Friday 17 March 2023

Analysis of Causes of PC Death in OSR Games

In my previous post, I mentioned that in my weekly campaign we average around one PC death a month. In the comments somebody asked me about the causes of these deaths, and that sent me down a statistical rabbit hole which probably reveals very little (it's a tiny sample; there are lots of different operant variables in any given case; a lot of it is down to chance dice rolls) but which interested me nonetheless.

The list of PCs killed, and causes of death, are as follows, where the cause of death is one of three categories: random encounter, killed by keyed dungeon or wilderness denizens, killed by trap, natural disaster or other environmental factor, and killed by set-piece 'boss fight'. I don't have a 'plot arc' in my campaigns, but in my dungeons and hexmaps I do tend to have a number of 'bosses', and there are also occasions in which the PCs make powerful enemies and their entanglements take on a climactic character. (Also, there are two PCs for whom I have simply forgotten the cause of death. 

Gnaeus, 4th level Roman Cleric, killed by a spider-elf (boss fight)

Xanthippe, 3rd level Roman Fighter, killed by crow-men (boss fight)

Aurelia, 3rd level Celtic Fighter, killed while escaping from the Swan Queen's prison (boss fight)

Amyntas, 1st level Macedonian Fighter, killed by earwigmen (keyed dungeon denizen)

Men-Kheper-Ra, 2nd level Egyptian Magic-User, killed by tree guardians (random encounter)

Kemnebi, 5th level Egyptian Thief, killed by woodwoses (keyed dungeon denizen)

David of the Web, 1st level Celtic Fighter, killed by crow-men (boss fight)

Finan of the Hammer, 6th level Celtic Fighter, killed by insect-elves (keyed dungeon denizen)

Argyros, 1st level Greek Cleric, killed by lacewing automata (keyed dungeon denizen)

Bomilcar, 1st level Carthaginian Fighter, killed by shrew-men (keyed dungeon denizens)

Pry, 1st level Celtic Fighter, killed by tree guardians (random encounter)

Stymatos, 1st level Greek Magic-User, killed by insect-elves (boss fight)

Octavius, 3rd level Roman Cleric, killed by [?] 

Laren Dar, 3rd level Etruscan Fighter, killed by a spider-elf (boss fight)

Pupli Artnli, 2nd level Etruscan Cleric, killed by earwigmen (random encounter)

Wolvela, 2nd level Celtic Fighter, killed by [?]

Atrius, 3rd level Roman Cleric, killed by a giant spider (random encounter)

Flavius, 4th level Woodwose, killed by a cyclops (random encounter)

Cutheyura, 1st level Atlantean Fighter, killed by a giant swan (boss fight)

Pandion, 5th level Greek Magic-User, killed by tree guardians (random encounter)

Mastanabal, 1st level Carthaginian Cleric, killed by wererats (keyed wilderness denizen)

Padraig, 7th level Celtic Fighter, killed by a giant scorpion (random encounter)

Flewyn, 7th level Celtic Thief, killed by giant ants (boss fight)

Plotted on a pie chart, this shows us:

This suggests roughly even amounts for all categories except traps and other environmental factors. This may simply be a result of taste; I don't really like 'gotcha' traps, magic ones in particular, and prefer them to be at least reasonably realistic. This means that intelligent players will generally spot them and figure them out - they work more as bottlenecks or roadblocks than life threatening dangers.

Otherwise, the really noticeable thing is I suppose that almost a third of deaths occur in random encounters, indicating that they are very much to be avoided; not only are they dangerous, but PC deaths in that context will be meaningless and usually will be for little reward.


  1. omg the 7th level cleric that died in a random encounter, RIP :'(

    1. Yes, we had two 7th level characters die in the latest foray into the dungeon and that lead to much soulsearching among the players as to how to avoid 'clusterfucks'.

  2. Have you detailed your house rules for Roman, Greek, Carthaginian, Celtic, Egyptian, Macedonian, Etruscan, and Atlantean PCs anywhere?

