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

Mannahnin

Scion of Murgen (He/Him)
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.
This matches my experiences a lot too. Though I've been experimenting with embracing stuff like Save or Die and even old school level drain in recent years. I just make sure to signpost and telegraph them so they've got some more drama and players have more chance to avoid or engage.
 

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Fundamentally I have to disagree with the notion (with which OP is also mostly disagreeing). AD&D (and generally TSR-era A/D&D) wasn't less deadly. There were more save-or-dies, more long-term or permanent screw-job effects, and fewer* expendable peak resource usages to invoke when necessary. Much of the time, PCs in general had the same rough qualities as the opponents they fought (as in, a 2HD fighter was not all that different from a 2HD monster, maybe with a little extra AC and autonomy over fighting/retreat decisions). If TSR-era D&D was less-deadly, it was because individual groups took on significantly less deadly tasks.
*and those that existed were harder to leverage, given spells being hard to successfully cast in AD&D, Vancian preparation (without 3e-style easy scroll-backups and such), spellcasting weapons having egos that needed petting, etc.

Thaaaaat saaaaiid, thinking back to both the rules in the books and the ways they were implemented in tables at which I played, I can think of a few examples of those 'not completely wrong' instances and reasons why AD&D might have been (or just seemed) less deadly.
  1. It was a lot less likely that parties were 4 characters -- they were much more often (than now) 6-8 or even more. Plus there were often henchmen, hirelings, pets, and even temporary alliance-gained monsters over on team protagonist (and if some of them died in the ensuing adventure, you sure weren't likely to include them in a 'did anyone die?' analysis related to how lethal things were).
  2. Encounters might not have progressed to fights -- exactly how often people used the reaction tables (especially as-is) has never been clear to me. When I started, the 'big kids' (9&10 year olds) I first played with had 'moved on' to just having the DM decide how enemies would react. It wasn't until I tried DMing myself that I even realized the tables were there. Looking at them (and they differ between each version of TSR-era A/D&D), it is relatively easy to enter an encounter with at least intelligent or food-swayed opponents and walk out without attack dice being rolled. If you managed to play the game towards that end, perhaps the game did seem easier.
  3. Encounters might have ended with more retreats (on one side or the other) -- Like the reaction table, how often the morale rules were used seems to be an open question (and similarly significant changes between subtypes of TSR A/D&D). In general, though, intelligent non-undead enemies would be required to make 3 or more checks just to stay fighting to completion. PCs (barring magical fear) had complete autonomy over the retreat decision, and while the actual rules for withdrawal in most TSR version don't really favor it (often trading a round of movement for the enemy getting to move and attack) unless you could outpace them (or at least the party dwarf), there were usually formulaic rules about enemies having to stop for dropped food/gold, fiery oil blockades, or even just a certain number of corridor turns (making sense, I suppose, if the monsters also didn't consider the whole dungeon friendly territory).
  4. Players more likely were playing more than one PC concurrently -- Sure hit points might naturally recover at one per day, but while that was happening for your cleric Joe, you had your backup fighter Jim who honestly you'd been meaning to level up anyways. And he was all rested up and at full capacity. That also was how a lot of the curses, diseases, and resurrections got handled in my groups (because everyone shouldn't have to suffer through a trek up to BigCityville to find a high-level cleric just because one character got turbo-rabies) -- off-cycle PCs helped take care of the boring recuperation tasks while fresh PCs took on the challenge of the week. I think this also helped mask overall lethality, as losing one of your cadre of options might not stick with you unless they were one of your favorites.
  5. It was so deadly, you were extra careful -- This overlaps mostly with the above "If TSR-era D&D was less-deadly, it was because individual groups took on significantly less deadly tasks" point. Since there were so many ways just stepping on the wrong square of the map could kill you, you made sure not to step on squares until you had vetted them. Mind you, if you were playing strict 'checking each square is a turn, each turn is a wandering monster change,' then of course there was strict weighing of risks (since both options were deadly). Even then, though, players quickly learned what combinations of words they could string together for what their characters do as they travel down a straightaway or approach a feature that signifies 'doing due diligence in caution' without also costing an action. Every new trick the DM threw at you turned into another prophylactic action or piece of dungeoneering gear (listening cones with mesh screens once ear-seekers become a thing; 11-foot poles, etc.). Or just plain not going down dungeon levels, taking on greater risks, etc.
 

