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General Boredom in "Zero to Hero" Campaigns

Retreater

Legend
D&D, especially in the current edition, seems focused on large 1-13 level campaign adventures. I'm not inherently against starting at Level 1 (especially for new players), but when you've been playing for years, Level 1 adventures take on a sameness: goblin ambushes, lesser undead in the cemetery, rats in the tavern basement, etc. Unfortunately, this design paradigm means that some players (and DMs) get bored before the campaign gets around to "the good stuff."

The question I pose is this: Is there an assumption of mundane, trite adventures baked into the D&D experience? If so, what should one do about that? Start at higher levels? Somehow try to make beginning levels more interesting and impactful on the campaign?

Consider a few examples.

"The Red Hand of Doom" (3.5 ed, levels 6-12): This is considered one of the best officially produced adventures from the 3.x era. It doesn't start at 1st level with rat infestations in basements. Instead, the characters are thrust in a regional conflict and war. It jumps ahead to "start at the good stuff."

"Tomb of Annihilation" and "Curse of Strahd" (5e, levels 1-13*): These two regularly come up as the best officially produced 5e adventures. While both start nominally at 1st level, they each encourage the DMs to quickly skip through the first few levels or present a short intro quest that has little to do with the plot (and isn't considered a strong part of the adventure.)

I was thinking about this experience when I was reading a Savage World Point Plot Campaign that starts off with the heroes being told an asteroid is on a trajectory to hit their planet, so they must charter a ship and fly to the asteroid and destroy it with a nuclear warhead to save the planet. This is the opening of the campaign, and really starts it with a (literal) bang. But in D&D our heroes are killing rats in basements?!! Fighting goblins who rob merchants on the road?

Why is D&D so miserly about giving characters an epic beginning to their stories? Is it because the default assumption is that you're going to be playing in a campaign that will last months (or years), so you've got to keep from getting too big too fast?
 

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Fanaelialae

Legend
Level based games have a kind of arc built into them (zero to hero, for example).

It would be somewhat unsatisfying if you started at level 1 killing rats with your sword in a basement, and at level 20 you were still slaying rats with your sword (with more HP) in a basement. Similarly, if you're slaying gargantuan dragons with your bow in the sky at level 1, and you're still killing gargantuan dragons (just with more HP) with your bow in the sky at level 20, that would likely get kind of boring. It's an obvious, repetitive treadmill.

That's not to say that the game isn't meant to be a treadmill. Unless you're going hardcore sandbox where things are preplaced in the world with no consideration of the PCs or the level they might encounter them, the game is more or less a treadmill. As you level up, you face more challenging encounters, at least generally speaking. However, it isn't meant to be an obvious and repetitive treadmill. You might fight kobolds at level 1. If you encounter those same kobolds at 5th level, there might be more of them or some ogres might be with them. This creates variety and obfuscates the treadmill.

It isn't that characters can't be involved in world shaking plots at level 1. However, given their relative power to the world around them (compared to level 20) their role in that plot is likely to be very different. It makes a kind of sense for the default scope of adventures to start local and gradually widen to a larger scale with level. It gives a sense of progression and makes it feel less like a treadmill.

Starting big can have issues as well. It's like a show that tries to be too grand in its first season. The world ending plot gets resolved, but then season 2 needs to top it. Unless the writers are very deft, this can easily dissolve into a hamfisted descent into absurdity that leaves you wondering how this season can be so bad when the first was so good. I used to run campaigns that started very grand in scope, but I always struggled to finish them (and usually didn't). Once I started limiting the scope of my adventures and slowly built towards the grand "plot", it became much easier because I was leaving my campaign room to expand naturally.

All that said, my group usually starts at 3rd level unless we have newbies at the table. We prefer that as a starting point over level 1. The adventures can be a bit more significant, and the characters have more interesting options to play with.
 


GrahamWills

Adventurer
Variety is always good. If every scenario is “you GMs and grab their stuff” it’ll be boring a some stage no matter if it’s rats or dragons. That is why the modulles you cite as fun are good. I ran RHoD and there is much more than combat — it sets up many other avenues for adventure.

I actually prefer low-level to high level adventures as they allow the GM to challenge players with the environment; in D&D you can have a fun wilderness challenge at low levels whereas a high level party teleports, flies, and ignores typical challenges. So that’s one way to go.

