D&D General Lethality, AD&D, and 5e: Looking Back at the Deadliest Edition

Snarf Zagyg

Notorious Liquefactionist
Supporter
I saw a comment in my favorite meta-thread a week or so ago that, roughly boiled down, was, "Yo. AD&D wasn't that difficult. Heck, combat was much less lethal than later editions like 5e. AD&D was practically easy mode. By fourth level, you really couldn't die in AD&D."

Now, when I first read that, I wanted to strike down that comment with frumious anger and righteous vengeance. After all, if there is one thing we all know, there is nothing worse than someone being wrong on the internet. And there are few opinions wronger than AD&D being easy mode compared to, say, 5e. Heck, that is right up there is the wrongest opinions, like "Land wars in Asia are a great idea," and "Why not invade Russia in winter," and "Bards don't seem so bad."

But ... and this is a big but, as served up by the greatest Knight of All, Sir Mix-A-Lot, this comment was not completely wrong. Mostly wrong? Sure. But not completely wrong. And in order to understand both why the comment is both the wrongest, yet also not-wrong, sort of like a Schrodinger's Comment, we must open the box of "AD&D" and peer within and examine what people are really talking about when they talk about the godd ol' days of killing PCs the way that God and Gygax (but I repeat myself) intended.


A. How AD&D Is Presented Today, and Why That Matters.
I have the strength of a bear that has the strength of TWO bears.

We've all been at that table, and we know how it goes.

Young Whippersnapper: What? My player had DISADVANTAGE this round? Disadvantage?????? That's so unfair!

Grognard: Disadvantage? You don't know how good you have it. Back in my day, the DM didn't roll dice. We played AD&D, and the DM would just look up from behind the DM screen to tell me my character died. And then I would have to sit around for six hours reading the BECMI module over and over again by myself so I could watch Aleena die no matter what I did while the rest of the party did something. And you, complaining that you need d100 hit points for you Wizard and always-on Ninth level spells? HA! I used to walk 5 miles in the snow, uphill, just so my first level magic user could cast his single spell that day before he got killed by a kobold with a rusty butter knife, then I would walk five miles back.... uphill again, in a BLIZZARD. And that's how I played AD&D. AND I LOVED IT!

Young Whippersnapper: ...........Thanks, Grognard.


Nostalgia is a heckuva drug, and just like fisherman will exaggerate the size of their fish, and parents will always regale children with stories of how hard things were "back in the day," so it is with D&D. There's a natural tendency toward storytelling, and storytelling is best when you can relate things in a dramatic fashion; things just weren't hard- they were the HARDEST. Life wasn't just a bit more difficult; it was the MOST DIFFICULT. And so on. From that perspective, it becomes easy to see how the actuality of what AD&D was can become exaggerated or distorted over time.

...and yet. As noted below, there is definitely more than a kernel of truth to the idea that is repeated constantly by almost everyone that played AD&D. Most of the veterans of AD&D who play 5e look to "turn up the difficulty dials" with 5e by instituting rules for gritty realism, or fewer spells, or no HD-based healing, or other variant rules to make 5e more closely resemble the "more difficult" aspects of AD&D. But in order to fully understand why the original comment I am responding to is both completely wrong, and not-wrong, we now have to look at three additional things- what do people really mean when they say "AD&D," what was the play culture around "AD&D," before finally looking at why AD&D was, in fact, so lethal (or, at a minimum, more difficult than 5e).


B. What is AD&D?
Cast off this taint, and become taintless!

The first issue you come up with is that AD&D does not refer to a single thing. A brief history lesson. D&D originally launched with the "LBBs" in 1974. AD&D launched in 1977 with the Monster Manual, but the PHB didn't come out until 1978 and the DMG released in 1979. So, arguably, AD&D was "complete" or "ready to play" in 1979, although most people would date it to 1978 with the PHB.

....but that was the First Edition. The Second Edition launched in 1989, and carried through until 2000. So "AD&D" was the main branch of "D&D" (the non-Basic line) published from 1978-2000, when 3e was released. So from today's perspective, it might be useful to say that AD&D was simply the written game that existed from 1978-2000. But it's not that simple. Not nearly that simple. What, you're reading something that I am writing, so you knew the complications were coming!

