GM Advice: How To Write An Adventure For Low-Level Characters

The adventure; a staple stories and legends since time immemorial. Odysseus, Hercules, Bilbo, Captain Reynolds, each had their fair share of adventure, and each has been tested to their limit by said adventures and come out on the other side better (or in Mal's case, better and bitter). That, in a sense, is the purpose of an adventure. To challenge us and make us greater than what we were before. It is no wonder that role-playing games are primarily centered around the adventures of a small group of people able to do extraordinary things.

As every adventure starts somewhere, so too does every adventurer. Today we will discuss the benefits and challenges of writing a game for low-level characters, and how to write them effectively.

Why Low-Level Games Are Awesome
As I said before, every adventurer starts somewhere. This is their starting point, and it can be a wonderful, clean experience. I use the word clean because that is what the characters are. They are clean, pure, unsullied by rigamarole of the brutal and often short life of one who engages in adventuring activities.

Common monsters are well known, but typically from stories. More obscure monsters are brand new to the eyes of these greenhorns. They aren't quite sure of their abilities, talents, or limits. They haven't been battle tested. They are really just starting from their backstory. Heck, these first levels may very well be their backstory.

The stakes are also higher here. Those hit points and saves are at their lowest. Disaster could strike at any moment. With one well-placed blow from an orc, a beloved party member could fall dead. In modern terms, "Shit be real, yo!"

Why Low-Level Games Can Be A Pain In The Ass
Let's face it, for many, low-level games can be tedious exercises in futility, and I am not just talking the players. For the GM, you have a very limited list of monsters you can enlist to harass the party (classics one and all, but still) and the characters are laughably killable. They should be strolling about with the word "Fragile" stamped on their foreheads.

Furthermore, they are very green. They have a severely limited number of spells, abilities, and techniques to draw from, so combats tend to break down into mage's casting cantrips to conserve spells just in case, divine spellcasters literally praying for the damage to soak into one idiot instead of all of them, and the melee-types casting "I hit it with a sword" over and over again.

Despite this all, though, there is a way to tweak low-level adventures so that you can maximize the survivability of the characters, give them each a chance so shine, and keep things exceedingly entertaining for everyone at the table. This is how I personally deal with low-level adventures.

First Things First; Who The Hell Are These People?!
Player characters can be powerful wizards, daring swashbucklers, and ferocious barbarians. Not how I said can be? At some point in their career, they will become these things, but everyone starts somewhere, and at these low levels, they are most likely nobodies ('most likely' refers to my next article about playing high-level characters at low levels). So ask them who they are, and by who, I mean what do they do for money?

What their job is, basically.

D&D 5th Edition does a great job of incorporating this into character creation with their backgrounds feature. Pathfinder Unchained likewise introduces some good ways of giving a little flavor into the working-class side of characters. Let's not forget, before anyone attained anything, they were just a schlub like everyone else. The wizard was someone's apprentice, the swashbuckler was probably some lowly street urchin with big dreams, and the barbarian was probably the runt of their tribe and just hit a snapping point.

Finding out who they are will make the next part easier.

Why Them?
Adventure is all about a conflict that needs to be overcome, be it slaying a dragon, surviving the wilderness, or just finding your way home. There is a problem that needs solving, and that is what the player characters are there for. But here is a wacky question for all you Game Masters out there...
Why them?

Is there some problem that the city guard, the town watch, the local militia, or any number of qualified persons can't handle? Surely there must be someone more qualified to handle the job than the wizard's clumsy apprentice, the kid that thinks they're a musketeer, and the scrawny half-orc with a chip on their shoulder.

Figuring out why these people are even close to qualified to handle a situation is (for me) the most challenging part of the adventure-writing process. Over the years I have conjured a few scenarios that are my standard go-to at these formidable levels.

  • The Job Is Demeaning As F**k
    All that glitters is not gold, and all that pays isn't always enjoyable. Money can talk, and at low levels, the desire for a little extra jingle in your coin purse can lead even the most stalwart seeker of adventure into strange and unexpected avenues.

