07 March 2012

What Classic D&D can learn from "5e": Lethality in the game

I've decided to start a sporadic series of posts commenting on the little bits of propaganda coming out of WotC regarding D&D Next (or D&D 5th edition, if you will). The only catch is, I have no intention of actually playing whatever rules system they've settled on(1) for the new game. Instead, I'm going to apply the ideas, concepts and commentary they're bringing up to the Classic D&D game, exploring the ways that the views of the "new school" can possibly help those of us who prefer a more traditional style of game.

This week on WotC's site, the topics of discussion are Save or Die traps/monster abilities and Deadly Dice (the lethality of the game mechanics in general and whether character death is a good or bad thing). We'll start with the first topic, raised by Mike Mearls.

First, a bit of context (Following quotes are from Mike Mearls):

      First, to give you some insight into where I'm coming from, I take the idea of approaching the entirety of D&D's history very seriously. I'm about to start a new D&D campaign at the office, and I'm using the 1981 basic D&D rules as a starting point. As I plan the campaign and (eventually) run adventures, I plan on making house rules, adopting rules from other editions, and shifting the rules to match how the game moves along. In some ways, it's a reality check against the ideas I see proposed for the next iteration. Would I want them in my campaign? Do they work for my group?
He takes the task of understanding old school D&D so seriously that he intends to house rule and "frankenstein" the rules from day one, to create something that works for his group? That's fine and dandy for tailoring the game to your group, but it does almost nothing to advance an understanding of the old school game and what makes it special and unique. To me this is just more rulebook dropping to try and appeal to old school gamers who've abandoned more recent versions of the game, but anyway...
     If you came to D&D with 4th Edition, you might not have heard someone say "save or die." It dates back to the earliest days of the game, where some traps, monster attacks, and spells required a successful saving throw or the hapless target was instantly killed, turned to stone, reduced to a pile of dust, and so forth.
     The save or die effect represents an interesting point in D&D mechanics. On one hand, fighting a critter with a save or die attack is tense and exciting. Or at least, it can be. A good DM makes a fight like this into something that can grow into a gaming legend over the years. Players will remember how their characters valiantly fended off attacks and either hoped for lucky rolls or came up with a cunning plan to defeat or avoid the critter.
     On the other hand, the save or die mechanic can be incredibly boring. With a few dice rolls, the evening could screech to a halt as the vagaries of luck wipe out the party. A save or die situation can also cause a cascade effect. Once the fighter drops, the rest of the party's inferior AC and saving throws can lead to a TPK.
 I think this description of Save or Die (SoD) effects in the game is fairly simplistic, and overlooks one major component of a successful game; a good DM. While yes, the rules as written do provide for the scenarios that Mike mentions, I think a big assumption on the part of the designers was that a) players were playing their characters cautiously, with an almost paranoid approach to exploring, searching for traps, engaging new and mysterious monsters, etc. A good DM will reward this type of play and allow the careful player to usually avoid having to make that dreaded SoD die roll in the first place.

A thief who meticulously checks for traps before opening doors and chests, charging brazenly down a hallway or prying dust covered treasures from their resting places will have a very good chance of avoiding the SoD situation. A fair DM might even grant a small bonus to the save if it ends up being required if the PC has taken proper or extraordinary precautions.

Likewise, a party that carefully approaches impending combat can often pick up clues to the nature of deadly attack forms. Take the medusa as an example, her gaze means certain "death" for a low level party unequipped to reverse petrification. However, in almost all medusa encounters I've seen published in adventures, she doesn't charge out to attack without warning. The party gets a brief chance to observe her lair, noting the "exquisitely carved" statues of humans, demihumans and humanoids with looks of abject fear on their faces. Medusa lore isn't all that obscure, and observant players should expect something nasty. If the DM follows up with a first glimpse of the medusa herself in the form of a shadow or reflection she casts that is visible by the PCs, even better. Perseus knew the legend, we can assume similar folklore exists in a fantasy world regarding such a terrible beast and give the PCs a chance to know and act on what they've heard as bedtime tales as kids.

