Tuesday, June 7, 2011


While reading the first edition of Gamma World for the cover to cover series, I was reminded of OD&D's inheritance rules. Volume 1 of the game states:
Relatives: The referee may allow players to designate one relative of his character to inherit his possessions if for any reason the participant unexpectedly disappears, with or without "death" being positively established, for a period of one game month, let us say. At this time the relative would inherit the estate of the character, paying a 10% tax on all goods and monies. The relative must start at the lowest level of the class he opts for, but he will have the advantage of the inheritance.

If the character returns, he takes possession of his estate once more (referee's option as to willingness of the relative to give it up) but must pay an additional 10% tax in order to regain his own. Optionally the relative may be allowed to stay on as a non-player character in the service of the player-character. Loyalty of the relative in such a circumstance would be at a penalty of from 0 to -6, and he would possibly intrigue to regain control.

Characters without a relative will lose all their possessions should they disappear and not return before whatever period is designated as establishing death.
It's an interesting passage for a couple of reasons, one of them being that it's a rare example of where any edition of D&D alludes to the existence of a civil society outside the dungeon or wilderness. The other, of course, is that it makes it quite clear that characters in OD&D will die. The inheritance rules are almost certainly intended to take a little bit of the sting out of such death.

Equally interesting to me is that both Holmes and Moldvay include their own versions of the inheritance rule. Holmes says simply that "A character may designate a 'relative' who will inherit his wealth and possessions (after paying a 10% tax) on his death or disappearance." Moldvay adds some additional details:
If the DM wishes, a player may name an heir to inherit his or her worldly possessions upon the death of the character. The local authorities will, of course, take 10% in taxes before giving the inheritance to the heir. The heir must always be a newly rolled-up first level character. This "inheritance" should occur only once per player.
There are a few significant tidbits there, starting with the explicit linkage between the tax and "local authorities." It's noted, too, that only newly-created characters can inherit wealth and goods, which in my opinion makes it even clearer that this is meant as a "consolation prize" for players whose characters die. Finally, the limit of once per player -- not character -- would imply either that Moldvay felt there ought to be limits placed on  even consolation prizes or that a curb was needed to prevent enterprising players from abusing the rule to accumulate a lot of wealth.

Someone with better command of AD&D than I can correct me if I am mistaken, but I do not believe that there's an explicit inheritance rule in that version of the game. There is mention in the Players Handbook, in the "Establishing the Character" section, of "nam[ing] a next of kin as heir to the possessions of the character if he or she should meet an untimely death." At the same time, the official AD&D character sheets included a section for a character's last will and testament, so, even if the game had moved away from an explicit discussion of inheritance, such things were still very much a part of the "culture" surrounding the game. I am pretty sure that neither 2e nor the 1983 Basic Rules included inheritance rules and I believe the same is true of 3e. (Of the retro-clones, the only ones I am certain include inheritance rules are Labyrinth Lord and Mutant Future)

One can draw a lot of different conclusions from the slow disappearance of the inheritance rules in D&D, but I think the clear implication is that, as time went on, gaming culture had changed in such a way as to downplay the looming inevitability of character death. Inheritance rules were a reminder of "the bad old days" and so were banished to the outer darkness, never to be seen again.


  1. I'm not sure I'd read too much into the Moldvay player/character distinction. It could be that Moldvay meant that a player could give up her own worldly possessions when a character died, but I somehow doubt that was the intent.

  2. Inheritance rules are really a great way to set up inter-PLAYER conflict. We all know the dead PC is begin stripped of all loot and goodies carried and left in the hall for the next gelatinous cube to deal with, why add the conflict created by the false expectation of inheritance?

  3. I'm not sure I would read the inheritance rules as any kind of affirmation of the lethality of the game. To me it seems like more of a way to allow the PLAYER to retain the possessions his character acquired rather than have his fellow players squabble over the things, or worse, seek to gain them via violence. Having an "iron clad" inheritance rule helps keeps player on player violence at bay since my 7th level fighter can't just decide to kill your 5th level cleric just to take his stuff.

    To me the inheritance rules you describe here are just ways a making sure the players get to keep the loot their old characters acquire and allow them to pass that loot down to a new characters when they (inevitably) grow bored of playing them or they actually die.

    After all, having an inheritance rule strongly implies that a character WILL live long enough to acquire valuable possessions doesn't it? If it was expected that characters would constantly die they would never have anything worth bequeathing and inheritance wouldn't be an issue or option.

  4. I seem to recall the inheritance provisions of the adventurist being to plunder the remains if not too busy fighting the monster. I've never really addressed the significance of the decline of inheritance rules before. And what they signify of the wider societies of our worlds. Interesting post.

  5. One of favorite bits in 'The Hobbit' is the reference in Bilbo's contract with the 13 dwarves that all his funeral expenses would be paid for, if necessary.

  6. Good observation JM. Back in the day, character death was common, but we had a lot less invested in our characters (pre-AD&D at least) so death's sting was felt less strongly. All the more reason to have a stable of henchmen and hirelings to serve as instant characters, should your current character perish. That also helps avoid the awkward initial meeting of the new PC. In fact, you might push it a step farther and argue that the newly-promoted henchman was the brother/sister of the slain character, and pass all of the possessions along to him/her.

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  8. It certainly could be representative of the changing attitude to player death, or simply a recognition that few players ever actually used the rules.

    As stated, the rules seem to deal more with houses, castles, chests of gold found stuffed under the deceased's mattress, and not necessarily the day-to-day equipment. After all, if the Player has "disappeared", he likely took the +1 Longsword with him.

