Inspired in part by this post at Word of Stelios.
I’ve made no bones about my preference for B/X and lighter systems. I’ll admit, I used to enjoy 3e, but nowadays, it’s something I would only play if I did not really have a choice.
While I understand that there are people who genuinely enjoy all of the twinking and min-maxing and character engineering involved in 3e and its clones, I now strongly feel that it is potentially ruinous to the game, the DM, and players.
In games like B/X or DCC, you’re typically looking at a range of 2-5 minute character creation for experienced players to 15-20 minute character creation for someone’s first ever time playing D&D. Not everyone wants pre-gens, and people are more likely to feel a connection with a character they themselves rolled up, but in that case, Char-gen only eats up a few minutes of gaming time. On the other hand, even software assisted, character creation for games in the 3e family can take a VERY long time.
One constraint this puts on the group is a barrier to new players; unless you have spare characters lying around, it’s harder to bring a new person, especially one new to gaming, into the group simply because of the time it would take to create a character of their very own.
People who have invested a ton of time into a perfectly crafted twinked out character are going to be more likely to be attached to it in a bad way. You’ve spent possibly hours on this special vampiric-angel-werekitty snowflake, and you’ll be damned if anything happens to xir! The character-build centric aspect of the game means you’re more likely to have players who are focused on their character rather than the party or the game or, in some cases, even having fun. It also creates additional burdens on the DM.
DMs will feel the need to tailor their game around these lovingly hand-crafted characters, nerf things and pull punches for a couple of reasons. While one, of course, is avoiding hurting the feelings of someone who spent so much time on their character, another is a simple matter of time – do you really want to have to either pause the game or have a player drop out for an hour or more while they optimize their feat trees, allocate skill points, and note all of the class and race advantages of having paws, three tails, horns, elf-ears and bird feet? No, of course not!
And at that point, you’re not really playing a game. You’re having people roll dice until you arbitrarily decide to move the story forward, either slowing or speeding up the narrative pace to suit what the players are doing. If a DM isn’t nerfing things, though, lengthy char gen makes rage-quitting after losing a character almost understandable, because who wants to go through all of that again before rejoining play?
Another problem with super-complex character builds a game that’s death-free? It doesn’t give players a chance to really explore new things in the system and in the game’s world.
Killing characters will make your game better and can make it more fun for everyone. But it only works if making a new character isn’t an arduous chore.
The first character death is always the hardest; “Damn!” they’ll think, “I just lost the game, I suck, this sucks!” That’s why it should happen early on; treat it as a normal ‘fact-of-life’ part of the game and an opportunity to try something new. Once players see character death as a chance to experiment with both class and roleplaying, they’ll not only be less likely to hold character death personally against a DM, they might even look forward to it! It’ll mean more cool and risky heroics, more big-damn heroic sacrifices, and more awesome ‘round-the-campfire’ stories of ‘that awesome guy who died in a crazy way’.