Thursday, March 17, 2022

Level 1 Should be Awesome

Choking down the fear and hurt, the young priestess gripped her mace tight and swung at the boy who had been her friend just a few hours before. One of the five would saved her life. She'd felt safe with the Bright blades, it would only be a few days since they saved her life, but they were family. Only now, they were tying up the princess of Dravanna, and she couldn't let them do it. She was ashamed they had tricked her. Now, even though it was agony, she could not let them take Lady Ruvelia.


The young tomb raiders ducked and wove under the whipping nooses of the horrid, spidery monsters clinging to the orrery above them. The machine turned revealing secrets of the universe with every gyration. One false step, and would be all it took to get a noose around their neck, and those secrets of the universe would haul them to the ceiling and snap their necks. They were being paid handsomely to uncover the lost lore of teleportation magic. They weren't about to let these things stand in their way. Little did they know the wizard behind them was already sealing the door. They would make a great human sacrifice...


The two tieflings looked over the imperial camp. Down there, they were wanted criminals, Dimo would be hung in an instant if they were caught. If the soldiers were disciplined Nysha might be lucky enough to join him... The barbarians on the glacier above might treat them even worse, if they didn't have something to offer. They held their breath together as they thought. Dimo heard the groan of the frozen waterfall next to the ancient stairwell. He put his hand against The Rock and felt the potential energy rumble through the stone. "Sister," he grinned, "I have an idea. But we will have to place the charges very carefully...." Within a few minutes the camp was crushed by a god's fist of ice and water.


The servant girl rolled away from the fat snoring merchant, and took a deep sip from his discarded wine cup to get his taste out of her mouth. She didn't bother dressing, instead she opened the window and lit a candle, then waited for the grappling hook to arrive. With it, would come far better clothes and armor besides. In a few hours the crown jewels would be theirs...


 The frightened peasants climbed the subterranean ziggurat led by their fellows in disguise. All around them twisted mutations chanted and howled. At the top, an obscene rite was being performed over a well of lava that filled the cavern above with a lurid glow. They'd rather have run and hid, but if they did, the Lord of Chaos wioums rise again and destroy their homes anyway. They reviewed the plan in their heads. It was mad... But what choice did they have?


Her Divine Grace, the Imperial Princess Amrala, Keeper of Hope,for the Kell Dynasty shivered as clenched the hilt of her saber with white knuckles. The claws tore through the metal plating of her airship admitting a rush of chill air. The sparkling being that shredded it's way in looked like a giant egret, though mist dripped from it's crystalline wings. Her bodyguards readied their swords, a wall of brave women between her and the terror. Beside her, the High Magister's appreciate clenched his wand ready as the rest to die for her. The creature opened it's mouth and unleashed a torrent of super-chilled jet of water. Corporal Merry didn't have time to scream before she froze solid.


Thera ran across the rooftops in bare feet, following the murderer as tiles slipped and cracked beneath her. As she cleared an 8' alley in a desperate leap, she saw Sebastian in the streets below trying to keep up. If the murderer escaped, more girls would be sacrificed, and he seemed to be getting closer to summoning -- whatever he intended to call into this world. Suddenly, he dropped into an alley. She rushed to the edge of the roof and glanced after him. Nothing. Sebastian stood at the end of the alley with his spear in hand, looking just as perplexed. Then Thera heard the soft cocking of a crossbow behind her...

What Are We Talking About?

All of these were vignettes from the first adventures from D&D or retroclone campaigns (in order: D&D, Swords & WizardryPathfinderD&D5eDungeon Crawl Classics, Swords & Wizardry, and Pathfinder.) All of them were for 1st or 0-level characters. The threats and stakes high, There is danger, action, and depth to each one. And each one has led to a fun campaign that my players were excited to continue. One was a module (DCC's Sailors on a Starless Sea), while the rest were home brewed.

Dungeons & Dragons has a problem with 1st level adventures, both in terms of what content is available and even moreso a cultural problem.

FFXII's 2nd adventure introduces
it's primary hero in a mission to
kill giant rats in a sewer. 
First level characters are expected to do scrub work. Slaying rats in dungeons or clearing kobolds and bandits out of nearby caves. They have no stakes, and the player's hardly feel badass achieving those early goals.

Even some of the most memorable D&D modules for first level, such as Keep on the Borderlands and Temple of Elemental Evil eventually let players discover some terrifying threat to the nearby community and an ancient evil on the rise, but they require the player characters to make many forays into the dungeon to actually reach that revelation.  The original Secret of Saltmarsh has NPCs that actively discouraged the player characters from exploring the house, and is full of empty rooms in the upper floors.  The original module for Forgotten Realms, Under Illef├órn (which was one of the only two modules I ran before high school) makes all the player characters members of a militia, and has them ordered to undertake simple investigative jobs that at first seem like disjointed events with fairly low stakes.

The Rats in the Cellar trope of early D&D modules and D&D-inspired games is frequently lampooned in media like The Bard's Tale and Teen Titans Go! for a reason. It's boring and doesn't inspire players with the sense that they are going to be engaging in deeds of daring do that make a big difference to the campaign world.

And as Harley Stroh so eloquently put it in an episode of Spellburn (I paraphrase:), 'Dungeons & Dragons at high level is full of amazing opportunities. Traveling to the planes, raising the dead, fighting evil gods, destroying ancient evils, riding dragons, and saving or destroying entire worlds. But to get there, you have to work your way through six or seven levels of tedium with adventures that feel stale and repetitive.' and, as he said, 'there's absolutely no reason why that has to be the case. A group of first level characters can save the world, put down an ancient evil, or travel the planes.' All it takes is a willingness to tweak the difficulty or develop adventures that don't require combat solutions.

