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  • Writer's pictureS.A. Fisher

On being Mostly Dead: Rediscovering the Old School way of Death and Scarring

Updated: Jun 24, 2022

Miracle Max : Whoo-hoo-hoo, look who knows so much. It just so happens that your friend here is only MOSTLY dead. There's a big difference between mostly dead and all dead. Mostly dead is slightly alive.

The Quest

I am a big fan of the OSR retro-clones, such as Old School Essentials, Swords & Wizardry, and Dungeon Crawl Classics. They represent some of the best old-school games available. While these are specifically B/X clones, for the most part, they also take a bit of inspiration from AD&D. These games are more precise, cleaner, and frankly more fun to read and use at the table than the original game. Forty years of game design has advanced the hobby significantly.

I was thinking recently about the OSR game designer's decisions regarding PC death, injury, and healing, which leads to my question for this article. Since OSR is claimed to hew much closer to the original game's views on PC mortality, how do modern OSR rules compare to the old school game itself? What I found out was interesting, and I thought I would share it here on the blog.

Delving Deeper

So, from the trusty old AD&D Dungeon Masters Guide (1979), the sacred Gygax, he sayeth:

Zero Hit Points

"When any creature is brought to 0 hit points (optionally as low as -3 hit points if from the same blow which brought the total to 0), it is unconscious. In each of the next succeeding rounds 1 additional (negative) point will be lost until -10 is reached and the creature dies. Such loss and death are caused from bleeding, shock, convulsions, non-respiration, and similar causes. It ceases immediately on any round a friendly creature administers aid to the unconscious one. Aid consists of binding wounds, starting respiration, administering a draught (spirits, healing potion, etc.), or otherwise doing whatever is necessary to restore life. Any character brought to 0 (or fewer) hit points and then revived will remain in a coma for 1-6 turns. Thereafter, he or she must rest for a full week, minimum. He or she will be incapable of any activity other than that necessary to move slowly to a place of rest and eat and sleep when there. The character cannot attack, defend, cast spells, use magic devices, carry burdens, run, study, research, or do anything else. This is true even if cure spells and/or healing potions are given to him or her, although if a heal spell is bestowed the prohibition no longer applies. If any creature reaches a state of -6 or greater negative points before being revived, this could indicate scarring or the loss of some member, if you so choose. For example, a character struck by a fireball and then treated when at -9 might have horrible scar tissue on exposed areas of flesh, hands, arms, neck, face."

Important rules to note:

  • This applies to creatures, not just PCs. Monsters may survive and come back for vengeance. Holding the battlefield is essential!

  • Unconscious at 0 HP and loses -1 HP per round. No saves to survive!

  • The PC survives to -10 HP, not just -HP based on level, like in DCC.

  • Any aid of some sort always works. No rolls specified, like in Lion & Dragon.

  • At 0 HP or below, the PC is in a coma for 1d6 x 10 minutes after receiving aid.

  • Once the PC hits 0 HP or lower, he is down. For the next week, the PC is in recovery and can only move, eat, or sleep.

  • The PC can only walk - he cannot run - and cannot carry gear during recovery. Significant tactical implications here! You lose your stuff if no one else has it.

  • The afflicted PC cannot cast spells while in recovery!

  • Cure Light Wounds or Lay on Hands cannot remove this one-week recovery time. Heal is a 6th-level Clerical spell in AD&D.

  • The GM can impose scarring after -5 HPs damage. This can include losing a limb!

Now, the healing section from the DMG: "For game purposes, it is absolutely necessary that the character rest in order to recuperate, i.e. any combat, spell using, or similar activity does not constitute rest, so no hit points can be regained. For each day of rest, a character will regain 1 hit point, up to and including 7 days. However a character with a penalty for poor Constitution must deduct weekly the penalty score from his or her days of healing, i.e., a -2 for a person means that 5 hit points healing per week is maximum, and the first two days of rest will restore no hit points. After the first week of continuous rest, characters with a bonus for high Constitution add the bonus score to the number of hit points they recover due to resting, i.e., the second week of rest will restore 1 1 (7 + 4) hit points to a fighter character with an 18 constitution. Regardless of the number of hit points a character has, 4 weeks of continuous rest will restore any character to full strength."

