On the Old School Character

Memento Mori
Recently there has been some talk about characters and dying in the old school.

D&D characters are all the same, right? If I roll up two fighters, there's nothing to make one different from another?


I rolled up a BECMI fighter like any other. Nothing to distinguish him other than an above average (17) constitution.

He has played in exactly three sessions ever in his life. He is first level.

He has a hand crossbow with sleep arrows.
He has a dog named rot-gut that is the worst AA sponsor in the world.
His armor is dirty smelly rags that provide the protection of plate mail.
He has a goblin servant named something he's never bothered to listen to that he calls frank.
He is frequently impatient and likes to bang his sword on his shield.
His inebriation makes him incautious.
He has rejected his merchant class background.

Someday, you are going to die.

Giovanni Martinelli says welcome to Death!
There will be a pain, or you will feel strange or dizzy and find yourself looking up at the ceiling. Or a wound or accident will occur, your awareness causing a sinking feeling as you realize the outcome.

What this means is that what we choose to do with our time is important. The characters you roll up in a simple moment for your D&D game are different from any other character created, because for a short while they exist.

This has nothing to do with the school of play. Gus L's comment about the party being the focus of the adventure is a core pillar of fourth edition. It is of critical importance to have a party, the above is just as meaningful for that type of game as any other.

Death, character death, and the possibility of it is what makes gaming matter. If there is no threat of failure, then the activity carries no risk. With no risk it can still be a fun activity, but it loses value. If we take on the arch-dracolich and know we are going to win, then we hung out and rolled some dice with friends for a few hours to come to a known conclusion.

If we did it and we know we can lose, a real meaningful thing happened.

When the life we led flashes before our eyes what I want to see are the things that I accomplished that might not have been. You can't have that without failure, without character death.

So the next time a player complains about character death, validate their feelings. "Yes, that is very frustrating." Let them roll up a new character. They will learn to play more intelligently. And when they accomplish something, determined not to be killed this time, it will have real meaning. Because their accomplishment might not have happened.

And that will be a session to remember.


  1. I'm not sure that character death is what makes gaming matter for everyone. And I've certainly had characters die despite my attempts to play intelligently. It's pretty clear from the description of your character above, that one thing that makes the game matter to you is the flavor of your character. Others are going to be jacked that their character has a +7 to hit because they chose the right combo of game mechanics.

    I think most players are averse to having their characters die. I agree with you that the threat of death is a good player motivation tool. Players should be motivated to avoid it. They invest in characters for different reasons. As a DM, it's my job to enable that investment, and then test it.


    I agree with the post simply because the "Game Mechanics" Keith mentions don't really fit into my idea of Role Playing. The "+7 to hit" fits more with my idea of "power gaming" and -- in harmony with the name of this blog -- "hack & slash" play.

    I'll stick with role playing. Losing a character that you've put a great deal of time into developing -- back-story and all -- for those of us that still do that, should make you feel as though you've lost a part of yourself at the character's death.

    Anything else just isn't Role Play gaming . . . to me.

    1. @Mystic Scholar

      I think your concern is common and valid, and a bit of the reason I wrote my Dungen of Signs post. My first point was that the "random deaths" in OD&D are an intentional feature, and my second point was that they aren't a loss of "role-playing" because PCs are generated with almost no backstory, and the story they create during the game doesn't really die with them, it builds on the rest of the party's or the world as a whole's story.

      As an example I'll offer my OD&D game thief, Beni Profane (There's a recent post written in his voice about his recent adventures - maybe six games worth on my blog). He started as clip art of a 17th century rat catcher, but now he's got a personality, quirks and a back-story. Still if he dies that's okay because he'll have left a mark on the party and world - there will always be a hidden shrine to the rat goddess of thieves and beggars in the midst of the holy city, in the form of a marble fountain - because Beni spent a fortune building one with gold looted from a patriarchs tomb. I'm not sure what more I could ask for in world-building/role-playing. When Beni (or the drunkard fighter above) dies he'll have had a full story, and be replaced by a randomly generated PC who I am confident will have an equally full story if he survives three games.

    2. "Losing a character that you've put a great deal of time into developing -- back-story and all -- for those of us that still do that, should make you feel as though you've lost a part of yourself at the character's death." - For Christ, is just a game.

  3. "Death, character death, and the possibility of it is what makes gaming matter. If there is no threat of failure, then the activity carries no risk."

    Do you think that the only form of failure is death?

    1. Did I say that?

      Generally, if i mean a thing, that will be the thing I write.

      I wrote what I meant.

    2. You stated that "death... makes gaming matter" but then went on to argue that risk of failure makes gaming matter.

      You were quite clearly conflating the two, or else you were for some reason beginning a paragraph with a sentence that was unrelated to the rest of it.

    3. I'm not saying that I don't like character death, I just think it's a common misconception to assume that a game can't have any uncertainty, failure or risk if it doesn't have the potential for character death.

    4. Yes. Death is a fail state. That is a thing you risk. They are conflated because one is literally a subset of the other.

      It is quite common that people argue against things that I don't type, because as you say they are focused on fighting things they believe are common misconceptions, or they believe it means something beyond the actual meaning of the words written. I try to mean exactly what I type. I also admit when I am wrong and am willing to discuss anything I actually say.

      There are plenty of games where if you fail it has nothing to do with death. Formula racing. Dominion. Checkers.


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