On Reader Mail: Party Size

 Mark writes:
". . .It makes me wonder at what point in the games history did the assumption of party size change, and what exactly enabled that.  I do not think it is just a matter of dungeon design, as 4 level 1 Pathfinder characters would be fine delving into the classic Caves of Chaos, which would be absolute suicide if attempted with earlier rule sets.  The power level of PCs has certainly increased quite a bit, but I think even as early as 2e a shift seemed to be happening away from assumed use of henchmen and hirelings at low level just to survive. . .
This has got me thinking, what would the minimal amount of rules tweaks necessary to a ruleset like LL or ACKs to remove the assumed use of Henchmen/Hirelings and enable parties of 4-6 characters to have a reasonable hope of success at low level?  I am not talking about super human characters like newer rule sets tend towards, but enough of a boost to keep relatively the same rate of mortality as by the book with hirelings. 
My rough ideas at the moment:
- Shift Class HD up one dice size
- Greater access to healing at low level, either through a bind wounds type rule, or increased access to clerical magic from level 1 (with bonus spells for WIS even)
- Increased uses of 1st level spells to magic users, or access to level-0 spells or even a crossbow (it sucks having nothing valuable to do in the majority of combat encounters without henchmen to get to roll for)
- Extra attacks for fighters through Weapon Specialization or a Cleave "Chop til you Drop" mechanic to make up for reduction in party attack output
- Poison that debilitates instead of killing outright
These all being ideas present in the base 2e edition rules, before they started going crazy with options and kits.  As I have been pretty fond of your ideas and experience with playing with both current and old systems, I am curious on your insights."
Well, first of all, Thank you Mark for taking the time to write in. I love to hear from readers and find I learn the most when I'm talking with them.

I am certain the key is increased survivability. There is truly little difference in a first level Pathfinder fighter, and a first level first edition fighter. A marginally better chance to hit and doing more damage, but these bonuses are negated by fighting against creatures with more hit points and in many cases higher armor classes. The primary difference here in survivability are the death rules.

That 1e fighter has 6 hit points. And when they reach 0 he's dead.

That Pathfinder fighter? He's likely to have a minimum of 9 hit points (5.5 average, rounded up to 6, a minimum 14 Constitution for a bonus of +2, and an additional hit point for favored race/class). 
That's not the worst of it though. What happens when he reaches 0 hit points? He's Staggered. he still gets to move, or take another action. If they are knocked into negative hit points, as long as they are less then their constitution total, then they are still alive.

What's this mean? Well, our 1st level Pathfinder fighter with a 14 constitution actually has 23 hit points! What's more, if she's got one hit point, in order to die she has to take 15 points of damage in a single hit! Otherwises he falls down and ceases to become a target in play. If she doesn't take a 15 point hit, then she has to roll a DC 10 Constitution check, -1 for each point of damage below 0 to become stable.

So, what are some options to increase survivability? There are two that I've liked that I've used a lot. 
First, Hit point kickers. This is the default in Hackmaster, and it works much the same way as the Pathfinder system, except it's easier to graft onto old school style death and dying rules while keeping essentially the same effect. I gave 20 hit point kickers to party members, while Garth uses 20 for fighters, and smaller kickers for other classes.
Second, warhammer style criticals. I used my GA3: Table for Avoiding Death to great effect in my Labyrinth Lord mega-dungeon game. It makes characters super-resilient, but instead of dying when their hit points get low, they start getting all Effed up! They still act like terrified B/X style characters, but in reality they are a lot more durable and correspondingly need fewer to no henchmen.  Also, attacking your players leaves them with grievous wounds and heinous scars! Of course, you don't use it for any henchmen, they still drop like flies. I've really enjoyed using this table in play.

Any other questions you want answered? Feel free to mail me at valis at oook dot cz.


  1. As a player in C's game using "GA3: Table for Avoiding Death", I can say (unprompted) that it is one of my favorite rules adjustments of all systems and all campaigns ever.

    It increases the survivability, yes, but it has two other equally important effects:

    1) It gives you a MUCH more interesting idea of how close to death your character is. Especially at low levels, going from 10 to 4 hitpoints may perk you up and make you realize "I'm injured". It is FAR more interesting to hit 0 hitpoints, decide to stick it out one more round of combat, have a nasty forehead cut bleed into your eyes and have your left knee broken by a mace. Your character isn't dead, you'll probably be healing for a month, but you're alive and you know you can limp away.

    2) If you don't or can't limp away, it makes for memorable deaths. With normal hitpoints, you roll up a level 1 fighter, take two lucky arrows and you cease to exist. With the Avoiding Death table, I know that my first Alchemist was holding his own for a round or two in melee, but finally (as immortalized in http://hackslashmaster.blogspot.com/2012/04/on-transcripts-character-creation.html) "came down with a case of sword through the lung". I've lost dozens of characters, but I know exactly how and why Ambrose Withers-Grigsby the Alchemist died.

  2. My experience has been mostly with parties of 3-4 (campaigns) or sometimes 6+ (one shots or rolling megadunegon delves). To survive, the smaller parties needed a couple of hirelings and a "below 1 = physical injury" rule.

  3. Somehow I never realized you were the steamband maintainer until I clicked on your pdf. Just call me Mr. Off-topic Reply!

    1. Yeah, I've been busy with this blog.

    2. Oh don't get me wrong, that was not any sort of complaint, love reading the blog. Just didn't realize.

  4. 1E is dead at -10 (DMG page 82).

    OD&D and "basic" are dead at 0.

    Also, what's steamband?

