There's nothing worse than stepping out onto the battlefield for the first time with your shiny new character and being downed in one hit by a random peon. Aside from missing turns making death saves, there's the real worry that the time and effort you've invested into coming up with a concept that you like is about to go up in smoke. Life is hard for level 1 D&D characters, but you don't have to be a power gamer to be able to improve your survivability. There are two elements to keeping yourself alive – having a decent enough armour class to make it difficult for enemies to hit you, and having enough hit points to soak up some damage if they do.
The first thing that can help you live through your first few combats is your Armour Class (AC). This is the number that an enemy needs to roll (the result on the dice plus their attack modifier) to be able to hit you with an attack. The higher your AC, the less chance there is that the enemy will hit you. How to set this particular bar high depends on the armour that your chosen class is proficient with, and the type of armour you're going to be wearing will dictate where you need to allocate particular stats. The class you choose will have information on the type of armour that you can wear under the Proficiencies section. Here's how the different types work.
Heavy armour has a fixed AC value, which is usually pretty good! If you're using the equipment options provided by the character creation process rather than rolling for gold (your DM will tell you which to do if you're not sure, or let you make the choice) then your choice of heavy armour will be a suit of chain mail. This gives you an AC of 16, but there is one little caveat that you need to be aware of – to wear it without suffering some awkward penalties, you're going to need a Strength score of 13 or more! (What good is strong armour if you're too weak to lift your arms up while you're wearing it?)
Fortunately, the classes that have access to heavy armour tend to use Strength as at least one of their primary attacking stats (Fighter, Paladin and some Clerics), so this should be a fairly easy requirement to meet.
Light armour has a much lower base AC value, but it includes the phrase “+ Dexterity modifier”. Leather armour is the most commonly seen type of light armour for Level 1 equipment choices, which clocks in at AC 11 + Dexterity modifier. AC 11 on its own is... not great. To paint a picture, if a goblin attacks you with an AC that low, they will only need to roll a natural 7 on the dice to successfully stick you in the rump with one of their jagged arrows. So, to make sure your tuchus can take more ruckus, you need to pump your Dexterity modifier – drop in a nice high number and you can get your AC up closer to 14, forcing those gobbos to roll a much more respectable 10 if they want to kick you in the pants, thank you very much!
Not quite strong enough for heavy armour? Not agile enough for light armour? Then why not try medium armour? It's like heavy armour but... not as heavy.
The base AC on a suit of medium armour is much more respectable than it is on light armour. A set of scale mail, your most common Level 1 option in this field, is 14. But wait! You get to add your Dexterity modifier to this number too – or at least some of it. You see, the catch is that this better base AC value is balanced out by you being limited to using just 2 points of your Dex modifier. Have a Dex mod of +3? Unlucky – in scale mail, you're still only at AC16, and that extra little bonus point is wasted (for this purpose anyway, you might be using it for things like firing bows!)
Shields are nice and easy. If you have a free hand, and proficiency in shields (this should be listed right alongside the types of armour your class is proficient with), you get a +2 bonus to your AC. That's nothing to sniff at!
What if I don't have armour proficiency?
This probably means you've plumped for a Wizard or a Sorcerer. Even though these classes don't have any proficiency with armour, there are still things that you can do to bump their AC.
First of all it's worth mentioning that the Mage Armour spell, even though it will use one of your precious spell slots to cast, is one of the best types of “light armour” in the game. If you have access to this spell, your AC becomes 13 + your Dexterity modifier, and it doesn't count as light armour, so you don't need any kind of proficiency to be able to “wear” it. You just need to not be wearing armour when you cast it on yourself (which is easy because you're not allowed it! Put it down!). One of the Sorcerer subclasses also has access to a similar AC value – if you choose to be of Draconic Origin, your leathery, scaly skin will get you 13 + Dex modifier AC for free. It's worth noting that Mage Armour doesn't stack with this, but this is actually a blessing in disguise – it frees that precious spell slot back up so you can do something flashy with it!
Otherwise, for a character not wearing armour, you work out what your AC is by adding your Dexterity modifier to 10. This makes Dexterity a pretty important stat for casters – if you have too low a Dex score and no modifier to speak of, you'll be one of the easiest things to hit on the battlefield, and you can bet you'll be a magnet for the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune!