Mike goes on to comment in a generic sense on the pros and cons of SoD mechanics, and offer a "fix", where PCs with high hit point totals can avoid instand death and, I assume, just take some damage. Sounds good, except that it punishes low low characters and fixes nothing. High level PCs have access to Stone to Flesh, Remove Paralysis, and even Raise Dead type magics. They do not need protection from instant death mechanics. If you're opposed to instant death, SoD type situations, just remove them, don't reinforce the problem with a well intention but ineffective band aid.

Monte Cook's column on Deadly Dice, the lethality of the game, segues from Mike's discussion into a more general discussion of how deadly the game should be, or whether PC death should factor into the game at all.
      The play-by-the-rules level of lethality in the game has changed a lot over the years. The general trend has been to make the game less lethal overall, although an argument could be made that the game has become slightly more lethal at the higher levels since it was more common to end up with an unkillable (unchallengeable) character at the upper levels in older editions.
 This is really a non-point. Most, if not all lamentations of the lethality of the game are focused on low level characters. 1st to 3rd level characters in Classic D&D or AD&D 1st edition can be, as Monte goes on to note, a dime a dozen. Death waits around every corner, and making it to middle and high levels is an accomplishment.
     I remember way back in the earliest days of the game how someone told me that people didn’t even bother naming their characters in their campaign until 2nd level because there was so little chance that a 1st-level character would survive. As silly as that might sound, the feeling of accomplishment at surviving such a lethal game, even for a little while, must have been great.
Exactly! It does feel great. In the first campaign I played in, a typical dungeon crawl in the Caves of Chaos, the minotaur and owlbear caves vexed us. Our party of 4 players, no henchmen, went through a total of 14 characters before we bested both foes, with my thief PC being the sole survivor when the minotaur finally fell! I'll remember that win for as long as I play the game! When death is not only possible, but fairly likely, surviving and conquering the challenges is a big deal.

Of course, one could argue that the D&D game isn’t about feelings of accomplishment. It’s about creating characters and developing fantasy stories. Characters perhaps shouldn’t die unless circumstances dictate it, rather than when the dice go against them.
I don't buy this argument one bit. I love story and role playing as much as anyone. Heck, I probably put a lot more value in it that most other old school and "OSR" players do. But, here's the BIG POINT, the story evolves as the game unfolds. The game does not get twisted and bent out of shape to cater to whatever amateur novella I'm trying to pass off on my players as the new campaign.

Besides, this is heroic swords and sorcery fantasy. Death is every much a part of the story as life and victory. Death snatched Thorin Oakenshield from the seat of victory. Boromir fell, giving his companions more focus and motivation. Sirius Black and Obi Wan Kenobi died, inspiring their proteges to buck up, face their fates and conquer evil. If there is no death, or at least no real chance of death, you aren't playing a game, you're not even really telling a story, you're just mentally masturbating about how cool and powerful and untouchable your pet character is. Put the dice down and start a D&D fanfic blog!

(1) They've been demo'ing and playtesting the new game since at least December. I refuse to buy into the idea that they are still at the "tossing ideas around, nothing to see yet" phase of game design. It's been part of their ruse to hook disgruntled players into thinking they have a voice at the design table since they first announced the new edition. I didn't buy it then. I don't now.


  1. Mostly I agree, however I diverge on the last bit.

    For many people the game has evolved over the years to be about a specific story, with a specific course. If characters start dying left and right then a lot of that story is going to be lost.
    Yes, Boromir died, and Gandalf died and came back, but that was it. Imagine if the LotR had Frodo die at the end of the first book, Gandalf at the end of the second book, Boromir at the end of the third book, Gimli at the end of the fourth book, Legolas at the end of the fifth book, and Samwise die destroying the Ring at the end of the sixth book, each time being replaced by someone else, say Arwen joining at Rivendell, Gollum just after Rivendell (which he sort of did anyway), Eomer as a full member in Rohan, Faramir as a full member in Gondor. While that is working out in its own way in Game of Thrones, I don't think it would have been anywhere near as satisfying in Lord of the Rings, and the same thing applies to the "adventure path" style D&D adventures these days. Most of them would really lose something in flavor, and often something significant in power and information, if characters were disappearing every segment, or if you had to go through a dozen characters to finish the first part.

