Published on

First Levels Dungeons

  • avatar
    Nik Vinter

The Problem With The First Level

I've played many OSR games, a lot of them never went past trough the first levels so that means I have a good experience with low level play and bad experience with higher tiers. I also played with various players, some more used to OSR play than others. There is one key problem that frustrates a lot of people, both old and new and it's the low starting HP. Yes sure, deadly games are part of the OSR mythos and players aren't supposed to fight, they're supposed to survive and find clever solutions to combat, but sometimes dungeon is just inevitable and I would like to spend a few lines talking about how to optimize the first rooms of every dungeon.

Design Principles

If you've ever played Dark Souls you know how you can get to the skeleton area as soon as you reach the first HUB. It has great loot and XP but it's hard, very hard if you're a low level player. That zone is good from a game design standpoint for three reasons:

  1. It makes the game feel more alive and big, almost like the player is exploring a world that is not made for him
  2. Players understand that it's difficult because at first only a few skeletons spawn, before actually rising as a horde
  3. The player can respawn almost with no penalty

And that's only one of many zones like that in the game. Can we translate the same concept into a dungeon? Well, yes and no. The first two points can be easily converted but it's the last one that sticks out. In a TTRPG characters die for good. There's a line that separates dumb behaviour and experimentation and while the first should be punished the latter should be rewarded. While dying should be embraced as part of the game, dying every time you make a small mistake is frustrating and unfun.

At first levels all classes in most systems usually have between 3 and 10 hp. In comparison, a normal skeleton attack can do 1d6 damage. That's enough to kill one unlucky thief or mage even before they're able to move. I feel like during the first few levels, unless the players want a hardcore game, most of the damage should be avoidable or telegraphed. Let's take a look at something I think is bad design:

Inside the pool are 2 Mummy Claws (HD 2, MORALE 12, ATK 1d4 [Claw] or 1d6 [Strangle]). These rotting hands will jump out to attack anyone who comes within 5' of the pit.


This is an extract taken from Skerple's Tomb Of The Serpent King, an adventure that is supposed to teach about OSR principles and dungeon design. Quoting once again from the PDF

Lessons: there are hidden monsters

You might disagree but I think a lesson that straight up kills a player is not a lesson but a punishment. In one of my games a player got close to the water, a Mummy Claw jumped at him, he lost the initiative roll and proceeded to die. He then stopped playing forever since it was his 3rd death in the span of half an hour.

I agree that players should get creative, shouldnt fight and he got unlucky both with the "to hit" roll and the damage one, but I feel like that monster (and other things inside the dungeon) was just too much.


Give Challenges, Not Coin Tosses

As mentioned before, while higher levels grant more HP and more freedom, this sadly doesn't happen at level one, but I feel like most games and dungeons don't take that into consideration. What does that means? That means that at lower levels, in my opinion, almost no room should be a 50/50 die/survive situation.

Or rather, such situations can and should exist, but they have to be clear and, while not obvious, at least telegraphed. Make players pay with food, XP, weapons and gold for their mistakes, even with their HP, but not with their lives (unless they make the same mistake twice). I feel like players should be allowed to learn without being punished (too much) and start the real deal once they're supposed to have learned. If they didn't learn by then that's their fault.

Here are, in my opinion, some good and bad starting rooms (some are taken from actual dungeons and some are just written by me):

This room has a pressure-plate isolation trap. As soon as the first PC (and second, Referee’s discretion) enters this room a stone wall will descend from the ceiling isolating the front rank from the rest of the party. The door to the north wall will swing open and the skeletons from room #3 will attack! A dark flagstone in the hallway floor just outside the door to #2 is loose and conceals a reset lever that will raise the stone slab

(MEDIOCRE) This is a good concept but it forces the combat on the player, and while an escape is possible it's concealed behind an hard to find lever. I would've made it more obvious what had to be done to open the door and made it a challenge.

This room has a rotating metal cylinder that serves as a bridge between two doors. Underneath the cylinder there is a pit filled with gas and the cylinder, when rotating, generates sparks that might set the gas aflame

(GOOD) A trap that is not hidden but actually in plain sight. The players can evaluate all of their choices and formulate a plan of action. All the mistakes in the plan will be completely on them.

The door to this room is trapped. Opening the door snaps a tripwire that sets off a rusty light crossbow mounted on the north wall (damage 1d6). The crossbow has a 2 in 6 chance to misfire. Alcoves line the walls. This room has been hastily searched.

(BAD) While teaching and showing that some traps have to actually be hidden because that's their whole purpose, a random dart that does 1d6 potentially killing a player is too much. Make it always misfire the first time, lower the damage, transform the crossbow into a trap that makes noise attracting nearby monsters and it becomes a way more effective lesson.

This dusty chamber contains a variety of desks, chairs, tables, stools, benches, and racks, as well as a number of framed paintings, piled in the center of the room. This room also contains a potentially deadly trap. Any character walking normally into the room will raise a cloud of fine dust. (Taking care to walk slowly will allow this to be avoided.) If this happens then anyone who enters carrying a lit torch or lantern will ignite the dust, creating a fireball-like effect. All within 20’ of the ignition source will take 2d6 points of fire damage immediately

(VERY BAD) This was supposed to be a level 1 dungeon room and the 13th in order of visit. I legimately stopped prepping this adventure after reading this because it feels one big "fuck you" to everyone but the paranoid player that can read the DM's mind. Don't do this.


The room contains a chest in the east corner and some old tables and chairs with dead, decomposed bodies sitting on them. The chest is trapped and, if not opened carefully, will release a stenching cloud of miasma in the room that will awaken the bodies. They will attack the players after a brief delay.

(GOOD) This teaches the players that things are trapped, allows the players to escape, adds a new challenge and "locks the treasure" unless the new challenge is defeated, all at once and without killing anyone with a 2d8 trapped lock.


Don't get me wrong. I'm not advocating for an easier play or dungeon making and I'm not saying that the same advice will apply to all groups of players (after all, some players had fun running Tomb Of Horrors) but this is some general advice that I can give you about making low level play less frustrating. Teach players to use the environment, punish them, take away their loot and make them go back to town. Kill them if they don't learn. Just don't be a "fuck you" DM, it's usually not fun.