I’ve briefly ranted about the supposed lethality of old school RPGs before:
I think people make way too big a deal about character death in old school games. I’ve only had one TPK in almost 40 years, and I haven’t had that many individual character deaths. It’s not really that old school RPGs are deadly. It’s just that old school RPGs usually don’t protect characters from death. Characters are just as fragile as monsters, and hit points are typically low to begin with.
That certainly covers the mechanical aspects of lethality, but there’s another side: the perception of what you are doing when you are roleplaying.
Almost all modern RPGs describe what you do as “pretending to be heroes from your favorite movies and novels.” Genre stories give script immunity to main characters, at least until the end of the story. And in Hollywood movies, main characters don’t even die at the end. They want feel-good endings and death is a downer. This is so common these days that when something breaks that expectation even a little (Game of Thrones,) people think of it as super dark and lethal.
So new school traditional RPGs use mechanical means to reduce the chances of characters dying, and indie RPGs (story games) explicitly switch the focus of the rules from character and action emulation to story emulation. Players are given tools to prevent their character’s death until they feel it’s dramatically relevant.
Old school RPGs, I would argue, don’t emulate heroes in movies and novels, even though they are inspired by them. In those games, you are basically pretending to be yourself, but in a fantasy world. Yes, you may have options to make your character stronger or smarter than you are in real life, or give your character fantastic powers, but things that would be crazy in real-life, like rushing headlong into a group of enemies and fighting against 5 to 1 odds, are crazy in the fantasy world, too.
Death is a failure condition. If a player didn’t want their character to die, their death means that either the player or the GM made a mistake.
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