    "Spell components don't buy themselves, kids."

    This is when a lot of would-be heroes find themselves engaging in the fast-paced, competitive world of... killing rats in the cellar of the local inn. This is practically the RPG world equivalent of working at McDonald's in high school. It's awful, the hours suck, the pay is low, but at least it's money.

    It doesn't have to be all about killing rats, though. As long as the job is something that seems beneath what the players think their characters are capable of, like mucking out the city sewers, clearing the bats of out the local temple's belfry, or chasing escaped chickens. Sometimes it can be something as simple as delivering something to the next town/neighborhood over. These may not seem like challenges, but let me assure you that something as simple as chasing chickens or killing rats can have dire consequences.

    These menial jobs often lead into...

  • Shit No One Else Knows About
    Something's afoot at the Circle K and the PCs are the only living souls that know about it. Sure, they could run back to civilization and alert more qualified folks... or they could do something about it. It's an adventure, people. They don't often gain much traction (or XP, or loot, or fame) from handing it off to their betters. This is a chance to prove themselves and take that plunge into the life of high adventure the guy from Conan was so excited about.

    Clearing out those rats from the basement might lead to a passage hidden by some boxes, that lead to an underground lair that leads to a terrible evil that leads to cash and fabulous prizes! Adventures have a flow, small beginnings lead into larger events. Events that no one knows about have some pretty large stakes. If know one knows what is coming, there will probably be a pretty high casualty rate, and the only thing standing in the way are the PCs.

    Heroes are born more of circumstance, not intention

  • Wrong Place, Wrong Time
    I lovingly refer to this scenario as the Die Hard scenario, wherein the characters are placed in an extraordinary situation just by being at the wrong place at the wrong time and the only chance for survival and or saving the day is to pit themselves against whatever dangers, no matter how deadly.

    "Yippie ki yay, motherf@#!ker."

    A few scenarios are travelers or caravan guards are ambushed, captured, or placed in a situation where the PCs are trapped in a location with enemies, like a cave in. In some cases, this scenario can remove the player's ability to 'skip' the adventure, but don't fear the cries of "railroading". The characters are free to act any way they want within the confines of that situation. When options are limited, that is when characters begin to shine.

  • There Is Literally No One Else That Can Help
    Those more qualified people we spoke of earlier? Yeah, sometimes they are not the most reliable lot. Illness, curses, large events taking their attention, or just plain 'everyone is dead' are factors that can keep the best of the best from living up to their namesake. This is when the PCs step up.

    Anything that incapacitates other helpful entities the PCs or patron could turn is an excellent way to propel the characters into the spotlight. It is quite literally the last resort. With no one else to turn to, this ragtag group of nobodies may be the only hope for salvation from... whatever the conflict might be.

  • This Time, It's Personal
    Nothing gets folks' panties in a twist like something personal. When a PC has something personal at stake, they forgo all reason and will move heaven and earth to achieve their goal, be it saving a loved one, getting revenge, or confronting a demon from their past (given the genre, sometimes it is a literal demon).

    This scenario introduces some kind of danger that hits one or more characters right where they live. They may be told by those more qualified folks we mentioned earlier to sit this one out and leave it to the professionals. This will most likely illicit a big o'le middle finger to those authority figures.

    In this scenario, you don't need to worry about 'Why Them?', because the PCs answer is often "Why not them? I mean us!'. 

"I am told it means peace among worlds"

At some point, the PCs are going to run afoul of something, at which point it is encounter time.
However, at these low levels, "encounter time" can lead to "roll a new character time". Now, don't get me wrong, I dig the old school notion that character can, and probably will, die. But, call me crazy, there is probably a reason the players are playing these characters, and if they want to play these characters, I am not going to fault them because a couple kobolds with higher initiative flanked them to death.

Instead, I shake the very foundation of our ideals and declare that it doesn't necessarily mean a combat encounter. Encounters, like evil, comes in a variety of different flavors. It need not all be blood and gore (namely the party's). Those character sheets are packed full of all kinds of interesting things that make the character unique.

