Building 1st Level Combat Encounters

by Mike Shea on 21 October 2019

No level is more dangerous in Dungeons & Dragons than 1st level. With their low hit points, it isn't uncommon for a 1st level character to go from full hit points to zero in one or two successful hits. Stories of 1st level characters falling to the critical hit of a swarm of rats are commonplace. Given the low hit point threshold of 1st level characters, death due to massive damage is much more likely at 1st level than any other level in D&D.

"Dragon Slayers And Proud Of It" by Larry Elmore.

This threat doesn't continue as characters gain levels. The hit points of 2nd level characters increase by more than 50%. A 3rd level character has twice the hit points of a 1st level character. Not only does it require twice as much damage to send a 3rd level character to zero but it takes four times as much damage to kill them with massive damage. That's a much bigger safety margin.

With more hit points, better spells, and more character options available, the threat facing higher level characters is not nearly as deadly as it is at 1st level.

A group of 16th level characters facing two hezrou demons and a balor is not nearly as threatening as four 1st level characters facing a single ogre.

The Entry Point of D&D

It also doesn't help that brand new players to D&D nearly always start with 1st level characters. With limited options available, learning how to play D&D is easier at 1st level than it is at higher levels.

It's unfortunate that it's also the the most dangerous level to play.

Some hard-nosed veteran D&D commentators might state this this is how the game is meant to be. D&D is about the threat of death, they might say. We each have our opinions and this is not one I share. I think D&D is about sharing tales of high adventure. While the risk of death is important, it need not be so much more prevalent at 1st level during someone's first exposure to D&D. I also argue that this threat does not maintain pace as characters level up. Higher level monsters are not nearly the same threat to high level characters as low level monsters are to 1st level characters.

There are some easy fixes to this problem. Starting characters off with five or ten more hit points would make a huge difference and not affect much of the rest of the game in higher levels. Removing death due to massive damage is another option. Characters will still drop when they hit zero hit points but they won't be instantly killed by a rare critical hit.

If we prefer not to house-rule our way out of the dangers at 1st level, we can take more care on the DM's side of things and pay particular attention to the combat encounters we design for 1st level characters.

1st Level Combat Encounter Rules-of-Thumb

When designing any combat encounter in D&D at any level, we must consider a few variables. You can read more about this in A New DM's Guide For Building Combat Encounters. The variables we note when creating a combat encounter include the following:

  1. What is the story of the encounter?
  2. What monsters make sense for that story?
  3. How many monsters are there?
  4. What challenge rating are the monsters?

Whatever combat encounter you're designing for 1st level characters, you still need a story and that story will still dictate the types and quantity of monsters the characters might face. Sometimes this story may be "there are giant rats in my cellar" (a Teos Abadia favorite...) or "there are giant constrictor snakes in the well outside of the haunted mansion" (from Ghosts of Saltmarsh. Simple stories for new adventurers.

The next two questions require particular care when designing combat encounters for 1st level characters. Here are some basic rules of thumb to help us design combat encounters for 1st level characters.

  1. Include fewer monsters than characters. If there are more monsters than characters, regardless of their challenge rating, the battle will be very hard for 1st level characters. In general, choose fewer monsters than characters at 1st level.

  2. Include monsters of challenge rating of 1/4 or less. Even a challenge 1/2 thug is a serious problem for 1st level characters. Two of them can be deadly given their multiple attacks and pack tactics. Stick to monsters less than challenge 1/4 for encounters against 1st level characters.

  3. Keep average monster damage to 5 or less. Some CR 1/4 monsters like giant centipedes, swarms of insects, and flying snakes do a fair bit of extra damage. Like higher challenge monsters, they might kill a 1st level character outright if things go badly. Watch the average damage of your monsters and keep it to around 4 or 5.

You might think limiting yourself to monsters of CR 1/4 or less would be burdensome but over seventy such monsters exist in the Monster Manual alone. With some reskinning, changing out armor, changing weapons, and otherwise altering the flavor of these monsters, there is really no limit at all.

In Lost Mine of Phandelver the characters face Klarg, a bugbear. Klarg hits like a Tarrasque when facing 1st level characters. If he gets a surprise attack, he hits for 18 points. That's probably enough to kill a wizard with a single hit. If he critically hits? Make that 34. That will kill any 1st level character, maybe even 2nd level character, in a single hit.

I'd argue the battle against Klarg is harder than the battle against Strahd or Iymrith or even Tiamat given the power of 1st level characters when compared to the power of Klarg. Keep that in mind when running low level adventures.

Cast "Aid"

One trick that doesn't require any houseruling is to have a benevolent priest cast aid on the characters before their first adventure. Maybe this is a friend of one of the characters. Maybe this is their quest NPC. Maybe they're not so benevolent after all and will call upon the characters for a service in exchange.

This need not be an NPC either. Maybe one of the characters has a single-use Relic that casts aid on all of the characters once. Maybe this relic activates as soon as the game begins.

Aid gives each character a bonus of 5 hit points to their cap and to their current hit points for eight hours. That's a good boost for 1st level characters and doesn't require any houseruling.

Level Quickly

I often quip that 1st level adventures should be limited to a stern conversation and a fight with a giant rat. 1st level adventures need not be long affairs. When characters reach 2nd level, they become much more robust. We don't need to be nearly as careful at 2nd level and above. Thus, its always worth while to get characters to 2nd level after four hours or less of game time.

Consider leveling characters to 2nd level quickly; maybe even after the first combat in an adventure.

Paying Special Attention to the Beginning of D&D

When we think about a player's first experience playing D&D, we want it to be a fun and positive experience. Getting killed by a pack of six wolves in the first scene in the game isn't much fun. We DMs have a lot of flexibility when designing combat encounters throughout our D&D games but 1st level games require their own special attention. Use fewer monsters than characters, keep them at CR 1/4 or less, watch their damage, and let the players enjoy their first game of D&D.

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