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Friday, January 12, 2018

It's Supposed to be Deadly

This morning I came across a 6 year old blog post from someone I don’t know, but decided to spend a moment reading it.  The link is here.  Let me summarize...The OD&D:B/X system of trap checking is a problem’s too dangerous.  At least, that was how I read it.  Maybe you interpret the post differently.

It seemed that the DM was looking for a better way to systemize trap checks in old school play, and THAT is fine.  House-ruling is an important and acceptable way in which to run your old school game.  It is, in fact, what gives rise to newer (and sometimes better) game systems.  I’m all for it.  I am NOT, however, in favor of ‘baby-proofing’ the dungeon.  Opening a door, walking through dark, unknown corridors, and attempting to open chests that obviously don’t belong to you are and should be dangerous as well as deadly pursuits.

Is there a better system for avoiding the traps in a dungeon?  Sure.  There are likely hundreds or thousands of ways better than just blindly following the percentile chart that Basic D&D gives us, but that’s not really the point of this post.

What I’m on about is the deadly pursuit of gold and glory.  Whatever else the OSR and it’s associated gameplay and rulesets are about, at the core I think lies danger.  If you and your party decide to take on the challenge of the wilds, of roaming predatory monsters, of dark caves, deadly traps and elaborate dungeons in the hope of becoming rich, famous, and powerful then there must be an equal opportunity for failure as for success at each step of that journey.  Without the feeling that every encounter could be the last for any given character, much of what made these games so much fun to play is lost.

I’m NOT talking about 5e here folks, although there are plenty of people who enjoy running that edition in an OSR style.  To my mind, this means making it more dangerous than the ruleset lays at your feet as well as perhaps simplifying a very elaborate system.  You only have to lay the two character sheets, 5e and B/X, next to one another to know that these similar games are not siblings, but cousins at best.

If you’ve read the linked blog post, you can see the seeds of dissatisfaction take root.  This is fine.  You’d like to give the thief, or any PC, a better chance to survive an encounter with a poison needle that when pricked leaves only two possible outcomes, save or die?  That’s fine.  Do that.  Remember though that in doing so you (the DM) have decided to both give AND take something from the players and the experience.  Sure, the characters will more frequently benefit, but in my eyes that comes at a cost to the player.  No player wants to lose a PC to the dungeon, but without that distinct possibility, every encounter becomes less exciting.

Last night during a B/X game we lost a good man.  Known to us only as The Seer, a level 1 Elf who had saved us often from total doom, was struck down by a hobgoblin warrior.  We had faced the save or die venom of giant bees, had overcome hoards of goblins, kobolds, and even an ogre but in the end it was a single blow from the rusty sword of a 1+1HD Hobgoblin that took our comrade down.  It came down to the dice (many of which he was in complete control of, including the party initiative) that cost him so dearly.  The thing is, it could have been any of us.

For a moment we lament, but then we all rejoice!  It was a hairy, dangerous battle that could not have been won except for the sacrifice of our valiant Elf companion.  We laughed!  We yelled!  The remains of the party (we lost our henchman and our Elf PC in a final, epic battle at evenings end) uttered a collective sigh.  Had that battle taken all of us, we would have felt the same exhilaration.  It was a well planned and executed attack by the DM, and one we should have known could be on our horizon.  It was fun.  Was it fair?  With at least 10+ combatants against 5, and on their home turf I fully expected there was a TPK possibility.  No flinching.  This is what I came for.  This is what Old School Roleplaying games are, for me and for the folks I play with.

Danger. Death. Disaster.  Without these hallmarks of the game something is lost, an intangible essence of those same feelings a 12 year old boy in Northeast Philly experienced in 1981 as he and his Cleric braved those same Caves of Chaos and returned to a certain fabled Keep on the Borderlands, bloody and emboldened.  

You save, or you die.  


  1. Frankly, there are tons of games that integrate and reward extensive backstory, character centrality to the story, etc. etc. I see no reason to make D&D one of those games. If players don't like it they should go play Savage Worlds or Burning Wheel. Being a faceless mook in what is basically a mercenary troupe is how D&D works. There's literally no point to screw with that - there are a thousand games about being an uber-badass, story-gaming, etc. I don't understand why players even give a shit, I don't. I try to avoid death and play smart, but if you die you die. It's just not a big deal. I don't care how many characters I go through playing D&D, I care that I had fun playing them.

  2. Unfortunately, people are allowed to play D&D however they want, even if its story gamey, even if its not the way you play, even if you don't like it, even if you think it is wrong, even if their characters do not die.

    1. oh geez...of course they are. I never said they couldn't. I'm gonna leave your comment up because

      1) its the right thing to do
      2) to show that some asshole will always say what you just said, even if I never, not once, said that folks couldn't play any way they want.