Gnomish Workshop: Level 1 Characters Will Die
This article was first broadcast in Episode One Hundred One on 25th December 2019.
Lennon: Um, Ryu? I was given this…paper by one of the Research Beholders. Resurrection Insurance for New Adventurers?
Ryu: I am going to be swimming in gold, Lennon.
ROSTRO: Given the required temperature to maintain gold in a liquid form, it would be inadvisable-
Ryu: Oh shut up! It was a metaphor you overbuilt abacus.
Lennon: And that’s why I couldn’t find Ostron earlier. So what exactly is going on?
Ryu: So KayDee suggested I try to get to know ROSTRO because you know how we don’t see eye to eye on it. We got to talking about first level adventurers and the facts around them and that’s when I came up with this.
Lennon: Okay, but…an insurance scam? How much have you been wearing the hat?
Ryu: This is not a scam, Lennon; this is a real need. ROSTRO, can you fill him in?
ROSTRO: With your assistance.
While the number of official adventures provided by Wizards of the Coast dealing with high level adventurers are relatively few, nearly all of the modules either start out addressing possibilities for characters adventuring at level one, or provide appendices or optional adventures to accommodate the characters at the lower levels. However, “accommodate” may be the incorrect verb to employ in this instance. “Eliminate” seems far more apropos.
Anyone who’s played or run a 5th edition campaign knows that level 1 characters are very fragile, particularly when talking about characters with low hit dice who have no reason to focus on bumping up their Constitution score. Most characters at level 1 will not have hit point totals above 10, and unless the DM is generous with gear there are unlikely to be many characters with ACs above 16 unless a player decided to focus on combining races and abilities to improve that.
This often presents a problem for dungeon masters in choosing opponents for level 1 combats that are challenging without being immediately lethal. Even though Challenge Rating has problems defining a monster’s actual difficulty, using creatures with CRs lower than 1 is usually a good bet if you want the characters to fight a mob. However, that still presents challenges because most damage is still around 1d6 plus a modifier, meaning a good roll or a critical can still drop a player character. Also, if the players end up going first, most of the enemies’ hit point totals mean they’ll be eliminated without ever getting to act.
The logical assumption would be that employing a single monster with a greater HP total, rather than a collection of lesser foes, might alleviate the concern. However, most single creatures, even at low levels, have powerful attacks which run the risk of not only dropping a player character to 0 hit points, but possibly inflicting enough damage to instantly kill them as well.
Another logical assumption at this point would be that official resources, possibly benefiting from the greater pool of experience, design knowledge, and research capabilities of a staff, would present solutions for the dilemma, providing examples of combat encounters which provide challenge but lack peril.
However, the reality is that apparently KayDee was in charge of training whoever edits the initial chapters of Wizards of the Coast official adventures. In most cases, if you take level 1 characters and run them through unmodified versions of the initial encounters in official adventures, at the end of the encounter everyone’s going to get lots more practice in how to build characters.
And this isn’t even a case of characters needing to make specific tactical decisions or tailoring their party to make sure it’s got an optimal mix of damage dealers, tanks, and healers. Using Wizards’ own formula for calculating encounter difficulty out of the Dungeon Master’s Guide, the characters are going to die right out of the gate.
ROSTRO, put up the data you showed me earlier. Lennon, just…just take a look at that.
So without getting too spoilery, here’s how things are going to go down with the various adventures. Note all of these ratings assume a party of 5 characters, which is usually the accepted standard.
In the original Hoard of the Dragon Queen, Out of the Abyss, Dragons of Icespire peak, Storm King’s thunder, Descent into Avernus, and especially Waterdeep Dragon Heist, literally the first combat encounter the characters experience is rated Deadly. And before you Waterdhavians mention the other guy that’s supposed to help, the math says it doesn’t matter; the valiant warrior gets to stand around looking at all the friends he almost made who are dead on the floor now.
