My schedule lately has been . . . less than stable, so my gaming has been coming in small chunks. I’ve got games I play in and run that go off once a month or once every two months, I’ve got one-shots that occur on sporadic weekends, and when I feel the need to get some time as a player and just jump into a game, I find a local Adventurers League game and throw something together to play.

If You’re Not Familiar . . .

If you’re not familiar with Adventurer’s League games, D&D’s current organized play model, they are fairly formulaic, super light on story, and focus more on combat options. They are great fun for jumping in without prep, buying into the railroad, and getting some play in. In Adventurer’s League games, everything is logged and there are strict rules to how your characters level. I’ve worked on products for Adventurer’s League games and I’ve played in more than a few. While they are sometimes light on deep story, focusing more on the play aspects of the game, they distill D&D down to its core game and . . .

They Are Really Effective At Doing Combats, Especially First Level Combats

Dirty Kobolds like this make ideal enemies to dispatch in simple combats.

Playing characters in AL games means there is a lot of playing through level one adventures, and combats made specifically to be the first combat your low level character ever sees. One thing I learned from playing in the various games offered around Columbus (there are many) is that there is an IDEAL style of combat for low level characters, especially if it is the first combat.

If the first combat doesn’t fit into the ideal, things can go very wrong for the game down the line. Even if a formulaic game, like some AL games can be, the first combat is an essential part of the plot, story, and action. It has certain purposes it needs to fulfill. This holds true for games that are not D&D, but really for any game that has combat as a general them. Combat is always a challenge, something for the players to overcome, using their characters abilities. If it is too hard, it stalls the action or kills morale up front. If it is too easy, it sets a tone for how the rest of the challenge of the adventure will be. If it feels like it has no connection to the overarching plot, it just feels like a time filler. So, what do I see as the ideal first level combat?

A Formula For The Ideal First Level Combat For Any Game

Elements of this will change based on the game you are playing and the goal you are trying to achieve with the first combat, but here are my guidelines for an ideal first level combat.

  • The enemies should be somewhat squishy – The players want to feel that their combat abilities matter, so the enemies used in the first combat shouldn’t be tanks or impossible to hit for their level. The enemies don’t need to all be one-shot kills, but the players should be able to get in a good blow and take out at least one enemy with ease. It could be a group of small squishy enemies and one or two harder to take down enemies, but the first combat should validate characters ability to affect the world.
  • The enemies damage should be a threat, cumulatively – You want the damage of an enemy to feel threatening, but not one shot most of the party. Taking the squishy enemy example from above, each time one of your enemies makes a hit on a character, it should be a small amount. Not enough to kill them at once, but enough that 3 or 4 hits takes a person down. If you are using one or two more threatening enemies alongside your squishy enemies, then their damage levels can be much more threatening, marking them as the true danger in the combat.
  • The Right Number of Enemies – So far, in our example, we’ve got squishy enemies with minimal damage, and one or two more threatening enemies with more impressive damage, but how many of them? That will depend on the number of player combatants (PCs and NPCs on the players side). You’ll want enough squishy enemies that each player can take out one or two on their own, or if they have an area of effect ability, or clever use of terrain or scenery, they can take out multiple. The many squishy enemies are a threat in numbers, meant to distract and harass so that they characters can’t focus on the bigger threats. A fairly standard option would be 2 per PC that is very combat oriented, or 3 per PC if there are some good area attack options.
  • The Big Enemies – The smaller squishy enemies are primarily there to give the players something to push through to get to the real challenge, which is the big enemies who are harder to take down and who do a bit more damage. Because there are less of them, perhaps one or two per combat, they can provide a large threat, but not a constant threat in the way the many squishy enemies do. One shot from these enemies will put a character close to dead, but that means they shouldn’t get too many attacks like that, perhaps that these bigger attacks don’t happen until the 3rd or 4th round once the smaller squishy enemies are already engaged.
  • The Rewards Should Be Commensurate With The Threat – As far as the threat goes, a combat like this should feel fairly threatening, and the rewards should match up for the level of threat. Included in the rewards should be something to restore any fallen characters to full health, or near full health, and something that provides a small boost in wealth, if that is the vibe of the game. A bigger reward should also be in something that progresses the plot forward, something that helps validate the combat that just occurred. If you are using a game system where leveling up occurs based on what you have defeated, there should be a small boost to the next level based on this combat. It’s not necessarily enough to level the characters up, but for the players to get a taste for the next level and feel the reward as a tangible thing.
  • And It Leads To . . . – Maybe this first combat is just the introduction, a way to shake out the bugs on the characters and provide a small bonus (in wealth and xp) in exchange for a moderate threat that they can mostly recover from. It validates their choices to buy healing potions or bring a cleric with them or upgrade their armor. Once they are done with this one and slightly recovered, the next threat might be right around the corner. The next combat can be whatever is needed, but it is now in line with the first combat and follows through with the challenges set up by the first one.

