Most D&D players crave adventure, excitement, fighting, treasure, fighting, glory, fighting . . . Ah, who am I kidding. You play D&D to fight. Why else does the game place as much importance into grids and miniatures as it does into dice rolls?
Writing an adventure for level one Player Characters, now that’s a hard slog. So hard, in fact, that when I strain myself trying to get it right, it feels like my brain snaps in half. Seriously, how is it even possible to create Fight scenes for characters with less hit points than you have fingers on one hand, and still have them survive combat.
I could go for the Kobold solution, like we did back in high school when we played Red Box D&D. You know, throw kobolds at the party of level one adventures, because- as every gamer knows -kobolds are like experience points in a glass jar and about as strong as one. Kick ‘em once and watch them shatter.
Twenty-five years later and now in my forties, I refuse to believe that yapping lizard dogs, with only 2 hit points, would melee with anything larger than a house cat. Logic tells me that if the weakest animal in an ecosystem chose “Fight” over “Flight” when threatened by a stronger animal, than such a foolish creature would surely become extinct. No audacious kobolds exist in my campaign. If they were going to kill someone, they would do so, using sneaky traps, hidden pits and sharpened sticks. Hmm . . . on second thought, yapping lizard dogs seem deadly enough to kill a party of third level adventurers. I better not use them.
For the monster encounters in my game, I decide to go with the oil beetle. It seems like the level one thing to do: a minimum threat that does minimum damage. Besides, how could I go wrong with a monster whose main attack is squirting toxic oil?
Friday night is D&D night at my house. We gather around the dining table for the second game session in our D&D campaign. (I am using the BECMI rules). My eleven year old son, Dan, will play Aragon the orc, while my nine year old daughter, Mandy, will play Selena the elf.
I begin the adventure by giving Dan and Mandy the bad news:
“Oil beetles are nesting in an abandoned well next to your village. The queen has laid hundreds of eggs. Should you fail to destroy the nest of oil beetles, the eggs will hatch and oil beetles will overrun the village. Everyone will die.”
It’s like Starship Troopers, but for a level one wimp.
Dan and Mandy have Aragorn and Selena run all the way to the abandoned well. My kids probably would have had their characters leap down the bug hole, that is, if there wasn’t an oil beetle already guarding the well.
“Sleep spell!” shouts Mandy.
Yep, Mandy is straight on to it. Faster than you can say: “roll initiative,” another monster is forced into an enchanted sleep by elven magic.
Mandy’s smug smile stretches for a mile. D&D is awesome when it’s all about her.
I hide my own smug smile behind my DM screen. No way am I going to let my daughter pull that “one-trick pony” crap on me twice. This time I am prepared.
A second oil beetle scrambles up out of the well to defend its nest. Having used her one and only spell, Selena must now rely on elvish stereotypes to fight, launching arrows at the monster with her long bow.
One of her arrows jabs into one of the oil beetle’s many legs.
A second arrow ricochets off the oil beetle’s thick carapace.
A third arrow misses by a long shot- and to think Legolas makes death by archery look so cool.
Finally, Dan gets to make his first attack roll. It’s a hit! Aragorn throttles the oil beetle with his club, each blow cracking, splitting and concaving the insect’s shell.
Mandy throws her pencil and character sheet onto the floor. D&D sucks when it’s all about her brother.
Dan may have scored a victory, but the damage his orc received during combat has knocked Aragorn’s 6 hit points down to 2. Dan’s character isn’t dead yet- thank Pelor -but what about the next monster encounter . . . and the one after that?
Damn it! Why did I have to add logic and realism to my campaign? All I’ve done is set my players up for a Total Party Kill. There’s nothing logical or realistic about level one Player Characters who constantly seek out danger in dungeons filled with monsters. Monsters that are always trying to subtract a dice roll worth of damage from the level one Player Character’s minuscule hit points.
Do the maths: it sucks being level one. It sucks even harder trying to keep a party of level one Player Characters alive when you’re the DM.
Why oh why, didn’t I just run this D&D adventure the same way my friend would run his level one adventure when we were in high school: have weak-as-glass Kobolds charge at the party of adventures with the ferocity of a berserker (can someone please notify WWF so they can place Kobolds on the endangered species list.)
Even with only 5 hit points between them, Dan and Mandy still have their characters continue on to the well. Oh no! They’re about to climb down the well.
No! Stop! You’re going to die, I’m screaming inside my head. You will both die alone in the bottom of a well and it’s all my fault.
Wait a minute! Why should the Player Characters have to die alone? There is a village just up the road full of NPC peasants. The lives of these peasants are as much at stake as the lives of Aragorn and Selena. So wouldn’t it make sense that all the peasants would want to aid their champions in eradicating this oil beetle threat?
So boys and girls, this is how I stop my campaign from running head on into the Total Party Kill zone. By having the peasants arrive in the nick of time, carrying between them ladders and ropes and supplies and barrels of flammable oil. Like Red Cross all over a natural disaster, the NPCs aid the orc and the elf in their bug hunt.
With healing magic from the village priestess, and a carpenter who can quickly assemble barricades out of everything in the village not nailed down, Aragorn and Selena survive the war they wage against the oil beetles long enough to reach the queen and her hundreds of eggs. Flammable oil and a torch are the weapons of choice, to blow everything to kingdom come. The queen and her spawns are boiled alive in their own toxic bodily oils.
(The village will be in total darkness every night until more barrels of flammable oil are purchased to fuel their torches at night. An oversight from a stupid DM who makes an entire village look completely stupid.)
Aragorn and Selena climb out of the smoking well to applaud and cheers from all the villagers. Men and women jostle each other to reach out and touch their saviours.
“I want a sword,” says Mandy. She’s had enough of this simple farmer’s life. “I’m going to the Keep on the Borderlands to buy myself a sword.”
Ditching her wooden club and her lifestyle, Selena turns and leaves the village that has been her home since she was a baby.
“I’ll have a sword,” says Dan, having his orc follow his adopted elf sister out of the village.
Hmm . . . I think my players are ready for level two.
Level one can go bite itself.