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Sunday, January 29, 2012

Are Your PCs Disposable Heroes?

I'm an OSR type of guy, and I had a conversation with a 4E playing friend on Google+ earlier today.  When i told him (in reference to a statement from "Greg" who was asking the 5e designers questions about 5e) that I couldn't comprehend planning a character 20 levels in advance, he told me that is because in 3e and 4e, player characters are no longer "disposable" like in the earlier editions of D&D.

Were your PCs all that disposable in earlier editions?  Mine weren't.  I was attached to them, and even have a collection of my original "Goldenrod" character sheets.  My first character (AD&D) died before he hit level 6 (poor Cyrus the Fighter), but Striker the Paladin hit 17 (complete with a Monte Hall collection of goodies) with just one death in his early teens - thank the gods for Resurrection spells, as all they recovered were a few of his bones after the battle.

The thing is, in my classic time of playing, especially in my college years, few campaigns made it to name level, let alone beyond.  It wasn't from lack of time to play, it was due in large part to the awesome number of choices to play.  TSR releasing settings faster then 2e splatbooks meant lots of starts, stops, reboots and the such.

Still, death was always there for the PCs.  Each campaign suffered PC death, but by the time the players hit 6th or 7th level they were usually well enough equipped that death was rare, and usually climatic if it happened (and party resources often meant a Raise Dead or such would right the wrong assuming there was no TPK).  Reaching name level was a huge accomplishment, both for time invested and in player skill.  

No player in any game I played in, even in the Monte Hall games of my youth, ever reached level 20, let alone thought about their power and abilities at that point in your character's career.  Which, I guess is where we have our failure to see.

In the OSR, you start at first level and struggle to gain expo, gold, fame, levels, magic, etc and each level is a highpoint.

In the later editions, you know what you plan to be when you reach level 20, and spend your character's career walking the predestined path to get there.  In some ways, you're starting at level 20 and looking back the whole time, or at least that's how I see it.

In the OSR, your character is always looking forward.

Strange that the new looks back, and the old looks forward.


  1. Story first.

    Meaning the story is more important than the die roll. Sorry I guess I lose some OSR cred here but I like a good story and so have my players, sure I have had TPKs and favorite characters have died, but always the story was what drove alot of these deaths.

    Its a Role Playing game for crying out load, and my players are taking on the roles of Heroes.

    And Heroes don't die tripping down a stairwell because of a crappy die roll. They die facing down orcs while defending villagers. They die sacrificing themselves to save the rest of the party. They die while plummeting to the earth after jumping on the back of a dragon as they strike the final blow.

    Sure sometimes characters die, and as a GM I say dude that was stupid, your character deserved that. But the art of running an epic campaign is taking a bad die roll and using it to elevate a story, even if it means a character has to die.

    It why I'm not to keen with Dungeon Crawl Classic take on gaming.


  2. No OSR cred lost. PCs of mine (and in the campaigns I ran) generally dies for one of two reasons - pure stupidity OR heroic sacrifice. PC death to pure bad luck, where the PC could not be raised? Maybe once past 5th level or so (early levels death was more common, and fixes were generally out of our price range)

  3. Our characters were never "disposable," back in the day, and in the game I'm playing now they don't seem to be either. Sure characters died, but players played as smart as possible to prevent it, and good GMs never actively (murderously?) tried to kill them off. PC death happened just frequently enough to bring out the players' best efforts. As you say, a campaign would often die, for whatever reason, before characters did.

  4. Old school "disposable heroes" is a misconception and urban myth promulgated by many new school gamers.

    The biggest misunderstanding seems to be over the difference in philosophy - whereas in the newer versions of the game "players are taking on the roles of Heroes", in old school D&D the characters basically start off as ordinary people, but work their way up to becoming heroes.

    This difference is wide enough to become a great divide to many.

  5. Well, 3rd and 4th edition characters are more mechanically complex and customizable, and a lot of later options depended on earlier choices; for the most part, older edition characters weren't that complex... the difference between a B/X 1st level fighter and an 8th level fighter is really just number inflation. The higher level fighter can't do a lot that the low level fighter can do. On the other hand, in the later editions of the game, the higher level fighter will have tons of tactical options and abilities that weren't available before.

    Prestige classes in 3.x were also a major source of planning; most people who wanted to get into a particular PrC had to plan it so they could qualify as quickly as possible.

    Older edition characters might also feel a little bit more disposable than newer edition characters because the newer editions are more "scientific" in their approach to what GMs throw at their players... Challenge Ratings, Average Party level, suggested number of encounters by difficult, XP Budget, etc... tools to make sure that the party doesn't randomly run into 8 wandering minotaurs. (That happened in my 1E campaign with tragic results) Instant kill effects are also a lot less common... poison "evolved" in D&D from instant death to variable forms of damage to mostly ability damage. If I remember right, PCs in 4th edition have to fail multiple saving throws to be put to sleep or turned to stone.