    1. No. They're basically cosmetic differences BUT it would be cool to Pendragon it.

  3. Apologies for some off-topic questions. Do the characters' nationalities have any game-mechanical effects in your campaign, like in, say, Pendragon? Or any effects within the milieu, which your roster suggests is cosmopolitan and something like the middle of classical era Earth?

    1. See above. To be honest I wish I had a good answer for you but it's really just a cosmetic thing - although the players do tend to take into account background in considering how their PCs would behave. And yes, the setting is notionally 'pre-Roman Britain some time around the 4th century BC'.

    2. Now I'm curious as to what the Egyptian was doing there. Sounds like an interesting campaign!

    3. Having it be cosmetics on your side is perfectly fine, I'd say. The players taking it up on their own and using it in play as yours have is an excellent (the best?) outcome.

  4. It would be really interesting to see a big dataset like this from multiple campaigns and DMs.

  5. I was inspired by this post to review the deaths in my marathon 31 session B2 game (and I think I shall reblog this to get you to go viral, it will be like in the olden days, a sort of march of the Ents).

    Deaths by random encounters were very light in the initial phases of the game, most notably because B2 and its expanded wilderness area do not use it. The number of absolute deaths per session also decreased considerably after I started implementing a death's threshold rule. In general, more capable and persistent players would die less over time.

    Random encounters were initially rather mild when used in dungeons like Nuromen's Lair. Overland wilderness encounters are a different matter, and caused considerable mortality. 6/35 17%.

    Differentiating Keyed Encounters from Bosses was difficult as I do not make much use of set piece battles but for the purposes of this exercise, named NPCs were considered bosses, as were monsters of unusual strength encountered in the dungeon. 12/35, 34% the lions share, was accounted for in such battles.

    I do not share your squeemishness for deadly traps and neither, it appears, does Gary Gygax. As a result, two of my men fell to a rather nasty trove of platinum coated with rare southron poisons, there was a drowning, a poison needle trap and a cursed goblet in the Caves. 5/35 14%

    Formidable opponents loosely defined as bosses accounted for 10/35 deaths, the majority from incautious or reckless engagement. As the PCs accumulated magic weaponry and armor, deaths to keyed encounters would decrease while deaths to such major foes would occasionally happen. In general, if the PCs enacted a planned takedown, these were almost always successful.

    The remaining 2 deaths were caused by gleeful PvP that I will not explain but that I can safely say was considered highly enjoyable by all parties.

  6. Sir, I commend you on actually: 1 - having all this data, 2 - doing such a comprehensive writeup on it. Well done. I'm sure the powers that be will be sending your diamond geek card in the mail quite soon. ;)

  7. "deaths occur in random encounters, indicating that they are very much to be avoided"
    Actually, the opposite is true. ;))
    The adventurers live in a dangerous world - and that IS what differentiates them from first-world middle class denizens from the beginning of the 21st century. The mistake of trying to conveniently forget this is what I think makes later D&D versions the sh*t they are. %((
    In theory - if there were a bit more data - I'd say that we should differentiate deaths between 1st level, 2-4 and actual mid-levels. For 1st level characters are relatively fragile and so die randomly more often. At least in theory, which can possibly be substantiated by this...
    And one more word on random encounters - in many cases, when such are evidently strong, PCs have a choice to avoid them. Though many didn't do so in my memory (hope Old School PCs are wiser that way). ;(

    1. Yes, that's kind of the point? The PCs live in a dangerous world so they are advised to avoid getting into situations in which random encounters are likely.

      I think the point about levels is interesting, but my observation is that since higher-level characters tend to encounter higher-level monsters (in the dungeon at least), the danger level may even out.

  8. Well this got me thinking and that resulted in the analysis of my campaign. My data set is meaty: ~250 sessions with 84 fatalities.
    It includes all untimely ends be it PC, Henchman, Meatshield and Butchered at Birth (those that did not survive generation due to stat bonus average being below zero).
    Lots of neat stuff to be gleaned, some of which has already been touched on - randoms kill far more than Bosses do.

    1. Nice! I wish I had comprehensive records of all henchman/hireling deaths but there have been a lot, and we kind of lost track.

  9. I'd love to hear more about this ancient world setting where players are Carthaginians, Atlanteans, Celts, & more