First, while from a modern perspective 2e and 1e are "basically the same" since they are interoperable, they are not the same. They are so different that if the 2e changes were being proposed as 5e changes today, people would be up in arms with pitchforks and torches .... looks at internet comments and youtube videos.... okay, MORE pitchforks and torches. Yes, 2e is definitely backwards compatible with 1e, but the changes were massive to people who were playing core 1e- codifying weapons specialization, changing around classes, codifying more forgiving rules, adding "skills" (NWPs), and so on. So when people talk about AD&D as a general concept, it helps to know if they're talking about 1e or 2e.

Next, both 1e and 2e are not monoliths. AD&D up through 1984 was closer to OD&D (the original 1974 + supplements + Dragon articles) than it was to what came later. The release of Oriental Adventures and Unearthed Arcana, ESPECIALLY Unearthed Arcana, fundamentally changed a lot of the play of AD&D for the people who adopted the rules. The inclusion of optional, and completely unbalanced, rules regarding weapon specialization as well as classes such as the Barbarian and reworked abilities for other classes was .... well, it was a choice, but it certainly led to the power creep that was codified into 2e. 2e rationalized this and re-balanced this to an extent, but then began pumping out player options and supplements to juice up PCs. For the 5e players out there, think about this in terms of "Pre-Tasha" and "Post-Tasha," except ... more. Much more.

So the initial difficulty when talks to people about the lethality of AD&D in terms of the rules as written is that a person who is discussing the lethality of AD&D from 1979 likely had a very different perspective than a person discussing the lethality of AD&D in 1999 using the Second Edition rules and all the Player Reference Guides (Complete Fighter, etc.) and Player's Options books (Combat & Tactics, Skills & Powers, Spells & Magic). A score of years introduced a lot of stuff.

But there was an additional, even more fundamental, issue when discussing the lethality of AD&D. The variability of table play.


C. Not All AD&D Table Played the Same.
The Caine Mutiny? I love Michael Caine. "Good night you princes of Sea Lab, you kings of the ocean. People are always asking me, What's it all about, Alfred?"

My favorite Sage Advice answer was in the very first Sage Advice, in Dragon #31 (November 1979). The following question was posed-
In ADVANCED DUNGEONS AND DRAGONS, how much damage do bows do?

And the always-witty and perpetually underrated Jean Wells (RIP) immediately answered- None. Bows do not do damage, arrows do.

That said, my favorite QUESTION ever written to Sage Advice was also in that first Sage Advice column. Here it is-
In GODS, DEMI-GODS AND HEROES it says that a forty-plus level character is ridiculous. In our game we have two characters that are at one thousand-plus level. This happened in “Armageddon,” a conflict between the gods and the characters. Of course, the characters won. What do you think about that?

The reason I love this question is that is exemplifies something we all need to remember when thinking about the past and trying to extrapolate our current "WHAT ARE THE RULES AS WRITTEN!!!!???!!!!" perspective. The past is not just a foreign country; at times, it was completely bonkers. What the heck is this question even talking about? This is the height of gritty dungeoneering. Skilled play as a mode of interaction. Multiple PCs because death was always around the corner. And yet, here we have people playing the game with characters that are 1000th level killing gods. That's not what Ol' Grumpy told me happened back in the day when he was stroking his beard!

And that's true- back in the day, the amount of variability from table to table, region to region, was incredibly high. It was assumed that tables would operate with house rules and/or incorporate third-party material and articles from Dragon Magazine. Moreover, playing AD&D "by the rules" was nearly impossible- if you've perused the 1e PHB and DMG, you know that the dense Gygaxian verbiage made it so that some rules would get overlooked by tables, and other rules were simply ignored by the vast majority of tables - even Gygax didn't play with the weapon v. AC adjustments.

If you've read the book The Elusive Shift, it does a great job at demonstrating just how different the playstyles were that emerged from the early days of OD&D, and this continued apace through AD&D. Arguably, the greatest measure of variability would be the DM. Some would be sticklers for the rules, and others would be lax. Some would try to make sure that encounters were possible for the PCs, others would let the PCs determine if they wanted to fight the impossible monster. Some would play monsters as stupid combatants ("How did we agree to attack him ... all at once ... and how did we attack him ... one at a time ...."). But others would have every fight be against Tucker's Kobolds, with even seemingly easy monsters using clever tactics to maxmize their own chances for success and survival. Heck, some DMs used the item saving throw table (sorry 'bout that loot), while others were content to run a Monty Haul campaign, knowing no one hates Santa Claus.

