[RPG] How to adjust Hoard of the Dragon Queen for a 1st-level party


TL;DR: I've already 'cheated' a lot to help the group survive the first mission, and it seems like I'll have to cheat even more if they'll make it to the Keep. Did I do something wrong? What can I do to not 'cheat' (i.e., if the party 'deserved' TPK, then allow it), while being fair?

Newbie GM once again, trying skirt the seemingly fine line between TPK and letting the party steamroll the encounters. Part of the problem was mostly rolls: enemies got 3-4 crits (even before Pack Tactics), while the party barely hit them.

Anyway, here's the situation/what happened in our first HotDQ session:

  1. Party of 5 (so, should've been easier), including 2 (Bard) healers/buffers, and 4 PCs had free Potion of Healing.
  2. Linan Swift was at 2 hp before the first round was over–kobolds rolled highest initiative, and they were in her range (since they're supposed to ignore the party until attacked). I gave her a potion of healing (and "ignored" two attacks that hit) because it seemed that the 8 kobolds would overwhelm a party that hadn't yet acted (considering that the fight is supposed to be balanced with the ally NPC). The party had to use all their Cure Wounds healing by the end, and some had to drink their potions.
  3. The party didn't engage in stealth, so, they faced 2 wandering encounters on their way to the keep. The first one (3 kobolds, 1 ambush drake) went well, no one even took damage. But the 2nd one with 6 cultists was brutal: 1 PC took 10 damage in the second round (due to crit, was at -2 HP), rolled a 1 on the death saving throw, and then died by round 4. Two of the remaining four PCs are at less than half HP and, the main motivation for this question, they still haven't dealt with the 3 groups (1d6 Kobolds, 1d4 cultists) that they're supposed to encounter before reaching the keep. If they encounter a low-difficulty group (say, 1/2 cultists and 1/2 kobolds), they might make it through 1, at most 2 of those encounters. But 3, I'm almost certain it will be TPK.
  4. Because short rests are now an hour long, not even Warlocks' spell slots have recovered; nor have they been able to spend HD to regain HP…

I feel like I've already cheated a bunch, but it seems I'll have to once again, if I want the group (that's new to 5E and I hope remains excited) is going to make it to the keep. What can I do to be fair: give the party a decent chance to win, while keeping reasonable threat level?

P.S. I've read a few of the more general answers here… but since HotDQ is a bit more structured, I'd like to work with the structure, rather than just throw everything out and do my own thing… Unless that's what I should be doing?

Best Answer

SlyFlourish, producer of several books and tips for DM, noted that at level 1 it was a deadly grind.

It might be intentional but I didn't like it that way so I've up-leveled or made them level 2 very quickly. It was a grind at level 2 but a GOOD grind. At level 1 it's deadly.

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With that in mind, consider leveling them up right away, and that should help many of the issues. At the very least, giving each character a significant percentage of their hitpoints by leveling should help them survive more.

You can see more of SlyFlourish's suggestions for a smooth run of the Greenest in Flames section here