For my next D&D campaign, I want to introduce the players to the ruleset by having them play through a sample combat encounter. All of them have prior RPG experience, but they haven't played any edition of D&D before. The idea is to introduce the most important concepts without overwhelming the players with options or making the battle too difficult. For the record, their adventuring party includes one of each PC role and an additional striker, and they all start at first level.

How can I create an introductory D&D encounter intended for teaching the rules?

For example:

  • Which encounter level should I choose?
  • Which monster roles should I include?
  • Should I include any hazards, traps, or special terrain?
  • Are there any aspects of the rules or of the encounter that I should emphasize for the players?

5 Answers 5


If you want them to experience combat as a individuals first I would say that running through the character creation scenario that is published in the new Red Box would be a good idea. If you would rather introduce them as a group there are several solid L1 adventures already published by Wizards. Either the Red Box (goes through L1) or the Keep on the Shadowfell (probably not the published one, but the one that is free online) is a good place to start. Also, there are several very good L1 adventures in the Chaos Scar adventure path that provide good introductions and are much shorter than KotS.

If you do not want to run a published adventures you might try looking at the first encounter in each of those scenarios and some other L1 adventures and see what kinds of elements are there.

Some things I would keep in mind:

  • Tailor the first encounters so that everyone can play with their strengths. If you have a wizard with area bursts a group or two of tight minions. If you have mostly melee have the opponents be mostly melee. If you have some ranged characters have some areas where they can go run and hide and shoot from those.

  • Highlight any of the game rules that you feel are going to be important to the campaign (stealth, traps, difficult terrain, making sure PCs are paying attention to their surroundings, etc). If you are going to hit your PCs with traps then make sure there is at trap in the example encounter (hidden pit traps seem to be classic for opening encounters). Difficult terrain may be useful as well. However, don't over do stuff like this because it does make the encounter harder. You can always introduce some of these concepts as they come up later. Things that are gotchas (like traps) might be good to get in earlier rather than later though.

  • Make it fairly easy, if you are starting at L1 then make it an easy L1 or lower encounter. But don't make it too easy, you want the party to get knocked around a bit so that the healer has something to do and so that they get a sense of the danger they are dealing with.

  • Start with both a combat encounter and a skill challenge. 4e works well with both of these and they should get a feel for both methods so that they do not resort to combat every single time they encounter a new situation.

Hopefully this will give you a jumping off point to get your group started with 4e. We started with the Red Box and played through the DM Kit and Monster Vault adventures, and now are going back through a leveled up Keep on the Shadowfell. The Red Box provided a pretty darn good introduction to the mechanics, even if some of the character creation stuff in there should be discarded.


There is a fantastic encounter building design philosophy that is fairly agnostic for most D&D systems called 5 Room Dungeons. This philosophy is easily implemented into 4th edition encounter design and doesn't really have much of a learning curve. The only real learning curve with it will be actual encounter design for each room, but thankfully due to XP budgets explained either in the Rules Compendium or DMGs this isn't a terrible task either.

The reason for this suggestion is for you to have each room in a 5 Room Dungeon serve as a different theme or focus on a different character to play up their strengths. For example, one room could have mostly Minions so that the Controller can shine, or another could have Brutes so that the Defenders and Strikers get the limelight. Leaders shine any time their party is in combat, so that's not too hard to focus on for their roles!

In addition, each room can cater to the varying difficulty of encounters in D&D 4e while being manageable. (And you don't have to be super creative in design either as it's just a showcase, so 5 rooms of Kobolds? Cool. 1 room of Kobolds followed by a room of Zombies followed by whatever? Works!) I would suggest the following for room difficulties: Room 1: Average Party Level +0, Room 2: APL+1, Room 3: APL+0, Room 4: APL+1, Room 5: APL+2. This is a fairly good showcase of difficulty, though you may need to tweak it if you are using pre-Monster Manual 3 monster math.

As stated in some other answers, the beauty of 5 Room Dungeons is that each room can showcase a different rule you are trying to get across. A sneaky room, traps, difficult terrain, skill/combat challenges, and more as WaxEagle said work perfectly here.

Really, the easiest way to learn the rules as a new player is to play the game. One session won't teach them everything and in most cases it will just be something that they pick up over the course of a few sessions. So regardless of how you go approach it, have fun with it and be patient with your players and they'll pick it up in time!

