1st level encounters in D&D 5e

Jlandry

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#1
I'm now going to be DMing 5th edition, and I need some help on encounter design.

Specifically, all the standard goblin-type threats look pretty dangerous in 5e. Kobolds have up to 10 hp and get +4 to hit. Pack tactics look nasty.

Goblins have up to 12 hp and +4 to hit, and get an extra action every turn to Hide.

In general, 5e seems to have seriously amped up monster hit dice and special abilities. I don't want to start the game at 3rd level, but that seems to be what the ruleset expects. Also, converting any old modules would seem to automatically make them 2 levels higher, so that a 1st level B/X module should be a 3rd level module in 5e. Keep on the Borderlands seems like it would be a bloodbath for 1st level 5e characters.

Any suggestions on this, besides starting at 3rd level?
 

Siphonaptera

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#2
The ruleset doesn't expect anything, but the first couple of levels do have a bit more danger of a critical hit knocking a character down. In general it only takes a session or two to gain enough XP for each of those levels so they don't last long anyway.

If you are converting something then reducing the number of enemies or even scaling them down a little such as reducing HP, maybe remove armor, and give them less effective weapons would be one way to do it. If they have pack tactics, lower their numbers or keep a few at range and remember that these first opponents are probably not the most tactical fighters of their type so they should occasionally make poor decisions or even run at the first sign that they might be killed
 

Jlandry

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#3
So it seems one option would be to use standard goblins and kobold from BX as does, and graduate to the harder ones later.

Why did the 5e designers inflate hit dice?
 

Siphonaptera

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#4
Characters do more damage in 5e than early versions between stat bonuses to hit and damage and class bonuses, so enemies need more HP to make up for it.

While 5e Kobolds have up to 10 HP possible, the average is only 5 which almost every class one shots with a single attack (melee or magic). They also have d4 weapons with a minor bonus so even with Pack Tactics they aren't that dangerous. Goblins are more likely to get a lucky hit that could drop a character and are a higher CR than kobolds.

Then we look at number of enemies, 6 Kobolds is a Hard encounter for 1st level and 3 Goblins are a Hard encounter for four first level characters. To be honest the chance of a random crit is the only thing that makes those dangerous even for first level characters.
 

AlwaysToast

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#5
Rules expect you to start at level 1, and encounters work just fine (combat is swingy, but that’s true at most levels). They just expect the DM to have common sense and to use the huge number of variables they have. You don’t make the deadliest encounters possible for level 1 PCs. If your converting an adventure from another version of D&D, you’ll have to do some work (at least checking some things).

Goblins have 7hp on average, but they can be a low as 2 HP. The DM controls how many HP monsters have. Monster HD are just a guideline.

Goblins being able to Hide as a bonus action is very situational. It only helps if the goblins have somewhere to hide (you need visual obscurment to stealth successfully). If encountered in a mostly empty room, or an open field, their power to hide is useless. If they hide behind something, if you walk past the item, to where you can see them (line of site no longer obscured), their stealth automatically fails. Even if they do use their bonus action to hide, they still have to make a stealth roll, and they can still fail.

Kobolds are a little bit nastier because they are more likely to hit and do damage. But they are also easier to hit, and have less hit points, so they die faster than goblins. If the kobolds all go on the same initiative, it’s very easy to leverage Pack Tactics. At level 1, give each Kobold an individual turn on initiative. With different initiatives, they won’t always have an ally in position to give them advantage, and any Kobold that runs up to give their buddies advantage, may die before their buddies go. Giving PCs the opportunity to foil the monsters plan makes things easier, instead of the monsters plan being impossible to interrupt. This works for things other than kobolds as well.

You can take the encounter from the adventure and calculate how dangerous an encounter will be using the 5e monster (DMG or the basic rules has the fomula). A real quick way to eyeball things: 5e encounter design generally assumes non-deadly encounters will have less monsters than PCs (at least until PCs are higher level). If you see more monsters than PCs, you’ll probably want to modify something.

You can also take a big encounter, and chunk it up into several sequential encounters (replacements run in just as the last survivor is about to die).
 

BeholderThief

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#6
Monsters have more hit points, but that is balanced out by increased damage of player characters along with increased to-hit chances. 5E wants players to hit more frequently, so attack bonuses are higher relative to armor class.

I recommend for low level mob type creatures to not roll hit points and just use the average values. This gives your typical goblin 7 hit points, which allows them to be one shot killed by any fighter and also makes them very vulnerable to sleep. Their +4 to hit means they are weak vs heavily armored characters. Your players's 1st level characters should be able to handle a bunch of them by smart tactical play (fighters up front at a choke point, with ranged and reach weapons from behind).

The other thing to consider is the context of your encounters. Encounters don't happen in a vacuum. The environment, the in-game situation, the condition of the players' characters all play a part in whether an encounter is balanced or not. Most of the arguments on encounter balance seem to be based on the idea that monster encounters are just a series of cage match battles to the death, one after the other.

This does not always have to be so. Players should be able to hide from or run away from some encounters, they should be able to parlay or bribe them. They should also be able to use tactical maneuvering to improve their chances... pull back to a choke point, lead them into a trap, use the dungeon to flank them. There are innumerable ways to push the odds to their favor or to avoid or overcome a seemingly overpowering encounter.

I ran Keep on the Borderlands for a bunch of 1st level 5E characters. It was challenging for them, but they quickly realized they needed to use guile and wits to gain favor with one of the factions and started manipulating them against the others. For example, they made deals with the goblins to track down the hobgoblins stealing from them.

Keep on the Borderlands is NOT a hack and slash dungeon crawl filled with one fight after the other, it is a political time bomb and the best approach is for players to manipulate the situation and light the fuse.
 

Jlandry

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#7
Thanks for the advice. I'm a little surprised I have to play kobolds on easy mode for characters to survive at 1st level, but ok.
 

Calypso

Bunny With a Glock
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#8
Why did the 5e designers inflate hit dice?
Because they shrank the AC economy, so there's less whiffing.

And yes, kobolds and goblins are dangerous. I almost took out a party of four 5th level adventurers when they surprised a room of 20 goblins.
 

BeholderThief

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#9
🔴 Warning - D&D Edition Warring
Thanks for the advice. I'm a little surprised I have to play kobolds on easy mode for characters to survive at 1st level, but ok.
It isn't about easy mode. Its about creating a realistic world where creatures behave in realistic manners. In D&D, 1st level characters are generally a head above the average. Whether its OD&D, B/X, 3E, or 5E 1st level characters are pretty much veteran fighters, newly graduated mages, and so on. It makes sense that despite their skills, they are still mortal and still within the confines of normal ability. 1st level characters are superior to average, but still vulnerable.

Only 4E creates a game where 1st level characters start as super heroes. Every other edition, you are dealing with above average characters. They are skilled but still have to play smart and use their heads to succeed. This creates a better game where tactical thinking, and strategy plays an important role. Your players can't just rely on the rules and the rolls of the dice to win... they have to think and plan tactically.
 

Jlandry

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#10
BeholderThief,

Yes, 1st level characters have always been vulnerable. But not this vulnerable. The power of 5e 1st level characters is higher than B/X, but kobolds in 5e are Much more powerful than their B/X counterparts. Same thing for orcs and hobgoblins and ogres.
 
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