Old School Review 1 – Dying & Dumbfounded in Old-School D&D

I find it too hard to die in Pathfinder.

In the Pathfinder Roleplaying Game, even if you’re hit by a monster and go into negative hit points, unless there’s a Total Party Kill then someone in your party is probably going to heal you. Basically, death only comes if you receive a critical hit and you’re already low in HP, or you face some particularly strong monster.

But, c’mon. In real life, getting sliced by a kobold is no joke — you might slice an artery!

So I yearn for older versions of D&D where death was a little easier to come by. (Perhaps you’ve already guessed that I’m a GM?)

Since my first actual tabletop gaming experience was with Pathfinder RPG with my friends in 2010, my only exposure to old-school-styled gaming is reading veterans’ stories here in the blogosphere, stories about death being a constant thought, poking through dungeons with 10-foot poles, trembling before the Tomb of Horrors. Hearing these tales, there’s something magical-sounding that appeals to me, that promises a grittier and more satisfying experience, of fearing constantly for my character’s welfare, holding my breath when a die is rolled.

So last night I tried to run a little Holmes D&D, and imagined taking a party into the sample dungeon in the back of the manual.

Holmes D&D cover

The 1977 Holmes version of Dungeons and Dragons

In 1977, J. Eric Holmes edited the original Gygax & Arneson rules from 1974 and created the first D&D boxed set. It is closer to the original D&D than to any other edition, even the other D&D boxed sets that came after it: all weapons do 1-6 damage, your ability scores have only minor +1/-1 effects in play, etc.

So I decided to roll my first character, of course rolling 3d6 straight down the line:

Strength 8
Intelligence 9
Wisdom 12
Constitution 11
Dexterity 16
Charisma 10

Alright, so my high score is Dexterity, so I decide to make him a Thief. I roll a 1d4:

Hit Points: 1

Yep, that’s right. My first character has 1 hit point. So that means that falling down a 10-foot pit guarantees instant death. I’m already getting a feeling that I’m going to be re-rolling this character soon.

I also roll up a fighter and a magic-user. The fighter has 4 hit points, and the magic-user has 3 hit points. (This is a tough magic-user, you see.)

I (we!) head off to our doom dungeon.

The first encounter doesn’t look too bad. Three goblins in a room with treasure chests. There apparently is an opportunity to have a non-combat interaction, but I’m already looking silly here pretending to be three people. Besides, I’m not playing Holmes D&D to talk to myself (there are many other opportunities for that) — I want to test out the combat rules.

So I roll Dexterity for the goblins. (Yes, you rolled “Dexterity” and not “Initiative” back then — and battle order went by who had the highest Dexterity score first.) My thief has the highest Dexterity and so gets a chance to swing at the goblins. I have equipped him with a dagger (which he gets to use twice per round), and he misses both times. Shoot. The magic-user casts Magic Missile and misses (yes, boys and girls, Magic Missile did not hit automatically back then).

The goblins have their turn. The first one swings at the thief and hits. And…

Oh wait, that’s right. I don’t need to roll for damage because the thief’s already dead. With my thief having one hit point, there’s no way I can roll this d6 less than one.

I chuck aside the hexahedron in disgust.

AD&D goblin

Screw you, you mook.

During the ensuing melee, the fighter gets hit. I rolled a d6 and…

Rolled a 1. Phew. He now has 3 hit points.

The fighter gets hit again! And I roll a 2 for damage. He still has 1 hit point.

Amazingly, the magic-user and fighter survive the melee and ship the 3 goblins to their evil Maker. The adventurers then search the room for loot, and find 140gp worth of treasure, which, because treasure equals experience in old-school D&D, translates into 140 experience points. Each goblin was worth 5 XP. And so each character earns from that near-TPK…

77 experience points (before their 10% ability-score bonuses).

How on earth did people actually gain levels back in those days? Did people actually follow the rules as written? Sure, perhaps the treasure haul here was a bit modest, but then again they almost died from three goblins.

Don’t even get me started about the room that came up soon after, when a 31-hit point giant spider jumps on my cleric (yes, that was the re-rolled thief) from the ceiling and bites her 1 hit point away. And if this were a real game of D&D, the players would probably then swing away at the spider, not knowing at all how uber-tough it is. And of course, if they were to get bitten and miss their saving throw vs. poison, the penalty is to die.

How is this even remotely fair? Or actually my question is: how did players have fun? Sure, new players would learn the dangers of exploring dungeons and lessen these dangers through intelligent play. But I simply can’t see how people could reach level 2 — let alone levels 7, 8, or 9 — playing these rules as they were written.

