Wednesday, September 09, 2009

Surviving an Old-School Game

One of the problems with playing in an old-school game is the inherent fragility of the player characters, especially for the first few levels. Making the assumption that this is a feature and not a bug, there are things that both the players and DM can do to make the game a little more survivable, while still maintaining the old-school style of play.


Players only familiar with the more modern incarnations of RPGs might not be familiar with the concept of bringing a group of henchmen and/or hirelings into the dungeon. Clever use of these NPCs by the players can go a long way toward keeping a group of player characters alive, especially at low level. Even a couple of 0-level henchmen wearing leather armor and armed with simple swords can make the difference between a TPK and a successful adventure.

Of course it goes without saying that the DM shouldn’t allow the players to misuse and abuse such NPCs. Cheating, failing to pay or putting them in excessive danger should at best negatively affect their morale and at worst result in their deserting the party at inopportune moments. Both original and retro-clone games have morale rules for this situation. Also, if multiple residents of a particular town or village fail to return from their adventures, the player characters may find it difficult to recruit future employees from that area.


As mentioned above, a staple of old-school game are rules for morale. These cover both NPCs, as previously outlined, and monsters. Not all monsters fight to the death. Intelligent creatures might flee or even surrender if they fail their morale checks as outlined in the rules. While the DM should feel free to modify or even ignore the morale rules, based on their unique game situations, they can be a useful tool. Even a mighty dragon might be subdued or barter for its life in the right situation.

Multiple PCs

Some DMs don’t allow 1st level PCs to hire henchmen, but they do allow them to run multiple player characters. This increases the chance that at least one of them will survive the adventure and advance in level. It also pads out the party and even gives players a chance to experiment with different character classes. Not all DMs allow multiple characters to be run by a single player so check with yours first.


The open style of old-school games is particularly suited for ingenuity and clever ideas from the players. For instance, if the DM designs an airtight room in his dungeon and the players come up with a solid plan to lure monsters into the room and suffocate them – great! While the DM shouldn’t allow just any crackpot idea or shoddily designed scheme from the players to automatically succeed, outstanding play on the part of the players should be actively encouraged and rewarded. If the DM deems that a particular idea has merit, he should decide on percentage chance of success and roll. Old-school games depend as much on player ability as they do on character ability.

I haven’t even attempted to comprehensively cover every method that can be used by players and DMs to help the harried low-level player character survive. But I do hope that at least some of my ideas will prove useful. Old-school games really are different than their modern counterparts and require different approaches to play in many cases. Good luck and may your sword arm never fail you!


mhensley said...

Don't forget reaction rolls. Not every group of goblins is going to attack at the mere sight of the pc's. Make that Charisma a useful stat.

Saharus said...

Ah very well, we've got quite a murderous GM (quote: "You will die anyway...") so I have been thinking about recruiting, arming and training up some villagers to make myself a personal guard :)
it is nice to see that it is quite standard :D
well and to mhensley's comment, well our GM respects racism, for example:
Almost every goblin will attack any elf on sight et vice versa.
And if you don't have any elf in your group, you can try some diplomacy (and ally with goblins against elves :D ) and many things alike.