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 to always be looking forward to the next level, the next feat, the next spell level or agility 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.