  5. Brendan, that's partially right. Certainly -10 is dead, but by default you're also dead if you take damage that drops you to -1 (from a higher total), or optionally if you take damage that drops you to -4 (from a higher total).

    1. Guy, I'm far from from an expert on AD&D, so you're probably correct, but I'm not finding the -1 HP rule. Do you have a page reference? This is the passage that I was referring to:

      When any creature is brought to 0 hit poinis (optionally as low as -3 hit points if from the same blow which brought the total to 0), it is unconscious. In each of the next succeeding rounds 1 additional (negative) point will be lost until-10 is reached and the creature dies. Such loss and death are causedfrom bleeding, shock, convulsions, non-respiration,and similar causes. It ceases immediately on any round a friendly creature administers aid to the unconscious one. Aid consists of binding wounds, starting respiration, administering a draught (spirits, healing potion, etc.), or otherwise doing whatever is necessary to restore life.

      The Players Handbook also has, seemingly in contradiction, on page 105:

      If an creature reaches 0 or negative hit points, it is dead.

      Though I suppose that might refer to monsters ("creature").

      More likely, the rule just changed between the publication of the PHB and the DMG.

    2. (Let's ignore the contradiction between the PH and the DMG, and assume for purposes of this discussion that the DMG supersedes the PH on this matter as a result of being published later.)

      Yeah, Brendan, the DMG passage you quoted is the one that contains the -1 / -4 detail. The -1 / -4 thing isn't stated explicitly, but it's a natural consequence of what's actually stated.

      Note the parenthetical part: "(optionally as low as -3 hit points if from the same blow which brought the total to 0)"

      The fact that the optional rule says "as low as -3" tells us that going lower than that from a blow doesn't qualify for unconsciousness when using the optional rule. The implication is that going lower than -3 hp from a blow is simply death. (Or some totally different, unstated form of existence, if you want to reach a bit. But I'll stick with the more natural conclusion of death.)

      And the fact that the parenthetical phrase exists (in conjunction with its "as low as" wording) tells us that when not using the parenthetical option, initially going to negative hp from a blow doesn't lead to unconsciousness. The natural conclusion is that going to negative hp simply means death.

      Or to put it another way, if the 1e rule was simply trying to implement a "death only occurs once you're at -10 or lower" mechanic, then a) why is the parenthetical part included, and b) why does the actual rule refer to exactly zero hp (instead of "zero or lower hp" or "zero or negative hp") as the point for entering the unconsciousness state?

    3. Of course after I posted that, I thought of a more natural way to explain:

      The "optionally as low as" wording adds optional flexibility to the rule. By offering optional flexibility, the implication is that the basic rule is inflexible. That is, the normal rule's use of "0 hp" means exactly 0 hp; you only go unconscious at exactly zero hp. Dropping below zero from a blow means you're dead.

    4. Hackmaster makes it official, if you have positive hit points and drop from positive to -4 you are dead.

      It also makes the "DMG supersedes PHB" official also.

      Note that the non optional rule is that if you are brought to 0 hit points you are unconscious and bleeding, and if you are brought to -1 or lower you are dead.

      So my post is wrong.

      By 1 hit point.

    5. Heh. Learn something new every day.

      I guess I need to update my death & dying summary page and stop saying that I'm playing with AD&D dying rules. I think 2E has the flat dead at -10 rule with no provisos, so I guess I can reference that.

      My own personal favorite variation that I generally use with B/X is at 0 HP you get a saving throw versus death, and if you make it you are unconscious. If you fail, you are dead. Death and dismemberment charts can be fun, but not everyone is up for mutilations (also, no table look-up needed for a saving throw).

    6. The saving throw vs. death is a good alternative to the -10 hp rule. It reduces the bookkeeping, and also has the benefit of being something that you can defer until the downed character is finally checked on. So nobody will be sure whether the downed character survived, not even the character's player, until someone finally has a chance to assess the downed character's body.

      With regards to 2nd edition AD&D, the default is actually 0 or lower hp means death, full stop. The -10 hp rule is an optional rule in the 2e DMG. Note also that there are some differences in how the -10 hp rule operates between 1st and 2nd editions, most notably in terms of the effects of healing, recuperation time, and the potential for long-term ramifications.

  6. Thanks for taking the time to answer my question. It is very interesting to see that both yourself and those that have commented feel that simply adding some form of not quite dead at 0hp is more than sufficient to boost survivability enough to make henchmen unnecessary.

    In retrospect, this is reinforced by my own experience playing through Keep on the Borderlands quite a while ago, by the book but with KO at 0, death at -10hp rules. We had 6 PCs and made it through the whole module with only 1 PC death from combat. It was BECMI though with Weapon Mastery rules that certainly helped as well.

    What are your thoughts on low level MUs not having enough to do in combat heavy campaigns? I must admit to shying away from the class myself, as the idea of just hanging out in the back each round was not appealing. I am considering letting arcane casters purchase wands that allow a ranged attack to cause d4+1 dmg to help out a little. Maybe extending that ability to all wands, with slight differences based on the type of wand (using a wand of fireballs in this manner would cause the attacks to also be flamable etc.)

    Or perhaps I am just off base on the whole idea and it just means a straight MU is not my style of class, but it works just great as is for others.

  7. In my Labyrinth Lord campaign, the 3-6 players usually travel with around twice this number of henchmen even though we use a Death & Dismemberment table (I also use this table for henchmen and important NPCs).

    The funny thing is that this has resulted in the towns the player characters have gone through being full of crippled veterans, Napoleonic War style: the henchmen quit their service after sustaining such wounds and end up in their hometowns: dwarves missing legs, shop owners with ugly scars, thieves missing an arm... It adds a level of grit I wasn't expecting.


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