Takeaways on healing:

  • 1 HP a day for 7 days, then 1 HP a day plus/minus the PCs Con modifier per week. Note that this is not +Con modifier per day but per week. Not 1d3 HP/day like Old School Essentials. Here, Swords & Wizardry gets this closest.

  • The first week of healing is a "special" week of low-rate and limited healing, which dovetails with the recovery week after hitting 0 HP or lower, as detailed above.

  • Spell casting is not "rest," nor would Lay on Hands count as rest. Yes, a PC could use those abilities and fully heal himself, but only after the first week.

The Loot

It is obvious that by 1979 in AD&D, design choices were made so that at 0 HP, a PC would "live," but he would be sidelined and no longer function as a valuable party member. The stricken PC became an anchor to slow down the party and consume resources. There was no instant cure to bring the mostly dead PC back to life unless the party included an 11th-level Cleric who could cast Heal. The current OSR games do not handle 0 HP this way. It is possible that AD&D chose this specifically for competitive convention play, which was quite popular back then(and lucrative for TSR). But that is conjecture.

The scarring method imposed at -6 HP or below was a severe penalty for a stricken PC. Losing a hand, foot, arm, leg, etc., was no small thing. An archer with one hand is of no use! Severe burns to the face or some other such mangling and mutilation the GM dreamed up might cause a permanent reduction of Charisma, for instance.

Few OSR games have scarring like this, though DCC does impose a permanent -1 to Strength in cases of a PC hovering near death. And DCC's critical tables do somewhat fill the void of major damage on critical hits. They are gloriously gruesome! Basic Fantasy RPG has no critical hits or survival below 0 nor Old School Essentials or Swords & Wizardry. Some of these rules have some optional rules for survival below 0 HP, but none preserve the scarring or the weeklong imposed rest without magical healing.

The Post-Mortem

On the Merits of Being Mostly Dead

As far as this scarring goes, it is a pity that scarring does not feature more prominently in OSR games. Scarring is mainly replaced by critical hit tables, such as in DCC, but these aren't quite the same thing. Scarring in AD&D resulted from nearly dying, not from being hit for massive damage.

One way to deal with scarring is to give the stricken hero 1d2 (or more!) hit points as a consolation prize for being scarred. The hero may be crippled, but he is tougher now, too. (Lose a hand? "Groovy.") The hero becomes a grizzled survivor by gaining extra HP because of his scar. The GM could even award more HP if the player developed a particularly gruesome, crippling, or interesting scar for their player.

Finally, the choices made in OSR games are presumably made to avoid sidelining a PC from a week of in-game play, thus derailing the dungeon crawl because of one wounded PC. This would be boring for the player whose PC is struck down. The party would most likely exit the dungeon and head to town to rest safely. Few parties would camp inside the dungeon for a week while a party member heals up.

Such design choices, however, seem to deny the gamers a good bit of drama. The drama of rescuing a friend from certain death in the dungeon is no wasted effort! What a story!

"Remember when we hauled Sir Hugh from the Caves of Chaos?"

"Yes, we were ambushed by trolls and barely escaped!"

And there is another drama to consider: the moral dilemma of whether to take your friend to safety or leave her to die in the dungeon alone while you delve deeper for more treasure. One can imagine the discussion! Nay, perhaps in times long past, has heard this discussion.

"We must help him! Sir Hugh is our friend."

"He knew the risks, Elodorn!"

"Would you say the same if it were you, Turok?"

"Yes! And I would pray the Iron Gods of Ul-Haraz take you in your sleep, pagan mother!"

The party might abandon the knight and cleric with their dying friend, splitting the party into two groups, one smaller and weaker and delving deeper, the other equally crippled trying to limp back to the surface with a wounded friend toward the safety of town. They say never split the party, but wow, that might well be worth it!

Game design choices may not be everyone's cup of tea, but they can introduce some serious player-driven drama. Sandbox play on a moral level is the best sort of sandbox play. Rules that oversimplify game effects, such as wounding and recovery, trade simplicity at the risk of denying the party these moments of character conflict. Game design choices regarding wounds, crippling, and healing (not to mention class and alignment) can create these sorts of tensions organically and in fact, help the GM create a more engaging game.

As a player or GM, I would take a mostly dead PC any day. A weathered and scarred hero sounds far more interesting and fun to play than the superhero-type delvers that seem so common today. Now, friends . . . go roll some dice. Cheers.

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