Monday, March 25, 2024

Memories of Death

For reasons I'll explain in another post, I've been spending a lot of time looking at the examples of play provided in earlier roleplaying games. While not all games from the early days of the hobby include such examples, a great many of them do, starting with original Dungeons & Dragons in 1974. It's easy to understand why this was the case: RPGs were a genuinely new concept and most people in the 1970s, absent being introduced to them through others, would have required some sort of guidance on how to play them. As a kid, I didn't pay close attention to examples of play, because I learned how to play D&D from a friend's older brother, who'd already been gaming for some time before we first cracked open the copy of my beloved Holmes Basic rulebook.

While OD&D includes an example of play occurs in Volume 3, The Underworld and Wilderness Adventures, I didn't see it until many years after I'd already started playing RPGs. The first one I ever encountered was found in the aforementioned Holmes rulebook and made a big impression upon me, forming my sense of how a session of playing D&D is supposed to go. Unfortunately, the example glosses over how combat is supposed to work (something it has in common with its OD&D predecessor, I'd later learn). However, Holmes does include two examples of combat earlier in the rulebook, which I also remember quite vividly, if only for the names of the characters involved in them – Bruno the Battler, Mogo the Mighty, Malchor (a magic-user), and the Priestess Clarissa. It's strange that, more than four decades later, I can still recall all four of these names, but, as I've said many times, the Holmes rulebook made a profound impression upon me. 

The first combat example Holmes offer is short and details Bruno the Battler facing off against a goblin. Bruno comes out on top, though not before losing half his hit points. In the second example, Bruno is not so lucky and dies "a horrible death" to the venomous bite of a large spider. This, too, left a profound impression upon me and my friends, because it shows quite clearly how easy it is for D&D characters to die in combat, especially at low levels of experience. 

The next example of play I probably encountered was the lengthy one found pages 97–100 of the AD&D Dungeon Masters Guide. As a young person, this was probably my favorite example of play, both for its level of detail and its shocking conclusion – "You see a sickly gray arm strike the gnome as he's working on the spike, the gnome utters a muffled cry, and then a shadowy form drags him out of sight ... You hear some nasty rending noises and gobbling sounds ..." Elsewhere, it's noted that the poor gnome was surprised by ghouls, who paralyzed and then quickly devoured him. Yikes!

The example of play in the 1981 Tom Moldvay-edited D&D Basic Rules is probably the most famous of this entire "genre." Though not as extensive as the example of the DMG, it's still quite longer, taking up slightly more than an entire page. What makes this example so well-known is the death of the thief, Black Dougal (who also seems to have died on another occasion, as reported in the Dungeon Masters Adventure Log). "Black Dougal hasps 'Poison!' and falls to the floor. He looks dead." "I'm grabbing his pack to carry treasure in." Fredrik the dwarf is one cold dude.

What unites all these examples of play is, of course, death, specifically the death of player characters, which probably explains why they all had such a powerful effect on me when I first entered the hobby. My first experience of fantasy gaming was through the Dungeon! boardgame. You couldn't die in Dungeon! If your piece was defeated in combat, you lost treasure and had to retreat, but you didn't choose a new piece with which to play. But D&D was completely different in this regard. The fact that death was nothing unusual but simply a normal consequence of play was weirdly exciting to me. It implied there were actual stakes and that merely surviving a dungeon exploration was a true achievement. 

As a referee, I wouldn't say that I'm a soft touch, but, in general, I don't take it as my job to kill player characters, unlike my friend's older brother, who was often quite gleeful about doing so. At the same time, I don't shy away from killing off even longstanding PCs if the dice simply don't go their way. To me, death – even meaningless death due to a failed saving throw – always has to be an option or less why bother rolling dice at all? Why have rules? Why not simply engage in collaborative storytelling instead of playing a roleplaying game? I'm sure not everyone playing RPGs agrees with this stance, but it's deeply ingained in me, instilled long ago by reading the examples of play I found in my earliest copies of Dungeons & Dragons.


  1. I thoroughly agree. Add to this the deaths of some of the main characters in the first fantasy novel that I ever read--Tolkien's The Hobbit.

  2. "What makes this example so well-known is the death of the thief, Black Dougal (who also seems to have died on another occasion, as reported in the Dungeon Masters Adventure Log). "

    S'all right, he got better. Guy gains psionic teleportation powers and heads his own household faction as Black Dougal MacKenzie over in Moldvay's 1981 Revolt On Antares microgame - which now has a very unofficial RPG floating around on the forums. Going from dying randomly in early D&D to leading an army of power armored soldiers vying for control of a colonized alien world is a big step up.

    I don't recognize any of the other character counters as being other Moldvay recycles, but I may well be missing some. They're all listed over at the wiki page for the game if anyone wants to double check:

    Still think it's one of the most flavorful board games TSR ever produced, easily up there with Divine Right, Gammarauders and the plethora of Tom Wham games. Big surprise, considering the designer and the combination of Jeff Dee and Erol Otus artwork.

    1. "Now that is a name I haven't heard in a very long time..."

      Black Dougal is just an awesome name!

      I always imagined the grisly death of the gnome was typed up whilst the author was watching the original "Night of the Living Dead..."

    2. IIRC Black Dougle was an adventure story from the late 60s. Main character was a bit of a cad and a thief, and all the maidens in the book were faire and buxom.

  3. And that’s why I make all die rolls public with the players rolling their own dice. A good rule set applied impartially and transparently strengthens the link between actions and consequences which validates the game and gives it meaning. On the other hand, any behind-the-screen fudging undermines the game, and even collaborative storytelling, generating instead a puppet show in which the players lack agency. Ironically, the possibility of an untimely demise, and its occasional application via the impartial dice, enlivens the game and keeps us all engaged.

  4. Coming from the fantasy paperback gamebook end of the spectrum, the ones that had a big impact on me are those from 'What is Dungeons & Dragons?', a sort of Dummies Guide to RPGs from the early 80s, Steve Jackson (UK) did a good one in his Fighting Fantasy: An Introductory RPG book, and there were multiple good examples in the first Dragon Warriors volume. Happy days! :-)

  5. I think many groups probably used "house rules" to cover player deaths at the early levels and avoid them. It is important for the group to either collectively decide on this matter, or to have the DM state what he plans.

    As in the CRPG world... You can have permadeath ala NetHack... But it is also darned nice if Lord British just resurrects your characters and restarts them at his castle as well!

  6. The combat examples in Moldvay (p. 28) and the DMG (p. 71) also include a character death in each, although these could be justified as showing the possibilities that can happen in combat.