Caves of Chaos: unluckiest ever L1 party!

I ran my first proper test session with three L1 characters: fighter, cleric and wizard (13, 11 and 9hp respectively) by sending them into the kobolds' lair. It did not end well.

First of all, all three characters failed to spot the pit trap. The fighter and wizard fell in, taking 3 and 1 damage each, while the cleric just barely managed to avoid the fall. The kobolds in the guard post were alerted by the noise, as were the rats in the nearby room.

Since the kobolds were only 20' from the pit, I decided that they would be able to move there and respond in the first round. Roll initiative!

...oops. The kobolds, rolling as a group, won (by miles). They all targeted the cleric (as the only visible target) with slingshots (1d4+1 damage). She went down in three hits. Meanwhile, the fighter and wizard trapped in the pit both failed their strength checks to open it. Since the wizard didn't know what was going on above and had line of sight blocked by a hefty stone slab, I didn't let him cast any of his spells 'through' it.

Round 2. Roll initiative... dammit! The kobolds won again, and now the 14(!) rats and dire rat from the next room arrived. To give the PCs a chance, I decided that the rats hadn't reached melee range, so with both PCs still in the pit they weren't an issue in combat. Yet. Even so, the kobolds opened the pit to attack the people in it, and the fighter went down to more slingshots (one a critical!) despite using his martial die to reduce the damage he received, with the wizard left on only 3hp. This was looking very bad.

But the wizard finally got a chance to strike back! Thunder, thunder, thunderwave, ho! To speed things up, I rolled the save for the kobolds as a group. They failed, so took full 2d8 damage each - and since I'd given them 2hp each as per the Bestiary, they were all automatically splattered. Victory!

...except for the rats. Round 3, roll initiative!

You've got to be kidding. The rats won, and since the wizard was still stuck in the pit they ran in and swarmed him for mass biteyness. With so many of them (I couldn't find any way to justify saying that not all of them could surround him - come on, how many rats could fit in a 10'x10' pit?), even at just 1hp damage per hit the outcome was inevitable. The PCs soon ended up passing through the intestinal tracts of numerous well-fed rats.

While there was a certain amount of "Could this get any worse - oh come ON!" amusement from the PCs' appalling luck with the initiative rolls, if this had been a serious session rather than a test it would have been pretty disheartening. I'm now wondering if there was anything, other than blatantly fudging the rolls, that could have been done to give the PCs more of a chance.

I'm also left thinking that rats are seriously overpowered. The same HP as a kobold, and +4 to hit with a bite despite no Dex bonus, and add Mob Tactics on top of that? Swarming rats are probably a low-level character's worst nightmare, as with a maximum of +9 to hit all those little nips are going to add up fast!
Re-reading the magic rules, I see that the wizard could technically have cast a spell without line of sight; the point of origin would have been the other side of the slab covering the pit, so would probably have hit some of the kobolds. It wouldn't have helped the poor cleric, though!
I didn't know you rerolled initiative on every round? That seems a waste of time - are you sure that's in the rules?

I'm not sure rolling a save for all targeted is in the rules either, even if it went in the PC's favour.

Also, why is there a stone slab on the pit? Does the traps description say it resets? That's a pretty amazing trap that can reset a stone PC's can't move, but just in a kobolds lair.

With the rats, either it sounds like (for all this theatre of the mind shinanigans) to list how many of the creature can surround a medium sized target at once. Frankly I wouldn't have put 14 in a 10 foot pit at once. It seems the game rules leaving it to the GM's expectation is what can lead to an overpowered effect as some GM's might allow a massive swarm.

It'd be interesting if all characters got a bonus to AC (like +4) if they get hit, that lasts till the start of their next turn. Mitigates the effect of focus fire.

"In the game there is magic" - Orethalion

 

Only got words in my copy.

I rerolled initiative each round to give the PCs a chance, as they would have always have been at a disadvantage otherwise. Not that it made any difference! Even if I'd limited the number of rats attacking the wizard to, say, 8, that wouldn't have made much difference either, since he only had 3hp left and each rat only needed to roll 8 or higher to bite him (AC12 vs enemies with at least +4 to hit).

The trap was exactly as written: it automatically slams shut after anyone falls in, and needs a DC13 Str check to open from inside.
The trap was exactly as written: it automatically slams shut after anyone falls in, and needs a DC13 Str check to open from inside.


Maybe I'll get a TPK when I get to that point?

Does the text say the Kobolds and rats investigate if they hear it go off?

Because as much as it might make sense, it's stacking three encounters on top of each other into one encounter.

"In the game there is magic" - Orethalion

 

Only got words in my copy.

Yep; if someone falls into the pit, the noise of the slab slamming shut alerts the kobolds (who are only 20' away) and the 15 rats in the nearby room, so if you go by their speeds the kobolds arrive immediately to start the first round, and the rats get there by the third at latest.

I ran the test again, and this time the same three characters survived (just) and took out everything they encountered until they were overconfident/dumb enough to take on the 20 or so kobolds in the common area. They thought having two Thunderwave spells in reserve would be enough. They were wrong. That said, there were only four kobolds left by the time the fighter (who lasted longest, thanks to his martial die) finally went down. Should have just left with the king's treasure chest and lived to fight another day, guys...

