May 26, 2011

A Question for Grognards about Early D&D

Despite playing D&D and other RPG games for over 30 years, I do not know much of the history of the game; I just play to play. However, the other day I was doing some thinking about the TPK (total party kill) and it suddenly struck me. How did the early player characters of D&D survive? Likely I am looking at this through skewed perceptions but my understanding of D&D is that in the early days of the game TPK were the norm, something to be expected and accepted.

So my question is, how did the likes of Tenser, Mordenkainen, Drawmij, Robilar, Terik, Murlynd, Melf all survive to reach high levels? These are some names that have been with us throughout much of the history of D&D, adding spell names and magic items to the lexicon of D&D, but at one point all of these were player characters facing the exact same challenges every other player character was facing at the time.

Heck, Tenser was created as one of the first two player characters ever created for the game that would be D&D. Robilar, Terik, Murlynd were all created at the second ever session of D&D (the day after the first game session). And yet, those characters managed to survive past level 1 and in fact made it all the way until they retired at high levels. I mean its easy enough to kill a character at 1st level but it doesn't get much easier after that. One inescapable trap, one unbalanced fight and the character is dead. And this is onoging over many levels. So, with all the talk of TPK how did they manage it?

I could speculate. Perhaps the players back then were cleverer than the ordinary person, perhaps the DMs were softer back then, perhaps they were being run through playtest dungeons and were thus facing weaker opposition, perhaps the TPK of early days has been exaggerated, perhaps these are the only ones to have survived the deaths of hundreds of other characters of the same time period, perhaps death was more of an inconvenience and resurrections were readily available. Honestly I don’t know and speculation is not an answer. I would be curious to hear from those who are familiar with the game play of those first days.

In an age said to be rife with TPKs, how did those early player characters survive to high levels?


Joshua said...

My impression from some things I read was that players were a hell of a lot more cautious back then, and parties were larger... not just in number of PCs but boatloads of hirelings. Dungeon delves were carefully-planned expeditions, not so different from the aboveground military campaigns they were playing with Chainmail.

Joshua said...

Er, not that *we* played it that way... we went through PCs like they were kleenex. Still, if you could survive to 3rd or 4th level, things got a lot easier; once you got enough HP so that there were no one-hit kills, and had access to some magic that might let you detect or cure poison, you tended to be able to retreat rather than die. Even so, I think we ended up making resurrection relatively easier as time went on, so we wouldn't spend as much time in the levels of the dungeons we were thoroughly familiar with and get to the good new stuff.

scottsz said...

Don't believe all the hype about TPKs and Old School.

You mention the iconic characters of TSR's creators. Those campaigns had a lot more 'flights of fantasy' to them than you might think.

If you can spare the time, I'd recommend going to Greyhawk Grognard's site and checking out the large text file he has posted. Link. Read it, give it some thought, and decide for yourself how much TPK was involved.

I think a lot of the 'simple fun' of the original creators got buried in marketing hype over the years.

Callin said...

@scottsz excellent link (came out to 189 pages once I plugged it into a Word document). Still reading it, but a wonderful insight into the early, early days.

scottsz said...

Happy to help.

Many of the links in the sidebars of Underdark Gazette may be of help.

For some content research into some of the old adventures, make sure to visit A. Grohe's site on Greyhawk.

Canonfire also has good Greyhawk content. Try the ODD proboards for researching. A huge research (but time consuming) is to scan through the Q and A threads over at Dragonsfoot, here.

Dyson Logos said...

We chewed through characters. But as indicated above, a few made it on to higher levels, and became legends.

Precisely because they managed to survive to high levels. They weren't the standards, they were the exceptions that made us try harder for the rest of our characters.

scottsz said...

Just a stray thought about character lifespan, players, and adventures:

If experience points, magical items, etc. are on the rare side, then players will tend to be much more cautious and conservative with their high level characters.

If this is true, is part of the 'old school' adventure design principle to anticipate this 'player caution' and allow situations to occur where being conservative is deadly?

My thinking is that the 'old school adventure' has three 'stages':

Low level: bold and foolhardy players are in for trouble.

Mid level: players who don't plan and manage are in for trouble.

High level: players who are too cautious and don't put it on the line are in for trouble.

Different campaigns with different players have different 'delimiters' between the three phases.

Stray thought on a holiday weekend...