So, OSRIC is still going well, even now, five sessions in. Combat is still quick and exciting while it seems that the players are enjoying the world and story. Well, enjoying the parts they’ve seen, at least. There’s plenty more world out there and, if I’m doing my job properly, they won’t enjoy all of it.
The trickiest thing, I’ve decided, has been finding fun and interesting adventures for first level characters. Man, at level 1, these guys are pretty worthless. Sure, the fighter and cleric can throw in for some decent damage, assuming Kaius can roll above a 10, but that’s about it. Luckily for them, the monsters they’re fighting are generally just as terrible. Many of the combats have entire rounds where no damage is exchanged.
There is an interesting divergence in expectation here between a tabletop RPG and the closest video game analogy, the MMORPG. In an MMO, it is expected that the first couple levels of a character will involve doing things that are, in the grand scheme of things, pretty meaningless. Whether it’s killing boars in the Valley of Trials or organizing toolboxes in Metrica Province, the first level of an MMO character is pretty devoid of excitement. No one is surprised by this, and the comedic value of it has been wrung out pretty extensively.
Conversely, tabletop RPG players are expecting, even demanding an exciting adventure right from the get go. “Go kill a few dozen innocent woodland creatures for a 20% chance to get one of the 10 things you need” is not an acceptable adventure in a tabletop setting. There needs to be excitement and thrills, but, perhaps most importantly, there needs to be consequences. Tabletop RPG players are in for the long-haul. There isn’t a steady, and well-plotted path of content and progression that they can get to whenever they like. There isn’t a constantly-resetting zone of monsters in which to grind out some experience and crafting materials. Instead, their decisions and actions can, and will, leave a lasting impact on the world around them. If they kill the leader of a bandit outpost, that guy is dead. Like, forever. He won’t respawn in a few minutes so that the next group of tools can come murder him for quest credit.
So, knowing this, what kind of grand, exciting, and consequential adventure can level 1 characters undertake? Well, there really isn’t one. Seriously, it’s nearly impossible to realistically involve first level characters in something truly important. If taking out a nearby cave of kobolds is so vital to a town, yet simple enough for five newbie characters to be successful, then why didn’t the town guard just roll in there and clear it out? Hell, has anyone seen the stats for town guardsmen? They’re far stronger than a first level party. But we need something for these guys to do, right?
The way I see it, and thus the way I run it, there are two options: boring or contrived.
The boring way is to not give the players an interesting story or adventure, but just send them out to encounter monsters, acquire some simple loot, and hopefully live long enough to make it to the next level. This has the potential to offer very brief moments of excitement (the dice rolled an Ettin! Run away!), but will generally be monotonous and drawn out. There’s only so many sessions of constant combat that can happen before the players start getting fidgety. Remember, too, that these guys need a significant number of experience points to gain level 2. For example, a thief needs 1,250 XP to get to level 2. With a Kobold giving an average XP of 7 and a Goblin 13, a thief would need to single-handedly kill dozens of them to gain a level. This gets pretty boring pretty quickly.
The contrived way is to give the players a reason they have to deal with the problem rather than having it fall into the much more capable hands of the town guard. This is usually something simple, often excuses such as “they’re too busy dealing with whatever” or “they’re full of corruption and never get anything done right.” However, I find that these two feel too contrived and artificial. They are convenient excuses with their own follow-up adventure hooks (what are they dealing with? Corruption? Unacceptable!), and that feels wrong. Thus, I tend to go with the even simpler solution: this isn’t enough of a problem for the guards to notice. This feels good because it’s exactly the kind of reasoning that makes sense given the low level of the party.
And that’s exactly what I did for the second adventure of our intrepid party: goblins. Yes, goblins have moved into the area, and they’ve been harassing some of the farmers on the very outskirts of the town. So far, there’s only been two attacks, one of which the party settled handily. The goblins have only been around for a couple weeks, and haven’t caused enough problems for the town guard to get involved, yet. As far as the town as a whole is concerned, these things haven’t been a problem, and probably won’t be a serious one for years to come. However, for the farming families that lost loved ones and homes to raiders, it’s a very big problem, and that’s who the party talked to about it.
And that’s really the point here: importance is subjective. Yeah, to a town of 10,000 people, a couple hundred weak goblins aren’t going to be a significant threat. But, to a farm of three families, a single raid can mean the difference between life and death. One eventful night can change their world forever. So, if you want to make level 1 problems seem dramatic and important, get the characters to talk to the people who have the most at stake. Not every adventure will deal with the very fate of the entire world, but every single one will deal with the lives of a few individuals. To them, this is paramount, and they will convey that urgency to the players.