Wednesday, November 13, 2019

old school PC fragility

So, I don't think I've ever written a blog post in response to a tweet before.

Now personally, I love the razor-sharp nonsense players come up with when they only have a hit point or two to their name.  Levels 1-3 are a pretty sweet, as far as I'm concerned. But sometimes folks don't want to play such feeble characters. Here's two quickie solutions.

The Old Solution

Start above 1st level. You are allowed to do this! It's your dang campaign! As a kid I played in numerous campaigns where we just started at 3rd or 4th level. The sky did not fall. Later we wised up and realized that with the various XP charts, the smart way to do this is to start everyone out with the same XP amount. We usually went for 10,000 or 15,000 XP. Obviously, this robs the game of the initial rat-killing ogre-fleeing terrors, but we had a lot of fun this way. We didn't alter starting money or give anyone free magic items, but there's no reason why you couldn't sprinkle a few goodies among the party.

My New Idea

This is a new concept that popped into my head when I read Fiona's tweet. The point is to give lower level characters a little extra survivability, while still requiring players to grub their way through the basic levels.

When death comes knocking for a PC, the player is allowed a roll to save their bacon. The roll is over you level on a d6, so after level 5 this won't help anymore. If you save, then either pick or randomly determine from this list:

Lucky Coincidence
Equipment Sacrificed
Debilitating Injury

A Lucky Coincidence means the final stroke fails to land at all, but the DM is free to introduce some sort of new complication, like you were saved at the last moment by a bounty hunter who wants to take you in alive. Equipment Sacrificed means your shield is shattered under the blow, your magic sword breaks, your backpack full of treasure ends up in the acid pit instead of you, etc. The player must give up something of actual value here, not just some random stuff they purchased. Debilitating Injury means the PC was struck down, but is severely wounded rather than killed. They won't be of much use to anyone until they have 2d6 weeks to recover someplace safe and even then they will have a lasting injury, either an ungly scar or a limp or something.

DMs trying this method may want to track the players' use of these three escape routes. Maybe you only one to allow one of each type per level or something like that.


  1. That's a really neat little "death save" mechanic there. I like it.

  2. Anonymous5:59 AM

    Don't forget tables of death and dismemberment (which are very similar to your Debilitating Injury option).

  3. That's fantastic. I'd rule that each PC only gets to use each of the "escapes" once, otherwise you run the risk of indestructible first levellers charging into every situation like Leeroy Jenkins.

  4. Soul will be Sundered: If you die, you can return if you take a hit of 1d6 points to your Wisdom. Of course while 'dead' visions of ones God with a quest demand are a common side effect.

    Just a clone (Edge of Tomorrow style): Characters are just magical clones of great adventurers working for a school of wizardry or a cult or something. If they die they lose the most recent level and all the gear they wore but the character will be ready to go for the next adventure. This one works better for higher level suicide-style missions.

  5. I like it. I will use it in my next campaign.

  6. She's wrong. The possibility of PC death makes the world more immersive, as it adds to its verisimilitude. I consistently remind my players that if they do stupid stuff, they very well may die. That said, I don't expect the PCs to be dropping like flies.

    1. Verisimilitude means different things to different people. Tomatos and tomatos, like.
      I do think there's some macho posturing about "dropping like flies" and it is neither verisimilitude nor fun, to some of us... ;)

  7. Anonymous11:38 PM

    I'm tempted by max HP at first level. I'm very curious when that started.

  8. "3rd or 4th level?" Ha! When *I* was a kid we'd start new PCs at levels 12-15! The only time players started first level characters was at the beginning of the campaign!

    'Course I wouldn't run it that way now. These days, I'm more of a fan of the "roll-up-multiple-characters-and-be-ready-to-insert-new-guy" method of getting killed players back in the game.

    Your "new method" is interesting but I'm not sure of its value long term. It's a bit too random, and a bit too reliant on DM fiat on the back end. A dead PC can always be raised from the dead. A maimed one needs a ring of regeneration. And how about the player that has her favorite magic weapon shattered? It's also possible that the circumstance/loss/injury could lead to a mini-death spiral as the result makes it HARDER for the PC to survive, thus leading to further deaths, die rolls, and consequences.

    I don't's a nifty idea, but I'm not sure I dig it. Death is generally infrequent enough, and curable enough, not to implement too many extra mechanics, in my opinion.

  9. To the tweet's OP I'd reply "to each their own". I believe there is a misunderstanding of old school gaming in regards to combat and death. Unlike in recent editions, where emphasis is put on combat and other action-oriented encounters, combat in old editions is to be avoided altogether (at least this is how I perceive it); the players (and characters) know that not only do they run the risk of being decimated, but also any XP rewards from combat are trivial, compared to the treasure looted afterwards.

    As my core D&D group is used to this type of combative gaming, they naturally jump at every opportunity for battle in my B/X campaign, often to their demise. I've recorded six deaths over seven sessions thus far (half of those characters belong to a single player). I had to constantly remind them that drawing steel isn't the best opportunity for resolving issues, and sometimes flight should be much preferred than fight.

    Now, if the OP meant to say that combat in old school games is highly lethal, I'd agree. Also, killing characters for the sheer fun of it is detrimental to the game's welfare. But there's a fine difference between old school and modern gaming: in the former, events shape the story; in the latter, story shapes the events. Experiencing a character death, and its aftermath, tells its own story in old games. A character death in modern games usually severs that character's contribution to the game's story, unless that scene, and its implications, is tied to the story.

    But then, what type of killing are we talking about here? Low-level or high-level character deaths? People dying because of Save or Die effects? Inescapable situations? Judging by the use of word 'killing' I'm inclined to interpret this as 'DM killing characters' not 'characters dying from...' instances.

    And what's with OP attacking WFRP?

  10. I'm thinking something like...

    Roll 1d6 and add 1 for everytime you've done this before.
    1-3: Lucky Coincidence
    4-5: Equipment Sacrificed
    6: Debilitating Injury
    7+: LOLGF! Roll less than your CON on a D20; if you make it you get a Debilitating Injury and must subtract 1d6 from your CON. If you don't make it, yer dedd.

    An old DM of mine insisted we roll our HP by the book, but gave us an effective minimum of CON HP or rolled HP, which ever was higher. It did mean that most 0-lv. NPCs had 10 HP, but all in all, it worked well enough.

  11. I like it. For minimal old school cred, you could ditch the roll and just give the player a choice on that three-item list. Sort of a systematic version of the Wampus Country "it gets worse" principle.

  12. Thanks for sharing!