There are a handful of OSR properties You said handle this problem really well:

Dungeon Crawl Classics RPG is famous for its intense low level modules. Zero or First level characters in a DCC module can expect to prevent the resurrection of a chaos lord, settle a dispute between the gods of Chaos, walk across invisible bridges over the ocean in order to sneak pass to slumbering Titan and reach the wheel of Fortune to change their fate, fight killer robots in a frozen spaceship under a glacier, escape a Giants pantry, or reclaim the Lost jewels of a slumbering goddess of carnage guarded by the twisted mutations of once proud heroes.

Lamentations of The Flame Princess has a even more complex approach to low level adventures: they throw level entirely out. Most Lamentations of The Flame Princess modules de-emphasize combat. They instead are built around a mix of puzzles, investigation, strangeness, and body horror. A character's level has very little influence on how well they can navigate the adventure: their own logic and twisted sense of humor are their best weapons. Which is why a lion's share of LotFP modules are listed as being "for any level."

The reward for playing through 80% of LotFP adventures is a mix of a good laugh at some pitch-black humor, a few fun Wierd moments, and a few puzzles solved. Not XP earned.

In fact, I would argue most LotFP modules might run better in Knave than in Lamentations of the Flame Princess itself.

For my part, I have made the following observations about what makes it for a great first level adventure:

It's Not Training!

Unless you have brand new players, a 1st level adventure shouldn't feel like a training round. You aren't there to familiarize them with the concepts of the game: if they have already played a game like Dungeons & Dragons, they already know that stuff.

If you are a GM who prioritizes rulings over rules, the rules aren't going to take canter stage. You can trust your players to pick up the rules as you go. Especially if the game is just a few steps from one they have already played. Which will likely be the case of you are playing OSR games.

When writing a first level adventure, assume you don't need to train the players on much of the "how's" of game playing. Don't hold their hands, and don't lead them by the nose through a series of singular class-specific challenges. They've been there and done that. You want this adventure, and you possible campaign to follow to feel fresh

It is the One Adventure that Can be Reactive

Most adventures should be ones that the players have chosen. They have gossip, Intel, leads, and requests around that they choose to follow up on. 

That isn't the case with the first adventure, though. The first adventure certainly can be as simple as the PCs wandering into Hommlet and hoping that they will choose to follow up on gossip about the Moathouse, but this won't give them any real drive .

On the other hand, if they are attacked by bandits and dragged to the Moathouse, but narrowly escape being handed over to the bugbears below by fighting their way out past the bandits on the 1st floor, they have a good reason to want to know what is going on there.

By forcing the players characters to react to something you immediately increase immersion, set a fast pace, and can establish villains and dangers of the campaign world 

This is your chance to give your PCs a call to adventure.

It is also your chance to throw them together without too many narrative contortions. It doesn't matter of the PCs have different (or, preferably no) backstories, have no reason to  adventure together, or are ancient enemies... Right now they are in a collapsing inn that has sunk into the Underdark and they need to get it together of they intend to survive.

By the time the dust settles, the characters are brothers on arms.

Make Hooks  Part of the Reward

Once players have had their initial adventure, a typical D&D campaign places them in a safe(-ish) location where they can gather supplies, recruit hirelings, train, and gather information.

Usually, that information will include gossip about new adventures and locations to explore and new bounties they can claim.

I have found that you can build a huge amount of momentum by making sure that by the end of the first adventure the PCs are coming out of it with more things to do.

In the adventure with the orrery described above, the PCs came out of the adventure with the following:

  • They had been betrayed by the wizard who hired them, and might want Revenge.
  • They have a map of the Empire of Xen as it looked 2000 years ago, with several lost cities and important historical sites marked 
  • They have the diary of a dead treasure hunter with leads on a fortune in valuable magical lore.
  • They found a passage into the Underworld and learned of beings called deepsingers that will carry news of the happenings of the deep to all... And where to meet one.
  • They know the location of several abandoned clockwork destriers: robotic mounts worth a fortune.
  • They know a dragon has awakened in the underworld and is demanding tribute from monsters below.
  • They've been teleported hundreds of miles from their starting point. To use some of those leads, they have several weeks' journey ahead of them.

Adding maps and information to the treasure they have found made it easy to give my players a full to-do list. Because it came during a high of energy adventure, the players tend to develop a sense of greater urgency about this to-do list. It keeps the game feeling fast-paced.

Set Serious Outcomes

All Dungeons & Dragons adventures are a matter of life and death. PCs are likely to die if they fail. However, there should also be consequences for their choices during the adventure should matter to the campaign world, too. Whatever crisis they are dealing with, the fate of a town, the politics of a nation, a faction, or a region hanging in the balance can let the players understand that they are movers and shakers in the campaign world.

If the players fail to prevent (or cause) whatever disaster the adventure includes, then fixing their mistakes, or running from them can be a source of multiple adventure hooks.

If they save the day, then their success is likely to drive them to make bold choices early on.

Its Your Chance Showcase the Themes of Your Setting

Rats in a basement or a generic goblin village hardly shares what your world is about. If you have unique elements, from setting details to themes, to cultural quirks, your first adventure is your chance to show them to your players. If you can make your first adventure showcase some of it's signature elements from the very beginning.

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