Dungeon Mastering 101: 1st-Level Adventures

There are few stages of an adventurer’s career that are more likely to see them meet an untimely end than their very first adventure. The combination of low hit points, limited actions, and the inexperience of the player with their new character means that more characters are likely to die at 1st level than at any other level. In this article, we’ll examine these factors in detail and offer some suggestions for mitigating some of the associated risks.

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Hit Points

At 1st level, characters generally have between 6 and 17 hit points. That’s really not a lot. A black bear (CR 1/2) deals an average of 7 damage with a single Claw attack, possibly enough to down the wizard in one hit. And if that Claw attack is a critical hit, the wizard has a chance of being slain outright from full health! So much for being an ‘Easy’ encounter.

While the inherent risk of adventuring is something that should never be downplayed, the danger should be spread fairly evenly across all levels, as opposed to front-loaded at the very beginning of the game. A low-level adventurer should stand about as much chance against a low-level threat as a high-level adventurer should stand against a high-level threat.

There are a few simple ways to mitigate the risks posed by low hit points.

Additional Starting Hit Points. Whether because the characters are touched by destiny, blessed by a god, are a cut above the norm, or just have a bit of plot armour, the characters begin play with additional hit points. Adding even just 5 hit points to the characters’ starting hp can make them up to 45% tougher, and that’s something they can get from a friendly NPC casting aid or from another effect that gives temporary hit points. You can even make it a permanent bonus, since 5 hp won’t have a tremendous impact after a few levels.

Limited Enemy Damage. Another option is to simply reduce the damage enemies deal to 1st-level characters. You can justify it however you like (divine protection, magic wards, etc.), but if the ape is limited to dealing no more than 5 damage with its Fist attack, it will still pose a serious (but not deadly) threat.

Action Economy

At no level is the action economy more important than at 1st level. Only dual-wielding characters will have more than one attack, nobody’s hit points exceed one solid hit’s damage, and anyone with cure wounds is going to be saving their spell slots for a last resort.

With these considerations in mind, it’s important to be careful when building encounters. We offer the following tips.

Avoid Enemies With Multiattack. A giant vulture might be CR 1, but with two attacks it can easily do too much damage all at once. One Talon attack can easily knock a full-hp fighter unconscious and allow a follow-up Beak attack (with advantage because the fighter is prone) that might outright kill the downed character on a critical hit (or just leave them with two failed death saving throws and next in initiative, giving them a 50% chance of dying anyway).

Use Fewer Enemies Than There Are PCs. At level 1, PC attacks are likely not much stronger than the attacks of the enemies, so a party making fewer attacks will be at a statistical disadvantage.

Player Guidance

New characters take some time to learn, even at 1st level. Someone who previously played a spellcaster might be unfamiliar with some of the combat mechanics on their new barbarian, to say nothing of the class features themselves (“Oh, Rage is just advantage on Strength checks and saves, not Strength attacks”). While many DMs may not know what the new party will consist of before making the adventure, it is worth it when coming up with a 1st-level adventure to try to make it more like a tutorial mission where various aspects of the game can be explored in multiple ways.

Open-ended problems and non-linear locales may seem like something that should be left for higher-level characters with more options at their disposal, but it can also be an effective way to get players to engage with their abilities creatively. Keep the objective clear and unambiguous, but let the party work out how they want to proceed based on a number of relatively easy options that allow them to use their different strengths.

Putting It All Together

A 1st-level adventure is a tricky thing to plan. Ideally, you want to set the tone for the campaign, but it’s all too easy to wipe the party with even the weakest of enemies. By carefully building the encounters and emphasizing player decisions, you can kickstart your campaign and position your players for a successful adventuring career.

Have thoughts about 1st-level adventures? We’d love to hear in the comments below!

2 thoughts on “Dungeon Mastering 101: 1st-Level Adventures”

  1. Want to avoid getting you 1st level character killed? Don’t fight.

    As a DM I tend to leave clues about dangerous places and foes, and ways to retreat from a fight if the players start it anyway. If they still want to fight, well, their choice.

    1. I have done the mathematical gymnastics on-the-fly to pare-down a tougher enemy than the party could handle. Or, I have had a ‘mysterious stranger’ show up to lend a hand, if the fight was going very badly. I realize that the players just about always had an escape route, but actually reading the thought was inspiring. Thanks.

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