Sunday, March 9, 2014

The Fear of Death - or - Why I Like "Old School Gaming"

I already wrote a bit about last night's play session, so I won't harp on it too much more, but there is something I want to address.

My character, Calishun the Dwarven Cleric, was ready to run when our bruisers were webbed by our misfiring flying magic-user. The thing is, he isn't a long term character of mine (the magic-user and ranger are characters from my campaign, running under the "if it happens here, it happened there" rule). Calishun was created as a 4th level cleric specifically to playtest the adventure in question. Last night was his third session in play and yet the thought of running at that moment came quickly to me mind.

In truth, I'm not even sure if my decision not to run was influenced by the fact that Calishun will probably never see use again or out of loyalty to my fellow party members. Perhaps a bit of both. Still, the fear and the initial thought were real and that was damn cool.

There can be no gain of worth if there is no risk of loss. Which is why 3rd Edition and beyond of D&D ceased to appeal to me - if you can plot out your character's advancement with a computer app from levels 1 to 20, what is the point to playing levels 1 to 20? Actually, in old school gaming, who plays to level 20? (sure, some do, but I'm making a general statement)

If I'm going to play an RPG, I need there to be some real risk, some real threat to my character, or there is little if any true potential for growth. Sure, the numbers increase, but the numbers don't truly define the character - game play history does.


  1. I've killed more 3rd edition, 4th edition and Pathfinder characters than I ever did in my 1E and 2E days. The problem is still what you indicate, though: fear of death is a strong motivator. I don't think that has anything to do with editions, though....a lot of my current players see death as an excuse to try out a different character, rather than as something to avoid. I think it's a cultural side effect of the cheapening of character loss due to video games and other media, maybe.

  2. One of the reason that TSR started putting out stats for gods was that people had super powerful/high level characters.

    "This volume is something else, also: our last attempt to reach the "Monty Hall"
    DM's. Perhaps now some of the 'giveaway' campaigns will look as foolish as they truly are. This is our last attempt to delineate the absurdity of 40+ level characters. When Odin, the All-Father has only(?) 300 hit points, who can take a 44th level Lord seriously?

    And of course, it didn't work. It and the DDG were just used as a monster manual (I have fond memories of doing that, actually), so in 2e they removed stats from gods and went with that avatar stuff.

    Arduin had rules for characters up to a 100th level. (Rolemaster went up pretty high as well). BECMI went up to 36th level, and then had another 36 levels of being an Immortal.

    In talking about what makes "Old School Gaming" you like best, you're really not. You're simply talking about what you like best, and it's not really reflective of the rules or even the mindset. I like old school D&D, but don't like a high mortality rate. Thankfully there are all sorts of ways of raising the dead - spells of all sorts (raise dead, resurrection, clone, reincarnation, wish), various magic items.

    Actually, now that I think about it, low level play and the risk of death are kind of at odds. Who cares if a 1st level character dies? Just make a new one. Once you have some time and effort invested in a character, do you start feeling risk.

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  3. from my experience 3x and 4e players plan out their advancements to maximize the skills, feats and what not and the prereqs needed down the line. Not to mention the greater effort needed to create those characters AND the preponderance of "story trains" to keep parties on the rails leads to a greater expectation that those characters WILL live.

    Well, and 4e every PC was pretty much a frequently healing minor superhero - hard to risk much death under those circumstances ;)

    As for killing gods and named demons - i think we all did that back in the 80s - I'm referring more to expectations as to how the games play today.

    edited for damn typo

  4. Erik, I think this was a great post.

  5. Actually, my impression of D&D back in the day was that lots of people had insanely high-level characters--not only that but often multi-classed with high levels in each. With XP for loot and Monte Haul dungeons (remember those?) characters could level extremely quickly, especially if you played frequently.

  6. I totally agree with the main message. The fear of death is the best! The nervousness when the tough monster rises from the pit. The chaos that ensues when that second group of foes comes from behind the party when the fighter is already wounded. Now the cleric is engaged and can't get over to heal him! I also agree that it "Should" have little to do with which version you play. I had more than one PC die in 3.5 edition. A ranger that was almost 6th level was gored to death by a minotaur, a 2nd level cleric that was done in by ghouls he failed to turn. I never "plotted out" my characters advancement in advance. When they leveled I did spend a few days choosing feats and dispersing skill point though. I like low level, and I like LL, S&W, BFRPG, & 1st E AD&D. I also like 3.5 and Pathfinder. Any system can have that scary feel if the DM and the players aren't idiots. :)

  7. Old School rules were certainly more unpredictable and swingy, which often lead to more character deaths. I ran multiple multiyear 4E campaigns and only had maybe 1 death over the course of 25 or so total levels. The math makes it very hard to kill competent players in 4E. The only way you can really do it is by intentionally using very high level enemies. But this is, to my mind, not consistent with how D&D should work. Because in using very high level enemies, with how 4E math works, you're stacking probability against the players. If the dice roll as expected, they will lose every time. It's the way the game was made, and why competent players will almost always survive encounters up to about 4-5 higher than character level. So, if you go higher than that, they don't really have much of a chance, since the math has swung so far in the monsters favor. Old School D&D isn't about using encounters that are mathematically designed to kill players. It's about using encounters that are unpredictable. Things could go well, or they could go wrong. The 4E math doesn't allow for that nearly as much. Particularly when you use RAW 4E death and dying rules, that required a large number of failed die rolls. Similarly, most of the very dangerous magical or poison effects require 2-3 failed saves (saves that are in the players favor) for anything bad to happen. Don't get me wrong. I like 4E very much for what it is. But one thing it was not designed for was for lethal gameplay. They took that out at pretty much every turn. Even if you want to stack an encounter against your players, it will still take 1-2 hours to resolve their deaths as they go down, heal, get up, go down, healing surge, get up, whack a mole trying to win. Killing PCs in 4E takes forever. It's a boring grindy mess honestly. So while killing PCs in modern D&D is certainly possible, it's not very fun.

  8. The sweet spot between Risk & Reward is where the 'magic' happens. I found it happened less in my games as the editions advanced, and yes 4E has much of the crunch in the player's favor. For the past few years, I have been running my own hybrid retro-jam and the lethality is built in. My players have told me that they value these characters MORE because they know how easy it is to die. Two of the players still have their original characters (7th level now) while the other three players are on their 2nd or 3rd characters. Old School IS a mindset, but some rules seem to support that mindset better than others, IMO.


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