The upcoming Pathfinder adventure path gives another way to make low-levels more than boring combats; it places the PCs in the role of having to (a) solve a murder and (b) keep the circus running! I’m sure here will be combat, but the focus is on non-combat activities that will be enjoyable regardless of level.

so, in summary, I’d suggest that despite the fact that D&D is a combat-focused game and if you don’t focus on combat, you should consider switching to another system, you need to have compelling non-combat activity. Exploration and survival are great examples at low-levels. Investigative adventures are a good leavening at all levels, and although D&D has little support for social tasks, they still can be used every now and again, or, as RHOD does so well, be a constant backdrop to the main theme for the day
 


Laurefindel

Adventurer
I rarely start my game below level 3, and when I do, its level 2. I considered starting my latest campaign at lvl 5 but then decided on Eberron, so back to lvl 3 it went to keep the overall power level down.

the only reason I’d do level 1 is if the players really enjoyed the swingy-ness, low ressources, low magic, and humble capacities of their characters, and spend more than one or two games at that level.

I see little point of insisting on level 1 if characters are going to be level 2 by the end of game 1, and level 3 by the end of game 2. There is a point to be made about interactive backstory exposition however. A DM had us make level 1 sheets that would be used in flashbacks. That worked really well.
 

Is it because the default assumption is that you're going to be playing in a campaign that will last months (or years), so you've got to keep from getting too big too fast?
Pretty much this, and the targeting of most WotC material at starting players. As you point out, Adventures like ToA and CoS don't really start at 1st level, and you are under no obligation to do so.

But if you are playing in the FR, a setting crawling with high level heroes, a zero is what a first level character is. It's also described in the DMG as a "Heroic Fantasy" setting, which means a "Heroes Journey" plot is the default for the setting.

Theros assumes that 1st level characters are heroes, giving them an extra starting ability to reflect that. Eberron also makes high level characters rare, and 1st level characters are assumed to be exceptional individuals.
 

Why is D&D so miserly about giving characters an epic beginning to their stories?
Just come up with more non-conventional level 1 stories. Defeating some weak mundane monster doesn't have to be the goal of the first few levels, or just find an obscure monster that the players would never guess is behind the adventure. Another option is to pit them against an adversary far above their means to defeat so they have to use caution and tactics before just rushing into battle.
 

It's an easy trope for the DM to avoid if they want to. But last time I suggested starting at a higher level my players objected.
 
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dave2008

Legend
D&D, especially in the current edition, seems focused on large 1-13 level campaign adventures. I'm not inherently against starting at Level 1 (especially for new players), but when you've been playing for years, Level 1 adventures take on a sameness: goblin ambushes, lesser undead in the cemetery, rats in the tavern basement, etc. Unfortunately, this design paradigm means that some players (and DMs) get bored before the campaign gets around to "the good stuff."

The question I pose is this: Is there an assumption of mundane, trite adventures baked into the D&D experience? If so, what should one do about that? Start at higher levels? Somehow try to make beginning levels more interesting and impactful on the campaign?

Consider a few examples.

"The Red Hand of Doom" (3.5 ed, levels 6-12): This is considered one of the best officially produced adventures from the 3.x era. It doesn't start at 1st level with rat infestations in basements. Instead, the characters are thrust in a regional conflict and war. It jumps ahead to "start at the good stuff."

"Tomb of Annihilation" and "Curse of Strahd" (5e, levels 1-13*): These two regularly come up as the best officially produced 5e adventures. While both start nominally at 1st level, they each encourage the DMs to quickly skip through the first few levels or present a short intro quest that has little to do with the plot (and isn't considered a strong part of the adventure.)

I was thinking about this experience when I was reading a Savage World Point Plot Campaign that starts off with the heroes being told an asteroid is on a trajectory to hit their planet, so they must charter a ship and fly to the asteroid and destroy it with a nuclear warhead to save the planet. This is the opening of the campaign, and really starts it with a (literal) bang. But in D&D our heroes are killing rats in basements?!! Fighting goblins who rob merchants on the road?

Why is D&D so miserly about giving characters an epic beginning to their stories? Is it because the default assumption is that you're going to be playing in a campaign that will last months (or years), so you've got to keep from getting too big too fast?
You might want to look into Theros. The idea of that setting is you start off with a supernatural gift and can get even more goodies through piety (which is level independent). I am not sure about the adventure included, but the setting is geared toward that type of play. So is the Odyssey of the Dragonlords adventure, it has you taking on very difficult encounters a quite low level, IIRC.
 
