Wednesday, 12 January 2011

The 1st Level Party's Survival Guide

At no-time in a characters adventuring career is he more at risk of suffering a TPK than a first level. Here's a quick guide on avoiding the common pit-falls that can bring your party (and your game) to a messy end.

No adventuring party absolutely has to cover all four basic classes: Fighter, Magic-User, Cleric and Thief, but your chances of a successful adventure (let alone survival) are much higher if you do. Of them all, a first level Magic-User is possibly the most dispensable – but don't discount the power of a single sleep spell. That one 1st level Magic User spell has probably saved more first level parties from total destruction that the ubiquitous Cure Light wounds ever will.

If you haven't been able to cover all four classes, then consider the possibility of multi-classing. Multi-classing has it's disadvantages (slower level progression means slower hit point gain) but in a small party it can help to cover all the basics -at least until you can hire on some NPC adventurers or henchmen to cover the gaps.

Ideal party composition is very much a matter of opinion beyond the “base-four”, but generally speaking multiple fighters and clerics are more useful than multiple magic users and thieves. A party with more Magic Users and Thieves than fighters is going to have a very hard time keeping the former two out of melee combat. Likewise, a party with too few clerics will have a harder time keeping everyone alive.

My own personal preference would be for the fifth party member to have a level of fighter and the sixth to be a cleric. However, old school parties are usually much more organic than that. Planning your party composition is very much a development of later editions. Trying to survive with a grossly imbalanced party is just part of the fun.

Old school adventure modules often have a list of rumours the party can learn about the Dungeon before heading off. Often these rumours are simply outright wrong, but sometimes they provide hints of treasures to be found. More often than that, they may very well save your characters life. If you hear a rumour about chambers full of extremely life-like statues, then you know to bring along mirrors and blindfolds in case you run into something like a medusa. If you know the caves are occupied by two different types of orc's, you might want to bring some gifts to bribe one tribe into an alliance while you take on the other.

Don't forget to check back regularly to see if there are any more rumours to be heard. You will rarely hear them all before setting off and your sources might remember something important they forget to tell you the first time you spoke with them. Paying a sage for additional information is going to be well beyond your means before your first venture into a dungeon, but don't discount the value of learning local history. If you learn that the ruined castle once held a chapel to Orcus, you know to expect un-dead.

Numbers count, especially at first level. Even a few zero level mercenaries to bulk out the shield wall can mean the difference between success and failure. Arm them with spears or pole-arms so that they can fight from the second rank (behind your fighters), give them bonus' and loot after a hard fight (to keep them loyal) and assign one or two of them to the last rank to act as rear-guard.

Yes mercenaries are very expensive (especially if your DM rules that you have to buy their gear for them or, as I do, insists that they receive the price of their gear as a “hiring fee” for their services) but their presence may save your life. If you really can’t stretch to hiring a mercenary or two (or ten), then consider buying a few dogs as an alternative.

Torch-bearers are another popular choice. Fighters and clerics need both hands for their weapons and shields; Magic-Users tend to have a weapon in one hand and must keep the other hand free for spell-casting. Thieves tend to need both hands to wield their crossbows, pick locks and disarm traps. Hiring on a local to act as a guide and carry a torch is surprisingly cheap -though you should strive to protect these ill-armoured civilians well. Losing one too many torch-bearers is a sure way to earn the enmity of the locals. If that happens, inns may close their doors; temples may “run-out” of cure spells and traders need to “order in” essential supplies.

Mule-Skinners are another useful hireling. Hardy as mules often are, it's not always wise (or possible) to take them into the dungeon with you. A mule-skinner and one or two mercenaries allow a party to set up a secure camp (with the mules) while you and the rest of the hirelings venture into a dungeon or other location.

Link-boys are a choice favoured by many parties. Personally, I don't hold with the idea of leaving a poorly armed village lad standing at every junction you pass with orders to call out if they see a monster coming to eat ‘em. The side-effects of too many slain link-boys are much the same as those mentioned for the torch-bearer above – and the link-boy has an even lower life expectancy than the torch-bearer.

