Most D&D campaigns begin at 1st level. Because of this, it can be hard to create an adventure that feels fresh and original. It is also the deadliest level of D&D, and a relatively ordinary enemy can kill an adventurer in a single blow.
In this article, I look at how to plan a 1st-level adventure that is fun, exciting, original, and not too challenging.
Embrace the fantastical
Low-level characters can seem a little underwhelming if you are used to playing at higher levels. But don’t forget how extraordinary even a D&D character can be, even at 1st level. A wizard can hurl bolts of fire over distances of 120 feet. A cleric can heal grievous injuries in seconds. A fighter can go toe-to-toe with multiple enemies and emerge unscathed. This is cool stuff! Lean into it.
Think about enemies, too. Sure, a giant rat is not an ancient red dragon. But a rat the size of a small dog is a horrifying thing. Mephits are fascinating, imp-like creatures of raw elemental energy. Stirges are hideous flying bloodsuckers. Twig blights are plants that have become animate, awakened by a great evil. Embrace the lore. If you as a DM treat goblins like boring low-level fodder, then your players will, too.
Lastly, think about locations. Even at 1st level, there are cool places for the players to explore. A forgotten crypt. An ancient watchtower. A secret wing of an old house, only recently unsealed. A good tip from Sly Flourish: if in doubt, make it big, old, or both. Even at 1st level, this is totally achievable.
Keep it simple
1st-level is almost like a tutorial mode in a video game. You want it to be over fairly quickly. By default, a character hits 2nd level after 300 XP, and that’s actually more XP than you’d think: 24 goblins or twice as many kobolds. As a minimum, that’s eight ‘hard’ encounters. I would ditchXP and instead level up the party after your first session, even if it’s only two hours.
To that end, aim for something manageable and short. A five-room dungeon is perfect here. An adventure hook, one or two easy encounters, a puzzle of some kind, and a more challenging battle to finish on: you don’t need much more than this.
To avoid railroading, consider this: jot down three ideas for an adventures, pull out a servicable map for each one, and plan loosely from there. If in doubt, think about a few monsters you want to use, and go from there. Some examples:
- a dark crypt, corrupted by evil (skeletons, swarm of bats)
- rainy marshes (bullywugs, stirges)
- a sea cave shrine to Blibdoolpoolp (kuo-toa)
- a secret grove (pixies, sprites)
- shadowy forests (needle blights, twig blights)
Similarly, you don’t need a world map or a whole adventure path lined up. Invent a village or a small town and go from there.
Mike Shea (Sly Flourish) has a brilliant post on building 1st-level encounters. Here are some of the key conclusions:
- Include fewer monsters than characters.
- Don’t go above CR ¼.
- Keep average monster damage to 5 or less.
- Cast aid on the party.
- Level up quickly.
I agree with all of this advice. 1st level can be brutal. Lost Mine of Phandelver famously starts with a goblin encounter that is potentially lethal. Don’t kill the characters just as they’re getting started.
If it seems limiting, bear in mind that there are more than 60 monsters in the Monster Manual alone which are between CR ¼ and CR ⅛, and another 20 or so if you add Volo’s Guide to Monsters or Mordenkainen’s Tome of Foes. And these creatures are still challenging: Kobold Fight Club tells me that four creatures of CR ⅛ will be a medium encounter for four 1st-level adventurers, and four CR ¼ creatures is deadly.
Don’t overthink your first adventure. So long as the players get to fight something, find some treasure, and have a fun NPC to interact with, they will have a great time. Plotting a whole campaign at this stage is probably a bad idea. A story will emerge overtime. Be a fan of the players, and let it happen.
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