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C Series • #11

The spectre of death is one of the most fearsome experiences a player can face in role playing games. The threat of dying is right around that next corner (sometimes literally) and PCs can meet their end in a variety of ways. Being killed by monsters, falling prey to a devious trap, and facing poison or disease are just some of the ways your character can die. In most cases, and depending upon the edition of D&D we are referencing, death usually occurs because of the exhaustion of hit points. The debate of whether hit points are an abstraction of health, luck, and reflexes or if they’re a hard determination of a PC’s life (a “health meter,” if you will) is another discussion for another time. However, no discussion concerning death can occur without some ancillary mention of the hit point concept and what it means. I would like to explore death and what it takes to die in role playing games and in the early editions of Dungeons & Dragons specifically.

Dungeons & Dragons

In the “Original” game, the definition of hit points was quite clear: the amount of hit a character could take before death occurs. When these points were reduced to zero, the character was dead. No checks or saves, no “death’s door” (concepts I will mention later), the PC was dead. Of course, there were options for bringing the character back as resurrection magic existed. Some effects, such as a reversed raise dead spell, killed outright (no saving throw), while many traps and poisons were “save or die” where failure meant the PC was a goner. (For those who might not be aware, older editions of D&D had category saves — poison, breath weapons, spells, etc). Even if you saved against poison, your character still suffered half their hit points in damage.

The “Basic” versions of D&D held similar definitions for hit points — they were simply a metric of how long a character could survive before dying. The 1981 version of the rules, or the “B/X” version, noted that the DM may allow a reroll of hit points for 1st level characters if they roll a 1 or 2. More saving throws to avoid death were added to the game, so instant death was not as prevalent; the reversed raise dead spell, for example, now allowed a saving throw! That didn’t mean instant death was gone completely though. Some effects, such as an energy drain against a 1st level character or the sleep spell (which could lead to a more-or-less instant death from a diabolical foe), could victimize PCs with no chance of avoidance. It is interesting to note that Frank Mentzer, in his “Red Box” Basic Set, notes that instant death from poison can be less fun and suggests that the DM can go a different route if he or she chooses.

Advanced Dungeons & Dragons

It was the 1st edition of AD&D where the game started to reference hit points as something other than strictly the amount of damage a character could withstand before death. It was in this edition’s Player’s Handbook that adjudicated hit points as something more, such as “skill, luck, and/or magical factors” as well. Death still occurred at zero hit points, but characters could be raised or resurrected up to a number of times equal to their initial Constitution score. And speaking of Constitution, the concept of system shock survival was formally introduced into the rules (after it was alluded to in the Original D&D rules, but the idea was vague and not fleshed out). This was a percentage, based on one’s Constitution score, that determined if the PC could survive the ordeal of returning to life. Instant death effects were still very much present (the death spell being one), and this edition really epitomized the save vs. death effects, with monster effects (numerous death gaze effects), spells (finger of death, slay living), and poisons.

A new concept emerged in the 1st and 2nd editions of AD&D — death at -10 hit points. In 1st edition, the PC would be taken to 0 to -3, while 2nd removed this strict range and simply stated that “hovering on death’s door” resulted any time the PC was dropped to zero or less. In both cases, the PC would lose one point per round until -10 was reached, at which time the PC died. Keep in mind that these rules for both editions were optional but became standard for most parties. I can recall using this rule in 1st edition AD&D much like it was written for 2nd.

2nd edition also introduced a new way to die — death from massive damage. Any time a character suffered 50 or more points of damage, he or she made a saving throw vs. death or be killed by the force and trauma of the damage. Otherwise, 2nd edition was similar with regards to death and dying. Killer spells and effects were still very much a reality in 2nd edition.

As time went on, it seemed that the rules on death were lessened somewhat. Instant death effects were prevalent up through 2nd edition (and beyond) but, as editions went by, death no longer occurred absolutely at zero hit points. Some effects and spells that would have killed outright began to allow saving throws. Hit Dice for some classes (such as fighters and clerics) were bolstered, and Constitution played an increasing role in granting more hit points per level. In more recent editions, which will be discussed in a future article, death held even less fear and finality.

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