GMing 1st Level Parties Without a Tank

Wizard of Adventure Andy asked me for ideas on how to challenge a party of three 1st level PCs, particularly as the party lacks a tank.

Since we’re constrained by the party’s overall strength, we should focus less on combat and more on other types of engaging encounters.

Moreover, since game systems often reward typical actions like defeating monsters for loot and XP, you might need to house rule character advancement, such as switching to milestone XP.

Today, I’ll share four things that come to mind when running games for weak parties. In the next newsletter, I’ll share some encounter ideas for such campaigns.

1. Add More Puzzles

Puzzles offer a variety of challenges, not just those found in typical funhouse dungeons.

Consider including dilemmas, mysteries, survival challenges, exploration quandaries, or roleplaying contests.

For instance, the PCs might explore a hex and discover a tribe of humanoid cannibals. They sneak in and steal the chieftain’s magic helm. The PCs return victorious, but learn the helm is cursed. The party is then tasked to go on a diplomatic mission to the humanoids to negotiate peaceful relations. Perhaps there’s a play to be made in returning the helm.

2. Add More Healing Options

The party will likely get in over their heads early in the campaign and be unable to avoid combat. Perhaps they don’t realize how fragile they are, players might assume every encounter is perfectly balanced to their situation, or foolish decisions might make combat necessary.

To combat a weak party, pun intended, consider giving them extra healing options until everyone is used to the party dynamic and your GMing style.

  • Potions
  • Oils and ointments
  • A magical healing item with limited charges
  • Alchemical concoctions
  • Superior first aid equipment
  • A Barber skill one or more PCs start with
  • Harvested monster parts

3. Play Up Failure

Prepare for the party’s potential defeats in combat by planning ways to continue the story despite a total party kill (TPK).

  • Taken Prisoner. And capture could inadvertently place them closer to their objective.
  • Allies Save the Day. Introduce allies well before they’re needed to maintain sense of disbelief when they intervene.
  • Social Skills. Allow PCs to trick, negotiate, or intimidate their way out of trouble.
  • Environmental Event. A random event, such as a ceiling collapse, saves the day. Signpost that this might happen at enounter start, and then, optionally, give players a way they can trigger the event themselves.
  • Allow Escape. Familiarize yourself with your rules for retreating and escaping. For example, disengagement rules (free hacks, AoO), chase rules, special equipment like smoke bombs, and rulings on improvised actions such as throwing debris in the way or rapid diguises. Then use the Rule of Cool to enhance these moments.

4. Add More Party Members

The party can consist of more than the PCs. There are no rules in most game systems against allowing henchmen, hirelings, and followers.

Players might shy away from adding more to their group because of extra tracking, more NPCs to manage, and slow-down in gameplay. These issues can all be overcome.

Therefore, introduce NPCs who want to join the party. Temporary NPCs are ideal because you can adjust party capabilities per 5 Room Dungeon or encounter, players will be less likely to grow dependent on specific NPCs, and you can add more story angles to the game.

However, such valuable services and assistance does not come without cost:

  • Henchmen (or companions in modern day lingo) will expect to be treated like equals. They might want share of any treasure or salvage. They’ll want an HR department to complain to about the edge lord dark elf rogue who constantly robs everyone or puts the party in unnecessary danger.
  • Hirelings will expect to be protected and treated fairly and humanely. They’ll take few risks. They might also try to negotiate for treasure shares.
  • Followers (I include pets in this category) will also expect to be respected, taken care of, and be able to make requests for benefits or privileges from time to time.

For example, to counter mad scientists, the party’s employer could assign a sane scientist to guide the party and help in defeating their insane foes.

I hope these tips help, Andy. You asked for encounter ideas, so I will throw some out to you in the next newsletter. See you then!

Have more fun at every game!

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