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TL;DR: I've already 'cheated' a lot to help the group survive the first mission, and it seems like I'll have to cheat even more if they'll make it to the Keep. Did I do something wrong? What can I do to not 'cheat' (i.e., if the party 'deserved' TPK, then allow it), while being fair?


Newbie GM once again, trying skirt the seemingly fine line between TPK and letting the party steamroll the encounters. Part of the problem was mostly rolls: enemies got 3-4 crits (even before Pack Tactics), while the party barely hit them.

Anyway, here's the situation/what happened in our first HotDQ session:

  1. Party of 5 (so, should've been easier), including 2 (Bard) healers/buffers, and 4 PCs had free Potion of Healing.
  2. Linan Swift was at 2 hp before the first round was over--kobolds rolled highest initiative, and they were in her range (since they're supposed to ignore the party until attacked). I gave her a potion of healing (and "ignored" two attacks that hit) because it seemed that the 8 kobolds would overwhelm a party that hadn't yet acted (considering that the fight is supposed to be balanced with the ally NPC). The party had to use all their Cure Wounds healing by the end, and some had to drink their potions.
  3. The party didn't engage in stealth, so, they faced 2 wandering encounters on their way to the keep. The first one (3 kobolds, 1 ambush drake) went well, no one even took damage. But the 2nd one with 6 cultists was brutal: 1 PC took 10 damage in the second round (due to crit, was at -2 HP), rolled a 1 on the death saving throw, and then died by round 4. Two of the remaining four PCs are at less than half HP and, the main motivation for this question, they still haven't dealt with the 3 groups (1d6 Kobolds, 1d4 cultists) that they're supposed to encounter before reaching the keep. If they encounter a low-difficulty group (say, 1/2 cultists and 1/2 kobolds), they might make it through 1, at most 2 of those encounters. But 3, I'm almost certain it will be TPK.
  4. Because short rests are now an hour long, not even Warlocks' spell slots have recovered; nor have they been able to spend HD to regain HP...

I feel like I've already cheated a bunch, but it seems I'll have to once again, if I want the group (that's new to 5E and I hope remains excited) is going to make it to the keep. What can I do to be fair: give the party a decent chance to win, while keeping reasonable threat level?

P.S. I've read a few of the more general answers here... but since HotDQ is a bit more structured, I'd like to work with the structure, rather than just throw everything out and do my own thing... Unless that's what I should be doing?

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  • \$\begingroup\$ I will have to double check when I get home, but isn't there a chapter with encounters that help level up the PCs to 3rd level? \$\endgroup\$ – user28155 Mar 30 '16 at 9:43
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    \$\begingroup\$ @user28155 I think you're thinking of Curse of Strahd, which starts at 3rd level with an optional "intro" for lower-level characters. HotDQ starts right in at level 1. \$\endgroup\$ – SirTechSpec Sep 20 '17 at 21:18
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SlyFlourish, producer of several books and tips for DM, noted that at level 1 it was a deadly grind.

It might be intentional but I didn't like it that way so I've up-leveled or made them level 2 very quickly. It was a grind at level 2 but a GOOD grind. At level 1 it's deadly.

Twitter Source

With that in mind, consider leveling them up right away, and that should help many of the issues. At the very least, giving each character a significant percentage of their hitpoints by leveling should help them survive more.

You can see more of SlyFlourish's suggestions for a smooth run of the Greenest in Flames section here

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Having been running the Encounters version...

  • You need a Cleric or a Paladin in the party. Bards simply don't have the ability to magically heal, and that is what's needed.
  • Potions don't make up for the lack of magical healing.
  • 0HP does not equal dead.
  • If you're not running Adventurer's League play, then you can let them level up once they get 300 XP... and that's pretty darned easy. (Most of my players hit the Encounters' versions 300 XP limit.)

A few observations about the module itself

  • It's very old school. That includes having a lot of potentially lethal encounters.
  • you don't have to push the encounters one right after another. In fact, you're supposed to allow them to rest. The meeting of the Governor is at sundown - the final encounter of Episode 1 is at dawn, or earlier if drama requires it, but it's at least 8 hours away.
  • The badguys are mostly humans - their passive perception is at disadvantage due to dim, if not dark. (That depends upon how dark you want it, and if the PCs let certain things burn.) Demihuman PC's should be able to surprise them.

That said, there are two absolutely lethal encounters right in Episode 1.

Let the players sneak. The DC's have already been set for darkness.

Adjust the group stealth to no encounters unless (A) one of them rolled less than a 5 or (B) more than half of them failed. (B matches the group test mechanic in the DM's Basic Rules.) But note: in so doing, you deprive them of their XP.

If not running Adventurer's League Play (especially Encounters play), you can also opt to use the movement rates in the PHB or PBR, rather than the module's simplified "hour to go from A to B"... This allows far more time for short rests.

Also, realize that the lethality is a feature, not a bug. 1st level is a brutal level. It's unforgiving. And that's why, unless using rolled attributes, you can legitimately just let them reset the characters and start the module over, or bring in a new one as "an old friend is in town..."

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    \$\begingroup\$ Unless I'm missing something, Bards have more healing capabilities than Paladins (at least L1). \$\endgroup\$ – Khashir Sep 30 '14 at 12:35
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    \$\begingroup\$ And just as many as Clerics - 2 spell slots for Cure Wounds and/or Healing Word. \$\endgroup\$ – SirTechSpec Sep 20 '17 at 21:23
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I'm currently playing the module with 3 groups, one of which I'm DMing.

the group I'm DMing is level 3 SO it's been a cakewalk for them. In the two other games I'm playing I am making frequent use of my medkits and medicine skill to keep the party alive.