This was often an essential tension, especially as the game exploded in popularity with younger players. If you're a younger player, playing with your friends, you don't want to kill them- you want them to succeed. To have fun! The exact same game that, RAW, might be a terrifying and difficult slog where players are lucky to guide their PCs through survival for one DM might be a cakewalk of handing out treasure and wish-fulfillment to another table.

Take, for example, B2 (Keep on the Borderlands). While it wasn't an AD&D module, people would often play it with AD&D characters. The exact same module could either be an incredibly difficult challenge, as the low-level players have to figure out what to do with warrens of humanoids without getting them all up-in-arms at the same time against them, using subtlety and stealth and perhaps politics or running away. Or, the monsters might just sit in each area docilely waiting for the adventurers to walk in and kill them, with no relation to the monsters in the next room and no ability to hear what is happening right next to them, nor desire to move from their pre-determined death spots. If the DM is running it in realistically, it's a real difficult challenge that might be too much for many parties. If the DM wants the players to succeed, it's a succession of combats that the players can win, and the DM won't change the conditions when the party leaves to get healing.

In short, the actual experience at the table might completely change depending on how the game was being run. This was well-known early on, as well. Famously, Gygax wrote Tomb of Horrors in 1975 because he was annoyed with reports of other people just using combat and not playing the game with a thinking perspective. Monty Haul (to refer to campaigns where DMs handed out to much treasure and made things to easy) was referred to in 1976 in an official publication - Gods, Demi-Gods & Heroes (although they used the "Hall" version). A small point of irony- the stated purpose of the supplement was to supposedly point out the absurdity of Monty Haul campaigns by showing that even Gods like Odin aren't that powerful, so people running around with 40th level characters are doing it wrong. Of course, if you stat it, it can die .... and you just released a supplement with all sorts of things for those overpowered characters to kill.

And this is kind of the point- due to the insanely high variability of the game as it was played, it is entirely possible for someone to have experienced, say, the legendary MIT killer dungeon to have had a completely different (and valid!) experience than someone else who was playing with their middle-school friends with 50th level characters.


D. AD&D Was Lethal.
Under Martian law doctors and other wizards are forbidden.

Putting aside variations in time (1e v. 2e, for example), and variations in what rules were applied from table to table, and variations in just how much the DM would tilt the odds in the favor of the players, why would it still be a true general statement that AD&D was lethal- certainly more lethal than modern versions of D&D like 5e?

Fundamentally, this boils down to a few different areas. (I will be using core 1e AD&D rules for this). So when I refer to AD&D below, I am referring to 1e AD&D. 2e would loosen some of these rules; for example, allowing 1hp to be regained by sleeping, and 3hp/day to be regained by complete rest.

First, hit points and healing. We often joke about how 5e is a slog of attrition of hit points. Well, AD&D wasn't. For better or worse, not getting hit really mattered for two reasons. First, because PCs had a lot fewer hit points than their 5e equivalents. Magic Users, for example, had d4 hit points per level. Constitution bonuses were restricted, and good con bonuses only applied to fighters (when I write fighter, this also means fighter subclasses). Finally, past a certain level (name level), character would only gain a set and small number of hit points and could not add their constitution bonus to them. So, let's take an example of someone who managed to get not just to 11th level as a Magic User (name level), but to 18th level (the ability to cast wish). They likely had no constitution bonus to their hit points. So their hit points would likely be (11*2.5+7)=38.5, or 39 rounding up. 18th level, 39 hit points. Again, 18th level, 39 hit points. You can play with the numbers and with the different classes, but the point is obvious throughout AD&D; characters were fragile. And healing? Healing was a lot more difficult. You didn't have any fancy Hit Dice Healing- no, you got back ONE hit point for each COMPLETE day of rest. If you were a high hit point character, you would be relieved to know that four continuous weeks of full rest would restore your hit points. By the way- this didn't mean "sleep overnight." It meant a full day of rest. So this really privileged magic healing when you were in the middle of an adventure- and unlike 3e, you couldn't just magic up a wand of cure light wounds, and there wasn't a culture of magic shoppes (the difference between a shop and a shoppe is just the price) to let you buy infinite potions of healing. So you had the fairly limited resources of whatever your cleric and/or druid could provide.

Second, there wasn't the concept of "death saves." While there was a common house rule, in AD&D you were dead at zero hit points. The combination of low hit points, less healing, and death at 0 made all combats much more swingy.

