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OSR At What Level Is Survivability Possible?

Retreater

Legend
I'm looking into the OSR movement to find something simple and quick to run for an online group with not a lot of time for long sessions. One player has complained that 5e requires too much looking at the sheet and it takes him out of the game. So I'm looking into Old School Essentials based on good reviews and testimonials on here.
Everyone in this group started with AD&D 2nd edition, so we're not completely spoiled by 5e character power levels. But I just cannot wrap my head around a single kobold being the statistic equal to a 1st level PC. And even "smart play" that requires a 10% hide in shadows to sneak up on them is almost a guaranteed fail.
I'm thinking that the only way B/X works is to start higher than 1st level. What level do you think the game (or OSR in general) gives the characters a fair chance to survive a battle of even weak monsters?
 

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jgsugden

Legend
It takes a while to reacquaint yourself with the rules if you have not used them in decades, but survivability is possible at 1st level. If you read the rules incorrectly, it makes things harder, often. It is a harsher game, but the majority of PCs survived in the games in which I played.

Regardless, I rarely look at my 5E character sheet during a game, whether I am playing a wizard, a fighter or a monk. I also very rarely need to look at a book. I find myself doing so far less in 5E than in prior editions, especially when it comes to looking up rules.

What are your players constantly needing to reference? Is it something you can track for them on a single sheet for the entire party, such as their saving throws, or skill bonuses?
 

WebDMJim

Villager
It's possible to survive at first level, even as a magic-user. Play smart, don't rush into things, and prepare to retreat if necessary. Also, hirelings increase your chances of surviving. In fact, in the OD&D games I've been in, it's usually 3rd-4th level that saw more PC deaths as players grow overconfident.

Don't kobolds have 1/2 HD anyway?
 

iserith

Magic Wordsmith
My experience with old school play is that you don't get into fights you can avoid. Depending on the game, the goal is to acquire treasure which translates into XP rather than needing to fight to acquire XP. To the extent you can get the treasure without having to fight, that is a win. If you have to fight, then what you do is plan and strategize to set up the monster for an ambush, using the terrain and your resources to make it a one-sided battle.
 

Voadam

Adventurer
At what level do you feel they are surviveable in 5e/3e?

5e and 3e characters have max hp at first level so that is about twice the hp of an OSR AD&D 1st level character (OD&D and B/X characters have smaller HD for the same classes so they will be even weaker) so as a rough guide add 1 level for a hp surviveability equivalency, possibly two.

Also remember spellcasters do not get cantrips, so they are much more limited in low level spell options as a fight goes on.
 

A lot depends on both the DM and the players. There's no rule that you have to put a pit with poisoned spikes in your first adventure. It does help if the players are smart about it, but I don't think Dark Souls deadliness is something that has to be baked into OSR-style play.

But, keep in mind that I hate advanced starts in RPGs. I feel like you don't get the same character if they don't start at the beginning. Regardless, it's your campaign, your choice.

But, if you had me quantifying when it starts to get a little easier, it's when the PCs start to have access to Neutralize Poison, Cure Disease, Cure Serious Wounds, and Raise Dead, whether by having a cleric or having the gold to afford them. So, generally in the 5th-8th level. But that means missing out on a ton of formative experiences.
 


The simple problem with OSR stuff and survivability is a math one, that's hard to work around.

In most OSR games, at lower levels, particularly L1, you are very likely to have few enough HP that you can be downed in a single non-critical attack. Some OSR games have that as death, others make a few modern concessions (or 2E concessions even) and make it merely hard to recover from.

And whilst you can play smart, and avoid as much combat as possible, and ambush where you can't avoid and so on, it's still quite likely even a smart player, in a smart group, is going to have their PC killed in typical OSR rules, simply because of literally one unlucky (and not even crit) roll.

I mean, I'm surprised people are trying to argue around this. Anyone who played older editions or who has played OSR games know that it's basically true. Unless you manage to almost entirely avoid combat until around L3, the chances are quite high that some PCs will die (barring generous death rules).

The only good ways around this are:

1) As the OP suggests, start at a higher level (L3 is usually good).