Perhaps I should say more of my thoughts about this style of play versus the modern expectations in RPGs, but I’ve already gone on long enough.

And besides, I should ask my readers: how did people actually play the game?

‘Cause this idn’t it.

About ronaldsf

Grandmaster of the Pathfinders' Guild at Martin Luther King Middle School.
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20 Responses to Old School Review 1 – Dying & Dumbfounded in Old-School D&D

  1. Ha, ha! Sounds like my early games!

    Actually we had great fun and D&D was DEFINITELY a challenge. The way we survived (when we did that is) was through common sense and strategy. Just like in real life you wouldn’t wander into a dangerous dungeon unprepared. You would make a plan and stick with it. Instead of wandering into that room of Kobolds why not stand outside and wait for them to come to you? If you did the unexpected you could outsmart the enemy and the GM.

    You’re right though, even WITH strategy it was very hard to survive. Not many players had a mage character that survived long enough to reach level 2. Heck, most times the mage would die in the first adventure!

    You hit the nail on the head though with this article. Pathfinder & D&D 3.5 fun as it is, does not prevent a suitable challenge for those looking for true adventure. Characters start out the equivalent of 5th or 6th level in AD&D 1st edition.

    My favorite edition of all time was AD&D 2nd edition. It might be because I spent 20 years playing, or it might be all the great campaign settings we had access to. All of my stories and adventures hail from that era which was MY golden years of gaming. I was always the DM and although my adventures were challenging, I always pushed a strong role-playing aspect into all my games and encouraged my players to do the same. The best part of the game in my opinion has nothing to do with rolling dice and everything to do with complete and utter immersion in a fantasy world of your own creation.

    • ronaldsf says:

      Thanks for the answer. Wow, so you did stick by the rules. It would seem to me, though, that you would have to use creative tactics with every single encounter and to have your characters with weak Armor Class NEVER, EVER get in the way of a blow. Also, at least if you went by the implications in Holmes’ rules, because the Thief has the “Hear Noise” ability and no other class does (and this includes the demi-human classes), I imagine you would need a Thief in your party in order to detect danger ahead of time at low levels. And even then, he or she would only hear noise on a roll of 1 or 2 on a d6.

      I prefer Pathfinder over previous systems, but I don’t think it’s perfect. I’m thinking that, after I run my first extended campaign by the book, I would change the power curve later in my own custom campaign. “Dark Mistress” over at the Paizo boards said that she kinda wishes that the power levels reflected in Pathfinders 1-13 were stretched out to 1-20, and that the current levels 14-20 became 20-30 and constituted “Epic Play.” I like the “feel” of that. First of all, Pathfinder has a reputation for getting very unwieldy in higher levels. Second, those last several levels involve some pretty epic-sounding abilities. (Few things beat immortality and always getting resurrected, for instance.)

      Also, I would want to start the characters off at the power equivalent of “Level 0,” which some third-party publishers have explored with a couple of products.. And perhaps even start them off with NPC classes at that diminished level — but if I see us approaching the degree of fatality described above, I would dial it back.

      II would also like to try out E6 someday (or E8 which seems to be more recommended for Pathfinder).

    • ronaldsf says:

      Hey, did 2nd Edition AD&D have this same fatality at Level 1?

  2. edowar says:

    From what I’ve read parlay was a big part of surviving the early editions of D&D. Somewhere along the way killing everything in sight become the primary way to get XP, but early on treasure was the biggest XP gain and it was to the party’s advantage to avoid combat or parlay with monsters. Helps a lot if you can bribe the Orcs off hallway #1 to go to war against the Goblins living near hallway #2.

    Also, larger parties. Sometimes two charactes per player, at least until one of them survived long enough to hit level 2.

    Another good tactic was employing hirelings…lots of hirelings. Some swear that Charisma is actually the most important stat in old school D&D. Maybe war dogs too, if your DM will let you have them.

    Back in the day we owned the B/X sets, but really cut our teeth on 1E. We usually started with level 2 or 3 characters and when we didn’t we often let level 1 characters start with max hit points…but not always. As I recall, 2E was a little better than 1E in terms of survivability, but not a lot.

    I agree with you that Pathfinder characters are bloody hard to kill. I had a fire specialist wizard that was disentigrated by a devil, though he got better (was resurrected or raised, forget which, when the party’s cleric got enough levels). Now he’ll probably never die permanently.

    Pathfinder has some interesting stuff going on, but I don’t think I could ever DM it. Just too many moving parts, too many complications. Our games come to a screeching halt over minor questions in the application of various rules…annoys the hell out of me as a player. It can take an hour or more to resolve a relatively simple battle and all night to resolve a moderately complex one. But I think I could handle DMing the BB, provided I can convice our group to play with the simplified rules, something they might not go for.

