Tuesday, May 24, 2011

A Random Thought on Lethality in Old School D&D

I finally got my copy of Lamentations of the Flame Princess: Grindhouse Edition a few days ago. I believe the original edition (which I don't own) also featured this, but I found it interesting that the example of play in the rules ends with a Total Party Kill.


A post on Grognardia yesterday has given us an indication that the forthcoming Dungeon Crawl Classics RPG will have a similar assumption of low-level PC mortality ("The author has playtested this adventure with groups of up to 28 PCs and experienced one complete TPK and several sessions with only a handful of survivors.").

As James M. points out, old school RPGs tend to suffer from a slightly inflated perception of extreme lethality. The degree to which this is true can be debated, but the one constant is the assumption that said lethality is a bad thing. Yet a little memory, no doubt summoned up from all this TPK talk, burbled up in my brain today that indicates, in my experience at least, extreme lethality was (for some, myself included) actually a selling point for D&D back in the day.

The setting is my elementary school playground. I am in fifth grade, either 10 or 11 years old. I'm about a year out from buying the Mentzer Red Box, but I'm already extremely interested in this whole Dungeons & Dragons thing. Imagine my excitement, then, when this particular recess I am privy to tales related from an acquaintance whose older brother actually plays D&D.

I remember quite distinctly the fiendish glint in my schoolyard chum's eyes as he described one particularly gruesome trap: "There was this giant statue carved out of black stone. The statue was kneeling down and its hands were held in front of it like stairs." He demonstrated the statue's pose before continuing. "Its eyes were two giant rubies. My brother's character was a thief, so he climbed up the statue's hands and pried the rubies out." He paused for effect as my friends and I held our collective breath. "Then the statue came alive and grabbed the thief and ripped his skin off!"

"COOL!" we all intoned.

I'm not too keen on extreme lethality anymore - I think I'll give the DCC RPG a miss, thanks; LotFP is enough lethality on my shelf alone - but back in the 80s to a young boy on the cusp of adolescence it was a sign of D&D's "mature" nature; clearly this was not a game for little kids, and that made it all the more desirable!
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