2) Adopt modern rules on HP/death (i.e. max HP at L1, death saves or similar, etc.).

3) Run relatively combat-free adventures until L3 (I've seen it done).

Honestly, if I was going to run an OSR-type game, I'd go with fixed HP like 5E. I've never, ever, in thirty years, seen random HP make for a better or more fun game. Occasionally they make for an amusing anecdote, but overall they are simply deleterious to gameplay as a rule, and produce terrible scenarios where a good character is ruined by a couple of bad rolls they can do literally nothing about. No other single roll in the game can so profoundly weaken or ruin a character, particularly as there is absolute no mitigation, no "bad luck control" or anything of the sort, unlike a lot of other stuff.
 
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Libramarian

Adventurer
In my Roll20 classic D&D campaign I do start PCs with max HP. This also ensures different classes start with appropriate relative HPs, rather than the Fighter rolling a 1 and the MU rolling a 4.

There is very little adventure material truly written for level 1s. Most "Level 1-3" stuff will steamroll true level 1s due to the mathematical fact that Level 2s are expected to have twice as many HPs.

You could also start with an XP kicker (because the XP tables differ by class, you want to start at a given XP, not level). I would go with 2500 XP, which would put F/C/MU at level 2, T at level 3.
 

iserith

Magic Wordsmith
And whilst you can play smart, and avoid as much combat as possible, and ambush where you can't avoid and so on, it's still quite likely even a smart player, in a smart group, is going to have their PC killed in typical OSR rules, simply because of literally one unlucky (and not even crit) roll.

I mean, I'm surprised people are trying to argue around this. Anyone who played older editions or who has played OSR games know that it's basically true. Unless you manage to almost entirely avoid combat until around L3, the chances are quite high that some PCs will die (barring generous death rules)
Who cares if they do? It's D&D. Sometimes characters die. You play as smart as you can to avoid that outcome and hope for the best.
 

DMMike

Game Masticator
A lot depends on both the DM and the players. There's no rule that you have to put a pit with poisoned spikes in your first adventure.
This. The one-and-only reason that PCs die is because the DM kills them.

Even if the PCs are suicidal reckless, the DM can kid-glove them out of trouble:

Low-level PC: There's a chasm and I can't see the bottom? How far across is it?

DM: It's only eight feet. And you're a few feet higher than the other side. But there's...

LLPC: I jump across (rolls d20, despite interrupting the DM). Three. Um, I get a dex bonus, right?

DM: But there's a plank of wood on your side that would span the gap.

LLPC: Oh, can we use that?

DM: You said that you jumped. And then you rolled a die to prove it.

LLPC: Yeah, I did. It's four if I add my dex bonus.

DM: That is (consults a table, despite rule zero) four feet. I guess you fall into the middle of the chasm. It's 50 feet down, so (rolls 5d6)...that's not good.

LLPC: What? How much damage do I take?

DM: You fall 50 feet, and your fall is broken near the bottom by a very loud, crunchy-yet-squishy pile of something. When your descent stops, you realize it's deathly pungent. You've hit a pile of dead adventurers.

LLPC: Oh, I see. You're going easy on me. That's cool. Now I know I can get away with whatever I want.

DM: I wouldn't count on it. Now your allies know that you're suicidal: jumping into the middle of a chasm. If they don't hold you back once in a while, you just might succumb to your mental health disorder.
 



Snarf Zagyg

Aleena died for your sins.
You play more carefully.

....but, if you do want to make it slightly more survivable, I would suggest allowing max hit points at first level. That one change tends to cure a lot of the swinginess, while retaining the danger.
 

Part of the OD&D gaming DNA is that anybody can do anything with a roll of 1 on a d6, equivalent to 18+ on a d20. It was (I think) explicitly stated that a fighter could take off their armor and scout out an enemy position with a not hopeless chance of success. Thieves can do not only that, but can do so in armor and a backpack with just shadows (not darkness) and silently (not quietly). That got transmitted to later editions with varying degrees of success.*

With that in mind, some suggestions.

