I love combat in D&D and most TTRPGs, especially when there’s weight and consequences behind it, but what kind of weight can you put behind combat at level 1? A level 1 group is the toughest party to plan for because there’s not many interesting enemies to play with, and the ones that are can kill your party pretty quickly. But you can’t think about combat the same way at level 1 as you’d do at a higher level. I’ll try to be as specific as possible to break down a multistep process for you to get started. As someone who struggles with anxiety and depression — a combo that is less than ideal for a journalist or a game master juggling seven different players in a six-hour Dungeons & Dragons game — it can be tough to assert yourself as a GM let alone an engaging one.
In this week’s column of Tabletop tips from an anxious GM (all of which can be found on our DND tips hub), I’ll be answering a question posed by one of my players, asking me “how do I make level 1 combat fun?”
Some of the tips that I’m going to share are great for making combat fun in general, but with a particular twist just for a level one party. The biggest thing to keep in mind at level 1 is that you’re not trying to kill your players, you’re trying to engage them.
Level 1 combat is boring if it’s not done right, so do it right. You only need to do a few things. First, focus on your player’s engagement, not how much damage your enemies can do. Decrease the enemy damage and instead rework their abilities — give them something fun and flashy that’ll add another obstacle to the battle. Next, make some hazardous or advantageous terrain. Turn the map into a minefield of traps or consider how extreme weather can change the battle at hand. Finally, give your players a secondary objective. Why are they in this fight? Do they have to keep it quiet? Do they have to steal something? Or protect someone? Think about it and add it in. With these four things, you can make your combat truly memorable, even at level 1.
How to make level 1 combat fun — An in-depth look
Rules of engagement. Don’t try to kill your players. You want to make things challenging and engaging, but we’re not trying to kill anyone at level 1 — seriously, that’s not cool. The issue is that low-level enemies miss a lot, but when they do hit, they can take a significant chunk out of a player’s health. This is so odd and inconsistent to a player who doesn’t have enough health to spare. To get around this hump, I’d increase the roll-to-hit stat of my enemies, but reduce the damage they deal, so they hit more frequently but do less damage. This’ll keep your players on their toes and get a better feeling of the capabilities of each enemy, which lets them strategize.
Revamp your enemies. Now that your enemies are slightly weaker, let’s give them some cool abilities. They don’t need to be damage-dealing, they just need to be flashy. Remember, you’re putting on a show. So give your enemy a spell like Misty Step, which lets them teleport around the arena as a bonus action (yes, give your enemies bonus actions). Grant them an ability that charges up for a round, giving your players enough time to destroy them before this mysterious ability goes off, and if they couldn’t do it, knock them prone or push them back an inconvenient number of feet. Or give them a spell like Entangle, which has the potential to restrain your players, and let them think of creative ways out of it, like burning the vines or stripping their boots and sacrificing some armor. Spice it up.
As an example, I did this in a high-level campaign where the person that my players were supposed to fight ended up being weaker than I intended, so I improvved that they had a greatsword that could cast Cone of Cold, and armor that would explode in a Fireball upon removal.
Enhance the terrain. I love battle maps, but they get a bit boring when there’s nothing to avoid and your player tokens are surrounding the enemy on all sides. Think outside of the box when crafting your battle terrain. An extreme example is carving a winding lava flow in the middle of the battlefield for players to avoid. A subtle example that works almost everywhere is visible or invisible traps. If you’re in the woods, you can set up a snare or even a crossbow trap set to fire upon a bandit’s target. If you’re in a house, maybe the floorboards are a bit too old and are hazardous to walk on unless you take half movement.
Give your players and the enemies opportunity for cover and places to hide. If you’re outside, take advantage of the weather — make it rain, snow, or fog. Another example of this was in my high-level campaign, where I had devices that pushed my players 60 feet in any direction while they were on a floating platform in the Elemental Plane of Air — this made for some interesting comebacks, like one of my players firing a Dimension Door arrow to return back to the platform.
Pose a secondary objective. Sometimes fighting the enemy isn’t enough, so give your players another task, whether it be the primary or secondary objective. Let’s say a bunch of zombies came out of the ground and are running for your players, but there’s an obvious glowing orb in the center of the graveyard that can be destroyed to stop the zombies. Or if combat can’t be stopped by a magical item, have the objective be to protect someone or something. Maybe it’s to steal an item? Or find a way out? Or even to solve a riddle? There are tons of interesting objectives you can give to your players that don't require fighting in combat.
For example, in my high-level campaign, my players had to protect a dragon egg from a legendary dragon slayer, which put their bodies directly in the crossfire of her wrath. But instead of going all out on this slayer, the cleric put most of her spells into protecting the egg while the damage-dealers and tanks focused on the slayer. Providing a secondary objective forces players to strategize, which is the most fun you can have in combat.
I hope this helps new players and GMs out there who are just jumping into TTRPGs. If you liked this column and want to see it continue, you can send me your own questions concerning mechanical, narrative, or social issues in the tabletop gaming space. You can email me at firstname.lastname@example.org or find me on Twitter.