Oofta

Legend
Fundamentally I have to disagree with the notion (with which OP is also mostly disagreeing). AD&D (and generally TSR-era A/D&D) wasn't less deadly. There were more save-or-dies, more long-term or permanent screw-job effects, and fewer* expendable peak resource usages to invoke when necessary. Much of the time, PCs in general had the same rough qualities as the opponents they fought (as in, a 2HD fighter was not all that different from a 2HD monster, maybe with a little extra AC and autonomy over fighting/retreat decisions). If TSR-era D&D was less-deadly, it was because individual groups took on significantly less deadly tasks.
*and those that existed were harder to leverage, given spells being hard to successfully cast in AD&D, Vancian preparation (without 3e-style easy scroll-backups and such), spellcasting weapons having egos that needed petting, etc.

Thaaaaat saaaaiid, thinking back to both the rules in the books and the ways they were implemented in tables at which I played, I can think of a few examples of those 'not completely wrong' instances and reasons why AD&D might have been (or just seemed) less deadly.
  1. It was a lot less likely that parties were 4 characters -- they were much more often (than now) 6-8 or even more. Plus there were often henchmen, hirelings, pets, and even temporary alliance-gained monsters over on team protagonist (and if some of them died in the ensuing adventure, you sure weren't likely to include them in a 'did anyone die?' analysis related to how lethal things were).
  2. Encounters might not have progressed to fights -- exactly how often people used the reaction tables (especially as-is) has never been clear to me. When I started, the 'big kids' (9&10 year olds) I first played with had 'moved on' to just having the DM decide how enemies would react. It wasn't until I tried DMing myself that I even realized the tables were there. Looking at them (and they differ between each version of TSR-era A/D&D), it is relatively easy to enter an encounter with at least intelligent or food-swayed opponents and walk out without attack dice being rolled. If you managed to play the game towards that end, perhaps the game did seem easier.
  3. Encounters might have ended with more retreats (on one side or the other) -- Like the reaction table, how often the morale rules were used seems to be an open question (and similarly significant changes between subtypes of TSR A/D&D). In general, though, intelligent non-undead enemies would be required to make 3 or more checks just to stay fighting to completion. PCs (barring magical fear) had complete autonomy over the retreat decision, and while the actual rules for withdrawal in most TSR version don't really favor it (often trading a round of movement for the enemy getting to move and attack) unless you could outpace them (or at least the party dwarf), there were usually formulaic rules about enemies having to stop for dropped food/gold, fiery oil blockades, or even just a certain number of corridor turns (making sense, I suppose, if the monsters also didn't consider the whole dungeon friendly territory).
  4. Players more likely were playing more than one PC concurrently -- Sure hit points might naturally recover at one per day, but while that was happening for your cleric Joe, you had your backup fighter Jim who honestly you'd been meaning to level up anyways. And he was all rested up and at full capacity. That also was how a lot of the curses, diseases, and resurrections got handled in my groups (because everyone shouldn't have to suffer through a trek up to BigCityville to find a high-level cleric just because one character got turbo-rabies) -- off-cycle PCs helped take care of the boring recuperation tasks while fresh PCs took on the challenge of the week. I think this also helped mask overall lethality, as losing one of your cadre of options might not stick with you unless they were one of your favorites.
  5. It was so deadly, you were extra careful -- This overlaps mostly with the above "If TSR-era D&D was less-deadly, it was because individual groups took on significantly less deadly tasks" point. Since there were so many ways just stepping on the wrong square of the map could kill you, you made sure not to step on squares until you had vetted them. Mind you, if you were playing strict 'checking each square is a turn, each turn is a wandering monster change,' then of course there was strict weighing of risks (since both options were deadly). Even then, though, players quickly learned what combinations of words they could string together for what their characters do as they travel down a straightaway or approach a feature that signifies 'doing due diligence in caution' without also costing an action. Every new trick the DM threw at you turned into another prophylactic action or piece of dungeoneering gear (listening cones with mesh screens once ear-seekers become a thing; 11-foot poles, etc.). Or just plain not going down dungeon levels, taking on greater risks, etc.
Good example of how we played different games. We rarely had hirelings, we were a pretty bloodthirsty lot back then and so on. The game wasn't particularly deadly because we had fun playing our PCs for a long time.

