It’s a routine concern amongst both dungeon masters (DMs) and players alike: how can a first level group of adventurers possibly survive a ‘real’ combat encounter that doesn’t amount to fighting off largely insignificant creatures (e.g. rats) or a DM playing a set of humanoids as incredibly stupid (e.g. goblins)? The former approach — killing weeny things — tends not to ‘feel’ heroic to many players. And, in the latter case, portraying humanoids as particularly stupid sets a bad tone for the rest of the campaign when the creatures ‘get smarter’ as the player characters (PCs) rise in level and ability.
So what can be done to make first level exciting, without dumbing down encounters or presenting particularly boring adventures?
Roleplaying for Experience
If you happen to be running a longer game (say at least 15-20 sessions) the PCs should be given opportunities to solve problems without the use of their blades or combat magics. In fact, the first series of ‘challenges’ might be entirely roleplaying: How do the PCs manage to sneak a map away from a well guarded noble? What machinations are required to hide away several tons of fish, so that a criminal contact ‘owes’ them a favour to proceed with the quest? What steps must be undertaken to ensure that they win at a dwarven drinking contest, such that the dwarves will (begrudgingly) bring them to the site where their kin were felled by unknown forces?
The structure of these kinds of challenges can widely vary. DMs that prefer large amounts of structure before running sessions may go so far as to establish the kinds of checks that PCs can make, success rates, and so forth. In my case, I tend to establish a challenge and then set the challenge rating (CR) proximate to how hard I think that the process should be; in effect, I fudge things. If I want to make it hard to get the aforementioned map, then maybe I set a CR 2 or 3 and identify the various role playing hurdles that the PCs must overcome: they could convince servants to help them (and, in doing so, have to determine what those servants want or must happen to them prior to rendering assistance), they might try to bluff their way through (and if so, I need to think through what kinds of persons the noble comports with, and who might be a believable person calling on the noble), or they might try to join the noble’s guard or impersonate one already in the noble’s employ.
The work behind roleplaying challenges, ultimately, is to sketch out the various things that could cause problems for the PCs and, moreover, be willing to develop things on the fly as the PCs come up with plans. Maybe the PCs decide that they’re going to take a guard drinking but, unbeknownst to the guard, they’ve struck a deal with some dwarves: if the PCs outdrink the dwarves, they’ll ‘tend’ to the drunken guard while vouching that the PCs are there to meet the noble of the dwarves’ behalves, with one of the PCs reporting as the guard’s cousin to temporarily replace him on guard duty. And that’s just what happens before they get through the front doors!
The nice thing about starting a campaign or long series of sessions with ‘thinking and roleplaying’ challenges is that they can set the tone for the rest of the game. I don’t mean that it means the whole adventure will be about conniving against nobles (though that’s actually a lot of fun!) but that the players learn that playing ‘smart’ and talking their way through things is not only a reasonable way of defeating challenges, but it’s a way to overcome challenges and receive experience points.
Injured High Challenge Rating Creatures
What if the DM simply knows the players are going to hate a series of roleplaying intensive sessions; the play style is to enter areas, fight and hopefully win, and walk out with loot? How can we avoid the ‘rats swarm you’ kinds of challenges?
Personally, I’m a big fan of sending PCs into places where prior adventurers have ventured (and, oftentimes, perished). There’s nothing quite like entering rooms filled with the relatively-recent alive and now filled with not-yet disposed of corpses, and the PCs then realizing that those to be disposed of are the results of combat between prior adventuring groups and the inhabitants of the area in question. Since many of the creatures’ resources will have been previously expended (e.g. potions, magics, weapons, ammunition, etc) in the previous combats they may not be ‘as strong’ as expected. Moreover, if the DM has a set of rules where healing isn’t always as fast as a long-rest, it’s entirely possible that the remaining creatures are not just spread thin in the area that the PCs are exploring, but they are also injured and thus easier to slay. Consequently, you can throw monsters at the PCs that are more powerful yet, because of their depleted resources, are a suitable CR for the party of first level adventurers.
The other advantage of PCs venturing into recently-almost-cleared areas is that the creatures within may be more hesitant to pursue and slay, insofar as the PCs’ incursion might be regarded as a trap, or a trick, to lead the creatures from their comparatively ‘safe’ domain and into the open against more powerful adventurers. The consequence is that the PCs might be able to retreat, long rest, and return won’t being pursued by the dungeon’s inhabitants without undermining the game’s realism.
Of course, this kind of adventure also means that the PCs and players alike might be left with very real questions: why are they being sent/guided/etc into an area, where the bodies of fallen adventurers already littered the floor? What was so important? And who were those prior adventurers, and did they have the same patron?
Rising the the Challenge
Of course, another way of dealing with the concerns around surviving first level can simply entail the PCs dealing with the realities of bad and good choices alike. So, if they venture into a goblin cave and are not cautious then perhaps they are chased away, and are unable to actually complete that particular adventure or quest. Running away isn’t exciting, and likely won’t result in the full experience linked with overcoming a challenge, but rewarding even partial experience points can ‘teach’ players that sometimes retreat really is the better part of valour.
In a game that I recently ran, the PCs ran away or brokered appeasement deals with powerful foes on a regular basis. The foes recognized the PCs as useful, and certainly as more useful alive then dead. Moreover, given that the foes had often beaten the PCs once there was a perception (right or wrong) that the same outcome would follow from another combative encounter. And the PCs, uniformly, avoided provoking foes who had soundly bested them.
The result was the the PCs gained a much better understanding of their foes. They learned a lot more about the world and the politics and the conflicts between difference adversary groups. And they even gained some mentorship and protection: the PCs were so useful that their former-sorta-still-current enemies provided baseline assistance so that the PCs could accomplish the tasks set out by their former foes.
There are lots of actually neat ways of pushing first level PCs into terribly interesting combat encounters, even when using ‘classic’ enemies. But getting past first level shouldn’t exclusively depend on combat with ‘appropriate’ CR creatures and traps. There are other paths that can focus on roleplaying, on PCs dealing with weakened higher-CR creatures, as well as simply getting experience when only partially successful in completing adventures.
If players learn the multitude of ways of gaining experience, from the earliest points of the game, then there is a much better chance that largely-inexperienced groups can be ‘taught’ valuable lessons which may serve them well in later sessions and campaigns. It’s up the DM, however, to ensure that such learning opportunities exist and that players get positively rewarded (using experience or items) when they accomplish tasks that might otherwise result in minimal or no experience rewards.