The Paradox of Death’s Door

Like many DMs, I’ve implemented a house rule allowing PCs to survive when their hit points drop to zero. But does this really help the party?

The player base in my Red Box game has expanded significantly over the past few months, so we generally have 6-9 players per session. As I divide experience points evenly between all surviving PCs at the end of a session, lots of surviving PCs means only a few experience points each. Characters only tend to get sizable lumps of experience when most of their fellow PCs die, such as when the inimitable Hamish was the sole survivor of a trek into what has since been dubbed the Swamp of Death.

Last session, six PCs entered the dungeon, and two of them dropped to zero hit points but survived. The party received a total of 715 XP. Divided six ways, that’s 119 XP each. Had both of the incapacitated PCs simply died instead, the remaining four PCs would have received… 178 XP each. Hm. A piddly 59 XP is hardly a worthwhile gain for the survivors. Meanwhile, the two incapacitated PCs had 780 XP and 252 XP respectively; not a lot, but significantly more than that 59 XP differential.

The problem, it seems, is that the party is simply too large for its individual members to gain experience at a decent clip. Perhaps they need to face stronger opponents—foes who will kill enough PCs that the survivors will get bigger pieces of the experience point pie! Clearly this calls for experimentation…

17 Responses to “The Paradox of Death’s Door”

  1. November 13, 2009 at 5:10 pm

    Last night I contributed to the XP-sharing problem by not being able to make it, so I’m glad to hear that no great sums of XP were there to be shared!

    However, your suggestion that I should instead have contributed by showing up and dying seems needlessly bloodthirsty. The only difference would be that I would have also left behind stuff for the survivors to loot (as Erwan did for Go-Ak the Frumious) and later convert to gold with which they could gain carousing XP. This minor advantage to the rest of the party does not seem to me to justify the major disadvantage to Erwan of being dead rather than happily engrossed in watching green slime grow on Go-Ak’s corpse.

  2. 2 Greg
    November 13, 2009 at 5:59 pm

    an elaborate justification (which I admire) to use more better monsters & dangers. Are you not using captured loot for experience – or is it only loot spend (a la carousing and such)?

  3. November 13, 2009 at 6:28 pm

    “However, your suggestion that I should instead have contributed by showing up and dying seems needlessly bloodthirsty.”

    Oh, don’t worry, it’s more of a thought experiment than anything else. You know I’m a big softie!

    The whole thing leaves me wondering how anyone ever leveled up back in the old days. I gather that large groups were par for the course in old school play, and I’m handing out slightly more gold than is recommended in the books –and allowing PCs to double dip for experience by giving them XP both for gold found and for gold spent. Yet somehow many classic old-school characters managed to reach name level. How did they do it?

    Looking at the example of Robilar, it seems like the keys to leveling up are twofold: play a lot of sessions, and play in small groups—or even solo! Perhaps I’ve erred in trying to make sure as many people can get to a given session as possible; it might be better to run more often, even if fewer players are present at any given session. But as fun as the game is, my free time is limited. What to do?

  4. 4 Lord Bodacious
    November 13, 2009 at 10:11 pm

    I find it hard to beleive that OD&D was built with the understanding that the primary mode of leveling was standing in the back until other players died, then taking their stuff. Maybe I’m wrong, but this doesn’t FEEL like the stories we hear of the old days.

    There’s no promise of a correlation between challenge level, party level, and treasure level. This is a big challenge in successfully DM’ing good sandbox play. Players constantly use disproportionate levels of caution/bravery, significantly impacting the rate of wealth/xp. This can be a case of overcaution/overplanning and getting crap loot, or rushing in and getting mauled, thereby losing the nice pile of xp that has been accumulated.

    Good information gathering (and from the DM side allowing players to do this) really seems to be key. Giving some sense of how scary an area is, and rumors of the type of wealth to be found allow the players to pace themselves.

    In both the cases of the minotaur/owlbear capture and the frog cult, our group was able to gague the threat level and reward level to some degree, and respond with appropriate caution.
    On the other hand, In the caves of chaos massacre, we incorrectly gagued of threat level, and charged into a meat grinder.