Things like Mob Tactics are an absolute pain to DM without a grid, though, and since Next is supposedly designed to be playable without one they'd be better off simplifying, replacing or scrapping these kinds of very position-dependent and fiddly rules. 
Whether anyone from Wizards is reading this (or cares) I don't know, but as I said in another thread, some sort of feat that allows someone to strike at multiple targets (even if for much reduced damage) would be a godsend, because being swarmed by lots of minor enemies that you can only target one at once is tedious at best and fatal at worst. When I re-ran the test, it took forever to take down all the rats, even though all three PCs were fighting them.

Some sort of 'Wild Swing' or 'Desperate Swipe'; roll an expertise dice to see how many enemies you clip and divide your damage roll between them. 
I had some of the same issue running the kobold cave with a level one parties. As of right now I have TPK'd 5 parties (2 different 4 man parties got killed by a 6 kobold scouting party) and had one group easily complete the caves.

The thing that has been a big gotcha is that the common quarters should either be filled with sleeping kobolds, near empty because they are out raiding, or some mix as they transition from sleeping during the day to raiding at night. The parties I have run through the kobold caves all decide to go in during the day; the 5 failed runs just because it was day and one successful assault was due to a  fighter was a soldier background using his lore warfare to learn what they could about kobolds.

The kobold caves are very dangerous and fighting them at level one without preparations is very lethal. The kobolds are small and the cave is 10' squares so the kobold can swarm and kill a party easily the party makes to many bad choices. Unless most of the party is playing combat focus adventures you might consider offering an option to hire henchmen. This will create some role play opportunities and let characters that are not combat focus contribute to the success of the mission.

 

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In regards to all of the tpk's, take a minute to remember what module you're running - and more importantly when it was made.

Basic D&D operated under a different set of assumptions than more modern editions do.  It is assumed the party will have henchmen (read: meatshields), will be between levels 1 and 3 (since pc's didn't levelat the same rate by class), will be doing LOTS of scouting and sneaking, and will run when necessary.  

Treasure was the main source of experience points (1gp = 1xp; monster xp is VERY low), so OD&D, AD&D and BD&D modules are built with the assumption that PC's will find ways other than hacking to get the treasure - especially at low levels when combat is often deadly in one or two hits.

Just because it's a beginner module doesn't mean the players will be able to charge into every encounter and expect to plow through.  It's a different mindset - encounter balance wasn't really much of a concept - though TSR did a better job of keeping things 'realistic' than Judges Guild modules for instance.  
Again, the number of enemies that can surround a PC seems something that needs rules.

Eg, with rats, some GM's might say at most, eight rats (one in each square around the PC - so if the PC stands in a corner it can drop the number considerably)

Some GM's might say 16 or even more.

Huge difference.

"In the game there is magic" - Orethalion

 

Only got words in my copy.

Well if you think about it, if they are all swarming the pc they are getting in each others way, wether

they are pack hunting or not, the more that occupie the same combat space, are going to start taking

penalties to hit. they are going to be climing on each other and the bigger ones will be pushing the

smaller ones away to get at the food first. go feed the fish at the fish hatchery somtime you'll see

what i mean, as for the the casting through walls bit, it does say you need line of sight to your origin

square, or the spell does not land. now, you don't need line of sight to the creature it hits (casting an

explosion to hit somthing around a corner for example.) i'm only about 80% sure on that ruling

though. But as far as i can tell, the pc's got a stroke of bad luck, i agree with jdark, The pc's

In this edition are so squishie at the start, they need to be WAY more cautious, i recommend uping

that starting hp. and not to make the pc's godlike, just to give them that bad luck buffer. 10 or so

more hp and that bad encounter might have been just a we need to rest untill full healed

encounter.
in that module when it was origonally used two kobolds could occupy one ten foot space and four rats could be in a single ten foot space so a ten foot wide hallway would be a double file of kobolds or rats four across. How much of a differance would those numbers have made?
We had a Barbarian to soak up a lot of the damage when we ran through the caves of chaos (at level 1), and we were able to bottle neck the monsters. We beat the encounter the first try, even with me wiffing a Max Sleep spell. However we did use all our healing and spells. 
My players like for me to roll up individual initiatives for the monsters, to spread out their damage. Also, it helps the party to kill some monsters before they can get off their shots.

For the pit trap, the rogue moved ahead of the rest of the party, and made her saving throw. I didn't have the rats attack--not really sure why, to be honest. I guess the rats could tell if something hit the bottom of the trap.

As far as  the surround/space, that's in the DM Guidelines on page 11, Creature size. Kobolds are small, so they take up 5 feet, so the tunnels would allow two abreast. Rats are tiny and fit 4 across.
For swarming, the rules give square areas that each size of creatures take up. So with a little visualization or math you can figure out how many could surround someone.  Most players will be small or medium so they take up a 5ft ssquarer inky creatures like the rats take up 2.5 ft squares, so 2 could fit on each side of the players. So that would make 8 tiny creatures able to surround a small-medium if they are in open space.

Now when your talking about the 10ft pit, those numbers are going to go down because space is limited. The player could back himself into a corner, in which case only 4 rats would actually be able to get to him. (I am not picturing a rat being able to reach very far so I don't see one hitting the player from the ledge above. )