Some parties employ local down-and-outs, captured brigands, madmen and village idiots as “pole-men”. Literally, their job is to poke about anything suspicious with a ten foot pole. This sort of hireling (and they are usually prisoners who have been given a “second chance”) has the lowest life-expectancy of all. It's not quite as cheesy or beardy an option as herding life stock down dungeon corridors to set off any traps, but it's not far off. It is, however, entirely in keeping with the ideals of various evil or “mercenary-type” adventuring bands.

Finally, you have the less common cooks, camp-followers (including craftsmen and other specialists) and chaplains. Cooks and camp followers are exactly than, but unless you have a huge party and dozens of hirelings, they are not really necessary. Remember, you’ll have to feed (and carry supplies for) every hireling you have. Chaplains, on the other hand, are non-adventuring priests and clerics who accompany the party to act in a support role as healers. Good luck convincing a local town priest or monk to hire on with you, but I have seen it done before (usually the result of a charm person spell or choosing a non-combatant cleric as a henchman or follower). You're unlikely to need, afford or want any of these at first level.

It's no uses standing arguing at the junction of a dungeon corridor. There's no surer way to attract wandering monsters. To prevent arguments, select a chain of command and appoint roles prior to entering any dungeon. The roles don't have to be assigned to the same characters all the time. You can swap them about if you wish. Just not while you’re still in the Dungeon.

It's the caller’s job to pick directions of travel, chose where to rest and decide when to fight or negotiate. One simple rule for the rest of the party: don't argue. If you don't like his choices, tough. Fire him when you're outside the dungeon and elect (or select) a new one.

Remember, anything that happens to the in-game map happens to the real-world map as well. So don't give this job to someone who is likely to get separated from the party (such as a scout) or who is likely to get himself killed (such as a Magic User). A cleric is usually ideal as they have the right balance of hit points and role (second rank fighter) to maximise survivability. Make copies and never, ever rub out part of the map at the gaming table. If you think you’re lost, start a new map from where you are now and work back to a spot you know. Then combine the two maps on a new piece of paper later. Make copies. Keep them somewhere safe (for example, with the same person who looks after the party cash). A money-lender, pawn-broker, banker or a character’s family are all good choices. This is not just in case you lose it. Maps are valuable – you can sell or trade your copies to other adventurers.

Of all the party roles, this is the one which MUST be given to a player who both wants it and has the patience to do it neatly. Messy maps are useless. Maps made by a reluctant mapper are worse than useless. If it comes down to a choice between a reluctant mapper and a mapper whose character is likely to die or lose it (whether due to theft, carelessness, or being dunked in water/engulfed in flames) then award the job to the player who wants it. Just badger him into making plenty of copies after every session.

The final important party role is that of the recorder, or note taker. You never know when a piece of seemingly random information will come in useful later. Additionally, there is a good chance that the characters who originally obtained a piece of vital information earlier in the campaign might all be dead by the time it becomes relevant. If the party has kept an in-game or in-character chronicle of their adventures (like the mercenaries Glen Cook’s Black Company books) then the DM has no excuse to turn around and tell you that your characters don't know the information. Just bear in mind: the real world “Chronicle,” like the map, is subject to the same rules as the in-game map. If the in-game map is lost or destroyed, the GM takes the real world map away. If the in-game Chronicles are destroyed, the DM won’t let you refer to the Chronicle either. Again, store them in a safe place between expeditions; make multiple copies or (better still) do both.

Don't rely on any journals or campaign notes kept by the DM. These are written for the DM, by the DM (although if he’s anything like me he will let you read them for entertainment purposes), and don't actually exist in the “game world”. Therefore, while you are players might be allowed to read and reference them, your characters cant. Keep your own journal and you can't go wrong.