Third, AD&D was constantly coming up with "counter-programming." For example, do you like to listen at doors to see what's in rooms? Well, guess why we have rot grubs! But one example of counter-programming that was particularly lethal was the system shock and resurrection table. First, you could never be resurrected a number of time more than your initial constitution score (and never at all if you were a half-orc or elf). But just because you got resurrected, and it was still in your allowable chances, doesn't mean you would survive it! You had to role to make sure you would survive- and the same would apply if you were aged, or petrified, or polymorphed. So if, for example, the Magic User in your party casts polymorph on you to help the party, you'd have to roll once when you polymorphed, and once when you were turned back- two chances to die. Heck, if you used haste (which ages you), you had a decent chance of dying.

Fourth, AD&D had a number of save or die effects. It was common, even at low levels, for monsters to have poison that would kill you. Giant spiders, anyone? Without putting too fine a point on it, it wasn't uncommon for a roll to determine if you lived or died. There was no "save or suck." And even when the effect wasn't death, it wasn't like 5e where you get repeated saves over time; when a ghoul paralyzed you in AD&D, you were paralyzed. While it doesn't give a duration in the Monster Manual (yay, AD&D!), it was stated later in Sage Advice that the duration is 3-12 turns for a ghoul (6-24 turns for a ghast). For those of you unfamiliar with the terminology, that's 30-120 combat rounds. Or there were non-save effects ... get hit by a ghost, age 10-40 years (oh, and make your system shock roll). All of which meant that there were many occasions when combat was not a good option.

Fifth, AD&D had traps. Lots of traps. And the traps in AD&D were usually of the lethal variety. And traps also includes cursed items. AD&D did love its cursed items as well.

Sixth, well, I could keep going on. Everything from the obscure rules that you might not be as familiar with (half-orcs and elves couldn't be resurrected, item saving throws) to the sheer amount of damage inflicted (as opposed to hit points for the PCs) by a lot of "save for half damage" effects, resulting in "If you save you are dead, but if you fail your save you are really, really dead." Heck, I didn't even start to talk about level drain. LEVEL DRAIN.


E. Conclusion- What was the Purpose of All This, Anyway?
Pudding can't fill the emptiness inside me! But it'll help.

What is the purpose of anything? I mean, other than getting to go through a little history! Seriously, though, I would boil it down to the following- first, I think that anyone who thinks that AD&D is not lethal compared to 5e, as a general concept, is not correct. 5e is a great and wonderful game that I love, but if you are playing it RAW, it is not tremendously lethal- and I think that this is on purpose. PCs have plenty of hit points, and more importantly, healing is plentiful and innate and occurs on a daily basis. In addition, combat is like the old Chumbawumba song- If you get knocked down, you get up again, 5e is never gonna keep a PC down. Finally, 5e just doesn't really have rules for "insta-death." It's just not really a thing anymore.

That said, I also hope that this lengthy post shows that the past is not a monolith. The reason I think that 5e is the way that it is, and that the modern game has evolved this way, is because many people want this. They wanted less lethality. Even though AD&D was an incredibly lethal game, people would play it in a way to make it less lethal- either by changing the rules explicitly, or by the DM implicitly favoring the players.
 

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Players are more experienced today.
The notion of gaming are much more common, and the DM can no more be the one that teach the mysteries of fantasy.

In fact people are seeking a less lethal game. Character development is a popular concern now.

But making 5ed more lethal is not so hard. House ruling death at 0 hit point is not hard.
I observe that house ruling seem less popular, and some posters hope that a designer make a game more lethal rather than choose or propose to their table a more lethal game play.
 



MNblockhead

A Title Much Cooler Than Anything on the Old Site
At the end of the day, who cares about the death of a character? They are fictional entities. Now, for a really lethal game, there should be the possibility of player's death. That would be hard-core.
And the resulting moral panic would make the game feel more dangerous and taboo for those of us who don't play with that particular house rules. Kids these days! When I was a kid, I had to play with suspicions of satanism directed at me!
 


Snarf brings this up, but I really believe the discussion of resource management plays a much bigger role in the "deadliness" of OSR games than it gets credit for. Sure, you may get hit less. And the hit may hurt less. But it is very possible you're going to carry that wound for days; possibly even the full adventure. And HP was just one critical resource. There were also spells, magic items, etc. Heck, ammunition was really important to keep track of.

The part that I find most curious is that we're getting used to less resource management in game design at a time when it should be easier. It was a pain in the butt to keep track of everything on paper; using VTTs should make it trivial. Even things like level drain and ability score damage are being dropped now, at a time when we finally have a computer to do the hard parts for us, live, no fuss no muss.
 