I don't know if this was a regional thing or just the groups I played with. Between only a handful of DMs or Living City (AL'S equivalent back then)different people talk like they played a different game. Which, in many ways they did.

It's not that PCs, especially any elf I played, never died. It was just not the grindhouse some people experienced.
 

I'm not so sure it is "many people". There have always been some players that did not like character death. But, by in large, the massive whole of the Old School gamers accepted Character Death as just part of the game. Death was part of the game, same way it's part of life. An Old School gamer was more piratical, more down to Earth and more real. And it's not that all classic characters were toss away characters: plenty of players made massive investments into self insert characters they held very dear.

Of course, the players that wanted the super duper immortal characters were much more vocal with their whines and cries and complaints. Worse was the Bully aspect, as some many of this type of player would attack, threaten or do worse things to a DM that did not "bring back" the players "special character".

The larger, live and let live group of gamers accepted character death....but they were mostly silent.

And as time passes, people grow up and get jobs....sometimes working for gaming companies. And, sadly, many of those people come from that smaller group of anti character death players. And sure, THEY, take it upon themselves to "change and fix" the game....."to make it better". That is....to better fit their vision of the game. And a couple years of all that rolling on and you get 5E. The Soft Players Dream, where they never have to worry about Character Death and can just have great fun on an adventure and always win.

This can be seen in the wider world too. As a kid and teen, my generation played normal group competition games....that is we kept score and one team own the game, and one team lost the game. By the time I had a kid playing such games, the OFFICIAL Rec Center Policy was: For all games BOTH teams got the points from ANY play. Or, in other words, the game was an Automatic Tie...even before they played the game. And if a parent dared to keep a "real score" and be vocal about it, they could be Banned For Life from the Rec Center. And, this too, was on top of the Zero Tolerance Policy of absolutely no cheering for any player on the team...even your own kid(s). Spectators had to sit in total silence, with Rec Watchdogs alert for people making any sounds.

And.....it's all a trap. Really only the same small group wants no character death. And they make the RPG, so what they say is offical. But, as usual they get many to follow them and fall into the trap.

Ask a typical player "Would you want to play a hard nitty gritty grim realism game with random character death Or a super silly easy dream game where your character is an immortal super self insert of you?" And, well, a LOT of players will go for that second option. The same way a LOT of parents think that "all games are Automatic Tie Scores" are a great idea as then their kid will "never loose".

And, for most, the illusion can work for a bit. The player can be in hundreds of games. Happily having their character hop around from encounter to encounter, under the safe comfort that not only will their character never die, but also that they will automatically "win" the game(that is "complete the quest/mission"). The player does not even really have to try much, and sure does not need to pay attention: they have already one. And for some, they could not be happier: they will happily tell you how they did every Adventure Path and killed every foe in the Monster Manual.

For most the illusion wears off after a bit. A game with no sense or chance of loss or defeat is not fun. With the automatic outcome of a "win for all" or a "tie" or "quest success", it can feel pointless to play. They thought it would be "so much fun" to play a "super human immortal character", but the fun wore off quick.