So Why Is This An Ideal First Combat?

Unsurprisingly, it has more to do with the story and the experience than it does with the actual combat. Every part of the formula: 2SLDper+2BT+CR+PP (2 Squishy Low Damage per PC + 2 Bigger Threats + Commensurate Rewards + Plot Progression) is meant to provide a valid threat with a valid reward that gives the characters a bit of a workout while progressing the story. The end goal is how it feels to the players at the end. It feels like the squishy enemies were a threat because there were many of them, it feels like they got some early wins by easily taking out many of the squishy enemies, it feels like a bigger threat because the bigger enemies really hurt them with just one hit, it feels like the fight was worth the rewards in loot, and it feels like the combat mattered because they got to push forward with the story.

[pullquoteright] Unsurprisingly, it has more to do with the story and the experience than it does with the actual combat.    [social_warfare] [/pullquoteright]It all comes down to how the players feel at the end of the combat. They feel validated, threatened, shaken out, recovered, a little proud, and like they matter to the story. While the 2SLDper+2BT+CR+PP formula is pretty D&D specific, it holds for other sorts of games that have similar combat scenarios. Even in very narrative games, where combats are handled with less mechanical rules, the formula still holds, in theory. It may not be 2 squishy enemies per PC, but one because squishy enemies are not as much of a concept in deeply narrative games and mechanical combats tend to be less of what drives the game along. In these cases, you still want enemies that are easier to defeat, an enemy or two that are bigger threats, rewards that feel commensurate to the challenge, and progression of the plot.

Your Take

This is all based off of games I’ve run and played and thinking about what the first combat means to the player perspective, but what is your take from your experiences? What was the best first combat scenario you ever played or ran, why was it good, and does it fit the idea behidn this formula? What would you change about the formula to make it fit the vibe of your games better?

2 replies
  1. Blackjack
    Blackjack says:

    It’s a pretty good structure. The tension and sense of accomplishment are always stronger when the combat includes enemies with a variety of strengths/capabilities who are legitimately threatening but not so overly powerful that they score a TPK before the party gets a bunch of good licks in against them.

    You position this as an approach for first-level combats but really it applies to combats at all levels. And honestly I find it tougher at higher levels than lower ones. At lower levels there’s kind of a linear progression of power. Lower level opponents can remain threatening if there are enough of them and/or they hold superior position. They can still at least damage the PCs. At higher levels, an opponent more than a few levels below the PCs basically may not be able to hurt them at all. Throw 4-5x their number against the party and they’ll walk through them all. I see this happen frequently. Meanwhile, put an opponent above the PCs’ challenge rating against them and its special powers may wipe out half or more of them in the first round. It’s harder to keep combats balanced and interesting at higher levels.

    • John Arcadian
      John Arcadian says:

      For me, lower levels are tougher than higher level ones. Mind you, when I’m in the GM’s chair for a D&D game, I jump people to level 3 or 4 to start with, or I use gestalt characters, or do something to jump the power level up a tick. I am not afraid of throwing bigger challenges at my players and getting them close to TPK at higher levels. I know they’ve got options for recovery and I can always back off my monsters a bit, but at lower levels I’ve seen a lot more outmatched players. This is usually seen from the players chair, though.

      A lot of it is about the game you buy into. Is it hardcore, old-school, I’ve got 3 more characters ready to take up the banner if I need dungeon crawl, or is it a carefully crafted campaign to work with particular characters who the players love and want to see come to the end of their stories. That will change my GM style too.

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