First Level Characters Suck

Ranger art by YamaO

My gaming group recently started a new Pathfinder campaign that I’m running, and as the characters started dinging 2nd level, I was quickly reminded once again how much 1st level characters suck. Certainly from a player point of view you tend always to be looking forward to the next level, the next feat, the next spell level or ability gain. But as a GM I’m just desperately looking for the characters to get the point where I can plan a challenging combat encounter without accidentally killing them.

The core problem with the first level characters is simply that they have so frickin few hitpoints. Even after just a few levels, their health starts to reach a point where good and bad attack rolls average out. But at first level, a simple encounter against a handful of CR 1/3 skeletons could kill them off if the dice turn against the party.

Don’t get me wrong, high level characters suck even worse. D&D simply breaks down at high levels, becomes a horribly designed nightmare of a game that ceases to function properly, but that’s a rant for another time.

Our group hung out at first level for a good 4-5 sessions, and every combat was a nightmare to design. The difference between laughably easy and TPK was a thin, thin line. But at second level a bit of magic happened, and all those encounter design problems went away.

2nd Level: the Biggest Gain in the Game

I was marveling at how much tougher the group was when I realized the simple reason: at no other level do characters gain in overall combat power more than 2nd level. I mean seriously — the characters are literally twice as powerful. They doubled in combat effectiveness. Even without 2nd level spells or extra feats, the group was suddenly a combat machine. Why, they could reliably take more than two hits without dying.

So I think in the future there will be no more first level campaigns. At the most they can start with first level characters for the first night, do a bunch of roleplaying, and then bump to 2nd level before they start putting themselves in danger.

9 Responses

  1. See, I like 1st level. It’s the dark, gritty adventures of a bunch of low-lifes and farm boys. It’s the kind of play where you need to plan, be tricky and tactical, and use everything you can to your advantage. A combat against a bunch of CR1 creatures could easily kill you, yes – but even at higher levels, if played right, those creatures could be a threat to the party.

    It’s all about the way you plan it, and the way the players do things.

    One of the reasons I like Microlite20 is that you add your full Strength score to hit points at first level – sure, this makes the players stupidly hard to kill, but it removes that fear of “accidentally” killing them off.

    Maybe houserule in something similar? Like, as well as adjustemnts for CON, grant all players bonus hitpoints on top of full Hit Die?

  2. But as a GM I’m just desperately looking for the characters to get the point where I can plan a challenging combat encounter without accidentally killing them.

    How can a combat be challenging if there’s no risk of the PCs being defeated? If a TPK would be so disastrous that you don’t want it to happen in your game (understandable if you’re using Pathfinder character creation), why not just remove the possibility altogether? It doesn’t make sense monkeying around trying to keep the players from failing – that’s their job. Just change the consequences of failure to be something acceptable.

    I suggest you either meddle with the death and dying rules until they fit better, or take a narrative solution and have a TPKed party be captured rather than killed or something of that sort, or do both. Then, if you like, you can take the “training wheels” off once the players are a high enough level to handle themselves and go back to the rules you were using before.

    1. Don’t get me wrong — character death and even TPKs are part of the game. But in general I don’t want to slaughter the group with a random encounter where they don’t make mistakes (if the party does something stupid, then on their heads be it).

      And this issue exists, for me anyway, only at first level. Even at second level the hp gets high enough that no one’s going to die in two hits, or from a crit.

      1. Ah, I misunderstood. I personally like 1st level and the high-risk play that goes with it, but if you and your players aren’t into that, nothing wrong with skipping past it.

  3. If your party was still at level 1 after 4 or 5 sessions, there might have been something wrong with how you were calculating XP. There should always be enough XP in the first session, second at most, to bump folks up to level 2, whether it’s in the form of monsters, treasure for XP or XP given for solving puzzles.

  4. I start my games at 0th level. Nothing says fear like playing a 4 hp commoner.

    The thing is, you gotta put the fear in them early. Once they get name level it’s too late; if you have taught them to run away by then, you never will.

    1. Ha — that’s a good point too. Players do not want to run away and would often rather fight to the death than run and fight another day.

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