But 5E is a game of it's time.....and it's unlikely "not 5.5E" will go back to the Old School way.......but it's possible The Big Company has signed the D&D Death Warrant, just in time for the 50th anniversary.
 

Far more than AD&D, I felt like life was utterly cheap in 1E for all the reasons mentioned. You could still easily die in AD&D, but their lives felt like they mattered more and were spent more preciously.
 

Lidgar

Gongfarmer
Simply put, AD&D was deadly because of the Save or Suck mechanic.

Demon hordes, ancient dragons, and a gaggle of trolls? Pfffsh.

A chest with a poison needle trap?

monty python GIF
 

Clint_L

Hero
We, and everyone we knew (we learned to play from my friend's college-aged brother and his group) used a number of house rules to make AD&D less deadly. One that I think was pretty widespread was letting everyone start with maximum hit points at level 1 - my first character was a ranger with an 18 constitution (he rolled a 17 then got +1 for his age, which was an AD&D thing) and so had 24 hit points at level 1. Take that, 5e!

On that note, we also used the "roll 6 dice and keep the best three" ability score method from the DMG, so our scores were pretty high. We almost always had hirelings with us, which was a fairly standard part of many campaigns back then, I believe, and routinely used them for anything risky; when we got to higher levels we had followers for the same purpose. I don't remember being super cautious, and characters seldom died, but it did happen. I played that same ranger for years.

Also, characters would travel between campaigns. So, for example, when they needed a few extra people for the college-aged game (we were in junior high school, so this was very exciting) we would just bring our regular characters. It was quite a different method of play than is common now.

I did just insta-kill one of my player's characters fairly recently: their level 6 cleric was low on health and got hit by an adult green dragon's breath. There's a caveat though: another player could have revivified them, but the cleric's player decided this seemed like a fitting and heroic end for that character's story and refused the revivify.
 

MGibster

Legend
@Snarf Zagyg, you missed something that helped contribute to the lethality of AD&D. An ability so awful, many players would have preferred to skip it and go straight to death rather than live with the consequences: Level Drain. Some monsters, usually undead, had the ability to actually drain levels when they hit a PC. So you level 6 character might fail their Save versus Bull^%$# and suddenly find himself at level 4 with fewer abilities, spells, and hitpoints needed to survive the fight.
 

nevin

Hero
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.

Yeah. us old timers tried good hits and bad misses and another half a dozen crit tables meant to make the game better and scarier. We went through wild magic and probably dozens of other things that I don't remember that were all supposed to make the game deadlier and therefore better. They all eventually flopped. It wasn't fun when the monk in my first level campaign had to hop (twice as fast as the party) everywhere he went because he lost his leg. The crit from drow using the Good hits and bad misses table that turned a bad moment into a fatal moment for the poor druid player. (also ended the table's use at my table). The iconic Vorpal Sword that just ended BBEGI's and party tanks with one lucky roll just weren't fun.

I think the biggest thing is we play the game to escape reality. I don't need sucking chest wounds, rot grubs that low level characters either avoid or die from or a bunch of other things that just don't make thier way into the game anymore because we want our game to continue just like we want our favorite movie franchises to continue.
 

  1. It was a lot less likely that parties were 4 characters -- they were much more often (than now) 6-8 or even more. Plus there were often henchmen, hirelings, pets, and even temporary alliance-gained monsters over on team protagonist (and if some of them died in the ensuing adventure, you sure weren't likely to include them in a 'did anyone die?' analysis related to how lethal things were).
This is true, but really is part of a Bigger Point: AD&D did not have the whole polished 5E encounter balance. 5E is built around four characters of X level having X number of encounters that each perfectly use x percent of the character's resources.


