I find that the survivability and general performance of my party increases massively from levels 1 to 2. At times, level 1 feels like a completely different game from level 2. However, I can't fathom how or why. I think that the availability of healing has something to do with it. From a mechanical perspective, is there any deep reason why level 1 and level 2 seem so radically different? Furthermore, why I do find no similar differences between later levels, such as 6 and 7?
Welcome to Rusty Dagger Shanktown!
What you have noticed is very widely commented upon—1st level is often called “rusty dagger shanktown.” It’s hyper-lethal, rather than the kind of heroic fantasy Dungeons & Dragons pitches itself as. It is very, very difficult for 1st-level PCs to actually really adventure at all. Many, many groups avoid 1st for this reason (many skip 2nd too, even though it is already dramatically different). Personally, I’ll include 1st level often, but the PCs basically always level-up to 2nd almost entirely on roleplaying XP.
Note that this isn’t unique to 3.5e; it goes back to the earliest days of D&D. Pathfinder, of course, inherited it from 3.5e (I don’t know about PF 2e). It’s also very much still true in 5e—after 4e actually managed to avoid it, which may mean that this is considered a “feature” by some, enough that Wizards of the Coast felt the need to restore it as part of 5e’s general “return to form” after the divisive fourth edition.
Anyway, the primary causes of rusty dagger shanktown:
Almost anyone can one-shot almost any 1st-level character. It’s very, very easy to have 6 hp in a world where a decent, but basic, weapon’s base damage averages 7. Even smaller weapons can easily deal that much damage, either through luck or skill. We expect 1st-level characters to often go down in one hit.
A 2nd-level character can have nearly twice as much hp. Actually, could easily be twice as much, if they multiclass from a small-HD class to a large-HD class. That drastically changes the game, because suddenly you can feel reasonably confident that you aren’t going to just suddenly die before anyone can do anything. Healing actually becomes relevant, where at 1st it’s often too little, too late.
Notably, this only has this effect because damage doesn’t grow at the same rate. The base damage of weapons is fixed, and ability scores start at double digits but grow very slowly from there. That’s the biggest chunk of early damage for most characters. Even beyond that, a lot of damage boosts—inspire courage, rage, sneak attack—come at 1st anyway. And monsters tend to kind of mirror these trends.
So what ends up happening is that a 1st-level character can’t really take a chance in order to get something accomplished. A 2nd-level character can feel reasonably comfortable taking a chance at least once. That dramatically affects the style of play. At 2nd-level D&D literally feels like a different game. Really, it is a different game.
Characters start with less than 200 gp worth of gear. That’s not enough for a masterwork weapon, not enough even for non-masterwork medium or heavy armors, definitely not enough for any kind of magic item beyond maybe an extremely basic consumable. No 1st-level character has even their complete basic kit yet.
The expected wealth of a 2nd-level character is 900 gp. That can afford masterwork armor of anything short of full-plate, and for many armors leave enough left over for a masterwork weapon. Most importantly, that is enough money for a party of 4 to trivially afford a wand of cure light wounds. A wand of cure light wounds is a game-changer. It means you can easily start every fight at full hp. And with 2nd-level hp, that means you can actually take a few risks.
This varies considerably from one class to the next, but several classes get major class features at 2nd level. The paladin’s 2nd-level feature, divine grace, might be the single greatest class feature in the game (assuming we don’t count “spells” and the like as a singular feature). Rangers don’t get their combat style until 2nd. Bards get 1st-level spells at 2nd (though inspire courage from 1st level is probably more important). Outside of core, meldshapers don’t get any chakra binds until 2nd, which can leave them with zero offense at 1st. Swordsages don’t get Wis-to-AC until 2nd.
But plenty of characters are fine from 1st, so this can vary a lot.
One potential difference is HP. The difference in HP between 1st and 2nd level is the largest percentage jump the characters will likely ever see (with some multi-class combinations excluded). The characters can feel quite a bit less fragile.
Another is that melee characters are doubling their BAB from 1st to 2nd level, and most classes have decent 2nd level abilities that show up.
This likely is the same over all traits and abilities. Each level just gives you small increases, but those increases are much more significant between 1st and 2nd level than at any other point.
It is about the HP
There are other contributing factors. But the ratio of HP between a level 1 and level 2 PC larger than the ratio at any other level.
And at low levels, HP is the main measure of defence.
