The best 1st-level adventures make a great first impression. To start a campaign, we want 1st-level adventures that excite players and leave them eager for the adventures to come. More importantly, new players typically get introduced to Dungeons & Dragons with 1st-level adventures. That’s good because starting at 1st level makes a better impression than a plunge into the deep end with a higher-level character sporting a bewildering array of abilities.
As an introduction to D&D, I favor starting adventures that offer a sampler of all the game offers. Even at first level, I prefer adventures with a feeling of risk and with something at stake. I like to feel like a daring hero at all levels, and nothing feels so brave and scary as playing a new character risking their life to become a hero. But starting adventures need to avoid a big downer: dead characters.
By tradition, new D&D characters start as fragile as soap bubbles. The fifth edition design team felt comfortable sticking to this tradition because players lose very little play-time investment when their new character dies. Just write a new name on the sheet and play the deceased’s twin! Still, plenty of players invest creative energy in their new character’s personality and background. Even without that emotional attachment, losing a character feels like a loss. Nobody likes to lose.
If you’re reading this, then you probably qualify as a D&D fan, and I know the game hooked some of us despite new characters who died minutes after creation, but I suspect the potential fans scared away by a quick loss outnumber us. I want to win new fans to the game, not to haze potential fans with casualties.
Many starter adventures, even recent ones from the D&D team, seem to welcome the likelihood of dead characters. Lost Mine of Phandelver starts with a deadly ambush. Dragon of Icespire Peak can pit 1st-level characters against a manticore powerful enough to rout the party.
When I want to make a deadly starting adventure a little safer for new players, I contrive a way to give their characters the benefit of and aid spell. Have the priest reward a good deed by giving the party a boost. Or perhaps returning a holy symbol to the chapel earns divine favor. Five extra hit points makes 1st-level characters almost twice as durable.
Aside from such tricks, a 1st-level adventure can spare characters by including the right foes. See number 2 of my list of 6 things to include in a starting adventure.
• A place to explore. The game starts with dungeons, and I like delivering what new players expect with a tiny dungeon. A size of 3 to 4 rooms leaves time for play outside the dungeon, showing new players that the modern game offers much more than gilded holes.
• Weak foes in multiples to fight. Many new players will look at the spells and attacks listed on their character sheets and feel eager to test them in battle. Even long-time players like me like to see a fight or two. The ideal starting foes prove easy to hit and kill, rarely deal enough damage to one-shot the mage, and never had parents.
“Never had parents” depends on the players, but I choose foes younger players will feel happy to fight. Think undead, constructs, and plants. Spiders, insects, and the like also work, although they don’t technically qualify. These foes avoid second thoughts about what to kill.
Sadly, the fifth edition bestiary includes almost no weak creatures that qualify. Twig blights rate as best. Skeletons work well enough, especially if players learn and prepare for their vulnerability to bludgeoning, or with lower hit point versions as, say, snake or lizard skeletons. No one tries to befriend a twig blight or to capture a skeleton for questioning. You can easily reskin both types of creatures, so turn twig blights into animated furniture that deal bludgeoning damage.
• A reluctant ally to win. A roleplaying scene makes an essential ingredient to adventure, but if players don’t enter the scene with a goal, then they often don’t know what to do. If the scene lacks an obstacle, then it lacks interest. Gaining help from someone who seems reluctant or even hostile feels like a win and adds an upward beat to the adventure’s drama.
• Something to figure out. Players love to figure things out. The process makes them feel smart and capable. It reveals hidden order in the (game) world, and we love finding order in a jumble. In D&D, this joy of figuring things out can come from various sources: mysteries, puzzles, and objects with unknown functions like traps and magic. For a new adventure, make the thing to figure out very easy. Just figuring out that the holy idol belongs back in the indentation of the altar qualifies. If the adventure includes a trap, make the trap obvious and the challenge figuring out how to avoid it.
• Something magical and fantastic. Sometimes low-level adventures falter by sticking close to the mud and the mundane. If the rats-in-the-basement adventure rose above cliché, then it still rates as bad because it lacks any magic or wonder. D&D brings the fantastic to our lives, and new players deserve a taste of it. So if the villager has trouble in the cellar, make it from a gate to hell that needs closing. Bonus: Manes and lemures make suitable monsters. (Kids will have no trouble destroying fiends, but watch out for concerned parents.)
• A secret that hooks the next adventure. A starting adventure should leave players with a clear path to their next outing, even if that simply means a treasure map leading to a magic sword. Just avoid hooking the second episode too early. You might lead the party away from the current goals.