Always pack twice as much food as you think you'll need for the expedition. Weevils, bad weather, getting lost, accidents, hungry bears: all can account for more food than you might expect. It pays to be prepared.

In every party, make sure you have at least two of all the following items -and make sure they are not both carried by the same party member. Just in case:
• 10 foot pole (for probing dangerous looking spaces)
• Hammer and Iron Spikes (for nailing doors closed -or keeping them open- as the case may be)
• Axe (for chopping down doors and barricades)
• Shovel or Pick (for when digging becomes necessary)
• 50' Rope
• Large sacks (for carrying treasure)
• Small Box (for carrying gems)
• Scroll Tube (for scrolls and paper)
• Chalk (for marking your route and taking rubbing's)
• Plum Line (for measuring gradient)
• String (for measuring rooms)
• Marbles (for testing slopes or slowing pursuit)
• Small Mirror (for checking round corners)
• Soap (for cleaning foul smells that might attract monsters)
• Wine (not for drinking, but for neutralising acids)
• Wooden Club or Staff (for fighting rust monsters and the like)
• Small sacks of silver coins or beads (for bribing monsters)
• Fresh food (for bribing non-intelligent monsters)

If you have healing potions, make sure that you don't give them to the cleric to carry. If the cleric falls down a crevasse or gets incinerated by some trap, then you've lost your cleric and your potions. If that happens, you may as well go home.

If this sounds like a lot to carry, well, it is. Buy a mule or two to carry it to the dungeon. Most of this stuff (axes, picks and shovels in particular) can be left at the camp-site until needed. When you come across a situation where you need them, by-pass it, complete the expedition and return to camp. Collect what you need after resting and go back. You have established a secure camp-site haven't you? No? You should. Here's why.

At first level, you're going to have maybe one or two (at most, three) combats before it becomes sensible to retreat, rest-up and return to the Dungeon. A good time to leave is when the clerics and magic-users have used up all their combat and healing spells for the day. Don't give into temptation and try just one more room. Remember, you might still have one or more encounters while leaving the dungeon. To say nothing of encounters on the way home.

Unless your home-base is very close to the dungeon, it's often better to make camp close-by rather than return home after every foray. The camp should be close enough to the Dungeon that you don't risk having more than one encounter on the way back to it but far enough away not be stumbled across by any dungeon denizen patrols. Make sure it’s on high ground, in case of rain, and to provide a good view of the surrounding countryside. Don't light a fire unless you have to. Sure, fire keeps animals away, but this close to the dungeon it might attract something worse than a few wolves.

You can leave a few hirelings or recuperating player characters behind to guard it and the spare gear. There should be just enough people left in camp to maintain a watch. If the camp is in danger of attack, there should be able to pack up and leave quickly. Move to the previously designated alternate site (which might even be all the way back to town) and wait for the others to arrive.

The advantage of setting up a camp is that it increases the amount of time spent on site and reduces travel time back and forth. Pack up and go home when your supplies of food, arrows and so forth begin to run out -or as soon as an agreed number of party members and hirelings have been reduced to negative hit points and require bed rest to recover from wound penalties. Sell your loot, heal your wounds, buy new equipment and spells, train, rest, gather rumours, identify magical items and learn new spells.

Then go back and start again. But before you do...

Most of the time, when you venture into a dungeon, you will simply be exploring, in itself this is a perfectly acceptable objective. On such occasions, bring your best gear and as many people as you can. On other occasions, you might decide that your objective is to wipe out that orc lair (or some other faction) once and for all. Again, go in heavily armed and with as many hirelings as you can afford. However, you also might enter the dungeon with the goal of establishing an alliance or peace treaty with some of the denizens. In which case, you might want to bring lots of gifts. If you want to scout out a certain part of the dungeon (say before attacking the orc lair) then wear lighter armour and leave the hirelings at home. You want to make as little noise as possible and, since you aren’t there to fight, you want light armour so that you can run away effectively if you are discovered or run into a threat you can't handle. You might enter a dungeon in order to retrieve a particular item (or individual) for the dungeon. In which case bring only as much gear as you think you will need to achieve your objective and be prepared to dump as much of it as possible so that you can flee quickly once you have it.