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We usually start at level 3, since by then characters have all the stuff to fit the theme of what they are (minus a feat). We've occasionally started back at level 1, because we forget how dangerous it is. At level 1, everyone is VERY close to death in just about every combat, because a single critical hit can take someone out permanently.
 

Tallifer

Hero
What I don't understand is why low level published stuff always has the same old monsters (as the original post listed).

In their first two levels my party has met beavercats with a catapult, frogmen drugged up on gnome cookies with various magical side-effects, lethal sheep made out of knitted wool and led by a shepherd with an enchanting fife, fields that flow like rivers, fiery dreams in the night, jackaquirrels with very hard nuts and nets made out of woven branches, madly hooting hornbilled somethings and a rocky streambed which awoke when the ranger cast a root bridge on it to cross it. There have been goblins, but I spiced them up with different tribes, one partly made out of stone and the other potentially friendly swamp dwellers with potent herbs and dancing shoes for sale.

Plus at first level, two members of the party already got themselves involved in different aspects of local politics, requiring some improvisation and rewriting.
 

Asisreo

Archdevil's Advocate
There's 2 things you can do if you're determined to start a game at level 1:

  1. Quickly move along the low level parts.
Low level characters only need 300 exp to get to level 2, which goes by pretty fast. If you have every single encounter as a medium encounter, things will quickly be boring, it will take roughly 6 of them to get to level 2 and there's a limited number of things to fight. Instead, have hard or deadly encounters. Of course, be careful with this method. The PC's are fragil as is. Milestone tends to be slower since most DM's try to have level-ups during a conclusion which can take quite a while.

2. Make the fights more exciting
Sure, there's a limit to what monsters you can bring to a fight, but with creativity, you can make pretty fun encounters with what you have. Here's a secret: The difficulty isn't tied to experience gain. You get a hint of this with the EXP multiplier but a deadly fight could give the experience of an easy one and an easy fight could give the EXP of a deadly one.

The first case is easy to imagine with multiple CR 1/8 or 0 enemies but the latter actually has to do with drawbacks and benefits. If the party is facing a hard encounter but they have a benefit, they actually count as a medium encounter yet all the EXP remains the same. So, a fight against an ogre is deadly unless the players surprise the ogre, which will make it only hard (since the players essentially get a free turn).

Eventually, you can have players fighting the ogres face-to-face without it being deadly at level 2.
 

Right now, I'm actively working against speeding through the low levels. We just started up a new 3.5 campaign and I made the conscious decision to throw XP out of the window. Instead, I'm going to have five adventures for each level, 1st through 20th. (In my campaigns, the adventures are all homebrewed and take up one 4-6 hour session - think more "adventure from Dungeon magazine" and less "pre-packaged adventure that will take the PCs 6-10 levels to get through.") That'll give my players longer at each level to get a handle on their PCs' abilities before gaining new ones. So yeah, they're getting a refresher course in how fragile 1st-level PCs can be and it's forcing them to change some of their traditional strategies, but so far we're enjoying it. (We've currently gone through the first three adventures of the 100 planned for this campaign; I have the next three lined up but will writing them as we go along.)

Johnathan
 

Retreater

Legend
It's not just the monsters - it's the entire expectation of play and scope of low-level adventures. You could call it a bugbear, an ogre, or hill giant, but it's all basically the same thing: a brute with a club, low AC, high damage potential, not very smart and leading a band of lesser humanoids. There could be an infestation of rats, kobolds, goblins, mutated beavers, but it's still pretty much the same thing.

Like, what harm would there be in having the low-level characters start off their careers special? Embroiled in the setting's politics? Saving the countryside from an otherworldly menace that could destroy the region (or maybe the world)? Fighting a creature that is more than just a slightly bigger version of everything else they've already been fighting?
 


dave2008

Legend
It's not just the monsters - it's the entire expectation of play and scope of low-level adventures. You could call it a bugbear, an ogre, or hill giant, but it's all basically the same thing: a brute with a club, low AC, high damage potential, not very smart and leading a band of lesser humanoids. There could be an infestation of rats, kobolds, goblins, mutated beavers, but it's still pretty much the same thing.
Well that is an issue of adventure design then. I'm not familiar with published adventures really, but that is not how I tend to run my games. However, it has been about 4 years since we were in the lvl 1-5 range
 


That'll give my players longer at each level to get a handle on their PCs' abilities before gaining new ones.
I've found this to be a problem at times too, unless the players really know the PHB, the casual player is hard pressed to keep up with new class abilities if they advance too quickly. Sometimes its a fine line between too fast and not fast enough.
 

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