  • Skill Checks: These beauties are a blessing in disguise. These can be just as challenging as a combat encounter, but without the immediate drawback of death. The nice thing about these is that they are the most versatile of encounters, leading your players to a plethora of different challenges that allow for each individual character a chance to shine.
    The rogue, skilled as they are, can disarm and rebuild traps, pick pockets, hide items, deceive even the most watchful eye, or gain entry into places barred to others with their prodigious knack for picking locks.
    The ranger can navigate their companions through the wilderness, forage for food, and hunt for game. They can even still the rage of wild beasts.
    Mages and clerics are privy to all manner of knowledge that can help solve a variety of mysteries and allow them insight into the inner workings of the universe itself.
    Even the bard, handsome and perfect as he is (no bias here), can sway the hearts of the people and glean hidden truths from those with the tightest of lips.
    Skill checks aren't just a great way to break up combat encounters, they are also a fantastic way to keep the game interesting and give the players a challenge that doesn't necessarily swing back at them. Traps checks to keep from getting lost, stealth checks to avoid combat altogether. There are hundreds of things you could draw from just the skill section of the character sheet alone.

  • Social Encounters: There are lots of people and things in this world, and roughly 50% can be spoken to (fun fact: 67% of all figures are made up on the spot). Social encounters introduce an interesting concept, the ability to make the game easier or harder, based solely on how the player characters interact with a creature.
    From negotiating payment from a patron, haggling with a shopkeep for a lower price on that potion, terrifying some local street toughs out of mugging you, or lying to the town guard about that mysteriously burned down orphanage. There is a chance of risk or reward here that isn't easily quantified by your usual skill check.
    Personally, for these types of encounters, I like to have the characters role-play out the conversation. When it comes to a crucial point, I will have them roll the applicable skill, with bonuses added or subtracted from the roll depending on how the players composed themselves. This not only gives players something to do besides hit things, but it also encourages good role-playing.

  • Manageable Monsters: Let's face it, they're going to want to fight monsters, and you are going to want to throw them a few. You have the classic standbys at your disposal; orcs, goblins, kobolds, skeletons, zombies, etc. Each a worthy foe in its own right, but still you may desire to use monsters of a higher level. Monsters that could wreck house on a low-level party
    So let's use 'em!
    Higher level monsters can be brought down to the characters' level pretty easily. For this example, we are going to use an ogre. An ogre is a skull cracking murder machine at 1st level, able to turn even the mightiest fighter into an undulating, chunky goo with a single blow. But, it doesn't need to be that way. There are ways to lower the creature's effectiveness while still maintaining its status as a viable threat.
    In Pathfinder, there is a template at the back of the Bestiary 1 called young. It lowers creatures physical attributes while making it a bit quicker (in this instance, keep the size at large). D&D 5th edition introduced its new scaling exhaustion ranks, which go from minor pain in the ass to debilitating in short order. Applying things that lower a creature's ability to murder the party in one round doesn't just give the PCs a higher survival chance, it also gives them something they have likely never seen.
    Let's say our ogre isn't the hulking brute we are used to, but rather is emaciated. Its bones are visible, it's arms are sinuous. It is pale, gaunt, and looks half mad from starvation. How many half-starved ogres have you come across? Furthermore, why is the ogre this close to starvation? Those things will eat just about anything? Is it poisoned? Is it cursed?
    You have not only introduced a higher CR foe that they can handle, but you've also managed to weave a little plot hook in there as well. Moreso if the PCs choose to turn this into a social encounter rather than a physical one. This might even become a powerful ally once they nurse it back to health.
    For the sake of simplicity, I would not attempt this on any creature more than 2 or three CRs above the party's average. 

Low-level adventures are hard, dangerous, and fun. They epitomize what a good role-playing experience can be right down to its core. Sure, there are plenty of reasons not to slum it at level 1, but there are just as many reasons to start your story at the beginning.

 Roll well, my friends
+Ed The Bard

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