Starting small seems to be a lost art in a lot of modern games. We no longer seem to get the same rags-to-riches stories with adventurers, who faced distinctly horrible peril to gain in experience, skill and powerful items.
Instead we have narrative games – where you start competent and where character progress is limited and de-emphasised, or nominally old style games, where their ‘problems’ have been compensated for in newer editions. Even a first level character in 5e Dungeons and Dragons is a force to be reckoned with, and a lot less fragile than characters used to be.
Now, I’m not entirely in the ‘old skool’ camp, capricious and random (undeserved) character death isn’t so much my bag, but there is an undeniable payoff to struggling, to losing characters, to earning power and magical items or honing a character’s skill over time. To doing that, rather than having an easy time with everything handed to you from the get go.
Starting small also gives you the ability to build up a gaming world around you as you go along, to keep the lore and history manageable – even in a pre-existing settings – because you don’t need to know everything all at once.
Starting small and low-level lets you encounter things you can’t outright beat, forces you to consider tactics – and even to countenance retreat in the face of overwhelming odds, or numbers. It lets you build character relationships trough play, and invests you in your character’s survival, with the real threat of losing it.
Starting small is also a good way to build encounters.
A simple goblin raid?
Why are they raiding? Where did they come from? Who is the leader and why?
Maybe they’re hungry. They come from a cave complex in the foothills not far away. They’ve been sent as scouts by a bigger bad who is masterminding things, and sending lesser monsters out to test local defences. Maybe their leader is a just a slightly bigger, nastier goblin who bullies the rest. Bullying all the way down.
If you kill them all, maybe something nastier comes next time.
If some escape from you, they can carry word back about who and what is out there.
A simple, single encounter can inspire and suggest all manner of other possibilities, from a single seed of an idea.