    I think that the newer editions, as written, are a little bit more survivable and focus on keeping one character alive for the long haul. Older editions seemed to be more indifferent with regard to character death, but I don't think they ever actively promoted the idea that PCs are totally disposable.

  6. Interesting, the idea that you've made the plan and are really looking back and playing through the retrospective of 20 levels.

  7. Nope. I would not say disosable as much as replacable. I always tried to make interesting guys, but knew they might not be coming out. This helped me choose carefully. If I there is no chance of death than no matter how interesting my guy is, his stories will be boring. To me when I hear someone say that it just sounds like the end of their advetures are alrrady determined except how to divy up the loot.

  8. Errr, commented under my wife's tag again.

  9. the difference between a B/X 1st level fighter and an 8th level fighter is really just number inflation. The higher level fighter can't do a lot that the low level fighter can do. On the other hand, in the later editions of the game, the higher level fighter will have tons of tactical options and abilities that weren't available before.

    And I'd say the difference between an old school 8th level fighter and a new school one is the former can do everything the latter can do, but without a huge, complex mess of mechanics to dictate what, when, where and how.

    In fact I'd go as far to say the old school fighter could do a lot more as the character isn't constrained by the rules, but only by the player's imagination and the DM's sense of what is reasonable.

  10. I don't get this obsession with "heroes". I never thought of my PCs as being or even striving to be heroic. They were always just adventurers.

  11. [I play all editions]

    Yeah, certainly replaceable. I get bored with them right quick. Esp in later editions, 2ed+, where there's emphasis on "building". Get bored with or figure out my build is broke or think of another build I want to try out.

    And the "they die in droves" vs "they're precious snowflakes who can't die" is a campaign style thing than rule set thing. I've played precious snowflakes old rules and line'm up so DM can knock'm down 3.x+ games.

  12. Whether a character is 'replaceable' or 'disposable' is a DMing style thing yes, but rules-as-written influence play. Starting with a group of newbs, they have assumptions based on reading the book and their initial chargen experiences. How might that differ if it takes them 20 minutes to create a character, or an hour and a half? Spending all that time arranging ability scores, picking feats, allocating each skill point, etc. only reinforces the idea that your character is a precious snowflake.

  13. The whole 'disposable heroes' line is just historical revisionism(note that there are plenty of the Old Guard around on the Net who can disabuse one of those notions!) to justify the supposed 'superiority' of current game design and its concomitant mentality, imo. Though my groups wonder why a 'better designed' game feels so 'limiting' and 'drags' during combat.(This is not just one game by one company, btw!)

    Heh. We don't play 'stories', the game makes 'em! And dying on the steps of a dungeon is a *great* moment, imo.(Maybe it was a desperate last stand at the Underworld Portal to hold back the Hellish Dwarf hordes and one of the beer mongers pushed the PC into a pool of gore, where they fall into the nothingness below clutching at their hairy adversary, and tumbling the bearded abomination after... Awesome! Or you described the steps as 'slick' and the PC dashed right down! :-/) And there are of course, real-life parallels that have effected history, if that means anything. :-)

    Epic heroes is not my thing, as I find it staid and formulaic, and it gets old quick, imo.(Saving the World again, can't those NPCs do anything?!?! Some living, breathing milieu *this* is! ;-) ) But that's a valid play style, and one that's been around since near the beginnings of the hobby, shoulder to shoulder with the 'bloody handed' reavers and merry robbers that some believe were the never transgressed rule back then.

    'Fudging' die rolls is rank heresy, tho. Fie upon this. Anathema. :-)

  14. Fun post.

    Actually, I'd say 4E characters are all about the present moreso than the future. It's microwave D&D for right now, now, now :)

  15. Damn, some awesome responses! I guess they wern't so disposable, where they? ;)

  16. Hrm.

    First off, there is a difference between disposable and vulnerable. I am a big fan of the DCC RPG approach, and I don't think anyone is disposable after they reach 1st level. In fact, I would point out that most of my players try to keep all of their 0-level characters alive to increase their options later in the game.

    Second, in the older editions, goblins didn't inflate just because the PCs did, so that the 8th level fighter really is better than the 1st level fighter. Conversely, if the numbers are balanced on both sides of the stick, any increase in ability is illusionary. You may think that you have more options, sure. It may take longer to put down a goblin, sure. But has your character actually become better?

    Again, I prefer the approach where low-level characters may fall victim to threats beyond them (due to their choices) and higher-level characters get to demonstrate why they are better than they were by kicking a little ass on things that once caused them to panic. YMMV.

    Finally, I agree strongly with the idea that story is what emerges through play, not what one plans out ahead of time. I strongly dislike playing in a GM's railroad, and I don't want the game to encourage me to write my own mini-railroad by deciding where fate will take my character at 20th level before he has even stepped out of his door at 1st. Again, YMMV.