Sometimes I think that the OSR has become too fixated on death.
Don’t get me wrong, I’m a fan of player character death. Or more specifically, I’m a fan of the threat of PC death. The constant danger of PC death is a cornerstone of OSR gaming, it gives the game an edge and adds weight to the choices players make.
However, both as a player and a dungeon master, sometimes I want characters with a little more durability. Maybe this comes from the natural evolution of the game, as the characters reach higher levels and gain access to magic powerful enough to keep them alive. Sometimes I want a break from the fragile low level characters. Sometimes even an OSR gamer wants to inject some, dare I say it, story into the game and to indulge the players who want an overly long and convoluted backstory. Sometimes I even want to have a plot framework that hinges on the PCs, a plot that would fall apart if they meet their ends too soon.
Sometimes I just want to give the PCs a better chance of survival.
I’m not talking about the complete removal of death as a threat and I’m certainly not talking about letting story take over the game, I’m talking about running a game that gives the PCs a better chance. Maybe it’s luck points, or magic items, or giving players at zero hit points a save vs death. Something that gives them an edge.
Can a game like that still be considered OSR?
Yes, because what creates the tension we like so much isn’t actually the threat of death, but the threat of failure.
Great fun can be had in seeing how PCs deal with failure. What happens when Modred captures the Grail, or the city falls to the orc hordes?
What happens is the next adventure.
Back in my undergrad days we had a long running hybrid 1st/2nd Edition game where our (surviving) characters had reached levels high enough that not much short of a total party kill would keep us down. We’d slugged our way through many tough campaigns until we were a well armed and battle hardened team. Our latest campaign had us fighting to prevent an elder god from being unleashed on the kingdom.
We battled our way to the summoning chamber deep in the heart of a lost city. The final guardians stood between us and closing the gate and saving the realm. The battle was joined and everything fell apart.
Good tactics on the villains’ part and merciless dice rolls proved to be our undoing and we watched in horror as the gate exploded open. We escaped the city and fled the kingdom as the elder god’s rot overtook the whole realm.
That was it. The campaign was over and we’d failed. The kingdom was lost, untold innocents were dead, and a massive evil threatened to expand its reach further across the Prime Material plane.
It… was… awesome!
The next gaming session, our characters reached sanctuary and began plotting our revenge. The campaign against the elder god took us through the next semester.
Every player was emotionally invested in the game due to that failure, an investment that was deeper because our characters survived. That failure bound us to the game in a way that would not have existed if we’d died and rolled up new characters. Our characters had a score to settle, we as players had a score to settle.
I’m not going to be hanging up my killer DM mantel anytime soon, but understanding that death is only one facet of game tension opens up a world of possibilities. So don’t be too hard on yourself if you let a character live once in a while.
Just don’t ever hand them a win.