Meanwhile, offence barely moves.
So a typical PC goes from 1 unit of defence and 1 unit of offence to 1.5 units of defence and 1.1 units of offence.
The kinds of enemies mostly don't change from level 1 to level 2. Maybe you'll face a few more; but they are exceedingly unlikely to be 1.5 times as much offence and 1.1 times as much defence at level 2 compared to level 1. More likely 1.3 and 1.3 (representing "increased numbers of foes"), or even 1.5 and 1.1 (representing "nearly same damage, but more HP") like a PC.
If the foes danger scales in both offence and defence (so you fight 3 Kobolds at level 1, and 4 at level 2), then your 1.1x offence and 1.5x defence ends up looking like 0.85x offence 1.15x defence. If the foes power scales like a PC, at level 2 it looks like 0.75x offence 1.35x defence.
In both cases, it is like converting a bare-knuckle fight to one wearing boxing gloves and armor. Higher defence means it takes more bad luck to drop a PC in one blow; lower offence means it takes more rounds to drop a foe, and a lucky blow is less likely to drop one.
Daily resources matter
From level 1 to level 2, most spellcasters go from 3 to 4 first level spells per day (1, +1 specialization/domain, +1 high attribute; sorcerers go from 4 to 5 and druids from 2 to 3). This boosts their endurance by 1/2 to 1/4, and can represent one more chance to "save or lose" foes, or a bit more healing resources.
At no other level does a spellcasters endurance get boosted by 1/3 in one level.
But the spellcaster gets no better at delivering spells on a per round basis, they can just perform at top performance for one additional round/day. So a level-appropriate challenge for a level 1 character is going to be faster than one for a level 2 character, simply because the level 2 character has more endurance and very little additional output per round.
The effect isn't as large as the HP, but it leans in the same direction.
Class features also
If you look over various classes, next to no class gets their big offensive features at level 2. Paladins gets smite at level 1, and lay on hands at 2. Monks get flurry of blows/unarmed combat and an offensive feat at level 1, and evasion and a defensive feat at level 2 (combat reflexes is arguably defensive). Rogues get 1d6 sneak attack at level 1, and evasion at level 2.
The most offensive stuff gained is a feat or a spell slot really.
Higher offence, lower defence
Let's take two simple games. In one, you take turns rolling 1d20, and on an 11+ you win.
In the other, you have to roll an 11+ twice before you win.
The first is going to feel very different than the second, even though (assuming you randomly pick who goes first) each is a fair and even game.
D&D isn't generally a fair and even game; rather, it tends to be biased in favour of the PCs. So we'll modify the game a bit. Team PC has to roll an 8+, team Monster has to roll a 14+.
We still randomly determine who goes first. In the high-stakes "1 hit win" game:
- PCs first: 65% PCs win, 35% devolves to Monsters first.
- Monsters first: 35% Monsters win, 65% devolves to PCs first.
This is a pretty simple set of equations (PC = .65 + .35 M, M = .65 PC).
Solving, we get PC first is 84% PC win 16% Monster win.
PC = .65 + .35 M
M = .65 PC
PC = .65 + .35 * .65 PC
PC = .65/(1-.35*.65)
PC =~ .84
M =~ .55
On the other hand, Monster first is 45% Monster win and 55% PC win. (In the above math, I am calculating the average number of PC wins; hence, M = .55 means 45% monster win if it goes first).
For the two-hit game the games states are:
- PCs first: 65% Monsters at disavantage, 35% devolves to Monster's first
- PCs advantage: 65% PCs win, 35% Monster's disadvantage
- PCs disadvantage: 65% Monsters tied, 35% Monster's advantage
- PCs tied: equal to PCs first in 1-shot version (84% PCs win, 16% Monsters win)
- Monsters first: 35% PCs at disadvantage, 65% devolves to PCs first
- Monsters advantage: 35% Monsters win, 65% PCs disadvantage
- Monsters disadvantage: 35% PCs tied, 65% PCs advantage
- Monsters tied: equal to Monsters first in shot version (45% Monsters win, 55% PCs win)
we can solve this using a system of 8 equations (which I won't do here), and it works out that if the PC goes first 85% chance they win, and if the monsters go first there is a 71% chance the PCs win.
Adding more "hits" to a fight, with the same odds on each round, means that the favoured side gets more favoured. Luck matters less.