Remind your players to help each other, and also rmembrr as DM that there are no negative hit points. Healing starts from 0. Don't heal until someone goes to zero, then have someone stabilize and then only heal them if they are needed to kill off the threat.

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You can choose to not use as many random encounters as they approach the keep. That first encounter I gave the full party a surprise round to start it off. Unfortunately it was still a brutal start.

In mine I let Linan offer a healing potion to one of the wounded as thanks for saving them. This way they may be able to survive their trek to the keep

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First, decide whether you are playing a game where the characters are mighty heroes who are certain to crush all opposition, or regular people trying to do their best to stand up against overwhelming odds.

It sounds like you are playing the former, but this adventure is written more for the latter. The encounters, as written, aren't fair. They aren't even all winnable.

For Mighty Heroes

Make the characters stronger

  • Increase the level of your characters by 1 or 2
  • Give magic items to the characters

Or make their enemies weaker

  • Reduce the number of opponents in each encounter
  • Replace stronger opponents with weaker ones

For Everyday Heroes

Make it clear to the players that they shouldn't expect a fair, or even winnable, fight. In many cases the right answer is to avoid a fight, but many new players won't immediately understand that; often they will assume that every challenge is meant to be overcome by force.

It is the DM's job to give the players enough information to judge for themselves which fights they can win. This is mostly about building atmosphere through descriptive language, both before and during combat. Telegraphing danger with subtlety is a skill that many new DMs are still developing, so it is okay to state it directly too.

If you are confident that the players understand the risks (at least as well as the characters should), then be sure to let the natural consequences of their choices play out. "Cheating" for the players only undermines this style of play.

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If you're looking to make 1st level a bit less deadly, without having a huge impact as things move forward, you can try a few things.

First, drop the number of enemies they're facing. That'll make the encounters easier up front without completely changing the adventure. Just because the encounter says '1d6 kobolds' doesn't mean you have to roll a d6 and use that many. You can simply decide that 3 kobolds is the right number to face.

Second, you can give the PCs a bit of a boost in HP. In 4e, the starting HP bonus was their Con score instead of their Con bonus, and you could do something similar here, though I'd recommend going with half of the Con score as the HP bonus at 1st level. That'll give the PCs 5 extra HP which will be quickly outweighed as they advance in levels, but will help prevent single-crit drops or kills at 1st level. A Con 8 wizard would end up with 8 HP instead of 5 this way, while a Con 14 fighter would end up with 17 HP instead of 12 HP.

If that's not quite enough, you could go the full 4e route, and give them the full Con score. That averages around 11 bonus HP or so. Still not a huge difference at higher levels, but pretty danged significant at low levels.

Alternatively, make give them more opportunities to take significant rests.

Another thing to think about is initiative. You said in #2 that the "kobolds rolled highest initiative". Does that mean you rolled once for the entire group of 8 kobolds? Rolling initiative once for all like-type critters may reduce your paperwork somewhat, but it does make the fights much more 'swingy'. If you roll well, the critters can completely obliterate the party before the PCs have any opportunity to react. (Note: The opposite of this is less of an issue from a game perspective, because the PCs will be part of many fights, so an easier-than-expected fight here and there isn't necessarily a bad thing.)

Instead of rolling initiative once for the entire block of kobolds, you might try rolling for them individually, or at least breaking it up into smaller chunks. This increases the likelihood that some of them will go first, but it significantly reduces the likelihood that all of them will do so.

Something else you mentioned in that section leads me to believe that you made an error which compounded the problem. You said, "they're supposed to ignore the party until attacked", but you also said that you were afraid they would "overwhelm a party that hadn't yet acted". If the kobolds were supposed to ignore the party until they were attacked, they shouldn't have gone at all before at least the first party member attacked them. If they all won initiative, then they should have acted for the first time at the start of the second round.

I know that not having them act at all, despite the fact that they won initiative, seems counter-intuitive, but sometimes you can lose the opportunity to act quickly simply by deciding you don't need to act and not discovering you were wrong until it was too late. The kobolds here, based on your notes, seem to have decided that the party was not a threat, and won't have the opportunity to recover from that mistaken assessment until their respective turns come up again.

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  • \$\begingroup\$ I know this is old, but they do have an action in round one before the party acts: attack the NPCs. The party is supposed to be walking in on a fight in progress. \$\endgroup\$ – Yamikuronue Aug 31 '15 at 0:06
  • \$\begingroup\$ Good point. They shouldn't have attacked the PCs at all at least until the start of the second round (maybe later, if the PCs do something other than attack the kobolds for their first round). \$\endgroup\$ – Theo Brinkman Aug 31 '15 at 17:12
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Two important bits of advice, somewhat linked. First, combat isn't the only way through the approach to the keep: my group's sorceror bluffed the group through every encounter except the first. A little bit of draconic to lend credence and a reasonably believable story ("these humans are prisoners, we're taking them to etc, happy looting") should get them through.

A big help to this is the Aid Another action; have your second-best Deception score PC aid the best, granting advantage on the roll. This compensates for the advantage the cultists have as a group, and greatly increases the PCs odds.

I also like the idea of presenting the missions as choices for the characters, with the NPCs covering the rest. And having level 2 characters helps a lot.

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One thing I found did help with beginner players was to set a few wandering encounters while traveling to Greenest using the same table as city random encounters. In story terms, these are groups slower to join for the main attack and provides foreshadowing of what will come on entering the town.

This allowed for players to get some experience in game mechanics as well as experience for the characters. As it would be assumed the caravan will not be traveling throughout the night, it gives the players a long rest to regain hit points and spells. When added to the experience from the entry to the keep, it should push the players to level 2 before starting the night missions while ensuring they earned the advancement, providing additional hit points and spells prior to the long night.

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