regular men-at-arms, it's pretty obvious that a first level party has it all over a regular bunch of mercenaries.

But first level characters aren't very well suited for extended adventuring. A single blow from a normal melee weapon can potentially take the toughest PC out of the fight when they're first level. The difference between a one sided fight (in the PCs' favor) and a massacre (in the monsters' favor) can come down to initiative. You just can't risk violence and expect to come out of an adventure alive.

Which is as it should be. A brand new first level party is not a group of heroes-in-training. They're a bunch of talented yobbos who are about to hit that crossroads: Wealth and power, or death. And nobody knows which it'll be. PC death when everyone is first level should be a constant concern and a probability more than a possibility. Handing anything to the players cheapens advancement and levels, and I like the idea of a group of 4th or 5th level characters knowing that the wasted meat of dozens of would-be adventurers prove the point of how dangerous this life is.

But first level really does encourage the 15 minute adventuring day. In one encounter, the magic-user is pretty much guaranteed to use his one spell, and if anyone takes any hit for more than 1 or 2 hit points' damage, then the cleric is going to use his one spell (which is almost always cure light wounds, right?)... if the cleric gets that first level spell at all. If more than one person is hurt, the party has to pull back.

So what's the answer? More NPC interactions to decrease the physical danger? Yeah, they'll be at first level forever for all the XP that way of playing provides - and I go for the Monsters + Treasure method of granting experience... no "story awards" because I shouldn't be encouraging them to move along any particular storyline.

Then there's the Puzzle Dungeon. Give them puzzles and tricks and traps that may be avoided. There is always danger but it's danger in avoidable form. This can keep things interesting but giving so much treasure away in places like this to allow everyone to level up just seems like handwaving first level.

How do the original modules do it? They create grinders. Fresh-off-the-turnip-truck first levelers are going to get squashed walking into the moathouse near Homlett, or marching straight into an orc cave in the Caves of Chaos... not to mention the impossibility of the Horror on the Hill, the large enemy encounter groups in Palace of the Silver Princess and more.

Remember the opening starter bit in Mentzer's Basic set: Character death. Remember the example of play in the 1E DMG: Character death.

The poor bastards were never supposed to face "first level challenges" in a way that they really have a chance to survive as a group with no casualties!

... and here I was considering a "pest control" adventure with a bunch of giant rats and giant centipedes for the "first level" appropriate challenge.


So then... what?


  1. Something like those original modules is fine. Just communicate the expectation that the player will display more prudence than a frontal assault on every detected enemy. They should exercise creativity to avoid combat unless they can turn circumstances to their advantage. If they don't learn to do that, their fate is up to the dice, and the dice are not friends to first level characters.

  2. This is why old versions of D&D always had detailed rules for hirelings. A first level magic user should have a lot of his starting gold unspent (he really doesn't have anything to spend it on) and can afford to hire several mercenaries. I had to learn this the hard way after I racked up several tpk's in old modules. They were really designed for much bigger groups than what most people run today. 8-10 players being more the norm and it you don't have that many players the group should be padded out with hirelings.

  3. My favorite first-level model module is N1- Against the Cult of the Reptile God. It's primarily an investigative adventure. Lots of RP and talking to people, but with combats nicely spaced out. At the beginning, it's likely to result in just one combat per day, which hits first level characters just about right, but doesn't involve everyone just twiddling their fingers or sitting on their hands. It's also got a pleasantly cthulic flavor which can be ramped up or down, depending on how that sort of thing fits your game. I think it also sets a nice precedent for games which require as much thinking as sword-swinging.

    It does work better with a smaller group, since you can't rely so much on niche protection to give everyone something to do on a regular basis.

    - Brian

  4. Off the top of my head: The party is recruited by a Sir Falstaff type, a fighter with a couple levels but now past his prime and cognizant of his own mortality. A handful of gobbos are making trouble. The leader rides a rust monster or a disenchanter into combat. Sir F is too scared to face them himself because he doesn't want to risk losing what few precious magic items he owns or his flabby hide.

  5. I agree with Pjork and MHensley as to the way to approach this. Large parties, hirelings, and the expectation of strategic and tactical thinking to avoid combat or maximise the odds of winning.

