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I'm fairly new to D&D 5e, but a pretty quick study (thanks at least in part to this site!) I'll be DMing a one shot game at a family event in a couple of months. One of my players has played a similar RPG system before, but is ... loose on rules in general. The rest are complete newbies, and some of them mostly want to play as a way to connect with the one who's played something else before (and is keen as a bean) rather than from their own internal initial interest. Obviously I want everyone to have a good time.

My initial thought was to run Lost Mine of Phandelver (the Starter Set campaign) seeing as I have it already, and it would give those less invested players pre-made characters if they don't want to roll their own from scratch. The problem is that it's designed to get them from 1st-5th level, and I'm not sure I want to play a game that lasts too many sessions.

After briefly considering homebrewing a one-shot (I really don't have time) I looked to see if there were any prewritten ones. (It turns out that there - are - LOTS). Many of them say they're for 3rd- to 5th-level (or some other combo) characters.

I feel like I'd like to start with the level 1 simplicity for my new players (though leveling in the game might be cool).

Does this mean that I'm limited to one-shots designed for level 1 characters, or is there an easy way to get a party of 4 or so level 1 characters through a game designed for level 3-4s?


If you feel that first-time players might do better with higher-level characters, feel free to include that in the rest of your answer.

Also, if the game goes a little long, and we need to have a second session to tie it off, that's probably fine. If it's likely to take much longer than about 6-8 hours, I doubt we'll get through it.

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    \$\begingroup\$ Fair cop. I got rid of the second question but left the related context in in case it helps at all. \$\endgroup\$ – Isaac Reefman Jul 26 '18 at 3:56
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    \$\begingroup\$ Tangential to the question, but worth noting: Lost Mines of Phandever is not a one-shot. It's a standalone module, bt it's really not designed to be run in a single session. Most groups I've heard of required upwards of 40 hours to complete LMoP; some took 60 or 70 hours. \$\endgroup\$ – anaximander Jul 26 '18 at 11:54
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    \$\begingroup\$ @Ethan Wave Echo Cave assumes the characters are level 4, and is the end of the LMOP adventure. Did you mean Cragmaw Cave? Because I was going to suggest the same if OP asked their secondary question separately. The road encounter and the cave itself is a good introduction to the mechanics, though how long it takes them to get through that might vary depending on how new they are to the game. \$\endgroup\$ – V2Blast Jul 26 '18 at 18:40
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    \$\begingroup\$ @V2Blast Yeah, I was thinking Cragmaw Cave there. Been awhile! \$\endgroup\$ – Ethan Jul 26 '18 at 19:13
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    \$\begingroup\$ All these answers were really useful! In the end, as I had to get a one-shot because some of the new players were unlikely to have the staying power for a longer campaign, I had a deeper look (helped by some of the links given) and found a few. I've decided to go with either Greger's Grotto, Moon Over Graymoor or Temple of the Dragonknights. \$\endgroup\$ – Isaac Reefman Jul 26 '18 at 23:15
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I have a fair amount of experience DM'ing for new players, so I'll give my two cents.

No, you won't be able to run a 1st level party through a 3rd-4th level dungeon/adventure

Really, you won't, unless you rebalance everything there to make it proper to 1st level. If you don't intend to spend time doing it, you simply will TPK your party. That's true even for experienced players - the difference between 1st level and 3rd level is very relevant, and a moderate challenge for a 3rd level party can one shot a 1st level party.

It's also not a very good idea to get new players to start at higher levels

Well, to be honest, the alternative is also harsh. Most new players will get confused with only their racial and 1st level features, I usually don't even recommend playing full casters to new players if they don't have time to study how their spellcasting works.


Before adding my solution, I will add some insight on my experience from published adventures, one shots and overall experience with newbie players. If you are not interested, jump to the next line splitting.

The thing with low level adventures

Usually, low level adventures (specifically tier 1 (1-4) and maybe early tier 2 (5-8)) are (quite) large, hard cover adventures for a wide range of levels. Truth is: there isn't many interesting things you can do at low levels. Things start to get interesting around 3rd level (many classes get their signatures there, others get some core features), where a one shot starting at 1st level would be ending. This means it's usually more interesting to level your characters through the entire thing and actually face a Big Bad Evil Guy at higher levels.