MNblockhead

A Title Much Cooler Than Anything on the Old Site
The part that I find most curious is that we're getting used to less resource management in game design at a time when it should be easier. It was a pain in the butt to keep track of everything on paper; using VTTs should make it trivial. Even things like level drain and ability score damage are being dropped now, at a time when we finally have a computer to do the hard parts for us, live, no fuss no muss.
We may see the pendulum swing the other way.

I started enforcing encumbrance more strictly when D&D Beyond and Foundry character sheets made it easier to do so.

But I don't see 5e mechanics bringing older style resource-management into play in other areas. Most notably, food and water. I think that 5e just isn't a great system for a gritty survival game without a lot of homebrewing.

But even in video games, tastes differ. Some people love having to forage and craft and take care of their weapons. Others find it grindy and not fun. I hope and expect that the WotC VTT will give options for choices for how to treat encumbrance, healing, etc.
 

Mannahnin

Scion of Murgen (He/Him)
Great piece. I had a similar reaction to a recent post about KotB. I remember seeing it as pretty lethal, the numbers of enemies being unreasonable to deal with for any L1-2 party in old school D&D unless you had a huge party and/or bolstered your numbers with hirelings. I have commonly seen new DMs in OSR circles asking how to make the module work for their players and not turn into a TPK-fest.

But if the DM is motivated the right way, the module can be a lot easier than if you're running it "straight up". Never mind even the difficulty difference possible with a single rules change like using Morale checks vs not using them.

Fundamentally, this boils down to a few different areas. (I will be using core 1e AD&D rules for this). So when I refer to AD&D below, I am referring to 1e AD&D. 2e would loosen some of these rules; for example, allowing 1hp to be regained by sleeping, and 3hp/day to be regained by complete rest.

First, hit points and healing. We often joke about how 5e is a slog of attrition of hit points. Well, AD&D wasn't. For better or worse, not getting hit really mattered for two reasons. First, because PCs had a lot fewer hit points than their 5e equivalents. Magic Users, for example, had d4 hit points per level. Constitution bonuses were restricted, and good con bonuses only applied to fighters (when I write fighter, this also means fighter subclasses). Finally, past a certain level (name level), character would only gain a set and small number of hit points and could not add their constitution bonus to them. So, let's take an example of someone who managed to get not just to 11th level as a Magic User (name level), but to 18th level (the ability to cast wish). They likely had no constitution bonus to their hit points. So their hit points would likely be (11*2.5+7)=38.5, or 39 rounding up. 18th level, 39 hit points. Again, 18th level, 39 hit points. You can play with the numbers and with the different classes, but the point is obvious throughout AD&D; characters were fragile. And healing? Healing was a lot more difficult. You didn't have any fancy Hit Dice Healing- no, you got back ONE hit point for each COMPLETE day of rest. If you were a high hit point character, you would be relieved to know that four continuous weeks of full rest would restore your hit points. By the way- this didn't mean "sleep overnight." It meant a full day of rest. So this really privileged magic healing when you were in the middle of an adventure- and unlike 3e, you couldn't just magic up a wand of cure light wounds, and there wasn't a culture of magic shoppes (the difference between a shop and a shoppe is just the price) to let you buy infinite potions of healing. So you had the fairly limited resources of whatever your cleric and/or druid could provide.
I think the bit about average HP is even more dramatic if we look at the levels most common to play. IME playing above 9th level wasn't all that common in old school play (though some folks certainly did it). The nature of the XP charts was such that getting up to and above 9th or 10th level was a LOT of xp. Most play IME occurred in the classic "sweet spot" of say, 3rd to 8th level, where PCs have at least SOME durability and stamina (spells and HP), but not unlimited resources.

So what are we looking at for an average party of adventurers somewhere in that "sweet spot"? Let's ignore individual XP awards or the chance of death or missed sessions, and just give a party of six adventurers 35,001 XP, enough for the Fighter to be 6th level, and check average HP. I'm going to disregard Con bonuses, even though most likely a couple of the adventurers would have them, just because they're less accessible (15 Con needed for +1, 16 or better for +2, with Fighters and their subclasses getting +3 for 17 and +4 for 18 Con), and I want them to be apples to apples.