    Btw, your blog is off to a good start.

    Ed Green

    • ronaldsf says:

      Thanks for the response! That’s really interesting about it being more about getting the treasure, and there’s something about that that appeals to me: it really makes it exciting to find that rare ruby or pearl necklace, and gives XP awards more of an element of randomness — you don’t quite know how big your reward will be, just from how difficult the monsters are.

      I don’t know if I like the hirelings dynamic: I heard an audio recording of one OD&D game where they basically used hirelings as meat shields — almost as “royal tasters,” if you will — to walk into corridors or into unknown rooms first. And they were bloody cheap too, considering that they were basically asking for certain death if used by the party in that way.

      Sure, there’s something inherently preposterous about 1st level PCs going into a perilous dungeon, but it’s not to my liking personally to see players treat their 3 hirelings as Human Sacrifices For Hire.

      And I agree with you — I don’t know if I like the idea of immortality via having a cleric that can cast Raise Dead or eventually Resurrection. Sure, that was in the original D&D, but once my players’ campaign gets to those higher levels I’m ambivalent about its role in the game. Again, in my first campaign(s) I will stick more or less to the rules as written and see how that “feels,” while reserving the right to change it in future campaigns.

      Thank you for your encouragement re: my blog. Positive feedback keeps me writing!:)

      • Ed Green says:

        I’d say any DM that let the players abuse their hirelings like that wasn’t doing his or her job properly. True, they work for the PCs, and generally follow orders, but as they are NPCs it is the DM that ultimately controls them. If a PC says “Hey, Joe Redshirt, check out that dark, dangerous hallway for traps” it’s entirely reasonable for the hireling to say “Hell no, you’re not paying me to commit suicide. You do it.” If the PCs make a big deal out of it, the hirelings can quit. If the PCs attack one hireling, have all hirelings band together against the party. The PCs will learn to treat their hirelings properly or discover that no one is willing to work for them anymore.

        It reminds me of a B/X game I ran about 15 years ago using Caves of Chaos. I had every player make 2 PCs, because I knew the fatility rates would be high. And they were, until the players learned to hire men-at-arms to help them. Of course, the hirelings weren’t any better than the PCs, so they died a lot…so many that I said no one would hire on with them anymore. The party ended up having to take a two week trip to the next town to find hirelings that hadn’t heard of them yet.

        Ed Green

      • ronaldsf says:

        Ed, I like your DMing style.:) I think that’s how I would’ve run it, too.

        Yeah, I agree that the audio recording I heard was not the way to use hirelings in the game.

        Still, from the answers I’ve gotten so far it sounds that people did pretty much stick to the rules. (I did read somewhere, however, of people house-ruling that characters got Max HP at first level.) Makes me curious: what was the typical % chance that a Level 1 character survived until Level 2?

        It interests me, because it suggests that people saw D&D back then as fundamentally a different kind of game compared to how many people view a tabletop RPG today. Perhaps I’ll write on that here soon.

  3. waynecanepa@gmail.com says:

    Have you looked into Dungeon Crawl Classics yet?



    • ronaldsf says:

      Yeah! I did take a look at the beta when it first came out. My first thought was that this was an awful lot of tables and it seemed to defeat the purpose of making gameplay smoother and quicker. But I do like the feel of magic being strange and unpredictable. I might try it out someday but I’ve been separated from my regular playing group so I can’t get Pathfinder going at the moment, sigh… (This blog is part of what’s holding me over in the meantime, you see.)

  4. Ed Green says:

    I’m not sure what the survival rate for 1st level PCs was, but I’m sure it was probably pretty low.

    By way of example, that B/X game I mention above had 5 or 6 players, each with 2 characters. After a few weeks of play they finally finished Caves of Chaos. Only one PC survived all the way through, making it to 3rd level (the guy played it pretty smart, staying in the back, not charging into combat). I think everyone eventually got at least one PC to 2nd level, but a lot of 1st level PCs died along the way.

    Ed Green

  5. The Bane says:

    Great Blog, just found it… This post interests me the most because I cut my teeth on, and prefer, old versions of the rules for its lethality. Unfortunately, for me, I can’t find a local group of Older versions.

    As for how I play; RAW for the most part, though I have allowed max HP at first level on occasion. I think Edowar hit alot of the high points. The big one for us was parley, as mentioned. I chuckled, no offense meant, when you described killing the Goblins and then ran into the Spider. Had you rolled well with a charismatic ‘face’ character who spoke Goblin, you may have learned of the Spider, been paid by the Goblins to defeat it, and had time to gather dry grass outside the entrance to ‘smoke’ it out (reducing its HP and initiative perhaps, or driving it off to set a trap for when it returned – maybe the Goblins would have helped?) Not to mention that monsters of ol’ did not fight to the death regularly – Morale Rolls FTW….