    Like it or not, that part of telling the story has changed, and even if the base system isn't changed because of it there at least has to be some way to accommodate it.

  2. The thing is, you're looking back on the whole story. In a game context, Gandalf, Boromir and Theoden are the ones who rolled poorly and died.

    When bards sing the tales of brave thief Bronwyn slaying the minotaur, from my example story, they won't mention the failures that came before, except perhaps to illustrate how deadly the beast was and make her look even more heroic.

  3. Boromir/Theoden/Gandalf are more NPCs than PCs: so IMHO it's hard to make a real comparison.

    In addition, Boromir's death is poorly D&Dish from a rule-wise point of view.

  4. That was a good read Darva. The advantage and nonchalance of PCs dying at low levels is the ease at re-entering game play. Not so easy when that is a mid to high level guy dying.

  5. Just commenting on your footnote there Darva:

    I've been saying this all along, even blogging about it. For all intent and purpose, 5E is already damn near "in the can" I'd wager or at least the important bits have been established and resolved. All of this public hand-wringing and stroking of various lapsed players who have moved on to PF or back to the original game is simply marketing. I gave up all hope when I saw Monte would be having anything to do with it.

  6. Re: Boromir's last stand, I would argue that a tough mid to high level fighter standing his ground and getting pincushioned with arrows from fairly low level humanoids while his companions flee is VERY possible in D&D.

    Aside from that though, my point was not to illustrate how LOTR, Harry Potter or Star Wars make good D&D campaigns, in general, they wouldn't.

    The point is, death is an integral part of these stories. Not the "PCs" themselves, but people close to them. Monte had been skirting around the idea that any sense of failure or death in a campaign or story ruins that story. I disagree completely, and that was the reason for mentioning notable deaths in fantasy epics.

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  8. D&D and AD&D were, at their core, exploration and problem solving games. The trouble is that a lot of roleplayers today want video games, where they hold all the cards and their success is just a matter of time. I personally would just rather play a video game...but in any case, many players want on-sheet abilities to tell them what they can do, like to fight a lot and will never read Fritz Lieber. And this is why I OSR, because I am a snob and don't want to play a Kung Fuy movie with plate armor.

  9. I hate 'story'. I don't want to be subjected to a failed novelist's fantasy plot. I'll decide if my character gives a shit in a bucket about the Dragon War, etc. I loathe Dragonlance and 2e modules for all their 'story' i.e. the module is worthless if your players don't stereotype themselves or get railroaded, because it quickly goes off track.
    The lethality, sandbox, treasure for XP approach is what makes D&D a game in its own right, not its use of the d20. As such 5e isn't even D&D to me, since it's not possible/feasible to play it like D&D without throwing out half the mechanics and rewriting the other half. Why bother? Shitty 3rd edition copies are a dime a dozen, 5e is just a well financed one. And while its 3e holdovers make it even more annoying, this is a problem throughout much of the 'classic' D&D history, the aforementioned Dragonlance as well as 2nd Edition started the trend to failure. And anything that claims to be 'ecumenical' but doesn't even bother to nod towards treasure for XP is a joke. D&Ds business model of appealing to the Tournament types and the lumpenprole masses is the beginning of the decline into 'the world's most tedious video game' and 5th edition has done nothing but confirm that WotC has no intention of changing tack.

    But fuck WotC - what the fuck do they have to do with D&D? Just a bunch of wankers who got the government to protect some materials they copied from other people. They can suck a dick - I would torrent 5th edition if it didn't consist of Easymode 3.75.

    If it doesn't involve me making autonomous decisions, going where I want and doing whatever my character wants to and is capable of it's not an RPG, it's a story game.

    Play Burning Wheel if you want story where the PCs are super-important snowflakes, or RuneQuest if you want engaging combat. That's not what D&D is.


Thanks for your comments!