  5. November 13, 2009 at 11:07 pm

    Your points are well taken, though I do think that early D&D did presuppose a more densely packed play schedule. Note that the Wikipedia article I linked to specified that Rob Kuntz played Robilar “almost daily,” which is a far cry from our schedule of 2-4 games per month! A group playing 15-20 session per month will turn out higher-level characters must faster than we could ever hope to.

    Also, to clarify: when you mention the use of appropriate caution in regard to capturing the minotaur or the hawkbear, I’ll note that the party never did attempt to capture either. Is this a case where “appropriate caution” calls for staying away from a given adventure that’s deemed to be beyond the party’s capabilities, or is this an example of the dangers of misinformation propagating within a player group?

  6. 6 Mr. Grengoat
    November 14, 2009 at 12:48 am

    I think the main issue is that we have not come across easy pickings in any of the games. Most of the XP and gold seems so hard-won. Freaking “barbed tongues lashing ten feet through the portcullis” hard-won.

    I suppose that none of the written modules we have played would have “easy pickings” because on a subconscious level, the DM is paying (buying the module) for the ability to challenge and indeed slay the PCs. So the author’s intent is to probably err on the challenging side of things. Easy pickings back in the day would probably not survive the historical account in the old games because they are not quite so fun to talk about as the TPKs and so forth. Surely those random sandbox tables can cough up some defenseless kittens with jewelry tied around their fluffy necks as well as the ancient black dragons.

    What our party needs is a large orcish village situated in the shadow of a shoddily constructed dam.

  7. November 14, 2009 at 3:25 am

    It sounds like cr0m’s Vancouver Red Box campaign has devoted more effort to exploring the output of Moldvay’s random distribution of goodies and insta-kills. I’ve only used those tables/guidelines to make a dungeon once, when we didn’t have quorum for Glantri. I don’t remember there being any empty rooms with treasure, and even if there were I probably would have made it suck for the players somehow because I’m like that.

  8. 8 maldoor
    November 14, 2009 at 3:30 am

    Yes, we need a bit more opportunity to let the dice do their magic. In the White Sandbox game that Tavis runs, he has alluded a number of times that the NPC magician Philomena and her crew rolled up a suprisingly rich assortment of treasure, better than the combined Dark Patriarch & Co.

    Which has prompted me as a player to think of ways to force us to have to take her out…

    Actually, this ends up being a general argument for exploration and discovery: in order to find our imperiled orcish village, we need to strike out in many directions until the dice roll favors us.

    Or until we encounter something at the other extreme, like 40-400 bandits…

  9. November 14, 2009 at 10:58 pm

    While not all treasure needs to be hard-won, there should always be some sort of challenge involved. From an out-of-game perspective, there’s no sense of earning a reward if you find a pile of gold and gems just sitting around undefended; from an in-game perspective, anything valuable that’s lying out in the open would have been picked up by a wandering monster long before the PCs show up.

    Note that not every challenge involves the threat of killing off the party! Treasure can be challenging to acquire for other reasons; it may be concealed behind secret doors or hidden compartments, or in some place that requires stealth or athletic prowess to access, or it may be in the possession of an NPC who may be won over through charm, intimidation or deception.

    Also, since treasure isn’t evenly distributed, sometimes a relatively weak monster will have an unexpectedly large hoard, just as sometimes a strong monster has little or no treasure.

    Lastly, there’s the issue of lairs. Since many encounters involve fighting only a part of a group of monsters, you may end up having several encounters with the monster group without actually reaching their treasure chamber or what-have-you. This has been a particular issue with the Company of Crossed Swords, as you’ve dealt with many monster lairs when entering modules B1 and B2. Both the wizards’ halls and the bugbear lair claimed several PC lives, but as the party never crushed either group, they never acquired either hoard. But the party did crush the orcs of Quasqueton, and in doing so acquired a big pile of wealth!

    So, yeah, another element of the equation is follow-through. Every dungeon (or component lair thereof) can be expected to have a decent-sized treasure hoard. But you have to find it!