Average hit points for Hard-bitten average party of 6, AD&D 1979, at 35,001 xp each
L6 Fighter: 33
L6 Cleric: 27
L5 Magic-User: 12.5
L6 Thief: 21
L4/5 Fighter/Thief multiclass (say, a Halfling): 20 (depending on how you divide and assuming you allow fractions to be conserved)
L4/4 Fighter/Magic User (classic Elf character): 16 (again, average assuming you don't require rounding odd numbers down when halved)

That's certainly a LOT less fragile than the same characters at 1st level with HP ranging from (on average) 2 or 3 to as high as 6, all easily within range of being one-shotted by any random Orc. But it's not a whole lot of breathing room when an unwounded dragon does more than any of these guys have with a single breath attack.

A fun article on healing rates:


Third, AD&D was constantly coming up with "counter-programming." For example, do you like to listen at doors to see what's in rooms? Well, guess why we have rot grubs!
Point of order! Ear Seekers! :LOL: Rot Grubs were to F you over for searching corpses. :ROFLMAO:

E. Conclusion- What was the Purpose of All This, Anyway?
Pudding can't fill the emptiness inside me! But it'll help.

What is the purpose of anything? I mean, other than getting to go through a little history! Seriously, though, I would boil it down to the following- first, I think that anyone who thinks that AD&D is not lethal compared to 5e, as a general concept, is not correct. 5e is a great and wonderful game that I love, but if you are playing it RAW, it is not tremendously lethal- and I think that this is on purpose. PCs have plenty of hit points, and more importantly, healing is plentiful and innate and occurs on a daily basis. In addition, combat is like the old Chumbawumba song- If you get knocked down, you get up again, 5e is never gonna keep a PC down. Finally, 5e just doesn't really have rules for "insta-death." It's just not really a thing anymore.
In the interests of being technically correct ("the best kind of correct") I will note that instant death can happen in 5E, and even occasionally does at low levels. In roughly the level 1-3 range it's possible for bruiser monsters to one shot kill a fair percentage of PCs with a critical hit (and occasionally without one). A CR2 Ogre can whack you for as much as 36 if it gets lucky enough, and that'll more than double out the HP of almost any level 1-2 PC. Have the PC down in single digits from a prior hit and the odds increase.

Still a far cry from the old days, but I've seen it happen.


Snarf brings this up, but I really believe the discussion of resource management plays a much bigger role in the "deadliness" of OSR games than it gets credit for. Sure, you may get hit less. And the hit may hurt less. But it is very possible you're going to carry that wound for days; possibly even the full adventure. And HP was just one critical resource. There were also spells, magic items, etc. Heck, ammunition was really important to keep track of.
I do tend to find that when I run old-school, lower HP games, my players respond with great caution and heal up whenever possible. They'll camp someplace fortified and use every healing spell at their disposal to get topped up as best they can before they enter a dungeon. They won't continue adventuring while down any HP if they can avoid it. And I don't want to force them with plot reasons too often- that makes an already deadly game more so, and later editions with faster healing are better suited to an action movie pace.

The part that I find most curious is that we're getting used to less resource management in game design at a time when it should be easier. It was a pain in the butt to keep track of everything on paper; using VTTs should make it trivial. Even things like level drain and ability score damage are being dropped now, at a time when we finally have a computer to do the hard parts for us, live, no fuss no muss.
TBF we have actual computer games to do that stuff, and folks love them. Folks running TTRPGs who really go in for all the automated tools are still a fraction of the tabletop gaming population, IMO. Most of us seem to prefer simpler rules we can track without needing automated tools.
 
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Oofta

Legend
D&D has always been and continues to be as (permanently) lethal as the DM and group wants. Yes, there's less "oops you're dead" in 5E but raise dead was always there as a last resort.

But I think that goes back to how people played. Have a cleric in the party? Rest up, cast as many healing spells as you can. Rinse and repeat for a few days and you're good as new. I remember playing one of the gold box D&D games that had "rest and heal until full" option. I remember being in a collapsing tunnel towards the end of the game and spamming that button until it completed successfully. Didn't quite work that way in games, but it was close.

I think this in part goes back to people simply made the game their own. When I DMed I'd look at entries like the ear worm or trapper (the floor ate unsuspecting adventures), chuckled and then never used them. Same way I'll probably never use the feeblemind spell. Taking someone out of the game because of a single bad roll simply isn't much fun to me.

It probably helped that back in the day we had rotating DMs so if one person played a killer DM it would come back to haunt them. So I think people's experiences ran the gamut from "Bring multiple characters, you'll need them" to "We're a bit hurt, let's rest and heal until full" to "Chuck died again, wonder what the cleric in town will charge to raise him this time."

Just like today, there are many ways to play the game.
 

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