There are a couple of classes that deliberately don't wear armour, because they like the feel of swords against their skin. Barbarians, being renowned as total nutters, have a skill called “Unarmored Defense” (that's Unarmoured Defence if you're a Brit), which gives you a new way of working out your AC if you're running around the battlefield in the nuddy! Instead of just adding your Dexterity modifier to your base AC of 10, you can add your Constitution modifier too! Score!
Not to be outdone, Monks also have access to Unarmoured Defence, but they put their own twist on it. Instead of just effectively enduring pain like the Barbarians do, they use their lightning-quick reactions to dodge enemy blows. A Monk that's not wearing armour can add not only their Dexterity bonus to their base AC of 10, but also their Wisdom modifier. There's nothing like a bit of bullet time to stop your opponents from being able to hit you, after all!
What AC Value should I aim for?
This is where the phrase “art more than science” will usually get deployed, but the best advice I can give you here is to make your AC as high as possible without compromising other things that your character might need to do. Sometimes it's a difficult balancing act, but if you've found that you have problems with survivability then it's well worth trying to pump your defensive numbers as high as you can. This becomes especially important if you don't have a particularly high Hit Point score, which leads us neatly into...
While it's true that no first level characters can withstand a huge amount of pummelling (not even Barbarians), there are definitely things that you can do that will keep you from taking an early dirt nap, even if you're a meek and squishy Wizard. The way to protect your ass...ets will vary depending on what exactly you've chosen to play.
Your choice of class will directly govern how hard you can get clubbed, stabbed, shot, burned or zapped and live to tell the tale. The crème de la crème when it comes to being rough and tough are Barbarians, but they're closely followed by Fighters, Paladins and Rangers. What sets these prize fighters apart from the others is their Hit Dice – a little thing that determines how many Hit Points they start with. Fighters, Paladins and Rangers start with a base line of 10 Hit Points. Barbarians are made of even sterner stuff, with a base of 12! Those are some buns of steel right there.
On the flip side of this, most of the other classes get a standard 8, except for the particularly squashable Sorcerers and Wizards who are only allowed 6. That means you're likely to die in one hit if you even so much as look at a twig blight the wrong way. But D&D wouldn't be much fun if all the spellcasters had to stay home hiding under the bed, now would it?
Luckily, there's something you can do about it. Your Constitution bonus gets applied to your base Hit Point number to give you your starting total at level 1. That means, if you have a good Constitution modifier, you can de-squish your character and give them the ability to soak up that little bit more damage before they hit the deck. Depending on whether you roll for stats or use the point buy or standard array method of creating them in the Player's Handbook, you can have modifiers ranging from minus 3 to plus 5.
Pro tip. Do not assign a negative modifier to your Constitution, or you're going to be filling out a replacement character sheet almost before you've even started. Seriously, this is a bad idea.
If you can spare a plus 2 modifier, or higher if you rolled well, you can make your soft-centred spellcasters into lean, mean fighting machines – and that extra Constitution will continue to be of benefit as you level up. Even if you've rolled a Barbarian, giving yourself a decent constitution score is something to consider, especially if you intend to be in the thick of the action when fighting breaks out. (Duh, of course you do, that's why you rolled a Barbarian). Couple that with the Unarmoured Defence ability mentioned above, and Constitution is definitely a useful stat for these cheeky little rage monkeys.
Built like a tank
To sum up – you can improve your 1st level character's survivability by:
- Making sure they have a good Dexterity score to improve their AC if they are wearing no armour, light armour or medium armour (maximum +2 Dex for the latter) OR
- Making sure they have a Strength score of 13 if they are proficient in heavy armour
- Allocating a decently high number to their Wisdom stat if they're a Monk
- Giving them a shield if they are proficient
- Making sure they have a good Constitution score to help boost their HP (with the added benefit of raising their AC into the bargain if they happen to be a Barbarian)
Finding a balance
The issue, and what tempts most people into creating “glass cannons” is that you can't always put huge numbers in every stat. Give a player a choice between dealing massive damage and being able to survive a punch in the kidneys from an angry kobold, and they'll probably get lured away by the promise of being able roll big numbers on their damage dice. You will have some difficult choices to make when you're creating a new character, but remember that there are always Ability Score Improvements to look forward to once you level a few times, and there's no harm in making sure you survive for long enough to get there!