Wednesday, January 15, 2014

1 Year into the OSR, A Retrospective: Keeping Characters Alive

About this time a year ago, I transitioned my Pathfinder group over to Swords & Wizardry. We have played semi-monthly ever since, around 8 or 9 sessions.

The game is set in a custom campaign setting, but many of my sessions have taken place in the excellent Barrowmaze.

My players have generally loved the campaign. My most recent session had 7 players at the table, out of 8 who get invites. For half of them, this is their first RPG experience. And I am proud that one woman I introduced to fantasy RPG's has gone so far as to start GMing Pathfinder Society games locally.

After a year though, I find myself in an unexpected situation. My players die, often. Of the 8 players, one has a 3rd level Cleric, another a 2nd level Druid, and everyone else is still 1st level. All of the others have had multiple characters die. 

I am not an Evil DM, at least I'm not labelled as such by my players. They know I enjoy playing straight up, and presenting a challenge. All my dice rolls are public (except things they would not know the outcome of, such as some thieving skills).

I have taken great pains to educate them on old-school theory concerning survival, teamwork, tactics, etc. They are usually pretty careful, and the challenges they face are for the most part appropriate for their level. They run when they need to.

They have taken their deaths with great humor, although they all get that "deer in headlights" "I cant believe I am dead" look the first time they lose a character. Soon enough they re-roll and get into the spirit as the other players pat them on the back and regale them with their own gruesome deaths and sad outcomes.

But now I find myself wanting them to survive, to level up, and to explore the world more widely, to be exposed to higher level encounters and different plot lines.

When I was young, I DM'ed Basic & AD&D, and tried to strike the balance of keeping the players on their toes, and engaged, and challenged, but alive. I fudged rolls to guarantee drama, and helped the players create heroes. We were creating a story together, but I was definitely playing the game for my players benefit as much as my own. It was great fun.

Now I find myself thinking back to those days, and starting to reconsider my current philosophy. I like my players, I want them to succeed. I want them to level up and progress. But I also want to keep it gritty, dangerous, and old school in feel. I'm tempted to use the DM hand to get the outcomes we all want.

Anyone care to offer suggestions on how to keep the game real while seeing the players succeed?


  1. Don't give in to temptation! PC death should be a learning experience for the player, teaching the player to be more cautious and fight smarter, not harder. Don't reward lazy player behavior in the guise of "storytelling;" that way lies madness.

  2. You could use one of the various "Death and Dismemberment" charts out there in the OSRiverse when a character hits zero hit points.

    1. Thanks Stu, researching that option has given me some save vs death and roll vs Con options I think I will try.

  3. Back in the day, '75 - '78, brown box OD&D, I had a lot of characters dying at 1st, some at 2nd, and by 3rd death tapered off quite a bit. Characters could still die at high level, especially when soloing. One thing that helped people survive the start was giving more than book XP for kills, so the total number of kills to level was much lower if you weren't getting enough treasure to level on. My formula was monster HD squared times 40 if basic, 60 if some special powers, 80 if strong in special powers. So an orc was worth 40 instead of 10, and an ogre was worth 640. A 10 HD dragon would be at 80, so 8000 XP to divide among the party. I also gave out XPs for magic items something close to the GP value of the magic item. There was a big discount on magic item XP that weren't something new to you, it was experiencing novel powers of the item that made it valuable. So your very 1st +1 item was something like 1500 to 2000 XP, next one was about 500 XP. Another thing that helped was re-scaling from the incredibly bulky 10 GP per pound to 100 GP per pound, so more treasure could be hauled out for XP if they actually hit a big pile.

    Overall this kept the shear "you'll eventually die to bad luck before you make second" rate down to about 1/3 to 1/2 of all 1st level characters, with maybe 1/4 of 2nds dying permanently. I was reasonably generous with healing potions found, placed some Raise Dead scrolls for clerics to find and NPC clerics could be found to Raise Dead for a few thousand g.p. for lowbies so characters above 2nd could usually afford to raise a friend. That's what felt about right to me for difficulty at the time. Characters could and did die, more than half eventually, but with an approximately weekly game for most of four years, some extra sessions for this or that small group, some forays into other games for awhile, a few characters made it into the low to mid teens, and a lot into the upper single digits.

    1. Ed,

      I like your ideas about upping the XP of kills. I also have made Healing potions readily purchaseable at the local Temple, as a way of soaking up gold and allowing the players to have more healing.

  4. Hi Rob. I have a similar situation. Twelve sessions, and eight dead PCs later, two of them have just made level 2. I use the following house rules to keep em alive. At zero hit points you need to make a saving throw verses death (con bonuses apply). Failure means death, passing means you are on 0 hp (and pretty much incapacitated) until you receive medical attention. Furthermore, if you go down to -6 hp or more then there will be lasting effects. I always determine what the effects are in negotiation with the players and ask them to suggest what the lasting effect will be based on what happened. It's working so far in that there are less deaths (perhaps a third less), but they still come often enough for it to be a real threat. Both of the level two characters bear permanent scars. I also allow new PCs to come in with half the xp of the previous character, unless they die in the first session in which case I allow them the same xp as the character that lasted only one session.

    Still, they don't seem to be learning, and they still have a strong streak of thinking they can beat every combat they enter. Although I've been quite clear that I am arbitrary, and have had them read the old school primer, they just don't seem to be able to get their heads around that. They'll either learn or they won't.

  5. We are playing a S&W campaign (just ended the latest arc). One player has lost 4 characters in the 12 to 18 months we've been playing, only one other character has died. We play straight, no fudging. That player just had some bad luck a few times. And also died once in an act of noble self-sacrifice -- he saved the town from blowing up. It was a movie moment.

    My fighter started with 2 hit points, plus the rest of the party combined only had one more hit point than the dog. We were careful and we were lucky. We didn't rush up and attack every time. The party dealt with adversaries with various means, such as talking, bribing, playing two sides off each other, running away, bringing friends, whatever was needed.

    Okay, so here's how you save these people: give someone a dog. The dog might be able to fight a bit. At least distract the monster. The dog might be able to sniff things out. Our cleric's dog can do three things: fight, sniff, or fetch. That dog has gotten us out of more scrapes than I care to mention. Totally useful animal.

    1. Thanks Brett. They had a Halfling henchman that came with a dog, and were quite fond of the dog. It died quick though.

  6. 1. Henchmen and dogs up to the charisma limit.
    2. Death & Dismemberment table
    3. Shields Shall Be Splintered

    This has reduced player character death to practically nil (but many characters have had to spend weeks in hospitals recovering from broken bones and many a veteran was left legless...)

  7. You could also just double the amount of loot in the dungeon. You still have all of the normal risk, but at least the survivors will level more quickly and get to the "safer" levels faster.

  8. Thanks for the replies all. i also have adopted this table:
    0 HP
    1 Dead
    2 Seriously injured
    (will die in 1d6 rounds unless healed
    or bandaged, 1 week rest required)
    3 Knocked out 1d6 turns
    4 Stunned and dazed 1d6 turns (-4 ATK & AC, ½ move - no spellcasting)