At first I thought this point was a no-brainer. In the comments to his post, I said the following:
Faustusnotes responded with a comment that made me think a little about styles of play and the effect of the system on leveling up.In OD&D every class had between 1 and 6 HP at first level! You could be a FIGHTER, for crissakes, the guy who is supposed to be able to kick ass and take names, with 1 HP! To be felled by a single rock thrown by a kobold!Lets contrast that with 4e, which (just in case your answer to my two questions was no, you have never read or played 4e) starts characters out with their Constitution score worth of HP + a sum of HP determined by their class AND lets you heal yourself during combat once per combat AND lets you heal yourself more or less at will outside of combat AND says you do not actually die until you reach a value equal to negative one half your HP.
Carl, I wasn’t thinking just of first level in either of these games – D&D characers double their unkillability at 2nd level, then it goes up by 50% again at 3rd level, and so on – they quite quickly become proof against a few sword blows.
But more specifically, I was thinking that the rate of PC Death really depends on the DMs decisions about what and how many monsters to use, what kind of encounter settings to use (for example, whether the PCs get a chance to plan for combat), and so on. Obviously if you run encounters as simple stand-up fights without preparation or warning, strictly according to the random encounter rules, with the appropriate level-balanced monsters, at 1st level D&D and D&D3.5 are much harder to survive in than 4e. But I don’t think many groups do that, and they certainly don’t have to do that. It’s about style.
There are several problems I have with this statement. The first is that in every edition prior to 4e, HP were rolled randomly upon leveling up, while 4e awards a set amount of HP based on class at each level. So for instance, your 1st level Labyrinth Lord character with 3 HP could roll a 1 for HP upon attaining level two. Far from doubling her unkillability, it would have gone up by a mere 33%.
The second is the unspoken assumption that the character is going to level up at all! While it is true that even in OD&D (definitely the most lethal version of the game in terms of mechanics, because there are no bonus HP for high Constitution and all classes use the venerable d6 for HD), a character becomes much more durable at mid to high levels, I would argue that it is much rarer for a character to advance to these levels in OD&D or its ilk than 4e, for instance. It isn't just the increased HP that 4e doles out or the healing surges; it isn't the fact that multiple stats now can modify AC, or that feats can be used to increase HP; it isn't even the whole death does not occur until the character drops below her negative bloodied value (negative 1/2 total HP); it is the way that 4e is designed as a system to make sure that a party composed of the different roles works together effectively in combat, with the leader restoring lost HP, the strikers dealing out the damage, the defender drawing the attacks... 4e is designed for a the party to be a well oiled machine, each character performing a vital function. I would argue that this mechanical aspect of 4e design creates a strong pressure on the DM to keep characters alive. Unlike the old OD&D scenario where a character drops and her player just takes over one of the hirelings, if a member of a 4e party dies the whole game kind of grinds to a halt or at least works much less optimally because one of the party roles is no longer being fulfilled.
Compare that to OD&D, where both in my experience and in the actual play reports I have read of others, it is not at all uncommon to have more characters die before reaching 2d level than not! I think that is the crux of it; sure, if you survive to 3rd level or higher in OD&D you have a much better chance of not dying from any nick or scratch, but just getting to that point is an accomplishment that is worthy of praise. This also gets at the actual subject of Faustusnotes post (story based gaming) - in OD&D and other older editions, any character that actually makes it past the most deadly phase of the game already has a story, has already gone through adversity and probably has already had some lucky near death escapades.
Getting back to the subject of play style, it really does not matter if a party has had a chance to plan before being shoved into combat, and it certainly does not matter if the monsters encountered are balanced to the party's level: OD&D is just flat out more deadly at 1st level. The best laid plans of platemail clad fighters can be laid low with a single roll of the d20. The absolute lowest AC that an OD&D fighter can have is AC 2 (that is AC 17 for you ascending AC heads), which means that there is still a decent chance of getting hit by even the lowliest of attackers. Every time combat is engaged in, no matter what the circumstances or the play style, players of OD&D characters hold their breath a little because they know that they are one unlucky roll away from death at any moment.
One final point about leveling up: 4e has a very clear and well defined number of encounters (10) that it takes to reach 2d level. Lets look at Labyrinth Lord style XP for a second - at 15 XP each, a party of four would have to kill something like 500 orcs to level up! To level up in ten encounters at that rate would require killing 50 orcs an encounter! XP for GP helps this somewhat, but it still takes a much longer time to level up in older editions of the game, prolonging the sweet agony of the "sudden death" levels and making Faustusnotes position that PC mortality is a function of playstyle even more untenable.