    I also agree with Trollsmyth, that investigative adventures can be particularly well suited to small parties of first level characters.

    Also, don't be afraid to have the monsters break and run when faced with determined attacks by player characters. A band of Kobolds may be happy enough to throw javelins from a distance, but once two or three of them are killed in straight up melee, the rest may consider cutting their losses, especially if their leader is amongst the dead.

  6. Trollsmyth is, of course, correct. Most people in the fantasy world will never encounter a monster or any great evil in their entire lives . . . well maybe on the last day of it, but I regress. Throw in a couple of leveled NPCs: A 5th level cleric with a couple of raise dead scroll works good, as does a 3-4th level fighter. We won't let these guys take over unless somebody dies, but this does allow us to avoid your "typical" 1st level adventures which folks complain about. A +1 weapon can be hidden in a way that if the PCs look around then they should find it.

    Zombies make excellent 1st level filler monsters, that way PC's always get the initiative, and can flee if they need to. A crazy human of 3rd or 4th level can be a great sub-boss, fighting the zombies and the subboss should get the PC's up to 2nd level so they can take on the real boss which can be a bad ass monster that requires some luck, tactics, and intelligence to defeat, with the 2 NPC good guys to bale them out if they can't hack it.

    Threaten violence, instead of actually committing it. My favorite 1st level module is Night of the Walking Dead written by Bill Slavicsek for the 2e Ravenloft setting. It's a brilliant piece and available now for free on Wizard of the Coast's website.

  7. Well, from my current experience running 1E AD&D with the characters starting in Hommlett, I'd go with two characters per player (if you have four or five players). This way the party is of the right size, and if one of a player's characters dies he's not out completely.

    After the first excursions into the upper level of the Moathouse, the players determined that hit and run works nicely; kill the giant lizard or what have you, grab its treasure, and go back to the village. Small steps. The upper-level bandits bugged out when they saw the eight-member party coming in; a stand-up fight was not what they wanted anyway.

    When the party kept coming back, the bandits started fighting back through subterfuge. One of the party members hired a certain NPC as a merc to help the party; another party member got drunk off his feet with said NPC during Brewfest, and disappeared. The party found him the next day, tortured and near death, in the dungeons of the Moathouse. It was supposed to be a warning. Then the NPC revealed his true colors, turned on the party, and captured another party member (almost two).

    Rather than cutting their losses and running, the party decided to go for revenge. Knowing they couldn't fight the bandits themselves, they went ot Burne and Rufus and sought some assistance; they got four spearmen, and set out for the Moathouse again, to rescue their captured friend (if he is still alive) and teach the bandits a lesson.

    Of course, the bandits were waiting for them, and greeted them en-route to the Moathouse with a hail of bolts. Luck was with the party, and though several members were downed unconscious, the bandit's morale broke on the counter attack of the party and the guards; the party ended up killing seven and capturing two, while only three fled alive. With the captured bandits they will have more evidence and maybe even some real intel on what is going on in the dungeons (if the bandits let their friends get taken back alive). And so more assistance from the local lords... or maybe some mercs paid for with their own cash, as they've now seen the effectiveness of men@arms agaisnt similar NPCs...

    So... two PCs to start, emphasize hit and run tactics and intel gathering, emphasize hiring on of men@arms, and emphasize caution rather than berserk battle lust, and 1st level characters have a better chance to survive.

    Oh, and I know you are using BF for this campaign, but you might want to consider using a bonus spell list similar to that of the 1E AD&D cleric, at least for the cleric and possibly for the magic-user; it really boosts spellcaster versatility and usefulness without being grossly overpowering (as NPC casters get the same benefit).

  8. I agree with what James said about 1st level characters doing the hit and run mode of campaigning. get as far as you can without dying. Sleep in a room with a well spiked door to gain some HP back, and use the cleric to heal twice (the day before then in the morning). Try some more, if you get whacked hard, head to town to recuperate. This also allows for creating more of a home fell to the campaign if they are running in and out of town a lot. each of their actions in town will have a cumulative affect - for better or worse - that the players will have to deal with the next time they come back to town. Run out on their motel bill one too many times and they end up sleeping in stables.