    It seems more like it serves a way to keep large properties that rather high level characters would earn, thus rewarding/placating those players who have somehow managed to do so.

    I don't recall ever dealing with player inheritance issues in any of my games. Few characters lived long enough to acquire large estates and as for equipment how would you actually enforce such rules in "in-game" terms? Player A dies in the dungeon, Players X,Y and Z split up his stuff and tell the village authorities he was dissolved by green slime...probably wouldn't be the first time such an event has come up before the Village of Hommlet Probate Court.

  9. "I don't recall ever dealing with player inheritance issues in any of my games. Few characters lived long enough to acquire large estates and as for equipment how would you actually enforce such rules in "in-game" terms?"

    I have to say that this matches my recollection (though in a recent game a character made a point of sending "back to thier family" a relatively powerful magic item they acquired, before they were possessed by a demon and ran off) - along with JDJarvis's observation that everything was looted from the bodies of dead-team-mates (which was how said item in the previous example was acquired).

    In fact this was how "cream rose to the top" - essentially a certain critical mass that was a combination of characters and loot was churned in the those first-through-third levels until the fourh (and fifth) level characters all started to kind of miraculously appear via the binding of magical items and money to long-battered characters with decent hit points and statistics.


  10. What happens if the "local authorities" are the players, having reached ninth level and got themselves a stronghold?

  11. "What happens if the "local authorities" are the players, having reached ninth level and got themselves a stronghold?"

    Then you have the seed for a multi-generational plot of revenge and justice as the heir seek what the PCs stole from them. :)

  12. Holmes deals with this type of old-school inheritance a bit in his "Maze of Peril" novel, suggesting he may have used it in play. The man-at-arms hired by the party is killed in the dungeon and his boss Ajax inherits his share of the treasure.

    So that's another way that inheritance might be used practically: the designated relative might inherit a share of the treasure rather than the previous characters items.

  13. I have always used the inheritance rules if the players opt to designate an heir. The newly rolled heir gets all property, gold, etc that the previous character owned EXCEPT for items that were destroyed according to the magic items saving throws in the event of a fiery or lightning death.

    All items passing a save would be brought back out of the dungeon with the corpse (if possible) by the party. The items would be considered part of the inheritance but any gold or treasure gained during the adventure, including that gained prior to his death, would belong to the surviving party members. This gives the survivors more XP for surviving.

  14. We used the inheritance rules back in the day. Without them, there would have been a lot more pvp conflicts. Granted, we were in middle school.

    Nevertheless, the enforcement of the rule has to be adjudicated by the DM and explained at the beginning of the game. Of course the players can come up with a million different ways to rationalize keeping the loot! As with the breaking of any contract, there are consequences. Number one being those who broke the contract are no longer protected by the contract. Their stuff is fair game if they die. Henchmen certainly won’t want to stick around if they see that their employers don’t even keep agreements with each other. Also, part of the DM's job in adjudicating (i.e. inflicting consequences) is making sure the offending PCs suffer great misfortune for such a heinous deed (e.g. negative modifiers, attacked first by toughest monsters, negative NPC reactions, etc). This may seem a little heavy handed to some, but such measures are sometimes necessary to prevent out of game conflict.

  15. I've just reached the point in my Labyrinth Lord campaign where the characters are discovering that they can't easily spend or transport the wealth that they've accumulated. They haven't yet hit upon the idea of converting their cash into precious gems, but they're reluctant to bring their hoards of money back into the dungeon with them, too.

    This means that we're just reaching the point at which inheritance rules are actually meaningful, since anything on a PC's body when they die in the dungeon is automatically classified as loot and any supposed "inheritance" claims would be fought tooth and nail!

    I'm interested to see what kind of arrangements they make, though I will be broaching the idea of housing and the like at the outset of our next session.

  16. Okay, I think this a great rule to highlight and contrast cross-editions. I'm going to do an analysis that's a bit orthogonal to yours:

    The original rule feels very "gamey" to me, and I like it. It provides a benefit to long-active players, a bit of carryover when they do lose a character. *

    Like, I had one AD&D game that got broken when players (with evil-ish PCs) realized it was more profitable to recruit new PCs, kill them, and take their starting gear, than it was to risk dungeons. From a purely game perspective it would have benefited to have a high-level rule of "treasure from killed PCs goes only to willed relatives", which would have fixed my problem.

    I think the degeneration of the rule is not due so much to fewer deaths, but rather another aspect of the growth of "deep background/story" philosophies. While the original rule says nothing explicit about the wider world (and I'd argue that piece could be written without ever considering it). Post-hoc you get reactions like Moldvay's ("local authorities" take the taxes), kelvingreen's critique (what happens if PC's are the authorities?), etc., and since it admittedly is sort of untenable without special campaign-specific support, the whole thing collapses on itself like a singularity.

    The idea would certainly not work in 3E as written because (a) PCs are allowed to enter the game at advanced levels, and (b) new PCs are dictated as having a fixed value of gear for balancing purposes. So (a) removes the original motivation for the rule (soften the blow of being bumped from high-level back to 1st-level), whereas (b) establishes a character-focused balancing dogma, which would be in contradiction with long-term players having some history-based advantage in the game.

    (* A similar rule that I've always wanted implement but never got the chance is to open up new PC race/class options, to players/groups who have made contact with some hidden race/society, etc. Of course, this would only come into play when you get busted down and start rolling a new character.)

  17. I've never seen a D&D PC who didn't carry his wealth on his shoulders, and have his corpse looted by his fellow adventurers when he bit the dust. I can't really imagine the circumstances in which players regularly engaged with this rule.