One of the most frequent complaints leveled at the old school style games I see (and, let's be honest, one of the most inaccurately used points of "nostalgia" as well) is that characters die frequently and gruesomely and often pointlessly. That statue in the first room? Yeah, save vs death. Those who fail, die instantly as the things leaps across the room and throat punches your character. Those who succeed, make a new saving throw every minute until you fail. Then you die.
The belief that Old School dungeons were designed to be unfair PC death traps is, perhaps, a bit unfair. Imminent death, in the static between mistranslations, means that the old games have a "kill-em'all" attitude. That reputation is not entirely applicable, in my opinion as, more often than not, it seems to be based on the conflation of the Tomb of Horros with all modules and the perception of Gary as a "killer GM."
Of course, in reaction, the New School type of gamer pushed towards no save or die at all. It seems to have culminated in 4th edition's "save or minor inconvenience" mentality. Traps are now merely minor obstacles that can be plowed through effectively. The once terrifying powers of high level magic seem . . . less so in the name of egalitarianism of function.
Of course, I'm of a mind somewhere in the middle. Death should be emanant rather than imminent.
Yes, that's a butchering of the English language and I should be locked up for crimes against grammar, but that's not a surprise to anybody here I suspect. Let me explain.
By "imminent death" I mean that character death is all but certain if not immediate. Running through this dungeon, it's only a matter of time before you succumb to one of the plentifle traps forcing save or die effects, the vicious "grudge monsters," or simply the capriciousness of a dick ref. Death WILL happen, and it will be brutal and bloody and there's very little you can do except stave it off for one more room.
"Emanent death," on the other hand, is slightly different. Death is close, possibly even immediate, but it is far from a foregone conclusion. There's always a way for a clever, observant, and well played character to escape should he be intelligent enough to look, even if that way out is to walk away entirely.
That statue in the first room that lops off heads at the drop of a hat? All the clues that a player needs to realize that this is a challenge and to overcome it are present, if they bother to look. Blood stains on the blade, walls, and floor. Perhaps a headless corpse, or a corpseless head at its feet. A very close look from the door might reveal the joints at which the statue is meant to articulate. A detect traps spell obviously. Whatever the circumstance, there's always evidence there that allows the players to escape relatively unscathed, or even to excell.
This non-post brought to you by the fear of corporate layoffs.
Perhaps I'm imagining things here and this is the way all sensible referees run their games. If so, then grand.
More Little Treasures
11 months ago