Tomb of Annihilation and Curse of Strahd sit in slightly murkier territory, no pun intended. Characters probably won’t be facing a deadly rated combat as their first encounter, but they will almost unavoidably face one before leveling up.
More appropriate examples of encounter construction begin to appear when examining the Princes of Apocalypse and Lost Mines of Phandelver modules. For the Princes resource, the literal first encounter is rated Easy. A subsequent combat has a Hard rating, though the characters will have a significant advantage in terms of action economy, somewhat mitigating the rating. For the lost mines adventure, the first encounter is again rated hard, and there is a possibility the characters will be ambushed, a situation which could further complicate survivability.
It should be noted that the reworked version of Hoard of the Dragon Queen adjusted the encounters in such a way that they fall more squarely into this camp; the initial encounters are no longer deadly, however they are concerningly high on the difficulty scale.
Only the initial adventure from Ghosts of Saltmarsh begins the encounters at a manageable level and mostly maintains that until the characters gain levels to deal with greater threats, which means those people complaining about how D&D was better in the good old days may have a point in this instance.
Now we aren’t trying to suggest that Wizards is just as bad at designing adventures as novice DMs, although there’s certainly evidence to make that argument. This is more of a heads up for everyone, so people aren’t unpleasantly surprised.
If you’re sitting down to run an official adventure, it doesn’t mean you can relax and take absurd risks with your character. “This is an official module; the real rules of the game say the characters are supposed to survive!” is now an epitaph on the tombstones of countless player characters. It doesn’t mean you should min/max your character builds and start requiring rigid adherence to tactical best practices in your parties, but paying attention to tactics and making sure to be cautious in combat when you’re starting out is a good habit to develop.
Also if it’s your first time playing D&D and you run into these situations, don’t despair. D&D isn’t supposed to feel like Dark Souls, where the slightest little mistake gets you killed. These encounters should be the exception, not the norm.
In the position of the Dungeon Master, more options are available given their prerogative to modify game mechanics. Altering the status of level 1 characters, such as providing higher level equipment or artificially increasing their hit point total, are some methods that have been suggested by the larger D&D community as mitigating factors that will provide more character durability while not adversely affecting power levels as the game progresses.
Engaging in alternative calculations may also be advisable. Inputting the creatures given in the encounters to a challenge rating calculator and adjusting the quantity of combatants, or the nature of the opponents, until the combat is rated at a level more conducive to character survival would also mitigate the extant problem.
However, if you don’t have confidence in your ability to alter the encounters or if you feel like giving unexplained bonuses to the characters is breaking the game somehow, there are other options.
Expanding or altering the combat area to include hazards that might trip up the enemies is one option, as is providing ways for the characters to retreat so the enemy force is broken up and can be dealt with in smaller doses.
Some of the initial encounters take place with NPCs around as well. In many cases if they jump into the fight alongside the characters that can help to balance things out as they’ll be distracting some of the enemies. Just make sure they aren’t a story-critical NPC or, if they are, make sure you have a convincing reason they didn’t die.
The general message, though, is you need to be careful with level 1 characters on both sides of the screen even, and perhaps especially, if you’re running an official adventure.
Lennon: So, you do realize you did this wrong, don’t you?
Ryu: How do you figure that?
Lennon: Well if everyone dies you’ll have to pay out all these claims. Insurance people make money when people buy it and they don’t need it.
Ryu: Except there’s all this information about how they can avoid dying.
Lennon: Which means no one will buy the insurance now.
Ryu: Unless you have all the pamphlets about the insurance go out two weeks before, so everyone buys it, and now we told everyone how to avoid dying.
Lennon: You just started working on this toda-…You didn’t turn ROSTRO on to do calculations, did you?
ROSTRO: Unfortunately the temporal displacement activities have caused a significant drain on available resources. I will be initiating preventative shutdown to preserve optimal function.
Ryu: That’s fine, thanks for your help! Oh, hey is that the scrying pool lighting up? More customers!
Lennon: I never walk into this room and feel better after I come out, I don’t know why I keep coming in here…