Most importantly of all, stick to the plan. If you have come on a simple scouting mission, don't spend time trying to solve a puzzle or fight a monster that guards a vast treasure pile you've located. You're there to scout, not fight. Come back and investigate what you've found in more detail later, when you're equipped (and prepared) to stay in one area for a long period and have the man-power to take on any foes that might stumble across you while you linger. Once you have what you came for. Leave. You have fulfilled your objective. Don’t be tempted to explore down one more corridor. Your object (or person) might be lost as a result.

Establish some routine marching orders for common terrain and environments early on. This serves two useful purposes: you won’t waste game time explaining to the DM where your character is standing in relation to everyone else at the beginning of an encounter and neither will you waste time arguing with the DM about where you would be standing when you are ambushed.

It also means that everyone (player and character alike) is more likely to know his or her individual role in any given situation. Common marching orders to establish are:

• 10 wide ft. corridors
• 5 ft. wide corridors
• searching a room
• searching a corridor
• checking/entering a door
• resting
• crossing a junction/intersection
• in the open (wilderness areas or large caverns)
• on the march (roads or close terrain)
• Wilderness camping.

Be ready to adapt these at any time, as new members join, older members die and current members are injured.

As a rough guide, it helps to have fighters in the front ranks and magic users in the middle (where it's safest). Depending on your style of play, you might have clerics in the middle ranks or place them in the rear rank (perhaps accompanied by any extra fighters or hirelings) to guard the rear. They can come forward when healing is necessary or, if you prefer, the wounded can fall back to their location. Thieves can scout ahead and on the flanks, but should return to the middle ranks when combat is expected or anticipated (such as when they spot a foe while scouting or approach a known guard post or high traffic area). Some parties like to use a thief to help guard the rear instead of a cleric. In the smallest parties, with no hirelings, the cleric often stays at the front with the fighter, but this becomes problematic when the cleric needs to start casting spells.

Mercenary hirelings should fill out the remaining front-rank spaces. If they have spears or pole-arms they can be stationed in the second rank, behind the fighters but ahead of the Magic Users, where they can still fight. If you have sufficient hirelings, they can also be used to form the rear rank. Swap out wounded hirelings in the front rank for those in the second and rear ranks as required. Don't waste healing magic on them except to save their lives or establish higher loyalty.

Torch-bearers should be liberally scattered in the formation (but never in the front or rear rank) to provide sufficient light. It often helps to have the torch bearers throw extra torches over the heads of the front and rear ranks to further illuminate an underground fight. A torch-bearer can also be instructed to throw a torch at a group of foes who have been hit by oil.

Pole-men, if you are using them, are usually placed ten to fifteen feet ahead of the main body (just at the edge of the torch-light) tapping and poking away with their ten-foot poles (sometime supervised by a thief character). Depending on how callous you and the rest of the party are, you MIGHT want to let them push their way back into the middle ranks once the fighting has started. But only if you trust them enough not to stick a blade in your back while you’re busy fighting.

Lastly, don't throw your weight around outside the Dungeon. You're going to be relying on the local townsfolk for advice, recruits and supplies. Piss them off and you'll get nothing from them. You might even find yourselves run out of town. Keep them sweet with gifts, high-spending, slaying dangerous beasts and simple good manners. And when you find yourselves in trouble, it could be the townsfolk who come to rescue you.


Jim said...

Great post. I'm copying and pasting it into a "starter document" that includes Philotomy's Musings and Matt Finch's OSR Primer. Thanks!

Dangerous Brian said...

Thanks Jim, glad you like it.

gdbackus said...

Yeah - that's a lot of solid advice!

Dangerous Brian said...

Thanks Greg! And thanks for the shout out on Google +. Much obliged.

Theodric the Obscure said...