It crept through the land slowly, like a cancer, eating away what it could before anyone noticed. Barrows with an extra room, then caves that went deeper, into caverns no one knew was there. By the time the first… things… crept out in the darkness and began taking, it was too late.

The local princelings sent soldiers, at first, but they quickly learned to stay out of the Delves. Now hastily constructed keeps dot a new borderland, and good folk flee, those who can, anyway.

But some folk have found themselves called by a quiet voice, and by unknown arrangement find themselves standing with total strangers at the mouth of something possibly worse than hell. Sword, or wand, or holy symbol, or lock picks in hand, they stride in, boldly, to certain death, each man and woman of them.

And the next night, when the moon hides its face, rather than look upon the creeping doom of the world, they find themselves meeting old comrades, changed somewhat, and they step cautiously in, knowing that their first death awaits them again, and wondering what will be their second.

I found a blog post, somewhere out there, talking about character death in old-school, Knaves and Kobolds style delving. It described creating a character, and as we do, investing a history and personality and character into it, and then taking that new creation into the dungeon and dying to a misstep, or a mis-estimation, or a bad roll, or whatever else ends up killing characters. And the next session, a new character shows up, with some extra smudges where the name of the first was erased, and maybe a shield this time instead of a two-handed weapon (no room to swing that thing in cramped tunnels, no wonder the kobolds made short work of you!), and it was off into the tunnels again, only this time knowing what lay around those first few turns.

Now, this is a style of playing the game – dungeon delves are a test of the player, and the character is a sort of thin avatar through which they player is tested against the dungeon, while the referee sits and arbitrates between the player and the dungeon, which is an entity, with its maps and secrets and random encounter tables, that exists independent of the humans playing the game.

This is not the style of game that I learned to play. My habit and inclination is to view the character as its own entity, and it has its own capabilities, not my own. Recycling a character sheet feels gauche (that guy died! make a new one!). Knowing what’s coming ahead of time without the character enabling it feels like cheating (nobody likes a metagamer!). The world is explicitly the GM’s responsibility, who must be partial in some respect, because you’re assembling some kind of story, even if it’s the story of these characters who for thin reasons delve into that dungeon, and so it must be engaging.

And yet…

Something about the old style, even though I’ve never properly played in it and know it only by reading other people’s discussions, catches my curiosity. I start thinking terrible, blasphemous thoughts like, can I try putting a little peanut butter in the chocolate? Why not take the recycling of character stats when the old one dies and turn it into a mechanic, part of how the game works?

So here’s a quick hack:

Take your preferred kind of D&D. Gather some friends around the table. Make a tournament-module-deadly level dungeon. Feed characters into its slavering maw, even though its hunger cannot be slaked.

When a character dies, that character, or at least someone or something that remembers being that character, joins up with the survivors when they next prepare to enter the dungeon. Lose a level, keeping enough XP to be half-way to regaining it. Then, roll 1d12 and consult the following table to see how the character was changed by death:

1. Change race
2. Reroll lowest score
3. Reroll highest score
4. +1 to prime attribute (if already 18, roll on this table for a different result)
5. Gain mysterious new item
6. Change alignment
7. Swap your Strength and Intelligence scores
8. Swap your Dexterity and Charisma scores
9. Swap your Constitution and Wisdom scores
10. Gain a level instead of losing one
11. -1 Constitution (if already 3, roll on this table for a different result)
12. Roll twice, ignoring this result
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3 thoughts on “Echoes in Dungeoneering

  1. I definitely dig the idea, especially for the super-lightweight characters of pre-3rd edition, where you could do these types of modifications to a PC without having to then spend 30 minutes reconstructing a new character because the build no longer makes sense.
    I remember always being kind of fuzzy on the idea of playing the same module after “losing” the first time. Considering that my first foray into D&D (1st edition, my dad running it) literally didn’t make it into the dungeon, I’m not averse to the idea.
    For the record, if you defeat the goblins who have been stealing the farmer’s sheep, and you then have a bunch of sheep carcasses, they will attract wolves.

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  2. That’s intriguing! I’m not super into that style of play either when playing an RPG, but if I think of it pretty much like a board game, it works. I did enjoy “Fourthcore,” for as long as that lasted.

    I feel like the specifics of this hack would ride a lot on what underlying game you’re playing. A Dex/Cha swap would be good fun in Dungeon World; crippling in 3e-4e depending on your class; maybe a nasty hit but still playable in 5e; and in earlier editions it could actually render your character sheet illegal thanks to minimum attribute requirements for classes.

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    1. That’s an interesting point about rendering character sheets illegal. Depending on the version of the game, you could end up with a wizard who can’t cast spells due to having too low an INT. Beyond that, I’m not sure what would happen – stat drain happened, but I don’t think I’ve ever read a rule about getting disqualified from a class. Minimums were, spellcasting excepted, at character creation only.

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