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Just wondering how it would be possible. Say for example, the party is level 5 and one player is killed in battle. What is to be done? Does he roll a character at level 5, or level 1? What are your thoughts? Is there an option that is fair but still fun for the returning player?

I don't believe that it's wrong, per se, to let a new character join the party at level 5. I just think that the organic roleplay development of the character may be stunted, which isn't all that fun for the player or the DM. Plus it could perhaps make death seem rather trivial, if the player can simply return to the scene with a different character of more-or-less equal power.

Then again, perhaps a cycle could easily form where the newly rolled level one characters get slaughtered repeatedly by the rest of the party's encounters. That wouldn't be great.

Not sure what the best route is.

I just want to find a way that allows death to be a serious aspect without stunting the player's experience both from a mechanics perspective and a role-playing perspective.

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Take a look at this question, and maybe this one. The first might be a duplicate, and in any case both may help you frame your question more specifically. In particular, I think that your question is not a duplicate: it's a subtly different question about in-game impact rather than game-table fairness, and if you can draw that out more you'll get better answers. –  BESW Mar 25 at 3:51
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An excellent example of how not to do it: youtube.com/watch?v=sIaIdv79Xz4 (a PC died, and the player rolled a new character, practically indistinguishable from the old one) –  vsz Mar 25 at 20:06

6 Answers 6

up vote 21 down vote accepted

The traditional way of handling PC death in AD&D is for the player to roll up a new, 1st-level character. The bite of death is strong in AD&D, and the intention is that players treat the risks of adventuring very seriously.

However, what is traditional isn't universal—plenty of groups made up their own table rules for how to make a character after an advanced one died. You're well within your rights to say that they start with half their old PC's experience, or one level less than the lowest other party member, or at the average XP of the party minus 1000, or whatever simple or complex variation you can think up.

One of the things to keep in mind while considering how you want to handle this is that mixed-level parties not only work fine in AD&D, but they are expected. The power curve in AD&D is much flatter than in recent editions, making the difference between a 5th-level character and a 1st-level character much less than modern players might assume. With less power divergence, there is less mechanical pressure to ensure that levels are the same—so that should not be something you worry about when deciding how to handle new PCs joining an advanced party. Furthermore, because XP is split evenly among everyone who survives an adventure, any lower-level members of a party will advance slightly faster than normal, since their party will generally be taking on greater challenges—this makes the power difference even less of an issue than it already is.

Basically, history and I give you permission to handle this how you feel is right—there is almost no way you can handle it wrong. If you feel that the organic development of a character from 1st level is important, then you're in agreement with a lot of present and past AD&D gamers, and you should do that.

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There are different ways to handle this, but if he starts at level 1, he won't be far behind for long. Give him a full share of the XP, and the progressive cost of leveling will make sure that pretty soon, he's only one level behind. And eventually he'll be the same level as the others, just leveling up a few sessions later.

But if you prefer to have him at the same level as the others, you can do that too. Plenty of people do that. It's what happened when my level 4 rogue died in a Pathfinder game. I made a new character who started fresh at level 4 (so I did miss out on a bit of XP, but not a lot). But due to some other players occasionally missing a session, my character was the second one in the group to reach level 7. So there's no long-term punishment for my death, other than having a different character (which actually turns out to be more fun, so it's still a win for me).

But is that a problem? Should a player be punished for his character dying? Or is death something that's part of the game. There's lots of ways you can go with this, and all of them are equally valid. I do like death to be meaningful, and I don't like punishing players for playing the game. So if you have him start at level 1, make sure he catches up quickly.

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Mechanics-wise

On the mechanics side, fair depends on what the group wants out of the game. The hardcore method is start over at 1st level. This worked better in very old D&D when groups often gave players several characters. This is pretty painful when you've spent months or years building up a character.

Most groups I played with typically put you back into play at a level lower than what you were before.

Even if you bring characters in at the same level, if they don't get their previous character's equipment and magical items, that can be a pretty hefty penalty.

Roleplaying-wise

As far as roleplaying, the hard part is if the party is in a deep dungeon or isolated place and unlikely to meet any people for several sessions. That's when you end up having to make really contrived situations.

Outside of that, it's pretty easy to introduce new heroes. For AD&D1E, most of the modules had stuff like bandit leaders, militia captains, or priests at 3rd level or so, so the low level options are heroic, but not overpowering and easy to find. The higher up levels become more rare, but presumably the heroes will have made allies and enemies accordingly at that point - and higher powered allies means higher powered assistance - in the form of new heroes.

Overall though, AD&D has a pretty high lethality at low levels. You'll want to warn players not to make too deep of backstories since most everyone is pretty fragile until you hit 4th level or so.

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The best answer will eventually be what you and the rest of the players find the most fun, so this is my take on how I deal with characters that die.

There has to be a penalty, for balance's sake

First off, I always let them roll a character that's below the least experienced PC in play, rounded down. If the rest of the party was level 5 but halfway to 6th level, I let them be at the beginning of the 5th level.

If they were all brand-new 5th level; I'd go for 4th level, or maybe halfway from 4th to 5th.

Why should there be a penalty?

First, I agree with you in the sense that death should be a serious aspect; having a penalty is a serious consequence.

Plus it could perhaps make death seem rather trivial, if the player can simply return to the scene with a different character of more-or-less equal power.

And another possible issue here is that other players may feel like they're also having to put up with the consecuences. And if it happens often, it starts to get boring. And in my experience you tend to feel like your partner is just not taking it seriously.

Or like SevenSidedDie put it:

The balance of power for characters is generally against the world, not each other, and cooperation is the default. Without a penalty for death, however, the world becomes meaningless, toothless, and the game is robbed of its essential point.

It's also worth noting the point made by Hey I Can Chan: Without penalties the system could be abused in the same way video games define start scumming.

Players get attached to their PCs

In reality... I've rarely had a player roll a new character because of death. They usually become attached to their PCs, so they'd rather have their friends raise them. It might be a little boring for such player in the meantime, but in my groups they usually just go with it and cross their fingers with nervousness and anticipation.

BTW, this gives me a good opportunity to strip them of some extra gold they might have gathered (I'm usually too easy going and give them too much gold).

There's also a penalty here...

In ADND, the Raise Dead spell indicates that the character will lose 1 point of their Constitution score (if they make it at all). So there's the balance bit in the rules, IMO.

Remember Rule 0

Rule 0 is that you, the GM, should have the final authority on what goes and what doesn't. But don't forget the reason for that rule: It's all about having fun.

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From the standpoint of how to make it work story-wise, you might also consider borrowing a concept from another RPG (HackMaster): proteges. Simply put, a protege is someone that the current character has "in training" in the event of their retirement (voluntary or otherwise) from adventuring. It would not be unreasonable for the characters to be aware of each others' proteges, making integration into the party much smoother.

The full mechanic, not that you need adopt it, is actually intended as a way for players to get around the "restart at level 1" rule by siphoning off XP from their main character to give to the protege, thus granting them additional levels. I've found that this has a certain amount of benefit in terms of both moderating advancement of the main character but also allowing for someone to "step in" without unduly disrupting the flow of whatever is going on.

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As mcv intimated, remember that in AD&D the experience cost to rise basically doubles every level for name levels. This means that by the time the fifth level characters rise to sixth level, the first level characters will have risen to fourth or fifth level (there might be some loss due to delays in getting to new levels after acquiring the necessary experience).

For example, a fifth level fighter needs 35,000 experience to rise to sixth level. A first level fighter needs 35,001 experience to rise to fifth level.

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