[Old School] Sell me on "death"

wheloc

He's trying real hard to be one of the good guys.
RPGnet Member
Validated User
One of my biggest problems with old-school style play is the idea that characters should just die randomly. It's not that I'm completely opposed to character death, I just like my death to happen at dramatically appropriate moments. I like to provide plot hooks for my characters, and I take their character goals into account when designing the world, so for me every character death is the death of a bunch of interesting plot and setting elements. Plus it seems to unfair to reward a spirit of adventure or curiosity with death and dismemberment.

Now, I have lots of ideas how to make old-school play less lethal and still preserve some of the "fun" of old-school play, but I thought I'd first listen to "the other side" before I try to run a game with said ideas.
 
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Sleeper

Red-eyed dust bunny
Validated User
It's more a matter of tone, than anything.

If the PCs are immune to causal death, it encourages the players to take all kinds of risks and pull all kinds of logically stupid but dramatically fun stunts. This works best when you want high fantasy or cinematic action, and a sense that the PCs are destined to be Big Damn Heroes.

If death is both random and a consequence of poor choices, it still encourages the players to take risks (since they could die, regardless), but also to focus on the strategic and tactical opportunities. This works best when you want low fantasy or sword and sorcery, and a sense that the world is dangerous and rewards are hard-earned.

Which is better depends on which style of play you prefer. (And it's not exclusive. It's fun to change styles every once in a while.)
 

medivh

New member
Banned
One of my biggest problems with old-school style play is the idea that characters should just die randomly. It's not that I'm completely opposed to character death, I just like my death to happen at dramatically appropriate moments. I like to provide plot hooks for my characters, and I take their character goals into account when designing the world, so for me every character death is the death of a bunch of interesting plot and setting elements. Plus it seems to unfair to reward a spirit of adventure or curiosity with death and dismemberment.

Now, I have lots of ideas how to make old-school play less lethal and still preserve some of the "fun" of old-school play, but I thought I'd first listen to "the other side" before I try to run a game with said ideas.
Not randomly. When they fuck up.

I exclusively play games where I can die from fucking up (When playing games where violence is an option, anyway), because if I can only die when "dramatically appropriate," I'll just solve all my problems with violence, no thoughts or roleplaying required.
 

Leonaru

Taxidermic Owlbear
Validated User
Not randomly. When they fuck up.
Randomly. Older D&D editions have all kinds of monsters that pop up an kill without a saving throw (catoplepas, venomous faltfish) or force you to assume that every rock or blade of grass you walk past could be monster (mimic, house hunter, lurker above, lurker below, living wall, animator). If you play/run a game where character death is likely, I recommend to not use these frustrators (or at least not overuse them).
 

rstites

Active member
Validated User
Both. I think one of the key tenets of old school play is the risk of death can be minimized by appropriate play, but not eliminated.
I'd say it's about risk management. You can always die, certainly. However, it's pretty rare if you didn't make a mistake of some sort. (Even the monsters mentioned above can always be out-played or out-thought with smart play. That's the challenge/interest behind them.) OTOH, the world is a dangerous place, so if you go crawling into dangerous places, looking for adventure, you're always at risk of making a mistake.

What I like about having death on the table constantly is that it's just far more intense and interesting. That's it. The more it's limited to someone's idea of a dramatically appropriate moment, the less dramatic and less interesting it tends to play out at the table.

Having said that, we have dialed back the lethality of D&D as written, since Day 1. It's still plenty deadly, but I found a sweat spot that works better for me than death at 0 hp.
 

Gallowglacht

Registered User
Validated User
One of my biggest problems with old-school style play is the idea that characters should just die randomly. It's not that I'm completely opposed to character death, I just like my death to happen at dramatically appropriate moments. I like to provide plot hooks for my characters, and I take their character goals into account when designing the world, so for me every character death is the death of a bunch of interesting plot and setting elements. Plus it seems to unfair to reward a spirit of adventure or curiosity with death and dismemberment.

Now, I have lots of ideas how to make old-school play less lethal and still preserve some of the "fun" of old-school play, but I thought I'd first listen to "the other side" before I try to run a game with said ideas.
Both ways of playing are completely in the spirit of D&D and awesome in their own ways.
In 4e an epic fight snatching victory from the seeming jaws of defeat is pretty much the combat system working as designed. And it rocks.

In old school you trade the almost certainty of this kind of fight for the chance that it'll happen naturally against the odds. You will have fights that end suddenly before they begin begin. In either the monsters favour or the players. Random death can and will happen, player skill eliminates a lot of the risk but not all. Anyway, every so often, you plant your feet and try something heroic/stupid. The system does not have your back here. Your Paladin with 2 hp's left probably won't make it out of this alive, but does the heroic thing anyway and the party escapes. It's kinda romantic and cool seeing how many you can take down with you. And every so often, everything falls right. The dice make a mockery of probability. You just keep living, swinging, fighting and win. And it's like finding an oasis in a desert. It's "holy crap, did you just see that shit????". All those times you ended up face down in the dirt in some forgotten dungeon have added spice to this moment. And the moment is yours, not a result of the game system.
It's pretty sweet.

Everyone gets to decide where they are happier. But seriously, give it a shot. As written, take your chances and see if it's for you. If it isn't you've lost squat and can stick to newer school, or tweak old school.
 

Llenlleawg

Registered User
Validated User
One way to think of this is to imagine those descriptive features of dungeons/adventure locales, namely, the bleached skulls at the mouth of the cave, the skeletal remains of a long-dead adventurer in a dungeon room (who may still have treasure/magic items in his backpack), the corpses of failed adventurers frozen in ice, the forest where many adventurers have travelled but none ever returned, etc. Now, ask yourself, are these descriptive features just for color, mood, etc. Or, are they meant to be just what they are said to be, the remains of dead adventurers. If the latter, then there is a real chance that any adventurer is going to end up being the bleached skull, skeleton/corpse in the dungeon, one more soul lost to the Dismal Woods, etc. As may old-school games like to say, the story emerges from play. Player goals may be taken into account in the setting up of the place for adventure, but the actual progress of that adventure really allows for plans to go awry.

One way isn't right and the other wrong. What old-school play means in part is that the characters' goals (or, more properly, the players' goals for his characters) have no special role in determining the outcome of things in the game world, and that produces some of the actual fun of the game played this way (e.g. so that actually making it up to, say, 9th level is a real accomplishment).
 
An important piece of context to remember is that in OD&D and throughout the BX/BECMI sets the Raise Dead spell doesn't have any long term effects and had no material component cost (Con loss and chance of failure were introduced in AD&D, loss of level and use of expensive components to cast the spell was introduced in 3e). Providing your body has not been too badly mangled you can always be raised if the rest of the party can get your body back to town. At higher levels (and not that high either) the party cleric can raise you in situ.

So with the consequences of death being so much less severe, the risk of death occurring can be correspondingly greater without it spoiling play. For most adventuring characters, death is only a temporary setback with no permanent consequences.

(Of course, this would also very from DM to DM - some would make your friendly local cleric charge an exorbitant amount for the ten-seconds work of casting the spell on you; or would simply say that there are no high level clerics in the area; or would do a variety of other dick moves to artificially restrict access to things that might make the players' lives easier for the sake of "realism" in their fantasy games.)
 
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