    Will type more later….

    • ronaldsf says:

      Glad you like it! It’s really interesting to me to read how people played old-school D&D at Level 1. It has much more the feel of PCs starting off as regular people and scrabbling their way to heroism. I personally like that better than how Pathfinder currently “feels” and would like to start at Level 0 and/or play E6/E8 or something similar in some future campaign.

      • The Bane says:

        It appears that we share some interests. I have always liked the lower level game play and have been trying to get an E6 game since I read about it as a compromise between my 0e roots and local gamer’s penchant for 3.5 and 4. No joy though.

        I don’t recall what I was going to add to my above post, but I do miss the Gritty, fear for your life, vibe I used to have. If I fear for anything now, is at the thought that I may have to go through a painstaking character generation cycle again with newer versions.

        Though I do, lovingly, refer to 0e/Basic as Gritty, especially at lower levels, I tend to take issue with people thinking, or talking about it, as Hack/Slash D&D. I seemed to do much more negotiation, role-play, alternate solutions to problems in older versions than new. In newer releases I seem to take a more Hack/Slash approach because, as you suggest, it is much harder to die in newer versions. Swing first, ask questions later kind of thing.

        I am VERY interested, and have search unsuccessfully online, to see if the new Pathfinder Basic Box is more ‘Gritty’ than the Core rules with the bit and bobbles removed. I wonder if I would get the feel of the old with the mechanics of the new?

        REALLY looking forward to more post as well. Keep up the great work!

        The Bane

  6. The Bane says:

    Alibi Question: What is your take on “Microlite20”?

    The Bane

    • ronaldsf says:

      Sorry — I’ve taken some time away from this blog, hence the delay in answering.

      I like how the rules are very simple. I’m not sure what to think about it, honestly — it seems to serve a purpose for people whose point of reference is that they’re already playing OD&D or Holmes/Moldvay/Mentzer Basic D&D and they’re looking for a further refinement of that particular experience. My first thought is that if I were looking for simpler rules I would try to go to one of those rulesets, at least at first, because a lot of the support materials (adventures and whatnot) are already in that format. But at this point in my gaming, I’m still trying to get my Pathfinder group together, let alone try to foray into older-school territory.😦

      I acknowledge that MicroLite20 could easily be made to work with those same supplementary materials. With me though, the level of crunch in Pathfinder RPG is manageable (in the low levels at least), and I, as the GM, am the one who bears most of the rules-load. I like having some access to mechanics to support my players’ character concepts. (I have one player who’s clamoring to be a ninja, for example.)

      Also, I confess that perhaps I’m not comfortable enough with GMing yet and don’t have a “groove” yet with my players, to have a more freeform, “it’s all in your head” type of gaming that I think I would emphasize more if I tried out these “older-school” rules.

  7. Bobby says:

    I played 1st edition D&D for a long time… actually, it was more like 0.75. We didn’t use most of the complications Gygax added in AD&D.

    In every campaign I recall from ages past, we gave max HP at first level. Also, everyone I knew house-ruled it so you died at -10 hp, not at 0 or -1.

    I’m playing in a Swords & Wizardry campaign on G+ right now, and we are using rolled HP and death when you go your level below 0. Last game my first level fighter with 2 HP died. However, each player is playing two characters.

    We use a lot of tricks… as one guy suggested, wait for the kobolds to leave and ambush them. We throw stuff in the way as we flee, lay traps and lead enemies into them, play rival groups off against one another… and we still die. I do think it’s more fun that way.

    I agree hirelings are very important in OD&D. I also agree that it’s critical the DM play them as real people. They are great additions, and maybe once in a while you can get one to investigate something if you have good reason, but if you have even 25% attrition, how many people would continue to risk their lives?

  8. David says:

    I just stumbled upon this blog today and I have to say it is very good! I will be reading on a regular basis!

    I realize this reply is over a year late but I wanted to add my thoughts. I agree with you in that Pathfinder/3.x and above make it harder to die. However, I feel the problem is overstated and not as bad as most people think and the fact that death is harder to come by is a GOOD thing.

    First, although death is harder to achieve in Pathfinder it is certainly not impossible, In fact, as a GM in an ongoing PF game I am finding myself continuously toning down encounters top make them more survivable by the PCs. If done right and encounters are designed properly there is a definite threat of PC death. Pathfinder tries to make it so that PC death is meaningful and not due to stupid, blind, dumb luck.