The thing with one shots

To actually be one shots, usually they require some experience from the players and the DM (so people don't waste time doing something that has nothing to do with the adventure). For them to be enjoyable, they require even more experience, usually. Finally, since, as I said earlier, early levels aren't exactly amazing and interesting, they are usually designed for higher levels (I'm actually impressed that you found lots of 3rd level one shots, I'm more used to at least tier 2 (5+)). Higher levels, as I mentioned earlier, are most fit for more experienced players.

That said, my sad point is: I really don't feel like D&D (or, at least, 5e) is particuarly suited for one shots for new players. You will learn lots of rules, mechanics and interactions and use it... once. There are a few simpler games that are also, as a whole system, more suited for one shots. I'm not throwing names here because I don't know your (and your party's) tastes for fantasy and whatever else, but chat and forums can help you if you are interested.


Play a 1st level one shot that has enough plot on it

Yes, they exist. Although personally I couldn't finish it in one shot, Death House (from Curse of Strahd), although being a hook (i.e. you should be playing CoS after it, not using it as a one shot) can be played as a one shot. It's designed for 1st to 3rd levels (you level to 3rd level when you finish it though, so it doesn't actually matter, you only play as 1st and 2nd levels). Important note: it's deadly. The main problem I can see with it is that the players, being newbies, will waste too much time and not actually finish it in one (or even two) sessions.

If you search enough, there should be other quick adventures for this same level range though.

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Playing a non-level -appropriate adventure is likely to result in Bad Time, so it's wise to consider alternatives like changing the adventure itself. There's no easy silver bullet way to tone down a premade adventure for level 1 characters, but why not do it the other way around:

Start at a higher level

The simple way to play and enjoy a higher level adventure without the time to level up characters to an appropriate level (or the desire to do so) is to create high-level characters in the first place. Doing this is simple: just create a level 1 character as usual and then apply the bonuses of the levels up to the desired one.

The caveat is that building a higher level character is more difficult: more choices are involved, and it's easy for a beginning player to miscalculate the effectiveness of the features they've picked. I recommend you still stay small at first: levels 1-5 or so, and give the players generous opportunities to mulligan their character choices if they make mistakes.

Some higher-level modules expect the player characters to have accrued magical items over the course of their adventures - however, it's unlikely to be the case for adventures designed as one-shots. If you want to award your player characters magical items at start, Dungeon Master's Guide has some guidelines to determine what level of magical items a party of a certain level ought to have, plus some treasure tables you might find useful.

A caveat regarding time

Also, if the game goes a little long, and we need to have a second session to tie it off, that's probably fine. If it's likely to take much longer than about 6-8 hours, I doubt we'll get through it.

This depends a lot on the exact type of scenarios you'll be running, but games designed for a range of levels (like Phandelver for levels 1 to 5) are likely to take an order of magnitude more time. It's possible to squeeze in a quest in small dungeon to that much time - some of the best games of DnD I've played have been were essentially stand-alone quests of such timescale. However, I don't think if you'll have much luck finding these in published modules since they're usually intended for longer games.

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  • \$\begingroup\$ Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat. \$\endgroup\$ – mxyzplk Jul 27 '18 at 3:10
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Don't run adventures with character levels mismatched with the recommended, find one that fits what you need

I agree with kviiri's answer, and a lot of what they have said is good advice. I would also strongly suggest not trying to run an adventure when the characters' levels are too high or low, as the whole dungeon will be playtested and balanced to fit what is suggested.

The main reason I have posted another answer is that I wanted to add that with a bit of looking, you can find one-shots designed at almost any level, including level 1 characters. For instance, I recently ran the adventure "The Burning Goblins", which is designed for new players, new DMs, and level 1 characters. It's split into two good separate parts, and easily fits into sessions of 4(ish) hours. There are definitely other adventures that fit what you require as well.

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If an adventure is written for higher levels, it probably won't be fun for level 1s.

That said, a number of adventures (The Adventure League ones in particular) are written for tier ranges (Tier 1) and include scaling to make them playable at any level in the tier. You can find a number of those on DMs Guild.

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