Is level 1 a corner case?

June 29, 2008 at 12:15 pm
filed under Roleplaying
Tagged ,

Edit: Changed the title. I posted in haste. Please forgive!

Well, blog, we’ve finally arrived at this point. I have my first substantive complaint about 4th Edition. Here it is: level 1 is a corner case in this system, which can easily lead to a high whiff-factor, particularly for spellcasters. A DM’s gotta be careful or else they can get pretty frustrated.

The melee advantage

Melee characters get a bunch of advantages that make them more likely to hit. Combat Advantage is a big one. Charging is another advantage.

And even though AC is higher than other defenses, fighters have an inherent +1 to hit. Rogues with daggers are extremely accurate, and have sneak attack damage to compensate for the 1d4. And so on.

Warlocks do have the +1 to hit anyone to whom they’re closer than anyone else. That means that warlocks should be hunting down artillery and skirmishers, and that seems like it works. But that’s not going to do much for defensive clerics or wizards who are only rolling +3 or +4 against enemies with Reflex defenses of 14.

Ain’t no magic items

Magic weapons and implements make it easier for PCs to hit, but at level one, PCs don’t have these. Many starting casters might only rolling with +3 vs. Reflex. After hitting level 2 and getting a +1 item, this brings him up to +5. That’s great, but level 1 can be kind of a slog when you’re missing a lot.

Ain’t no level -2 monsters

The DMG encourages you to throw varying levels of monsters at your players. Depending on monster type and level, you can bias an encounter to give one class or another its time to shine.

This is a great idea, but there’s a catch: you can’t really do this at level 1. You can only go up, and for the most part, this means higher defenses, often on a 1:1 basis.


A smart DM looks at what his PC are good at and balances encounters with this in mind. As an example, terrain can cut both ways! Terrain favorable to the PCs suggests that the monsters could be slightly more difficult, and a challenging map implies that perhaps the monsters shouldn’t be so hard.

It also pays to look at the sorts of defenses monsters have. Goblins have low Will. Kobolds have low Fortitude. Zombies have low Reflex and low Will. If you pick the right monsters, the casters have the same chance of hitting as the melee characters, which typically varies between 45% and 60%. This isn’t the worst possible to-hit chance ever.

Another thing worth mentioning is that a character driven game where the PCs are not highly optimized is going to require a different level of challenge compared to a group that relishes throwing their tricked out characters into a variety of tactical situations. In the former case, it’s much easier to justify monsters making suboptimal tactical choices in the name of flavor and roleplaying. In the latter case, the players are more than likely expecting you to go all out.

And if there’s some level 4 monster you’re dying to pit against your PCs, 4e’s monster math really is dead easy, to the point where I feel bad even complaining about this. It’s trivial to adjust monsters’ difficulty when you can just shave off a couple of points here and there, even for a level 1 monster.

Of course, you might want an encounter to be hard. If every fight is the same difficulty, you don’t get those cool fights where the PCs run roughshod over the enemy, nor do you get the ones where the PCs go all out. Even if it’s hard, everyone should feel effective. If they’re not doing well, they should feel it’s because they didn’t make the right choices, not because they only have a 35% chance of hitting.

As kind of a meta-point, in the end, the DM is the best judge of what’s too easy or too hard for his party. You should decide what’s hard based on the at-the-table play, what you know about the characters, and what you know about the players. If they’re not having fun, then it’s worth figuring out why and correcting that.

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