    I think this is a good thing in terms of player enjoyment and game balance. I myself am an old-school gamer. I started in 1979 with the Holmes Blue Box and have played every edition since then. I still play the older editions when I can and have a lot of fondness for them. In fact, I ran a game of Basic D&D at Gen Con 2013 along with Star Frontiers and will probably run a few old games at Gen Con 2014. Very few people played exactly as written back in the day, if they did, very few characters would have made it past level 1. Having characters that are more survivable increases the enjoyment of the players in the game. Although I do agree that there is a threshold that can be crossed in which there is no perceived threat of PC death, this is also not enjoyable. In other words, I think Pathfinder, if played properly strikes a good balance between being ridiculously difficult and absurdly easy.

    • ronaldsf says:

      To be more precise, you’re about two years late.😉

      I am much more in agreement with you than when I first wrote this article, that Pathfinder strikes a good balance. Now that I have GM’d much more Pathfinder than I did when I originally wrote this article, I find that death during Level 1 tends to happen when the party is not playing smart, when the GM is using ALL the monsters’ abilities at their disposal.

      Just two nights ago, I was running 5 twelve-year-old boys through the first volume of Wrath of the Righteous. I had all of them create character bios, and I had plans for how mysteries in all of their characters’ backstories would play out during the 2-3 year campaign.

      This was their 2nd session. They were extremely-depleted in their daily resources, and so they holed up in an abandoned temple. A darkmantle is scratching the door and trying to find its way in. The party paladin, while the party was asleep, opens the door.

      Big Mistake #1. Every horror movie aficionado will tell you that opening the door that has menacing sounds behind it is NOT the best thing to do.

      So the darkmantle casts darkness and starts to attack the party one-by-one. Problem is, the entrance to the temple was a narrow hallway, so the party couldn’t use its advantage of numbers to multiply its attacks on the darkmantle. Also, the party hadn’t figured out yet that darkness could be countered by their light spells.

      And the darkmantle was HUNGRY. So its mindset was not to neutralize the party, but to EAT the first victim it could get its jaws on.

      Add to all this, that the darkmantle has a rather nasty ability for a CR 1 creature (which I think is too low): upon landing an attack that does 1d4+4 damage, it gets a free grapple check (with a +5 bonus). If this grapple connects, it has the Constrict universal monster ability, conferring it an EXTRA 1d4+4 damage immediately. If, on a subsequent round, it grapples again (with an additional +5 maintain-your-grapple bonus!), it does another 2d4+8 damage!

      This spells death for Level 1 characters.

      The party’s toughest character, a paladin with AC of 18, only survived thanks to the darkmantle rolling a natural 5 the next round (it only needed a natural 6 to kill him).


  9. Biff says:

    We played original D&D carefully usually with a fair modicum of generosity from the DM. We did a lot of creative running away in the old days. And the Monsters morale was not all that great anyway. And yes it was critical to keep the unarmoured PC’s away from the monsters. No one played a 1 HP character, ever. We used all the cheating methods possible to role up a reasonable (read exceptional) character to start with. I believe running 6 PC’s though the Caves of Chaos we lost a character to the kobolds, one to the owl bear, one to the minotaur, and one to the bugbears, and one to the treacherous cleric and at least two levels to the Wight. We also lost four men at arms, one exceptional elf hireling, and a rebel orc, a rebel bugbear, two fighters who had been prisoners, an evil hero and a crazy gnoll. There were a bunch of extra bodies that the caves produced for a rescue minded party and we burnt most of them in the adventure. Once we got fairly armoured up I do remember a lot of early combats where the Orc swings at you, he misses. You swing at the orc, Miss. everyone swings at everyone, miss,miss ,miss,miss. I do remember at least one early foray into the C of Chaos where they entered a cave . First two characters fell in a spiked pit, both died. The rest of the unarmoured party ran away after about three hours rolling up characters , venturing to the Keep , finding a room , buying supplies, interacting with the towns folk, learning about the caves, travelling to them. The look on the faces of the “adventurers” still haunts me. But yes strict adherence to all of the earliest rules would generally lead to a low probability survival rate. We tweaked those rules early on to try to keep as many good characters that were well-played alive. It always amused me that despite the bod y count from monsters there was in several of the groups I played in a lot of PC on PC death thrown in to the mix. Nowadays when I play it’s a lot of NG characters and not much else. .

    • ronaldsf says:

      Ha! And all this was with generosity from your DM!

      I think it’s interesting how the rules, despite the problems they created, literally forced you to be creative either (1) in-game or (2) by working around them.

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