Zero to Zero – running 1st level D&D one-shots

Sly Flourish is a genius, and I agree with him about nearly everything D&D-related. He’s wrong about skill challenges, though (they’re one of my favourite things in any game, as these posts will testify) – and he’s wrong about 1st level adventures. I’ve run most of my D&D5e one-shots at 1st level, mostly for people new to the hobby, and I’m posted a few on here – check out The Goblins and The Pie Shop, The Rats of Rothsea, and Tower of the Stirge – and the pregen sheets I use to try and make things simpler.

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But there’s a particular set of advice that I’d suggest for 1st level D&D. It’s really not that deadly, if done right, and while players don’t have quite as many options as they do by 3rd level, they do have options in the right place. For me, 1st level one-shots come down to three things – Support, Survivability, and Stakes.

Support

You can ignore this, to some extent, if you know you’ve got seasoned D&D vets. But usually, when I’m running 1st level D&D, I’m expecting some players new to the hobby. The Starter Set and Essentials Kit are great, but… their character sheets are ridic. You need less detail, and more help, on them – and so I made these, which I stole from (I think) an insta post from someone from Critical Role… sorry I can’t give a more exact credit, but in fairness it was in the background of a photo.

For spellcasters, I’ll first of all steer newbies away unless they’re up for a bit of reading what spells do, and/or resource management. Otherwise I’ll have spell cards, or a handout with the details clipped from the SRD. Certainly nobody should be looking stuff up in the Player’s Handbook at the table.

Survivability

A 1st level, your PCs need plenty of rests. I sort of run D&D like this at higher levels like this, anyway – trying to face a challenging combat with 1 spell slot left is no fun when some classes’ long rest abilities run out. I normally go for a ‘training’ encounter, then a long rest, and another (sometimes inserted in with handwavey magic refreshing) before the final fight with the big bad.

I think you also need to be careful with enemy damage – challenge ratings are generally a fairly good indicator of challenge, but my rule of thumb is to avoid any attack that can take a PC out in one hit – that’s just too swingy for me. I’m a great fan of the starter adventure in Theros, but the initial encounter is with creatures that do 1d8+3 +2d6 poison damage – that’s not 1st level compliant, for me. Oh, and I generally roll enemy damage – it gives a bit more threat and jeopardy to know that one arrow could do 8 points of damage and really worry them.

Stakes

Even at 1st level, keep the stakes high

Clearing out giant rats is no fun, despite me writing an adventure about it. Give your 1st level one-shot serious stakes – one of my very favourite DCC adventures, The Hole In The Sky, pits the 0-level funnel PCs against a 200 foot tall demon! At the very least, their failure should have somebody’s life on the line, or the well-being of a village or town that will then hold them up as heroes.

Bridge the gap between the PCs and these stakes by getting them to answer questions that tie them to the background. In my latest 1st level one-shot, it begins with a wedding, and the players describe how they’ve got an invite. In playtest, this led to some great emergent NPCs, and a genuine interest in the event passing well – which served as a baked-in motivation.

In terms of in-game scene-by-scene stakes, have failure conditions in mind. 1st level is swingy as hell, and you can end up with a TPK with a run of bad (or good) rolls… have a plan in mind where they wake up in the goblin’s dungeons (or wherever) and get one last chance to escape.

I certainly aren’t going to stop running D&D at 1st level any time soon, and I’ve got a lot of good work out of it so far. I haven’t talked about it here, but worth noting that a lot of the AL stuff has 1st level players doing 2-4 one-hour mini-adventures, which as you’d expect I’m a fan of – this helps the long rests situation. 

What’s been your experience of 1st level D&D? Let me know in the comments. 

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