The Low-Level Monster Problem?

For those gamers who are brand new to Dungeons & Dragons, everything feels new. No one yawns when they first encounter a kobold or a goblin. Orcs and hobgoblins are unknown entities and there’s a level of excitement that comes with encountering the unknown.

For example, in the game that I’m running for my son and his friends, I started them off with the classic adventure B2 Keep on the Borderlands. I took the hobgoblin and goblin caves and separated them out into a standalone dungeon, and then set them loose. The players ended up in the hobgoblin cave first, and then worked their way into the goblin area, had a great encounter with the ogre, and are now ready to head into an area of the dungeon that I added on.

What I noticed was that the players had no expectations about anything. My son knew that goblins weren’t “powerful” monsters, but that was about the extent of his experience. So when they attempted to bluff their way past a goblin sentry post (the fighter and the barbarian are half-orc brothers) and one of them blurted out that they had killed the hobgoblin chief already, the now-inevitable fight was still interesting to them.

But many of us have played D&D before. Some of us have played it many, many times before. Starting a new party at first level can still be interesting, but with years of experience, many of the low-level monsters are now, well, boring. It’s hard to be excited at finding a bunch of goblins—even when your current character is first level—when you as a player have slaughtered dozens or hundreds of them in the past.

So what do you do?

Well, things in D&D 5E aren’t as bad as you might think.

Going by all the available monsters in the official publications (and I’m using the excellent D&D Beyond to quickly grab this complete list), and limiting myself to creatures of Challenge Rating 1/8, 1/4, and 1/2, I find almost 170 entries. Looking at the entries, you can group them into a few types:

  • Animals: There are all the usual suspects, such as black bears, constrictor snakes, stirges, and wolves, plus a bunch of swarms (bats, insects, rats, etc.) and giant versions of various animals (centipedes, frogs, lizards, snakes, rats, wasps, spiders, etc.).
  • Humanoids: Aside from the common kobolds, goblins, hobgoblins and orcs, one can find bullywugs, derro, drow, gnolls, grimlocks, kenku, kuo-toa, lizardfolk, sahuagin, troglodytes, and more. Plus, there is the entire list of NPC types (acolytes, bandits, cultists, guards, nobles, scouts, thugs, warriors, etc.).
  • Monsters: This group contains all the unnatural, monstrous, and miscellaneous creatures that spice up an adventure, such as blights, darkmantles, gray oozes, mephits, piercers, rust monsters, shadows, skeletons, worgs, zombies, and more.

This means that, in your very first adventure, your characters can explore (for example) a ruined guard tower and stumble across a drow outpost. The outpost might have a dozen drow scattered about in a few different encounter areas, but these are all regular drow waiting for the arrival of a priestess who will take over once she arrives (though she won’t appear in this adventure). The PCs have a chance to clear out the ruins and discover hints about the drow plans in this region. Throw in a couple of giant spiders, maybe some derro slaves, and you have a great little “dungeon” that doesn’t have a single kobold or goblin anywhere in sight.

Alternately, set your first adventure in a swamp area and throw in some bullywugs, some crocodiles (or giant crocodiles), and maybe a chance to make an alliance with some local lizardfolk against the bullywugs (and fight those same lizardfolk if the characters botch their attempt at diplomacy).

Or you can avoid the evil humanoid races altogether and set the player characters against a bunch of bandits that are raiding the local area. Maybe they’ve been infiltrated by an evil cult that is slowly taking over the bandit group (though the actual cult leader is somewhere else and hasn’t made an appearance yet). You can use NPC bandits, cultists, scouts, thugs, and warriors, which will give your encounters some variation in opponents. Add in some trained mastiffs and maybe a couple of other animal encounters in the forest where the bandits hide out, and you’re all set.

Maybe an acolyte of an evil god has stumbled upon some magic item that lets her animate the dead, and she’s gathering a horde of skeletons and zombies that she will use to lay waste to local villages. Of course, she’s protected by swarms of bats and rats (or maybe a few giant versions of those animals).

Any of these could be an excellent first adventure for a group of characters, and none of them involve a typical goblin-infested dungeon.

Conclusion

Keep on the Borderlands is a classic, but even classics can get old when they are repeated over and over. If you’re playing with gamers who have been through a few—or many—campaigns, that first adventure might need something a little bit more than the old standby. Luckily, there are many options available without needing to build a whole bunch of new monsters yourself.

So how did you start your current campaign? What were the first monsters your characters fought? How did you keep it interesting for those who are old hands at D&D? Tell us about it in the comments.

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