For those just joining us, I’ve been re-reading Old-School Essentials (OSE) with a view to figuring out how to run classic Dungeons & Dragons games with the methodological changes needed to achieve deeper Otherworld-immersion. If you’ve not been following along, it’s worth reading the earlier posts.
Last time, I said we needed to talk about the biggest vulnerability using Classic D&D-style games presents to our Otherworld-immersive style and I named that as being Hit Points. In fairness, that’s probably a bit of an over-simplification.
Don’t Fear The Reaper
While many old-school gamers laud the squishy and easy-to-kill nature of classic D&D characters, this has always been a bit of a problem for me. When you are trying to encourage your players to invest in their characters, to imagine the World of the game from their character’s perspective, and to role-play from a position of Otherworld-immersion then dying in the first encounter undermines that premise.
At first blush, the problem lies with Hit Points. In OSE and starting at Level 1, it’s possible to have just 1 HP and be extremely likely to die with just one attack from a monster. In fact, even a lowly Rat Pack can deal 1d6 damage and that’s enough to kill the average first level PC with room to spare. When I started re-reading the rules, this was an area of concern.
Like I said earlier, however, I think blaming it on Hit Points is a little simplistic.
If we are going to encourage Otherworld-immersion then we definitely want character death to be firmly on the table. Without the ultimate risk there is really no sense of danger and we will not see players make naturalistic choices. Step one in handling this is probably to point out to the players the vulnerability of new characters in the game world. There is a reason most villagers stay in the village and being open about it sets up a useful expectation.
The first point to consider is the easy application of the Optional Rule in OSE that allows from re-rolls for 1s and 2s on the Hit Points roll. As the GM is making the die rolls, the players won’t know the numbers but it’s good form to give them at least a minimal chance of survival.
On top of this, however, I think it’s important to think about the kinds of challenges you give to the player characters. Old-School Essentials specifies that the “standard” rate of advancement would be to reach 2nd Level after three or four sessions. For this, I am thinking about the balance of party size, the monsters they might face, and a greater focus on dungeon exploration over fighting.
OSE suggests a party size of 6-8 characters but I don’t enjoy running games for more than four. I am considering adding in some NPC Retainers to pad out the party, perhaps fellow adolescents from the village who form a cadre of youths seeking adventure. It’s not too much of a stretch to imagine that some locals might be up for joining the group on the promise of treasure alone. Half or even full shares of the loot would help to recruit such help.
Thoughtful choices for monsters would also help to make the game a little more survivable. I am fond of creating monster factions within the dungeons which allow cunning players the opportunity to negotiate alliances and work to defeat tougher opposition. Pitching the (say) local Goblin tribe against their rival Kobold competition is a classic D&D trope.
In terms of monsters, I also think that using the optional Morale rules would deepen the play experience and help the player characters to survive. This is because groups of monsters who flee when they take casualties gives the poor outnumbered “good guys” another tactical lever to pull. Judicious use of the Monster Reaction Table also gives a chance for some friendlier encounters, which reinforces the factional play element.
Finally, given that we are seeking deeper Otherworld-immersion, it’s going to be vital to make the environment of the dungeon as interesting as possible to explore. This means designing the dungeon with some intent and thought. On this, I enjoy a couple of tips from The Alexandrian.
Including at least three interactive elements in each dungeon room is a good idea because it encourages the different player characters to split up and poke at different things. It also makes fights scenes richer because there aren’t just the monsters hanging around, you’ve got other elements to riff off too – such as tables to jump on, chandeliers to swing on, bookshelves to push over, and so on.
The combination of Smart Prep and the injunction to Prep Situations (Not Plots) feeds into this discussion by suggesting that NPCs should have goals and that it’s better to organise one’s monsters as functioning within the context of the dungeon – patrolling, reinforcing each other, and generally reacting naturally – rather than as isolated encounters awaiting the door to the room to open.
All of which is to say that, yes, I can see the potential for early character death in my classic OSE game and that this may well undermine the Otherworld-immersion I am seeking. That said, I believe there are ways to intelligently mitigate this challenge and keep the dungeons deadly but also encourage players to invest in their characters long-term.
Next Post: OSE Behind The Screen, Part 4