  1. Encounters might not have progressed to fights -- exactly how often people used the reaction tables (especially as-is) has never been clear to me. When I started, the 'big kids' (9&10 year olds) I first played with had 'moved on' to just having the DM decide how enemies would react. It wasn't until I tried DMing myself that I even realized the tables were there. Looking at them (and they differ between each version of TSR-era A/D&D), it is relatively easy to enter an encounter with at least intelligent or food-swayed opponents and walk out without attack dice being rolled. If you managed to play the game towards that end, perhaps the game did seem easier.
This was very true. The main focus and objective of AD&D was adventure. Sure, some did pure hack and slash of endless combat...but only some. The Morale rules alone could end lots of combats quick. Clever players could take actions to end fights.

Another point, not really done in 5E, is all the Gray. In 5E all encounters are "bad"....and "hostile" to the PCs. In AD&D you had a mix of good, neutral and evil encounters. some encounters might be some wandering gnomes that would help the PCs, and some where things like isolationist elves that just wanted to be left alone. As long as the PCs were not Murderhobos, they had a chance of getting past the good and neutral encounters with no combat.

  1. Encounters might have ended with more retreats (on one side or the other) -- Like the reaction table, how often the morale rules were used seems to be an open question (and similarly significant changes between subtypes of TSR A/D&D). In general, though, intelligent non-undead enemies would be required to make 3 or more checks just to stay fighting to completion. PCs (barring magical fear) had complete autonomy over the retreat decision, and while the actual rules for withdrawal in most TSR version don't really favor it (often trading a round of movement for the enemy getting to move and attack) unless you could outpace them (or at least the party dwarf), there were usually formulaic rules about enemies having to stop for dropped food/gold, fiery oil blockades, or even just a certain number of corridor turns (making sense, I suppose, if the monsters also didn't consider the whole dungeon friendly territory).
Also true, but also part of a bigger point that the focus was more on adventure too. Not only were their more retreats, but there was more avoiding encounters. A LOT of players did not feel the need to hack and slash through everything. If they could avoid an encounter, they would. And the Morale rules came in here, and again clever players could end fights quick with some actions. A typical one was "take out the leader" for a lot of humanoids and social monsters: you kill the Alpha there is a good chance the pack scatters. PCs also were quite willing to run from a fight that was going bad.

  1. It was so deadly, you were extra careful -- This overlaps mostly with the above "If TSR-era D&D was less-deadly, it was because individual groups took on significantly less deadly tasks" point. Since there were so many ways just stepping on the wrong square of the map could kill you, you made sure not to step on squares until you had vetted them. Mind you, if you were playing strict 'checking each square is a turn, each turn is a wandering monster change,' then of course there was strict weighing of risks (since both options were deadly). Even then, though, players quickly learned what combinations of words they could string together for what their characters do as they travel down a straightaway or approach a feature that signifies 'doing due diligence in caution' without also costing an action. Every new trick the DM threw at you turned into another prophylactic action or piece of dungeoneering gear (listening cones with mesh screens once ear-seekers become a thing; 11-foot poles, etc.). Or just plain not going down dungeon levels, taking on greater risks, etc.
True enough, though I'd say it was more Common Sense. Character Death made players careful. When they would encounter a rope bridge over a gouge they would be aware that it was a great place for an ambush and take some actions to be ready for it. More then one adventure had an "on the edge" encounter, where foes would try to knock PC off a cliff or into acid pools or such. 5E does not even come close to such encounters.

Another huge point is AD&D had a LOT more negative effects. Poisons, curses, sickness, magical effects and more. Plus, loosing limbs. And, for the most part, few could be taken care of on the adventure. If your character got cursed by an Evil Altar effect, your buddy cleric could NOT just cast the 'remove curse' reset button. Sure he could remove a curse cast by a goblin wokai, but not an ancient temple of evil. AD&D had a LOT of negative effects that could hit PC, and even more so for dungeon adventures.

5E, of course, has very little "negative" anything. And even should a PC get effected by anything, there is a quick easy button fix. And few players feel the need to be careful in 5E, and they can dance through any encounter and not fear character death, any negative effects or any type of loss.
 


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