  • Increase thief HD to d6.
  • Spell casters start with 3 1st level spells. (So, +2 1st level)
  • 5 HP kicker.

That seems to have been enough where the magicians still had to resort to thrown oil and daggers, but could be more utilitarian rather than just casting sleep once. Thieves were more survivable, they aren't meant to be the glass cannons magicians are. And the 5 HP kicker helps prevent the single shot take out of a character as well as giving the DM and players a marker of "blooded". You had some marker when HPs were no longer luck, grit, or endurance but actually trauma and blood loss.

Alternatively, you could start them at 3rd level. Either way, it gives the characters a feel of being green without being fragile. One of the issues with low level D&D is that the characters are only the equal of the monsters, and they out number you.


*Not quite sure why I mentioned that, but it seemed germane.
 

The question is at what level is a character survivable. The answer is "all levels, if you play smart." You can't go in there guns blazing like a D&D 5e character and expect to live.
That's simply a false assertion, on both counts. Not only is it not true that 5E characters can routinely operate like that, it is false to say that merely "playing smart" will make your PC survivable at level 1-2 in OSR games. You can play as smart as you like, but if the DM exposes the party to certain risks, or the PCs are taken by surprise in ways that they couldn't mitigate, or they simply have to combat an enemy as part of their objective, and there's no way around it, no amount of "playing smart" will make it so you can survive taking 5 HP when you only rolled 3 HP and 0 = death.

At higher levels, if you have enough HP, you can increasingly mitigate stuff by playing smart. But if you roll really badly on HP (and the odds of this are quite good), you can remain in a position where you have little ability to survive.

At all levels playing smart increases survivability. But it false to imply it's even, or that at all levels it's enough. It isn't. At level 1-2, the chances of dying in a single hit are simply very high, to the point where survivability is not significant.
 

iserith

Magic Wordsmith
That's simply a false assertion, on both counts. Not only is it not true that 5E characters can routinely operate like that, it is false to say that merely "playing smart" will make your PC survivable at level 1-2 in OSR games. You can play as smart as you like, but if the DM exposes the party to certain risks, or the PCs are taken by surprise in ways that they couldn't mitigate, or they simply have to combat an enemy as part of their objective, and there's no way around it, no amount of "playing smart" will make it so you can survive taking 5 HP when you only rolled 3 HP and 0 = death.

At higher levels, if you have enough HP, you can increasingly mitigate stuff by playing smart. But if you roll really badly on HP (and the odds of this are quite good), you can remain in a position where you have little ability to survive.

At all levels playing smart increases survivability. But it false to imply it's even, or that at all levels it's enough. It isn't. At level 1-2, the chances of dying in a single hit are simply very high, to the point where survivability is not significant.
I think you're reading me a bit too literally there, chief. Obviously a D&D 5e character isn't invincible, but they are more survivable than an OSR-style character, meaning it is inadvisable to play the latter as if you're playing the former. In either game, bad rolls can mean the character's death. It's more likely in OSR-style games, which is why you work harder than you might in D&D 5e to avoid the dice being the determining factor in success. One way to do that is to avoid combats altogether if you can and to stack the deck heavily in your favor if you can't.

Of course, this doesn't mean that there is zero chance of character death. But unless the DM is taking death off the table entirely, then the reasonable expectation is that death can happen so one should play accordingly. So, at what level is survivability possible? All levels. If it wasn't, then nobody would make it past 1st level.
 

CleverNickName

Limit Break Dancing
@DMMike I agree...at low levels, the DM should definitely treat long-term campaign characters with "kid gloves."
I usually take those gloves off around 3rd level, though.
 


Retreater

Legend
But is it possible to make it past 1st level without heavy house-ruling and a benevolent DM/fudging dice? I don't foresee a group surviving a single encounter, RAW. Unless you have like 8 PCs against 3 kobolds. Even then, a single kobold can one-shot about anyone in the party.
This encounter assumes that the PCs didn't avoid the fight by sneaking or talking their way out, because eventually everybody gets caught, and not fighting anything for months of sessions probably isn't fun (which realistically, that's what it takes to get to level 2 RAW).
 

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