  • \$\begingroup\$ Sounds like a good idea, but I was only planning to spend an hour or two on it, and it seems like a five-room dungeon could take a bit more than that. Still, might come in handy! \$\endgroup\$
    – Jakob
    Aug 12, 2011 at 15:10
  • \$\begingroup\$ @Jakob - Honestly? A 5 Room Dungeon is super easy to make. Look at the XP budget per room and choose monsters accordingly (or plug in trap accordingly.) But good luck, regardless! \$\endgroup\$ Aug 12, 2011 at 20:33
  • \$\begingroup\$ I'm talking about time to play, not time to design. I've spent a good hour designing it already by posting this question. ;) \$\endgroup\$
    – Jakob
    Aug 12, 2011 at 21:35
  • \$\begingroup\$ Ahhh, I'm slow! It's so hard to read meanings sometimes :) And yes, a 5RD can take awhile, you know how long 4e encounters can be. You will have to keep us posted how it goes! \$\endgroup\$ Aug 12, 2011 at 23:54

I would consider a scenario like this: the whole party has been captured sometime in the last few minutes. The party was caught unawares by a "SLEEP" spell, or else they'd probably be wounded and down a few surges. As it is, each player is still wearing his or her armor, but their weapons have been taken and are resting nearby. The spell wears off and everyone awakes at the same moment.

Each player is bound simply with cheap rope -- an ATHLETICS or THIEVERY check as a minor is good enough to escape, or they could do the ESCAPE action vs. the FORT of the rope or the REF of the guard holding the rope. Each guard is a minion. This means the PCs could stand up, do an unarmed STR attack (or cast a spell with no bonuses) and kill their captor; they can use their minor to escape and then use a minor on the next turn to arm themselves. POW. You've taught minions, some basic non-combat actions, initiative order, the importance of weapon and proficiency bonuses, roll-to-hit, and Move-Minor-Standard.

Now they hear a commotion, each from a different room, and they all meet up in the main hallway of the prison, where more heavily-armed guards are running in. One of the guards hollers "Go get the wizard - he should be able to put them to sleep again!" Now the strikers have a target (learn Focus Fire). If you're good about designing the hallway you can even teach them about opportunity attacks and perhaps GRAB attacks here; some chains and hay-bales or furniture can form difficult terrain and cover. If they do well, the wizard doesn't show up; if they do poorly, he shows up and tries to cast SLEEP again.

They fight their way into the prison yard; you can suggest that they don't have time for a short rest but could each take their Second Wind. When they get out into the prison yard they quickly notice that (a) nobody has noticed them yet, (b) they are hopelessly outnumbered in the middle of a military prison, and (c) there is an ogre smashing rocks between them and the stables. If they can get past the ogre, steal some horses, and figure out how to raise the portcullis, they can escape quickly. POW - you've taught them how to split their party resources and focus on their strengths. Also they can work on skill checks as part of combat (DUNGEONEERING and THIEVERY for the portcullis, STEALTH for sneaking past the ogre). Give the ogre a power that induces ongoing damage so they can learn saving throws and HEAL checks to grant saves.

It shortens the five-room dungeon to a two-and-a-half room dungeon, and you can scale the hitpoints behind the DM screen as appropriate in order to give the players the feeling of success that's crucial to this kind of encounter. You can run a skill challenge to escape pursuit on horseback and make camp, and then give them an Extended Rest.


In DMG1 there is a published short adventure consisting in 5 encounters against kobolds that gradually introduces new elements like traps and terrain. You could use that dungeon for your introductory (series of) encounter(s).

  • \$\begingroup\$ I believe that is indeed in DMG1 \$\endgroup\$
    – wax eagle
    Sep 1, 2012 at 12:52

I haven't played D&D since ver 3.1 so I'm not so sure if of the changes but for me:

1.) I would let em fight an encounter 1 or 2 lvls lower than their lvls and let the enemies do to the pc's what you want to tech em. Ex. Flanking, 5 step rule, back stab, line of sight, traps (minor only, or at least not deadly).

2.) I would teach the them what their character's specialty during combat and out of combat.

3.) If you plan to run a battle intensive game then teach em more about what their characters can do or the cool thing their characters can do in battle. If it's more of a investigative and Role playing teach em more about what they can do about skills in situations. Don't just ask them "what do you do?" you should give em some hints in the beginning like when looking for a hidden door say it like this "As an Elf you are more sensitive to the minor changes in the environment, you feel a small breeze coming from somewhere within the room. What do you do?" then more or less he will come up with the idea of doing a search check. I hope this helps :p

  • 1
    \$\begingroup\$ You can't really set monsters at a level lower than 1 in 4E. \$\endgroup\$ Aug 12, 2011 at 13:39
  • 2
    \$\begingroup\$ This really isn't a constructive answer to the question at hand. You can't compare 4e and 3.X and expect to have the same/similar answers, nor can you make monster below level 1 in 4e as Adriano noted. If you have some mechanical 4e information from the various rules books to back up your answers be sure to cite them/mention them in the future. \$\endgroup\$ Aug 14, 2011 at 8:50
  • \$\begingroup\$ While it is impossible to have a less-than-level-one monster in 4E, you can run a less-than-level-one encounter. Pre-MM3 there's really no need for it. Even a level 2 encounter is still really easy for 5 level 1 PCs. \$\endgroup\$
    – Zachiel
    Sep 1, 2012 at 23:00

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