There were a couple of interesting tabletop-game-related discussions over on Twitter the other day, branching into two related topics I want to talk about.
It all started with a tweet by JimFear138:
So, player death. That got me ruminating about my own (relatively limited) experience with D&D and other tabletops, and also about D&D in the context of the vintage SFF stuff I’ve been diving into.
I’m mostly just stirring the pot here to see what comes out of it, I think. I don’t really believe that the newer editions of D&D are closer in spirit to the pulps and classics of yore. However I do think there’s an argument to be made that for players and groups who are less interested in high stakes, high difficulty gaming, the newer editions offer a way for PCs to come close to playing as a Conan or Legolas or Merlin. Not all players, especially those you may be dragging in from non-gaming backgrounds, may be willing to invest hours into a character who can easily be mugged and deleted a couple sessions into a campaign. Some players have precious little time; some are sore losers; and some are “casuals” eyeing up that Fruit of Gaming that we as DMs are dangling seductively above our tables.
That is to say, don’t older school versions of D&D, where I’m told player (character [thanks for pointing out the error of omission here, friends]) death is a relatively common occurrence, make it a lot more difficult for characters to achieve that kind of kickass heroic status?
And the answer is: not really. Or perhaps I should say, it depends more on the DM than which game or edition you’re playing. Here’s a great thought from Cirsova:
Jeffro and Alex and others have pointed out that older versions of D&D make it much easier to roll new characters. In the newer editions, creating a character is a process. All kinds of points to distribute, feats to take, skills to research, racials traits to read about. This was the case in the games I played, all 3.5 edition. Character creation can literally take hours. So when your guy dies, you may not feel like going through all that again. These logistical concerns may be one reason why many DMs lose their willingness to readily kill off their players, even when the PCs deserve it.
Incidentally, the first campaign I DMed ended when PC death became unavoidable. There was an impending goblinoid attack on a town that the PCs had granted protection. Instead of digging in and waiting, they decided to do some recon as a group. Unfortunately they were discovered sneaking around the goblin camp and pursued. One of the players rightly decided to hightail it out of there. I’m still not sure if it was a case of unwarranted bravado or if their motivation was just petering out, but the others decided to turn on the goblins and make a stand. They were overtaken, and that wound up being our last session.
Returning to the topic at hand, the earlier versions of D&D do alleviate this concern. There are less numbers and abilities to keep track of (which can be a positive or negative depending on what kind of player you are), and so it’s much easier to discard spent characters and move on to new ones. Thus we can say that while older versions of D&D don’t limit a group to this type of roll-die-reroll style of play, they certainly make it a lot easier.
Without having actually played anything other than 3.5, I can only speculate and conjecture. And so I conject this – that earlier iterations of the game are much more friendly to minimalists, those who relish oodles of quick and dirty battles, folk who enjoy playing multiple characters per game, and those fans of roguelikes and Iron Man modes in games.
They are also probably the proper vehicles for DMs who act as antagonists to their PCs.
Following along with Cirsova’s tweet, then, I put forward that newer versions of D&D, including 3.5, are more suited for people who enjoy spreadsheets, those who dervive enjoyment from incessant rolling of dice, fans of Story modes or Normal difficulty modes in games, or else players and DMs who want to reach that Conan or John Carter level of heroics with minimal risk of death and ruin. For if the Conans and other pulp heroes are the ones who survive, then newer versions (contingent upon the DM once again, of course, but by and large) are much more conducive to allowing the players to survive and gain that coveted status. Whether that reduced difficulty is a good thing will largely depend upon the group. After all, some people are more into the storytelling aspects of the game rather than the struggle.
Next time I’ll talk about how players and pulp heroes die.
Update: Part 2