Saturday, March 7, 2009

The Sting of Death

Recently, I was flipping through Moldvay's Basic D&D and was stunned at how many creatures were listed in the monster section that, by today's standards, are way beyond the ability of the 1st-3rd level scope of the book. In fact, the average hit dice of monsters listed is 3+1. Therefore, there is an underlying assumption that low level characters are going to be outclassed and over their heads. Thus, death will occur unless the players (not characters) figure out a way to survive long enough to advance a few levels. In other words, your character's status as a hero is earned, not assumed, and marked by your ability as a player, not something inherent to the character through the game system.

Personally, I wouldn't have it any other way. What value is getting a character to higher levels when every encounter is tailored toward your character's abilities and his survival is assumed? Over the years I've played in a lot of games and I've seen and experienced a lot of character death. Just surviving was thrilling, especially when it came to encounters that our characters had no business being in. It is those encounters I remember most fondly. For example:

In an outdoor campaign, where the party represented a scout troop of a mercenary army on the front line of enemy occupied territory, our party would constantly be confronted with monsters far beyond our ability to fight. However, the goal was not to kick butt and take names. The goal was to survive long enough to get the information back to HQ. Every now and then, however, we had to fight. The worst of these was when the party was third or fourth level and not one of us had a magic weapon. A young maiden was being sacrificed and one of the primary participants was a demon that could not be damaged by normal weapons. We quickly huddled, came up with a plan, executed said plan and got away with the girl. Because death was a real part of the game, all of us knew that when we got away with the girl, we really got away — it was our skill as players that succeeded and not the benevolence of a kind GM.

In D&D, death gives value because it makes everything else a victory. Yet, every attempt to fix the problems of 3.5 that I have come across lists 1st level character vulnerability as an issue. This trend began with the Dark Sun setting, where beginning characters were bumped up to 3rd level because the world was "just too dangerous."

Do we fear death so much? In my lifetime, I have seen our culture's focus on youth become an obsession. The retirement home industry is on the upswing as the baby boomers age and we yearn to segregate them from the rest of society so that we aren't continually reminded of our own mortality.

In contrast, Christians get to quote St. Paul from 1 Corinthians 15:55, "Where, O death, is your victory? Where, O death, is your sting?" Death has been trampled down by Christ on the cross. We do not fear death. Our saints are celebrated on the day they die. Death is transformative, for both those who die and those who remain. Death is an adventure.

In a strange way, older versions of D&D express this attitude toward death — they are comfortable with death. We remember the ways our characters die — both glorious and embarrassing. Adventures can spring up out of character death and entire campaigns can take on new scopes. I remember entire adventures taking place as we tried to get the materials necessary to resurrect or reincarnate fallen characters. I remember a Half-Elf that got reincarnated as a Hobgoblin — a wonderful opportunity for role-playing and soul searching.

Death has power only if you give it power.


  1. I agree with you.

    Just a bit on Dark Sun, though, the world simply was too dangerous for 1st level characters. A world where any and everything might have psionic powers from the Great Dragon to that snake you passed in the alley and was not just dangerous, but actively hostile.

    Dark Sun was, I think, TSR's first dabbling with the Death World.

  2. What bothers me about Dark Sun is the fact that they use starting at 3rd level as a selling point. I quote:

    More Powerful PCs!
    • All Dark Sun game characters start at 3rd level!
    • Ability scores can go as high as 24!
    • All PCs have one or more Psionic powers!
    • The new Character Tree allows players to advance many characters at once!

    This is symptomatic of what is to come with later editions of the game. "Look, you can have really powerful characters to start off with (so you don't have to worry about being outclassed, over your head, and prone to dying)." Maybe Dark Sun was dangerous enough to warrant the change, but the end result was a move toward the death aversion that now plagues the game.