  10. November 14, 2009 at 11:20 pm

    FYI, the random distribution using the Moldvay/Mentzer charts isn’t any more profitable than what we’ve been dealing with; maybe less. The Black Peaks dungeon I ran when the Red Box site was just getting started was an example, and it was pretty brutal though probably no more so than the other dungeons we’ve seen.

  11. November 16, 2009 at 9:10 pm

    My version of the Lost Mine was rolled up using the Moldvay tables exclusively. Here’s the breakdown of loot over two levels & 21 rooms.

    12,800 gp
    11,500 sp
    12 jewelries (3d6x10 ea.)
    1505gp in gems
    10 +1 arrows, potion of ESP, potion of levitation, sword +1, sword +1 (+2 vs. lycanthropes).

    There were two unguarded treasures with 6 of the jewelries, 300gp and 800sp. There was one unguarded, trapped treasure worth 6,000sp.

    The largest single haul is 10,000gp, 3,000sp, 5,000cp, a 500gp gem, 6 jewelries and 10 +1 arrows. These are guarded by 8 ghouls and to get there you have to pass an unstable ledge trap (2d6 falling damage).

    The most valuable treasure with the weakest guardians is 2,000gp, the two magic swords and the potion of levitation, in the possession of 3 gnolls.

    So far there haven’t been a lot of big scores. The 6 unguarded jewelries was found immediately. Then there was a long dry spell, followed by the largest score to date, a 1,000gp gem hidden in a pit of goblin crap. Most of the PCs on these adventures have around 200-300xp. The 100xp I give for session writeups is the subject of much competition. :)

    Final note: when I submitted this dungeon to dragonsfoot for evaluation, everyone recommended that I pump up the treasure. They cited Moldvay’s instructions to “place special monsters and treasure”. So I put a hidden hoard of treasure worth over 15,000gp, deep on the lower level.

  12. November 16, 2009 at 9:11 pm

    (Note: the above totals is just per Moldvay’s tables. It doesn’t include the hoard I dropped in at the end.)

  13. November 16, 2009 at 11:11 pm

    Wow, that’s a lot of treasure in that ghoul room! Admittedly it’s a really tough encounter, but it’s a major payoff if the PCs can actually get hold of it.

    Totaling up the treasure I assigned to Quasqueton gives a figure pretty close to your own! However, it’s spread across something like 50 rooms instead of your 21. On the other hand, I included significantly more magical treasure, so it should balance out.

    I’m going to have another look at Moldvay’s tables, and if your results don’t look like an aberration, I’ll start beefing up the treasure totals in my dungeons going forward.

  14. November 17, 2009 at 3:22 am

    It looks like I added to the ghouls’ treasure–type B doesn’t yield more than a few thousand gp.

    Also, it looks like my memory is faulty: I added the treasure trove before consulting DF, where the opinion was that my treasure allotment was about right or too much!

    Here’s the thread. It’s interesting reading, if just for the old school perspective.


    One thing I am sure about is the gnoll treasure being by-the-book. I found my notes. I rolled 2d8 and got 3 gnolls, then rolled phenomenally for the magic items.

  15. 15 Lord Bodacious
    November 18, 2009 at 12:24 am

    ” Is this a case where “appropriate caution” calls for staying away from a given adventure that’s deemed to be beyond the party’s capabilities, or is this an example of the dangers of misinformation propagating within a player group?”

    To chime back in… YES. I’m pretty convinced these guys would have mauled our group. I do think that with a few more levels and some magical doo-dads, we might have a shot of these monstrosities.

  16. November 20, 2009 at 12:02 am

    By the way, if you’re going to be using Moldvay’s tables to make a dungeon like I am next week (faithfully, this time), this site is handy:


    It’s an encounter generator, using the tables in the Basic book.

  17. November 20, 2009 at 6:25 pm

    Wow, the table results really are variable, aren’t they? I used the generator to build several sets of 20 encounters each, and while almost all the encounters had either no treasure or a few hundred silver pieces, a few had crazily large piles of loot, such as the three dwarves with 14,000gp and 3,000pp.

    Still, it does make it clear what kind of hauls can be expected to pop up on occasion. There must have been some really rich PCs running around after hitting one of those!

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Past Adventures of the Mule

November 2009

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